"You Are Your Brain"—David Eagleman on Transforming The Criminal Justice System


"You are your brain," insists Baylor University neuroscientist and best-selling writer David Eagleman.

It's an insight that he argues should radically transform all aspects of our criminal justice system, from how laws are written to how punishments are levied to how juries are selected.

Reporting back from the bleeding edge of brain research, Eagleman takes viewers on a tour of the latest technological insights into how humans make decisions and whether free will exists anywhere but the pages of philosophy books.

The findings don't exculpate individuals from responsiibility for their actions, the libertarian author of Sum: 40 Tales From The Afterlives says, but they certainly complicate things. And they help to explain why governments double or triple down on failed policies such as drug prohibition.

Approximately 10 minutes. Shot and edited by Alex Manning and Dan Hayes; edited by Hayes. Interview by Nick Gillespie

Scroll down for downloadable versions.

And go here for a 50-minute, multimedia presentation by Eagleman at Reason Weekend, an annual conference held by Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes This year's event took place in New Orleans from April 15-18 in New Orleans.

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  1. Maybe neuroscience can explain why some people become doctrinaire right-wing libertarian creeps.

    1. Or doctrinaire left-wing commie apologist creeps… I’m sure it can.

      But I’m less sure that causality truly “disproves” free will. If we are our brains/the sum-total of our experiences and acquired value sets, then I’d say that our behavior is subject to so many variables that it’s ultimately as “predictable” as lots of quantum factors that science insists are “random”.

      1. Predictable or random? Neither of those leave room for free will. I’ve never heard of an explanation of how free will actually works.

        Either our actions are a result of numerous factors, or they are randomly decided. Those seem to be the only two possible options in a material world.

        1. Our actions are a result of direct causality with quantum randomness (probably) being a factor too. Free will is just an assumption we must make to exist as humans… like the assumption that animals are different than rocks, or that the 2-d image that hits the eye is a representation of a 3-d world, or that you’d rather avoid pain, or that it matters whether you live or die.

          Free will is a farce. An unavoidable farce.

          1. Well I sure wish some randomness would cause you to choose not to write such nonsense.
            BTW, when did the universe/creation both make you able to understand all of it’s workings and then choose to reveal this knowledge to you?

            1. Len, there is nothing to be revealed here; that is the point. Can you define what free will is?

          2. You go through life believing that nonsense, Joe? Plato and Kant sure fucked your mind up.

    2. Or what it is about black brains that force them into a life of crime.

  2. Neither determinitic causality nor true randomness are consistent with the notion of agency or free will.

    Of course, trying to analyze or even detect free will with the scientific toolset is a category error. At most, science might be able to predict which decision a free agent is likely to make, but it cannot either prove or disprove the presence of true agency.

    1. Most discussions about free will suffer for not adequately defining free will. Define it specifically enough, and science will be able to tell you whether it exists.

      1. I agree.

      2. Because free will is grounded in subjectivity, it cannot in principle be detected or measured scientifically.

        I suspect that it can best be reconciled in scientific terms by quantum or chaos theory, but I don’t have the maths to do so.

        1. If you can’t define it then you can’t go around throwing the term around as if you know what it means…

          1. It can’t be defined in scientific terms, because it isn’t a scientific concept (science properly understood, that is).

            Which says as much about the limits of science, properly understood, as it does about the validity of free will.

            1. If it exists, it can be studied by science. If it can’t be studied, then it either is not defined specifically enough, or it doesn’t exist.

              The concept has never sat well with me. In reality we are mostly unfree–I can’t fly, breathe underwater, etc. So any discussion of free will is constrained by the scope of our agency. If we are our brains and nothing else, then it becomes a somewhat interesting question whether agency exists. But where we seem to be able to act in our limited scope–turn left or right, raise or lower your hand, rob this store or don’t–there (to me) obviously needs to be room for expediency–automatons aren’t good at surviving in an unpredictable environment, and there’s no reason to think evolution can’t produce the ability to choose among alternatives, even alternatives that are completely arbitrary (being stuck in an indecisive loop isn’t good for survival either). That is all to say, free will that has any practical definition would seem to exist and be necessary.

              But then again, we’re most likely all living in a giant computer simulation, so who knows whether our limited scope is relevant to the greater picture.

              1. If it exists, it can be studied by science.

                Does beauty exist?

                Can it be studied by science?

                1. Sure, beauty exists. It’s a property that makes people want to look at something — not the only such property, but the property that remains after substracting a bunch of other motiv’ns for looking at something. And of course it can be studied; artists become experts at it.

                2. Yes, beauty has been studied scientifically. They’ve even come up with a mathemical formula for it. Look up “Golden Ratio”.

              2. Science is merely knowledge, so unless one possesses an unlimited capacity to know all, then your statement is absurd. You have essentially said you already know everything and are thus able to make a statement of fact on what is knowable.

                1. Len,

                  You’re right, everything is knowable is an axiom of science. It may prove not to be true. But some things are unknowable, were it proved, does not entitle us to make other claims about anything, free will, beauty, or what have you, and those surely aren’t among those hypothetical unknowable things.

                  1. Uh no Tony, that is definitely not an axiom of science. The scientific concept of randomness is a complete nullification of that idea.

                    Len, science is not knowledge. It is a method for obtaining knowledge.

        2. Michael Polanyi covered this in Personal Knowledge: towards a post-critical philosophy.


    2. Determinitic causality is certainly compatible with free will. It’s easy to prove free will exists. I’ve just decided to lift my right arm. I did it! ergo, free will. My definition of free will is consciously making decisions. We do this all the time.

      It is also true that we are products of genetics and environment, and our behavior can ultimately be explained by the laws of physics. The recent production of artificial life by Ventner, et. al. put the last spike in “vitalism”.

      Ask me if I want to sleep or watch TV. I choose sleep. A person who runs a brain scan on me says, “I knew you would choose that”. I say, “Good for you. I still freely chose it.” We do what we do because of who we are. That is free will.

      1. My definition of free will is consciously making decisions. We do this all the time.

        And do any factors causally influence the resulting decision? If yes, then the result is determined by factors, not by free will. If no, then the result is completely random, not decided.

        Decision making is meaningless outside of the context of causality. To say that we have decision making control that overrides influencing factors makes no sense.

        Your definition of free will is not distinct from causality. Why call it free will when a better/clearer description is causality?

        1. Of course my definition of free will is not distinct from causality. That’s what compatibilism means. Free will is our phenomenological perception of causality. I say I went to sleep because I chose to. You say I want to sleep because neuron #8172 fired. We’re both right. It’s just two different ways of looking at it.

          1. No, choice has a specific meaning that is not equivalent to causality. The differences here aren’t semantic.

            1. Well, then we just disagree. I believe that even if my choice is “preordained” by the laws of physics, it can still be a choice. Even if we know that I will pick the hamburger instead of the spaghetti, as long as I consciously chose the hamburger, I have free will.

  3. I’d like to watch the video but Utoob keeps crashing on me. From what little I see though, I wish could afford to hire a half-way decent lighting crew (or that they didn’t think The Jacket called for a Film Noir look)…

  4. “You are your brain”

    I get that a lot.

  5. Great interview. I’d like to hear more on this subject.

  6. I recently received a leather jacket as a gift. It makes me wonder: how does The Jacket manage to wear leather nonstop? Doesn’t he have sweat glands?

    1. He pants.

  7. Maybe we should just put brains in prison. We would call it “television”.

    1. They’re doing that in the future right now!

      1. Excellent.

  8. Heh. You can use the cursor to pick Nick’s nose.

  9. David Eagleman = Entertainingly creepy.

  10. I free will doesn’t exist, then I was predestined by this cold mechanical universe to believe in it anyways, and nothing you can say will change that.

    1. Except if factors also predestined force you to change your views…

  11. You are your consciousness. Your “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not. Will you be productive and earn a living for your family? Will you rely on handouts from government, family, or church? Will you break and enter next door and pawn the neighbors plasma TV for a bag of meth instead?

    Using your free will to think is an act of choice. The fact of human nature is you are a being of volitional consciousness. Reason does not work automatically; thinking is not a mechanical process; the connections of logic are not made by instinct. The function of your mind is not automatic like your stomach, lungs or heart. In any hour and issue of your life, you are free to think or to evade that effort. But you are not free to escape from your nature, from the fact that reason is your means of survival?so that for you, who are a human being, the question is “to think or not to think.”

    How will you get food and shelter tomorrow, next week, next year. Like every creature you must struggle to survive. Unlike them, you must decide in what way you will struggle.

    1. Your “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not.

      And HOW does the mind make this decision? Do any factors affect the decision to think or not think? Or is it completely random?

      Saying the mind is free to think freely is redundant. Have you read Harry Binswanger’s thesis on free will? He is a prominent Objectivist thinker. He utterly failed to define free will without using the same redundancy as you did. No proponent of free will has been able to explain how free will works. This is especially ironic considering Objectivists are anally retentive about baseless concepts and such. It just goes to show that Objectivism ain’t perfect.

  12. why won’t this video play?

  13. If there is no free will because you ultimately have no control over your neurology, would not society’s rational response to the existence of criminally inclined mind be to develop ways to find such people and lock them away(and cure those we can) whether or not they have done anything criminal at all?

    1. If you believe the ends justify the means, then yeah sure.

      1. I don’t either, which is why I find Eagleman argument about free will inherently distasteful.

        I just find the philsophical implications of a scientific conclusion that free will is a delusion negates the idea of liberty being a natural right of human beings. I don’t quite understand why Gillespie and some other Reason writers seem so eager to embrace the idea.

        Again, given Eagleman’s premise that criminality is an identifiable mental condition that a person cannot overcome by the decisions of his conscious mind, what is the argument against doing something about them before they hurt anyone? Just saying the “ends do not justify the means” seems rather weak and trite.

        1. I agree. The idea that there is no such thing as free will seems a rather strange viewpoint for a libertarian to have.

          “I believe people should be free to make their own decisions, even though it is impossible.”

          1. Having others use force to impede on the natural decisions that an indivudual would make is unjustified to me. Just because you don’t have free will doesn’t mean that others should be free to force your hand in one direction, when it would go the other direction if you were left alone.

    2. But I don’t.

  14. Whether or not free will exists, it’s still a useful concept for differentiating various types of offenses
    1) Those that are deliberate in nature (for which punishment can serve as a deterrent for both perpetrator and other potential perpetrators and which act as a likely indicator of commission of future crimes)

    2) Those that, while not deliberate themselves, are the foreseeable result of a deliberate action (like drinking and driving). These would be treated similarly to #1.

    3) Those that are the result of mental illness (for which punishment serves no purpose; but which are also a likely indicator of future crimes)

    4) Those that are the result of involuntarily compromised agency in an otherwise healthy mind (deception, duress, unwilling ingestion of drugs, etc.), for which punishment will be less effective and unfair, and which don’t indicate a likelihood of committing crime absent the same issue.

    1. I’m no crazy christian scientist, but I definitely don’t want the psychiatrists trying to diagnose me. You think our incarceration rate is high now, just wait until everyone has to undergo a test at the age of 18 to decide whether they go to jail, the looney bin, or a job. Would you trust any government to do that right?

  15. Free will does not exist because criminals and people who have had strokes or brain damage from excessive drug use impulsively make decisions which turn out to be bad in the long run?

    I just completed a study which proves that videos cannot be presented in color by studying this video and I Love Lucy reruns.

    What do I know anyway? I’m just a brain on a ship in a stormy sea.

  16. Will neuroscience be to the 21st century what eugenics was to 20th?

    1. Neuroscience is a science. Eugenics was a political movement.

    2. And to answer your question: neuroscuience will be to the 21st century what genetics was to the 20th.

  17. So far no one’s hit the most chilling (from a libertarian perspective) of all possibilities.

    What if free will exists, but only for a small percentage of the population at the high end of cognitive ability?

    What if the learned philosopher who believes in free will, and the accused criminal who claims to be a pitiful heap of irresistible impulses, are both right – each in relation to himself?

  18. So many questions about this guy:

    1. Why is he yelling?
    2. Why is the frame so close, and how does he still manage to wave his hands around in the frame? This would look much funnier with a wider angle.
    3. If we have no free will, then he has no free will. So what’s driving him to say the things he’s saying, and should we trust it?
    4. This guy has examined a lot of brains, but has anyone examined his brain?

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