U.S. Intellectual History Blog

I’ll just come right out and say it…

This has little to do with U.S. intellectual history. I could insult your intelligence with some clever argument about contextualizing this, problematizing that, analyzing our presumptions and so on. But the reality is that I just thought it was so damned interesting that I had to post it.

The following quote is from an article by David Eagleman, in the current issue of The Atlantic. Called “The Brain on Trial,” it argues that our current legal understandings of culpability and commonsensical notions of “free will” are collapsing under the weight of scientific evidence suggesting how much of what we do is determined by things outside of our control: in particular, the function and dysfunction of our brains. (He gives the example of Charles Whitman, who climbed the Tower at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966 and shot and killed a large number of people. I attended UT and had heard all about Whitman. But I never knew that he had complained to doctors about his increasingly violent thoughts and wrote a suicide note asking that his brain be autopsied upon his death. The postmortem found a tumor pressing upon his amygdala; this condition would certainly account for the complaints that Whitman had made, and for his behavior. Had he lived and had the tumor removed, would we say that he was to blame for killing those people? If we determined that he was not culpable, would that be the same as declaring that he should be allowed to roam around free and unmonitored?)

“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…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.”

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Is it just me, or does this scientistic nonsense get trotted out every time there’s some new “discovery” that gets overhyped in the media? It’s probably been that way since Darwin.

  2. I’m with Varad. The problem is exacerabated by the fact that the more popular theories in contemporary philosophy of mind are often “naturalist” and tend toward “scientism,” even though they cut across the grain of much contemporary philosophy of science. On this generally, see Steven Horst, Beyond Reduction: Philosophy of Mind and Post-Reductionist Philosophy of Science. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    On the dangers of uncritically appropriating or misinterpreting research in neuroscience and related dangers regarding the “mind/body problem,” please see:

    Bennett, M.R. and P.M.S. Hacker. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.

    Descombes, Vincent (Stephen Adam Schwartz, tr.). The Mind’s Provisions: A Critique of Cognitivism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

    Hutto, Daniel D. The Presence of Mind. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1999.

    Hutto, Daniel D. Beyond Physicalism. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2000.

    Pardo, Michael S. and Dennis Patterson, “Minds, Brains, and Norms” (July 10, 2009). Neuroethics, Forthcoming. University of Alabama Public Law Research Paper. Available://ssrn.com/abstract=1432476

    Pardo, Michael S. and Dennis Patterson. “Philosophical Foundations of Law and Neuroscience” (February 6, 2009). University of Illinois Law Review, 2010. University of Alabama Public Law Research Paper No. 1338763. Available://ssrn.com/abstract=1338763

    Robinson, Daniel N. Consciousness and Mental Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

    Velmans, Max. Understanding Consciousness. London: Routledge, 2000.

  3. I agree with Mike that this is indeed most interesting.

    More interesting to me than the faulty interpretation and inferences drawn from scientific data is the function that such an interpretation serves, the question that it supposedly answers. I have seen several links to this article and have seen it referenced in a few online discussions — and I am interested in what makes the article interesting to the editors and the readers.

    The focus on nature v. nurture, or free will v. determinism, or gender essentialism v. social roles — all that stuff seems to me to be almost accidental to the essential problem that makes articles like this one so interesting: the awful burden of existence as beings who must constantly choose.

    I want to know why that existential problem might be a subject of focus at this cultural moment, and why this particular way of addressing the problem — a popular biologists/psychologists/other experts — might offer some satisfaction. For the general reader, what is the consequence of entertaining or accepting the idea that “criminal minds” may not be culpable in the sense that their choices might be determined? What relief is to be gained now, these days, from the notion that free will is an illusion, and what is the price and the consequence of such relief?

  4. I’m with Lauren on this one. This has everything to do with intellectual history, At the most basic level, it is an update of what Cesare Lombroso was saying in the late 1800s.

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