Minds Brains and Law: A Multidisciplinary Conference on Law and Neuroscience

Prof Peter Hacker says that “the 21st Century promises to be the century of neuroscience. Law is taking note”. This timely conference (11th-12th December 2014), hosted by the College of Law and our Centre for Global Legal Priorities, was one of the first major UK events in the emerging field of ‘neurolaw.’

Among those ‘taking note’ were our own Prof Dennis Patterson, co-author (with Pardo) of Minds Brains and Law (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Prof Michael Moore (Illinois), one of the internationally leading authorities on criminal law and legal philosophy. We also welcomed to the Conference experts from a diverse range of disciplines, among these; Dr Zachary Hoskins (Philosophy, Nottingham), Prof Aidan Byrne (School of Medicine, Cardiff), Prof Huw Williams, (Neuropsychology, University of Exeter) and Prof Burkhard Schafer who is behind some pioneering neuroscientific initiatives at Edinburgh University, School of law.

Minds Brains and Law:  A Multidisciplinary Conference on Law and Neuroscience

Photo: Prof Michael Moore (Illinois), Prof Andrew Tettenborn and Prof Dennis Patterson (College of Law)

 Minds Brains and Law:  A Multidisciplinary Conference on Law and Neuroscience







Photo: Prof Burkhard Shafer (Edinburgh) and Prof Karen Morrow (College of Law)









The conference brought a number of controversies to the fore. Perhaps the most profound question went to the heart of law’s basic rationale: if our actions are the result not of conscious choice but rather the work of synapses and neuronal events, can we really say that anyone is responsible for their actions? Reductionism was a theme running throughout the panels. What kind of reduction(s) might make sense of the relationships between mind and brain? What conceptual apparatus is needed to refute these? What are the various implications for law? On this, the exchanges between Michael Moore, Dennis Patterson, Marion Godman (Cambridge), Bebhinn Donnelly-Lazarov (Swansea) and Pim Haselager (Radboud) were lively and illuminating.

The discussion was brought to bear on more practical considerations too. To what degree should neuroscientific evidence be admissible in courts? For what purposes? How much caution should law take in welcoming neuroscientific evidence, what is the probative value of various forms of this evidence, what sense can we expect juries and judges to make of the science and what assistance do they need? John Danaher (NUI, Galway) and Joanna Glynn QC (One Crown Office Row) shed much light on the issues. More controversially, the question was asked whether neuroscience might be used to alter brain states, reducing the propensity of offenders to commit crimes, or directly to affect (and simultaneously penalise) the neural correlates of offending, or to hold us responsible when we fail to control a tendency to offend? The possibilities were critiqued in a number of contributions including by Elizabeth Shaw (Aberdeen) and Jennifer Chandler (Ottowa). The conference was well-attended and engendered very high-quality multi-disciplinary debate. We were particularly pleased to welcome attendees from throughout Swansea University: engineering, psychology, DRI and DACE all being represented. Student interest was also strong with a significant number of students in attendance, from the College of Law.

Dr Donnelly-Lazarov who convened the event thanked all those who contributed, including the two external chairs (Prof Stephen Shute, Sussex and Elwen Evans QC, Iscoed Chambers). She noted, ‘It is very significant that the College of Law has the expertise, connections and foresight to lead initiatives in this hugely important and emerging field. The level of debate on a range of intersecting legal, philosophical and scientific issues was extraordinary. More importantly the exchanges were deep enough to identify significant new problems that ‘neurolaw’ needs to address and to suggest ways in which the field might fruitfully be developed. The conference was enjoyed by all and many contributors have used social media to convey their positive impressions. No doubt this will be the spearhead for some exciting collaborative initiatives in the field.’Dr Donnelly-Lazarov (@SwanLawandPhil) has been blogging about the conference on Adam Kolber’s Neuroethics and Law blog: http://kolber.typepad.comand an article by Mo Costandiis forthcoming, on the PBS/Nova website. The conference itself can be viewed at: Conference Videos