Friday, December 29, 2006

The erosion of free will ...and freedom

The Economist has an interesting—yet awfully frighteningarticle on how neuroscience is challenging the concept of free will. The piece starts with this example:
IN THE late 1990s a previously blameless American began collecting child pornography and propositioning children. On the day before he was due to be sentenced to prison for his crimes, he had his brain scanned. He had a tumour. When it had been removed, his paedophilic tendencies went away. When it started growing back, they returned. When the regrowth was removed, they vanished again. Who then was the child abuser?
Indeed, it's not such a stretch (and science is continuing to close this gap) to think of any behavior as simply a product biochemical reactions. So, then, if someone commits murder, was it really an act of free choice, or is faulty brain chemistry to blame? Where do we draw the line? By far the most frightening part of the article was this (having seen Minority Report several years back, this gave me chills of déjà vu):
At the moment, the criminal law—in the West, at least—is based on the idea that the criminal exercised a choice: no choice, no criminal. The British government, though, is seeking to change the law in order to lock up people with personality disorders that are thought to make them likely to commit crimes, before any crime is committed. (...) Such disorders are serious pathologies. But the National DNA Database being built up by the British government (which includes material from many innocent people), would already allow the identification of those with milder predispositions to anger and violence. How soon before those people are subject to special surveillance? And if the state chose to carry out such surveillance, recognising that the people in question may pose particular risks merely because of their biology, it could hardly then argue that they were wholly responsible for any crime that they did go on to commit.
Yikes. I actually worked for one of the biotech companies that was bidding, several years ago, to provide plastic storage tubes for the UK's Biobank Project, and I remember the whispers of my co-workers who, at that point, seemed a little paranoid to me. "Someday they'll use the DNA to track us, or to discriminate," they said. Now they don't seem so paranoid. Add to that the fact that the UK recently passed a law allowing clubs and bars to fingerprint their patrons, and you've got a 1984-esque scene unfolding just over the Atlantic Ocean. How long before it reaches the US?


Blogger Roelieboelie said...

Wow, great post, scary topic! I remember when I got my temporary work VISA for the US, a couple years back, there was a picture of me on it that (A) I didn't have taken myself and (B) I had no idea where or when it was taken. I wasn't looking at the camera, was wearing a random T-Shirt, and it looked like I was in front of a building (bricks in the back). I doubt this had to do with biology (my genes are awesome) but it did give me that unsettling 'big brother' feeling.... I can't even imagine this whole Minority Report thing going through, especially in light of your previous post (exceptions to the biology rules we think we know)!!

9:16 AM  
Anonymous Jamie Concepcion said...

Thats very strange, the last part reminds me a lot of that movie Gattaca with Ethan Hawke. Soon enough people with better genes will get better jobs and people will choose marital partners based on their genetic screens.

7:31 AM  

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