Andrew Buhr pointed me to Jesse Bering’s article over at scientificamerican.com. It’s an interesting popsci review of sexsomnia (i.e, sex while asleep), and all the awkwardness, legal and otherwise, arising therefrom. The dude in France who anally raped his employee because the employee’s somnambulistic behavior led him to believe the act was consensual; the other dude, right here in Toronto, who got plastered during a croquet party (oh, yeah, we Torontonians know how to par-tay) and later started having sex with an unwilling woman after first putting on a condom: later acquitted because he had a history of sleep-walking. And, of course, the poor bastard whose wife actually preferred sex when he was asleep because he was a better lover then.
All very titter-worthy, all right at home here on the ‘crawl thenks to our fondness for questions of neuroautonomy, and all sorted out in favor of the accused because after all, they were asleep at the time. How could they possibly be held responsible for their actions when they weren’t even aware of them? Here in TO we even give murderers a break, just so long as they’re snoring when they commit the act.
Not so fast, I say.
This whole issue of personal culpability has been building up steam in neurological circles at least since Libet’s we-don’t-need-no-steenkin’-free-will experiments of the eighties (the philosophers, of course, have been on that case for somewhat longer). Here’s a thumnail for newbies to the ‘crawl, and for all of you who’d rather not dig through two decades of research results, blog postings, and impassioned rants. Determinists point to accumulating mountains of evidence that the brain makes its decisions significantly earlier than the conscious self becomes aware of those decisions, and conclude that the conscious decision-making experience is illusory (true, IMO) — that what we perceive as decision-making is nothing more than the receipt of a memo from other, nonconscious intellects deeper in the same grey matter, telling us of a decision already fading in the rear-view mirror (also true). Some go on to claim that since conscious “decisions” are no such thing, free will does not exist (false). (I mean, true, but falsely derived.) (You know what I mean.)
It all comes down to what qualifies as “I”. A lot of people seem to think that “I” is the conscious self, the little illusory homunculus looking out through the eyes and experiencing qualia. If that’s the case, then yes: Libetian1 experiments demonstrate pretty convincingly that “we” have no free will. But over at the other end of the bleachers, the People’s Front of Judea argue that “I” am more than the conscious subroutine: I am the whole damn brain in all its glory, the thing making the decisions and the thing sending the memo as well as the pointy-haired boss who ultimately receives it and hogs all the credit. A decision is a decision, argues the JPF, regardless of whether it is made consciously or otherwise.
And you know, I have to agree with them. What is the conscious self, after all? A short-term cache; a scratch pad; the little post-it note used to remind you to pick up a dozen eggs on the way home from work. The damn thing is barely big enough to hold a telephone number, for chrissakes; some folks claim that the bandwidth of conscious experience is a measly 20 bits/sec. Do you really want to define your self-model as something so limited? Do you really want to cram the human soul onto a post-it note?
Unless you cling to that untenable view (and given the number of folks who gave up their worldly stakes on Harold Camping’s say-so, it’s certainly possible to believe even stupider things), then the self has to contain the circuits that do make the decisions. And since those decisions are generally made unconsciously anyway, whether the scratch-pad was online or off at any given time doesn’t make a whit of difference.
Which means that, if you believe in free will at all, the whole not-responsible-by-reason-of-unconsciousness is complete and utter bullshit. All those rapists and murderers who did it while snoring in their pajamas are just as culpable as those who explicitly jotted down “put on condom, fuck blonde chick on couch” right next to “one dozen free-range eggs, large”.
Of course, that’s a big if — and (as regular ‘crawl denizens know already) I line up firmly with those who think that a justice system based on the premise of personal culpability makes about as much sense as one based on witchcraft and demonic possession. I simply point out that any system which is based on such a premise is fundamentally hypocritical if it gives a pass to perps who happen to be sleepwalking at the time.
Take it away, noen.
1By which I mean all experiments in the neurology-of-will mode, not just those conducted by the late Benjamin Libet.