Whose neurons get to rule?

Via Dr. Helen, I found this very disturbing analysis of the "science" of neurolaw. (I use the word "science" advisedly, for phrenology was once called that, and sociology still is.)

What neurolaw proposes is basically scrapping the criminal justice system as we know it and dispensing with the idea of punishing crime or criminals. That's because criminals have no control over their actions at all; instead their actions are simply the product of their brains' neuronal discharges -- and that therefore scientists should take charge of what we erroneously think of as criminal justice.

...[N]eurolaw talk embraces the promise of changing minds by changing brains through a therapeutic model of criminal justice which views retributive punishment as inhumane but classifying and modifying brains by the state as a great triumph of rehabilitation. As one leading scholar suggested, there is no real difference between prison and lobotomy.27

This credulous fervor for neurolaw hides its secret ambition. Those who view desert as an improvident distributive theory of punishment are many, but few suggest dispensing with the criminal justice system wholesale. Yet much of the neuro-person model's construction of culpability lies with the view that crime itself is a mental illness and not behavior of lawless citizens. 28 Crime is considered the product of impaired brains and scientists as best suited for handling criminal justice policy, not lawyers. Once crime is understood as a behavioral problem rooted in the impaired brains of many unfortunate citizens, ameliorating crime will properly involve civil remedies instead of criminal ones. Therapeutic justice has already made substantial inroads under the reasonable view that criminal justice policy should encompass provisions which reduce offender recidivism. But in doing so, therapeutic justice seems all too eager in jettisoning the adversarial system of justice in place of one which values intervention at the cost of adversarial rights and individual liberty. The very nature of the criminal justice system as one entrenched in laws which restrain government is quite foreign to therapeutic justice. And that is troublesome given the emerging rise of the therapeutic state.

Needless to say, neurolaw not only negates free will, but freedom itself becomes a meaningless concept. What I can't figure out is that if there's no such thing as criminality in the traditional sense because these human automatons lack free will and independent agency, from where would the neurolaw scientists get the idea that robbing, raping, or murder are even worthy of being deterred? If criminals cannot appreciate or control their conduct and are lacking in accountability because we are all automatons, then under what basis do victims of crime have any right to feel aggrieved or object? Why don't their perceptions and feelings of what happened to them ultimately become as arbitrary and meaningless as those of the people who preyed on them?

Who gets to decide even what should be a crime?

Under what theory do the neurolaw scientists imagine that they have any special say-so? Are they not also just masses of firing neurons which cause them to sputter these theories? Isn't their desire to control other people evidence of yet another form of mental illness just as beyond their control as the conduct of criminals? Surely they don't argue that only criminals lack free will.

Yet inexplicably, neurolaw science talks of "intervention" and "prevention" -- by neuroscientists themselves!

...[M]uch of the neuro-person model's construction of culpability lies with the view that crime itself is a mental illness and not behavior of lawless citizens. 28 Crime is considered the product of impaired brains and scientists as best suited for handling criminal justice policy, not lawyers. Once crime is understood as a behavioral problem rooted in the impaired brains of many unfortunate citizens, ameliorating crime will properly involve civil remedies instead of criminal ones. Therapeutic justice has already made substantial inroads under the reasonable view that criminal justice policy should encompass provisions which reduce offender recidivism. But in doing so, therapeutic justice seems all too eager in jettisoning the adversarial system of justice in place of one which values intervention at the cost of adversarial rights and individual liberty. The very nature of the criminal justice system as one entrenched in laws which restrain government is quite foreign to therapeutic justice. And that is troublesome given the emerging rise of the therapeutic state.
It's beginning to look like a simple power grab, accomplished by scientifically packaged rhetoric.

Trust the experts? I would maintain that people who believe in "trusting the experts" are suffering from just another form of mental illness, as are the experts they trust.

This is complete nonsense, and someone needs to call these people on it lest they get legislation passed while no one is looking.

I won't deny that they have an interesting philosophical argument, but over the years I have wasted many hours with people advancing similar arguments. Ultimately, whether we are all just chemicals and neurons firing leads itself to metaphysical debates over the meaning of existence. Do you exist? Do I exist?

Interesting, but not grounds for overturning the legal system. Or scrapping the Constitution (which would be required if neurolaw is to have their way). But I worry that this isn't just a late night philosophical debate of the sort I used to engage in Berkeley; these folks seem as determined as they are deterministic:

The foundational walls upon which [cognitive neuroscience] rests hold unwaveringly to the tenets of classical physics, reductive materialism, and hard determinism. Implicit in this model is the notion that, in time, all human experiences will be accessible by various physical apparatuses designed to explore the brain, that all mentation will be measurable by these devices, and accurate predictions of future behavior by way of brain activity can be made solely by understanding the material properties of the brain. Other theories abound but most hold to the immutable premise that people direct their behavior at least some of the time. Even under the subterfuge of the unconscious, psychoanalysis claimed that people acted because they had reasons - even when they were unaware of them.40 While alternative psychological theories hold to some of these premises, cognitive neuroscience confidently suggests our perception of personhood grounded in the sense that we choose how to act is false and untenable.41 Instead we are automatons, fooled by a belief in goal-directed behavior that we perceive is under our control but is entirely the product of forces set into motion long before our existence.42 That we may believe that we prefer and choose to indulge in chocolate ice-cream over vanilla is an illusion; instead, we are a passive audience to the electrical cadence of neuronal firings buried deep within our heads.4
The best aspect of this theory is that built into it is the ability to dismiss all who disagree as unenlightened fools whose identity itself is as much of a delusion as the "freedom" in which they claim to believe:
At the least we are fools under the direction of our selfish genes;47 at the worst our identity is utterly an illusion.48 The very notion of human agency - that people evaluate their environments, make choices, and impose those choices in the world - is entirely incompatible with the cognitive neuroscience theory of personhood.49 The very idea that people are mere passive observers of the world in which they occupy is no recent development. And that view has serious implications for theories of culpability and responsibility so fundamentally rooted in most legal systems.
Bottom line:
[M]oral thinking and behavior is merely a product of neuronal discharges inside the ventromedial prefrontal cortex of the brain - and nothing more.94 They are, as two preeminent neuroscientists put it recently, "not mere correlates but are the physical bases of these aspects of our personhood."95
Sheesh.

This almost makes me inclined to revert to a strict Freudian view of things. Funny that the other day I'd be blogging about what I called "sexual freedom" -- only to wake up today and see this monstrosity staring me in the face. These people care not a hoot about sexual freedom. They don't believe anyone has any right to be straight or gay or any of that stuff. In fact, they don't even believe that there is such a thing as freedom.

I hope I won't live long enough to see them get their way.

posted by Eric on 09.22.09 at 11:08 AM










Comments

I'm not real sure I trust New Age ideas much.

http://www.kirotv.com/news/21026779/detail.html
.

OregonGuy   ·  September 22, 2009 11:28 AM

I'm beginning to think that there's something genetic in many people to need a religion.
How is that any different from religious types talking about predestination?

To quote that weird singing voiced philosopher, Geddy Lee
There are those who think that life
Has nothing left to chance
With a host of holy horrors
To direct our aimless dance
A planet of playthings
We dance on the strings
Of powers we cannot perceive
...
Blame is better to give than receive

When the religious tell me that stuff as when "scientists" do, I think of Geddy's words,
I will choose free will

Preach it brother.

For the record, I always sang, "A host of holy hosers...".
At least it wasn't "Excuse me while I kiss this guy".

Veeshir   ·  September 22, 2009 2:09 PM

These "cognitive neuroscience" folks are confusing the neurons for the person. In a way, this sounds like the same confusion that is occurring in this discussion. I personally would favor the "Systems Reply" in the case of normal people, although the "Virtual Mind Reply" would apply to multiple-personality types.

Scale matters. Thinking about some simple computing element like a neuron as a class, or constructing simplistic thought experiments like the Chinese Room ignores the computational complexity of human-level thought. It can't be simulated or emulated on the cheap, only way to do it is to be it. So, for all practical purposes, free will is real.

Eric E. Coe   ·  September 22, 2009 8:29 PM

Well just turn it back on them.

The purpose of punishment for crime is to re-adjust people's neural networks.

M. Simon   ·  September 22, 2009 10:22 PM

I have no doubt that many crimes have their basis in mental illness, but the vast majority of them do not. The vast majority of crimes are the result of overweening self-interest unmitigated by regard for another person's rights, property, or even personhood.

The thing is, I think every human being has these tendencies to a greater or lesser degree. I know that I do. (For example, I have no difficulty acknowledging another's personhood when dealing with him or her face to face... but put me behind the wheel of a car, and they suddenly become merely obstacles to my progress, whose interests or needs are insignificant next to mine. There have even been times when I would not have been bothered one iota if the people who proved to be obstacles to me while driving had met with a fiery demise. It's shameful on my part, but true.)

I think every person has the capacity within him- or herself for criminal behavior, given the right circumstances. They don't have "defective neurons" (or whatever) so much as their neurons have not been trained to recognize the other as being as much a person as one's self is. And furthermore, even if their neurons HAVE been trained that way, they still have the free will to disregard that training and act in a criminal way.

John S.   ·  September 23, 2009 1:39 PM

People don't care about anybody else's wants, needs or desires.

I read the Grapes of Wrath for school in probably 6-8th grade, hated it. Maybe I should try it again now that I don't have to read it.

Anyway, I still remember one part that is "seared, seared into my memory".
This kid has a dog and it walks a little away. A guy driving by swerves and runs it down on purpose. A guy standing there says to the heartbroken kid, "Some people just like to hear the thump".
It meant so much because it rang so true. Just to get a thrill, that guy was willing to kill a boy's dog. Because the boy meant nothing to him.
As a kid, I learned awfully quickly that strangers bigger than me couldn't care less about me. They would screw me over, smile or laugh and walk away.

People have always been like that with strangers, it's just that there are so many people, we run across people we'll never see again all the time.

Lots of people have sympathy (probably nearly all), very, very few people have empathy.

Veeshir   ·  September 23, 2009 5:08 PM

Somebody should write a song about how appealing to experts can be gamed.

Joseph Hertzlinger   ·  September 24, 2009 12:44 AM

They've been singing this same song since the early Progressive era. The words change from psychology to glands to genes to neurons, but the tune is the same.

Adam Greenwood   ·  September 25, 2009 1:25 PM

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