February 1, 2011
Law is the distilled essence of the civilization of a people, and it reflects people’s soul more clearly than any other organism. – A.S Diamond, the Evolution of Law and Order
Accelerating technologies will undoubtedly challenge the basic assumptions of the mainstream culture and help shape our future values. Consequently, the legal system must adapt to reflect a new paradigm. In the following video, David Eagleman, a Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist, discusses how our ever-expanding knowledge of the human brain may require an adjustment in our laws. If you think Dr. Eagleman is addressing these issues too soon, think again. Brain scan evidence already edged its way into an Indian murder trial, foreshadowing the use of neuroimaging in determining culpability and rational sentencing. He also touches on perhaps the greatest concern, the ethical implications of generating consciousness de novo in machines. How will our laws deal with AI? Overall, these scenarios will force us to critically assess our value system so that society can sustain its moral footing through an era of great technological change.
In his lecture at the Royal Society of the Arts, Dr. Eagleman opens with the case of Charles Whitman (2:17), the student who went on a murder spree at the University of Texas-Austin in 1966. Following an autopsy, doctors discovered a tumor impinging upon his brain’s amygdala, prompting neurologists to consider that biologically-based dysfunction led to the tragedy. Dr. Eagleman provides additional cases of malfunctioning brains and abnormal behavior (i.e. a frontal lobe tumor causing a man to express pedophilic tendencies (4:07), Parkinson’s medication inducing compulsive gambling (5:12)). He compares these cases to automatisms, a legal concept that protects defendants if they had no control over their actions. For example, alien hand syndrome is a neurological condition in which the hand executes movements without the will of the subject. Under the automatism legal defense, if an uncontrolled hand pushes someone off a cliff, the individual isn’t held liable.
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