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    David Eagleman's Incognito: Not The Masters Of Our Destinies
    By Kim Wombles | October 15th 2011 08:53 AM | 8 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Instructor of English and psychology and mother to three on the autism spectrum.

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    "[W]ho you are depends on the sum total of your neurobiology." --David Eagleman


    Modern neuroscience is making advances in knowledge that our society is not keeping up with, may not be able to keep up with. David Eagleman explores these new inroads in what we know about the brain, the conscious mind, and free will in the interesting (and at times frustrating) Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.


    Some readers will get a kick out of Eagleman's terminology, referring to the subconscious and unconscious forces of the brain as zombie systems, and find, as Colbert did, the whole idea of a team of rivals, amusing.






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    Eagleman is a masterful writer, taking complex, convoluted material and offering it in a format that is entertaining and almost entirely jargon-free. Unlike Michael Shermer's dense but fascinating Believing Brains, Incognito is accessible to most readers. Both books, though, offer information that many people will not be willing to accept: the idea that we are not the masters of our own destiny, not in control.  Eagleman attempts to soften this idea of reducing our identity to the vagaries of our neurobiology by writing that "[i]f there's something like a soul, it is at a minimum tangled irreversibly with the microscopic details. Whatever else may be going  on with our mysterious existence, our connection to our biology is beyond doubt."

    Much of the book focuses on the neuroscience pointing to the reality that who we are, our conscious mind, is the tip of the iceberg, and that our thoughts and actions are not necessarily under our conscious control. In fact, the idea that we are simply a final arbiter of those competing zombie systems underlies Eagleman's book and moves the reader towards what Eagleman is really interested in presenting: the idea that our judicial system (and our society) must change to recognize that much of our behavior is not blameworthy--that our acts may not be under our control to stop, and that where these acts are not, punishment is a pointless exercise if the behavior is not modifiable.

    It is in this section of the book, that on blameworthiness, and Eagleman's ideas on how to reform the judicial system, that frustration kicked in. It's not that the ideals aren't worthy pursuing, but it seems hopelessly naive given the context that law enforcement and the judicial system today still give undue weight to eyewitness testimony and credibility to the polygraph. This section also seems out of place given the rest of the book's emphasis on relaying information about the current state of knowledge regarding the brain. It moves from factual, scientific information to speculation about how a responsive society and judicial system would deal with this knowledge.

    It undoubtedly felt organic to Eagleman and the clear end to where that new knowledge should lead us, but much like Simon Baron-Cohen's departure in his The Science of Evil into his ideal judicial system where psychopaths aren't put in prison but instead rehabilitated in a hospital setting, it is jarring and, I believe, will strike many as unlikely to ever occur.

    And that is because most people will ultimately reject this information, just as Shermer's books will not find favorable reactions from the masses. Our very wiring, our neurobiology, makes it almost certain that most will reject the idea that they are not in control, that their identity can be reduced to a three pound pink jello-like substance that is an electrochemical soup.

    Deepak Chopra's assertions about the mind will win over the masses far more readily than scientists like Shermer or Eagleman. There may be awe to be found in the reality, but it is a scary, terrifying reality for most people, even for those who accept it. No, Chopra's magical woo will no doubt be more appealing than the likelihood that the mind and the brain are one:
    "The mind is invisible, yet everything it thinks or feels requires a physical response in the brain. If you know what the brain is doing, you know what the mind is doing, or so the scientific method, based on materialism, holds to be true. But a huge mystery, known as the mind-body problem, is being begged. As long as we ignore the mind, we may be making profound mistakes about the brain."
    The idea that we are our mind and that our mind is not our brain allows us to continue with the fantasy that we are the masters of our destinies, imbued with free will and the ability to transcend our physical reality.

    Eagleman's work is an important one and well worth the read, but the reality is that it's likely that people who pick it up already knew a great deal of that information he presents and he may merely be preaching to the choir.

    Comments

    I've got a new metaphor...science sees in black and white, while life is lived in technicolor.
    You can only prove me wrong in print.
    Love you, Kim, for your kindness, not your brains.

    Rose

    kwombles
    I like the metaphor, Rose. Love you, too. Missed you; I hope things are going well.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    Gerhard Adam
    ...the idea that our judicial system (and our society) must change to recognize that much of our behavior is not blameworthy--that our acts may not be under our control to stop, and that where these acts are not, punishment is a pointless exercise if the behavior is not modifiable.
    It's interesting that you used "blameworthy" rather than the more traditional philosophical concepts of moral responsibility.  The reason why I raise this point, is that it does offer up an interesting problem in our society, which is why we are so fixated on pronouncing blame, rather than simply dealing with the situation.  We don't blame a rabid dog for having rabies, so why is it necessary to assign blame rather than simply taking whatever actions are necessary for societal protection and control?

    There certainly are people that are incapable of rehabilitation, regardless of whether they choose to behave in that fashion or due to mental defect.  There is no need to assign blame to their behavior.  It is sufficient to remove them from society because they have demonstrated an inability to mesh with it.  No further reasons are necessary.

    There is little doubt that we can exercise an ability to act on choices, regardless of whether we have anything that could be called "free will".  In my view, the latter definition isn't particularly meaningful, since it attempts to argue for some external agency with which to curtail or control our behaviors.  Behaviors are introduced into the brain and are executed as choices from the brain.  Unless we have a specific mental defect that explicitly demonstrates an inability to recognize that our behaviors are wrong or improper, there's no reason to believe that we are incapable of controlling the actions we elect to take.  There mere fact that the majority of crimes involve people that are attempting to hide them, indicates that they are mentally capable of recognizing appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, so it weakens the argument about control being beyond us.

    I've noticed similar behaviors with abusive people that argue that they have "anger management issues", and yet interestingly enough, they almost never display their anger to those bigger and stronger than they are.  This suggests that they are quite capable of recognizing when their anger puts them at risk, versus when they are safe to display it.  So, once again, a greater degree of control exists, than may often be indicated.

    To conclude that punishment may be pointless, would require proof that an individual is incapable of controlling any behavior, and simultaneously be incapable of recognizing the appropriateness of the behavior they do engage in.  I have seen little to demonstrate that this ever occurs, except in those cases where there is a clear mental defect. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    kwombles
    It's Eagleman's term and his conclusion; he would punish those whose behavior is modifiable and warehouse (presumably in much nicer conditions) those whose behavior is not modifiable. He argues that statistical models (actuarial charts, essentially) will provide better information about who is likely to repeat an offense. How he'd determine who can change their behavior is somewhat unclear. 
    His book has some contradictions. On the one hand, he argues we have no free will, but the exercise of control over our own behavior and training he recommends to help people be able to better control their behavior suggests that there is limited free will, as he says those who receive that training but then choose to still behave criminally should be locked away from society. 

    That section felt much like Simon Baron-Cohen's section in his book: they both got carried away with their dream criminal justice system, revealing themselves to be idealists rather than realists.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    Gerhard Adam
    Regarding the "free will" issue, I can see where he might have a problem.  I've noted before the difficulty in this position, because it suggests that we can somehow override our behavior without recognizing that such a position doesn't actually make sense.

    Since clearly we can't make any choice that isn't already present in our brain, we are clearly limited in how "free" our exercise of something like a "will" can be.  However, the whole point in training ourselves to behave in particular ways, and how we learn from experience, indicates that we take those choices and determine what is acceptable well in advance of any actions we may take. 

    So, while there are certainly circumstances where we may be goaded into an action where we appear to be "out of control", it seems that we have already identified such actions in our legal system (hence manslaughter versus murder).  Without knowing more specific examples, it seems like that idealism you mentioned in the book, seems a bit out of place.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    There certainly are people that are incapable of rehabilitation, regardless of whether they choose to behave in that fashion or due to mental defect.  There is no need to assign blame to their behavior.  It is sufficient to remove them from society because they have demonstrated an inability to mesh with it.  No further reasons are necessary.
    Sorry but I don't agree. Most people are capable of rehabilitation. Blame can always be attributable to someone for their behaviour and simply removing them from society might be good for society but is not necessarily good for these people, especially if they are pretty well blameless in why they have behaved as they have, especially if most people who have experienced the same appalling situations would have most probably behaved equally badly. One day these poor unfortunate people, if given a chance, may still be able to demonstrate an ability to mesh with society before they are released. Where there is life there is hope and this is a reason that is also very 'necessary'.



    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    While that may be true for some people, it is important to recognize that there really are people that could be called "evil".  Most of your violent criminals are in prison for good reason and to suggest rehabilitation is to be hopelessly naive.

    So, I completely disagree that "most" people are capable of rehabilitation.  I'm not particularly interested in how "appalling" their respective situations are, but rather how well they are capable of integrating into society.  Of course, much depends on what one considers to be a crime, but unless we're talking about controversial offenses (drug possession, etc.), generally most people are in agreement as to what constitutes a crime for which incarceration is entirely appropriate.
    Where there is life there is hope and this is a reason that is also very 'necessary'.
    Once again, I have to disagree.  One doesn't "hope" that an offender doesn't re-offend, unless we're talking about the more controversial offenses as I've indicated before.  Specifically when the offense involves violence against another person, I'm less inclined to be benevolent to the offender.  Rehabilitation suggests that somehow these people didn't understand that their actions were inappropriate and that harming another individual was well within their range of choices.  It is equally obvious that one needs to examine mitigating circumstances, but in most cases, there is little to mitigate their particular choice.  In those cases, I have no problem in simply removing them and not pretending that rehabilitation is possible.
    Mundus vult decipi
    The problem I have with Eagleman's legal proposals is that they seem to promise an even more class based legal system than we already have. No matter how unbiased a system we think we're setting up, I believe we'll end up locating the more "Modifiable" individuals at the upper reaches of the economic spectrum, with the "Unmodifiables' made up of those near the bottom. This just makes sense in evolutionary terms. In other words, Eagleman's justice system will probably look a lot like our present system, only more so.