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Why We Can’t Blame Our Neurons

Nancey Murphy, Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary

March 19, 2011
53 minutes
Nancey Murphy


The increasing ability of neuroscientists to describe brain processes associated with human decision-making and action rightly raises the worry about “neurobiological reductionism”: Will it turn out to be the case that all human thought and behavior are simply determined by the laws of neurobiology? I address these questions by investigating the topic of “causal reductionism.” It is often assumed that the behavior of an entity or system must be determined by the behavior of its parts. I argue that in many cases the system as a whole has reciprocal effects on its own components.

Over the past generation a variety of research projects (cybernetics, information theory, far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics, etc.) have been merged into what is called complex adaptive systems theory. Some scholars describe these developments as a paradigm change across all of the sciences. I argue that this is just what we need to explain why it is usually not true that “our neurons made us do it.”


Nancey Murphy is a philosopher and theologian who has written about the implications of neuroscience for thinking about moral responsibility, moral personhood, and free will in relation to biological processes. She is co-author, with Warren Brown, of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will.