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Hannah Silverblank's picture

In a little blurb from the

In a little blurb from the NY Times blog called "Brain Science vs. Criminal Law," the author asks readers, "Advances in neuroscience put it increasingly in conflict with criminal law: If all our mental states can ultimately be reduced to neurophysiological conditions, and there is really no such thing as free will, how can people be held accountable for crimes?" (

While asking these kinds of questions seems like a radical departure from traditional thought about law and culpability, it's true that the law has integrated certain "scientific" factors into our understanding and ruling of justice. Neurobiologically, we've come about as far as it gets since the U.S. Constitution was written, and the author of the NY Times blurb seems to think that the brain=behavior philosophy undermines the applicability of a vocabulary that includes words like "liberty" and "freedom." If we do not possess the liberty and freedom of traditional notions of free will and active choice, do we need to reevaluate the bend of our legal terminology and criteria?


When neuroscientists obtain a role in the ruling of justice, the court is transformed and the subtleties of cases can be deepened. For example, a greater understanding of a "psychopathic" brain may transform the assignment of guilt (a term whose usefulness could disappear in a world of self-less behavior, as proposed by the NY Times blurb) in certain court cases. In observing a psychopathic murderer, neuroscientist Kent Kiehl says to the jury, “'There are abnormalities in his brain function.'" Psychopaths make choices, he acknowledged, but “those choices are not necessarily informed by emotion in the same way ours are."



I think I'd like to know more about the physical processes that occur when decisions are made, so that I can more deeply understand the interplay between physiological occurrences and human agency. The idea of randomness of choice vaguely proposed by the NY Times blurb seemed unsatisfactory and lacking depth. I'm not particularly attached to any cohesive notion of my own self-hood, or of my absolute agency in my engagements, but I find it hard to believe that there is no character to the randomness, or no pattern in the chance of choice that unifies the actions of an individual in such a way that a legal system based on justice, freedom, liberty, and guilt would cease to retain its functionality.



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