Do Criminal Minds Cause Crime? Neuroscience and the Physicalism Dilemma

12 Washington University Jurisprudence Review 1 (2019)

29 Pages Posted: 31 Dec 2019

Date Written: December 2, 2019


The idea that mental states cause actions is a basic premise of criminal law. Blame and responsibility presuppose that criminal acts are products of the defendant’s mind. Yet, the assumption that mental causation exists is at odds with physicalism, the widely shared worldview that “everything is physical.” Outside of law, there is probably no field of secular study in which one can seriously assert that unseen nonmaterial forces can cause physical events. But if physicalism is true then a fundamental premise of modern criminal justice must be false, namely, that criminals deserve punishment because their crimes are the products of their criminal minds.

Efforts to reconcile mind-based theories of criminal responsibility with physicalism encounter a dilemma: how can one say that everything occurs in accordance with physical laws while insisting that offenders deserve blame and punishment precisely because their conduct is not dictated by physical laws? The dilemma highlights the fact that, even if mental states can cause actions, they would have to also be “autonomous” of the physical (and physical laws) to be morally significant. Unless causative mental states are untethered to underlying neuronal activity, people's actions are not their “own” but are merely products of causal chains originating outside themselves far back in time.

In sum, if mental states are not autonomous, they could no more have independent moral significance than mental states that are purely epiphenomenal. But the supposition that mental states are autonomous leads to the unpalatable suspicion that the law sends people to prison and deprivation based on spooky-spectral New Age nonsense that no modern thinker would, in any other context, believe.

Keywords: neuroscience, action, men rea, mental states, mental causation, crime, free will, neuroskepticism, responsibility, punishment, just deserts, retribution, epiphenomenalism, mind-body problem

Suggested Citation

Humbach, John A., Do Criminal Minds Cause Crime? Neuroscience and the Physicalism Dilemma (December 2, 2019). 12 Washington University Jurisprudence Review 1 (2019), Available at SSRN:

John A. Humbach (Contact Author)

Pace University School of Law ( email )

78 North Broadway
White Plains, NY 10603
United States
(914) 422-4239 (Phone)
(914) 422-4015 (Fax)


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