The Neuroscientific Non-Challenge to Meaning, Morals, and Purpose

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



The primary quarries of those who think that neuroscience poses a challenge to meaning, morals, and purpose are the related concepts of responsibility and desert, especially as they play a role in criminal law. After all, responsibility and desert are intrinsic features of present moral and criminal legal concepts, practices, and institutions, including the imposition of punishment. This chapter begins by reviewing the law's psychology, concept of personhood, and criteria for criminal responsibility. It then turns to neuroscience’s two primary challenges, determinism and the “victim of neuronal circumstances”/”pack of neurons” (VNC/PON) model, suggesting that neither is new to neuroscience and neither at present justifies revolutionary abandonment of moral and legal concepts and practices that have been evolving for centuries in both common law and civil law countries. I then turn to the new version of determinism, called by its proponents “hard incompatibilism.” First, I suggest some concerns internal to the approach. Then, because the metaphysical premises for responsibility or jettisoning it cannot be decisively resolved, I suggest that the real issue is the type of world we want to live in and that the hard incompatibilist vision is not normatively desirable, even if it is somehow achievable.


Criminal justice policy, neuroscience, philosophy of action, agency, responsibility, free will, determinism, hard incompatibilism, victim of neuronal circumstances, pack of neurons, folk psychology, mental states, rationality, mens rea, culpability

Publication Title

Neuroexistentialism: Meaning, Morals, and Purpose in the Age of Neuroscience

Publication Citation

In, Neuroexistentialism: Meaning, Morals, and Purpose in the Age of Neuroscience 333-357 (Gregg D. Caruso and Owen Flanagan eds., 2018).

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