Adam kindly asked me to be a guest on his blog this month. My research focuses on criminal responsibility and punishment; correspondingly, most of my contributions here will touch upon the intersect of neuroscience and criminal law.
I hold a JD and a PhD in philosophy from King’s College London, where I studied with David Papineau. David is a philosopher of science who tends to see the mind from a physicalist perspective. This means that, at least in theory, the mind and mental states can be studied using the tools of science. David’s work had a big impact on my PhD thesis, which argued that science, including neuroscience, could inform and even improve upon the folk concepts used by the courts to assign guilt. Such concepts allow us to attribute mental states to others, such as the intent to kill or knowledge that an action will cause harm. The best bits of my thesis are published here as an article in the journal Law and Philosophy.
I have since argued (with my colleague at Elmhurst College Bill Hirstein) that legal agency and responsibility can be understood in terms of executive function in the brain. This article, in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, summarizes our theory. Most recently we published a piece discussing psychopathy. In a few days I will write a blog summarizing this paper.
I am interested in neuroscience and criminal law for a few reasons. First, the courts are already using neuroscience to assign guilt and punishment even though there is no agreed upon translation of neuroscientific concepts or data to the concepts used by judges and juries, and referenced by our criminal codes. The law tends to charge ahead with new technology and knowledge and leave scholars, and their arguments, trailing behind. In this way I see the law as a fascinating experiment regarding the relationship between neuroscience and responsibility.
Second, the use of neuroscience in the criminal justice system really matters. Peoples’ lives and liberty hang in the balance. Before getting my PhD I worked as a senior research analyst for the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the Department of Justice. I spent a year at the nation’s second largest criminal courthouse, in Chicago, observing criminal trials from juvenile theft cases to homicide cases. I’ve seen first-hand prosecutorial and defense attorneys misuse new technology and data. Defendants and prisoners are the guinea pigs in our experiment to use neuroscience to ground criminal excuses and guilt. We ought to at least attempt to get it right.
You can find a few of my past discussions regarding neuroscience and law, many prompted by my attendance at Martha Farrah’s Neuroscience Boot Camp at University of Pennsylvania this past summer, on my personal blog: pleasandexcuses.com.
I look forward to the opportunity to present some of my thoughts and reading your responding comments.