I'm tired of all the media attention that's been given to Rep. Anthony Weiner's semi-scandalous Twitter escapades with young women who caught his cyberspace eye.
But I find his story interesting in a scientific sense, having just finished reading David Eagleman's "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain." Eagleman is a neuroscientist. He also is a terrific writer. His earlier book, "Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives" is wonderfully creative.
A central theme of "Incognito" is that conscious awareness is a tiny part of what's going on in the human brain. Most of the work goes on behind the scenes. It's sort of like a child turning the wheel of a carnival ride boat.
The kid pretends that he or she is controlling the motion of the boat. Except, the wheel isn't connected to anything. How the boat moves is determined by a bunch of machinery that the child isn't aware of or focusing on.
Likewise, Eagleman persusasively argues that there's no neuroscientific evidence for free will. This doesn't mean that free will is an illusion, just that current scientific understanding can't find any room for free will to operate in the brain.
People assume that Weiner freely chose to do what he did, Twitter-wise, and that he should be blamed for his actions. Also, punished by being forced to resign his Congressional seat. This doesn't make sense.
Here's an Eagleman quote that shows how wrong almost all of the talk about Anthony Weiner is.
The crux of the question is whether all of your actions are fundamentally on autopilot or whether there is some little bit that is "free" to choose, independent of the rules of biology. This has always been the sticking point for both philosophers and scientists.
As far as we can tell, all activity in the brain is driven by other activity in the brain, in a vastly complex, interconnected network. For better or worse, this seems to leave no room for anything other than neural activity -- that is, no room for a ghost in the machine.
To consider this from the other direction, if free will is to have any effect on the actions of the body, it needs to influence the ongoing brain activity. And to do that, it needs to be physically connected to at least some of the neurons.
But we don't find any spot in the brain that is not itself driven by other parts of the network. Instead, every part of the brain is densely interconnected with -- and driven by -- other brain parts. And that suggests that no part is independent and therefore "free."
So in our current understanding of science, we can't find the physical gap in which to slip free will -- the uncaused causer -- because there seems to be no part of the machinery that does not follow in a causal relationship from the other parts.
Thus Anthony Weiner simply did what his brain directed him to do. More accurately, we should scratch the words "his" and "him" in the preceding sentence. A more correct neuroscientific statement would be:
The brain in the body known as "Anthony Weiner" acted as the brain had to do given all of the genetic, environmental, and experiential influences upon it.
Understand, this doesn't change the wrongness or undesirability of what Weiner did (most commentators seem to feel that his biggest offense was initially trying to cover up his "Twitter affairs").
Similarly, Eagleman says that society has a right to protect itself from violent criminals.
However, in a "Why Blameworthiness is the Wrong Question" chapter he argues that "a forward-thinking legal system will parlay biological understanding into customized rehabilitation, viewing criminal behavior the way we understand other such medical conditions as epilepsy, schizophrenia, and depression -- conditions that now allow the seeing and giving of help."
This is what Anthony Weiner is doing: getting help to modify his future behavior. Eagleman writes:
The concept and word to replace blameworthiness is modifiability, a forward-looking term that asks, What can we do from here? Is rehabilitation available?
Here's another pertinent neuroscientific fact about Weiner, and indeed every human being. Pink Floyd was correct: "There's someone in my head, but it's not me." There's several ways to look at this lyric. Either there's no self apart from the brain, and/or there are many "me's" inside the cranium of each member of Homo sapiens.
Eagleman calls the brain "a team of rivals."
You are made up of an entire parliament of pieces and parts and subsystems. Beyond a collection of local expert systems, we are collections of overlapping, ceaselessly reinvented mechanisms, a group of competing factions.
The conscious mind fabricates stories to explain the sometimes inexplicable dynamics of the subsystems inside the brain. It can be disquieting to consider the extent to which all of our actions are driven by hardwired systems, doing what they do best, while we overlay stories about our choices.
Thus it doesn't make sense to search for the "real me." Or the real Anthony Weiner. There's no such entity. Each of us is a collection of multitudes.
Note that the population of the mental society does not always vote exactly the same way each time. This recognition is often missing from discussions of consciousness, which typically assumes that what it is like to be you is the same from day to day, moment to moment.
...So who's the real you? As the French essayist Michel de Montaigne put it, "There is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and others."
We humans love to moralize. Especially about others. We have an exaggerated sense both of how righteous we are, and how morally deficient this or that bozo is compared to us.
Over and over in his book, David Eagleman points out how our intuitions about personality, selfhood, conscious awareness, free will, and the like are at odds with what neuroscience is learning about how the brain functions.
The brouhaha over Anthony Weiner's Twittergate is off the scientific mark, along with so much else in our political and gossip discourse. Hopefully eventually 21st century understanding of the human brain will replace our essentially medieval view of morality, freedom of choice, and sinfulness.
Until then, let's give Anthony Weiner a break. There's many more important problems this country needs to deal with than a congressman's Twitter tweets.
(Here's another perspective that makes some good points: "Everything Said About Anthony Weiner is Wrong.")