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Neuroscience affects the way we ...

Posted Sep 13 2008 7:12pm

Neuroscience affects the way we think about ourselves. It affects how we think of normal and abnormal minds. It has influence on how people are judged according to law, whether they have been acting willfully or under the effect of psychoactive drugs, sleep disturbance, brain injury or psychiatric disease. But how do our scientific models relate to the way neuroscience is used in the courts?

In a new article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Nigel Eastman and Colin Campbell are giving a critical remark on how the law system is making use of neuroscience. They claim that:

(…) there is a profound mismatch of legal and scientific constructs, as well as methods, arising from their expression of different social purposes. More specifically, in terms of the stage that brain science is currently at, the law is unlikely, at least if it fully understands the science it is being offered, to prefer population based evidence of association of violence with biological variables, be they genetic or neuroimaging in nature, to psychological evidence that can suggest, even if not prove, mental mechanisms underlying commission of a particular offence.

Law and science are not using the same language. More to the point, judging a person on the basis of evidence that has been done on groups, is highly problematic, to put it mildly. This points to the very basis of one of my earlier blog remarks that doing group studies says little about our ability to put a single subject’s scan in one group or another.

So far so good. I completely agree. But at the very end, Eastman and Campbell make a strange conclusion:

Only if science were to achieve a very high level explanation of offending in terms of genetics or brain function might the position be altered. Perhaps fortunately, it seems likely that such explanation is a long way off. Indeed, some might say that, were we to achieve such a level of biological understanding of ourselves, we would have ‘biologically explained away personhood’, and have subsumed both legal and moral responsibility into biology.

Why would an explanation of the bio-basis of personality make us have less personality? Would a biological explanation of consciousness take our feelings away? I think this is a most strange assumption and it is academic BS! Let’s put it this simple: did the explanation of stars make them in any way less star-like? No.

So what are they really claiming? If you are a naturalist, like me, you actually do think that the mind is a direct result of what happens in the brain. And nothing else. By this view, the current science of the brain is incpmplete because we have not fully understood how this works. So if we find the biological solution to personhood, we have been able to describe what happens in the brain when we are conscious, acting individuals. And it will give us the means to explain what goes wrong when someone kills another person “unmotivated”, rapes a woman, steals and lies. We already know a bit about how this works and how it can go wrong. But this knowledge makes us not one single grain less human, does it? Actually, I’d say that the insights provides us the tools to intervene when something goes wrong, and to give the best possible treatment. In that sense, neuroscience is actually humanizing.

See also this transcript from “All in the mind” at Radio National.


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