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"Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view."

- Richard P. Feynman, Physicist

"There is a danger in clarity, the danger of over looking the subtleties of truth."

-Alfred North Whitehead

June 13, 2011

The Brain as a Team of Rivals

David Eagleman, in his recent book, Incognito, The Secret Lives of the Brain, argues that the brain is composed of various modules, some with competing objectives, comprising a “team of rivals”.

Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine and director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law, further argues that “blame-worthiness” in the criminal justice system is the wrong question. He persuasively argues that as the understanding of the brain advances, including our understanding of the neurological bases for much deviant behavior, behavior for which defendants had been considered “blameworthy” now lead to legal findings of “not-blameworthy.”

Eagleman argues that the only question is whether the behavior of the defendant can be modified. If it can, then rehabilitation, sometimes in the form of punishment, is appropriate. If the behavior is not modifiable, then a defendant should be warehoused in a place where he or she cannot harm the public.

Eagleman’s perspective on the criminal justice system is purely scientific, and his conclusions logically flow from this perspective. However, as I have argued in other entries in this blog, the criminal justice system is not merely a treatment system, but a social and political institution built on a society’s history and beliefs including religious beliefs—many of which are antithetical to scientific findings and the scientific method. The use of science in the law has sociological limits.

Eagleman’s book addresses many of questions involved in deciphering human behavior and is a must read for anyone involved in the criminal justice system or engaged in any undertaking that involves the modification of human behavior.

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