Damasio, Spinoza and our Current Confusion about Cause and Effect, by Charles M. Saunders

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

In this article, Charles M. Saunders considers Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain by Antonio Damasio
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, N.Y., 2003)

In 2003, one of our most capable and respected neuroscientists went searching for Spinoza. What Antonio Damasio found is both enlightening and alarming. It is laudable that an empirical scientist had the interest, care, and capability to analyze the sequencing and behaviors associated with what Spinoza terms ‘the Emotions.’ This is clearly a positive development. When our neuroscientist friend recognized that something about emotional response is measurable, he made strides for the entire scientific community. But by focusing his analysis only on chapters 3 and 4 of “The Ethics”, Damasio sidetracks Spinoza’s metaphysics, chapters 1 and 2 while presenting Spinoza as some sort of intuitive materialist. The alarming part in all of this is that chapters 3 and 4 are linked inexorably to 1 and 2 wherein Spinoza insists that our thoughts are as real as our experience. As notable as Damasio’s respect for Spinoza’s psychology may be there is a tremendous distance from his awakening to the import and physical reality of the emotions to an adequate understanding of the full impact of Spinoza’s discovery, that the human mind has the ability to form replications of objects so accurate that these ideas are essentially the same thing as the objects they represent.

This is an astounding claim that Spinoza makes and to this day, it has been overlooked or dismissed in light of the advances in contemporary science and its ability to “reduce” everything in its purview through observation and measurement. But cause and effect are not observable within the same time and space.

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine...' by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

When the neuroscientist-researcher connects electrodes to a patient to monitor brainwaves there is no question that the observable patterns that emerge are exciting and are indicators of some brain activity related to behaviors that correspond to the patient’s emotional state and mood changes But to conclude from this that the patterns and their location in the brain somehow indicates the cause of the thinking process is a leap that indicates faulty reasoning and bad science. To draw a conclusion about the source of the thinking process from an electroencephalogram is akin to a person who while standing atop the tallest building in a large city before dawn observes the pattern of traffic lights below and concludes that the pattern of lights is the cause of the flow of traffic. No matter how many thousands of lights make up the discernable pattern of the flow of traffic, the actual cause of the traffic is not observable. The cause of the traffic resides elsewhere. It originates in the reasons that each individual driver leaves home and enters the flow: going to work, driving a friend to the hospital, making deliveries, police responding to emergencies and countless other actions are the actual cause of the traffic and they are entirely disconnected from one another. There is no common cause to be observed and reported on here.
This analogy demonstrates the confusion inherent in the empirical process. There is no argument about what the scientist sees during the study. But there is a strong argument against what he claims to have observed. If this mistaken insistence that causality must be observable resided solely in speculative neurobiology the harm might not be that negligible. Unfortunately for us, this curious misunderstanding of cause and effect permeates most of our scientific theory and practice, including applications in healthcare diagnosis and treatment.

Perhaps one of the most debilitating misapplications of the empirical process lies within the field of genetics and the supposed causal link observable in DNA. Crick and Watson never assigned any causal agency to their brilliant discovery. They clearly understood DNA for what it is; a marker not a cause. Assigning cause to DNA strands came later after arrogance and the same faulty reasoning process employed by Damasio came into play. Whether a person suffers from cancer or obesity or a predilection towards baldness, DNA is not the cause of the affliction it merely marks the presence of the condition. To carry the traffic lights/scientific research analogy a bit further, just as we can clearly understand that no matter how complicated or advanced the light pattern and system flow technology might be it cannot be said to be the cause of the traffic. That flow can only be understood by seeing the individual actions and behaviors that are the actual cause. So with DNA, it is a marker that notes the presence not the cause of disease.

The upshot of all this is that our current empirical/materialist science system that has brought about some of the most significant advances for humans in medicine and other sophisticated technologies contains a seriously flawed view of cause and effect. But by insisting on a research focus only on the world of external experience it ignores the rich world of experience’s counterpart and co-equivalent, the Human Mind. This now outmoded way of explaining our planet and our relationship to it must give way to a more sophisticated view. This view will credit the mind as the source and wellspring of any scientific achievement that we’ve ever accomplished and that it is the mind which provides us with the most magnificent tool at our disposal for unraveling Nature’s mysteries.

Charles M. Saunders

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Say What? George Combe on Human Nature

George Combe, 1836, by Sir Daniel Macnee, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

‘Man obviously stands pre-eminent among sublunary objects, and is distinguished by remarkable endowments above all other terrestrial beings. Nevertheless no creature presents such anomalous appearances as man. Viewed in one aspect he almost resembles a demon; in another he still bears the impress of the image of God.’

~ George Combe, The Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects, 1835

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Some of the Mysteries of Good Character, by Christian B. Miller

The topic of character is one of the oldest in both Western and Eastern thought, and has enjoyed a renaissance in philosophy since at least the 1970s with the revival of virtue ethics. Yet, even today, character remains largely a mystery. We know very little about what most peoples’ character looks like. Important virtues are surprisingly neglected. There are almost no strategies advanced by philosophers today for improving character. We have a long way to go.

We do know, though, that matters of character are vitally important. Consider the news these days, dominated by people like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. Or consider the behavior of our heroes, like Lincoln and King, or our villains, like Hitler and Stalin. Or consider the latest scandals in the entertainment world, professional sports, or politics. So much of what has happened can be traced back to the character of the people involved. And to take it one step further, thanks to the latest psychological research, character traits have been linked to all kinds of things that we care about in life: optimism, academic achievement, mood, health, meaning, life satisfaction…the list goes on and on.

To say that philosophers—who have been studying character extensively for thousands of years—are mostly in the dark about the topic, surely sounds like I am exaggerating, right? Maybe that’s true, but let me offer two concrete illustrations.

1. Neglected Virtues. The moral virtues are good character traits like justice, temperance, and fortitude. Here are two questions (among many others) you can ask about these virtues. First, conceptually, what do they involve? How, for instance, would you characterize a temperate person? Or a heroic one? Secondly, on empirical grounds, do people actually have the virtues (and if so, how many people and which virtues)? For instance, are there actually any temperate people today?

To help with the empirical question, there has been a recent flurry of interest among philosophers in consulting studies in psychology, and thinking about whether the behavior displayed in those studies is virtuous or not. For a virtue like compassion, real progress has been made in reading the relevant studies carefully, with the conclusion being that most people are not in fact compassionate. Unfortunately, philosophers don’t have much of an idea about what is going on empirically with most of the other virtues (and I’m not sure anyone else does either, for that matter). Part of the reason why is that for some moral virtues there just isn’t the wealth of existing studies to analyze, in the way that there is for compassion. Stealing is a good example—as you might imagine, it is hard to do helpful experimental studies of theft.

But part of the reason is also that some virtues have simply not been on our philosophical radar screens. The attention of philosophers has been elsewhere.

Take the virtue of honesty, for instance. If any virtue is on most people’s top five list, it is that one. Yet it has had no traction at all in the philosophy literature. In fact, there has not been a single paper in a mainstream philosophy journal on the moral virtue of honesty in over fifty years.

Or take the virtue of generosity—just three papers in the past forty years (by way of comparison, there are over two dozen papers on the virtue of modesty—who would have expected that to happen!).

So the upshot is that compassion is likely to be a rare virtue. But at this point it is not at all clear how we are doing with the rest of them. Indeed, in some cases we are not even clear what the virtues look like in the first place.

2. Virtue Development. The natural suspicion, of course, is that across the board we are not doing very well when it comes to being people of good moral character. History, current events, the local news, and social media all seem to confirm this. Hence it seems apparent that there is a sizable character gap:

There are moral exemplars, people like Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth, whose character is morally virtuous in many respects.

Examining their lives ends up reflecting badly on most of us, myself included, since it illustrates in vivid terms just how much of a character gap there really is.

To try to at least reduce this gap, it would be helpful to have some strategies which can, if followed properly, help us to make slow and gradual progress in the right direction. Naturally philosophers needn’t be the only ones who can come up with these strategies, but it would be nice if we had something to say that is practically relevant, empirically informed, and actually efficacious if carried out properly.

By and large, we haven’t had much to say. But there are signs that this is beginning to change, thanks to the work of Nancy Snow, Julia Annas, Jonathan Webber, and a few others. In fact, the development of character improvement strategies strikes me as one of the most promising areas of philosophy in the coming decade. Many good and innovative dissertations are there for interested graduate students to tackle.

My hope is that this groundswell of interest in how to cultivate the virtues will continue to expand in the coming years. These are indeed early days in the philosophical study of character. And exciting days too, full of so many worthwhile possibilities to explore.

This article was originally published at OUPBlog.

~ Christian B. Miller is the A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and author or editor of eight books including The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (Bio credit: OUPBlog)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Some Pragmatic Considerations Against Intellectualism about Belief, by Eric Schwitzgebel

A Trail in Redwood Park, photo 2016 by Amy CoolsAs you may have noticed, I often recommend pieces by Eric Schwitzgebel; of course, that’s because his work is fantastic, and I’m always looking forward to his new posts.

This one’s about understanding why and how we believe, and especially, what our behavior reveals about the true nature of our beliefs. Schwitzgebel offers a succinct and to my mind, convincing criticism of the idea that we have certain beliefs but just often fail to live up to them. Instead, he places the emphasis on observing behavior as a more reliable and accurate indicator of what we in fact do believe.

This is a sobering thought, since it means that the way we like to comfort ourselves when we don’t behave as we think we should isn’t really valid: ‘I meant well! And I’ll do better next time because I really believe in….’ This kind of excuse it always readily available to us in the intellectualist model of belief as Schwitzgebel describes it, but really, what’s the practical use of saying we believe something something then if we consistently give ourselves this kind of ‘out’?  In this way, it’s closely related to the Socratic argument that there’s no such thing as weakness of will, since if we actually believe something, it makes no sense to think we actually could act otherwise. And it seems to me to go beyond pragmatism: if belief and behavior are considered separately, the former seems to lose a good deal of meaning, seeming a disembodied, impersonal thing that doesn’t seem so much to describe the actual world, or an actual person so much as something very abstract, very removed.

But it’s also an encouraging thought. For one, it helps us be more honest about who we really are and why we do what we do; as Schwitzgebel points out, this understanding of belief makes us more responsible for not only our reactions but our beliefs, and therefore gives us more control over them. Which ties into: this view of belief fits in neatly with the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach to self improvement. Perhaps our intellect tells to us that there’s a better way to behave, or that there’s a proposition we should accept since upon consideration, it appears to be the truth, but the way we act so far doesn’t accord with this intellectual discovery. How to resolve this uncomfortable cognitive dissonance? Why, change our behavior! Not only will it change our habits over time, it helps turn our intellectual considerations into conviction, or part of our mental makeup as not only thinking, but believing beings.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration:

Schwitzgebel, Eric. ‘Some Pragmatic Considerations Against Intellectualism about Belief, The Splintered Mind blog, April 07, 2016.

Stroud, Sarah, “Weakness of Will“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition) Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

How the Brain Works (and Doesn’t) vs Our Justice System

We’re learning new and surprising things about our brains all the time. Psychologists, behavioral economists, and other scientists have sophisticated new tricks to reveal what’s going on inside our skulls, and their findings are publicized more widely than ever before. We reveal what we think we’re thinking through polls and quizzes, we’re ‘tricked’ into revealing what we’re really thinking through rigged puzzles and tests (exposing our biases, misconceptions, etc), we have easy access to massive databases of recorded human thought, and most amazingly, neuroscientists can now peer inside our brains while we’re thinking. And some of what we’re learning shows us that we’ve been wrong about ourselves in some really important ways.

So: do changes in our understanding of how the brain works mean we have to change, even to overhaul, how our justice system works too?

Our justice system! WHAT?!? Why would we want to change something so equitable, so honorable, it’s defined by the word ‘justice’?

Seriously, though: to many, this question is almost too scary to ask. 

Won’t we send the signal that we’re no longer tough on crime by even proposing such a project? Isn’t our justice system pretty good as it is? Occasional ‘bad apple’ cops, perjuring witnesses, and corrupt prosecutors aside, our justice system is founded on the wholesome principle of personal responsibility: if we do wrong, we pay the price. A central feature of our justice system, after all, is the right to a fair trial by a jury of our peers. And as a society, we’ve taken great pains to ensure that everyone charged with a crime can get a fair trial. Our standards of evidence are pretty high: there must be eyewitness testimony and plenty of it. Forensic evidence is carefully collected and thoroughly analyzed, from blood to fingerprints to DNA to the tiniest of hairs and fibers. Everyone is entitled to legal counsel, even if the taxpayers have to foot the bill. Children and the mentally disabled are, properly, not tried as if they have the same level of responsibility as fully capable adults. The convicted have a right to appeal if they present evidence that their trial was unfair or if they can demonstrate innocence. And so on.
Even granting all of these and setting them aside for now, a common objection to the current justice system in general is that the underlying concept of personal responsibility is a myth. We’re not responsible since everything we think and do is determined by laws of cause and effect. So, we have no free will, and if we have no free will, the whole concept of moral accountability, of responsibility for our actions, doesn’t make sense. The justice system ends up, then, having nothing to rightfully judge or punish. Let’s explore this for a moment.

What do we mean by personal responsibility? We mean that it’s we that did the thing, it’s we who understand that there are alternatives available to us, and it’s we that could, at least conceivably, have done otherwise. This is true even if our personalities, past experiences, and current circumstances make it unlikely we would have chosen otherwise. It’s reasonable to assign responsibility for actions, since it deters us from making bad choices, and motivates us to inculcate better habits in ourselves. Assigning responsibility does not mean we must ruthlessly punish all who do wrong; it means that we can make reasonable demands of one another as the circumstances warrant, be it punishment, recompense, an apology, or an acknowledgement of responsibility.

Who’s responsible for our actions, then? We all are, so long as we are capable of understanding what we should do and why (whether or not we understood at the time), and so long as we could have chosen to do otherwise. Unless immaturity, injury, or illness makes it impossible, or nearly impossible, to control our actions, all persons who are free to make their own choices can and should be held responsible for those choices. (I argue for this more fully in ‘But My Brain Made Me Do It!’)

By the way, that’s why I disagree with many who think that psychopaths shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. Although it may be more difficult for the psychopath to do the right thing, to respect the rights of others, it’s still in their power to do so, so long as they are capable of reason. We don’t let other people off the hook just because they don’t feel like doing the right thing; and all people, psychopaths or not, often find the wrong thing to do irresistibly attractive, and the right thing difficult. As long as anyone demonstrates sufficient intelligence to understand that the rules apply to them, it doesn’t matter that they wish it didn’t, or feel like it shouldn’t. After all, psychopathy is characterized by lack of empathy, not intelligence. The impartiality that underlies all morality, as in A owes a moral or legal duty to B, so B owes an equal moral or legal duty to A, is a simple and logical equation that any minimally intelligent adult person can grasp, psychopath or not.

So if the concept of personal responsibility, or moral accountability, is generally a good one, and our society is so committed to creating a fair justice system, what’s the problem with it?Here’s one of the main problems: many of our laws and practices are based on a poor understanding of how memory works, and an underestimation of how often it doesn’t work. For example, many of our law enforcement tactics are virtually guaranteed to result in unacceptably high rates of false convictions through their tendency to influence or convince suspects and eyewitnesses to remember details and events that never happened. Police interrogators can and do legally lie to their subjects in the attempt to ‘get them to talk’, under the assumption that false information has little to no effect on the person being interrogated other than to coax or scare the truth out of them. Until very recently, we didn’t understand how malleable memory really is, how easy it is in many circumstances to get others to form false memories by feeding them information. Courts all over the United States, even the Supreme Court, have upheld such deceptive techniques as lawful, yet we have mounting evidence to show these techniques have the opposite of their intended effect – unless, of course, the intended effect is any conviction for crime, not just the true one.

The fact that human memory is as undependable as it it seems counterintuitive, to say the least. It’s true that we can be forgetful, that we trip up on unimportant details such as the color of a thing, or the make of a car, or someone’s height. But surely, we can’t forget the really important things, like what the person who robbed or raped us looks like, or whether a crime happened at all, especially if we’ve committed it ourselves. Yet sometimes it’s the accumulation of small, relatively ‘unimportant’ misremembered details that leads us to ultimately convict the wrong people, and the evidence piling up also reveals that we do, in fact, misremember important things all the time. And people are losing their reputations, their liberty, their homes and money, even their lives, because of it.
Before we look at this evidence, let’s explore, briefly, how we think about memory, and what we are learning about it.

Not so long ago, working theories of human memory rather resembled descriptions of filing systems or of modern computers; many still think of it that way. We thought of the brain as something like a fairly efficient librarian or personal secretary neatly and efficiently storing important bits of information, such as memories of things that

happened to us, images of the people and places we know or encounter in significant moments in our lives, and so on, in a systematic way that would facilitate later retrieval, and most importantly, retrieval of reliable information. ‘Unimportant’ memories, or the less significant details of memorable events, were thrown away by forgetting, so that brain power wouldn’t be wasted on useless information. Sometimes we’d find old memories stuffed away in the back of the file or pushed off to a corner somewhere, a little difficult to retrieve after much time had passed, but still accessible with some effort. But important memories were stored more or less intact and discrete from one another, so if we remembered something at all, we’d remember it fairly correctly, or at least, the most important details of it. After all, it wouldn’t make sense for our internal secretary to rip up the memory file into little pieces and stash it all over the place helter-skelter, or to cross out random bits or even doctor the files from time to time, would it? And we certainly couldn’t remember things as if they actually happened to us if they didn’t. It seems all wrong, that evolution (or an intelligent designer, if that’s your thing) would give us an inefficient, inaccurate, dishonest, or mischievous keeper of that most cherished, most self-defining component of ourselves, our life’s memories.

But now we know that memory works differently in many ways than we thought. How do we know this? For one, we’re now looking inside the brain as we think, and brain scans show that the process of recalling looks different in practice than we might have expected if some of our old theories were true. But more revealingly, we’re taking a closer look at our cognitive blunders. Like many other discoveries in science, we find out more and more about how something works, honing in on it so to speak, by examining instances where it doesn’t work as it should if our theories, or common sense, were correct.

As we’re finding out that memory doesn’t work as we thought, we’re also realizing how heavily our justice system relies on memory and on first-person accounts of what happened. We place a very high value on eyewitness testimony and confessions in pursuing criminal convictions, again, based on faulty old assumptions about how memory works, and how accurately people interpret the evidence of their senses. Yet as we’ll see, people have been falsely convicted because of these, even when other evidence available at the time contradicted these personal accounts of what happened. As our justice system places undue faith in memory and perception, despite their flaws, in what other ways is it built on wrong ideas about how the mind works?

Neuroscience, the quest to understand the brain and how it works, was founded on case studies of how the mind to appeared to change when the brain was injured. Traditionally, the mind was thought of as a unified thing that inhabits or suffuses our brain somewhat as a ghost haunts an old house. If part of the house burns down, the ghost is the same: it can just move to another rooms. But careful observers, early scientists, noticed that an injury to a part of the brain affects the mind itself. When particular parts of the brain were injured, patients lost specific capabilities (to form new memories, for example, or to recognize faces, or to keep their temper). Sometimes, the personality itself would change, like from friendly to unfriendly or vice-versa. Or in the case of split-brain patients, they would simultaneously like and dislike, believe and not believe, or be able and not able to do certain things, depending on how you ask, or sometimes just depending on what side of the body you address them from! Gradually, we came to understand that the mind is something that emerges from a physical brain, from the way the brain’s parts work together, and is entirely dependent on the brain itself for its qualities and for its very existence. 

And as we discussed, it’s not only neuroscientists with their fMRIs that are revealing how the brain works. The criminal justice system has amassed mountains of evidence that shows us how often the human brain does its job and helps us ‘get the right guy’, and how often it fails. With advances in technology, such as DNA testing, more sophisticated firearms testing, expanded access to files and records, and many other newly available forensic tools, we’re discovering an alarming number of false convictions, not only of people currently imprisoned, but sadly, of those we’re too late to help. Most of these are the direct result of basic errors of our own faulty brains. 

(I’ve more briefly discussed the issue of false convictions for crime in an earlier piece, stressing the importance of knowing the ways our criminal justice system fails, and one of the most effective ways society can keep itself informed.)

Two of the main culprits in false convictions are false memory and misperception, the one resulting from errors in recall, the other resulting from bias or the misinterpretation of sense evidence.

For example, let’s consider the case of a rape victim and the man she falsely accused, who went on to work together for reform in certain law enforcement practices. For years, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was absolutely sure that Ronald Cotton had raped her, and her identification of him led to his conviction for the crime. After all, as she said, and as the court agreed, one couldn’t forget the face of someone who had done this to you, committed such an intimate crime inches away from one’s own eyes, could they? Eleven years later, the real rapist was identified when the original rape kit sample was re-tested to confirm a DNA match. Over time, Thompson-Cannino had convinced herself, honestly by all accounts, that Cotton’s face was the one she originally saw, and each time she looked at it, the more she ‘recognized’ it as that of her rapist, and the more strongly she associated this recognition with the rest of her memories of the crime. Fortunately, she’s one of those rare people who are able to fully admit such an egregious mistake, and she has joined with Cotton to call on police jurisdictions to change the way suspect lineup identifications are conducted. Thompson-Cannino and Cotton learned a hard lesson about the fallibility of memory, and how preconceived notions (in this case, that the police must be right) can withstand the rigors of the courtroom and still lead to very wrong conclusions.

But we can imagine that such a mistake must happen from time to time, as in Cotton’s case, when the supposed criminal looks quite a bit like the real one, and the array of circumstances that led to the whole mix-up were so unusually convoluted. But, surely, a lot of people couldn’t all remember the same crime, or series of crimes, wrongly, and describe it mostly the same way when questioned separately? Well, that happens too
. The McMartin case of the early 1980’s was just the first of a string of cases which resulted in hundreds of people being convicted for the rape and torture of small children, usually entirely based on the purported evidence of the ‘victims’ ‘ own memories, or those of their family members. The ‘victims’, mostly young children, told detailed, lurid, horrific stories of events that most people would consider beyond the imaginative scope of innocent children. Over time, as those convicted of the crimes were pardoned, exonerated, or usually just had the charges dropped without apology (some still languish in prison, or are confined to house arrest, or are barred from being with children, including those of their own family), videos and transcripts of ‘expert’ interviews with these children found them leading their interviewees on. Professional psychologists and interrogators were found to be influencing children to form their own false memories, even planting them whole-cloth, rather than drawing them out as most people thought they were doing. This includes the professionals themselves! Some of these children, now grown, still ‘remember’ these events to this day, even those who now know they never happened.

Okay, now we’re talking about children, and we all know children are impressionable. But usually it’s adults who give evidence in such important cases, and though they might be fuzzy on the details when it comes to what other people did, they know what they themselves did, right? Well, here again, no, not necessarily. In Norfolk, Virginia, eight people were convicted of crimes relating to the rape and murder of one woman, based on the first-person confessions and testimony of four military men. These men, who had tested sound enough of mind and body to join the Navy, were convinced by police interrogators, one by one, to ‘reveal’ that they and several others had, by a series of coincidences, formed an impromptu gang-rape party that managed to conduct a violent crime that lasted for hours, while leaving little destruction or evidence behind. Although these confessions didn’t match the evidence found in the crime scene, didn’t match the other confessions, or were contradicted by alibis, all were found guilty on the common-sense and legal assumptions that sane, capable people don’t falsely accuse themselves.Yet as in the Norfolk case, the case history of our criminal justice system reveals that with the right combination of pressure, threats, assertion of authority, and personality type, just about anyone can be pushed to confess to committing even a terrible crime, and worse yet, become convinced that they did it (as one of the men did in the Norfolk case). The Central Park Five, as they are often called, were five teenage boys, aged 14 to 16, who were convicted of the rape, torture, and attempted murder of a woman in Central Park in New York City. The justifiably horrified public outrage at this crime, combined with frustration over a rash of other crimes throughout the city, put a lot of pressure on law enforcement to solve the crime in a hurry. These five boys had already been picked up by police officers in suspicion of committing other crimes that night, of robbery and assault, among other things, and when the unconscious, severely beaten woman was found, the police hoped they had her attackers in custody already. After hours of intensive untaped interrogation, all five eventually confessed, implicating themselves and each other. They were convicted, despite the fact that the blood evidence matched none of them, and their confessions contradicted each other in important details. 

False memories and false confessions are only two of the ways our fallible brains can lead us astray in the search for truth. Human psychology, so effective at so many things, is also short-sighted, self-serving, and wedded to satisfying and convenient narratives, to a fault. Law enforcement officials in all of these cases were convinced that their theories of effective interrogation were right, and that their perceptions of the suspects were right. The prosecutors were convinced that the police officers had delivered the right suspects for trial. The legislators that made the laws, and the courts that upheld them, were convinced they were acting in the best interest of justice. And as we’ve seen, all of these were wrong.

As just about everyone was who were involved in bringing Todd Willingham to court, and in condemning him to die for the murder of his own children by arson. By all accounts, Willingham didn’t act as people would expect a grieving father to act, especially one who had escaped the same burning house his children had died in. Yet it was one faulty theory after anotherfrom pop psychology and preconceived notions about that ‘real’ grief looks like, from bad forensics to a poor understanding of how an exceedingly immature and awkward man might only appear guilty of an otherwise unbelievable crime, that led to his conviction and execution by lethal injection.

But the problem of false conviction for crime is much, much larger than we might suppose from the cases we’ve considered here: these were all capital crimes, and as such were subject to much more rigorous scrutiny than in other cases. If wrongful convictions are known to happen so often in the case of major crimes, we can reasonably extrapolate a very high number of false arrests, undeserved fines, and especially, false plea deals, in which people innocent of the relatively minor crimes they’re accused of are rounded up, charged, and sentenced. Plea bargaining presents a special problem: suspects are persuaded to plead guilty and accept a lesser sentence than the frighteningly harsh one they’re originally threatened with, and in jurisdiction after jurisdiction, we’re finding that huge numbers of innocent people are sent to prison every year through this method. All of this results from a blind zeal to promote justice, or at least, the appearance of justice in the interest of feeling secure, of more firmly establishing authority, or of fulfilling the emotional need to adhere to comforting social traditions.

So how do we need to change our attitude towards our criminal justice system, in the pursuit of actual justice? A proper spirit of epistemic humility, a greater concern for those who may have been wrongfully convicted, and a real love of justice itself (rather than the mere show of caring about justice that the ‘tough on crime’ too often consists of).

But we still are left with the practical task of protecting ourselves and one another. Positive action must be taken, or crime will run rampant, being unopposed. But that doesn’t mean hold on to old ideas and practices because we like them, because they are familiar and ‘time-tested’, and make us feel safe. This includes the death penalty, which shuts out all possibility that we can remedy our mistakes.

Here’s one general solution: approach criminal justice as we do science itself, where we accept conclusions based on the best evidence at the time, but founded on the idea that all conclusions are contingent, are revisable if better, compelling, well-tested evidence comes along. We need a justice system that assumes the fallibility of memory and perception, and builds in systematic corrections for them.

And we need a system that doesn’t just pay homage to this idea: we need to build one that allows for corrections, and not in such a way that it takes years, if ever, to release someone from prison or clear someone’s name if the evidence calls for it. Many would say that the system already works this way: look at how many appeals are available to the convicted, and how many hundreds of people have already been exonerated of serious crimes. But it doesn’t work that way in almost all circumstances. It takes anywhere from months to several years after actual innocence is established to actually release a wrongfully convicted person from prison. For all those not so lucky as to have their innocence proved: most cases don’t have DNA evidence available to test to begin with, at least that would definitively prove guilt or innocence. And even in the rare cases such evidence is available, most is never re-tested to begin with, since the bar for re-evaluation of evidence is so high. Or, the evidence that was available is destroyed after the original conviction and is unavailable for re-examination. Or, legal jurisdictions are so determined that their authority remain unchallenged that they make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for prosecutors and law enforcement officers to be held accountable in any way if they make a mistake, and bend over backwards to make sure such mistakes are never revealed. And so on.

In short: we don’t just need a justice system that brings in science to help out; we need a justice system whose laws and practices emulate the self-correcting discipline of science, which, in turn, is derived from the honest acknowledgement of the limitations of our own minds.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

* Also published at Darrow, a forum for thoughts on the cultural and political debates of today


Sources and Inspiration

‘About the Central Park Five’ [film by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns], PBS.org.
http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/centralparkfive/about-central-park-five/Berlow, Alan. ‘What Happened in Norfolk.’ New York Times Magazine. August 19th, 2007.

‘The Causes of Wrongful Convictions’. The Innocence Project.

Celizic, Mike. ‘She Sent Him to Jail for Rape; Now They’re Friends’ Today News, Mar 3, 2009.

Eagleman, David. ‘Morality and the Brain’, Philosophy Bites podcast, May 22 2011.

‘The Fallibility of Memory’, Skeptoid podcast #446. Dec 23, 2014.

Fraser, Scott. ‘Why Eyewitnesses Get It Wrong’ TED talk. May 2012

Grann, David. ‘Trial by Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?’ The New Yorker, Sep 7, 2009

Hughes, Virginia. ‘How Many People Are Wrongly Convicted? Researchers Do the Math’. National Geographic: Only Human, Apr 28, 2014.

Jensen, Frances. ‘Why Teens Are Impulsive, Addiction-Prone And Should Protect Their Brains’. Fresh Air interview, Jan 28th, 2015.

Kean, Sam. ‘These Brains Changed Neuroscience Forever’. Interview on Inquiring Minds, 

Lilienfeld, Scott O. and Hal Arkowitz. ‘What “Psychopath” Means’. Scientific American,
Nov 28, 2007. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-psychopath-means/

Loftus, Elizabeth. Creating False Memories.’ Scientific American, Sept 1,1997. http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/sciam.htm
and ‘The Fiction of Memory’ TED talk. June 2013.

Nelkin, Dana K., ‘Moral Luck’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-luck/
Perrilo, Jennifer T. and Saul M. Kassin. ‘The Lie, The Bluff, and False Confessions’. Law and Human Behavior (academic journal of the American Psychology-Law Society). Aug 24th, 2010.

Possley, Maurice. ‘Fresh Doubts Over a Texas Execution’. The Washington PostAug 3, 2014.

Robertson, Campbell. ‘South Carolina Judge Vacates Conviction of George Stinney in 1944 Execution’, The New York TimesDec. 17, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/18/us/judge-vacates-convict

Shaw, Julia. ‘False Memories Creating False Criminals’. Interview, Point of Inquiry podcast.
March 2nd, 2015. http://www.pointofinquiry.org/false_memories_creating_false_criminals_with_dr..

‘The Trial That Unleashed Hysteria Over Child Abuse.’ New York Times, Mar 9th, 2014.
and video ‘McMartin Preschool: Anatomy of a Panic | Retro Report’

Great Thing About Family Is….

I belong to a large family. Like, very large. On my mom’s side, I am one among a pool of 18 first cousins, a number not too out of the ordinary, but last I heard, I am one of a whopping 70 or so cousins on my dad’s side (If that number is out of date, dear relation who may be reading this, let me know and I’ll update!) I have twenty-one (living) aunts and uncles, not including my dad and mom, and when it comes to my siblings’ and my cousins’ kids, their spouses, the great aunts and uncles and their families… you can imagine the sheer numbers of people I count among my relations.

And yet, I actually do know a substantial majority of them, though not necessarily well. But a great many of them I do know well.

Here’s another thing: I am very different than many, probably even most, members of my family, in temperament, habits, and beliefs, as is the case with most extended families, I expect. I even find many of the beliefs and opinions held by some of my relations distasteful or sometimes even downright abhorrent, as I suspect they do mine.

Regardless of this, I love and respect almost all of them, and I really like to spend time with them when I can.

People sometimes find it necessary to distance themselves from family for their own protection, to preserve their mental health and peace of mind, for example, or because their family members’s beliefs cause them to reject their atheist, or gay, or interracially-married, or religiously converted, or otherwise non-conformist relations. Some people abuse their family members, too, sometimes in most horrific ways. Every situation is different, and of course, many people really should sever ties when the relationships they have to family is destructive.

But I think it’s so important to preserve family relations if you can, because what they have to offer can be of immeasurable value.

First, there’s the wealth of love and support that comes with family. You acquire a posse of friends and allies just through the simple fact of being born. And as you go through life, you grow together with them, and get to share in their history, in a way unique from any other kind of relationship. A member of your family can understand you in a particular way that few others can, by virtue of each of you accompanying another as each grow and change. You, in turn, can have that particularly intimate sort of insight into what makes them tick.

But secondly, and I think at least as importantly, you have the opportunity to keep your mind that much more able to imagine and to understand other ways of seeing the world. For example, here in the Bay Area where I’ve made my home for well over a decade now, I live in a liberal, artsy, worldly, well-read, foodie, moderately out-doorsy, rather cosmopolitan ‘bubble’. My friends would all be readily characterized as such, and I love these things about them, as we share so many points of view in common, and enjoy doing and talking about the same sorts of things.

But there are other ways of experiencing the world,  and as we share our city, state, country, and planet, and therefore in many ways our fate with very different kinds of people, it’s imperative that we all be able to talk to each other. But how to do overcome these often vast differences, and bridge that gap, in order to be able to understand how others think? This problem is illustrated most strikingly in our public discourse, where in the media and on internet forums, citizens, pundits, and politicians shout past each other, and instead of convincing their ideological opponents, almost always just end up ‘singing to the choir’.

And that’s where the bonds of family loyalty and shared history can come in, to help you increase your patience and expand your understanding. Family is one of the few spheres where very different people can come together in mutual love and respect, overcoming their differences in order to preserve something even more important than simply agreeing with one another about everything.

I consider my dad, for example, the most important moral influence in my life, though the few times we’ve specifically talked about the issue, we find we have very different accounts about the nature and origin of morality. Yet, I find he embodies that which morality ultimately is for, and how it molds a genuinely, habitually virtuous person that I would recommend everyone emulate and admire.

Another example: one of my uncles, dear that he is, calls me regularly in an effort to convert me back to the Catholic religion of my upbringing. (He was my confirmation sponsor, a Catholic rite of passage somewhat like a Bat Mitzvah, and he takes it very seriously, though I’ve assured him time and again that I consider him released from that obligation: I was far too young, and lacked the relevant information, to make such a vow of fealty to any religion.) We end up having many frank, lengthy discussions and debates on all manner of religious, philosophical, and political topics, and rarely agree on anything beyond the most basic moral principles and standards of reason. But we end every conversation, no matter how heated it had gotten, on the friendliest of terms, and say good-bye amidst good-humored banter.

Most of the time, it feels as if there’s just not enough time and energy to go around spending a lot of time with people that don’t share many of your interests and beliefs. But without family, it’s unlikely that many of us would have the opportunity to really get to know people that are substantially different than we are. I’ve spent countless happy and enriching hours in friendly companionship eating, hiking, swimming, playing sports and games, and just chatting with relatives with whom I have few things even common, who disagree with me philosophically, politically, and aesthetically about so many things, and I with them. But ultimately, none of that mattered at the time: we were sharing time as fellow beings sharing a kind of close human relationship that could transcend all of that.

Funnily enough, that same family loyalty that historically has led so so much tribalism and in-group, insular thinking, can also be among the most important avenues for opening us up to a more tolerant, cosmopolitan mindset, so long as we have family that are open to maintaining a system of love and support while being very different in habit and thought. So if you can, stay close to family, keep the lines of communication open. You may very well become a much bigger person as a result.

My family has done so much for me in that line, even if unintentionally, and for that, among so many other things, I thank them, and owe them a great debt.

A Bit About Who I Am, and Why I Bother With All This Musing and Writing Stuff

I’ve long been obsessed with ideas and arguments, why people do and say the things they do, why people believe what they do, and so forth., as I’ve already discussed in an earlier piece. This curiosity and drive to understand, at least a little, the workings of the universe outside my own mind has not diminished over the years in the slightest. So a few years ago, when the job market dried up, my business partially failed, and my artistic pursuits provided me with much satisfaction but little income, I decided to more fully immerse myself in one of my greatest loves, philosophy, by going back to college.

It was a dream of mine that I had never seriously pursued in my early youth, though I eagerly attended junior college as soon as I was able. In my family, the goal of pursuing higher education was not discussed much. Most of my closest relatives are honest, hardworking people, generally blue-collar, hand-on work, and that was for the most part true of myself too, though I worked more in customer service jobs that had some sort of idealist or artistic element. I also have a strong affinity for blue-collar work, and really enjoyed the physically labrious aspects of my long-time intermittent job at a salvage yard.

Many of my relatives were and are suspicious of much of higher education too, seeing it as an array of dangerous temptations away from a life immersed in a particularly conservative brand of religious faith. Also, as a woman, higher education was less of a priority in my family. I felt it was always implied, but rarely said outright, that a good girl got married and stayed at home, perhaps after a stint at junior college, even a bachelor’s degree maybe, before settling in to homemaking while still young enough to make lots of babies. That’s it, unless I wanted to become a nun. All that sounds like a lovely, happy, fulfilling life for many, and I am fortunate to be a fond and proud auntie and cousin many, many times over precisely because so many women in my family find this lifestyle right for them. But never felt right for me, and over the years, I felt annoyed and a little resentful that other options were never discussed or encouraged, and that I never had a mentor intellectually. But I also realize that I may very well be unfair in this assessment. For one thing, my dad and other close family members never resented my constantly badgering them with questions and were always willing to answer them fully, and one of my dear uncles and I regularly engage in honest, no-holds-barred. lengthy debate and discussion to this day, and I thank him for that. It was also really entirely up to me to stop gadding around and instead of gleefully following my whims, to focus on the goal of completing a degree, applying the creativity I applied to other pursuits to the task of fundraising for school.

But why not keep all this to myself? Why have I taken this previously mostly internal process and dumping it out into the world? (With the full realization that few, at this point, even read this stuff.) I’ve often gotten the sense that philosophers, amateur and professional, are usually irritating to most other people besides fellow philosophers, and even these pick on each other at least as often as they engage in fruitful debate. (At least, it appears so from the public discourse, but my evidence for this is merely anecdotal.) But I think that this sense of philosophy being this annoying form of snobbery is based only on the archness with which some philosophers deliver their musings, and on a particular perception of what philosophy is. Many professional philosophers display a seemingly protectionist attitude toward their craft, preferring to share their ideas mostly or only with other professionals in highly arcane language. (Arcane: mysterious, secret. Arcane language: jargon) I actually think that this largely closed-off, rarified realm of philosophy is invaluable: it’s a place where ideas can be invented and pursued as far as they can go, by a community entirely devoted to this task. The untold riches that have emerged from this level of discourse is wonderful astounding. I just wish I and most of the public had the ability to fully understand and appreciate it, and the bit I’ve had the good fortune to experience left me amazed and entranced, and humbled.

But I also think that everyone, or almost everyone, engages in philosophical thinking of one sort or another, hence my blog’s byline. We not only react in moral matters but often make some sort of attempt to justify them to others. We all seek to describe or define, at times, the essential nature of reality. When it comes to aesthetics, to visual art and music and literature, we try to add a description of the idea(s) or driving force behind them, placing them within a context, rarely letting works of art speak entirely for themselves. Every one of us who has engaged in conscious reflection on anything has done some philosophy.

When it comes to writing and applying this sort of thinking, curiously enough, I’m almost entirely drawn to most areas of philosophy except philosophy of art. It seems kind of weird for a person who’s always been immersed in the arts, who has been drawing, sewing, sculpting, and so forth, and who loves music, for a lifetime. I think it’s because I do happen to be the sort of artist who likes to let my art speak for itself, and if I try to politicize or contextualize it, than it loses its immediacy and power for me. I’d rather let others do that, to read into my artwork whatever they’re compelled to read into it, or to discover some truths about me that I can’t since I lack the objectivity. But philosophy of science and of law, political and metaphysical, and most of all, moral philosophy… those I just can’t get enough of. And as I touched on in the aforementioned piece I wrote a month or so ago, I’ve been thinking on these things outside of academia for so long that I’m still far more comfortable doing philosophy in laypersons’ terms. But I still need that sharing and expressing of ideas without which a fuller understanding is impossible.

So I keep thinking about how the universe works, based on the information I receive about what’s going on in the world, and keeping writing about the process of figuring it out because it’s fascinating to me for its own sake. But not only that. I really feel a sense of deepest connection to the human family in its entirely, and feel a deep sense of responsibility towards it and gratitude to it. For me, that means I don’t feel satisfied simply by expressing my instinctive reactions to the occurrences and ideas I encounter in the world, such as simple anger, or disgust, or joy, or love. That’s because I don’t feel an isolated individual whose thoughts, feelings, and actions are as worthwhile or interesting on their own as they are within the larger realm of shared human experience.

For example, the blaming, the finger-pointing, the shaming I see going on in the public sphere over political matters seems like a giant room with a lot of people screaming and no one listening, because too many people forget that their ideological opponents are people with needs and interests and beliefs too. I feel the need to explore and explain what’s behind all this as well as expressing righteous approval or indignation because I feel that the screaming is not only not accomplishing anything, it’s just not that interesting, and reveals little about the world besides a very narrow set of facts about human psychology. I think that when we remember to sit back and reflect on why we feel and believe as we do, and patiently explain ourselves in an honest manner, with a generous spirit of always assuming the best of motives in your ideological opponent, it’s only then that we are justified in our beliefs, and have earned the right to feel that we are, indeed, in the right. But of course, this must always be provisional, because as it so happens, so one has all the needed information at any one time to know everything about everything. We must always be ready to acknowledge when we’ve been wrong, and always be ready to learn.

I look forward to what I will continue to learn from all of you out there, and always welcome your thoughts and your honest debate!