incognito 15-04-2012

 ... by david eagleman (he of the wonderful and sui generis book of short stories, sum, about 40 different versions of the afterlife).

this is really good stuff, mostly. the greater part of it is an exploration of how much of our seemingly conscious experience is carried out by zombie routines over which we have no control, to which we have no access and of which we have very little knowledge and how this enables to live such sophisticated lives. anyone who reads a bit of  contemporary popular neuroscience every so often will be unsurprised by this since this is the direction in which the subject has been moving for a long while, the role of the conscious, self-aware part of the mind (I’ll come to what eagleman might or might not mean by that in another post) being slowly reduced in depth, range and importance. eagleman suggests that the process parallels the copernican revolution in which we lost our places at the centre of the universe but, despite initial widespread reluctance to embrace such a frightening state of affairs, we consequently discovered ourselves to be inhabitants a universe of staggering beauty and complexity.

the new idea which eagleman adds to this picture (my reading in the area is not rigorous enough to know precisely how new) is that the brain is a team of competitors, or a parliament of opposition parties, whose efficiency depends precisely upon the doubling up of tasks. partly because it works better (just as a democratic state works better than a one-party state). this seems to me a genuinely exciting concept which has the shock of one of those truths which are retrospectively obvious. it has, I think, precedents in the area of robotics: I recall many years ago a friend working in ai saying that the problem of how to make the 6 legs of a mechanical ant work successfully together had been solved only when researchers gave up trying to run the creature by means of algorithmic central planning and instead arranged to have each egg leg operated by a simple and entirely separate program of its own.

eagleman is less convincing when he moves into the area of the law (he is a research fellow in the institute for ethics and emerging technologies – i just checked this on his own website where he announces that he was also named one of houston’s most stylish men in 2011; make of that what you will). he is right, I think, to say that modern neuroscience is undermining traditional ideas of criminal responsibility. as we discover more and more physiological and environmental factors which exert strong and sometimes overpowering influences on behaviour it becomes increasingly less logical, and increasingly unjust, to think of most people as having access to the same freedom of choice and equally responsibility for making bad choices.

the answer, he suggest, is to sidestep the thorny question of blame altogether and move towards a model of justice in which punishment is tailored much more specifically towards enhancing the possibility of rehabilitation and lowering the risk of re-offending. it seems like a noble ideal and it might work in a white-box, thought-experiment society where all variables can be carefully controlled. but this is America (perhaps I should say that is America) and quotes like, our social policies work to cement into place the most enlightened ideas of humanity to surmount the basest facets of human nature, seem staggeringly naïve, even without the Tayvon Martin case as a reminder of the context in which he is writing.  and when he slips into the persona of the-man-who-has-been-asked-to-run-the-world the effect is chilling: for the smooth running of society, we will still remove from the streets those criminals who prove themselves to be over-aggressive, under-empathetic, and poor at controlling their impulses. the american justice system has many substantial shortcoming – racism, the death penalty, legal inconsistency between states, police brutality, guantanamo, the almost complete absence of rehabilitation programmes, political appointeeism, profit-driven private sector prisons… - beside which philosophical tinkering with ideas of criminal responsibility seems like very small beer indeed and ivory tower philsophical politics seem laughable.

a footnote: i first bought this book as an ebook on the kindle (see the kindle post below). it was an embarrassingly shoddy piece of publishing. i stopped halfway through and bought the hardback instead. it was properly proofread, you could actually see the illsutrations and it was clear whether you were reading the main body of the text, a footnote or an annotation to an illustration.