Thomas Nadelhoffer on Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Law

August 12, 2010

From The Project on Law & Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School (PLMS):

Below is a fascinating and enlightening 51-minute interview of Thomas Nadelhoffer by Harvard Law Student Brian Wood. The interview, titled “Developments in Neuroscience and their Implications for Criminal Law,” lasts just over 51 minutes. It was conducted the Law and Mind Science Seminar at Harvard.

Bio:

Dr. Thomas Nadelhoffer was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned degrees in philosophy from The University of Georgia (BA), Georgia State University (MA), and Florida State University (PhD). Since 2006, he has been an assistant professor of philosopy and a member of the law and policy faculty at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He is currently at Duke University as a Visiting Scholar in the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

His main areas of research include moral psychology, the philosophy of action, free will, punishment theory, and neurolaw. He is particularly interested in research at the cross roads of philosophy and the sciences of the mind. His articles have appeared in journals such as Analysis, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Mind & Language, Neuroethics, and Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. He is the coordinator of the blogs Flickers of Freedom and the Law and Neuroscience Blog. He is also a contributing author to blogs such as The Situationist, The Leiter Reports, and Experimental Philosophy.

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Table of contents:

  • What have you been working on recently? 0:22
  • What are some areas of the legal system in which this science is relevant? 1:07
  • What are the problems with the traditional approaches to using science in the criminal system, and how are new scientific methods relevant to fixing them? 2:15
  • How could these newer scientific methods be employed? 4:09
  • What are the rationales society has traditionally cited as justifying criminal punishment? 6:55
  • Can you explain what Compatibalism is? 10:17
  • Aren’t there problems with notions of moral responsibility under Compatibalism? 12:26
  • How do neuroscience, Compatibalism, and determinism relate to our notions of law? 12:55
  • What do you see as the problems with the classic approaches to punishment? 15:25
  • Is there anything especially strange about Retributivism to you? 20:37
  • Can you detail what you believe to be the just reasons for punishment and how society can punish people more justly? 23:41
  • In your view, how would you punish psychopaths under the consequentialist rationale? 30:40
  • Can you give an example of the distinctions psychopaths cannot draw? 34:50
  • What’s the most interesting experiment you have conducted? 37:01
  • Do you think these participants just misunderstood what determinism is? 38:15
  • What qualities do you believe you and other researchers and philosophers need to be successful? 40:03
  • How has what you have learned through your research influenced the way you live you life? 41:35
  • How do you see the relationship of law and mind science developing in the future? 44:55
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Tom Tyler & Lindsay Rankin: From Instrumentalism to Legitimacy

February 14, 2010

Image courtesy of Sophia Parkwood

Most policies in our legal system are founded on an instrumentalist approach to human behavior:  our systems are set up to encourage individuals through rewards and to deter people through the threat of punishment.  Our criminal justice system, for example, relies upon punishment and deterrence in order to achieve compliance with the law.

In their article “The Mystique of Instrumentalism”, Tom Tyler and Lindsay Rankin take a position against instrumentalism in the law, appealing to empirical data in arguing that a values-based approach would be far more effective in ensuring that individuals comply with the law.

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Fear Edges out Revenge in the Rhetorical Scrap Over Venue for KSM Trial

February 3, 2010

On November 13th, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the trial if the 911 attackers will be held in New York City.  The stirring speech notwithstanding, Holder and the Obama administration are now retreating from the decision. CNN reports that the White House and the Department of Justice are considering a move out of NYC.  This development comes amidst the mounting opposition to the original plan, culminating in 18 senators (including two blue dog Dems) introducing a bill to cut funding for the trial.  All indications are that the administration will back down.

For the mind enthusiasts out there, the interesting part may have been the heavy-handed psychological jousting by both sides.  More after the jump.

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Undetectable influence of race

February 1, 2010

Last year Professor Hanson took on a New York Post cartoon in this blog post on The Situationist.  The cartoon’s premise seems harmless enough: the chimpanzee that got shot in Conecticut was writing the stiumuls bill – i.e. that bill makes about as much sense as writings of a crazed chimp.   But the cartoon drew quite the controversy:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/18/new-york-post-chimp-carto_n_167841.html

http://www.cryptomundo.com/cryptozoo-news/chimp-cartoon/

http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKTRE51H7N420090218

http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/02/19/chimp.cartoon.react/index.html

After the jump, I try to ex

The focus of the controversy is a troubling associations that flow from the cartoon if one were to connect the authorship of the stimulus bill to the President.  As Prof. H points out, with that (unintended) connection in mind, many disturbing issues come out of the cartoon: relations between African Americans and cops, perceived criminal propensities, and, most disturbingly, the idiotic notion that the Black race is closer to primates than other races.

But why inject racial tensions into a situation where neither the author nor the readers think about race?  Well, that’s the point, Hanson argues that we (humans) think about race, whether it is conscious or not.  In other words, when people look at the cartoon, for example, they may not consciously think about race or even make the bill-Obama connection.  But certain, let’s call them gremlins, in the boiler room of the brain ARE thinking about race.  They’re doing so without telling the conscious part of the brain.  They’re thinking about race, they’re storing associations that might be used later (e.g. Blacks + crime).  All the while, we consciously have no clue what’s going on in the back room, blissfully having a laugh at the clever jab at the lawmakers.

OK, so if you haven’t taken one Psy course in your life (or read one post on The Illusionist), this would sound like ground-shattering catastrophe.  But having some exposure to cognition, I’m not surprise about the back-room-gremlins. They’re quite normal, and helpful actually.  They loads of work so that we can have quick reactions when those are required.  For example, the gremlins, over the course of our lives, collect identifying information on how a dangerous situation might look like.  They have a sort of a database of dangerous situations (e.g. dark alley at night, stranger in torn cloths walking toward, a shine of metal in his right hand).  When we encounter a situation, the gremlins see if it matches any situation in the “dangerous situation” database. If it does, we have things like gut feelings putting us on alert, increased blood pressure and adrenalin intake making fight or flight quicker, more reactive. In other words, we don’t have to think – it’s all pre-thought, saving us crazy amounts of time in responding to such situations.

If gremlins are normal and useful, why should we shy away from them in race related situations?  Well, sometimes they’re just wrong. People often confuse gut feelings with some sort of premonition – it must be right. And gut feelings are probably right quite a bit of the time.  But they’re no premonitions. They’re based on prior occurrences, other people’s (media, parents, peers) feeding your gremlins. They just look for similarities between the situation you’re in and the ones filed away in that database. If they’re similar enough, you get the gut feeling.  So, using very basic reasoning, if our database on racial situations is based on media/family/community-perpetuated stereotypes that are not true for majority of Blacks, then the gremlins come up with wrong answers  most of the time.

Hanson suggests that in situations where race comes up subconsciously, we should bring the race into the conscious.  This is why he wants to talk about the racial problems with the at-first-sight-innocuous cartoon. There is some evidence that making the implicit explicit helps overcome pre-conceived subconscious associations.  Example: Professor Schwartz conducted an experiment where people were asked about the general life satisfiction. Turned out that on rainy days, people reported lowergeneral life satisfaction, compared to sunny days.  So this is an example of when gremlins come out on the wrong side: why should today’s weather bear on your general life-satisfaction?  Prof. Schwartz then sought to neutralize the gremlins by bringing the current weather into the conscious. And it worked – when the experimenter would start up a chat about current weather before asking about general life satisfaction, respondents started giving the same life satisfaction scores regardless of current weather.

Schwartz’ experiment is not quite on point here because what we’re really concerned with is the cartoon’s potential to subconsciously reinforce the negative stereotypes associated with Blacks.  There is no evidence that bringing racial tensions to the fore would prevent the gremlins in the boiler room from adding to their database. But the lack of evidence may be due to difficulty of testing this – how do determine if an event added to a person’s storage of associations?

Hanson’s idea seems logical enough though: if we consciously bring out the race issues and discredit them, it’s possible that the gremlins will take into consideration our conscious rejection of the relevance of the input.  At least it is worth a try.