Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Neuro-law -- is this a brave new world or dystopia on the horizon

I heard a chilling discussion on NPR's Fresh Air. Jonathen Rosen was talking about his NY Times Magazine piece on Neuro-law -- a whole new field of law that explores our neurological wiring and capacity for rational choice. Consider this quote from Rosen's article:
"To a neuroscientist, you are your brain; nothing causes your behavior other than the operations of your brain," Greene says. "If that's right, it radically changes the way we think about the law. The official line in the law is all that matters is whether you're rational, but you can have someone who is totally rational but whose strings are being pulled by something beyond his control." In other words, even someone who has the illusion of making a free and rational choice between soup and salad may be deluding himself, since the choice of salad over soup is ultimately predestined by forces hard-wired in his brain. Greene insists that this insight means that the criminal-justice system should abandon the idea of retribution -- the idea that bad people should be punished because they have freely chosen to act immorally -- which has been the focus of American criminal law since the 1970s, when rehabilitation went out of fashion. Instead, Greene says, the law should focus on deterring future harms. In some cases, he supposes, this might mean lighter punishments. "If it's really true that we don't get any prevention bang from our punishment buck when we punish that person, then it's not worth punishing that person," he says. (On the other hand, Carter Snead, the Notre Dame scholar, maintains that capital defendants who are not considered fully blameworthy under current rules could be executed more readily under a system that focused on preventing future harms.)
The NPR show highlighed privacy concerns and concerns that we can't hold anyone accountable for anything because we're ultimately hard-wired to do it. Implications are amazing! Would a move in this direction mean that our legal system believes there is no "ghost in the machine"? Vanderbilt Law school is leading the way in exploring this field, raising all kinds of questions about responsibility and behavior. Meanwhile, tech blogger David Duncan thinks this is all bluster -- like the weatherman's wide-eyed prognostications of storms that turn out to be nothing but drizzle:

Like many new worlds presented by technology, this one seems frightening, though as a self-proclaimed (by my brain) biopragmatist, I suspect that cooler heads will prevail. Indeed, my neuroscientist friends and acquaintances point out that the understanding of the brain is very crude right now. The mechanics of how tumors impact behavior and what it means when a region of the brain associated with criminal behavior fires up during an fMRI scan are poorly understood.

Personally, I'll stick with the poet Alexander Pope's hope that human beings will be left free. I also suspect that free will won't be in danger anytime soon; that we are decades if not centuries away from understanding the complexity of environmental inputs, genetics and physiology that impact what our brains will do or not do.
Meanwhile, I think we Calvinists have an opportunity here. We've always been caricatured as fatalists who viewed the world as dancing at the end of God's strings. The Westminster confession sure seems to sound this way "God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy."

Our theology, however has always held a strong position for both Divine Soveriegnty and human responsibility. Westminster has a whole section on Free will "God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined to good or evil." Westminster goes on to posit that our free will is corrupted, not coerced, by the fall -- our strength for goodness is sapped from us. We become as weak as an end stage cancer patient, whose body fights a losing battle against the disease that will kill. It is by God's renewing grace that we receive miraculous spiritual healing so that we may choose:

"When God converteth a sinner and translateth him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and, by his grace alone, enableth him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good, yet so as that, by reason of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil."

Simply put -- the predestinarian Presbyterians hold both to Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility. I think that we have a few things to say about this neurolaw development. We can say that the wiring of our brains is not a prision; We are not trapped in the box of "genetic predisposition". This is the message of amazing grace to us -- God works and brings grace into our lives, but we are not coerced. I hope that some of our deeper theologians will tackle this one head on.

Soli Deo Gloria