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Brain in the Dock

Much public debate, especially in the area of ethics, is being fueled by new work in neuroscience. Scientists are now able to analyze the “lighting storm” which occurs in our brains whenever we move an arm, react to an event or feel the urge to eat. One part of this research suggests that many decisions are taken due to unconscious reasons. A criminal might, for example, be responding to an urge that is below their consciousness; they are not aware of it. The same neuroscience contests that these mechanisms are a result of both the genetic pre-disposition and the environment the person inherits. These are the primary causes leading to a state of being which in turn leads to an action, a crime perhaps. Of course, this line of thought has ramifications for the criminal justice system. Should judges be guided by evidence provided by neuroscience when passing judgment? David Eagleman thinks they should. He suggests that this could lead to a system based less on culpability (since free will plays less of a role in criminal activity) and more on treatment to correct these “dispositions.”

Eagleman cites a case where a man develops an interests in pedophilia. He acts on his urge and is arrested. Meanwhile he is diagnosed with a brain tumor. The tumor is removed and the pedophilia urges disappear. Later, when the urges return, the doctors discover a return of the tumor and remove it. The man is free of pedophilia as long as the tumor does not return. This goes to show, says Eagleman, that states of the brain are beyond the control of the person.

However, if the criminal is predisposed to certain states then so is the judge. Therefore, the judgment passed is equally determined by genetics, environment and synapses. A judge might argue that his sentence of life in prison is a result of his own conditioning – his own genes and environment. Given that scenario, the scientist sets himself up a kind of mediator, a neutral arbitrator. But how can he be? Surely, given his point of view, he too is a result of genes and environment.

The above considerations assume that man be the ultimate judge of culpability. It is a one layered view. If all one has is a group of preconditioned humans deliberating over the treatment for moral mishap, then there is no ultimate authority. It is a matter of consensus. The judgment, in a single layered universe, is only made from within itself; it has no outside authority. Is this not the same effort made by man in the garden of Eden when he assumes the role of judge of good and evil?

Eagleman's scenario also relies on the assumption that that pedophilia is morally wrong. On what grounds do we make this assertion? If the dual forces of environment and genetic make-up are the fundamental conditions which cause the action, then those things are also the causes for the judgment that pedophilia is somehow wrong. We are therefore subject to these conditions for our moral convictions. In that case, they remain merely convictions; they cannot be absolute or universal. They would be “as timeless as fashion in hats” (Straw Dogs John Gray p. 103).

So, let us subvert the order here. Let us agree to the premise that a person is fundamentally oriented by his genes and by the environment in which he lives. But we cannot allow the single level view of Eagleman. As Christians we believe in another level – in God. God is not subject to any conditioning outside himself. He is not taken unawares by his actions; they do not surprise him. Our level is God's creation and only God has the right to judge creation and he alone is the condition for all that his creation—the other level—knows morally.

Now let us look again at the example of the pedophile. He also knows that he acts against the ultimate and so does the judge. Paul tells us that he knows God—and his absolute goodness—but suppresses that truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1). It is this piece of knowledge, known by both the court judge and the criminal, which allows for judgments to be delivered rendering a criminal liable to punishment. This holds true even when both criminal and judge consciously deny God. Both parties cannot get free of God because it is in him that they live and breathe and have their being (Acts 17). Knowledge, in this case, is not confined to the one level with its environment and its genetics; knowledge is reliant on the upper level for meaningful discourse about the created order. Pedophilia is morally wrong because of God. As Cornelius Van Til would say: morality is what it is because of who God is (The Defense of the Faith Cornelius Van Til).

If one is to argue that the criminal is culpable one must contest for the moral category of “person.” On what basis do we arrive at such an idea? One might argue that there is a person who is not material and not subject to genes and environment behind the action of the body. This immaterial “soul” is culpable even if the body is subject to forces outside its control. This is the option favored by Descartes and has largely fallen out of favor. Eagleman gives this view short shrift. How can the person be so radically altered by the changes in the brain if the person is immaterial? This is a difficult question for a dualist of the Cartesian type. The other option, favored by follows of Schopenhauer, is to be rid of the idea of person. Such a moral category is difficult to sustain against the idea of conditioned brain. The lightening Storm does not necessarily have to be a moral category – a person. Person may be an illusion. In this case only the brain is on trial. If it is the brain that is guilty, then there is, in principle, no need for a crime. If one can ascertain the genetic and environmental causes of crime, one has no need to wait until a crime actually takes place. The brain could be tried and convicted before any harm is done.

In a single layered universe “person” is a difficult idea to retain. But we do not live in a single layer. We live in a created order with a creator who is the guarantor of personhood. God is one God in three persons. We are created in his image – as persons. We are culpable for all our actions, firstly to God, then to each other as God has ordered it. This is why God has given us government - “it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Rom 13:4).

The truth is that in a one layered universe culpability is ultimately unsustainable. If there is no ultimate outside authority, then there can be no derivative inside authority; if there is no absolute moral category, there can be no moral judgement. But even when we dismiss God we can only assume him. We are dependent beings whether we acknowledge it or not.