Eagleman on free will and implications for systems management

By Marc Resnick

When I originally blogged about this, I had just heard an interview with David Eagleman on NPR.  He is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine and runs the Laboratory for Perception and Action there.  The interview was on remodeling the prison system using what we have learned about neuroscience.

But now that I have read his book Incognito, which deals with mental function in much wider detail, I want to expand a bit on the subject.  This is really interesting whether you are into psychology, ethics, philosophy, or just human nature in general.

Much of the book delves into the nature of consciousness and the idea of free will (he is a neuroscientist after all).  He uses a newspaper analogy, but I think a caucus illustrates his ideas a little better.  Imagine a really large organization (e.g. the Republican party) making a decision (e.g. passing a law) on a particular subject (e.g. the ceiling on government debt).  The brain is made up of all the people in the party.  They all may agree, or there can be dozens of different opinions on the subject.  Some people might have more influence than others.  Most of the wrangling goes on behind the scenes.  It’s like the proverbial sausage-making.  A disorganized process that creates something that looks organized when it comes out.

Consciousness is a reading of the law that gets passed.  Consciousness doesn’t know what all the opinions were or how many people lobbied for each one.  All consciousness knows is what got passed.  Most of our mental processing is made up of the unconscious caucus/sausage making while our consciousness is limited and often a misrepresentation of what happened in the unconscious processing (what sensations and ideas pushed the unconscious to make a decision in a particular way).  We constantly make up explanations to justify why we do what we do, but often these are wrong.  We don’t realize they are wrong, it’s just that we only had access to the final law that was passed, not the original debate.  We try to make up logical explanations for why such a law was passed, but as with real laws (and sausage making), the final result rarely looks like what went in.  Or to paraphrase A Few Good Men, “you can’t handle the truth.”  It is way too illogical.

This is a problem for free will.  What does that term even mean?  Our consciousness thinks that we are exerting free will, but much of the processing is going on unconsciously and is based on genetics, pre-natal and growing up experiences that were beyond our control, and other things that go against the idea of “free.”  It is not just nature versus nurture.  Even most of the nurture is really beyond our control.  So he can’t answer the question of whether we have free will, he doesn’t think that the concept really makes sense epistemologically.
The reason I love this particular book is that Eagleman is a real neuroscientist. He takes a very  complicated subject and makes it accessible.  But unlike Gladwell’sbooks, he is much more than a journalist so his descriptions, analogies, and explanations are more accurate.  Nothing against Gladwell, but there is always a book on the same topic, written by a real scholar, that is better.
In Chapter Six, Eagleman applies these ideas to punishment, particularly in the legal system (like the interview I blogged about earlier).  Imagine a 6-year old girl who writes with crayon all over the wall (his example).  You would expect her parents to punish her to teach her a lesson.  But what if she was sleepwalking when she did it?  You would instead expect that her parents would seek treatment.  But these are just two ends of a continuum.  What if she was awake, but had never been taught that this was wrong?  What if she had limited cognitive ability and couldn’t understand the difference between allowed and unallowed behavior?  What if she is a bad girl because of genetic influences that originated from her parents?  In fact, each of these are continua.  People aren’t absolutely good or bad, they are somewhere along the spectrum.  People are cognitively able or unable, they are somewhere along the spectrum (or many spectra).  People aren’t knowledge or unknowledgeable, they are somewhere along the spectrum.  And on and on.
Now extend this to our legal system.  As Eagleman describes, we (the U.S.)  assume that people either had the capacity to understand their crime or they didn’t.  They either had the intention to do the crime, or they didn’t.   They either understood the consequences of the crime, or they didn’t.  If the answer to any of these questions is no, we don’t prosecute the perpetrator of the act criminally.  Either they get off completely, or they get “sentenced” to medical treatment which ends when/if they get better.
What does he recommend instead?  He says instead of focusing on blame and culpability based on a concept of free will that doesn’t exist, we should focus the legal system on modifiability.  We should take the steps that will modify the person so they don’t do it again.  This may involve prison time.  It may involve “pre-frontal workouts” to give the person better impulse control.  It could be surgical intervention to remove a brain tumor that is causing a mental defect (he cites lots of these in the book, including one where a tumor caused pedophilia to appear out of nowhere, and then disappear when the tumor was removed.  Luckily this person had a smart wife who got him surgical treatment before he committed a crime.).
There are other components of criminal punishments beyond rehabilitation.  There is some value to society of getting a feeling of retribution.  There is some amount of punishment needed for deterrence.  He is against the former (considering it the equivalent of vigilantism) and ignores the latter (I think because he assumes nobody would commit any behavior they knew was wrong if they had impulse control, no matter how valuable the results might be).
I am not sure if I am 100% on the same page as he is, but it definitely brings up some very interesting points.  I would recommend to anyone interested in the psychology of human mental processing, the philosophy of free will, or the ethics of the legal system to read this book.