Monday, August 29, 2011

Criminals and the Brain

The July/August issue of THE ATLANTIC contains a very disturbing article, "The Brain On Trial," by David Eagleman. It makes the argument (the topic of one of my panels at Worldcon, by coincidence) against free will -- or at least against totally free will. Eagleman cites a number of legal cases and scientific studies in which brain conditions prompted out-of-character violent actions.

The most upsetting of these is Charles Whitman, who in 1966 climbed the University of Texas bell tower and shot 45 people. The night before he had murdered his wife and his mother. He had written in his diary:

"I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts....It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight...I love her dearly and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this."

Whitman's suicide note requested that his brain be autopsied, because he thought something might have changed in it. Doctors found a glioblastoma compressing a third of the amygdala, the brain center associated with fear and aggression.

Eagleman goes on to explore the philosophic and legal ramification of brain tumors and brain chemistry: Can we be held morally and/or legally responsible for our actions if they are prompted by our biology? Does such a thing as "good character" exist, or it is the product of lucky brain conditions that conform to societal norms? On a practical level, what can be done -- or should be done -- with regard to punishment and/or rehabilitation of those in such circumstances?

There are no easy answers to any of this. Personally, I think Eagleman's answers are a bit too easy -- he pretty much erases the concepts of free will and character. But the article offers fascinating, if troubling, information, and raises questions touching the very foundation of what it means to be human. A highly recommended read -- even if you hate it.


Robert Mitchell Evans said...

The final state for this sort of idea is the elmination of criminal justice system and its replacment by a mental health/medical care system. It becomes very sticky because once you eliminate free will and therefore responsility, illegality becomes a mental health issue and taht in a democratic political situaiton is a very dangerous position any sort of minority.

Nancy Kress said...

I agree -- which is why the article is so disturbing.

Robert Mitchell Evans said...

It's kind of like we're in one fo those B-movies traps where the walls are closing in. The space lef for free will in human actions continouns to be smaller and smaller. I persoanlly think wer exercise free will when we resist our natural inclincation. (I may want to flirt with the attarctive woman at a worldcon party, but as a married man I resist and exercise my will) However that just pushes the horizon back for we know there are people with impulse control issues. Do they have less free will?

qiihoskeh said...

To an extent, we have that now. The key word is "danger". This is not something that is decided democratically.

TheOFloinn said...

The will is free precisely because the intellect is not perfect. Keep in mind that around 80% of life must be carried out automatically; not just things like breathing, but even activities carried out by habit, training and conditioning.

The will is an appetite for products of the intellect, just as the emotions are appetites for the products of sensation. That is why we "hunger" for justice. When the object of the intellect is perfectly known, say that 2+2=4, the will it completely determined toward it. But when it is not perfectly known - what exactly is "justice"? - then the will is not perfectly determined to any one thing. This is all that the traditional metaphysicians meant by liberum arbitrium, which better translates as "free judgment," not "free will."

Nor were Aristotle or Aquinas ignorant that the will might be impaired by habit (which for them included what we call genetic predisposition), circumstance, or chemical substances (like being drunk). Whence the doctrine that culpability is moderated by impairments to the will.

Glad science is catching up.