Are we all travelling incognito?

Does "my brain made me do it" seem like a good excuse in a court of law?
Denyse O'Leary | Jun 21 2011 | comment  

Baylor College of medicine rock star neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of Incognito: The secret lives of the brain, offers a simple thesis: “The brain runs its show incognito.” Strictly speaking, if materialism is true, there is no one for the brain to be incognito from. However, Eagleman is not a man given to strictly speaking, so he stops short of asserting that materialism is emphatically true. He suspects it is.

Incognito is an interesting book, though it suffers from a structural flaw: It starts out dominated by conventional first-year psychology trivia aimed at convincing us that we are strangers to ourselves. Sometimes, it is mildly interesting (for example, people born on the second day of a month are marginally more likely to live in cities with “Two” or “Twin” in their name). But after a while that sort of information irritates.

Eagleman's key reason for writing is his no-free-will views on penal reform. He offers many odd examples of people committing murder in “automatic” states. But his reasoning toward the idea that no one is ever responsible feels very slippery. Most cases going through the criminal courts feature non-psychopaths who considered the risk of crime worth taking. If neuroscience cannot deal with that fact, so much the worse for it.

He argues that the legal system can dispense with free will because “... we may be able to think about bad decision making in the same way we think about any other physical process, such as diabetes or lung disease.” Steady on: People who have diabetes and lung disease do not necessarily suffer due to bad decisions. Even if they do, they often have not harmed anyone else, and can choose to alleviate their suffering by a given method or not. That hardly resembles a criminal conviction.

The reader wades from one confusion to the next: “Those who break the social contracts need to be warehoused, but in this case the future is of more importance than the past.” "Warehoused"? How, exactly, is that a reform? We are also told that a criminal’s “actions are sufficient evidence of a brain abnormality, even if we don’t know (and maybe will never know) the details.” Yes, but one may as well say that a criminal's “actions are sufficient evidence of infestation by Square Circle Disease, even if we don’t know (and maybe will never know) the details.”

When evaluating a book whose basic thesis feels so far off the mark, I ask for expert help. For Eagleman's explanation of why quantum processes in the brain cannot instantiate free will, I asked a physicist, Rob Sheldon, to look at his arguments.

Eagleman thinks that the quantum level (the inner workings of elementary particles), claimed by many to be indeterminate, really is determined, and that chaos theory is deterministic as well (pp. 168-69). Sheldon replied,

“Heisenberg's Uncertainty relation says that we can't know both x_0 and v_0 perfectly, for if we try to measure or even know one of them, the other one gets very uncertain. Therefore in principle, the initial conditions needed for determinism to work are impossible. Determinism is a lost cause.

“Chaos [theory] says merely that vanishingly small changes can have big effects. QM introduces a small but not vanishing effect.

In other words, quantum mechanics is about the non-locality of elementary particles (ie, they do not have to be in only one place at one time) and chaos theory is about determining the strength of causes. Neither can be used to make a case for no free will.

In the same way, to bolster his ideas, Eagleman touts the reported success of drugs for treating depression. But, while co-writing The Spiritual Brain, I learned that much of the drugs' effectiveness has turned out to be the placebo effect. Many people feel better once they are convinced that the anti-depression drug works. Put another way: Many people need something to do the heavy lifting for a while.

Finally, Eagleman treats the relationship between law, crime, and a tendency to crime is straightforward. It isn’t. Having a glass of wine in a public place is a caning offence in some Islamic jurisdictions. In most non-Islamic jurisdictions, it is merely regulated. Is every government equal in its ability to use concepts such as Eagleman promotes wisely?

He senses this problem himself: “To my mind, one of the landmark problems in modern neuroscience: as we come to understand the brain, how can we keep governments from meddling with it?” Well, we can’t, if his views prevail.

He goes merrily on to propose a brain change scheme for offenders, which he describes as “without ethical worries.” He doesn't help his case by claiming that vigilantism best explains opposition to his ideas. Some opponents are lifelong reformers who see why his ideas won't work.

Eagleman claims that his approach is not reductionist, and there is a grain of truth in that: He doesn't think clearly enough for reductionism. Essentially, he is unhappy with the criminal justice system and does not believe in free will. But those two factors taken together do not give us a useful idea where to go next.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain. In her recent MercatorNet article "Criminal brains and what to do about them," she looked at neurolaw in general.

This article is published by Denyse O'Leary and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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