Baylor College of medicine rock star
neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of Incognito:
The secret lives of the brain, offers a simple thesis: “The brain runs its show
incognito.” Strictly speaking, if materialism is true, there is no one for the brain
to be incognito from. However, Eagleman is not a man given to strictly speaking,
so he stops short of asserting that materialism is emphatically true. He suspects
Incognito is an interesting book, though it suffers from a structural flaw: It
starts out dominated by conventional first-year psychology trivia aimed at convincing
us that we are strangers to ourselves. Sometimes, it is mildly interesting (for
example, people born on the second day of a month are marginally more likely to
live in cities with “Two” or “Twin” in their name). But after a while that sort
of information irritates.
Eagleman’s key reason for writing is his no-free-will
views on penal reform. He offers many odd examples of people committing murder in
“automatic” states. But his reasoning toward the idea that no one is ever responsible
feels very slippery. Most cases going through the criminal courts feature non-psychopaths
who considered the risk of crime worth taking. If neuroscience cannot deal with
that fact, so much the worse for it.
He argues that the legal system can dispense
with free will because “… we may be able to think about bad decision making in
the same way we think about any other physical process, such as diabetes or lung
disease.” Steady on: People who have diabetes and lung disease do not necessarily
suffer due to bad decisions. Even if they do, they often have not harmed anyone
else, and can choose to alleviate their suffering by a given method or not. That
hardly resembles a criminal conviction.
The reader wades from one confusion to the next:
“Those who break the social contracts need to be warehoused, but in this case the
future is of more importance than the past.” “Warehoused”? How, exactly,
is that a reform? We are also told that a criminal’s “actions are sufficient evidence
of a brain abnormality, even if we don’t know (and maybe will never know) the details.”
Yes, but one may as well say that a criminal’s “actions are sufficient evidence
of infestation by Square Circle Disease, even if we don’t know (and maybe will never
know) the details.”
When evaluating a book whose basic thesis feels
so far off the mark, I ask for expert help. For Eagleman’s explanation of why quantum
processes in the brain cannot instantiate free will, I asked a physicist, Rob Sheldon, to look at his
Eagleman thinks that the quantum level (the
inner workings of elementary particles), claimed by many to be indeterminate, really
is determined, and that chaos theory is deterministic as well (pp. 168-69). Sheldon
relation says that we can’t know both x_0 and v_0 perfectly, for if we try to measure
or even know one of them, the other one gets very uncertain. Therefore in principle,
the initial conditions needed for determinism to work are impossible. Determinism
is a lost cause.
“Chaos [theory] says
merely that vanishingly small changes can have big effects. QM introduces a small
but not vanishing effect.
In other words, quantum mechanics is about the
non-locality of elementary particles (ie, they do not have to be in only one place
at one time) and chaos theory is about determining the strength of causes. Neither
can be used to make a case for no free will.
In the same way, to bolster his ideas, Eagleman
touts the reported success of drugs for treating depression. But, while co-writing
Brain, I learned that much of the drugs’ effectiveness has turned
out to be the placebo
effect. Many people feel better once they are convinced that the anti-depression
drug works. Put another way: Many people need something to do the heavy lifting
for a while.
Finally, Eagleman treats the relationship between
law, crime, and a tendency to crime is straightforward. It isn’t. Having a glass
of wine in a public place is a caning
offence in some Islamic jurisdictions. In most non-Islamic jurisdictions, it is
merely regulated. Is every government equal in its ability to use concepts such
as Eagleman promotes wisely?
He senses this problem himself: “To my mind,
one of the landmark problems in modern neuroscience: as we come to understand the
brain, how can we keep governments from meddling with it?” Well, we can’t, if his
He goes merrily on to propose a brain change
scheme for offenders, which he describes as “without ethical worries.” He doesn’t
help his case by claiming that vigilantism best explains opposition to his ideas.
Some opponents are lifelong reformers who see why his ideas won’t work.
Eagleman claims that his approach is not reductionist,
and there is a grain of truth in that: He doesn’t think clearly enough for reductionism.
Essentially, he is unhappy with the criminal justice system and does not believe
in free will. But those two factors taken together do not give us a useful idea
where to go next.