Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Science is the new religion. Where religious truths once caused people to drop to their knees in awe and wonder, today scientific truths cause people to drop to their knees in awe and wonder.

Before you know it, a supposedly scientific fact will become a dogmatic truth.

If the hullabaloo over global warming taught us anything, it should have shown us that scientists suffer from their own special form of arrogance: imperial overreach.

Scientists do not content themselves with analyzing data and testing hypotheses. They feel that their great brains should not be limited to science.  

They want to make policy too. Climate scientists want to make industrial policy and energy policy and light bulb policy. All of it without admitting that there is no such thing as a scientific fact about tomorrow.

In psychology, the new field of neuroscience is all the rage right now. Surely, it represents a significant change in the field of psychology.

In the past psychologists erred in thinking that it was all in the mind. Now, cognitive neuroscientists have decided that it’s all in the brain.

To the point where, if David Eagleman’s new book, Incognito, is any indication, they want to use their knowledge of the workings of the brain to reform and overhaul the criminal justice system. Link here.

Now that we have succeeded in separating Church from State, how long will it take to separate Science from State?

Without evaluating the merit of the argument, we should understand that Eagleman is willing to to throw out the experience that has formed the criminal justice system  because some criminal somewhere had a brain tumor. And he is willing to supersede the common law view of civil responsibility because a Tourette’s patients performs involuntary motions.

Thus does Eagleman offer the latest scientific research into brain chemistry in order to establish that human beings have no free will and need not take quite so much, if any, responsibility for their actions.

No one questions that some individuals suffer from brain damage and that the brain damage causes them to commit crimes for which they should not be held accountable.

But does that mean that everyone who commits the same crimes is also suffering from brain damage and thus need not be held responsible for his behavior?

If John murdered ten people because he had a brain tumor can we say that anyone who murders ten people must also be suffering from some kind of biological deformity.

If so, is anyone ever really responsible for anything?

Watch out: science is coming after your freedom. No more, but no less.

In Eagleman’s words: “The crux of the problem is that it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘To what extent was it his biology, and to what extent was it him?,’ because we now understand that there is no meaningful distinction between a person’s biology and his decision-making. They are inseparable.”

Actually, it does make good sense to ask if there is a difference between biology and him, for the simple reason that if we collapse all human decision-making into a biological process we are also saying that there is no such thing as a human mind.

Where Buddhist therapy concerns the practice of mindfulness, the new cognitive doctrine is jumping into bed with mindlessness.

If you feel angry or jealous, how do you know that you are not simply playing the role of someone who feels anger or jealousy. If you are an actor and are playing Othello, do you not feel some level of jealousy? How do you know whether or not it is yours, and whether or not you should read it as relevant to your life.

And what is the nature of the “you” or mind that can make such distinctions.

If one part of your brain is pushing you to buy one brand of detergent and another part of your brain is pulling you toward another brand of detergent, who decides?

Even if you are drawn to Tide because its commercials resonate better with your biochemistry, perhaps that will make you run out to buy Wisk. Human beings are notoriously contrary. Sometimes they yield to temptation, but sometimes they resist it because they feel that it is a point of pride.

If you are choosing between two options, each of which has it’s proponents, then you are making a free choice. You might be more drawn to one or the other because of its packaging, but that does not make your choice less free.

Nor does it make you any less responsible for making a good decision. And let’s be clear a good decision is not necessarily the one that makes you feel better. It may well make you feel worse.

As soon as you accept the premises of Eagleman’s argument, you will discover that Citizens’s United was wrongly decided.

If we have no free will then certain people, government officials and academic philosophers, whose judgment is not corrupted by the profit motive, will gain the right to limit and inhibit political  speech, especially corporate speech.

They will argue that the siren song of such messages is so alluring that you will never be able to resist it. Thus, that corporate advertising is destroying deliberative democracy by making you vote Republican.

Take a great literary example. When trying to get back home to Ithaka after the Trojan War, Odysseus learns that he is going to be exposed to the alluring and irresistible song of the Sirens. He does not trust his willpower so he has his men tie him to the mast of his boat.

Is his an act of free will, sane rational judgment, or just another instance of your brain chemistry at work?

We need to keep in mind that cognitive neuroscience does not tell you the right or the wrong thing to do. It is morally neutral and will tell you what happens to  your brain circuits when you resist temptation and when you yield to it.

The debate between free will and determinism is as old as Western civilization. We know that free will has won out. Forget a scientist’s pretense to knowing metaphysical truths, ask yourself whether Western civilization has been better or worse since it enshrined the notions of free will and free trade and free speech and freedom of religion.

What would our culture look like if you eliminate those freedoms?

Take a look at the way Eagleman approaches depression, or better, how he lumps distinctly different medical conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia with depression.

He explains: “As recently as a century ago, a common approach was to get psychiatric patients to “toughen up,” through deprivation, pleading, or torture. Not surprisingly, this approach was medically fruitless. After all, while psychiatric disorders tend to be the product of more-subtle forms of brain pathology, they, too, are based in the biological details of the brain.

“What accounts for the shift from blame to biology? Perhaps the largest driving force is the effectiveness of pharmaceutical treatments. No amount of threatening will chase away depression, but a little pill called fluoxetine often does the trick.”

I imagine that some psychiatrists at one time told their patients to toughen up, but still, no one who knows anything about the field of therapy could possibly peddle such a distortion.

Freudian psychotherapy and its avatars did not try to treat mental illness by telling people to toughen up. Let’s call it a straw-man argument. It is empty and vacuous.

As for the miracle cures that little pills provide, one would imagine that a serious scientist would know that such pills are hardly a panacea for depression.

Psychiatrists who prescribe medication for depression have clearly noted that giving out pills without some kind of interaction with a therapist is far less effective than a pill accompanied by such an interaction.

Everyone but Eagleman knows by now that cognitive therapy is as helpful as the pills.

To make depression into a brain malfunction, and brain malfunction alone, is insulting to the person who is suffering from depression. It is saying that you do not much care about what is bothering the patient, do not want to be bothered with helping him deal with the proximate social causes of his problem, and are more than happy to consider him merely to be a biological organism you can subject to biological manipulation.

And as he ought to know biochemical treatments work more effectively on human subjects when you treat them like human beings, when you show some care and concern and are willing to recognize them as having human minds, human feelings, and the like.

Human beings get depressed when they feel that they do not have choices, and when they feel that there is nothing they can do to change the conditions that are causing their depression.

It is surprising that Eagleman is willing to traffic in such a caricature of depression.

But that is what happens when you deny that you have a mind and deny that you have free choice or responsibility. You end up becoming so thoroughly seduced by your ideas that you follow them over the cliff and make human beings into biological machines.

It may be a good way to rustle up grant money, but it is dangerously misleading as a basis for public policy or even for treatment.


David Foster said...

It is not logical to say "we *should* do such-and-such because humans don't have free will," because *we* are human, if if we don't have free will, then the whole idea of "should" is meaningless. This is all philosophy 101.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Not only did he fail to take first year philosophy, he seems to have concluded that, since he is a scientist, he does not have to.

Of course, he could have learned it in a first year course in religious studies too.

James Coughlin said...

Sounds like you're missing the point entirely to me. You oversimplify by asking the rhetorical question "is he saying if someone commits a crime, he must have brain damage and therefore cannot be held responsible?"'s not.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for your comment, James. I think it would have been better if you had offered some evidence for your views, but, so be it. Allow me to offer some of Eagleman's remarks, in his words, from the Atlantic article I linked:

1. Here's how he defines the question: "Like your heartbeat, breathing, blinking, and swallowing, even your mental machinery can run on autopilot. The crux of the question is whether all of your actions are fundamentally on autopilot or whether some little bit of you is “free” to choose, independent of the rules of biology."

2. This might lead us to believe that he is going to reserve a place for freedom. Here's his statement: "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."

3. And this on free will: "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."

4. As for the question of whether character enters the picture, Eagleman says this: "The more we discover about the circuitry of the brain, the more we tip away from accusations of indulgence, lack of motivation, and poor discipline—and toward the details of biology. The shift from blame to science reflects our modern understanding that our perceptions and behaviors are steered by deeply embedded neural programs."

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