When “Gage Is Not Gage”: Neuroscience And The Law’s Assumption of Free Will

by Mark M. Esposito on Feb. 03, 2014


Summary: Questioning the law's assumption of free will

When “Gage Is Not Gage”: Neuroscience And The Law’s Assumption of Free Will

Submitted by Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

The bedrock of modern Western jurisprudence is the supposition that we are free to choose our actions from a range of choices. Some of these choices are socially acceptable and we deem them “legal.” Other choices made in specified contexts are socially unacceptable, and we deem these “illegal.” For those extremely unacceptable actions denominated as “crimes” we reserve progressive punishments to deter their occurrence. Gratuitous violence is one of the most important of these condemned actions, and we have striven for centuries to overcome this endemic feature of our nature. The basic assumption being that we can deter conduct that is the product of free will by imposing undesirable consequences on the actor. How have we done? I suppose the obvious answer is that despite a multitude of approaches ranging from severe punishment to compassionate rehabilitation, we haven’t yet mastered a way to banish senseless violence from our midst. Perhaps it is time to question that basic assumption that violence  is purely volitional conduct.

The philosophical roots of  free will stretch back at least to ancient times. Greco-Roman thinkers like Epicurus believed in causal determinism but allowed for an element of chance in the physical world by assuming that the atoms sometimes swerve in unpredictable ways, thus providing a physical basis for a belief in free will. Others like Cicero had doubts about the purity of free will observing:

“By ‘fate’, I mean what the Greeks call heimarmenê – an ordering and sequence of causes, since it is the connexion of cause to cause which out of itself produces anything. … Consequently nothing has happened which was not going to be, and likewise nothing is going to be of which nature does not contain causes working to bring that very thing about. This makes it intelligible that fate should be, not the ‘fate’ of superstition, but that of physics, an everlasting cause of things – why past things happened, why present things are now happening, and why future things will be.

Later, Christianity postulated  free will as one of its basic tenets, arguing that grace is bestowed by acting in accordance with the Creator’s will and rejecting contrary temptations. In City of God, Augustine explained that, “For the first freedom of will which man received when he was created upright consisted in an ability not to sin, but also in an ability to sin; whereas this last freedom of will shall be superior, inasmuch as it shall not be able to sin. This, indeed, shall not be a natural ability, but the gift of God.” To depart voluntarily from God was then  the foundation of sin.

For two centuries Western law has adopted this basis for meting out punishments as a means of modifying behaviors. Enter then the discipline of neuroscience and the strange case of  Phineas P. Gage. Gage was a railroad worker living a peaceful life in late 19th Century New England.  In 1848, Gage had the curious fate to suffer an iron crowbar being thrust squarely thorugh his left frontal lobe. He survived but  changes to his demeanor and personality were so pronounced that his family and friends began to remark that “Gage was no longer Gage.” Damage to his prefrontal cortex had rendered a once courteous and diligent 25 year-old man unalterably and explicitly anti-social.

His physician John Harlow noted that:

He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation.

What are the implications then for free will in the context of obvious cases of impaired thinking like that suffered by Gage? The law has sought to address ”crimes” committed by those without sufficient faculty to appreciate the moral character of their actions or those persons who act through irresistible impulse. The first attempts were the British M’Naghten rule which excused conduct, though volitionally done, which was the product of a diseased or impaired mind and which rendered the perpetrator so impaired as to extinguish his ability to divine right from wrong. The corollary irresistible impulse test sought to mitigate criminal responsibility for one who would have acted through the effects of mental disease or defect even though a constable was at his side at the time of the conduct. Both of these tests have proven unworkable and prison statistics continue to show that the psychologically impaired are statistically more likely to be incarcerated than ”normal” persons.

The new challenge for the law is just how to handle the logical implication of Gage’s case. What if  all human actions were not simply the product of free will but a resulting phenomena of a host of organic and genetic markers causing conduct that is inevitable?  And what if these behaviors are not the product of diease or defect but of predictable stimuli or dysfunction not rising to the level of that required by M’Naghten? Sort of an organic determinism free from the control of human “will,” but flowing not from a diseased mind but a substantially normal one. Not really such a radical position. Albert Einstein considered the question and posed the classic regressive conundrum:

Honestly, I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the human will. I have a feeling, for instance, that I will something or other; but what relation this has with freedom I cannot understand at all. I feel that I will to light my pipe and I do it; but how can I connect this up with the idea of freedom? What is behind the act of willing to light the pipe? Another act of willing? Schopenhauer once said: Der Mensch kann was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will (Man can do what he will but he cannot will what he wills).

Sound far-fetched and too esoteric? Consider then the studies of Benjamin Libet who “showed that brain activity associated with deliberate decisions can be detected shortly before we are conscious of making the decision. In these studies, participants reported when they first felt the intention to make a spontaneous movement by noting the position of a dot moving on computer screen. They apparently first became aware of their intentions about 200 milliseconds before action execution, which is later than the onset of the so-called readiness potential (or “bereitschaftspotential”) recorded from the scalp prior to movement.” While the studies are controversial they point up a fascinating possibility — that human conduct originates organically from a host of chemical and electrical sources independent of any notion of mind/brain divergence. The mind then is the brain and functions according to incalculable threads of physical causation which we can neither differentiate nor completely understand.

The prefrontal cortex is not the only area of inquiry into brain physiology as neuroscience attempts to understand and explain human aggressiveness. “It has long been known that ablation of the monkey temporal lobe, including the amygdala, results in blunted emotional responses. In humans, brain-imaging and lesion studies have suggested a role of the amygdala in theory of mind, aggression, and the ability to register fear and sadness in faces. According to the violence inhibition model, both sad and fearful facial cues act as important inhibitors if we are violent towards others. In support of this model, recent investigations have shown that individuals with a history of aggressive behaviour have poorer recognition of facial expressions, which might be due to amygdala dysfunction. Others have recently demonstrated how the low expression of X-linked monoamine oxidase A (MAOA)—which is an important enzyme in the catabolism of monoamines, most notably serotonin (5-HT), and has been associated with an increased propensity towards reactive violence in abused children—is associated with volume changes and hyperactivity in the amygdala.”

These studies bring up an interesting derivative question: Are all murderers equal in terms of brain function? The answer is decidely  ”no.” “Professor Adrian Raine and colleagues reanalysed positron emission tomography data to tease apart functional differences between premeditated psychopaths and impulsive affective murderers. Compared to controls, the impulsive murderers had reduced activation in the bilateral PFC, while activity in the limbic structures was enhanced. Conversely, the predatory psychopaths had relatively normal prefrontal functioning, but increased right subcortical activity, which included the amygdala and hippocampus. These results suggest that predatory psychopaths are able to regulate their impulses, in contrast to impulsive murderers, who lack the prefrontal “inhibitory” machinery that stop them from committing violent transgressions.” For Raine then, free will should be viewed along a “dimension rather than a dichotomy”

An even more intriguing question revolves around whether we can predict anti-social behavior from an analysis of brain dysfunction. If so, would this not dispel notions of pure free will as the moral governor of our actions? “A systematic review of studies examining mental illness in 23,000 prisoners showed that these prisoners were several times more likely to have some form of psychosis or major depression, and ten times more likely to exhibit  Anti-social personality Disorder (APD)  than the general population. The authors suggest that, worldwide, several million prisoners have serious mental illness. Several studies also show levels of head injury to be higher in violent and death-row criminals, while birth complications, which can often result in neurological damage (e.g., hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy) and parental mental illness, are higher in anti-social populations. More often than not, people with APD and violent behaviour have a history of childhood maltreatment or trauma; having such a history has been linked to anomalous development of regions associated with anti-social behaviour, including the PFC, hippocampus, amygdala, corpus callosum, and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. Early damage to the orbitofrontal cortex in particular appears to result in poor acquisition of moral and social rules, thus showing the importance of the interaction between environment and brain development.”

All of these studies raise serious ethical questions for the justice system. Is the basic premise of pure free will suspect as a producing cause of aberrant conduct? Can we say with certainty that actions are in any meaningful sense volitional if they are the  product of immutable laws of science which manifests themselves in a predictable, albeit undesirable, results? Are we punishing for poor conduct choices by individuals or for organic brain function over which the individual has only limited control?

Valid questions that may need answering and soon. In 1995, “Stephen Mobley, 25 with a long and violent criminal record, admitted shooting a pizza store manager in the back of the head during a failed robbery four years before. His lawyers argued he should be spared the death penalty because of a defect in his genetic make-up. Mobley’s family tree is littered with incidents of criminal and violent behaviour. His mitigation focused on a direct chain of antisocial behaviour that could be traced from his great- grandfather.

His lawyers tried to adduce expert evidence to show that a gene mutation had been passed along this line and was ultimately responsible for the disastrous events on 17 February 1991 at the pizza parlour in County Hall, Georgia. As long ago as 1969, genetic evidence was first admitted in a New York court. Lawyers then put forward a genetic-defect defence concerning the XYY chromosome syndrome. They argued that the extra Y chromosome indicated greater “maleness” or aggression. However, it failed to gain widespread judicial acceptance.

Mobley’s lawyers introduced evidence of a recent Dutch study, which associated this sort of family aggression with chemical imbalance caused by a mutating gene. Nevertheless, the Georgia Supreme Court held this evidence to be inadmissible on the basis that the theory of ‘genetic connection is not at a level of scientific acceptance that would justify its admission.’”

Now 16 years later science is grappling with proofs that might impress a court with the idea that certain human predispositions exist which bear directly on anti-social conduct. If  neuroscience can answer this proposition affrimatively, the larger question will be how will we deal with this knowledge and how then will we deal with the perpetrators.

Sources: The IndependentPlos BiologyWiredNeurophilosophy; andSamHarris.org

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

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