Free will, the brain, and the law

We all realize that our notion of whether or not we have “free will”—and how we define it if we think we do—has huge ramifications for our ideas of moral responsibility, and therefore for how we want to legally punish offenders.  If all choice is freely made, then offenders are morally culpable.  If some choices are not “free”, but compelled by things like brain tumors or mental disorders, we have a different notion of responsibility, and this is recognized by laws that either exculpate such people or place them in mental hospitals or rehabilitation facilities.

Most of us agree that regardless of whether we have “free will” in the sense of being able to somehow override the dictates of our genes and environments, offenders (especially repeat offenders) somehow need to be incarcerated.  Even if they can’t be rehabilitated, they must be sequestered from society for our own protection.  Such incarceration can also serve an an example for others to deter them from crime: that is, we do this as an alteration of the environment that may act on the brains of other to deter them from crime.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, has an article in the latest Atlantic, “The brain on trial” (free access) arguing that advances in our knowledge of how our brains work have profound implications—even beyond those I’ve mentioned above—for how we treat offenders.  (The article is excerpted from his latest book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.) It’s well worth reading, for it will make you have a serious think.

Eagleman begins by describing Charles Whitman’s notorious murder of 13 people at the University of Texas in 1966.  An autopsy revealed he had a brain tumor—a glioblastoma—that had affected the amygdala region of the brain, and might well have caused his unexpected rampage (he’d previously complained of headaches and sought help).  Similar brain damage can cause obsession with child pornography, which is, of course, an illegal act.  Ditto for “frontotemporal dementia,” a brain disease that can cause all sorts of antisocial and illegal behavior.

Drugs given to patients can also make them behave erratically: parmipexole, given to Parkinson’s patients, often turn them into compulsive gamblers, probably by acting as a dopamine analog that affects the brain’s notion of risks and rewards. Genes can also condition one toward bad behavior.  Eagleman writes that:

if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes. You’re three times as likely to commit robbery, five times as likely to commit aggravated assault, eight times as likely to be arrested for murder, and 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offense. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1 percent of death-row inmates do. These statistics alone indicate that we cannot presume that everyone is coming to the table equally equipped in terms of drives and behaviors.

(I must admit that I’m not familiar with these genes, but I’ll accept this for the nonce.)  Should our genetic endowment, then, be considered when we’re sentenced for crimes? And it’s not just genes that can change our behavior against our “will” (if you believe in such a thing): so can environments.  Things like physical abuse or neglect when young can have severe effects at a later age.  Are these effects “choices” that deserve as much punishment as if there were less apparent causes for antisocial behavior?

The point Eagleman is trying to make, and one with which I agree is that all behavior is biology.

When it comes to nature and nurture, the important point is that we choose neither one. 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—equal before the law—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. Is it meaningful to say that Alex made bad choices, even though his brain tumor was not his fault? Is it justifiable to say that the patients with frontotemporal dementia or Parkinson’s should be punished for their bad behavior?

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 of course shades into notions of free will, notions that are deeply embedded in Western canons of criminal justice.  Some of the rationales for imprisonment and other punishments are based on the idea that the criminal could have chosen to behave otherwise. That idea is also embodied in the lesser punishments, or different kind of punishments, given to people when we think they’ve behaved badly because their cognition is impaired.

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.

Well, may think that most people act freely, and are responsible for their choices, but how much of what we do—in particular, how many criminal acts—are caused by things that we have no real control over?  As Eagleman notes, the more we learn about the brain, the more we understand the causes of behavior, and the more the idea of “choice” seems to dissolve:

Imagine a spectrum of culpability. 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.

Such a spectrum captures the common intuition that juries hold regarding blameworthiness. 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.

This of course means—and I suspect most of you agree—that how we treat lawbreakers is not a fixed thing, but must depend on social advances, not just in philosophy but in scientific understanding.  So what do we do if we want law to be malleable to science?  Eagleman suggests what he calls a “forward looking” approach to culpability and the law.  His program includes the following:

  • Criminals will “still be removed from the street” if they are “overaggressive, underempathetic and poor at controlling their impulses. It doesn’t matter if they are “blameworthy,” for we must protect society from such people.
  • The science comes in when we try to figure out what to do with other people.  Eagleman suggests that we take a cue from recent advances in treating sex offenders.  An “actuarial approach,” based on surveys of released sex offenders tracked for five years, singled out those factors most likely to be involved in relapse.  The factors that turned out to correlate strongly with relapse (prior sexual offenses and sexual interests in children) were, surprisingly, very different from predictions made by court psychiatrists and prison officials.  Sentencing guidelines, says Eagleman, should be based on the predictability of relapse as judged through such surveys.
  • Greater understanding of neuroscience, and its effects on behavior, will allow for “customized rehabilitation,” including new methods of teaching impulse control.  Eagleman describes some fascinating experiments—he calls them “prefrontal workouts”—in which people learn to control impulses by real-time brain scanning. People can, for example, control their desire to smoke by simply thinking about things in different ways while their frontal lobes are being scanned.  You can actually watch the degree of activity in those lobes as you think, and learn to do things to reduce it.  This is, of course, similar to the biofeedback craze that occurred a few decades ago, but it’s more sophisticated. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know how well this works, even for things like smoking.
  • Impulse control may be increase by making punishment increasingly swift and sure, like making drug offenders “undergo twice-weekly drug testing, with automatic, immediate consequences for failure—thereby not relying on distant abstraction alone.” (Lindsay Lohan might benefit from this!)

Now these recommendations may seem naive, but remember that it’s early days yet in our understanding of the brain.  What is certain is that we should not ignore advance in neuroscience, for they have ramifications for how we mete out justice, how and whether offenders can be rehabilitated (remember that they are not just offenders but human beings), and how well our society can be protected from criminal behavior.  No doubt some people will poo-poo the scientific approach, particularly political conservatives.  But as Eagleman concludes:

Some people wonder whether it’s unfair to take a scientific approach to sentencing—after all, where’s the humanity in that? But what’s the alternative? As it stands now, ugly people receive longer sentences than attractive people; psychiatrists have no capacity to guess which sex offenders will reoffend; and our prisons are overcrowded with drug addicts and the mentally ill, both of whom could be better helped by rehabilitation. So is current sentencing really superior to a scientifically informed approach?

I had no idea that one’s physical attractiveness determined how long one spends in prison.  But of course we have the example of Lindsay Lohan. . . . .

____________

UPDATE: I just remembered that last September I wrote about, and criticized, Eagleman’s views on atheism and his philosophy of “possibilianism.”

146 Comments

  1. wiz5
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    One thing I’ve not understood about the line of reasoning. If the argument is that without free will the criminal cannot be held morally responsible for his crime, how can the society be held responsible for punishing him unjustly?

    • Posted June 27, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

      Think of it as a post hoc social response to behavioral consequences. The origin of the behavior is a separate issue.

    • Tulse
      Posted June 27, 2011 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      Exactly — the notion of “free will” covers both crime and punishment. And that’s why I think discussions of abstract notions of free will aren’t all that helpful in this context, because the criminal justice system always acts as if it has free will. I do think it makes sense for the justice system to identify and understand biological and psychological conditions that have very large impacts on criminal behaviour. But I think the notion that “no one actually has free will” is a non-starter for the legal system, as that very system is predicated on the idea that free will exists in some sense.

      • AT
        Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:20 am | Permalink

        “no free will” is a scientific _fact_

        the society is yet to embrace it in much the same fashion as it is yet to embrace evolution

        political, economic, legal and all other systems have very little to do with _science_

        what we have now for “human condition” is natural for “deliberatively capable hominid” or _arrogantly knowing homo sapiens_

        “no free will” is part of the _science_ and as such is part of the homo cogitan of the future that is “heuristically thinking man”

        “homo cogitans” will replace “homo sapiens”

        natural selection will take care of that

        with that the current “goo of institutionalized ignorance” that is the basis of all legal, economic, political and social systems will give way to _SCIENCE_ as the basis for “heuristic government and economic policy” and all of the notions for “good” and “bad” will be profoundly re-defined by science of survival, that is evolutionary biology

        • Marella
          Posted June 27, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

          If you cannot be bothered to form readable sentences I cannot be bothered to read your posts.

          • AT
            Posted June 28, 2011 at 5:54 am | Permalink

            challenges make us better

            and there is always such thing as a question:

            “what do you mean by that?”

    • Posted June 27, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

      We can hold the criminal morally responsible, but, as Eagleman suggests, in a forward-looking way that abjures retributive punishment. Holding each other responsible is one way in which behavior is caused to be ethical, http://www.naturalism.org/pinker.htm

      By the same token, we can hold society (that is, ourselves), responsible for punishing people in ways that don’t reflect the reality of human nature, a patently unjust, inhumane and inefficient practice. Societies that indulge in retribution and needlessly harsh sanctions, with little attention paid to the formative conditions of crime, need admonishing and modification. This is what Eagleman and the Center for Naturalism and other progressives that critique free will and retributive punishment (e.g., Joshua Greene at Harvard, biologist Anthony Cashmore) are engaged in. See http://www.naturalism.org/roundup.htm#cashmore and other articles at http://www.naturalism.org/freewill.htm and http://www.naturalism.org/criminal.htm

      • Bernard J. Ortcutt
        Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

        I find it odd that some of the links you include conflate free will with contra-causal free will.

        Writing for a special series of “inaugural articles” for the National Academy of Sciences, biologist Anthony R. Cashmore is refreshingly candid in denying we have libertarian or contra-causal free will. He argues at length that his fellow biologists have been too reticent in this regard: they should repudiate free will just as vehemently and publicly as they repudiate vitalism.

        I certainly think that contra-causal free will should be repudiated, since it’s a ridiculous, false idea. But why does that mean that free will should be repudiated? Is this more people who have apparently never heard of Compatibilism, despite it being the majority position among philosophers for decades?

        • Posted June 27, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

          The extent to which people hold compatibilist versus contra-causal conceptions of free will is being researched by so-called experimental philosophers. Many folks, including many scientists, haven’t heard about compatibilist free will. Once it’s explained to them, they usually agree we have freedom of action compatible with determinism, but often they’ll say that isn’t what they consider to be real free will, just in the way many of them think we can’t make real choices if we’re determined in our behavior.

          So in what you quoted, when Cashmore is saying his fellow biologists should repudiate free will, it’s contra-causal free will he’s referring to, not compatibilist freedom. Whether it’s a good idea to refer to such freedom as “free will” is an open question, given the widespread connotations of free will as requiring something contra-causal.

          • Bernard J. Ortcutt
            Posted June 27, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

            I don’t see why we should care what people think about these questions. We don’t settle scientific or philosophical questions by polling the public. Contra-causal free will is still a wrong conception of free will, not simply a different one. There are two conditions of adequacy for a conception to count as a potentially right conception of free will. First, it has to correspond with our intuitive notion of when people act freely. Second, it has to be scientifically possible. Given that physicalism about the mind is true, contra-causal free will is simply inadequate as a account of free will. There are, however, Compatibilist accounts that can meet both conditions of adequacy.

            As for Cashmore, if he means “contra-causal free will” he should say “contra-causal free will”. One thing I have learned over the years is that nothing is saved by cutting corners to use a couple fewer words. If he wants to say that biologists should repudiate contra-causal free will, then I agree, but that’s not reason to repudiate free will. We aren’t in the Telegraph Age anymore. Write clearly and spell out what you mean.

    • Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      Because you can always change your mind about something before you do it.

      The criminal has already committed the crime, and so we must deal with him or her based on that. But how we deal with the criminal is our choice moving forward.

      • Tulse
        Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

        how we deal with the criminal is our choice

        But not if there is no free will.

        • Posted June 27, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

          Seriously? This canard has been addressed about 5 times on every free will thread on this blog.

          We make choices.

          They are determined.

          We can still decide whether or not to punish somebody.

          • Posted June 27, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

            Do I really want to jump into one if these again? What the hell.

            Where does the “choice-making” happen?

            As I’ve noted before, I think many here are equivocating between “made a choice” and “did something.”

            Would you say a Rube Goldberg contraption “chooses” to proceed to the next event in the chain?

            It seems to me the idea of “choice” leads back to the idea of “the ghost in the machine.”

            • Posted June 27, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

              Punishing people for their “immoral actions” (which is what courts do) is a deterministic event that results from a group of biological robots (humans) running a program that says, in a nutshell, “punish people for things they’ve done that the Moral Module of the program has labeled as “wrong,” when those actions cannot be shown to have resulted from some other cause that the agent could not have controlled.”

              e.g. If you step on my foot, you’re culpable. If you accidentally step on my foot, you’re not.

              Now, with recent increases in understanding about the human mind the lack of contra-causal free will, the output of our mental programs is changing. Remember that we are programmed to punish people for actions that result from causes the perpetrator could have controlled?

              Well we no longer have any actions that fit under that category!

              Now our programs will no longer direct us to punish because punishment is “just” or “deserved.” If we punish it will be for other reasons – say, to disincentivise behavior that leads to negative outcomes for individuals and society.
              ———————-

              There! An obviously deterministic version of the argument.

              Feel free to decide which part of the above you would like to call “choice,” if any. I was under the impression that I could use the word because my meaning would be understood. Perhaps not.

            • Posted June 27, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

              A side note:

              Same Harris has already said “free will is bogus.” In my opinion, he should have done the same with morality. It’s made up – a confabulation to explain our strong emotional aversions to certain socially-salient stimuli.

              Better to say “forget free will and morality; let’s structure society in a way that makes everyone as happy, healthy, and free as we can, because we literally have nothing else to fight for. We’re not fighting for what is “right,” because that’s an illusion. We’re fighting for what works out best for everyone.”

              Granted, Harris is espousing this goal with his talk of “wellbeing.” But isn’t it a hell of a lot easier to understand when you just say “forget about free will and morality. Do what makes society better.”?

              • Tulse
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink

                Why bother to make society better? Why care what works out best for everyone? What is the nature of the imperative to do so, if not a moral imperative?

                It seems to me that you are just relabeling the phenomenon.

              • Posted June 27, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink

                We’re programmed to seek happiness for ourselves, and to care about others.

                It’s determinism all the way down.

              • Tulse
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

                We’re programmed to seek happiness for ourselves, and to care about others.

                Some have argued that men are programmed to rape, and that humans in general are programmed for outgroup hatred, violence, etc. etc. etc.

                Saying we’re programmed to do something is still not a reason to do something — we often think such programming should be fought against.

              • Posted June 27, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

                You asked me why bother to make society better. I answered that we’re programmed to do so.

                If you want to argue that we’re programmed to do something different, that’s fine. I don’t care – we can’t fight our programming. Humans are going to do whatever we’re programmed to do (that’s determinism).

                That’s the only point I need to make.

              • Tulse
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

                If you want to argue that we’re programmed to do something different, that’s fine. I don’t care – we can’t fight our programming.

                That’s absurd — we fight our “programming” all the time. My point was that some aspects of our “programming” (whatever that means) are considered actually harmful and undesirable to society at large. So it’s clear that we’re not just “programmed” to benefit society. At the very least, you need to distinguish between programming that is “desirable” and that which isn’t, and once you are making those kind of distinctions, you’re doing ethics.

              • Posted June 27, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

                Apologies – I was not clear in what I meant.

                Our programs take as their inputs countless numbers of factors. If you think of the action that we take as the output of our program for a given moment, that action is the result of the weighing of countless factors.

                One factor that you mention is sexual desire. Rape is a result of that factor outweighing all the counterbalancing factors, leading to the output: rape.

                When I said that we cannot fight our programs, I meant that whatever the ultimate output is, is.

                Even though the sexual desire aspect of my program encourages rape, the bio-robot that is me doesn’t end up raping people, because other parts of my program supercede my sexual desire. My empathy for the person I would be raping is the main factor, in this case.

                But if my program did not have input from an Empathy Module, then my output would be to rape.

                (As far as neuroscientists can tell, sociopaths do not feel empathy or remorse. I assume the reason they do not rape people whenever they want to is because they know they would get thrown in jail immediately, and that would make life worse for them. Thus their sexual desire is counterbalanced mainly by a different part of our program.)

                So, in short, our programs *as a whole* have various competing inputs. But the only reason that one input can take precedence over another is because our code is written that way. A robot with an Empathy Module that isn’t programmed to use that particular Module in making rape/no rape decisions would not have empathy as a reason to not rape someone.

                In this meaning, we cannot fight our programming. Furthermore, what we perceive as fighting our programming (our inner mental struggle of delibration) is really just our conscious awareness of the various inputs of our program being weighed against each other. When I “decide” not to rape someone, what really happens is my empathy deterministically overrides my lust.

                If that is what my brain is going to do, there is no way for me to change that.

              • AT
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

                “programming” as mentioned by Tim Martin is a property of matter in the logical chain of

                matter –> life as property of matter –> evolution of lifeforms under genetic imperative of continuos viability –> humans: life-forms with deliberative capability as physical property that is machine-that-goes-by-itself

                conclusion:

                pure science makes “free will” and “morality” a “noumenal” – questions that we should not bother to answer, much like we should not bother with the question if god exists

                instead we should bother with question “what genetic imperative to survive as long as possible tells us about _inevitable_ reconstitution of scociety around _PURE SCIENCE_ as the sole agency of _continuos survival_ within the closed planetary system with the only outside energy input being solar radiation”

  2. Posted June 27, 2011 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    Many of Eagleman’s rehabilitation approaches in “Incognito” offer a long overdue analysis of the legal system.

    On another topic, I think what David calls “possibilianism” is pure wackiness because it leads to equal opportunity credulity — a sort of metapluraism that reminds me of the “not so open minded that our brains fall out” caveat.

    • R Smith
      Posted June 27, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      His “possibilianism” was pure LOLz. In an interview with NPR he was asked straight-up if he believed in God and “possibillianism” was his non-answer. Other than that it was a great interview. Find it here, http://www.npr.org/2011/05/31/136495499/incognito-whats-hiding-in-the-unconscious-mind

      • AT
        Posted June 27, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

        I think David is a kook. He seem to seriously use his “possibilianism” to avoid conversation of incompatibility of science and religion.

        As such he is doing a great disservice to all.

        Science is incompartible with _ALL_ non -scientific worldviews, belief-systems, and ambiguous language used to avoid the scrutiny of scientific method

        People who are in the public eye simply cannot afford to be “PURE SCIENTISTS” because the default human condition is non-scientific.

        This is why people like David are first and foremost “entertainers” using science as pre-text to their public appearances. I do not say this is “bad” or “unworth y” in any way. I only pointing out that we should be very careful when we talk about SCIENCE.

        The fact that people call themselves “scientists” and mass media amplifies their pronouncements of being a scientist does not mean they are scientists when they step out of their lab.

        We are yet to see a scientist that would behave as a scientist when he steps out of his math or biology lab.

        I have no doubt that there are people like that but you would not see them on TV, having a bestseller “popular book” and drawing the cowds of followers.

        Science is like deliberative capability a machine-that-goes-by-itself and it is yet to have an effect on “human condition” that is mostly made up of non-scientific “goo of institutionalized ignorance”

    • Dan L.
      Posted June 27, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      Why are you guys complaining about the one version of accommodationism that doesn’t bash GNUs?

      I’m pretty sure Eagleman is just trying to come up with a fun, fuzzy way of being anti-ideological. “Possibilianism” seems to me like the scientific perspective. Hypothesize, experiment, repeat. The only difference I can see is that Eagleman puts more of an emphasis on the contingency of scientific theory — he seems to think that there should be somewhat more consideration given to heterodox theories and less consideration given to orthodox theories. That perspective is perfectly consistent with healthy skepticism.

      • Posted June 27, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        “So it seems we know too little to commit to strict atheism, and too much to commit to any religion. Given this, I am often surprised by the number of people who seem to possess total certainty about their position. I know a lot of atheists who seethe at the idea of religion, and religious followers who seethe at the idea of atheism – but neither group is bothering with more interesting ideas. They make their impassioned arguments as though the God versus no-God dichotomy were enough for a modern discussion.” — David E.

        Of course, a*theism* has to do with refuting propositions of theism. Propositions of theism have been throughly examined and repudiated. Ergo, theism is no longer a “possibility.”

        • Dan L.
          Posted June 27, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

          They make their impassioned arguments as though the God versus no-God dichotomy were enough for a modern discussion.

          You quote Eagleman saying something with which I wouldn’t agree, but I think the crux of the disagreement is the bit I quoted above. I actually think the “God/no God” dichotomy as Eagleman calls it is too reductive, and that this is an ongoing obstacle in any sort of understanding between theists and atheists (I think this is what a lot of accommodationists are trying to say, but they end up sounding more like ‘No, you simplistic moron! Read more Aquinas!’). I fall on the side that says, “So let’s stop using the ‘God’ terminology since it’s essentially meaningless except for the emotional baggage attached to it. We can be more precise about what we’re asserting/denying.” Eagleman agrees with the sentiment but disagrees that there’s anything wrong with using the “God” appellation.

          I think he flubbed on the “seething” part though. Theism doesn’t make me seethe because it’s factually wrong, it makes me seethe because it’s so often morally wrong.

          • Posted June 27, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

            I think the part that bothers me is how a word like “possibilianism” will be appropriated by evolutionary theists to justify an unfalsifiable premise when given the get-out-of justification-free-card by an upcoming luminary in the scientific arena. They’ll certainly read it as “anything goes.”

            • Dan L.
              Posted June 27, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

              Ah, well I can see that. I’ve been thinking of possibilianism as the idea that any explanation can be and probably is wrong so we shouldn’t take any of them too seriously except on a temporary and pragmatic basis. Like skepticism with an even bigger emphasis on “I might be wrong.”

              Unfortunately, we’re fighting both fundamentalist dogmatists and pomo relativists. Depending on your focus, some tactics are going to seem completely backwards.

          • Posted June 27, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

            I actually think the “God/no God” dichotomy as Eagleman calls it is too reductive, and that this is an ongoing obstacle in any sort of understanding between theists and atheists

            Meh.

            Either there are gods or there aren’t.

            No, scratch that.

            Either the very notion of the term “god” is coherent or it isn’t…and, as it turns out, it’s not. Fairly self-evidently so, I might add.

            The obstacle of understanding between theists and atheists is that theists insist that there really are unevidenced married bachelors, that they’re controlling the world, and that the theists know exactly what the married bachelors want the rest of us to do…and atheists insist that the theists are a bunch of loonies.

            Cheers,

            b&

  3. Posted June 27, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    As far as I’m concerned, the only legitimate purpose for a criminal justice system is to protect members of society from coming to harm.

    As soon as one realizes that criminals are themselves members of society, it should become bleedin’ obvious that harming (punishing) the criminals is itself exactly the sort of criminal act the justice system ought to be preventing.

    At least with current technology and technology for the foreseeable future, there will be criminals who must be permanently isolated from the rest of society or else harm will inevitably result.

    However, the overwhelming majority of criminals will, at some point after conviction, no longer pose a threat to society. We already recognize that; it’s why sentences are limited.

    Since imprisonment itself — necessary though it so often is — causes harm to convicts, it again must be the goal to reduce the terms of incarceration. Of course, such must be done in a way that does not jeopardize others.

    And, it should also be obvious that the primary goal during incarceration should be preventing recidivism. And we know that education, job training, counseling, and the like are far more effective at preventing recidivism than whips and chains and rape.

    To those who sneer at such efforts as “coddling” the criminals: you are little better than Torquemada. You yourself present a threat to society.

    Punishment can never be justified. Restraint, yes, including forcible restraint. But only to the extent necessary to prevent violence. When you step over the line, when you yourself inflect (or support) needless violence, you become the exact sort of criminal who belongs in restraints until such time as you no longer pose a threat to others.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Egbert
      Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      “As far as I’m concerned, the only legitimate purpose for a criminal justice system is to protect members of society from coming to harm.”

      That is the only moral conclusion, and so morally I agree with you. However, the justice system is not a moral system but a justice system.

      Justice is not born from morality but necessity. If someone were going to kill my child, I will use force to stop them, and even harm. That harm is itself immoral but necessary. I am now doing the right thing but not the good thing. People often confuse right and good, hence why the world is so fucked up.

      We have justice systems out of necessity, but the justice system is not moral and very often it is immoral.

      It’s a tragic catch-22 when attempting to restrict the behaviour of fellow citizens. It’s a problem with no solution if we are to live in a free society.

      • Tulse
        Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

        If someone were going to kill my child, I will use force to stop them, and even harm. That harm is itself immoral but necessary.

        That is a bizarre conception of morality. The morality of an action cannot be judged independent of its context — by your criteria, it is “immoral” to vaccinate a child because it causes them pain.

        • Egbert
          Posted June 27, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

          You’ve made a false assumption about my conception of morality. My morality is not based on ‘not harming’ but based on care.

          • Tulse
            Posted June 27, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

            Then perhaps you can clarify your position — I was basing my response on your claim that “That harm is itself immoral” when describing a clear case of defending an innocent.

            • Egbert
              Posted June 27, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

              I will try and explain my position better.

              Harm is immoral, since it’s the opposite of care which is moral (as I conceive it).

              However my action is just or right, because I’m preventing an injustice from happening.

              It’s no different to accepting that a soldier kills others in a just cause but it is still immoral because he is harming another.

              And that is why I think we have so many problems–confusing between right and good or between justice and morality.

              • Tulse
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

                But “harm” a) cannot be solely judged in the short term, and b) must be weighted in terms of prevention of harm as well.

                Open-heart surgery is very harmful in the short-term, but can add years to a person’s life in the long-term. Are doctors immoral because they impose short-term harm on their patients?

                And if harm is immoral, isn’t it immoral not to prevent harm, if doing so entails harming someone else?

                Your “harm is immoral” principle seems far too simplistic to me.

              • Egbert
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

                The problems and complexities arise because they are so simple, but human interactions are so complex.

                It’s rather like all the complexities arising from the force of gravity. A simple force, and yet so much complexity.

              • Posted June 27, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

                This is an interesting discussion about the morality of harm, but if we accept the position some adopted earlier in the thread, which is that free will and morality are both illusions that are pointless to talk about, then doesn’t that undermine the basis for this discussion?

              • Egbert
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

                I said that freedom and good were concepts. We use concepts to explain things, rather like mathematics and natural languages. Since numbers don’t exist in reality, it doesn’t mean that any attempt at using mathematics to describe the world is pointless.

      • Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

        If your only recourse to prevent somebody from killing your child, it would be the height of morality for you to kill that person to protect your child.

        However, if you had other effective means of protecting your child than killing the would-be-murderer, you would be morally obligated to use them. If your infant is being suffocated with a pillow by a three-year-old, anything much more than harsh words might even be excessive.

        Cheers,

        b&

      • Posted June 27, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        As Tulse and Ben point out, context is critical. There is no “Platonic” im/morality that describes any given action regardless of the circumstances.

        Also, when the justice system behaves immorally, I’d wager it’s far and away not a result of necessity.

        I don’t think the immoral/bad – moral/good distinctions are useful, and trying to sprinkle “necessity” in there only confuses the matter more.

        • Egbert
          Posted June 27, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

          Well, they may not be useful, but I’m trying to get at the truth here.

          And how I distinguish between morality and justice has nothing to do with Plato and everything to do with context and meaning. Morality means care and justice means prevention of harm.

          I realize these are new ideas, and new ideas are resisted. They are my opinion, and if they are wrong, then they are wrong for rational reasons.

          • Phosphorus99
            Posted June 27, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

            Can there really be good / evil, free will and accountability in naturalism ? and if so how so ?

            • Tulse
              Posted June 27, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

              How can there really be free will in supernaturalism, except by naked unjustified assertion?

              • Phosphorus99
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

                How can there really be free will in supernaturalism, except by naked unjustified assertion?

                I can think of a mechanism which, because of what it is to achieve, could not be accessible to measurement so I don’t think we need pursue it.

                But you haven’t answered the question.

              • Posted June 27, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

                To expand: either the soul (presupposing its existence) has a set of rules it follows and is therefore deterministic, or it has no rules and is therefore random, or it is a blend of the two.

                If it is deterministic, it’s just following the rules laid out for it and there’s no room for it to choose.

                If there aren’t any rules, it’s just making decisions at random with nether rhyme nor reason, and there again is no room for choice.

                If it’s a blend of the two, then chances are better that it’ll randomly pick a certain decision than another…once again leaving no room for choice.

                In other words, the problem with “free will” isn’t that it relies upon supernaturalism, but that it doesn’t even make sense in the first place. Waving your hands an asserting that a magic invisible homunculus is what’s driving your body doesn’t somehow mean that homunculus can escape the fact that there’s no third option to choose from that’s neither deterministic nor random.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted June 27, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

                Dovetailing off of what Ben said, this is the reason why “the supernatural” is an incoherent concept.

                Either supernatural stuff has a set of rules it follows (in which case it looks a lot like natural stuff), or it doesn’t, in which case how does it work at all??

              • Posted June 27, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

                And, to pile it even higher and deeper…we know, without doubt, that there are inviolate rules that simply can’t be broken, no way, no how, no matter how super the supernatural being is.

                For example, even Jesus can’t square the circle.

                Everywhere you look, there are infinite varieties of such natural laws. You cannot, on a flat and uniform plane, draw a figure with three sides and two right angles. Insofar as the geometry of the universe really is Einsteinean, no information can be transmitted faster than the speed of light.

                Therefore, we know that everything that does happen does not violate any “true” natural law and therefore isn’t supernatural. Maybe it’s beyond our current understanding — akin to how it’s possible to draw a triangle with two right angles, so long as the surface you’re drawing it on isn’t Euclidean. Maybe it’s an illusion, such as those that James “The Amazing” Randi is so skilled at. Or maybe it’s an hallucination, or maybe you’re in the Matrix, or whatever.

                But, whatever it is, if it’s real, it’s 100% natural. “Supernatural” only makes sense as a perfect synonym for “unreal” or “nonexistent.”

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Phosphorus99
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

                “Either supernatural stuff has a set of rules it follows (in which case it looks a lot like natural stuff), or it doesn’t, in which case how does it work at all”?

                Until we have tools to make such determinations we have no scientific basis to proceed any further.

                If however we assume that there is no sphere of influence and control beyond the natural laws of physics and chemistry then all our activities including emergent properties / epiphenomena etc which arise from those laws are predetermined. Concepts such as free will,accountability or good and bad (unrelated to the preference of a group) are logically incoherent.

            • Egbert
              Posted June 27, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

              “Can there really be good / evil, free will and accountability in naturalism ? and if so how so ?”

              All those things you stated are concepts or values. Natural science does not really study concepts or values, but things. However, since concepts and values spring from real things called brains, it can do one from the other.

              Concepts don’t fall outside of science, they’re used within science as part of its methodology.

              • Phosphorus99
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

                What is good ?

              • Egbert
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

                Good is a concept. I said elsewhere that good is care which describes actions we do to minimize suffering or harm.

                What do you think good means?

              • Phosphorus99
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

                Good is a concept. I said elsewhere that good is care which describes actions we do to minimize suffering or harm.

                What do you think good means?

                “good is care which describes actions we do to minimize suffering or harm”.

                suffering or harm for whom ?

                Is passing a law allowing same sex marriage bad because it may cause suffering (emotional etc) to a majority of persons ?

              • Posted June 27, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

                What the fuck?

                There’re plenty of gays who frequent these pages who’ll be happy to rip you a new one over that, but perhaps I can jump ahead of them and set you straight.

                If your emotions — let alone your own marriage — are in any way jeopardized because two people who love each other can get an official stamp of approval to that effect that allows them to visit each other in the hospital and do all the rest of that stuff…

                …well, if that’s the case, you’re a bigoted asshole as much to be reviled as those who campaigned so vociferously against the repeal of the miscegenation legal abominations.

                Sorry, but there’s no doubt here to have the benefit of.

                Civil society has no room for such bigoted idiocy, whatever its source. You will shut up, smile, and nod, or you will be mercilessly insulted, mocked, ridiculed, and otherwise called out for your unacceptable antisocial tendencies.

                b&

              • Phosphorus99
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

                You apparently didn’t read the question.

              • Egbert
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

                I will say the same–what the fuck? If you’re implying that gay marriage causes harm, then I have no interest in engaging any further.

              • Phosphorus99
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

                We are going where no one needs to.

                Let’s stay with the issue before us.

                To repeat with different example :

                “good is care which describes actions we do to minimize suffering or harm”.

                suffering or harm for whom ? the majority ?

                Does this mean that whether a thing is good or not is purely a numbers game ?

              • Posted June 27, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

                Let’s stay with the issue before us.

                Yes, let’s.

                The question is that of applied morality, right?

                Well, here’s where the rubber meets the road.

                You very strongly implied that gay marriage is bad because it hurts the feelings of the “majority.” And you were the one to broach the subject.

                Do you, Phosphorus99, object to gay marriage?

                Do you, Phosphorus99, experience mental anguish at the thought of two women marrying each other? Or two men marrying each other?

                Would you, Phosphorus99, deny the rights of marriage (such as hospital visitation and joint tax filing) to couples who have been in long-term committed relationships merely because they each have the same genitalia?

                If so, what moral argument can you possibly offer as to why you are not deserving of public shaming, humiliation, and shunning for such an outlandishly antisocial, destructive, and mean-spirited position?

                You may think that there’s no such thing as morality without your imaginary friends, but I think you’ll find that the morality you’ve been taught that those imaginary friends espouse is a particularly nasty one, with a far nastier history.

                You do know that your spiritual ancestors regularly tortured to death men who were accused of loving each other, right? And that those executions-by-torture were done in the names of and allegedly by the commands of your same imaginary friends?

                Do you still favor public executions for homosexuals? If not, on what basis do you reject that bit of Biblical authority yet still try to justify other forms of idiotic oppression?

                And if you would place any sort of trust at all — let alone the supposedly absolute kind so popular amongst Christians — in a book that explicitly commands torturous executions for homosexuals, can you offer any argument for why we should not see you as a serious threat to society? How are we supposed to know that you won’t change your mind as to which bits are metaphorical and which are literal? When will you decide to stop suffering witches to live, and how will you decide who is and isn’t a witch? Jesus declared all those who would not let him reign over him to be his mortal enemies, and commanded his disciples to make blood sacrifices of them at his feet. What will trigger you to act on that command? Is it only the fact that he made the command in a parable that keeps you from acting on it? What happens when you decide that he really meant this parable as an example you should follow, just as he really meant all those other parables as examples you should follow?

                This is what Richard meant when he described religion — especially the popular Abrahamic forms — as the “Root of All Evil.” It’s raging, unbridled psychopathy dressed up in archaic language, pure and simple. That most Christians have managed to curb the murderous tendencies of their forebears is a credit to them, yes, but no excuse for giving them a free ride on such matters.

                b&

              • Phosphorus99
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

                “This is what Richard meant when he described religion — especially the popular Abrahamic forms — as the “Root of All Evil.” It’s raging, unbridled psychopathy dressed up in archaic language, pure and simple”.

                Phosphorus99
                Posted June 27, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

                Can there really be good / evil, free will and accountability in naturalism ? and if so how so ?

              • Phosphorus99
                Posted June 28, 2011 at 4:12 am | Permalink

                According to Richard there is no God so any concepts about religion must be the thoughts of men. However, can men own their thoughts if they (men) are simply the products of physics and chemistry ?

              • Tulse
                Posted June 28, 2011 at 5:03 am | Permalink

                can men own their thoughts if they (men) are simply the products of physics and chemistry ?

                Can men (and women) “own” their thoughts if they (men (and women) are simply creations of an omniscient and omnipotent supernatural being who knew what they are going to think at each moment when he created them?

                And Phosphy, the shtick of “just asking questions” is getting pretty damned tiresome. Try actually engaging in the arguments, and making assertions, rather than hide what your claims are behind a flurry of vague questions. Things would progress much more quickly, and people would be far more likely to interact with you.

              • Phosphorus99
                Posted June 28, 2011 at 5:57 am | Permalink

                “Can men (and women) “own” their thoughts if they (men (and women) are simply creations of an omniscient and omnipotent supernatural being who knew what they are going to think at each moment when he created them?”

                I don’t think that we can unless that Creator somehow affords us the capacity to access some of the Creator’s attributes. (I’m staying politically correct so I’m not going to say His or Her attributes)

                If we are completely the products of nature I cannot see how we can “own” our thoughts

              • Tulse
                Posted June 28, 2011 at 6:08 am | Permalink

                I don’t think that we can unless that Creator somehow affords us the capacity to access some of the Creator’s attributes.

                Can your god ever be surprised?

                That is, if your god is truly omnipotent and omniscient, didn’t he know from the very moment that he created the universe what the actions and thoughts would be of all of his creation, including all humans that would ever live?

                If that’s the case, how can you possibly say we “own” our thoughts?

                If that’s not the case, is your god not omnipotent?

              • AT
                Posted June 28, 2011 at 6:18 am | Permalink

                Good point about only asking questions

                Especially when those questions make no sense

                And when question does not make sense why bother ask it?

                Darwin Versus The Creator

                The religionist or believer of any kind whatsoever -’natural rights and freedoms’ and ‘the superiority of American free-enterprise, capitalist democracy’ included, is ‘free’ to believe anything he wants -but I am NOT in any way his to subject or institutionalize to those beliefs.

                Like it or not, ‘Darwinian evolution’ is a ‘theory’ -like ‘creationism’, in that there is no way to develop ANY logical argument without assumptions of some kind and the incontrovertible evolution of all knowledge out of neonate ignorance. Be that what it be then, and beyond ‘merely raw, fundamentalistic creationism’ (the universe ‘sprung’ into existence some 3,000 or whatever few years back), the only difference between ‘Darwinism’ and ‘evolution-believing, intelligent-design creationism’ is the latter’s ‘sleeping-giant of a designer’ in the background.

                Ideally then, on any useful engaging of ‘evolution’ -purely biological process in one sense or another- there should be no ‘failure to communicate’ between the darwinist and the creationist except perhaps over the factuality or interpretation of data or what seen -’intelligent design’ not an element. Why then, does this exist as a problem at all? -And the answer is that discussion on ‘the nature of evolution and how it operates’ is a discussion (even conjecture) on the unambiguously physical material of evolution -one distinct subject; discussion on ‘How it came so to be or is designed so to be’, on the other hand, is a distinctly different subject of distinctly and inaccessibly conjectural material -unrelated to the science at hand. Why then introduce such material extraneous to ‘the nature and how of evolution’? -and why engage it? -And the answer again is that we do so because we continue to evolve out of ignorance and have so evolved that we ask questions whether they are answerable or not -or even make sense -so the ignorant asks, ‘And how did it get that way except for someone or something to have so made it’! -and we pass that on to some next ignorant passing along the way -ergo ‘intelligent design’.

                Nor does it end there, for having brought the ‘designer’ into existence, the believer is now ‘convenienced’ into ascribing all kinds of qualities and capabilities to him for situations other than evolutionary -’what He wants us to do’ and ‘how He wants us to be’:

                Oh, let us never, never doubt,
                What nobody is sure about.
                -Hilaire Belloc

                The bottom-line question here is why should any ‘scientist in his right mind’ get into such ‘successively transcendentalizing’ discussion? -perhaps only to mislead himself into designing new ‘isms’ of his own? -Why not just walk away from it?

                ——————————————————————————–
                14th century philosopher, William of Occam(*d), observed that when one introduces something ‘unrelated to the discussion’, he corrupts the integrity of what is ‘an experiment by discussion’.
                [*d - Occam's Razor: It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.]

              • Posted June 28, 2011 at 6:20 am | Permalink

                Can your god ever be surprised?

                Never mind that.

                What I want to know is how he thinks he knows any of this stuff.

                Who are we kidding? We all — Phossy included — know he’s pulling it out of somebody else’s ass.

                Why take seriously such an idiotic assertion as “[The] Creator somehow affords us the capacity to access some of the Creator’s attributes” unless it’s accompanied by at least a hint at how such a claim can be independently verified?

                Here. Let me show you.

                “Objects dropped near the Earth’s surface fall at a steadily-accelerating rate of not quite ten meters per second per second, less wind resistance.” That’s trivial to verify; I did so while a teenager.

                “There exist so-called ‘buffer solutions’ such that the pH changes very little when small amounts of acids or bases are added to it, in accordance with Le Chatelier’s principle.” I verified that one also as a teenager.

                “The heliocentric model of the solar system is accurate.” Next time there’s a lunar eclipse, that one’s pretty easy to verify, as well.

                But Phossy’s blatherings are as coherent, verifiable, well-sourced, and intellectually and morally mature as “Leprechauns keep their gold at the ends of rainbows,” or “There’s a monster hiding under my bed.” There’s no reason to even give him the courtesy of taking them seriously.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Phosphorus99
                Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

                Can your god ever be surprised?

                Now you are asking the questions.

                The movie “Dial M for Murder” provides something of a demonstration of foreknowledge without compromise of free choice.

                No God cannot be surprised and is omnipotent and omniscient but these are not scientifically verifiable constructs.

                However consider this :

                The scientific evidence available to us suggests that both the animate and inanimate aspects of the universe may be based on very sophisticated information technology. Konrad Zuse postulated that the universe may be a computer simulation . A computer simulation must have a database. Further, although some biologists and philosophers of biology do not like the concept of living organs being the products of information technology the concept is gaining traction and to quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy :

                http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/information-biological/

                “If we think of genes or cells as literally carrying semantic information, our problem changes. Paradigm cases of structures with semantic information — pictures, sentences, programs — are built by the thought and action of intelligent agents.”

                If it is conclusively demonstrated that the universe and the life within are products of information technology what is the most probable cause of their existence likely to be ?

              • Janney
                Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

                If you believe in a god who knows the future, then you are a hard determinist. Or perhaps a compatibilist. Done!

              • Phosphorus99
                Posted June 28, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

                “If you believe in a god who knows the future, then you are a hard determinist. Or perhaps a compatibilist. Done!”

                True but if and only if our present knowledge adequately describes all that is

  4. Paul Havlak
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    Eagleman work is fascinating in many areas, also in his exploration of the religious ramifications of his research. While his notion of Possibilianism seems like a weaker version of agnosticism, he is wondrously playful with the entanglement between the external realities of the brain and subjective experience of having one.

    Oh, and he’s at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, which hasn’t been affiliated with Baylor U. for many decades now.

  5. Tualha
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Let us remember that the people who rob you at knifepoint are not all the criminals in the world. If David Koch pollutes the environment and buys political influence via the Tea Party, he’s just acting out the imperatives of his genes and upbringing? He had no choice? How about Bernie Madoff? The top executives at Enron?

    • Tulse
      Posted June 27, 2011 at 6:56 am | Permalink

      For whatever it’s worth, research suggest that a high proportion of upper level corporate executives meet criteria for psychopathy, a condition which seems to be largely biological (or at least not “learned”).

      • Tualha
        Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

        Mmm, yes, I remember reading that too. Explains a lot about the American economy.

  6. David
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes.

    I think he might be referring to the Y-chromosome.

    • ritebrother
      Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

      If interpreted at face value, I can see how you would reach that conclusion (since that’s the only way an individual could lack genes, and they would necessarily be female). But, I suspect he means specific alleles of genes, not necessarily sex-linked. Or, your comment could be tongue-in-cheek and my sarcasm detector needs a tune-up :-)

    • Posted June 27, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      That was my guess too. It does show how greatly increasing the likelihood of an unlikely event may not make the event all that likely. (sorry for that phrase)

    • phyllogynist
      Posted June 27, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the Y chromosome, as Eagleman says in the next paragraph. Read the whole article, it’s worth it. He’s a very insightful scientist, firmly grounded in experiments.

      • Posted June 27, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        Yes, the Y chromosome, as Eagleman says in the next paragraph.

        Kinda wondered how Jerry missed that. :-)

      • ritebrother
        Posted June 27, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

        I finally read the article, and you’re right – he specifically notes the Y cs. location of the gene set in the next paragraph.

  7. Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    “No doubt some people will poo-poo the scientific approach, particularly political conservatives.”

    Right. The conservative denial of science is partially about protecting the idea of contra-causal free will (CCFW), such that we can blame the poor alone for their poverty, criminals for their crime, and maintain the fiction that the successful in life did it primarily on their own. By minimizing the role of biological and environmental causal antecedents, CCFW is the perfect justification for laissez faire, minimal government and punitive criminal justice, http://www.naturalism.org/progressivepolitics.htm

  8. Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    The gene tracking work is very preliminary. Believe he is referring to the MAO genes. It’s a hint of an idea, so far.

    Nevertheless, the medical facts about brain and behaviors are pretty straightforward. Of course, no one will ever accept them — certainly not in our lifetimes. Yet the facts remain.

    Ideology (wishful thinking) seems all about power over others — not facts. Ideology rules social behavior and is anti any facts that challenge it’s power. Ideology is basically anti evidence-based knowledge.

    Thus, it has always been so. The skin-colored- based facts of the US justice system is evidence about what that system is designed for. Keep the darkies down. No one cares what dum old science says.

    An article in the Atlantic has about as much influence as a drop in the cess pool.

  9. Egbert
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Again, we’ve made the mistake of applying concepts to reality. Freedom is a concept and choice is a concept. The are descriptions about what can happen and not things that exist. They are variables applied to potential futures.

    Could a person have behaved differently? In most criminal cases yes. And so there is no good reason to give up the concept of choice when it properly applies.

  10. Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Jerry writes:

    “…the more we learn about the brain, the more we understand the causes of behavior, and the more the idea of “choice” seems to dissolve.”

    Not really, it seems to me. Rather, we’ll come to understand choosing and deliberating as fully caused processes that are still perfectly real and essential for behavior control, just as real as the causes that formed the individual. The individual doesn’t disappear as a locus of control or causal efficacy, http://www.naturalism.org/demoralization.htm

    The widespread intuition that to make a *real* choice you have to be exempt from causation will eventually wither away (I hope!). But we’ll still be able to make the crucial policy guiding distinction between those who possess normal control capacities (who we can justly treat as moral agents, liable to praise and blame) and those who don’t (who we excuse as moral patients). Everyone, on this view, is fully determined in their behavior, but some are legitimate targets of our responsibility practices, some are not.

    Seeing that we don’t have contra-causal free will helps to make us more compassionate and effective in those practices, as illustrated by Eagleman’s well-taken critique of criminal justice.

    Many thanks to Jerry for continuing to get the word out on these very important developments.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      I feel like Jerry is still wedded to an idea that there isn’t choice unless there is a homunculus in the brain that is making the choices. If that is the model, then obviously it is false. But that’s a misunderstanding about what choosing really is, not evidence that choosing doesn’t exist.

      • Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink

        Agreed. Many folks, apparently including Jerry, suppose choosing is necessarily contra-causal, so when they hear about determinism they conclude we don’t actually make choices. But as Eagleman describes it in his new (and very good) book Incognito, choosing is a neurally instantiated competition in the brain among rival constituencies vying for behavioral control (see Ch. 5). Making choices is a perfectly real behavior-controlling process. Here’s Gary Drescher in his amazing book Good and Real about the reality of choosing:

        “Thus choice…is a mechanical process compatible with determinism: choice is a process of examining assertions about what would be the case if this or that action were taken, and then selecting an action according to a preference about what would be the case. The objection The agent didn’t really make a choice, because the outcome was already predetermined is as much a non sequitur as the objection The motor didn’t really exert force, because the outcome was already predetermined…Both choice making and motor spinning are particular kinds of mechanical processes. In neither case does the predetermination of the outcome imply that the process didn’t really take place.”

        http://www.naturalism.org/reviews.htm#Drescher

        • Bernard J. Ortcutt
          Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

          If Eagleman wrote a book about the neuroscience of choosing, then why is he claiming that free will would have to exist–if it exists–in the contra-causal gap. (See the paragraphs that I quoted below.) I’m so baffled by the treatment of these question. Didn’t it occur to him that “free will” might just be those processes of choosing?

          • Posted June 27, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

            “Didn’t it occur to him that “free will” might just be those processes of choosing?”

            It probably didn’t occur to him because he’s using the very widespread contra-causal, libertarian conception of free will. I suspect he would say that calling the neurally deterministic processes of choosing “free will” would confuse people who think of free will as contra-causal.

            There’s no one correct definition of free will, only the definitions that are out there, which include both the contra-causal and compatibilist varieties. So to avoid confusion we have to be explicit about what type we’re referring to we’re using when we discuss free will.

        • Posted June 27, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

          choosing is a neurally instantiated competition in the brain among rival constituencies vying for behavioral control

          (disclaimer: I’m genuinely looking for clarification, here.)

          Is this definition really sufficient for retaining the idea of “choice”? A large number of constituencies (weight of the chip, shape of the chip, starting position, angle of the board, etc) vie for control of a Plinko chip in the eponymous game on “The Price is Right.” But we wouldn’t say the chip “chooses” its path.

          • Posted June 27, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

            I guess it’s a matter of things like 1) a huge difference in complexity of processes involved in the behavior control of an autonomous system (as opposed to a passive chip) 2) human neural processes supporting what we ordinarily call choosing occur in a social-moral context that makes them normatively consequential (not trivial, like the movements of a chip) and 3) we have the subjective experience of not knowing what the outcome of a determined choice-making process will be, but we realize that it *will be* one of a sub-set of possibilities, some foreseen, some not (the chip has no experience). All of this is very likely mechanical/deterministic in its neural substrate, but these differences in scale, context and subjectivity make human decision-making qualitatively different from the deterministic movements of the chip. So we call what we do choosing, what the chip does mere movement.

            This is obviously not an exhaustive analysis of your question, “Is this definition really sufficient for retaining the idea of “choice”?” but merely suggestive.

        • Posted June 27, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

          This is an excellent point!!

          Similarly, Eagleman writes,

          “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.”

          To me, this seems like it’s just classical dualism — which people usually associate with old-fashioned Christian thought — and then the “spirit” side of the dualism is deleted, allegedly leaving nothing but dead machinery, with no free will, morality etc., leaving us confused because it doesn’t comport with our first-hand observations.

          But this whole dualist framing is wrong. It’s not like one part of the brain tells the other parts what to do, instead, all the parts are communicating, and thought and decision making emerges out of the interaction. That very complex interaction, as a whole, is I think what we think of as consciousness and free will.

    • GroovyJ
      Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:10 am | Permalink

      Forget exempt from causation. Even if you define free will in terms of our conscious deliberation having a causal connection to our actions, most scientific evidence says we still don’t have free will – our conscious deliberation is simply post hoc rationalisation of actions already decided upon in parts of our mind that are outside of our awareness.

      • Bernard J. Ortcutt
        Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

        I don’t see how free will is necessarily connected to conscious deliberation. Many of the actions that I perform on the daily basis are performed without conscious deliberation. Deliberation is cognitively expensive, and there is no reason to deliberate unless I need to. I have standing intentions that are adequate for most of life’s actions. The actions that I perform on the basis of those standing intentions are still freely performed though and I would be liable for blame for performing them.

  11. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    David Eagleman simply assumes that if Free Will is anything that it has to be outside the causal order. I find it increasingly bizarre that people outside philosophy simply assume that Compatibilism is false with no explanation. Compatibilism is the majority opinion in Philosophy, but apparently a lot of scientists have never even heard of the idea.

    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.

    Why on Earth would Free Will have to operate in the the gap in the casual machinery? Why would anyone simply assume without argument that that is the right conception?

  12. daveau
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    So is or isn’t “Free will is an illusion” a good defense strategy?

    That whole statement falls flat for those who believe we were created by a god.

  13. Rebecca Sparks
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Punishment = Debt to victim + corrective action (to avoid repeat offenses). Free will is not necessary in this equation. Let me give an example.

    1) Charlene burns down Javier’s apple cart by accident.
    2) Charlene burns down Javier’s apple cart on purpose.
    3) Charlene burns down Javier’s apple cart on purpose, but because she suffers from a brain tumor.
    4) Charlene and Doris burn down Javier’s apple cart on accident.
    5) Charlene burns down Javier’s apple cart on purpose, but Doris implanted a chip in her brain that controlled Charlene’s actions.

    In the first three examples Charlene would at least owe Javier a new apple cart. Her actions are to blame for the loss of the apple cart, so she is responsible for replacing it. The fourth example would hold Charlene and Doris equally responsible, so they would each owe Javier 50% of a new apple cart. The last example, most would find Doris’ actions ultimately responsible for the loss of the cart, so Doris would be responsible for replacing Javier’s apple cart.

    Only after this debt has been calculated do we work on preventative actions; laws and procedures to avoid future accidents, treatment for the mentally ill or behavioral rehabilitation.

    I find the current discussion of freewill seems to ignore the issue of restitution, or worse, subsumes calculations of restitution into arguments of free will. For instance, I see the blame Harris’ killers not examples of how much free will we expect each killer to have, but how many other people we calculate carry some blame for the woman’s death–without acknowledging the full calculation.

    Law reform that takes into account new scientific knowledge about better behavior modification or statistical prediction rules for sentencing can be easily incorporated into existing law, because existing law rests on restitution and rehabilitation, not punishing immoral freewill. You can argue that free will exists or not, but arguing it via criminal punishments seems spurious and misleading to me.

    • Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      Restitution is valuable for certain types of social settings, but it’s highly problematic once the offenses rise to the criminal level.

      At least in the states, crimes are most emphatically not committed against individuals, but against the state. Fines are paid to the state, not the victim, and “community service” types of “punishment” are performed in a manner that benefits the community as a whole, not the victim.

      The problem is that a restitution model invariably — and rather quickly — leads to criminals becoming chattel slaves. Set fire to a research facility…and cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage…and there’s no way any individual could hope to provide restitution comparable to the damage caused.

      And what of murder? Should the criminal be liable for the amount of the life insurance payout? For all the deceased’s future earnings?

      If so, how many people could Bill Gates murder before he’d even notice a dip in his petty cash balance?

      You see where this is going, I hope. If not, consider the restitution Germany was forced to pay after the first World War and what some of the consequences were.

      If you wish to ask forgiveness from your victims, you should offer them some form of restitution. And if somebody asks for your forgiveness and offers restitution, you should favorably consider the restitution they offer when deciding whether or not to forgive.

      But restitution has no place in criminal law whatsoever.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Bernard J. Ortcutt
        Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:49 am | Permalink

        It also poses a problem where there is no one to compensate. Suppose a man has no relatives or friends who could be compensated for his wrongful death. If there was good evidence that Joe Smith would never kill anyone else, he could kill this man with no punishment whatsoever if the only justifications of punishment are “Debt to victim + corrective action”.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      Debt to the victim isn’t part of the criminal punishment. We allow the victim to bring a tort suit to recover her damages. Torts doesn’t have anything to do with punishment though, unless punitive damages are involved, and usually they aren’t regardless of whether the action was intentional or not.

      Retributive punishment in criminal punishment isn’t a form of compensation or restitution to the victim. Retributive punishments are justified by Retributivists on the grounds that the punished deserve punishment, plain and simple. It’s an explicitly deontological view that has nothing to do with compensation.

      Eagleman’s argument depends on the premise that someone can only deserve to be punished if he has acted freely. That could be denied, and Eagleman doesn’t give any argument why it is true.

  14. Filippo
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    “I had no idea that one’s physical attractiveness determined how long one spends in prison.”

    But not surprising in that physical attractiveness, height, etc. work to ones advantage in other areas of life. (The accused in court are exhorted to clean/dress up so as to make a favorable impression before jurors, and surely also for the judge.)

    One problem is – as regards decent and civil behavior – many of the more attractive among us can’t be content to be grateful for their attractiveness but rather are compelled (by some supernatural creature? Free will? Benign tumor surrounding the amygdala?) to seek out and ridicule those less so. E.g., my observation is that without exception (so far) only those genetically fortunate to have retained their locks call attention to and ridicule those follicularly less fortunate (as if the bald are not already inescapably aware of their loss). Perhaps in this one case the hirsutes’ time would be better spent “praying” in their closets for the afflicted?

  15. MadScientist
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    “Should our genetic endowment, then, be considered when we’re sentenced for crimes?”

    I would say absolutely not – after all, there are all those numerous people who *do* have those gene sets and do not commit any of those illegal acts listed (and my money says the OK folks with the evil genes way outnumber the baddies with the same gene sets). The phrasing of the statements annoys me because the author is obviously trying to lead the reader rather than presenting the facts honestly and then offering an opinion. Who cares if someone with gene set X is 100 times more likely to commit crime Y – those facts on their own are somewhat meaningless – other necessary (but missing) information would be the rate of crime Y in the general population and of course the population size of the studies.

    • Posted June 27, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      Yeah…that bothered me, too.

      Let’s say there are 1,000,000 Americans with gene set X, and that they’re 100 times more likely to commit crime Y than those without that gene set.

      Now, let’s say that 10,000 people commit crime Y.

      How many of those people have gene set X?

      Well, there’re 300,000,000 people in America, give or take. That gives us the following facts:

      * 9,901 people who commit crime Y have gene set X.

      * 99 people who commit crime Y do not have gene set X.

      * Not quite 1% of people who have gene set X commit crime Y.

      * Only one third of one percent of the population has gene set X.

      * The odds of some random person off the street being a person with gene set X who will commit crime Y is about 0.003%; the odds of said person not having gene set X but still committing the crime is 0.00003%. Both figures, with any kind of rounding used in 99% of daily life, come out equally to a big, fat zero.

      At this point, it should be obvious that tossing around terms such as “a hundred times more likely” is much, much, much worse than useless. You hear, “a hundred times more likely” and you (even I) think it’s a no-brainer: lock ‘em all up — why take the chance? But when you instead hear, “fewer than one percent of individuals with gene set X will commit crime Y,” you realize that the statistic is only of interest to researchers.

      Cheers,

      b&

  16. MadScientist
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    A few other things:

    “We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint …”

    A ‘blueprint’? What drivel – the ‘blueprint’ claim annoyed me 25 years ago and I grow less fond of it as I age.

    “You cannot walk a mile in his shoes.”

    That’s a strawman and has nothing whatsoever to do with the law and how/why it is formulated the way it is. Although special consideration is sometimes given to people with various medical conditions, punishment is always for the commitment of a crime and free will is only a secondary matter. Consider someone who kills 100 people because their family was held hostage and threatened with execution – would that person be exculpated by a court because of the extenuating circumstances? Let’s say that on top of that the killer also had a brain tumor – would a court exculpate him then?

  17. Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    It would be interesting to hear of real time studies on children who are categorized as “overaggressive, underempathetic and poor at controlling their impulses.” Having had a great deal of involvement with such a child who had these type of behaviors I found there was little help for the child or the adults. And the symptoms can be displayed early on. The child I was fostering was showing underempathy and lack of impulse controls as early as 3 years old. By 5, he set fires for several years in spite of the consequences. This continued for some time- until he seemed to simply let go of his obsession with fire then he moved on to other destructive behaviors too numerous to describe which I worked with the Psychiatric community on to try and get this kid help. To no avail. They put him on one drug after the other- talked him to death (he would fall asleep during therapy as a mechanism to avoid talking) until they finally gave up on him. He was even in a special day treatment program that did nothing prior to leaving my home. A few years ago, after he left my home, he sexually assaulted a younger kid while he was sleeping. He’s now 16 and has no impulse control. He is like a toddler although one does not meet him and think evil. In fact one might meet him and think he is likeable and charming enough. And when he does something wrong he cries like a baby but has learned that is the way to get out of his punishment- no lesson will have been learned if he wants something. I watch the situation with a great deal of trepidation from afar yet not afar.

    And I do think a scientific approach to the criminal justice system is worth a shot. The reliance on the psychiatric community is broken.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

      Correct me if I am wrong, but this seems to be the first detailed post on this thread about children. It seems to me that this is “where the action is”, i.e. we will get better at prediction for some of the conditions. No doubt the matters will be complicated, but this is going to be a sticky area as well. After all, what do we decide (as “a” society) do when one discovers a child at risk for X? How much risk is necessary? These are difficult questions, but I think we should start working on them. (Well, step up the pace on working on them.)

      As for two other topics, namely:
      1) “Nobody outside philosophy has heard of compatibilism”. Hopefully this will change with the “experimental philosophy” movement.
      2) “Free will and the law”. My reading of the Canadian criminal law is that it requires contracausal free will to make sense, alas. I imagine it would be worse in much more religious countries.

  18. Dominic
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Is there such a thing as a ‘normal’ human at all? Are these all part of a continuum of ‘behavours’ or ‘personalities’?

  19. jay
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    All but the simplest of animals learn from experience. They learn about gravity, heat, cold, food and hunger and their brain changes. The basic formula is, if doing something hurts, stop doing it. Free will is not required.

    More complex animals may also be modified by corrections from the mother (we see this in cats, dogs etc). It happens in social animals, angering the group has bad consequences, animals learn to cooperate with their group.

    Punishment is basically the same mechanism. Avoiding painful experiences does not require classical ‘free will’, it merely requires a brain whose actions can be modified by stimulus innput.

  20. Posted June 27, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    All of which exemplifies how blunt an instrument the law is. Many of us who’ve lived awhile (I’m 61) have long pondered the oft-cited axiom, “the law is an ass”, and provisionally concluded that, in places like the U.S. at least, it has little to do with justice and almost everything to do with capitalistic enterprise.

    The core of the old joke from the former Soviet Union, in which “workers pretended to work, as long as the bosses pretended to pay” appears to have been usurped and turned upside down by U.S. capitalism, so that “the War on Drugs”, for example, has become a multibillion-dollar enterprise without which the U.S. economy would probably flounder. (Funnily enough, the U.S. appears to have achieved that ignominious target by attrition.)

    I’m left pondering: has the hallowed notion of “freedom” actually imprisoned Americans?

  21. Posted June 27, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Unintentional pun?

    ” 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offense. [...] (I must admit that I’m not familiar with these genes, but I’ll accept this for the nonce.)”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonce_(slang)

  22. Laurence
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Philosophy Bites has David Eagleman on their podcast pretty recently. It was an interesting discussion.

    http://philosophybites.com/2011/05/david-eagleman-on-morality-and-the-brain.html

  23. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Will Provine has been hoeing this row for quite a while now. You should look up what he has written on the topic.

  24. freedtochoose
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    There seems to be a spectrum of thinking as to the characterization of free-will. The endpoints for me are what I would call the scientific and philosophical. As was stated here earlier, one scientific test of free will is the thought that if one could reset a neurological event to its original conditions the same outcome would occur, that no variation would be observed.

    While I agree with this premise I doubt it’s level of certainty because of the number of neuronal events, especially dendrite/synapse exchanges which seem more analog than digital in form. Either way, the hypothesis that a neuron would respond exactly the same may be true in the first occurrence, but the changes in the neuron as a result of the event may alter one’s reaction to the same collective in the next occurrence. I don’t have access to the science on this, but suspect there is considerable uncertainty as to how neurons respond.

    As for the philosophical view, one must assess Libet’s work which caused him to classify “free won’t” and decide whether that is evidence of free will.

    My pedestrian view is that we are free to choose within limits of biology (DNA), culture (socialization) and noodle (comprehension), but I’m not a scientist.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted June 27, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

      People need to be very careful in drawing conclusions from Libet’s experiment. Think about what the bare data of the experiment are. There are brain wave readings and first-person reports of when the subject acted. That’s it. That’s the data. Everything beyond that is interpretation of that data, and there are many different ways to interpret what the data shows. It’s been two decades since this work but I don’t think that anyone has done any further experiment that would show how we should interpret Libet’s data.

  25. saintstephen
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for another excellent topic, Professor Coyne.

    And perhaps I should read Eagleman before commenting, but exactly WHAT are the objectives here? In other words, What kind of “person” (and what kind of human “thinking” and/or human behavior are we trying to create?

    Not a single one of us knows why we’re on this planet. More importantly, this answer will likely never be known. Alrighty then… given this rather dubious foundation, let’s start “treating” people for their mental “problems” with horse pills and Pavlovian conditioning. This seems the height of arrogance, in my opinion. And before I continue, I will be the very first to agree that, given no other guidance from our disturbingly mute Cosmos, the most important underlying principle should be the sanctity of biological life — particularly human life. Even this statement engenders complexity in the extreme, and I will not address those implications here (and probably couldn’t address them adequately for anybody, especially for the denizens of WEIT).

    John, 42 years old, works at a salmon-canning factory. In a grey-walled building that stinks of fish he takes the cans off the conveyor belt and stacks them into boxes, eight hours per day. He makes just enough to sustain himself while renting a room from his aging mother. John, unfortunately, got hooked on heroin in his early twenties, and now struggles through his workday with an early morning fix, followed by another fix precisely at 5:01PM. John is single, has always been single, and in all other respects is a kind man and a law-abiding citizen.

    What would Eagleman do with John? Drug tests every day? Why? What is the objective? To make John drug free so he can better enjoy his life? What life? The life of a salmon boxer?

    Maybe if John were drug free he would get motivated and find a better job. Okay. Let’s do it. An excruciatingly difficult year later, John finally kicks heroin, and soon finds himself in a grey-walled cubicle with a computer, designing a new plastic salmon container to compete with the older style salmon cans; this new plastic “tub” will also have an EZ-Open lid. John now finds that he has extra money in his pocket because he isn’t spending it all on heroin, so he purchases an internet connection at his mother’s house and now spends his evenings surfing the web and occasionally using pornography to pleasure himself. In all other respects, John’s life is unchanged.

    Is the new John better than the old John? Why? Is it because he makes more money? Or is it because he is now drug free?

    I don’t have an answer to the above question. I don’t think anybody else does, either, because the answer precludes knowing why we’re here on Spaceship Earth.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to finish reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley for the umpteenth time.
    ;)

  26. Posted June 27, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Not a single one of us knows why we’re on this planet.

    Erm…you’re presupposing that it even makes sense to posit a reason for human existence — never mind that you’re also presupposing that there is such a reason and that some entity somewhere knows what it is.

    At this level, teleology is worse than meaningless. It’s as bad as getting all worked up as to why pi is 3.14159… as opposed to, say, 2.718281828….

    Cheers,

    b&

    • saintstephen
      Posted June 27, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      I agree, Mr. Goren. It doesn’t make sense to ask why we’re here, any more than it makes sense to ask what or who created the Universe.

      But is John’s new life better than his old life? Why?

      • Posted June 27, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

        But is John’s new life better than his old life?

        I dunno. Let’s go ask John.

        He might prefer wanking in his mom’s basement to shooting up. He might enjoy designing cans more than packing them. He might prefer the company of the people in the office to the company of the people in the cannery. He might just prefer the smell (or lack thereof).

        Or maybe he’d rather be stoned out of his gourd — in which case, I expect that’s exactly what he’ll be back to doing before long.

        You picked heroin for John’s drug of choice. That doesn’t leave John much room to think about anything except his next shot. Statistically, I don’t think it even gets him to 42 in any kind of physical condition to have a job in the first place…far more likely, he died some years before.

        Personally, I don’t think there’s all that much of interest to consider in John’s case — it’s rather like trying to decide whether or not you’ll throw the morbidly obese toddler onto the tracks in order to save the life of the drunken longshoreman from the runaway 747. Yawn.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • saintstephen
          Posted June 27, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

          Well, your last paragraph indeed said it all. Have a nice nap.
          ;)

  27. Posted June 27, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    I think we need to separate sociological and psychological aspects. Why we do something does not negate what we do (and its effects society, whether intended or not). Then the questions on freewill only affect the theoretical part of the latter, may be important for future policies regarding criminals.

    Sociologically, a criminal behaviour still have to be dealt with, and not based the benefit of the crims, rather the victims, and more importantly the security of the society as a whole.

    So, thinking about the theoretical background of biological morality still an interesting scientific endeavour, but does not reflect directly to societal rules and policies.

    Just a note.

    • saintstephen
      Posted June 27, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      Why we do something does not negate what we do (and its effects [on] society, whether intended or not).

      So the man who shot John Lennon should be treated the same as the man who shot Osama Bin Laden, right?

  28. Helena Constantine
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    I see that this is a failure to communicate. Everything Coyne said today about how our choices are conditioned by genetics, environment, etc., I agree with. But people can still make choices within those parameters. For example I was driven to become a Classicist by factors that were entirely outside of my will. Looking at the employment prospects for Graduates (there are 1 or 2 teaching jobs a year to be filled in classics and a few dozen PhDs competing for them), I decided to become a chemical engineer. But I started failing my chemistry classes because I was reading Greek during the lectures. So I finally gave up and changed majors. But under different circumstances–say I had been pregnant at the time and knew I would have to have a large income quickly), I would probably have acted differently.

    But this is not what determinism means. Determinism means that something, the Christian God, Stoic Fate, the Epicrurean kline, some force outside the universe, decided at the beginning of the universe how everything would happen in the future, and after that it was just like playing a recording of a movie, with no way to alter it; we’re just reading a script like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the Stoppard. If someone in the year 500 AD had had full knowledge of contemporary conditions, he could have precisely predicted in advance my existence, the vicissitudes of my career, and the precise moment one fall when I was walking to class and an acorn fell and lodged itself between my eye and my classes (Stoics moreover, believed that the tape was played over and over, so that every precise event was repeated once per life-cycle of the universe). I don’t think this is what Coyne means, so he ought to stop calling Determinism. It’s confusing.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      Actually, there’s a case to be made that “Fate” (written with a capital F) is a *non*-deterministic viewpoint. This is explored briefly in Mario Bunge’s first book, now called (in its fourth printing) _Causality and Modern Science_, which in my view is still worth reading for many “throw away discussions” worth pondering, like this one. Gist: If it is fated that one X, then regardless of however else the universe unfolds, regardless of the influence of all other causal lines (see the book for why *this* matters), then surely X is independent of its conditions: so “indeterministic” in Bunge’s sense, i.e. non-lawful. This is a stronger notion than the physicist use (or the traditional philosophical one), so it applies _a fortiori_ in those cases.

  29. saintstephen
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    From a satellite’s perspective, human behavior looks fairly deterministic, almost like an ant colony. “Free will” seems to be mostly an artifact or aspect of human language (and hence consciousness). Here’s an idea: let’s jump in the satellite for a while and follow one of these “human ants” around…

    Hmmm… it eats, it sleeps, it defecates, it makes tools, it moves around, it has sex, it puts itself in the proximity of (and often makes physical contact with) other ants, it babbles audibly in some language, it picks up objects with its hands…

    How unremarkable indeed. Free will just seems like a lot of human “talk” to me.

  30. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re confusing Fatalism with Determinism. I think Jerry is using “Determinism” correctly, although it’s actually a hard conceptual and scientific question to determine whether the world really is deterministic.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted June 27, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

      The above was a reply to Helena Constantine’s comment above.

    • SAWells
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 6:12 am | Permalink

      Not hard; impossible. No conceivable observation can tell you whether the result of that observation was predetermined. Ergo, determinism vs. indeterminism is a non-question: the answers are indistinguishable and no knowledge on the topic can ever be obtained. So it’s irrelevant.

  31. Yazhi
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Keep in mind that one of the environmental factors that controls behavior is what happens to criminals.

    If cocaine abuse is an input, so is fear of consequences. Having an environment where criminals are punished is one way we manufacture the desired conditions inside human brains.

  32. Peg
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    I liked the book, but I wish that he had used in-depth examples of problems associated with problematic behavior beyond just criminal behavior. I think it is interesting, for example, that he writes, “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.” This seems like an odd analogy given that health conditions, particularly diabetes, have become (accurately or not), so linked to cultural ideas about individual responsibility and poor decision-making or making “unhealthy choices.” Discussions about crime and punishment as they relate to freewill or the biological basis of behavior are very interesting to me, but there are so many other areas that could also be addressed–parenting, managing finances, health, incivility, etc., that apply to a much broader spectrum of people who are not criminals.

    • saintstephen
      Posted June 27, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

      Very well said.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

      Discussions about crime and punishment as they relate to freewill or the biological basis of behavior are very interesting to me, but there are so many other areas that could also be addressed

      Agree. I tried to steer the discussion in this direction on one of the other free will threads. It’s actually pretty easy to see how certain forms of “punishment” remain valid and necessary in the absence of free will. But the issue under consideration here has implications for our conception of the “human experience” in general.

  33. wilzard
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    Eagleman wrote “if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes. You’re three times as likely to commit robbery, five times as likely to commit aggravated assault, eight times as likely to be arrested for murder, and 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offense. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes; 98.1 percent of death-row inmates do. These statistics alone indicate that we cannot presume that everyone is coming to the table equally equipped in terms of drives and behaviors.”
    which JAC followed with:
    “(I must admit that I’m not familiar with these genes, but I’ll accept this for the nonce.)”

    I read the entire excerpt a week or so ago. Those genes Eagleman was referring too are all located on the y chromosome.

    My apologies if it has been covered already, got to this article late.

  34. prochoice
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:25 am | Permalink

    Fascinating to see that the “you” and the examples here are still male – just like the Greek philosophers´.
    Which connection does this have to the fact that none of the hypotheses is working to protect potential victims from rapists and persons, who have been raped, from the next rapist???
    (One note to something in the middle: sexual desire is NOT the same as rape, the difference is much larger than the existence of empathy or not. Rape has something to do with hate, power, and to get rid of unpleasant feelings by way of forcing the negative upon a weaker being)

    I will give you a female example:
    If I was raped again and denied an abortion, I would be in jail soon. Whether this has to do with the fact that my own childhood experience consisted of little else than beatings and rape, or the fact that my female line consists of the products of rape back to the witchburnings, does matter little to me.

    What matters is that I began fighting the forbidding of abortion at age 15, and still do not have the right to have no children.

    So: I know that I do not even want any flashbacks to my childhood, let alone the same situation, BUT the law prohibits me to avoid something forseeable horrible.

  35. Fré Hoogendoorn
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    (I must admit that I’m not familiar with these genes, but I’ll accept this for the nonce.)

    I wondered for a minute as well about this, until I read the next paragraph:

    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.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      Ha, that is both funny and sad.

      Follow up question, “when will gene therapy advance so those genes can be excised?” =D

      Luckily, IIRC all female environments are also more problematic than mixed. So maybe we have to live with them for the time being. (O.o)

  36. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    This is a much more fruitful line of questioning, accepting de facto “free will” models and look at the areas of overlap with their failure.

    To recap, a concept of free will is:

    - Useless in physics, since deterministic chaos means there is no such thing.
    - Useless in biology, since “biology … is … behavior”, i.e. outcome of choice and not the situation of choice as such.
    - Useful in daily life, in the same way that emergent behaviors like prodigious pattern search and use of “common sense” can be despite having no meaning on the substrate level (i.e. brain function).
    - Useful in legal systems, since biology can’t yet determine the process.

    Something similar can be said for “blame”.

    So, go Eagleman!

  37. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    mpulse control may be increase by making punishment increasingly swift and sure,

    IIRC here [Sweden] alcohol offenders from repeated drunk driving or other calamities can choose to install alcohol sensing car locks for the ignition to get the penalty down. I can’t remember if it is under testing or a regular choice, but it would fit “swift and sure”.

  38. John Weiss
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Extreme anti-social behavior is rightfully answered with incarceration. It should not be looked upon as punishment, as it is generally viewed today, but rather as a method of protecting society.

    May the day come soon when science can cure insanity.

  39. John Weiss
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I’ve read the thread, and what I want to know is how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

    Silly rabbits.

    • Phosphorus99
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

      “I’ve read the thread, and what I want to know is how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

      The answer (though not for serious consideration) is likely to be 42.

  40. Posted June 29, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    “The issue is dogmatism. Stong conviction without evidence. And conviction that is shared shared by the mob (majority)…Passionate belief, belief that moves millions to act; to demonize the other based on bad arguments and bad evidence. A willingness to accept these convictions without argument, without evidence, that’s the intrinsic problem. That’s the problem that is unusually present in the context of religions, but it’s not only in a religious context. Dogmatism is the thing I am arguing against. There are political dogmas which, not by accident, begin to take on some of the characteristics of religion when you put them in place.” from Sam Harris answers questions
    http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/ask-sam-harris-anything-1/

  41. oiokes
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    The argument is moot since it starts with the concept of incarceration and punishment– both of which in this society are predicated on this discussion.

    A better solution is to 1) attempt rehabilitation of the criminal and 2) incarcerate when rehabilitation is ineffective or not well understood. Pursuing this approach sidesteps the whole moral issue neatly by pushing any such discussion into treatment and out of the court of law.

    Of course, given the intransigent nature of our society’s approach to such things, this sort of approach is probably politically impossible.,

  42. Posted September 9, 2012 at 1:25 am | Permalink

    A fascinating discussion is definitely worth comment.
    There’s no doubt that that you should publish more about this topic, it might not be a taboo subject but typically folks don’t talk about these subjects.
    To the next! Many thanks!!


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] fascinating piece in The Atlantic today called The Brain on Trial. I stumbled across it by reading Free will, the brain, and the law on Why Evolution Is True. It’s interesting stuff in particular to me, because it coincides [...]

  2. [...] lied for the second time about not discussing free will, but this will be a short post since we’ve touched on the issue before.   Several readers have claimed, with some justification, that maybe we should ditch the term [...]

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