Friday, October 02, 2009

Neurolaw: The new "Freudian psychology", but this time with expensive gadgets?

Recently, I noted here and here the growth of "neurolaw," the - in my view often misguided - attempt to apply neuroscience to crime and punishment. I've since had a chance to read the excellent article by Michael S. Pardo and Dennis Patterson, "Philosophical Foundations of Law and Neuroscience", to be published in the University of Illinois Law Review in 2010. It provides an overview and critique of this growing field (and explains why it should shrink instead).

On a personal note, all this reminds me so much of Freudianism. Once upon a time, many years ago during an argument, an amateur Freudian psychologist informed me that my problems - as he perceived them - were due to the fact that I hated my mother.

I had never imagined that. How could I hate my mother and not even know it? Well, he explained, the hatred was in my Unconscious ....

So I solved the problem immediately by just disbelieving in the Freudian Unconscious. I continued to disbelieve and to not hate my mother, so far as I know and my behaviour would suggest, for another 45 years. Of course, it is possible I have a Freudian Unconscious somewhere in which I hate my mother, but it has had no impact on my life.

Today, the same person would announce instead that he had found a "hate Mom circuit" in my hippocampal gyrus, or something.

So no, I don't think neurolaw is any more scientific than Freud's Unconscious. Finding someone's fingerprints - and only his fingerprints, not anyone else's - on the steak knife used to stab another patron in a bar plus a security videocam catching him stabbing that guy, now that's what I mean by "scientific." I don't mind paying taxes for a criminal justice system that deals in that sort of evidence, but I am very skeptical of this "neurolaw" craze.

I've always thought neuroscience should stay as close to medicine as possible. In medicine, as Sir William Osler put it, you cure sometimes, alleviate often, and comfort always. So neuroscience would never be a weapon against anyone; it might help or might not help, in cases of strokes or mental disorders, for example, but the first principle of medicine, as Hippocrates used to say, is "First, do no harm."