Jeremy Lott

Neuroscience After Nietzsche

Is the brain a symphony orchestra without a conductor?

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Those are precisely the sentiments of Rachael Palmquist, a neuroscientist for the Gage Institute and the perfect foil to Judge Stang. Palmquist gets involved with the Whitlow case for one purely selfish reason: She wants to introduce neuroscience into the courtroom, and she thinks the Whitlow case is the right vehicle to do so. (Senior partner Arthur Mahoney is all in favor of Watson working with her, as her participation just might lead to an early settlement and save Stern, Pale and Covin many lost billable hours and the embarrassment of having an associate defending a "hate killer" in a highly publicized trial.)

Palmquist is supremely amoral. To her, free will is "a nice fiction. … But a brain is a symphony orchestra with no conductor." The soul is "an untenable hypothesis," a conclusion that she does not flinch from applying to herself. Says she, "Do I seem to have a soul? … [B]ased on what neuroscience has taught me about the human brain, my answer is no, I do not have a soul."

The reader may be inclined to agree that Palmquist lacks a soul after hearing why she is opposed to the death penalty: "Why punish somebody by killing them, when you can punish them by studying them, vivisecting them like guinea pigs, if necessary, to find out why they short-circuited? Killing them only puts them out of their misery." For Watson, though, it is difficult to maintain detachment—not least because Rachel Palmquist is gorgeous, happily divorced, and wants to get him in the sack.

The choice between Stang and Palmquist, Dooling suggests, is no less than a choice between God and the Devil, good and evil, heaven and hell, virtue and a total eclipse of all values. And Watson is truly conflicted. Though a Catholic, he's not a very good one. He and his wife were married when they learned that she was with child because they had misgivings about birth control, but "the misgivings they should have had about premarital sex seemed unimportant."

But at least he knows to ask the right questions. He confesses to Palmquist that, if he could know one thing, "I guess … I guess I would want to know if Jesus Christ was really God." Palmquist would like to know what Napoleon's serotonin levels were before and after Waterloo.

And that, really, is the crux of the whole book. Are we unique beings created by a God to "know, love, and serve Him," or are we merely a bunch of symphony orchestras with no conductors, survival our only compass? Are we moral agents with free will, or negatives awaiting the developer fluid? In the world of Brain Storm—and 2003 isn't so far off—those remain open questions, but the balance is tilting toward Nietzsche.

Jeremy Lott is managing editor of The American Partisan.

1. Wolfe's essay was published in "The Big Issue" of Forbes magazine's ASAP (1996), and can be accessed via the Forbes online archives at

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