David Eagleman on culpability

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answer to jobDavid Eagleman is a neuroscientist.  If you’ve never heard of him, then let me simply say he’s been on/in: Fresh Air, Wired, The New Yorker, and Slate.

Which is to say: he may be an excellent neuroscientist, but the media wants him to be a moral philosopher.

 

Some background:  Eagleman famously tested whether terrifying events not only make time seem to slow down, but in so doing give us heightened perception.

 

So, he took some people to the top of an amusement park drop ride, and as they fell were supposed to read some numbers. The numbers were blinking too fast to read ordinarily; but, if terror enhanced perception or slowed down time, perhaps the brain could perceive the numbers.

 

It couldn’t.

Our findings suggest that time-slowing is a function of recollection, not perception: a richer encoding of memory may cause a salient event to appear, retrospectively, as though it lasted longer.

 

But that isn’t what endears him to pop sci crowd. To get into The New Yorker, you have to advance a pseudo-philosophical but distinctly atheist explanation of human nature, and dress it up in science even when that science isn’t relevant to the question. So David Eagleman believes two things about humans:

1. That there is no self. With the passage of time and experiences, you change. So you are not the person you were ten years ago, not only metaphorically, but literally.

2. But he’s not Sartre: you don’t have the freedom you think you have. The choices you make are affected by the physical design specs of your body– genes, anatomy, etc– which in turn affect qualities like impulse control and empathy. These decisions and behaviors aren’t you (see above) nor do they represent any free will, as defined as the freedom to make any choices.

Furthermore, since these influences are measurable (e.g. impulse control can be quantified in some tests) it means one can measure their impact on your behavior. So, in 2097: “ten percent of this murder was due to X, 5 % to Y, etc.”

Here’s an example. A married man suddenly becomes a pedophile. His wife takes him to the doctor, “this is isn’t him,” and he’s found to have a brain tumor. They remove it, and his pedophilia disappears. But later the pedophilia comes back– and, lo, his tumor has returned.

This man, he’d argue, can’t be responsible for his pedophilia. By extension, it’s ridiculous to assume a binary state of responsibility/insanity in the law, since there are always going to be grades of responsibility based on physiology.

The futurist in him sees a world where criminals are assumed to suffer from brain abnormalities. So people are evaluated for their probability of committing a crime, and locked up. Let’s leave aside the obvious Minority Report criticism, and walk him to the conclusions.

While they’re incarcerated, they’d get a “pre-frontal workout”– they would be trained to inhibit their impulses, and then get released.

The problem with his argument is that it is contradictory. Criminals suffer from a lack of impulse control that is not their fault; yet controlling one’s impulses can be learned. Doesn’t that make it their fault?

A tumor may cause pedophilia, but does it also cause an inability to refrain from acting on it? So the tumor does two things? And etc.

Eagleman is proposing a solution that has already been discounted, and not just by Philip Dick. The mistake isn’t biological determinism– even the Pope accepts we are physical beings that operate physically– but reductionism. When you tell a person that a tumor caused the pedophilia, that information itself, those words, impacts the person’s understanding and responsibility. It’s the premise of CBT, not to mention psychoanalysis.

But everything wrong with Eagleman’s, and the media’s, view of human nature can be summarized by one single misunderstanding of the legal system. Its purpose is not to rehabilitate or protect, but also to punish. If my child is molested, it doesn’t matter one lick whether it was caused by a brain tumor– I and other people still want the person and his brain tumor eradicated. Of course, the rebuttal is that in a higher civilization, the urge for revenge won’t exist, but that would be a willful misreading of Eagleman’s own theory: I am built this way. And if I don’t get my satisfaction from the law, I’ll get it myself– that’s why we have the law. And ultimately, nobody could blame me. 

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27 Responses to David Eagleman on culpability

  1. JohnJ says:

    Well, ya. The question isn’t that biology has an impact. The question is what choices were made. Without choice, there is no crime. Punishing a person who had no choice makes no sense, in either a vengeance or rehabilitative view. Although that certainly doesn’t deter people from advocating it anyways.

    There are people, also, who seem to believe that someone must be punished whenever anything bad happens. But not everything bad that happens is a matter of choice. If, instead of a guy with a tumor, a meteorite kills my kid, who am I supposed to want punished?

    • CubaLibre says:

      Apollo or Zeus or somebody. Humans anthropomorphize nature specifically so that they may have somebody to blame. Monotheism is more emotionally complicated than polytheism because it presumes that all these evils come from the same conscious source as all the goods, making betrayal and attendant guilt a certainty.

      The problem with TLP’s thesis is that it doesn’t allow for one to distinguish between which impulses ought to be indulged and which oughtn’t. The brain-tumor pedophile must be punished because my brain demands it, but then again, his brain demanded that he molest children. We’re all just brains demanding results, and to the victors go the spoils.

    • DJames says:

      See, if a meteorite kills my kid, why not blame NASA and the National Weather Service for not adequately warning us of the hazard? And by extension, the Obama administration for cutting NASA funding?

      Americans really like the idea of, when something goes wrong, that There Ought To Be a Law! that punishes someone/thing. There’s a reason ancient folks liked public sacrifice and scapegoats.

  2. Res_Ipsa_Loquitur says:

    Maybe a better word then punishment needs to be used, like consequences, or results. Because if you violate someone’s liberties, personal space, rights, or hurt their feelings there is going to be a consequence.

    If I am walking down the street, and a floridly psychotic person comes up to me and proceeds to beat the living shit out of me, I dont care if they are psychotic. I want them locked up, and I probably want to punch them in the throat.

    What makes me nervous about Eagleman’s way of dismissing culpability is the how certain types of people will capitalize on it. And people already try it. Like drug addicts who blame their addiction for a spectrum of crimes from robbery to rape and murder.

    There have to be laws, some concepts have to be dichotomous. Human beings are not smart or honest enough to exist in a state of anarchy or some futuristic dystopia.

    • squid says:

      I think the problem isn’t with neuroscientists (or any other kind of scientists) philosophising, but that they tend to be very imprecise as philosophers, which tends to muddy the issue…

      So you get “You are your brain”, and while we know what he means, what he actually says still implies Cartesian-ism: there is You, which is reducible to yr brain. Perhaps this is a restraint of language (how else could you put it?) but he never thinks to clarify.

      And, while there is no Self, you still get to ask if there is “anyone in there” while tapping your skull. If we follow him, no, there is no one in there, there never was, even before the coma.

      Even if all his premises are correct, he seems at a loss to know what conclusion to draw from them.

  3. xylokopos says:

    The old greek way of thinking about such issues worked better, i.e., you mess up, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t know, or didn’t intent or whatever, you are going down. Christianity messed up this very natural way of dealing with things by making a big deal out of intentions and by introducing the concepts of forgiveness and reform. The legal codes in the west reflect that and there you go, always ambiguity and whatifs and how to improve and how to make sure pushishment is right or proportionate or instructive and so on ad nauseam. Who cares if a pedophile’s tumour is removed and he is no longer pedo? What if he loses his memory and he is no longer pedo? What if he is baptized, reformed and reborn and he thinks he is no longer the same person?

    • Dirk Anger says:

      Who cares if a pedophile’s tumour is removed and he is no longer pedo? What if he loses his memory and he is no longer pedo? What if he is baptized, reformed and reborn and he thinks he is no longer the same person?

      You’d need to think what purpose does punishment serve: it can be dissuasion, keeping the outside safer for as long as the perpetrator is in jail (which would make an argument for life in prison for every crime), or punishment.

      In the case you mention, I don’t see that punishment serves any purpose, other than dissuading other people who may think “If I get caught I’m going to be punished, no matter what the reasons are (or I say they are) for me to do this”.
      But you should prove this actually dissuades anybody, otherwise it’s just vengeance.

      By the way, if the point is dissuasion, the hardest punishment should not be for murderers or pedophiles, because the punishment for those is hard enough that people commit it either without thinking before acting thinking there’s no way they get caught. The hardest punishment should be for fraud, which is where people make the calculation “best case: I’m a millionaire, worst case: I spend ten years in jail and I’m still a millionaire when I get out”

  4. xylokopos says:

    And of course, the whole ” I am not to blame/wasn’t my fault” argument is always the convenient introduction to utterly revolting “I am a victim too” argument

  5. Sewen says:

    I thought this was a blog for regular people who want to challenge their perspectives and become better citizens of the world. “To get into The New Yorker, you have to advance a pseudo-philosophical but distinctly atheist explanation of human nature.” I like to think that I’m smarter than the average person (and I have a few, but possibly unfounded, reasons to think so), but I had to read that quite a few times before I understood what you meant. I spent more time trying to understand what you wanted to say in this post than why you wanted to say it. Do I have the wrong idea about what you’re trying to accomplish here?

  6. Guy Fox says:

    So, in 2097: “ten percent of this murder was due to X, 5 % to Y, etc.”

    Let’s not totally dismiss the Minority Report aspect either. Whoever gets to write that infirmity catalogue has a lot of leverage.

    Autistic? Really? Well, that’s a pity because you could be so much more productive and tax paying (i.e. worthwhile). Not to worry, though, because it’s just a crossed synapse in your pre-frontal B6 flux capacitor. We’ll just give you your mini-chem-lobotomy, and you’ll be right as rain and able to productively manipulate our product’s image online in no time. You’re welcome.

  7. CubaLibre says:

    “Of course, the rebuttal is that in a higher civilization, the urge for revenge won’t exist, but that would be a willful misreading of Eagleman’s own theory: I am built this way. And if I don’t get my satisfaction from the law, I’ll get it myself– that’s why we have the law. And ultimately, nobody could blame me.”

    I think the rebuttal is that law is willfully blind to certain brain-prejudices (i.e. “fair”) because it produces a cohesive society. I’ll make an example like this:

    Let’s say a man murdered my wife. Let’s say I’m convinced to a moral certainty that he is guilty but that he “gets off on a technicality.” I can theorize (without really knowing, because how could I) that I would then endeavor to murder this man for revenge. I would endeavor to do so in secrecy and to never be caught – no Thoreau-like civil disobedience here. If I were caught, I would put on the best legal defense I could muster. But I would never advocate that my revenge murder be legal.

    Murder is wrong because it disorganizes society. It’s unjust for myself to personally execute a man when the established legal systems, which basically operate near the highest level of fairness that could be expected from any bureaucratic institution, have cleared him of guilt. If it weren’t that way, no one would feel secure in getting not-murdered – civil society would decay in the wake of bodily fear. But I, personally, as an individual moral being, would in that situation place my moral certainties against society’s justice. Society would rightly punish me for this.

    In other words, the law isn’t obligated to accommodate every single one of our brain-biases (call them beliefs, or morals, or tumors). It’s only obligated to accommodate the ones that allow society to function smoothly.

    • JohnJ says:

      The purpose of law is not to create a cohesive society or else, as you note, it wouldn’t be blind to unfair prejudices. Your argument is contradictory: “Law = fair. Fair=cohesive. Cohesive=unfair. Therefore law=unfair. Fair law does not necessarily produce cohesiveness, but that doesn’t mean that the law should be made unfair in order to promote a cohesive society.

    • JohnJ says:

      Forgot to close quote.

      The purpose of law is not to create a cohesive society or else, as you note, it wouldn’t be blind to unfair prejudices. Your argument is contradictory: “Law = fair. Fair=cohesive. Cohesive=unfair. Therefore law=unfair.” Fair law does not necessarily produce cohesiveness, but that doesn’t mean that the law should be made unfair in order to promote a cohesive society.

      • CubaLibre says:

        You haven’t comprehended the example. It’s neither fair nor just for me to insist on revenge in the face of a judicial determination of not-guilt. But I would still consider it right. Justice is not the only virtue.

        • JohnJ says:

          As I understand your point (and please correct me if I’m wrong), you’re saying that the law must punish you for doing the right thing because to do otherwise would promote incivility, anarchy, or plain-old absence of cohesion. What you did was right, but should still be illegal for purpose of maintaining an orderly society.

          If that’s an accurate representation of what you said, I have to reiterate that I disagree with you. To say that law should punish morality is to say that morality should be illegal.

          Now, we could certainly argue about whether any particular action is the right or wrong thing to do, and whether it should or shouldn’t be punished. But to say that you must be punished for doing the right thing in order to protect society I find to be a horrid and utterly repellant way of thinking. I wouldn’t want to live in a society that exists by criminalizing doing the right thing.

          In point of fact, American law makes many allowances for extenuating circumstances, and it has not led to the destruction of society yet. There’s justifiable homicide, provocation, self-defense, crime of passion, necessity, temporary insanity, etc. See, e.g., A Time to Kill.

          • CubaLibre says:

            “To say that law should punish morality is to say that morality should be illegal.”

            More that law just doesn’t have much truck with morality. The state isn’t competent to impose a particular moral system on every citizen; it would actually be unjust to do so. Some people think it’s moral to kill, some don’t; the state chooses “don’t” because that makes a cohesive society. Some people think it’s moral to eat pork, some don’t; the state chooses “let people eat pork” because that makes a cohesive society.

            That isn’t to say that the law doesn’t have to pay attention to some vague, ecumenical morality-like ideas. After all, if it didn’t, people would reject the system. In addition to affirmative defenses, you could throw the Bill of Rights into this category as well. For example, I think it’s immoral for Nazis to parade their filth through a community of Holocaust survivors. But it would be manifestly unjust not to allow them to do so. The justice of it (i.e., that it applies to all groups equally) allows the immorality of it to be swallowed.

            So, though I would personally exterminate my wife’s murderer I am also a staunch opponent of the death penalty. The state has no business executing its own citizens for criminal acts; it’s a human sacrifice that has no significant effect beyond the symbolic, and what it symbolizes is that this is a brutal society of state-sanctioned revenge. It’s an injustice. But me murdering my wife’s murderer says nothing about anything except me and the murderer. At that point it’s not justice that personally concerns me, it’s the superseding virtues of loyalty and nobility. But the state rightly doesn’t care about that stuff, and should punish me according to law if it can.

            This all isn’t to say that I am presenting the only comprehensive theory of the eidos of Law. No theory fully survives contact with any human system. But I think this model most robustly explains the phenomena, and gives pretty good guideposts for what the law should and should not do.

          • JohnJ says:

            You’re just being stupid now. All you’re saying is that morality is whatever makes for a cohesive society. You’re redefining words to mean whatever you want.

            I notice you have no compunctions against forcing your view of what the law should do on everyone else. You think it’s right to do whatever promotes cohesiveness, therefore anyone who disagrees with you is attempting to promote their morality through law, which is exactly what you’re trying to do,just using different words to mask your intent.

            But what happens when you disagree about what promotes cohesiveness? What if someone thinks that allowing Nazis to parade through town will destroy cohesiveness? What if the state thinks that allowing pork to be eaten won’t promote cohesiveness? What about those who think that allowing homosexuals to marry won’t promote cohesiveness?

            Then they’re the ones who are using the law to enforce their moral views on others! OMG those darn theocrats and their stupid morality!

          • CubaLibre says:

            “What if someone thinks that allowing Nazis to parade through town will destroy cohesiveness? What if the state thinks that allowing pork to be eaten won’t promote cohesiveness? What about those who think that allowing homosexuals to marry won’t promote cohesiveness?”

            Well then that’s what the state will ban/not ban. Obviously opinions will differ. The test will be whether or not the legislation will actually promote cohesion. Historically, regimes that have ignored or trampled upon what we now call “human rights” haven’t lasted long. Meanwhile those that have seem relatively stable. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. You could see the variety of regimes through history as social experiments, each trying to grasp whatever mix of laws and freedoms will create a stable society. One conclusion to draw is that the best government is therefore contingent on the character of its citizens (i.e. that there is no perfect Form of Law). I don’t think this is a particularly controversial thing to say.

            In one of his articles, TLP wrote that he wouldn’t care if his son was a murderer on the lam, he would help try to smuggle him to safety – though perhaps only after administering his own, private, paternal punishment. That’s what loyalty is. I don’t think TLP would go on to say that it should therefore be legal to abet a felon in this way. My humble scheme merely seeks to explain this discrepancy. If you have a better explanation, give it.

  8. wisegirl says:

    I don’t know, I kind of like the idea of it. In the future, let’s perform operations that make those with homicidal tendencies gentle as kittens without compromising any of their brain function, ideally before they commit crimes.

    • Neex says:

      Wisegirl– there are a lot of problems with this mentality. The development of criminal behavior is a multifacted process that develops intergenerationally through a number of mechanisms mostly relating to the environment of numerous generations. Trauma, poverty, and “survive in the moment” coping and parenting techniques result in changes on an epigenetic level. Meaning that a mother with a lot of trauma/toxic exposure/chronic stress/pathogen exposure will have different genes turned off and on than the same mother who had been in a better environement. She will pass on different gene functioning to her offspring. Further more the way her body is functioning will affect the environment of the developing fetus leading to problematic development durign critical periods of growth. Following that her parenting will likely be affected and her parenting and way of managing her childs environment will affect the child as well. All of this will predispose her child to poor development on a biological and emotional level.

      That child will learn her parenting and survival stradegies which are adapted to poor conditions and potential ingrain continual exposure to negative environments and potentially give the grandchild of these poor conditions and even worse start. But epigenetics are also affected by early childhood enrichment. Meaning positive environments can give an organism an opportunity to repair some of the cumulative damage.

      We could affect the development of pathologically criminal people more affectively by offering parents assistance with creating enriching environments and parent/child relationships that will assist thier child in developing in a healthy way.

      “DB (disruptive behaviors) are universal during early childhood. With age, children learn socially acceptable behaviours from interactions with their environment. A ‘disease’ status is given to children who fail to learn the socially acceptable behaviours. The mechanisms that lead to deficits in using socially accepted behaviours are strongly intergenerational, based on complex genetic and environmental contributions, including epigenetic mechanisms. Prevention of these deficits requires early, intensive and long-term support to parents and child. Newly discovered epigenetic mechanisms suggest that intensive perinatal interventions will have impacts on numerous aspects of physical and mental health, including DB”

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20146751

      This is one among numerous studies being done in the field of gene environment interactions in human development. Chemical labotomies are not the only way. Brains don’t usually just randomly malform. Genes themselves are programmed to adapt to environments and some newer research is finding that some of the mutations that happen to the phenotypes are in direct response to specific epigenetic changes. Meaning the “hard changes” are being affected on a much slower scale by environments as well. Obviously DNA mutations that result from toxic exposure/cellular distress are not part of this adaptive process.

      If your world is cruel you must learn to be cruel. You will both teach that to your children, and give them genes that already hold that knowledge.

    • Neex says:

      Just to add, another downside of this is that we might surgically/chemically labotomizing all people with mental illness, poverty, or adverse/traumatic childhood experiences.

      Oh you got molested as a kid? There’s a chance you will abuse too, surgical/chemical labotomy for you!

      Do you REALLY want that to happen?

      • wisegirl says:

        Yes, I know. It’s mostly science fiction, a slippery slope, and flys in the face of free will. But I was thinking it would be something if we could reverse just one negative trait such as pedophilia or violent tendencies and leave everything else in tact. Not a labotomy. Maybe people would voluntarily sign up for it to avoid a life of crime. Again, science fiction, I know.

        • Neex says:

          Yes but supporting parents health and emotional well being is something we can do for real, as well as improving community support to help facilitate healthy parent child relationships/sense of community/ and support creating a research based enriching environment.

          Usually when people “support” poor or struggling parents they do so from a punitive attack mode, “Let’s educate them into submitting to the parenting techniques we think they should do.” Rather than learning about and supporting the parent where they are to improve their ability to be there for the child.

          The rates of people with illiteracy/mental illness/ poverty/
          abusive/adverse childhoods in prison seem to indicate there is plenty we can work to identify in how that process works and provide parents with programs that assist with better prenatal health, and better parenting knowledge/skills/support during the first five years.

          It’s not Clockwork orange vs nothing… is all I’m saying. : )

  9. Neex says:

    There is of course something to be said for the possibility that completely healthy humans can choose to commit cruel/criminal actions. I don’t doubt that will exists– whether or not it is “free” as in chosen by the organism without dictation from anatomical and biological forces working behind the will— I can’t really answer, but I DO doubt there is any such thing as will that exists completely apart from these mechanisms. Unless there is a soul that is the guiding force of life and exists outside of science. That would throw things off a bit.

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