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If atheism prevails, “pre-crime” will necessarily become an accepted concept

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In “Can Brain Scans Detect Pedophiles?” (Discover 80 beats, October 5, 2011), we are told,

24 self-identified pedophiles, from a clinic that offers anonymous treatment, and 32 male controls were shown pictures of naked men, women, and children. Blogger Neuroskeptic, who brought this study to the web’s attention, notes in an aside that getting that past a university ethics board is quite a coup.

Using fMRI, the researchers recorded their brains’ responses and found that by comparing an individual’s brain to the average of the pedophiles and the average of the controls, they could assign them to the correct group more than 90% of the time. Their handling of the statistics avoids the most obvious pitfalls: they used an analyses technique called leave-one-out cross-validation to avoid comparing a given scan to an average that includes it, a common error in neuro studies.

Then we are told,

But moving along to the philosophy, ever since science brought the revelation that our brains are what make us who we are—rather than something like a soul, for example—there’s been the question of to what extent we can be judged on the basis of our biology.

The author thinks that it is somehow possible to avoid a Minority Report-style future, where governments focus on pre-crime – even if the no-soul point of view is generally held.

But he is surely mistaken.  If there is no free will, there is no freedom to violate. If there is no soul, there is no inner self to violate. Therefore, given time, pre-crime will come to seem right, not wrong, and past societies will be excoriated as “backward” for not employing it.

Neuroscientists like David Eagleman and Sam Harris, writing advice for the public, seem to flirt with the idea while deprecating it now, when the public mostly still believes in traditional concepts of humanity. It’s hard to believe that such ideas would not flower if the mood shifted. For example, Europe – much more atheism-friendly than the United States – features more draconian thought crime laws as well, and Canada has been dragged back from the brink (so far), only by the force of good citizens, most (not all) of whom were traditionally observant or sympathizers. For now.

17 Replies to “If atheism prevails, “pre-crime” will necessarily become an accepted concept

  1. 1

    Are you saying that atheists believe that people can’t change?

    Because no atheists that I know believe that.

  2. 2

    Nor neuroscientists, for that matter. And I know a fair number of both.

  3. 3
    englishmaninistanbul says:

    Maybe so, but the law certainly doubts it. Many countries keep registries of child offenders, some of them open to the public. The US has Megan’s Law actually “requiring law enforcement authorities to make information available to the public regarding registered sex offenders.”

    The rationale is that a past offender has already proven that he is at high risk of re-offending. Therefore, even after paying his debt to society through judicial punishment, such a person has a black mark against his name for life simply because of being at high risk of offending.

    If you can devise a brain-scan test capable of determining that someone is at the same high risk of offending, it surely follows from the above that a person who fails such a test should go on the blacklist regardless of whether or not they have actually committed a crime.

  4. 4
    Petrushka says:

    People do change, but people with a history of crime will always be watched more closely than those without such a history.

    There’s nothing new in this.

  5. 5

    And nothing contrary to free will. Some people seem to have less room for manoevre than others, though.

    As you say, this isn’t new, or even, I would have thought, contentious.

    Certainly nothing to do with atheism.

  6. 6

    I’m arguing neither for nor against that policy.

    All I’m saying is that atheists don’t, to my knowledge, hold that people can’t change.

    But both atheists and non-atheists probably mostly agree that some people are unlikely to change, and therefore, how we deal with them involves risk assessment.

    But no brain scan is ever going to tell you whether someone will reoffend or not, merely, possibly, how likely it is, and, possibly, what therapeutic program is likely to maximise the chance of change.

    But none of this has any bearing on whether people have free will or not. People will always, thank goodness, surprise us.

    We have far too many degrees of freedom for this not to be the case 🙂

  7. 7
    Petrushka says:

    The term “precrime” comes from a story in which people are convicted of crimes they have not committed.

    There is nothing new in the concept that some people are mean, and that we suspect mean people of having a greater likelihood of becoming criminals. It’s just something we do. we all profile people.

    It is in most cases illegal for the government to profile people. In particular it is illegal to profile people based on ethnicity. I suspect this is widely ignored.

    If we develop more sophisticate ways of profiling people, will we do it? Probably. Will it be illegal? I hope so.

  8. 8

    Me too.

    Precisely because people are not fixed, and nothing about atheism implies that they are.

    Oh, and basic human justice, of course.

    And the fact that neuroimagining isn’t, and never will be, that good.

  9. 9
    ScottAndrews says:

    Let’s say that you could determine whether a person was predisposed to commit a crime such as pedophilia and is therefore more likely to actually do it. I’m sure that’s possible.

    Neither theism nor atheism would be in determining factor in whether that were put to use and how.

    Even though I am religious, I must recognize that a frequent side effect of such beliefs is often self-righteousness, sometimes to the point of absurdity. For example, the Bible condemns many practices, including homosexuality. But ministers spend disproportionate time preaching the evils of homosexuality to their heterosexual congregations. Why? So the congregation can feel like they’re better than someone else. That’s not the point.

    If the town runs off everyone who flunks the pedophilia test, the holy roller next door is going to be the first one to grab his pitchfork and light his torch.

  10. 10

    Well, said, Scott 🙂

  11. 11
    markf says:

    Depends on what you mean by “profiling” and who does it. Many Western countries make use of statistically based tests such as PCL-R and HCR-20 to predict whether people with mental conditions are likely to commit crimes and these are used to decide whether to release them from various institutions.

    However, I couldn’t agree more that predicting crime has nothing to do with atheism or free will.

  12. 12
    material.infantacy says:

    When Ezra Levant does push-ups, he’s not lifting his body up, he’s pushing the Earth down.

  13. 13
    DarelRex says:

    Let’s say, hypothetically, that in the near future, a technology is developed by which any individual can be cheaply, quickly, and accurately tested for pedophilia. And let’s say the government tests everyone, and puts all the pedophiles in institutions where they’re out of reach of children.

    OK. Then what would happen? Automatic descent into horrific, society-wide, Orwellian dystopia? Um, why would that happen, exactly? Is there a logical reason for this association, or is it just an accepted wisdom established by pessimistic novels and sci-fi movies?

  14. 14

    Yes, there’s a logical reason, and as usual, it lies in the details.

    It is intrinsically impossible to determine what a person is going to do in the future, just as it is impossible to determine what the weather is going to do in the future.

    At the very least, brains are chaotic systems, and any political system that curtailed freedom on the basis of what can never be much better than a long range weather forecast is going to be a dystopia in my book.

  15. 15
    Blue_Savannah says:

    Elizabeth Liddle stated: And nothing contrary to free will. Some people seem to have less room for manoevre than others, though.

    As you say, this isn’t new, or even, I would have thought, contentious.

    Certainly nothing to do with atheism.

    Then why are atheists saying we have no free will?

    “The reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar. The laws of nature are uniform throughout, and these laws do not accommodate the concept of free will.”

    The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human
    behavior and the criminal justice system
    PNAS

    And atheist William Provine:

    “Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent.”

    “Evolution: Free will and punishment and meaning in life” 1998 Darwin Day Keynote Address

    Notice the first and and last consequences?

    Also, atheist Daniel Miessler asks:

    “At what point does physics stop and free will start?”

    He goes on to admit:
    “There is only one escape from this deterministic model, and that is if our decision process injects a variable from outside of physics, i.e. if free will comes from the supernatural.”

    If those atheists were right, and we had no free will, everything would be irrelevant…including their claims about free will. We would all be just ‘bowls of sugar’ Thank GOD we’re not. 😉

  16. 16
    jezbeach says:

    There is nothing in atheist beliefs that preclude belief in free will, as there is plenty of evidence in quantum mechanics that events on atomic level are non-deterministic.

    On the other hand if God is omniscience then he must know of all our future actions, in which case all our future actions are predetermined, so how can true free will exist if all our future actions have already been determined?

  17. 17
    DarelRex says:

    We can’t predict months in advance on what day it will snow and how many inches. But we know with 99.99% certainty that it will snow in Cleveland multiple times in the next several years, and we know with the same certainty that it won’t snow in Honolulu during the same time period.

    Our goal in identifying pedophiles isn’t to predict exactly when or where they will attack, but simply who is a pedophile and who isn’t. Once they’re confined in a place away from children, they won’t be able to attack.

    I am disturbed by your loose definition of dystopia. When most people hear “dystopia” I assume they think of a really nasty, abusive life for most citizens, something along the lines of “1984.” But you seem to think that the confinement of individuals who carry a sexual urge to assault children would be, all by itself, a “dystopia?” How is that not equivocation?

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