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Book Review: My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility by Eliezer J. Sternberg

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Consider the M’Naughten Rule: a defendant is legally insane if he or she cannot distinguish between right and wrong in regard to the crime with which s/he is charged. If the judge or jury finds that the accused could not tell the difference, then there could not be criminal intent. (Source: The Free Dictionary by Farlex – Legal dictionary). Not known for its simplicity, the law was very clear and concise regarding insanity when M’Naughten was established in the early 1800s.

“Insanity” is not a diagnosis, it is a legal term. M’Naughten had at its center the notion of free will. If a person could distinguish between right and wrong (legal and illegal), then s/he could choose to do right or wrong. Over the years, M’Naughten had a new interpretation attached: if an individual cannot conform his or her behavior to the standards of society (law) s/he is insane. This took us into the realm of “irresistible impulses.” I like M’Naughten; it’s straightforward, it’s simple.

In My Brain Made Me Do It, Sternberg explains theories of determinism, free will, and compatibilism.  This is the realm of neuroscience. One question posed, “Does free will exist?,” seems to turn the assumption of innocence into the certainty of innocence. The reasoning goes that if the brain, through its various functions, controls the mind then free will does not exist because a person’s actions are predetermined and are the results of biology, not choice. Essentially, you don’t pick the blue shirt because you like the style — you look good in blue, and you want to look good; you pick the blue shirt because of brain activity that guides your behavior.  I admit that this is a simplification; the workings of the brain are so complex, it would take pages of technical information to get this far in the review.

For pages of technical information, I recommend reading My Brain Made Me Do It, in which the information is presented in understandable terms and illustrated with recognizable examples of behavior. In presenting various choices and considerations, Sternberg provides the reader with an understanding of the dynamics of free will. If we’ve been programmed to believe in the concept of free will — either by nature or nurture — and we feel we are responsible for our choices, we are able to establish accepted rules of conduct. However, if we have no choices and are, therefore, not responsible for our actions, then all law is superfluous. The only reason a man would behave a certain way is because he couldn’t behave any other way, or “he couldn’t help it.”

Determinism reduces us all to automatons, acting not through any intellectual process but programmed by chemical and electrical events in our brains. If a person is not responsible for his or her actions because there really is no such thing as choice, then it doesn’t make a difference if s/he  knows the difference between right and wrong; this knowledge is only the result of physical processes s/he doesn’t control. But doesn’t that mean that everything we say and do is meaningless, because it could never have been other?

My Brain Made Me Do It wrestles with these questions and more. It is a philosophical appraisal of what man is vs. what man thinks. Are we responsible for our acts? Is the woman who never strikes her child a better mom than the one who beats her child, or are they just equal beings without choices?

Since I believe in personal responsibility and that greed is the basis of wrong or evil, the deterministic approach of neuroscience is anathema to me. I hate to think that someday I, among billions of others, might be proven wrong, but wouldn’t a world where no one is considered to be in control of his or her own actions be insane? I like M’Naughten; it’s straightforward, it’s simple.

For an absolutely riveting discussion of the nature of responsibility, man, right and wrong — all concepts that seem so simple — read My Brain Made Me Do It. It is an excellent introduction to neuroscience, determinism, and morality.

Bottom Line: Would I buy My Brain Made Me Do It? Yes. Let the debate begin!

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About Miss Bob Etier

  • http://weblocater.com Steve

    Miss Bob Etier
    Thank you for your willingness to mention God I think we have drifted away. Your articles are very well wrote thank you for sharing them with us.

  • John Wilson

    Sounds pretty interesting. Now if only I could get an Epub version…