Skip

The Brain on Trial.
July 15, 2011 11:43 AM   Subscribe

The Brain on Trial. Advances in brain science are calling into question the volition behind many criminal acts. A leading neuroscientist describes how the foundations of our criminal-justice system are beginning to crumble, and proposes a new way forward for law and order.
"We may someday find that many types of bad behavior have a basic biological explanation—as has happened with schizophrenia, epilepsy, depression, and mania."
[Charles Whitman] requested in his suicide note that an autopsy be performed to determine if something had changed in his brain—because he suspected it had.

"I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt [overcome by] overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail."

Whitman’s body was taken to the morgue, his skull was put under the bone saw, and the medical examiner lifted the brain from its vault. He discovered that Whitman’s brain harbored a tumor the diameter of a nickel. This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression. . . . Whitman’s intuition about himself—that something in his brain was changing his behavior—was spot-on.
posted by Eideteker (99 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Does the discovery of Charles Whitman’s brain tumor modify your feelings about the senseless murders he committed? Does it affect the sentence you would find appropriate for him, had he survived that day? Does the tumor change the degree to which you consider the killings “his fault”? Couldn’t you just as easily be unlucky enough to develop a tumor and lose control of your behavior?

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be dangerous to conclude that people with a tumor are free of guilt, and that they should be let off the hook for their crimes?"
posted by Eideteker at 11:44 AM on July 15, 2011


"If you think genes don’t affect how people behave, consider this fact: if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is 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.

And this feeds into a larger lesson of biology: we are not the ones steering the boat of our behavior, at least not nearly as much as we believe. Who we are runs well below the surface of our conscious access, and the details reach back in time to before our birth, when the meeting of a sperm and an egg granted us certain attributes and not others. Who we can be starts with our molecular blueprints—a series of alien codes written in invisibly small strings of acids—well before we have anything to do with it. Each of us is, in part, a product of our inaccessible, microscopic history. 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."
posted by Eideteker at 11:46 AM on July 15, 2011 [9 favorites]


Free will may not exist but we are obliged to behave as if it does in order to foster the external conditions that lead to societal stability, e.g., the justice system.
posted by Diablevert at 11:48 AM on July 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


"Consider a decision to move or speak. It feels as though free will leads you to stick out your tongue, or scrunch up your face, or call someone a name. But free will is not required to play any role in these acts. People with Tourette’s syndrome, for instance, suffer from involuntary movements and vocalizations. A typical Touretter may stick out his tongue, scrunch up his face, or call someone a name—all without choosing to do so.

We immediately learn two things from the Tourette’s patient. First, actions can occur in the absence of free will. Second, the Tourette’s patient has no free won’t. He cannot use free will to override or control what subconscious parts of his brain have decided to do. What the lack of free will and the lack of free won’t have in common is the lack of “free.” Tourette’s syndrome provides a case in which the underlying neural machinery does its thing, and we all agree that the person is not responsible."

"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."
OK, I'm done. =)
posted by Eideteker at 11:50 AM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


This link is fantastic. Thank you.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 11:50 AM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Free will may not exist but we are obliged to behave as if it does in order to foster the external conditions that lead to societal stability, e.g., the justice system.

I haven't finished the article myself, given that it was only posted seven minutes ago, but I suspect (as per the third sentence in the post) that the author spends the entire second half of the article addressing exactly that point.
posted by invitapriore at 11:52 AM on July 15, 2011


I'm expect our rational justice system to adopt these progressive changes immediately.
posted by blargerz at 11:55 AM on July 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


Re the violence genes, does anyone have a cite for that? That sounds like a really big deal and I'm surprised I haven't heard about it before.
posted by invitapriore at 11:56 AM on July 15, 2011


Violent inclinations? We already have the Ludovico technique.
posted by gimonca at 12:00 PM on July 15, 2011


I think people probably don't have free will in the sense that most people would define it. I don't think that should have any impact on whether or not people are punished for crimes. You have a criminal system to protect society, and you imprison people to stop them from endangering others. Whether they had any control over their actions is besides the point.

Though I would much prefer that we treat crime of all kinds as a public health issue rather than as punishment.
posted by empath at 12:01 PM on July 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


I'm not sure that we ought to be arguing from cases such as Whitman and Tourette's patients, to normal neurological functioning. That free will is abridged in brains that are malfunctioning in some way is not necessarily evidence that free will is abridged in all brains.
posted by oddman at 12:02 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't doubt for a second that many, if not all, behaviours are largely biologically driven. That in no way alters my view that biological entities that misbehave in ways that harm other biological entities ought to be locked up. If you're biologically driven to rape children or beat me up I'll feel bad for you for maybe a few seconds, then I'll ponder the infinite, ineffable unfairness of life, and then I'll hope you get locked up for a goodly stretch so that me and the kids are safe from you.
posted by Decani at 12:02 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


That free will is abridged in brains that are malfunctioning in some way is not necessarily evidence that free will is abridged in all brains.

Yes, but they provide counterexamples by which we can understand how people can act without will, which is hard for a lot of people to imagine.
posted by empath at 12:04 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, I found it, I missed the conclusion of his little teaser:

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.
posted by invitapriore at 12:06 PM on July 15, 2011


"Does the discovery of Charles Whitman’s brain tumor modify your feelings about the senseless murders he committed? Does it affect the sentence you would find appropriate for him, had he survived that day? Does the tumor change the degree to which you consider the killings “his fault”? Couldn’t you just as easily be unlucky enough to develop a tumor and lose control of your behavior?

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be dangerous to conclude that people with a tumor are free of guilt, and that they should be let off the hook for their crimes?"


These are the wrong terms and the wrong questions. What these new findings suggest is that something very different from "the criminal justice system" may be a more appropriate societal response to society's behavioural outliers.

The question isn't "what's the appropriate response by the current system?" but "what's the appropriate system?"
posted by Herodios at 12:09 PM on July 15, 2011 [10 favorites]


Oh brother.

Yes, it's biology that causes people to commit crimes, and not our economic system that puts millions of people into dire economic straits that causes them to turn to crime as a way out of the horrible situations they find themselves. Sure, let's define it as a medical problem rather than as a possibly honest reaction to a life of poverty. Let's work for understanding them and their different brains, rather than that we would probably be them were we in a similar financial situation.

Yes, the article leads off with a senseless killing. But the majority of crimes, based on my admittedly ad-hoc understanding (read: I didn't load up crime statistics for the purposes of this comment so correct me if I'm wrong), are not senseless, they are for reasons, and most of the time those reasons are the result of poverty and addiction (which is often a result of poverty).
posted by JHarris at 12:09 PM on July 15, 2011 [13 favorites]


We may someday find that many types of bad behavior have a basic biological explanation—as has happened with schizophrenia, epilepsy, depression, and mania.

Aside from epilepsy, I'm not aware that there's a scientific consensus on the "biological explanations"* of any of these "behaviors."

*This is a bit of a weasily phrase. I assume the author means biological causes, since it should be self-evident that there's a biological correlate to all behaviors, thoughts, and feelings.
posted by OmieWise at 12:09 PM on July 15, 2011 [3 favorites]




I'm going to stay out of this until people have actually read the article (I know, it's just so juicy you can't help but jump in!), but here are a couple of previous comments by me on the subject.

invitapriore, if you'd only read the whole comment...
posted by Eideteker at 12:10 PM on July 15, 2011


INT. AIRPLANE CABIN - MOVING DOWN RUNWAY
Jack is speaking to the BUSINESSWOMAN next to him.

JACK: If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one.
BUSISNESS WOMAN: Are there a lot of these kinds of accidents?
JACK: Oh, you wouldn't believe.
posted by HLD at 12:10 PM on July 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


This question of the Whitman case and free will in general turns on the debate surrounding incarceration and execution as instruments of punitive moral punishment, incapacitation (stopping people from being able to commit more crime), deterrence or rehabilitation. Culpability and guilt are not the same, after all.

You may pick* your views based on your axioms.

* Assuming you have free will, of course.
posted by jaduncan at 12:14 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Alex’s sudden pedophilia illustrates that hidden drives and desires can lurk undetected behind the neural machinery of socialization.

This is exceptionally poor reasoning. Tumors can't be considered a feature of typical brain function, can they?

It seems like the author is conflating brain pathologies with non-pathological variation in brain function.

When a criminal stands in front of the judge’s bench today, the legal system wants to know whether he is blameworthy. Was it his fault, or his biology’s fault?

I submit that this is the wrong question to be asking. The choices we make are inseparably yoked to our neural circuitry, and therefore we have no meaningful way to tease the two apart.


But isn't the point here that he did those things as a result of having the glioblastoma? Or, if the role of the tumor is unclear, why is it relevant?

If you think genes don’t affect how people behave, consider this fact: if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is 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.

This itself seems to be an oversimplification. Is he talking about the mere presence of the genes, or their epigenetic expression? Might modulating their expression have an effect on the likelihood of the individual to commit crimes?

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.

This is called "assuming what you're trying to prove," and it's irritatingly unconvincing.
posted by clockzero at 12:16 PM on July 15, 2011


But the majority of crimes, based on my admittedly ad-hoc understanding (read: I didn't load up crime statistics for the purposes of this comment so correct me if I'm wrong), are not senseless, they are for reasons, and most of the time those reasons are the result of poverty and addiction (which is often a result of poverty).

I wish I could find the stats for this, but I believe I've read that there is increasing evidence that frontal-lobe brain damage appears at a much higher rate among prisoners convicted of violent crimes than among the general population. (Was it in a New Yorker article in the past year?)

You can accept this and still believe that there is a socioeconomic context to many crimes.
posted by scody at 12:19 PM on July 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


I don't doubt for a second that many, if not all, behaviours are largely biologically driven. That in no way alters my view that biological entities that misbehave in ways that harm other biological entities ought to be locked up. If you're biologically driven to rape children or beat me up I'll feel bad for you for maybe a few seconds, then I'll ponder the infinite, ineffable unfairness of life, and then I'll hope you get locked up for a goodly stretch so that me and the kids are safe from you.

Two questions for you then. First, if it's a biological cause that can be remedied - such as a brain tumor that has been removed and stopped the behavior - does this person then deserve to be free? They no longer present that danger, so locking them up is not necessary for your safety.

Second, if we are locking people up because they are dangerous to society, in a situation where that's due to biological causes, what kind of conditions should they be locked up in? Is it appropriate for them to be placed in horrible conditions for committing an action that they effectively had no choice over?
posted by evilangela at 12:20 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yes, the article leads off with a senseless killing. But the majority of crimes, based on my admittedly ad-hoc understanding (read: I didn't load up crime statistics for the purposes of this comment so correct me if I'm wrong), are not senseless, they are for reasons, and most of the time those reasons are the result of poverty and addiction (which is often a result of poverty).

But those things are also not something the 'criminal' can control, and their reactions to it are not something they can control, unless they were lucky enough to be blessed with the combination of genes and upbringin that allow them to control it.
posted by empath at 12:21 PM on July 15, 2011


If you think genes don’t affect how people behave, consider this fact: if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is 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.

Surprise, it's a male etc. Fatally, of course, with such a broad expression of this gene in the population it is hard to argue that the loss of control caused by maleness should hugely affect our attitude to policy given that the vast, vast majority of the carrying population also manage to control themselves.
posted by jaduncan at 12:22 PM on July 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yes, the article leads off with a senseless killing. But the majority of crimes, based on my admittedly ad-hoc understanding (read: I didn't load up crime statistics for the purposes of this comment so correct me if I'm wrong), are not senseless, they are for reasons, and most of the time those reasons are the result of poverty and addiction (which is often a result of poverty).

The author might argue that the environmental conditions of poverty have a large part to play in the phenotypic variation of the individuals so afflicted, the consequence being that an individual's history is indistinguishable from their personal biology.

invitapriore, if you'd only read the whole comment...

I was too busy reading the article!

posted by invitapriore at 12:22 PM on July 15, 2011


Second, if we are locking people up because they are dangerous to society, in a situation where that's due to biological causes, what kind of conditions should they be locked up in? Is it appropriate for them to be placed in horrible conditions for committing an action that they effectively had no choice over?

Related question: if they have a tumour in the appropriate place that is growing bigger, should they be detained in a secure environment to protect the public?
posted by jaduncan at 12:23 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


The notion that some of our actions might not be subject to a perfect ability to stop ourselves would be disheartening for participants in a justice system which actually cared about deterrence. It would be a boon to those who believe a correctional system, rehabilitation and all, because from this would be born coping strategies for the remaining fraction whose devils made them do it; perhaps a kinder containment could be erected for those whose very natures make them uncontrollable and incapable of integration.

The idea is irrelevant for a society focused on punishment. "It's not our fault, I was born this way" means less than nothing to a country where the majority believe in Original Sin and are still okay with the original sinners cooking away for eternity. We are totally down (all the way down to Hell) with infinite punishment just for the nature with which you were born.
posted by adipocere at 12:23 PM on July 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Input signals pour in through my sensory neurons, is sorted and processed by a neural network consisting of hundreds of trillions of synapses, and output is sent on down the motor neurons.

Where lies choice is in this complicated dance of sodium, potassium, and calcium ion potentials? The chemistry is deterministic, and any quantum effects demonstrably probabilistic.

Random noise and chemical reactions do not conform to the Western notion of some disconnected, disembodied gestalt of "self" that somehow reaches into the soup and twists it in a particular direction.

But you can bet your bottom dollar that a criminal justice system focused on rehabilitation instead of punishment will not be forthcoming in our lifetimes or the lifetime of anybody now living.
posted by Ryvar at 12:24 PM on July 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


Bit o' context, since the link doesn't say so:
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law.
posted by Herodios at 12:24 PM on July 15, 2011


"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 is fascinating stuff, but boiling everything down to biology could cause more problems than it solves.

I mean, hell, there were at least 3 Law and Order episodes I can think of off the top of my head where someone argued that a tumor influenced the perp's behavior and then Sam Waterson got really cranky and said that "if we admit that argument everyone in Rikers is going to try getting brain scans to find a tumor" or something like that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:26 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm guessing these are the genes in charge of melanin?

fartron, can you help me out here? I've just flagged this as racist/offensive, but due to lack of sleep/coffee/whatever I might have just missed your point or need a sarcasm detector adjustment. Explain? Thanks.
posted by jokeefe at 12:26 PM on July 15, 2011


I would much rather have a flawed system based on punishing action than a flawed system based on punishing being. If you want to gave a rehabilitation system based on being, attached or adjunct to the justice system, be my guest. But good and evil are not states of being, they are qualities of action.

Besides which, his confidence in our current understanding of neurobiology sends a worm of fear crawling up my spine. (Even now, there's a great deal of debate forming about the true efficacy of the antidepressants he cites with such blasé authority to buttress his claims). The heralds of an earlier age were no less certain than he --- but there's no do-overs on an ice pick through the eye socket, nor for years of life lost behind bars while our understanding of your culpability probability cloud undergoes revision.
posted by Diablevert at 12:28 PM on July 15, 2011


Isn't what we're really talking about here material determinism? Does it make a difference how much is biological and how much is environmental?

If you had the same genes that I do and grew up in the same exact environment that I did and were in the same exact situation that I am in, would you not do exactly what I would do in that situation? If not, what would cause you to do something differently? A soul? Just the randomness of the universe? If you think you would do exactly what I would do, then do the ideas of personal responsibility and desert mean anything anymore?
posted by AceRock at 12:32 PM on July 15, 2011




It wasn't me! My brain did it!
posted by unSane at 12:33 PM on July 15, 2011


"if we admit that argument everyone in Rikers is going to try getting brain scans to find a tumor"

Free brain scans is socialism! Better to let a for-profit prison system punish as many as we can cram in there than try to rehabilitate, right?

For me, I would just like to see mental health taken seriously in this country. There's still a stigma attached for many people.

And, of course, most (violent) crimes could be prevented through the distribution of hugs at the appropriate times. Like, say, childhood. By the time they're in prison, it's too late.
posted by Eideteker at 12:34 PM on July 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


fartron, can you help me out here? I've just flagged this as racist/offensive, but due to lack of sleep/coffee/whatever I might have just missed your point or need a sarcasm detector adjustment. Explain? Thanks.
posted by jokeefe at 8:26 PM on July 15 [+] [!]

[S]he was making the point that criminal justice outcomes are far harsher for non-white defendants, I suspect.
posted by jaduncan at 12:35 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


"He doesn't have a tumor, but there's some localized pressure around the I WANNA HAVE SEX WITH KIDS lobe."
posted by gorgor_balabala at 12:36 PM on July 15, 2011


Sam Waterson got really cranky and said that "if we admit that argument everyone in Rikers is going to try getting brain scans to find a tumor" or something like that.

And then all those Deathrow Bodines might start demanding DNA tests.
posted by Herodios at 12:36 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


It wasn't me! My brain did it!

I think the point here is that there is no "me" of the kind assumed by Western tradition.
posted by Ryvar at 12:37 PM on July 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'll make a prediction - if anyone in the criminal justice system takes the article/line of reasoning seriously, what we'll see is forced medication, pre-emptive medication and possibly forced brain implants or surgeries, most of which will mysteriously turn out to be needed by low-income people, people of color, women with inconvenient/hysterical symptoms and sexual "deviants", probably including low-income queer folks and sex workers. We've been here before, as that non-neurologist Freud once remarked.
posted by Frowner at 12:40 PM on July 15, 2011 [8 favorites]


I had a similar thought to Diablevert's, reading that line about fluoxetine. "What accounts for the shift from blame to biology? Perhaps the largest driving force is the effectiveness of pharmaceutical treatments."

We are always, always on the cusp of a full understanding of the mind, and we are always, always, not quite there. We really need not to be putting our justice system, flawed as it is, into the hands of not-quite-there. Rehabilitation has a long history in prisons, and certainly rehabilitation based on better understanding of the brain has a place in the conversation, but you always have to ask precisely what is being proposed, because lurking in the background is always the fear that you're going to cure shoplifting with an icepick.
posted by mittens at 12:43 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Freud was a neurologist.
posted by sunnichka at 12:43 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I took a course from the author in 2005 -- I became frustrated that he seemed most interested in being a celebrity or public intellectual than a hard-nosed scientist. That said, I'm glad he is working on an important issue.
posted by blargerz at 12:44 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


...I might have just missed your point or need a sarcasm detector adjustment.

Not the poster, but I think what they meant was that using prison statistics to explain anything biological is going to unfairly slant whatever you have to say heavily toward the black/hispanic population due to the unequally harsh sentencing of blacks and hispanics.
posted by griphus at 12:45 PM on July 15, 2011


Variation gives rise to lushly diverse societies—but it serves as a source of trouble for the legal system, which is largely built on the premise that humans are all equal before the law. This myth of human equality suggests that people are equally capable of controlling impulses, making decisions, and comprehending consequences. While admirable in spirit, the notion of neural equality is simply not true.

As brain science improves, we will better understand that people exist along continua of capabilities, rather than in simplistic categories. And we will be better able to tailor sentencing and rehabilitation for the individual, rather than maintain the pretense that all brains respond identically to complex challenges and that all people therefore deserve the same punishments


I'm looking forward to this part, since I have a lot of faith in the ability of the technocratic class to decide this type of thing.

Freud was a neurologist.

And the moral of this story - don't take your classes on Freud in the Comp Lit/Cultural Studies department!
posted by Frowner at 12:47 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


And the moral of this story - don't take your classes on Freud in the Comp Lit/Cultural Studies department!

By which I mean that I've read a lot of Freud but obviously don't know enough about his research background.
posted by Frowner at 12:47 PM on July 15, 2011


Regardless if whether it's "their fault" or not, there are some people who have clearly demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to live among us and thus should be, for their protection as well as others, locked away.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:50 PM on July 15, 2011


Try out Sulloway's "Freud: Biologist of the Mind." Very good introduction to his scientific context.
posted by mittens at 12:51 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would much rather have a flawed system based on punishing action than a flawed system based on punishing being. If you want to gave a rehabilitation system based on being, attached or adjunct to the justice system, be my guest. But good and evil are not states of being, they are qualities of action.

Besides which, his confidence in our current understanding of neurobiology sends a worm of fear crawling up my spine.


I think he's a little glib about the predictive powers of neuroscience too, but I do like the idea of an entirely results- and rehabilitation-oriented justice system. Unfortunately, I suspect with Frowner that we can't really be trusted to implement such a thing fairly.
posted by invitapriore at 12:51 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Not the poster, but I think what they meant was that using prison statistics to explain anything biological is going to unfairly slant whatever you have to say heavily toward the black/hispanic population due to the unequally harsh sentencing of blacks and hispanics.

Thanks all, I get it now. [/Really need more coffee today]
posted by jokeefe at 12:52 PM on July 15, 2011


I'm not all that concerned if the dog's rabid, hungry or just plain mean. If it bites me, I want it locked away.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 12:52 PM on July 15, 2011


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.

Ugh, this is wrong on several accounts. First off, the reference is to having an *extra* Y chromosome, referred to as XYY syndrome, and was popularized in the Richard Speck case when his defense tried to use that as an explanation of his murder-urges. Secondly - that theoretical syndrome description being used to identify individuals with a heightened propensity for violence has been pretty roundly criticized as unfounded and lacking convincing data.
posted by FatherDagon at 12:55 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Actually, people with Tourettes have greater force of won't (if you will) than normals.

Someone did a study recently in which they asked a group consisting of Tourettes sufferers and matched controls to follow a moving spot of light with their eyes. The normals became fatigued and unable to continue much sooner than the Tourettians did.

And this appears to be reflected even at the level of gross brain structure :

Tourettes Brains Are Structured for Greater, Not Lesser, Cognitive Motor Control

Contrary to intuition, people who suffer from the motor and vocal tics characteristic of Tourette syndrome actually perform behavioral tests of cognitive motor control more accurately and quickly than their typically developing peers do. According to evidence reported online on March 24 in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, that enhanced control arises from structural and functional changes in the brain that likely come about from the need to constantly suppress tics.

posted by jamjam at 12:55 PM on July 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


The author treats the issue as a "spectrum" of culpability, and argues that the legal system should be sensitive to the potential that the criminal is mentally ill (or has a brain tumor that leads to criminal action, which is actually statistically very unlikely).

The fact is, the problem that causes so many people to become drug addicts/gang members/violent criminals and end up in jail is mostly socio-economic. Our culture chooses not to provide funds to encourage strong educational backgrounds or other activities that will help people who are born into bad neighborhoods-- in fact, it actually spends more money on jailing people for drug possession than on social workers or schooling for those people. Those people develop mental illness.

Proposing that the mental illness become the issue that is resolved ignores the causation completely.
posted by miss tea at 12:59 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


You don't need the brain for most of this argument. Mainstream psychology research has documented the limits of a unitary self, and a strong agency of free will. Haven't had much success with reforming the criminal justice system, though. I wish him luck.
posted by cogpsychprof at 1:00 PM on July 15, 2011


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.

You know, not that I'm a big subscriber to the idea that we're all rational actors or anything, but sometimes bad behavior has a really, really good explanation: It's just a better way to get things. If I pick an apple off a tree nobody owns, I've done nothing wrong. If I pick an apple off YOUR tree, then I've committed theft. Why would the same action in a different social context imply any sort of damage to my brain chemistry or structure? It's a trivial example, but I wonder how it scales up with violent crime. Violence has certainly always had a place in the wars over scarce resources that eventually built our cultures...its fundamental slot in our behavioral repertoire makes it seem less lesion-based and more...well, "We're in a society now, so stop doing that."
posted by mittens at 1:02 PM on July 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


I was hoping a new kind of phrenology would come out during my lifetime.
posted by CarlRossi at 1:03 PM on July 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


First off, the reference is to having an *extra* Y chromosome, referred to as XYY syndrome, and was popularized in the Richard Speck case when his defense tried to use that as an explanation of his murder-urges.

What? How do you figure? I read that as a simple reference to the fact that men are significantly over-represented in prison populations ("[if] you're a carrier, we call you male.") I doubt he thinks that males have two Y chromosomes.
posted by invitapriore at 1:03 PM on July 15, 2011


Regardless if whether it's "their fault" or not, there are some people who have clearly demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to live among us and thus should be, for their protection as well as others, locked away.

I'm not all that concerned if the dog's rabid, hungry or just plain mean. If it bites me, I want it locked away.


And a quote from the article being discussed:

To be clear, I’m not opposed to incarceration, and its purpose is not limited to the removal of dangerous people from the streets. The prospect of incarceration deters many crimes, and time actually spent in prison can steer some people away from further criminal acts upon their release. But that works only for those whose brains function normally.
posted by sunnichka at 1:05 PM on July 15, 2011


I'm not all that concerned if the dog's rabid, hungry or just plain mean. If it bites me, I want it locked away.

Okay. What if it just growls and looks as if it might bite you? Also, the conditions have different cures. Mean we can't do dick about. Hungry and rabid we can cure. Do we lock up mean dogs before they bite people? How do we decide they're mean?

Plus which --- the idea that actions have consequences and that we have control over our actions are powerful, powerful tools in shaping the psyche to act right in the first place. (there was an interesting study recently on the effects of praising kids for being smart or working hard. If kids believe the former, they tended to do worse on subsequent tests and give up earlier.)

I dunno that I agree with Voltaire about god, but as regards free will the sentiment has appeal: if free will doesn't exist it will be necessary to invent it....
posted by Diablevert at 1:08 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


The comparison to epilepsy and schizophrenia then suggests both success and failure in how to order our new knowledge about culpability. For western countries have (largely) stopped convicting clearly psychotically insane people for psychotic acts, although the alternative (considering schizophrenia is a chronic, incurable, and sometimes intractable disease) is still basically lifelong institutionalization. In fact, people who are found NGRI (not guilty by reason of insanity, or your local equivalent), often spend longer in a psychiatric institution than they would have spent in jail if convicted. The move to deinstitutionalize several decades back has not been, let's say, entirely positive for all concerned. That said, epileptics used to be institutionalized along with "lunatics." Epilepsy is, if ever, rarely the instigation for an act considered criminal, but in contrast to schizophrenia is now a very treatable (and with surgery, potentially curable) condition.

So if we unmask whole modes of physical and mental disease that are actually responsible for criminal behavior, the response may be enlightened in the sense of taking advantage of additional information, but may not be so advantageous to the "patient" as letting them off the hook, which seems to me to be the scratchiest of straw men in these debates.
posted by adoarns at 1:15 PM on July 15, 2011


I remember reading this New Yorker article years ago touching on the same issue, but focusing more on how the injuries specifically caused by child abuse to both mind and brain affect impulse control and criminal propensities. Haven't had a chance to follow up on the scientists involved, so I have no idea if there is still any value attributed to their research, and the article was by Malcom Gladwell, so, you know, but I recall being struck by some of the statistics and information cited, none of which had to bring genetics into the picture.
posted by newmoistness at 1:22 PM on July 15, 2011


Its articles like these that remind me of something my grandfather once taught me, paraphrased as best I can,

You don't hang a horse thief be cause the horse thief deserved it somehow, no one deserves to be hanged. You don't hang a horse thief to show horse thieves or anyone else that stealing horses is wrong, hanging people is too. You can't hang a horse thief to somehow right the wrongs that the horse thief did, really all you do is compound them with the killing. Horse thieves are men just like you and I, loved by his God, kissed by the rain if no one else, and swaddled in this good earth. So why should you always hang a horse thief?

So that horses don't get stolen.

There was a time not so long ago when stealing someones horse could very easily starve them and their family, and was near impossible to catch
posted by Blasdelb at 1:30 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dahlmer and his mother said to take his brain after he died.

The dad said no. Even though the dad admitted "yea, looking back, his interest in playing with dead animals was odd." So the judge ordered his brain destroyed.

Way to go, jerk.
posted by stormpooper at 1:32 PM on July 15, 2011


We don't really imprison people to protect society, we do so to punish them, to meet the deep human need for notion of justice. When the British Monarch is crowned, she takes a vow to 'punish the wicked', not to 'protect society'. Punishment, not safety, is the more powerful impulse in our justice system.
If protection were the only, or even a major, consideration, there would be no determined sentences, no need for them to 'fit the crime'. We'd just let people out when they were no longer a threat. Prisons would be much more pleasant places if their only purpose was to keep people away from others.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 1:32 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Societies imprison people for a mix of five main reasons or goals:

1. Deterrence
2. Rehabilitation
3. Removal from society
4. Restitution
5. Retribution/vengeance

In the United States, four of five are compromised because we have put priority and focus on one: Retribution. I don't know whether it is a religious thing or what, but people believe that BAD PEOPLE DESERVE BAD THINGS to happen to them.

We have gone way past the point of diminishing returns in regards to how effective the threat of imprisonment is as a deterrent. And prison is such a horrible environment, one cannot hope to even come close to rehabilitation and indeed recidivism rates confirm this. Removal from society is achieved but we have gone overboard for the sake of retribution, keeping people in prison long after they have ceased being a threat to society. Because the state has usurped the role of victim from the actual victims, restitution is compromised, as real people, real victims are crime are being increasingly left out of the equation. And prison is a money-suck, draining resources, and cancelling out any debt repaid to society by offenders. But at least bad people are getting what they deserve right?

The sooner we dismiss the notion of desert and punishment as a goal, or at least the primary goal, the sooner we can start treating rehabilitation, deterrence, and restitution seriously, by figuring out what actually works to achieve those goals. If the erosion of the concept of free will makes that happen then I'm all for it.
posted by AceRock at 1:43 PM on July 15, 2011 [14 favorites]


Imagine that some people would have a problem with the suggestion that there is little to no free will, and behavior is driven by biological causes. Never fails to stir the pot. People really want to believe that their minds are effectively distinct from their bodies, even when they are aware of the unavoidable fact that there is zero distinction.
posted by Edgewise at 1:47 PM on July 15, 2011


i'm not 100% on either side, but i have to wonder - if we're going to argue that people do bad things because there's something in their brain that makes them do it, why can't we argue that those who want these people punished have something in their brain that makes them want to do that?

doesn't this apply to everyone, not just the extreme cases that involve crime and punishment?

if you can't condemn criminals for their crimes, how can you condemn justice seekers - or punishers - for their actions?
posted by pyramid termite at 1:52 PM on July 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm not bad I'm just drawn that way. -- Jessica Rabbit

Seriously, though: interesting article. Thanks for the link.
posted by trip and a half at 2:11 PM on July 15, 2011


In every discussion about free will, someone winds up saying some variation of "If free will doesn't exist, should we punish criminals?" or "Free will doesn't exist, but we should act as if it does."

The word "should" IMPLIES free will. If we find out there's no free will, should we CHOOSE to punish criminals or should we CHOOSE to let the go free? If free will doesn't exist, then we will or we won't punish criminals, depending on what we're determined to do.

People tend to talk as if free will doesn't exist for criminals but it does exist for judges. That would be a very odd universe -- one in which "we" have free will but "they" don't.

Free will may not exist but we are obliged to behave as if it does in order to foster the external conditions that lead to societal stability, e.g., the justice system.

No. It should be "Free will may not exist, but we're obliged to behave as it does because -- if doesn't exist -- we don't have free will. We're determined to behave as if it does and we can't choose not to."


I think people probably don't have free will in the sense that most people would define it. I don't think that should have any impact on whether or not people are punished for crimes.

If we don't have free will, we will punish people (or not) based on whatever we're determined to do.
posted by grumblebee at 2:14 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


If anyone is fascinated by this topic, watch one of the best cinematic gems of the 50s, like, now: The Bad Seed.

(It's streaming on Netflix at the moment.)
posted by nosila at 2:16 PM on July 15, 2011


Societies imprison people for a mix of five main reasons or goals:
1..2..3..
4. Restitution

I don't think there's many cases where imprisonment provides restitution. Maybe if the crime is escaping from jail and Prisoncorp wants them back.

posted by Winnemac at 2:26 PM on July 15, 2011


Yeah-- if we want to go this route than we need to examine the fact that prenatal conditions such as high fat diets, chronic stress, social isolation, social rejection, previous childhood adversity, altered HPA axis in the mother, PTSD, inflammation, influenza, toxoplasma, indoor pollutants like mold, dust mites, roach dropping; exposure to toxic metals and pollutants like paraben, food additives etc--- all of these things can affect epigenetic and genetic alterations in the developing offspring. In addition all of those same factors in the developing infant and child can affect epigenetic functioning. Stressed, low income, socially isolated mothers with little access to social support, economic support, having a dual parent home to help with rearing and finances----- lack of enriching activities such as sports, arts, social activites; lack of involved consistant parenting because a parent is busy surviving an emotionally and physically exhausting daily life; lack of support with scholastic endeavors, lack of nutritional meals---

All of these factors will affect the manifestation of genotype and phenotype.

So yes, ultimately if we ignore the need to support families who are struggling: We are in fact causing criminal behavior, if we apply this theory.

What's more it's even more complicated than this. High fat, high salt diets have proven to be neuroprotective against chronic stress in non-human animals-- thus adding a whole other dimension that poor parenting behaviors in the absence of extensive support may actually be offering more benefits than we currently acknowledge. It's not just an issue of parents manifesting better diets and interactions--- we need to study why this is so universally dificult among struggling families and how we can provide support in a way that is respectful of the human condition and the ways people use behaviors like high fat/salt diets; smoking; drugs etc to survive difficult environments.
posted by xarnop at 2:33 PM on July 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


It's very appropriate to bring Richard Speck up in this conversation, FatherDagon, because his case nicely illustrates how easily we can go so badly wrong when we start talking about biologically determined criminality:

False reports that Speck was XYY

...In August 1966, based on those mischaracterizations, Eric Engel, a Swiss endocrinologist and geneticist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, wrote to Speck's attorney, Cook County Public Defender Gerald W. Getty, who was reportedly planning an insanity defense, and proposed confidentially karotyping the 6 ft. 1 in. tall Speck.[18][19] Getty agreed, a chromosome analysis was performed, and the results—showing Speck had a normal 46,XY karyotype—were reported to Getty in a September 26, 1966 letter,[19] one month before a court-appointed panel of six physicians concluded that Speck was mentally competent to stand trial.[20]

In January 1968 and March 1968, The Lancet and Science published the first U.S. reports of institutionalized XYY males by Mary Telfer, a biochemist at the Elwyn Institute.[21] Telfer found five tall, developmentally disabled XYY boys and men in hospitals and penal institutions in Pennsylvania, and since four of the five had at least moderate facial acne, jumped to the erroneous conclusion that acne was a defining characteristic of XYY males.[21] In January 1968, Getty contacted Telfer for more information on her findings and she not only incorrectly assumed the acne-scarred Speck was an XYY male, but leapt to the egregiously false conclusion that Speck was the archetypical XYY male.[22]

In April 1968, The New York Times introduced the XYY genetic condition to the general public for the first time, using Telfer as a main source for a three-part series on consecutive days that began with a Sunday front-page story.[16][23] The second story in the series, "Ultimate Speck appeal may cite a genetic defect", incorrectly reported that a chromosome analysis of Speck by Chicago geneticist Eugene Pergament in the summer of 1967 had shown Speck to be an XYY male.[24] The third story in the series included a denial by Pergament that he had done a chromosome analysis of Speck, but continued to incorrectly report that a chromosome analysis had shown Speck to be an XYY male.[25][26][27]

The following week, a Time article using Telfer as a main source reported that "Richard Speck is said to be one such" man with two Y chromosomes[28] and a Newsweek article using Telfer as a main source reported that "according to some doctors" Richard Speck "exemplifies the XYY type" and that "His chromosomes have in fact been analyzed, but his lawyer will not reveal the results of the test."[29]

In May 1968, after reading news stories about Speck being an XYY male, a dumbfounded Engel contacted Getty and learned that the news stories were false—other than Engel's September 1966 chromosome analysis which had shown Speck to have a normal 46,XY karyotype—no other chromosome analysis of Speck had been done.[19] Engel performed a second chromosome analysis of Speck in June 1968 and the results—again showing Speck had a normal 46,XY karyotype—were reported to Getty in a July 3, 1968 letter,[19] three weeks before Getty filed his 193-page brief in Speck's appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.[30]

In November 1968, five days before the Illinois Supreme Court's decision on Speck's appeal, a Sunday front-page article in the Chicago Tribune that again used Telfer as a main source, reported that prison records showed that blood samples were taken from Speck in Stateville prison in June 1968 to determine whether he was an XYY male, and that Getty had confirmed that a chromosome analysis had been performed outside of Illinois, but refused to disclose the results.[31][32] On November 25, 1968, three days after the Illinois Supreme Court upheld Speck's conviction and death sentence, Getty held a press conference at which he outlined the basis of his forthcoming appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and also made public the chromosome analysis results from Engel showing Speck to have a normal 46,XY karyotype.[33]

In September 1972, Engel published his account of the story and a photograph of Speck's normal 46,XY karyotype in the American Journal of Mental Deficiency,[19] but by then the false association of Speck with the XYY genetic condition had been incorporated into high school biology textbooks, college genetics textbooks and medical school psychiatry textbooks, where misinformation still persists decades later.[17][34]

However, Speck probably did have a very serious brain abnormality which may have been part of the reason he committed that horrifying crime:

After Speck's death, Dr. Jan E. Leestma, a neuropathologist at the Chicago Institute of Neurosurgery, performed an autopsy of Speck's brain. Leestma found apparent gross abnormalities. Two areas of the brain — the hippocampus, which involves memory, and the amygdala, which deals with rage and other strong emotions — encroached upon each other, and their boundaries were blurred.[11] ...

Dr. John R. Hughes, a neurologist and longtime director of the Epilepsy Clinic at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and a colleague of Leestma, examined photos of the tissue in the 1990s along with brain wave tests performed on Speck in the 1960s. Hughes stated, "I have never heard of that [type of abnormality] in the history of neurology. So any abnormality that exceptional has got to have an exceptional consequence."

posted by jamjam at 3:10 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hey ya'll, sorry for that asshole thing I did, it's just in the genes.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:21 PM on July 15, 2011


How rude of me, I wrote a bunch of mumbo jumbo without links.
High fat diet mice
sodium blunts stress
factors that can cause de novo mutations associated with mental illness

nicotine:
"Generally speaking, nicotine appears to increase task-related activity in non-smokers and deprived smokers, but not active smokers."
"Both an acute dose of nicotine in non-smokers and chronic nicotine use in temporarily abstaining smokers improved perceptual thresholds but slowed subsequent perceptual speed. Moreover, both acute and chronic nicotine use reduced attentional selectivity though visual short-term memory capacity was unimpaired."


Epigenetics"Longitudinal studies in humans demonstrate the association between prenatal and postnatal experiences of adversity and long-term changes in neurodevelopment. These studies raise the question of how experiences become incorporated at a biological level to induce persistent changes in functioning. Laboratory studies using animal models and recent analyses in human cohorts implicate epigenetic mechanisms as a possible route through which these environmental effects are achieved. In particular, there is evidence that changes in DNA methylation are associated with early life experiences with consequences for gene expression and behavior."

There now at least it's a bunch of mumbo jumbo with links.
posted by xarnop at 3:28 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The author recently on Fresh Air, he talks about his other research too (he was also featured in the New Yorker a few months ago). IIRC he clarifies the Y chromosome reference in the interview--he's not talking about XYY syndrome, just saying men are over-represented in the criminal population.
posted by janerica at 3:36 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


No. It should be "Free will may not exist, but we're obliged to behave as it does because -- if doesn't exist -- we don't have free will. We're determined to behave as if it does and we can't choose not to."

Well, you've got me dead to rights there --- if free will does not exist, then how can arguing about its existence matter? Touche, I concede the point.

I suppose I am inclined to argue about because of the inescapable and apparently universal human experience of feeling like it matters --- feeling that I chose, and so I can chose to argue, and to attempt to persuade or dissuade or elucidate.

And it is a bit of a nagging feeling --- because of the sense that what we believe matters, in the same way that the data obtained determines the results of the study. If we accept that this supposition is true, its truth will be a new piece of data which will help to shape our actions consciously and unconsciously, just as an other belief would. For ill, I think.

We are inclined to speak as if it were a binary as well --- either we choose or do not. Perhaps it's subtler: An inclination, a tendency, a bias --- and yet with some wiggle room to do pick another course than the likeliest one. Plotting the point of choice seems analogous to attempting to find the threshold when the quantum universe becomes the classical one --- there is something irreducible there.
posted by Diablevert at 4:23 PM on July 15, 2011


Way to go, jerk.

While Dahmer was enough of an aberration that, yeah, you'd expect to see something monstrous within his brain, bringing up his dad is interesting, because Lionel Dahmer went on to write a book, "A Father's Story," that reads like an instruction manual on how to totally neglect the emotional life of a troubled child: Detached, unaware, uninvolved, and when things went wrong, completely unable to see any real moral responsibility. I can understand not quite catching on that the kid under your roof will become one of the world's most infamous killers, but to miss the level of wrongness going on?
posted by mittens at 4:40 PM on July 15, 2011


We are inclined to speak as if it were a binary as well --- either we choose or do not.

It seems like the problem is the word 'free' rather than 'will'. Of course, our speech is a good example of something that is novel, always producing new ideas or at least new ways to express those ideas, that can be premeditated, while still being constrained by our upbringing, education, and mental state.
posted by mittens at 4:56 PM on July 15, 2011


I love science that disturbs both liberals and conservatives. Great article, and telling reactions from the MeFites.
posted by Crotalus at 5:33 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Free will is like a system of currency. It relies on your believing in it to exist. Or that is, it is magic in a certain way: if you stop believing in it, it disappears.

Or, the belief in free will causes a certain configuration of a consciousness that proves to be useful. If you believe in free will, you (at least sort of) act as though you have it. It's a useful illusion, it changes the way you think and act.

Personally I think (relatively) "free" will can only occur in certain very limited circumstances. 95% of the time or more it's just down to habit / prejudice / rationalization / random chance.
posted by marble at 6:16 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Since there's no possible test for whether we have free will or not, we just need to set aside the entire concept as flawed.
posted by unSane at 6:29 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Of course we can test for determinism - just not with technology available to us at the present.

Simply construct a device that can observe all the chemical reactions ongoing in the human brain non-invasively and in real time. Use it to record all input, signal processing, and output while the subject makes significant, preferably life-altering decisions.

If after extended observation there is no detectable deviation from the known principles of chemistry, we can safely conclude that consciousness and decision-making are wholly deterministic processes free from outside interference and proceed to demolish the traditional notions of agency and the existence of souls.

If we DO detect deviations, then we've hit upon something far more interesting anyway.
posted by Ryvar at 7:16 PM on July 15, 2011


no detectable deviation from the known principles of chemistry

Doesn't that kind of beg the question? We know our brains are made of molecules that follow the known principles of chemistry; the question is, how is will, or the sense of having a will, built out of those principles?
posted by mittens at 8:30 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


if you can't condemn criminals for their crimes, how can you condemn justice seekers - or punishers - for their actions?

pyramid termite's question triggers in me some different questions -

Why is it 100 times easier to put ourselves in the place of a victim of crime than of a victim of poverty, exclusion, and deprivation, even though the latter outnumber the former 1,000,000 times over? Why when I ask these questions do I instantly imagine the angry voice of a faceless male insistently demanding "how the fuck would *you* like it if someone raped your daughter or killed your parents for drug money?"

Why do we seem to need for there to be criminals? And why do we seem to enjoy punishing people so much?
posted by facetious at 11:13 PM on July 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Eagleman's views seem remarkably illiberal and dehumanising to me. He thinks it's ridiculous that the legal system treats people as if they were rational agents with responsibility and human dignity when most of those who come before it are obviously pond life. There's nothing wrong with jail, in his view, the problem is the pettifogging requirement that someone should commit a crime before they go there, and the stupid primitive tradition that they should be let out again after a fixed time and given another chance.

And you know, we're not in fact talking about some spooky semi-religious concept of free will here. We're just talking about the ability to interpret and follow society's rules, an ability essentially like the ability to speak intelligibly, or to drive safely. It's true that for medical reasons people can lose this ability permanently or temporarily. But we don't judge drivers in normal health by their genes and a brain scan, we do it by their performance, and that's the way we should judge their ethics too.
posted by Segundus at 2:33 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Even though the dad admitted "yea, looking back, his interest in playing with dead animals was odd."

Well, it's not THAT odd. ::looks around warily, scuttles off to dark basement::
posted by FatherDagon at 6:26 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Fantastic NOVA episode on epigenetics.
posted by ao4047 at 7:27 AM on July 16, 2011


It's simple, there is no physical or material, scientific evidence of a structure that can be quantitatively said to house or create free will.

Once you realize that there is no free will- and also, that this does not in any way mean that there exists predestination, destiny or fate- then you can begin to forgive, everyone.

I'm not religious, but sometimes it seems so easy to understand what was meant with the concept of 'forgive them, they know not what they do'. Any time I see someone try to dismantle it with appeals to emotion or other primitive arguments, it just becomes clearer and clearer to me.

My way is healing and sorrow; the other is hate and gloating, if you want a simple dichotomy.
posted by Bushidoboy at 7:29 AM on July 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh, also, these problems become so much easier to solve when you remove the value of filling your ego with the sensation of being right, as placed on a higher scale than finding truth, whether truth be what you want or do not want it to be revealed as.
posted by Bushidoboy at 7:32 AM on July 16, 2011


One can imagine Rawls's veil of ignorance being applied here. If we accept material determinism, regardless of how much is biological and how much is environmental, and concede that if you had the exact genes, life history, experiences, and were in the same environment and situation as a criminal, then you too would be a criminal, and then imagine a refashioning and redistribution of genes, environments, situations, etc, and not knowing what combination you would receive after the redistribution, how would you design a justice system?
posted by AceRock at 7:58 AM on July 16, 2011


If we accept material determinism...how would you design a justice system?

grumblebee's point above makes this a pointless question.
posted by smorange at 1:30 PM on July 16, 2011


Well, you've got me dead to rights there --- if free will does not exist, then how can arguing about its existence matter? Touche, I concede the point.

...

If we accept material determinism...how would you design a justice system?

grumblebee's point above makes this a pointless question.


I think these are both exceptionally interesting questions, but certainly not pointless. Without agency, we can't volitionally alter the nature of change, but neither can we, volitionally, stop it.

We might be flawed in our perception of free will but it's technically rather tricky to just give up and curl into a ball purely because of the existence of our own, personal, unreliable narrator. A lack of agency is not some para-Nietzschean 'will to indolence'.

We can't choose the stimulus, and we can't choose our response. But knowledge of the non-existence of free will *is* stimulus, and if it noticably changes our responses it's perfectly in keeping with our natures to explore that change. Determinism neither gives us all the answers nor satiates our natural curiosity (itself a constant stimulus).

And in response we can still create stimuli for others that, in preponderance, might lead to the the kinds of changes that we approve of - the desire for which is further stimuli - with such approval made by what rationality and knowledge we have thus far acquired.

Our choice to so create might not truly be a choice, but the consequences of our actions, as stimuli for others - as this sentence is both a response to the thread so far and a stimulus for proceeding commentators - can definitely effect and affect change.
posted by Sparx at 7:23 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I agree with the author of the article that we should take into consideration the biology of a criminal.
posted by veta7 at 12:45 PM on August 6, 2011


It's simple, there is no physical or material, scientific evidence of a structure that can be quantitatively said to house or create free will.

Once you realize that there is no free will
[...]

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because the thing doesn't seem to exist doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. In fact, since there is no physical evidence for it, I would say that the concept of free will evolved over time in order to answer some problematic questions about people and their nature: their unpredictability, and as a way to assign moral blame and thus provide incentives against behaviors that harm others (who are also given special status through the means of the concept of free wall).

In short: free will may or may not exist, but if we discard the idea that it does, it ultimately opens the door to more profoundly disruptive behavior.

- and also, that this does not in any way mean that there exists predestination, destiny or fate- then you can begin to forgive, everyone.

In fact I think free will, or something like it, exists. This is a personal belief and I don't seek to impose it on others. But having it, I feel it makes me more empathic towards others, not less, because it suggests there is a thing in there with which we may have empathy. If people are only mechanistic processes, like waterfalls or supernovas, then why care what happens to them? Then why do we care if we care?
posted by JHarris at 2:55 PM on August 6, 2011


« Older It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life...   |   EXPECT BIG DELAYS Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post