The Brain on Trial

by Dan Jordan

The Brain on Trial

When I was in college I initially pursued a degree in philosophy. (Save your jokes – I have never been a particularly career-oriented person.) What interested me most was epistemology and the philosophy of mind. However what I found as I studied these subjects was that most of the literature was not philosophy per se, but was instead scientific hypotheses without the necessary means of testing them.

I became convinced that, just as chemistry used to be considered a branch of philosophy until science developed far enough to take over, so too would the study of our minds be eventually transferred to the science departments of our universities. So I turned my studies to political science, which contrary to what its practitioners will tell you is in no way a science.

I became more interested in the study of mind from the inside, and this led me to the eastern meditative traditions. Western philosophy, aside from the occasional phenomenological movement, has never really appreciated the value of experience talis qualus. If it can’t be put into words by an objective third party, an experience or theory has no place in traditional western philosophy.

(“I think therefore I am” may seem the simplest and profoundest of truths, but it conceals a hugely hidden variable. What is this “I” that “is”?)

The breakthrough came for me in one epistemology lecture from the brilliant Paul Churchland. He was comparing various philosophical approaches to the study of knowledge and noted that they are all dependent on language.

This is interesting, because language is itself a learned ability. It is entirely possible to learn something (fire is hot) without needing any recourse to language. What this means is that words describing a mental state will not be a description of what is actually going on in the brain.

When we study the mind we have traditionally been using folk psychology. If I say that I am angry I am describing a specific mental state which is more accurately explained by the activation of different parts of the brain. Saying “I am angry” is like saying “the sun rose this morning” – you know what I mean, but what I am saying is not a scientifically accurate statement. The sun didn’t “rise” this morning. The planet we are on made one full rotation as it orbited its source of daylight.

The linked article develops along these lines. Our justice system has always presupposed the existence of free will, a concept that makes sense when used in conversation, but has never been even close to being settled. 

If a brain tumor causes a man to kill his family, can we hold him responsible? Clearly we cannot. If the nature of the tumor is such that it cannot be removed it would be irresponsible to release the man back into society since he will be likely to cause further harm, but at no point are we “blaming” him for his actions.

If it is discovered through further neuroscience research that other criminal acts are caused by biological functions over which the individual has no control, what shall we do? From the article:

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.

This is not to say that punishment has no place in society. But its purpose must be one of deterrence and prevention, not vengeance. And taking someone out of society should be done with the goal of rehabilitation, not with a desire for retribution.

And this, I imagine, is where things will get tricky, because it is fundamental to our concept of justice that bad people deserve bad things to happen to them. We love vengeance. It makes sense that evolution would give us this trait. Those that cause harm to the tribe must be removed from the tribe. It was bad enough dealing with water scarcity, other tribes, plagues, and saber-toothed tigers without having to deal with that asshole Fred who kept killing his fellow tribesmen.

When we describe a human as simply being “bad” or “evil” we are using folk psychology to describe something that is much more complicated. A person may very well fit our definition of evil, and he may very well need to be removed from society for his or our own good, but the world – and the people in it – are never as simple as words make it seem.