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.