David 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.
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.