Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pseudo-neuroscience: If you believe in God, it is just because you think you ARE God?

See the abstract for "Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs" by Nicholas Epleya,1, Benjamin A. Conversea, Alexa Delboscb, George A. Monteleonec and John T. Cacioppoc:


People often reason egocentrically about others' beliefs, using their own beliefs as an inductive guide. Correlational, experimental, and neuroimaging evidence suggests that people may be even more egocentric when reasoning about a religious agent's beliefs (e.g., God). In both nationally representative and more local samples, people's own beliefs on important social and ethical issues were consistently correlated more strongly with estimates of God's beliefs than with estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 1–4). Manipulating people's beliefs similarly influenced estimates of God's beliefs but did not as consistently influence estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 5 and 6). A final neuroimaging study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one's own beliefs and God's beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person's beliefs (Study 7). In particular, reasoning about God's beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person's beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God's beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one's own existing beliefs.
Well, obviously, people who believe in God would want to take God's side in ethical issues, right? Who wants to be merely on the neighbours' side (obsessed with property values) or on Satan's side ... (evil for the fun of it?).

The authors of this study, having begun by assuming that God does not exist, attempt to reason about why people conform their beliefs to what they think God wants, based purely on private preferences. That goes against everything I know about religious people.

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Neuroscience and design: FMRI flops in first criminal trial

A friend notifies me to look here re neurolaw and the death penalty. He writes,
The threads of the Jeanine Nicarico murder case are too tangled to attempt even a summary. Suffice it to say that an innocent man was sent to death row, and before it was all sorted out police and prosecutors were charged with fabricating evidence and there hasn't been an execution in Illinois in over a decade. The final act played out last November in a suburban Chicago courtroom where the real killer, Brian Dugan, asked a jury to spare his life. To assist, his lawyers ... presented fMRI images -- a first in a U.S. criminal trial. The pictures revealed that parts of the brain that light up in normal people remained cold and dark in Dugan's brain. The defense expert described these areas as regulating impulse control and emotional reactions. In short, Dugan was a classic psychopath, and the fMRI helped to prove it.

Although prosecutors had tried to keep the evidence out by challenging the science behind it, the judge ruled that under the relaxed standards of mitigating evidence in a death penalty case, it should come in. Fearful of "The Christmas Tree Effect" dazzling jurors with colorful snapshots of Brian Dugan's grim interior life, the judge originally ruled no images could be admitted. Later he reversed himself, and Dr. Kiehl, a New Mexico researcher who hauls an fMRI trailer from prison to prison for grant-fueled research on criminals, was able to show the jury the cold, dark spaces that he claimed correlated to the brutal sexual assault and murder of a young girl. Brian Dugan's brain was to blame and they had the pictures to prove it.

Apparently the jury did not appreciate how being a psychopath worked in the defendant's favor. They sentenced Brian Dugan, broken brain and all, to death. .

The jury may or may not have discounted the science, but they probably bought it to the extent they understood it. The point is, they refused to split Brian Dugan into a legally responsible entity on one hand, and a broken brain on the other. They may have judged him to be a bad person, but they saw him as a package of damaged goods that was nonetheless a person, and one deserving of the ultimate penalty. Arguably, adding advanced neuroimaging to the proof that Dugan was a psychopath may have actually hurt Dugan more than helped him. There was no suggestion that he could not appreciate the wrongfulness of his acts or keep himself from doing them. Scientific proof that Dugan was a cold, remorseless killer is not considered to be the best mitigation, but the defense lawyers had been dealt a bad hand in a high stakes game and thought the broken brain card was worth playing. One of his lawyers said this case was "unique" and did not foresee frequent use of the technology.

Note that this worked out exactly as I predicted the last time I wrote you about the neurolaw fad in academia. In its first real test, jurors shrugged and voted for death. It will never play in Peoria.
My sense of the situation is as follows:

1. Advanced Western democracies do not need the death penalty because we can just keep people locked up until they are no longer dangerous. Dramatic strategies, such as the death penalty, tend to glamorize crime. By contrast, a guy who pounds out auto licence plates for 25 years to earn himself packs of smokes, to get him through the night in prison, is not glamorous.

2. I am not surprised that the jury didn't believe it. The key question is not "what is going on in that guy's brain" but "what steps could he have taken such that he would not have committed a fatal assault? If he did not take them, why not?"

3. I don't think "neurolaw" has anything to contribute. If adults are truly not responsible for their actions, they should be living in a supervised group home. At least, that is how we have usually done it here, and it works pretty well. I mean, if you go by the fact that my own country, Canada, is a low crime/low threat jurisdiction.


Proof that there is - or is not - free will is worth what, in money? $4.4 million from Templeton?

Announcing the $4.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to Alfred Mele,

Do we have free will? FSU philosopher awarded $4.4 million grant to find out
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Since the beginning of time, philosophers, scientists and theologians have sought to find out whether human beings have free will or whether other forces are at work to control our actions, decisions and choices.

Now, Florida State University philosopher Alfred Mele has been awarded a $4.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to get to the bottom of this question for the ages. Mele, the William H. and Lucyle Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, will oversee a four-year project to improve understanding of free will in philosophy, religion and science.

"This is an extraordinarily large award in the humanities, which speaks volumes about Al Mele's worldwide reputation as a scholar, the excitement provoked by his newest ideas, and the Templeton Foundation's commitment to the highest standards of creativity in ideas and rigor in scholarship," said Joseph Travis, dean of Florida State University's College of Arts and Sciences. "An award of this magnitude and visibility puts our Department of Philosophy, and Florida State, in a very bright international spotlight."

The first big question I would ask is, what is the practical importance of the question? The people who administer the Highway Traffic Act in my province assume that one has free will. Driving while over the alcohol limit is assumed to be an offence under the Act, whereas going off the road due to a pothole is not. But some want to change this:

The project, "Free Will: Human and Divine — Empirical and Philosophical Explorations," is not quite as esoteric as the topic might suggest. For thousands of years the question of free will was strictly in the domain of philosophers and theologians. But in recent years, some neuroscientists have been producing data they claim shows that the genesis of action in the brain begins well before conscious awareness of any decision to perform that action arises. If true, conscious control over action — a necessary condition of free will — is simply impossible. Likewise, some social psychologists believe that unconscious processes, in tandem with environmental conditions, control behavior and that our conscious choices do not.

Mele argues

"It's not as if in four years, we are going to know. But I want to push us along the way so that we can speed up our understanding of all of this."

[ ... ]

"If we eventually discover that we don't have free will, the news will come out and we can predict that people's behavior will get worse as a consequence," Mele said. "We should have plans in place for how to deal with that news."
Actually, there is no news. Every drunk driver claims "drink done him", yet he could not have got drunk except by exercising his free will to drink before driving, instead of going for a walk in the park. Unfortunately, this sort of verbiage tends to promote more and more rules, which the human mind is always capable of getting around.

Other free will stories here.