Smith, “Science and the Person: A Complacent Reflection”

CLR Forum friend and guest blogger Steve Smith has posted an enjoyable and thoughtful short essay (written with his distinctive grace and humor) about the implications of the developments in neuroscience for our legal understanding of the person (including our understanding of various issues in criminal law).  With an interesting qualification, his general sense is, there are no major destabilizing implications — hence his genial complacency.  Here’s a fragment involving that qualification, on the issue of whether neuroscience will affect our views about the intrinsic worth of the human person (footnotes omitted):

A better understanding of how the brain works and how it causes or correlates with mental states does not in itself tell us anything about whether persons have intrinsic worth, so far as I can see. Neither does an account of how persons may have evolved from other organisms. But it is possible that by giving more cachet to a naturalistic approach to understanding, advances in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology might contribute to the ascendancy of a worldview– or as I sometimes put it, an “ontological inventory” — in which things like intrinsic value don’t register. In this way, it is conceivable that neuroscience might for some people undermine belief in intrinsic value in the same way that for some people science undermines belief in God– not by scientifically demonstrating that God (or intrinsic value) aren’t real, but by promoting and reenforcing a vocabulary and conceptual framework, or ontological inventory, in which these things just don’t figure.

Some people will find this loss of faith in soul and intrinsic value invigorating; they will feel that their new-found skepticism is an indication of their tough-mindedness, or of their keeping up with current knowledge. Fine. The sad thing, I think, is when someone announces this loss of faith regretfully, because the sacrifice is, so far as I can see, pretty much gratuitous.

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