Neuroscience Challenges the Law

March 25, 2007

brain-on-the-stand.jpgJeff Rosen’s article, The Brain on the Stand, in the March 11, 2007 issue of The New York Times Magazine explores how neuroscience (e.g. brain scans) is challenging our legal system.  Imagine using a brainscan rather than a polygraph to tell if someone is lying.  I like to highlight the questions that such technological breakthroughs raise and then set forth some precautions as we move forward into learning to use new tools.

The big question is: “What impact does a defective brain have on personal responsibility? Is personal responsibility any less if I say “My amygdala made me do it,” or “My unhappy childhood predetermined me,” or “My genes made me do it,” or “The devil in me made me do it?” I think brain defects should have little bearing on the verdict, but it should play a huge role in the sanctions (or rehabilitation).

Another question that suggests more practical potential is, “Can a brain scan tell more accurately than a polygraph if someone is telling the truth?” Two companies, No Lie MRI, and Cephos are competing now to get the accuracy past the 80-90% accuracy of current polygraph technology into the 90-95% accuracy.

A question that really bothers me is, “Can brain scans be used in jury selection by predetermining those who make judgments analytically versus emotionally?” A subset of this is, “Can a person’s inclination toward racial bias be measured with a brain scan?” On the law-breaker side of the fence, “Can persons be found guilty for what they think rather than what they do?”

I side with Stephen Morse, Professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania who believes that neuroscience is just another material, causal explanation of human behavior, and says “Brains do not commit crimes; people commit crimes.”

I just heard a lecture today at a CAPS Conference by Dr. Paul Vitz who offered a structure than puts this into proper perspective. In brief, Vitz offers at least six levels of explaining observations of human functioning, from primitive to complex, from mechanistic to transcendent: (1) biological, (2) neurological, (3) behavioral, (4) psychological, (5) philosophical and (6) theological. I may not have remembered the details accurately, but the point is that every level is involved in every other level and any detailed contribution of one level necessarily leaves out some details from the other levels. So when we look at neuroscience, we must remember that we are looking at a single primitive level of observation. In no way can these observations be seen as completely determinative.

When my father was teaching me to use a power saw, he was very careful to show me how to use it respectfully so I wouldn’t cut off a finger. May we use the new tools of neuroscience with humility and respect so we don’t do more harm than good.

Refined Product of an Unrefined Life – Caravaggio

March 24, 2007

caravaggio-peters-crucifiction.jpgHow can a man live such an unrefined, volatile lifestyle as Caravaggio did and paint religious works that are so refined in their spiritual power? Is there more divine sensitivity in the debauched life of this man that we give him credit for? Or do we tend to idealize the “cleanliness” of the people on Jesus’ day.

The March 2007 issue of Smithsonian features these rugged and turbulent aspects of Caravaggio’s life along with a fantasy journey of his travels (running). I knew he traveled around Italy quite a bit, but never knew why. In May 1606, he killed a man in a knife fight and fled to avoid arrest for murder! The article reveals that

“much of what is known about Caravaggio’s life comes to us through police records and legal depositions. During his time in Rome he insulted his fellow painters, quarreled, fought, broke the law, defied the police and was subsequently imprisoned. He was sued for libel, arrested for carrying a weapon without a license, prosecuted for tossing a plate of artichokes in a waiter’s face. He was accused of throwing stones at the police, attacking the house of two women, harassing a former landlady and wounding a prison guard.

I have no idea how Caravaggio personally thought about God as Savior, but I get a strong sense that he understood the ruggedness and the suffering of Christ. When he painted The Crucifixion of St. Peter (above), how could he avoid thinking that this was the due penalty for his own sins? Or perhaps this is the unjust penalty for following Jesus? When he painted The Madonna of Loreto, did he wonder what kneeling before the Mother of Jesus might have been like? When he painted The Conversion of St. Paul, how could he have avoided pondering the need for his own salvation? Did he wonder if God would descend upon him like he did Paul on the road to Damascus?

Apart from all these things I wonder, I am confident that God loves the vilest of offenders and that no one’s sins elude the cover of Christ’s shed blood on the Cross. Those who think that they are too evil to receive God’s gift of salvation minimize the scope of the Cross. And those of us who think we’re not so bad to begin with don’t understand what holiness is. I want to sing, “Hallelujah, what a Savior!” Perhaps, out of my own unrefined life, I can leave behind impactful impressions of our Lord.

I’m Not Perfect, but I’ve Been Made Righteous!

March 15, 2007


This evening, I gave a midweek Lenten message at Grace Episcopal Church.  It was a relatively small group, about 15 in number, but  very big in grace and the power of the Spirit.   I felt good about what I said, but more importantly, I came away with an overwhelming sense of  encouragement at how ordinary people can come together and create an extraordinary experience while focusing on something as off-beat culturally as  our need for the salvation.

One of the things that strikes me about the cross this year is the incredible exchange that took place.  Jesus took our place so that we could take His place. He traded places with us.  For example, Jesus took our sins and he gave us His righteousness.  People that don’t see the need for the blood don’t see either the holiness of God nor the sinfulness of humanity.

This evening, I tried to clarify the important aspects of the cross that often elude our thinking.  I essentially elaborated on a summary statement from Dr. Bob Pyne‘s Soteriology notes:

Without the sinfulness of humanity, the atonement would not have been necessary.  Without the incarnation, the atonement would not have been possible.  Without the holiness of God, the atonement would not have been called for.  Without the love of God, the atonement would not have taken place.

This perspective brought tears of appreciation from somewhere down deep during the celebration of communion.  The idea of Someone so good making such an enormous sacrifice on my behalf is a bit overwhelming.

Neurophysiology Supports Empathy in Psychotherapy

March 12, 2007

neuron-network.jpgEmpathy involves not only understanding with compassion what someone else is feeling, but also a sensation of feeling the same thing. We talk about being “on the same wavelength” with another person, but neuroscience is now showing how this is more than just sentiment. Neuro-imaging scans along with physiological tests are showing how a counselor and client actually attune to one another neurologically as they attune to one another emotionally.

These findings support the work of Susan Johnson in her EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy). I’m looking forward to attending her training session this June at the Smart Marriages Conference in Denver.

This whole field of neurobiology is showing that our brains are wired for connecting. Think of the significance of a mother’s bonding with her infant, whose neurons fire at a point ofnetwork-neurons.jpg empathic encounter. Then the neurons that “fire together” also “wire together” and form a permanent bond. I wonder if this sort of firing and wiring also takes place when a man goes outside his marriage to “bond” with another woman. Or, when an individual bonds with a bad habit. Perhaps we are beginning to see the neurological angle of God’s exhortation to stay pure and bond only with those experiences that enhance our relationship to Him. “Be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44 & 1 Peter 1:16).

“The Lost Tomb of Jesus” Hype and Fluff

March 1, 2007

James Cameron and the Discovery Channel have been successful. They have a lot of people talking about “could it be true?” that he has found the remains of Jesus and his family (including wife) in a tomb in Jerusalem. But it’s and old story that has surfaced many times before and shall continue to stir the imagination of those weak in solid thinking. Cameron says “I looked at the evidence initially, and as a layman I found it to be compelling …. I haven’t seen anything that contradicts the bock.jpginitial hypothesis.” I would suggest that Mr. Cameron does what I did and turn to a trustworthy scholar and man of God, Dr. Darrell Bock, (New Testament Research Professor at Dallas Theological Seminary) for some factual basis for discounting the hype. Click on his name and go back to his blog often.

Another excellent resource is Kerby Anderson of Probe Ministries.

I’m editing this post so I can add the link Dr. Chris Rosebrough‘s research which I found equally helpful.

Teaching Kids about Drug-free Sports

March 1, 2007


I was speaking earlier this week at a Meadows Lecture Series on Religious Addiction and Spritual Abuse and met a very interesting lady, Kellie Schriver, who is doing a very good work. Her organization, TexCan is devoted to teaching children how to stay clean from performance enhancing drugs while developing peak athletic ability. Here’s a quote about their mission:

Our mission is to provide a family and community resource for awareness, education, and information concerning alcohol and other drug use and its effect on the athletes performance, health and wellness.

On the way into the office this morning I listened to the sports news of the ongoing disappointing discoveries of steroid use among professional baseball players. The issue has been with us for a while and will probably continue contaminating the sports world for a long time. Too bad Kellie’s TexCan doesn’t get as much publicity. Check them out.