Neuroscience is making it extremely difficult for believers to still claim that by freely choosing to believe we are saved (or condemned), that we freely choose to sin, or that there is a wrathful God who will judge us on the last day. Case in point, girls and boys, are the following two essays, the last of which I will quote from. The first is Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes. Now for the second one, "The Brain on Trial." [Be sure to read this essay at least as far as the highlighted money quote in red!].
Advances in brain science are calling into question the volition behind many criminal acts. David Eagleman, a leading neuroscientist, describes how the foundations of our criminal-justice system are beginning to crumble, and proposes a new way forward for law and order.LINK
The choices we make are inseparably yoked to our neural circuitry, and therefore we have no meaningful way to tease the two apart.
Many of us like to believe that all adults possess the same capacity to make sound choices. It’s a charitable idea, but demonstrably wrong.
People’s brains are vastly different.
Who you even have the possibility to be starts at conception. If you think genes don’t affect how people behave, consider this fact:if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is:The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1 percent of death-row inmates do.
4 times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes.
3 times as likely to commit robbery,
5 times as likely to commit aggravated assault,
8 times as likely to be arrested for murder,
13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offense.
These statistics alone indicate that we cannot presume that everyone is coming to the table equally equipped in terms of drives and behaviors.
By the way, as regards that dangerous set of genes, you’ve probably heard of them. They are summarized as the Y chromosome. If you’re a carrier, we call you a male.
And this feeds into a larger lesson of biology: we are not the ones steering the boat of our behavior, at least not nearly as much as we believe.
Who we are runs well below the surface of our conscious access, and the details reach back in time to before our birth, when the meeting of a sperm and an egg granted us certain attributes and not others.
Who we can be starts with our molecular blueprints—a series of alien codes written in invisibly small strings of acids—well before we have anything to do with it. Each of us is, in part, a product of our inaccessible, microscopic history.
Genes are part of the story, but they’re not the whole story.
We are likewise influenced by the environments in which we grow up.
Substance abuse by a mother during pregnancy, maternal stress, and low birth weight all can influence how a baby will turn out as an adult.
As a child grows, neglect, physical abuse, and head injury can impede mental development, as can the physical environment.
And every experience throughout our lives can modify genetic expression—activating certain genes or switching others off—which in turn can inaugurate new behaviors. In this way, genes and environments intertwine.
We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint, and then born into a world of circumstances that we cannot control in our most-formative years. The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens . . . possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making.
The unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads cannot qualify as choices; these are the cards we’re dealt.
Because we did not choose the factors that affected the formation and structure of our brain, the concepts of free will and personal responsibility begin to sprout question marks.
It is problematic to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone breaking the law and conclude, “Well, I wouldn’t have done that”—because if you weren’t exposed to in utero cocaine, lead poisoning, and physical abuse, and he was, then you and he are not directly comparable. You cannot walk a mile in his shoes.
This same phenomenon arises in people with a condition known as chorea, for whom actions of the hands, arms, legs, and face are involuntary, even though they certainly look voluntary:
Ask such a patient why she is moving her fingers up and down, and she will explain that she has no control over her hand. She cannot not do it.
Similarly, some split-brain patients (who have had the two hemispheres of the brain surgically disconnected) develop alien-hand syndrome:
while one hand buttons up a shirt, the other hand works to unbutton it.
when one hand reaches for a pencil, the other bats it away. No matter how hard the patient tries, he cannot make his alien hand not do what it’s doing. The movements are not “his” to freely start or stop.
The crux of the question is whether all of your actions are fundamentally on autopilot or whether some little bit of you is “free” to choose, independent of the rules of biology.
This has always been the sticking point for philosophers and scientists alike. After all, there is no spot in the brain that is not densely interconnected with—and driven by—other brain parts. And that suggests that no part is independent and therefore “free.”
In modern science, it is difficult to find the gap into which to slip free will—the uncaused causer—because there seems to be no part of the machinery that does not follow in a causal relationship from the other parts.
Free will may exist (it may simply be beyond our current science), but one thing seems clear: if free will does exist, it has little room in which to operate. It can at best be a small factor riding on top of vast neural networks shaped by genes and environment. In fact, free will may end up being so small that we eventually think about bad decision-making in the same way we think about any physical process, such as diabetes or lung disease.
The study of brains and behaviors is in the midst of a conceptual shift. Historically, clinicians and lawyers have agreed on an intuitive distinction between neurological disorders (“brain problems”) and psychiatric disorders (“mind problems”).
As recently as a century ago, a common approach was to get psychiatric patients to “toughen up,” through deprivation, pleading, or torture. Not surprisingly, this approach was medically fruitless.
After all, while psychiatric disorders tend to be the product of more-subtle forms of brain pathology, they, too, are based in the biological details of the brain.
What accounts for the shift from blame to biology? Perhaps the largest driving force is the effectiveness of pharmaceutical treatments.
No amount of threatening will chase away depression, but a little pill called fluoxetine often does the trick. Schizophrenic symptoms cannot be overcome by exorcism, but they can be controlled by risperidone. Mania responds not to talk or to ostracism, but to lithium.
These successes, most of them introduced in the past 60 years, have underscored the idea that calling some disorders “brain problems” while consigning others to the ineffable realm of “the psychic” does not make sense.
Instead, we have begun to approach mental problems in the same way we might approach a broken leg. The neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky invites us to contemplate this conceptual shift with a series of questions:
Is a loved one, sunk in a depression so severe that she cannot function, a case of a disease whose biochemical basis is as “real” as is the biochemistry of, say, diabetes, or is she merely indulging herself?
Is a child doing poorly at school because he is unmotivated and slow, or because there is a neurobiologically based learning disability?
Is a friend, edging towards a serious problem with substance abuse, displaying a simple lack of discipline, or suffering from problems with the neurochemistry of reward?
Acts cannot be understood separately from the biology of the actors.
The more we discover about the circuitry of the brain, the more we tip away from accusations of indulgence, lack of motivation, and poor discipline—and toward the details of biology.
The shift from blame to science reflects our modern understanding that our perceptions and behaviors are steered by deeply embedded neural programs.
Imagine a spectrum of culpability. Such a spectrum captures the common intuition that juries hold regarding blameworthiness.
On one end, we find people like Alex the pedophile, or a patient with frontotemporal dementia who exposes himself in public. In the eyes of the judge and jury, these are people who suffered brain damage at the hands of fate and did not choose their neural situation.
On the other end of the spectrum—the blameworthy side of the “fault” line—we find the common criminal, whose brain receives little study, and about whom our current technology might be able to say little anyway.
The overwhelming majority of lawbreakers are on this side of the line, because they don’t have any obvious, measurable biological problems. They are simply thought of as freely choosing actors.
But there is a deep problem with this intuition. Technology will continue to improve, and as we grow better at measuring problems in the brain, the fault line will drift into the territory of people we currently hold fully accountable for their crimes.
Problems that are now opaque will open up to examination by new techniques, and we may someday find that many types of bad behavior have a basic biological explanation—as has happened with schizophrenia, epilepsy, depression, and mania.
Today, neuroimaging is a crude technology, unable to explain the details of individual behavior. We can detect only large-scale problems, but within the coming decades, we will be able to detect patterns at unimaginably small levels of the microcircuitry that correlate with behavioral problems. Neuroscience will be better able to say why people are predisposed to act the way they do. As we become more skilled at specifying how behavior results from the microscopic details of the brain, more defense lawyers will point to biological mitigators of guilt, and more juries will place defendants on the not-blameworthy side of the line.
The crux of the problem is that it no longer makes sense to ask, “To what extent was it his biology, and to what extent was it him?,” because we now understand that there is no meaningful distinction between a person’s biology and his decision-making. They are inseparable.
Along any axis that we use to measure human beings, we discover a wide-ranging distribution, whether in empathy, intelligence, impulse control, or aggression. People are not created equal.
Although this variability is often imagined to be best swept under the rug, it is in fact the engine of evolution. In each generation, nature tries out as many varieties as it can produce, along all available dimensions.
This myth of human equality suggests that people are equally capable of controlling impulses, making decisions, and comprehending consequences. While admirable in spirit, the notion of neural equality is simply not true.
As brain science improves, we will better understand that people exist along continua of capabilities, rather than in simplistic categories.
Neuroscience is beginning to touch on questions that were once only in the domain of philosophers and psychologists, questions about how people make decisions and the degree to which those decisions are truly “free.”
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine. This essay is adapted from his new book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.