The July/August issue of THE ATLANTIC contains a very disturbing article, "The Brain On Trial," by David Eagleman. It makes the argument (the topic of one of my panels at Worldcon, by coincidence) against free will -- or at least against totally free will. Eagleman cites a number of legal cases and scientific studies in which brain conditions prompted out-of-character violent actions.
The most upsetting of these is Charles Whitman, who in 1966 climbed the University of Texas bell tower and shot 45 people. The night before he had murdered his wife and his mother. He had written in his diary:
"I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts....It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight...I love her dearly and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this."
Whitman's suicide note requested that his brain be autopsied, because he thought something might have changed in it. Doctors found a glioblastoma compressing a third of the amygdala, the brain center associated with fear and aggression.
Eagleman goes on to explore the philosophic and legal ramification of brain tumors and brain chemistry: Can we be held morally and/or legally responsible for our actions if they are prompted by our biology? Does such a thing as "good character" exist, or it is the product of lucky brain conditions that conform to societal norms? On a practical level, what can be done -- or should be done -- with regard to punishment and/or rehabilitation of those in such circumstances?
There are no easy answers to any of this. Personally, I think Eagleman's answers are a bit too easy -- he pretty much erases the concepts of free will and character. But the article offers fascinating, if troubling, information, and raises questions touching the very foundation of what it means to be human. A highly recommended read -- even if you hate it.