Nu-Uh: Master of My Destiny

"[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.

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.


Life in the House That Asperger Built said...

I'll reserve judgment till I've actually read it, but it seems to me that, under our control or not, there have to be consequences for most criminal behavior, if society is going to be workable. If murders aren't punished, or somehow segregated, what is the result for the rest of us. And what, if anything does he say about the collective conscious?

Great review. Now I have to buy it!

KWombles said...

He would still warehouse those people that need to be segregated from society for the protection of society but he would remove the concept of blame--and remove all punishment unless it was specifically geared to modifying behavior. If the individual's behavior is not modifiable, no punishment would be used.

He says nothing about the collective unconsciousness, and I suspect he would dismiss the concept entirely, except for the idea that behaviors can be "burned into the circuitry."