Commentary Magazine

The Criminal Mind

To the Editor:

Robert Herritt’s review of Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld, resurrects the old mind-body dualism, the idea that the mind and body are separate entities that just happen to intersect in the brain [“Gray Matter Chatter,” June]. This archaic concept implies that there are behaviors (e.g. consciousness) that exist in a parallel psychic universe to the brain. Are Herritt, Satel, and Lilienfeld ready to return to the philosophy of Descartes, who believed that this interaction between mind and body occurs in the pineal gland and, like Galen, thought this was where animal spirits were formed and released into the nerves?

It was the research of Thomas Willis, Paul Broca, and countless others that led us to our current understanding of localization of functions in the brain. As Donald Hebb pointed out more than 50 years ago, these localized areas are more than specific groups of cell bodies or nuclei; rather, they comprise circuits of cells (cell assemblies) that act in a reverberatory fashion. This is probably the basis for memory, which Mr. Herritt so arrogantly dismisses.

Morton Werber
Gaithersburg, Maryland

To the Editor:

I thoroughly enjoyed Robert Herritt’s review of Brainwashed, which acknowledged the gains by neuroscience while refuting its false conclusions. Mapping brain functions does not pertain to moral responsibility, since this is not a scientific issue. Moreover, its conclusions on this matter have long been addressed, and the studies, as Mr. Herritt notes, “rarely reveal anything meaningful that most non-neuroscientists didn’t know already.”

Yet there is something disturbing about its applications, which go beyond its errant theories. Some advocates hold that “neurocriminology” should guide judges and juries to base sentencing decisions on the criminal’s inherited characteristics and environmental conditioning. Conversely, our criminal-justice system derives from legal theory based upon evil deeds (actus reus) and evil intent (mens rea). There is intentionally no regard for hereditary or environmental factors, because our legal heritage presupposes personal responsibility. To consider determinative causes during sentencing attempts to cure the perpetrator instead of providing punishment and public safety. Sentencing should be strictly based on the terms of the crime, and not the pretense that we can replace the lessons incorporated in our traditions with scientific analysis of the criminal’s mental state. It would result in penalizing the innocent, while rewarding the demonstrably guilty.

Hence what begins as a theoretical formulation directly undermines our heritage and criminal-justice system.

Allen Weingarten
Monroe, New Jersey

Robert Herritt writes:

Somewhere in my review of Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld’s Brainwashed, Morton Werber has detected a sympathy for Cartesian dualism, not just in my own brief discussion of the mind-body problem, but in the arguments advanced by the book’s authors. I should first note that, although Satel and Lilienfeld don’t delve too deeply into metaphysics, they do assert that “the mind is not identical with the matter that produces it.” Whether or not this view is correct, it doesn’t necessarily commit them to anything like Descartes’s substance dualism.

As for my own comments on the subject, I merely suggest that the project of explaining consciousness and other mental phenomena in purely physical terms requires more than a straightforward description of brain processes. Even if we assume that the mind and the brain are, in fact, the same exact thing, there remains something about the qualitative character of subjective experience that needs explaining—or, at the very least, explaining away. Surely Mr. Werber can agree that an account of how “circuits of cells” in my brain act “in a reverberatory fashion” to produce memory—as valid as that account might be—doesn’t say anything about what it feels like when I recall reading Descartes’s Meditations for the first time.

Those who see debates of this kind as indulgent or inconsequential might take note of Allen Weingarten’s response. He raises the important issue of how the unavoidable causes of illegal behavior—including brain-based causes—should affect considerations about criminal justice. If ever there were an instance where clear, consistent thinking about the relationship between minds and brains was required, it is here. In order to determine whether discoveries in neuroscience—or in any other domain for that matter—demand that we reevaluate established ways of meting out justice, we’ll need to recognize when discoveries are both relevant and enlightening, and why.

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