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The New Scientific Revolution - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

The New Scientific Revolution [Jun. 25th, 2011|09:36 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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I thoroughly enjoyed this lengthy but brilliant article on criminal justice by star neuroscientist David Eagleman, which serves as a case study of the impact of science on moral questions. Eagleman starts from the examples of University of Texas shooter Charles Whitman and another accused man, both of whom were later found to have brain tumors that completely explained their criminal behavior. Next, he rejects the tendency to sweep these under the rug as extreme or atypical cases, drawing upon the example of a Parkinson's drug that can produce equally aberrant behavior in much larger classes of people.

Eagleman argues forcefully that there is no categorical difference between these examples and everyday criminal behavior. The distinction comes down to the simplicity of explanation: a single drug or tumor versus a complex of genetic and environmental factors that affect neural circuitry and chemistry. But it doesn't matter—either way, the invocation of "free will" as a causal agent for actions is equally wrong.

Philosophers bicker endlessly about free will in the abstract, but Eagleman's ends are eminently practical. His point is that neuroscience exposes blameworthiness as a meaningless concept, and hence it should be irrelevant as a legal principle. Of course, he is not advocating letting criminals walk free; instead, he shows that the foundational thinking behind retributive justice is fundamentally at odds with science, and that a theory of justice that focuses on future behavior of the accused and on rehabiliation is the only ethical course.

While this might surprise or shock some of you, it is not the reason for this post. What I think is remarkable about Eagleman's article is it illustrates, blow by blow, how science can essentially settle a question that has traditionally been considered to lie almost entirely in the realm of philosophy. I will admit that philosophy still has a role, but a ruthlessly empirical kind rather than the traditional one.
Pardon my excitement, but the importance of the broader movement cannot be overstated. If neurolaw is looking to effect no less than a revolution in the legal system, elsewhere the New Atheists are arguing increasingly successfully that science can and should take on religion, and that the two are fundamentally incompatible. Sam Harris brought a lot of this together in his TED Talk "Science can answer moral questions".

Buttressed in part by the recent meteoric increase in the power of data to address human questions, we're seeing a spectacular land-grab by science and empiricism from other domains of knowledge and understanding, and the rejection of the idea of separate spheres of applicability. Clearly this movement is in its early stages and faces a long road ahead, but I believe that the wheels have been set in motion and it is only a matter of time until we witness the final ascendancy of science as the ultimate arbiter of human actions—the culmination of the scientific revolution.