Tuesday, June 28, 2011

That (Self-) Blaming Feeling

"Why, worthy thane,
You do unbend your noble strength to think
So brainsickly of things. Go get some water,
And wash this filthy witness from your hand."

Lady Macbeth

In a compelling argument for the congruence of brain and mind, and the ethics that ought to follow therefrom, David Eagleman maintains that blame derives from a misguided and outmoded belief in free will. He claims that blame is basically backward-looking, implying that one could and should have done differently (than one just did). But when we face up to monism and the brain-as-mechanism, we realize that, after the fact, there is nothing to do but acknowledge that given the conditions that prevailed at any past time, one could not in fact have acted differently.

Eagleman argues that shame and blame are not, in fact, very good at modifying behavior, and what we need is a more rational and forward-looking attempt to achieve desired outcomes, in ourselves and others. A la B. F. Skinner, he proposes that we approach brains as we would approach engines or computers that are on the blink. Both sticks and carrots may be necessary to shape desired behaviors, but they should be undertaken in a dispassionate way, free of messy or reckless vindictiveness.

There is nothing inherently objectionable about his advocacy of what he calls "the frontal workout," that is, an updated biofeedback project whereby one might learn (or teach) better control over impulses. But he might have said more about the phenomenology of guilt and blame, which are, after all, very deep aspects of human experience. These are very distinct and familiar subjective phenomena, and arguably they are far from arbitrary or nonsensical.

Blame is the social group's means of imposing its norms, and blame works most effectively when it is internalized as guilt and shame. Blame is a deterrent, plain and simple. And as is so often the case, it works best when it is involuntary (when blame is reflected on too carefully, one arrives at Hamlet). This is not to say that shame and blame are generally good things, merely that they are natural (and many perfectly natural human behaviors are odious). However, even in Eagleman's handyman-of-the-brain world, some impetus and motivation for change must exist, and I don't know whether that motive would come from unless from those primeval emotions of guilt and shame. They merely exist in healthy and in pathological forms. Guilt and shame may seem to be primarily about the past, but really they project forward into the future; like pain, they are the brain's message to itself: That didn't go well, so try something different. Blame and guilt are modes of moral (self-)argument.

And in a follow-up to the recent post about reading, the literati are a bit atwitter about Philip Roth's declaration that he has stopped reading fiction. In a Salon article Laura Miller speculates that inasmuch as fiction provides insight into character and human subjectivity, perhaps some do reach a point at which they have all the insight they need. After all, the novel isn't called the novel for nothing, and some readers do believe there is nothing new under the sun. But then again, one could paraphrase Samuel Johnson and say that "He who is tired of fiction is tired of life."


The Alienist said...

Interesting post for an interesting article.

I am always worried when the neuroscientists (or any other group) pretend that they have the single most relevant insight into the mind. In reality, when we use a single explanation of mental functioning, it is almost certainly deficient in many respects. Most importantly, at least with regard to this article, neuroscience has not been able to adequately address the idea of "agency."

The reductionistic views of neuroscience (as well as other reductionistic views of the mind) remove man as an agent of his own behavior, thought, and emotion. And they do not base this on any proof of a lack of agency -- only proof that our choices are influenced by many more factors that we are consciously aware of. (Hardly a new finding. Read Freud.)

Without a recognition of agency (as assumed in the article), certainly current law is meaningless. The alternative described, however, is worse. C.S. Lewis recognized that the medicalization of the law was a step toward the loss of human rights. The law currently recognizes the sane man as the agent of his activities and therefore imposes a (hopefully) reasonable punishment for illegal behavior. The man who has been judged "insane" is assumed not to have been the agent of his activities and can be "treated" for as long as it takes to control his behavior. In the absence of a recognized agent for the illegal activities, society takes the responsibility for the control of an individual's behaviors through psychological, medical, social control, or environmental control.

Understand, I am not against neuroscience. I am a trained neuroscientist. I am against proposing legal and social systems based on a woefully incomplete conception of what it means to be human.

Sorry for the rambling post. The topic brings up so many interesting lines of thought.

Novalis said...

Well argued...the claim that "I didn't do it, my brain did," is morally incoherent except in select circumstances. It is one thing if I have a grand mal seizure while driving and run someone over, but it is dangerous to extrapolate that to more ambiguous situations.

Nature's abhorrence of a vacuum applies to personal identity as well. As you say, if identity is degraded from values and personal responsibility to tissues and neurotransmitters, the culture at hand will fill the gap. He who does not shape his own identity will have it shaped for him.