Cross-examining Neuroscience

Moreso than most fields of science, neuroscience has very much a humane element in that what neuroscience says about the mind plays a central role in what makes us human. Our understanding of the brain spans strategies from naïve reductionism to cogito ergo sum. Are we computers or animals? Do our thoughts control us or do we control them? How does the reasoning of one person differ from another? But, in all the places these questions have shaken our self-understanding, the courtroom invites the greatest minds to bring justice from ethics, law, science, and everything else. How does neuroscience fare in the legal system?

Before I continue, I must confess I know next to nothing about how much of the law works. Most of my understanding of the judicial system comes from watching “My Cousin Vinny” and playing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. However, My interest in the issues scientists and physicians face comes from something more fundamental than what a lawyer thinks. It should be about what should be right and wrong. I hope this ethical examination of the biggest dilemmas in neuroscience could focus more on what people “should” do rather than what people “can” do. In other words, before we can come to a conclusion of whether or not something is illegal or not, we must take a look at the ethical understanding of neuroscience.

“Uh… everything that guy just said is bullsh*t… Thank you.”

The relationship between neuroscience and philosophy has always been tense. It would be far too easy to attribute much of who we are to the physical phenomena in the brain without paying attention to what ethicists and philosophers have written on morality.

But our scientific understanding of the brain shouldn’t detract from any philosophical concept of free will. While science is able to explain anything about empirical, observable phenomena, the fundamental metaphysical framework of free will and the self remain underneath. Is it really true that our advances in biochemistry and neuroscience will change and possible our concepts of free will from philosophy? The issue that persists in courtrooms is that many contemporary philosophers argue that we only have physical freedom, as in, our free will only goes so far as to what our bodies are physically capable of doing. And, as neuroscientists continue to crack the code of the brain, some scientists have asked, “If everything is just a product of physical phenomena in the brain, how can we hold people responsible for anything?” We might need an understanding of neuroscience to enter the political and legal sphere for us to account for even the slightest of bias, cognitive or otherwise, that might impair our judgement. Neuroscientist David Eagleman suggests this deeper understanding of the mind could explain much of our behavior, and, through this, we can determine a person’s responsibility his or her actions (e.g., someone predisposed to a specific mental disorder might not be criminally guilty for committing a certain crime.)

While using neuroscience to gain a better understanding of who we are is fine and dandy, things get complicated rather quickly. If a murderer had an abusive childhood, does that excuse him from responsibility of his actions? What about mentally ill criminals who, not only lack, but are physically unable to empathize? And, even if there are physical bodily responses that govern behavior, why should that stop at the uncontrollable forces within our neurons? What if the cause extended further, down to our own thoughts? Despite cries to end the idea of a “psychosomatic illness,” it’s certainly true that, when one imagines him or herself standing on the edge of a cliff, he or she experiences a physical response akin to the situation itself (e.g., sweating, rapid breathing, etc.) Does this mean that our own thoughts can control physical responses, and, in turn, control our behavior in this way, too? As the answers turn cloudy, it becomes clear that we can’t completely replace our notions of free will and responsibility with what neuroscience tells us about the physical connections in the brain. Before the brain can tell us what we’re culpable of in the courtroom, we should find a system of relating neuroscience with ethics.

In order to do this, neuroscience research should become more ethically-focused and succumb less to the whims of other influences such as the government groups. Dr. Miguel Faria, Professor of Neurosurgery and Associate Editor in Chief of Surgical Neurology International, says neuroscientists should “adhere to a code of Medical Ethics dictated by their conscience and their professional calling — and not imposed by the state.” In addition, Faria warns of an authoritarian future in which the government has usurped scientific knowledge for its own purposes. He says, “Our modern society, not even in democratic self-governance, to say nothing of authoritarian systems, has not advanced in ethical or moral wisdom to deal with the problems emanating from the technical and social ‘progress’ of the age.” While a self-serving solution of discerning the defendant’s  responsibility based on his or her brain patterns might seem seductively plausible, a government-run nightmare looms around the corner. In the face of these threats, it’s up to scientists, the masters and diplomats of their own crafts, to make a statement to the world about what’s important.

Maybe the fight between the forces of good and evil comes down to the matter of grit.

No, not that kind of grit.

No matter how hard we try to fight justice, it’s far more important for us to remain strong within ourselves about who we are. While the debates rage on, the grit that drives us to keep trying might someday save the neuro- disciplines from brain-bashing and help lawyers get their paperwork together. Until then, the jury’s out. 

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