July 30, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Daniel Lende and Greg Downey:
This NYT Sunday Op-Ed “Did Your Brain Make You Do It?” opens, “Are you responsible for your behavior if your brain ‘made you do it’? Often we think not.”
The piece goes on to argue that we need to consider carefully how we attribute responsibility to a person, and what role neuroscience and our understanding of the brain will play in that.
The authors, both psychologists, critique the “naive dualism” of people – that people either attribute biological or psychological causation to our actions: “This is the belief that acts are brought about either by intentions or by the physical laws that govern our brains and that those two types of causes — psychological and biological — are categorically distinct.”
I do think this distinction is a good shorthand, particularly for Western societies. This type of dual thinking pops up all the time with addiction – either the drugs or the disease made them do it, or they meant to or they failed because they lacked self-control.
But I find the analysis of this type of thinking by George Lakoff in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things more compelling, since it brings language, everyday experience, cultural traditions, and cognition to bear on understanding billiard ball vs. intentional causal thinking.
In fact, what I found most striking in the op-ed was how the two psychologists conflate the two, and reduce intentions to brain states, in a central but subtle section of the essay:
“As a general matter, it is always true that our brains ‘made us do it.’ Each of our behaviors is always associated with a brain state.”
Here a linguistic expression, a metaphorical statement, is reduced to brain states. This is a basic premise of much of neuroscience, central to the work of neuroimaging, for example, linking images of brain states with some experimental task.
As they point out, this type of analysis is not that useful. It’s like saying, language use is associated with words. Wow.
They want to insert statistical thinking into the mix here, saying that’s the proper tool for examining the relationship between brain states and actions. They want to substitute “how strong is the relationship between cause and effect” for an either/or choice. I don’t think that is much of an advance at all.
Well, it is an advance in scientific knowledge, but not in complex reasoning about human action and responsibility.
In the end, their reduction of human language and action to brain states reinforces the very causal model they have of neuroscience, and subtly reinforces the expertise of neuroscience and neuroscientists to make judgments about human behavior. “Made you do it” becomes the brain states they study. Your “naive dualism” becomes their expertise.