SO who decides what we do — our biology or us? Is there anyone home, or do we just run through our decisions the way nature programmed us? I didn’t think there was a lot more to say about free will, which often provokes dull, abstract debates, but a presentation in Puebla, Mexico last week by David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College, fascinated me.
Eagleman’s speech — and I saw a lot of good ones last week at La Ciudad de las Ideas, an ideas conference — had real consequences for our society and our criminal justice system specifically.
He started by mentioning that our brains are made up of roughly 100 billion neurons, each as complicated as the city of Puebla, and each one wired to thousands of others. But there’s a stranger inside our brain: “Deeply carved evolutionary programs run in the background.”
So many of our decisions are unconscious, he says — we’re more likely, for instance, to marry someone whose name shares a first name with ours (guilty as charged). A lot of violent criminals, he says, had brain tumors and things like that, including Charles Whitman, who went on a shooting spree from a tower at the University of Texas in 1966.
To what extent, Eagleman asked, “does the mental equal the physical”? Is biology destiny? How does morality and decision making look different when we digest all of this?
Meanwhile, in the U.S., we have a one-size-fits all criminal justice system — we lead the world in incarceration, and 30 percent of those behind bars have some kind of mental illness.
I’m skeptical of reductive neuroscience explanations — I think the human soul and human relationships, and especially our culture are more complex than some scientists acknowledge. But Eagleman was persuasive.
Eagleman, who’s written several books and founded the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law at Baylor. Dude is worth watching.