06 March 2013

The Limits of Neurology

New research (standard caveats apply) on the neurology of criminals:

Bremen scientist Dr Gerhard Roth says the 'evil patch' lies in the brain's central lobe and shows up as a dark mass on X-rays.
He discovered it when investigating violent convicted offenders over the years for German government studies.
'We showed these people short films and measured their brain waves,' he said.
'Whenever there were brutal and squalid scenes the subjects showed no emotions. In the areas of the brain where we create compassion and sorrow, nothing happened.' 
The dark mass at the front of the brain, he says, appears in all scans of people with records for criminal violence.
He says his researches have led him to believe that some criminals have a 'genetic predisposition' to violence.
He added: 'When you look at the brain scans of hardened criminals, there are almost always severe shortcomings in the lower forehead part of the brain.
'There are cases where someone becomes criminal as a result of a tumour or an injury in that area, and after an operation to remove the tumour, that person was completely normal again.
'Or there are physiological deficits, because certain substances such as serotonin in the forebrain are not working effectively.
'But this is definitely the region of the brain where evil is formed and where it lurks.
'Of course it is not automatic. The brain can compensate somewhat for violent tendencies and it is unclear how that works.
'But when I will look at young people, and I see there are developmental disorders in the lower forehead brain, I can say that there is a felon in the making with 66 per cent probability.
'It is easy to spot this anti-social behaviour from very early on.'
Dr Roth said no two criminals are alike. He divides them into three groups for the purposes of his hunt for evil.
The first he classifies as 'psychologically healthy,' people who grow up in an environment where it is 'OK to beat, steal and murder'.
The second type is the mentally disturbed criminal who looks at his world as threatening.
'A wrong look, one false move, he can explode and become a killer,' he said.
The third group are pure psycopaths, a group in which tyrants such as Hitler and Stalin belong.
He said not all monsters are born and that many are made worse by their environments on their roads to evil.  [Emphasis added.] 

Assuming this research is valid and replicable, it is certainly an interesting development.  That there may be a genetic predisposition towards violence should not be surprising, given that there is basically a genetic predisposition for virtually every sort of behavior, and even genetic link to homosexual behavior.  However, having a genetic predisposition toward violence is not the same as being fatally predisposed to behaving in a specific manner.

While neurology and behavioral psychology are used to try to predict human behavior, both scientific disciplines will fail at this task for two reasons.  First, there are simply too many variables to account for to allow for any degree of micro-level precision.  Second, man still has free will.

In regards to tracking variables, there are still a lot that is not yet known about neurological function. This particular field of study hasn’t been around for a particularly long time (only several decades), and it is still trying to replace the pseudo-science of psychology.  Beyond that, human behavior is contingent on more than just neurological wiring; stimuli matters too, and so environment must be accounted for as well.  Thus, predicting human behavior from a simple neurological profile will still be conditional on stimuli perceived (i.e. one can predict how someone would act in a particular situation, but could not predict what specific situations one would face in the future).  This isn’t really prediction as much as it is profiling, and though it is useful, it still has very sharp and obvious limits.

More to the point, though, neurology’s inability to account for free will means that its predictive ability will never be perfectly precise.  There is always the chance that people will subvert expectations.  Even this new research concedes that there is a one in three chance that people who have some sort of disorder in the central lobe will not turn out be criminal.  He also notes that the brain can compensate for its own tendencies (this suggests, to me at least, that free will is a thing since the brain is capable of rewiring itself or elsewise ignoring its own wiring to some degree).  Because of this, the main limit of neurology is that it tries to understand humanity by reducing humans to a lower form for sake of scientific convenience.  Ultimately, it views humans not as unique individuals with free will, but as meat computers that evaluate inputs and throughputs in perfectly predictable manners.  Because this assumptions views humans as objects and not people, it will never succeed at completely understanding humans.