Picture: Incognito. I thought David Eagleman’s book SUM was excellent – it’s a series of short accounts of the afterlife in which each version turns out to be surprising and disappointing in a variety of imaginative ways. So I looked forward to Incognito, his serious account of the conscious mind. The dazzling striped lettering on the dustjacket suggests we’re in for a lively read, and it does not mislead.

The first part of the book – the bulk of it in fact – is a highly readable account of many of the interesting and counter-intuitive discoveries of modern research about how the brain in general, and perception in particular, works.  There are many old friends here – blindsight, split brains, and synaesthesia, and so on – but also some stuff that was new to me. If you want to know what Japanese chicken-sexers and WWII British plane spotters have in common, this is the book for you.  In places I felt Eagleman’s account could have benefited from a few caveats and qualifications, and at times the breeziness of his explanation seems to carry him away. Is the tendency to talk freely about your life to anonymous strangers – people you might meet on a train journey for example – the ‘explanation’ for the continuance of confession in the Catholic church?  Er, no: back to the drawing board on that one, I think.  But in fairness this is essentially a popular account, not a scientific paper.

As the book progresses it becomes clear that Eagleman’s purpose is not merely to summarise interesting research: in fact, he’s been softening us up for some points of his own.  He speaks warmly of Minsky’s Society of Mind, but suggests that to complete the picture we need to assume that there is an ongoing competition for control among the various agents running our minds. I don’t think this idea is quite as novel as Eagleman seems to suppose, and he goes on to make a very traditional use of it by drawing a distinction between a rational controller, able to defer gratification, and a short-term pleasure seeker. This sort of echoes Freud, and for that matter Plato’s charioteer.

In fact Eagleman’s main purpose is to change our view of moral responsibility and legal responses to crime.  He spends some time quoting examples of people who committed crimes under the influence of drugs or brain tumours, and recounts the well-known story of Phineas Gage, whose behaviour was changed for the worse when a tamping iron was accidentally fired through his brain. This last example perhaps needs to be handled with a little more care than Eagleman gives it, as there are reasons for a degree of scepticism about how changed or how bad Gage’s behaviour became.  Eagleman foresees a day when neuroscience will make it impossible to hang on to the idea that free will means anything or that anyone is ultimately responsible for anything – or as puts it blameworthy. I think Eagleman is giving up too quickly: without re-fighting the Free Will issue, aren’t there special faculties of planning and decision-making which conscious humans have and other creatures lack? If so, isn’t it worth appealing to them, and isn’t blame a tool for doing so?

Eagleman seems to have a bit of a campaign going against blame. His base is at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston where he directs the College’s Initiative on Neuroscience and Law (as well as the Eagleman Laboratory for Perception and Action). He approvingly quotes Lord Bingham:

In the past, the law has tended to base its approach… on a series of rather crude working assumptions: adults of competent mental capacity are free to choose whether they will act in one way or another; they are presumed to act rationally, and in what they conceive to be their own best interests; they are credited with such foresight of the consequences of their actions as reasonable people in their position could ordinarily be expected to have; they are generally taken to mean what they say. Whatever the merits or demerits of working assumptions such as these in the ordinary range of cases, it is evident that they do not provide a uniformly accurate guide to human behaviour.

At first sight it’s possible to read this as a liberal, even  humane point of view: isn’t it ridiculous the way we blame and punish all these people for things they couldn’t really help?  But a moment’s reflection shows that the noble lord is letting these common folk off their punishment only because he’s demoting them into a sub-human category.  You know, he says, for some reason our legal system bends over backwards to treat people as if they were dignified creatures of some moral standing: it goes on treating them as worthy of admonition, worthy indeed of the honour of punishment, long after they have proved themselves to be pond life. You would almost think the law considered these people in some sense the equal of their judges!

The more I read the quote the less I like it.

Eagleman certainly has no truck with equality, and devotes a section to denouncing it. The question of whether equality of income is in itself a moral desideratum or an economic advantage, or the reverse, is of course politically contentious: but I had thought that no-one anywhere on the spectrum denied moral equality. Can Eagleman possibly mean that we don’t all equally deserve a fair hearing, natural justice, and to be judged by our actions alone?  Reader, I fear he does.

In fact what Eagleman is advocating in practice is not clear to me in any detail, but a couple of points are well established. People will still go to jail, he is keen to emphasise: not in order to be punished, but in order to protect society. It follows, though Eagleman does not dwell on this, that they might stay in jail forever, if they continue to be deemed dangerous. Indeed, if neurolaw (it seems to be as much a matter of genetics and other factors as genuine neuroscience) gives them the thumbs down as high-risk future perps, it seems to follow that they might find themselves locked up before they’ve done anything.

The other point, a little more appealing, is that Eagleman believes people can be trained out of their vicious propensities. Crime, he suggests, occurs when the struggle between the different agents in our mind goes the wrong way: when the rational self loses out to the weak-willed glutton. He mentions experiments conducted by his colleagues, which use neural feedback to try to help people overcome their desire for chocolate cake: he thinks a similar ‘prefrontal workout’ might help criminals get ready to re-enter society. So perhaps they won’t be in jail long, after all?

But does crime really arise from weakness of will? Is it that everyone wants to be good, but sometimes some people give way to an immediate temptation? Isn’t that a rather minor part of the problem? I can’t help thinking what a sunlit, untroubled life Eagleman must have led – never having experienced in himself or having reason to suspect in others any of the deep dark recesses of the soul – if he thinks evil is more or less the same as finding it hard to stop eating chocolate cake.

Another instance of naivety seems embodied in the idea that in the pandemonic struggle of our minds one side is always good and the other bad. Suppose we train our criminals to overcome their temptations and enthrone the rational, long-term part of their brain – will that make them model citizens, or will they become psychopaths who’ve learnt to rein in the empathy and repugnance which would otherwise have prevented their crimes? Terrible things have been done on grounds that seemed entirely cold and rational to their perpetrators. Sometimes it’s better to leave Falstaff in charge: there may be a glut of chocolate cake, but the Battle of Shrewsbury gets cancelled.

Eagleman is aware of the poor precedents for science-driven justice, but he has a curious way of immunising his own mind against them. He describes the failure of psychologists to predict the rate of re-offending: he describes lobotomy with distaste, yet somehow he manages to construe both as relics of the traditional way of doing things rather than early attempts at the kind of science-driven crime management he too is advocating (of course, they got it wrong while he will get it right). He describes the plot of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest without seeming to realise how much the predicament of McMurphy resembles that of an inmate in a new Eaglemanic detention facility. When McMurphy was in jail, under the benighted old system, his punishment was limited to match his crime and when his term was up a system like that deplored by Lord Bingham persisted in trying to make a free moral agent of him again. In the asylum, as in Eagleman’s jail, you don’t get out till the men in white coats are pleased with you.

At the end of the day, I think there’s a fundamental concept missing from Eagleman’s analysis: justice. He’s not the only one in recent times to overlook it or mistake it for revenge, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s fundamental. There is a moral imperative that we should ensure good behaviour leads to good things and bad behaviour to bad regardless of other considerations, and this is what lies at the root of all punishment. Deterrence and rehabilitation are additional benefits we should strive to secure, but justice is what it’s about. Only justice permits, in theory and often in practice, the exercise of governmental or judicial power: to put it aside, however beguiling the reason, is tyranny.

Coming off that high horse, I suppose we can thank Eagleman for stating explicitly conclusions which others have avoided or fudged, and thereby promoting the clarity of debate. He could go a bit further in setting out the implications of his theses and proposing what they might really mean in practice. There’s no doubting that our current judicial systems are far from perfect, and even if we reject Eagleman’s prescriptions, they might in the end help things move on.


  1. 1. Mike says:

    The concept of justice is itself a product of phenomenal consciousness, requiring acceptance of a traditional view of moral agency, consciously directed volition, and intent(as was the production and appreciation of cuckoo’s nest). In correctly challenging the empirical validity of this viewpoint Eagleman is also necessarily challenging some extremely deeply held cultural beliefs on which the judicial system is based.
    By investigating the nature and origins of these beliefs, the products of consciousness, and comparing them with empirical data we have a means of indirectly studying consciousness itself.

  2. 2. Paul Bello says:

    two words for Eagleman: “Compensatory Strategy.” It’s what disabled individuals do to muddle through an otherwise difficult predicament. I feel that provided executing compensatory strategies is more difficult than not, perhaps juries ought to be a tad more forgiving, however across-the-board exoneration as a policy seems as if it would lead to chaos. Everyone and thier mothers would invoke the “my brain made me do it” strategy.

  3. 3. Andrew says:

    It seems like it should still be possible to maintain a coherent system of justice and punishment even if you accept the sort of determinism Eagleman seems to be advocating. For example, while retributivism would be pretty hard to justify, you could make a case for introducing punishment as a deterrent (as you note). This would be just introducing another variable into the decision-making process of the potential criminal, which is compatible with a deterministic system. Alternatively, the courts could take a materialist monist stance and identify the brain with the will, and thereby circumvent the issue entirely – “My brain made me do it” is simply the same thing as “I did it.” In neither case do you require the distasteful and politically dubious justification of “protecting society at large,” nor do you need to advocate a Clockwork Orange-style “retraining” program.

    Also, Ayn Rand would hate this guy.

  4. 4. Tom Clark says:

    Peter, you say:

    “…aren’t there special faculties of planning and decision-making which conscious humans have and other creatures lack? If so, isn’t it worth appealing to them, and isn’t blame a tool for doing so?”

    This seems to me a consequentialist justification for blame and punishment: they engage our conscious rational capacities, for instance to anticipate and avoid punishment, in order to shape behavior for the better.

    But you also say

    “There is a moral imperative that we should ensure good behaviour leads to good things and bad behaviour to bad regardless of other considerations, and this is what lies at the root of all punishment. Deterrence and rehabilitation are additional benefits we should strive to secure, but justice is what it’s about.”

    Here it’s clear you consider punishment to be retributive, justified independently of any good consequences. I’m wondering what the justification is for ensuring that “good behaviour leads to good things and bad behaviour to bad regardless of other considerations”? Or is punishment simply, as you say, fundamental, and thus not further justifiable, but rather a basic value to be protected and sought after as an essential element of human flourishing?

    Dennett writes in a recent book chapter “A world without punishment is not a world any of us would want to live in.” – see http://www.naturalism.org/fourviews.htm In his seminar on free will last semester which I attended, he eventually conceded this was, in his words, “an overstatement.”

  5. 5. trev says:

    What happened to Eagleman’s “bushmen find a radio” analogy that essentially allowed for free will? Is possibilianism out the window now? I hope so. Surely morality is a construct, free will is illusory and we are farting against a hurricane. The best we can hope for is that we create something that can create something that can …

  6. 6. Peter says:


    I didn’t mean that to be specifically consequentialist, though I see why you take it that way. I really just meant that you don’t have to limit yourself to training human beings into good behaviour, as you might have to do with some animals, because there are other ways of getting people to choose the good – whether you define the good in consequentialist or Kantian terms or whatever.

    I wouldn’t call the other point retributive, exactly, and I don’t mean punishment itself is fundamental, but rather that it derives from some underlying principle of justice which is – but these are quibbles.

    All that said, if the suggestion is that I’m attacking on the basis of radically different moral principles on different occasions, you’re right. Partly I’m just using the critic’s privilege of inconsistency, but in my own defence I can say that the ethical theory I subscribe to is a careful synthesis (or a ‘confused pudding’) of a number of ethical principles. I would very much like to set all this out in more detail and discuss it some time, but this doesn’t seem to be the place.

    trev – yes, good question: I don’t know what happened to possibilianism – he seems pretty solidly against free will here. I have to confess I’m still given to the odd fart myself.

  7. 7. John says:

    Peter still seems to be living in the age of ancient Alexandria. Modern natural philosophy conceives of the universe as an infinity of individually qm entangled classical worlds. If you are in one of these worlds you get a classically deterministic idea of events. According to the most popular interpretation of this cosmology these classical worlds are continually dividing but our brain can know nothing outside of the thread where it finds itself. According to modern natural philosophy we just happen to find ourselves in a classical world where society is organised so that certain behaviours are valued and certain social actions performed. A horse winning a race in the USA by a nose could split the world into a strand where the guy who bet on it gets the funds to run for president and triggers an apocalypse with anarchy emerging as the moral order.

    Sadly, whatever the world that we inhabit its classical determinism always persuades us that it has some basis in reason and morality. We could have been born as Aztecs and things might have been very different but most of us would have been as convinced of the rectitude of human sacrifice as modern folk are convinced of the rule of law.

    The real issue is whether we can adopt an idea of a way of life (what used to be known as a religious purpose) without deterministic reasoning. Is there some sort of harmonious state of being that we can acquire without a classical, deterministic intervention?

  8. 8. Vicente says:


    We could have been born as Aztecs…

    Who could have been born as an Aztec?

    This common expression implicitly shows a believe…. is your subconscious betraying you?

  9. 9. Charles Wolverton says:

    “The real issue is whether we can adopt an idea of a way of life (what used to be known as a religious purpose) without deterministic reasoning.”

    This question is addressed in the first few chapters of Rorty’s “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity”. As I have often observed, my answer (consistent with his discussion although formulated long before I ever heard of him) is an unequivocal “yes”. All of my (half dozen or so) best friends would be considered “nihilists” in the sense relevant to the question (although not being “philosophers” in any formal sense, none probably ever self-identifies as such) and all nonetheless lead perfectly normal lives – active, engaged, goal-driven, etc.

    Curiously, about half have had some degree of involvement with Zen (independently of the various relationships among us). That would seem to suggest something, although I have no clear idea what it might be.

    However, we have all been blessed with relatively comfortable, relatively tragedy-free, relatively physically and psychologically sound lives. It isn’t clear to me that accepting one’s 80-ish years on earth as being “all there is” is quite as easy for those who haven’t enjoyed such good fortune. One friend has said, “who needs heaven when you’ve had it this good right here?”, but unfortunately, many (most) people can’t make that kind of statement.

    My only quibble with phrasing of the question is that implicit in it seems to be a specific interpretation of “determinism”, viz, as involving predictability. My interpretation is “being subject to natural laws”, and under that interpretation (assuming one assumes that QM follows natural laws) the course of a life is “determined” even though not predictable.
    To the point of the post (more specifically, Tom and Peter’s exchange above), my only tweak is to suggest that to a “determinist” (my sense), terms like “punishment” – which in our current culture inevitably leads to the inference that despite having a real “choice”, the perpetrator nevertheless committed a “moral wrong”, possibly against “God’s law” – is grating. Why not try a “blame-free” version (hopefully more effective, efficient, and “just” than the present system), restoring moral outrage only if warranted by convincing evidence that doing so has net beneficial effect?

  10. 10. John says:

    Charles: “My interpretation is “being subject to natural laws”, and under that interpretation (assuming one assumes that QM follows natural laws) the course of a life is “determined” even though not predictable.”

    I was using “determinism” in the sense of being trapped within dimensional time (a slightly esoteric usage perhaps). If we have a flow of time then we cannot be trapped within time – the future and the past consist of different events as each second passes. So what is moving? If it is the focus of our conscious experience then it is a pretty peculiar phenomenon. It is at a particular place and instant but also contains a view that is spread out in space and time. It has a strange geometry.

    If our conscious experience is a geometrical phenomenon rather than a type of processing then it is not bound by the reasoning that proposes that we split with every QM split of the environment. If we have free will then this is equivalent to saying that we can choose the QM thread that our consciousness will occupy and also implies the suppression of alternate threads because otherwise there would always be a version of ourselves enjoying or suffering the other choice. But how do we choose without processing?

  11. 11. John says:

    Vicente: “We could have been born as Aztecs…

    Who could have been born as an Aztec?”

    I was using a conversational style. I should have just said that an Aztec would rationalise their circumstances in the same way as Peter rationalises our world.

    The central point of my comment was that we cannot be said to choose the good if the universe breaks into two strands, one containing what Peter considers to be “good” and the other where this choice is not made. The modern idea that all possible paths are realized undermines moral theories based on will power.

  12. 12. Vicente says:


    The modern idea that all possible paths are realized undermines moral theories based on will power.

    Well, not so modern… Spinoza already said that evil exists because all that can possibly happen, actually happens, in the infinite power of God…

    IMO Spinoza’s Ethics has been the only real attempt to produce a rational founded set of rules to judge an act, irrespective of the quality of the result (regarding the book I mean).

    And this is Ethics after all… Is it possible to define a set of rules that enables us to judge? to punish?

    I don’t know, I believe actions have to be judged according to the suffering or happiness they originate in ourselves and others, but how to do this in an objective manner, how to define an objective scale for happiness and suffering…

    I also believe that we all know, deep inside, when we behave properly and when we don’t, but as you said it is easy to rationalise, and lie to ourselves…

  13. 13. Tom Clark says:


    “Why not try a “blame-free” version (hopefully more effective, efficient, and “just” than the present system), restoring moral outrage only if warranted by convincing evidence that doing so has net beneficial effect?”

    Why not indeed? Outrage evolved precisely because of its behavior-guiding effects, so we’ll continue to feel it whatever our view of human nature. But having given up libertarian free will – the idea that we could have done otherwise in actual situations, as opposed to imagined counterfactual situations – we won’t suppose that the suffering of offenders (what outrage wants) is deeply deserved and therefore an intrinsic good. So their suffering shouldn’t be pursued unless it’s the only way to achieve behavior change, public safety, or other good consequences. On the humanistic principle of minimizing suffering, we should seek out the *least* punitive means of achieving our goals, and not indulge our retributive inclinations. Unless, that is, it’s supposed that satisfying one’s outrage constitutes a basic good – what I take to be the oft-denied motivation behind the pursuit of what’s called capital-J Justice – http://www.naturalism.org/criminal.htm

  14. 14. John says:

    Laws were originally introduced to compensate the victims and avoid vendettas. The first law makers provided a state operated judgement, compensation and vengeance schemes to ensure that their societies did not disintegrate into anarchy. These states were then able to conquer their neighbours. Modern idealists consider that the lawbreaker is a victim – he may just be nutty or carry a remnant of the genes that served human beings well before socialization.

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