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Roth publishes book on neuroscience’s role in American legal system

Associate Professor Martin Roth

Martin Roth, associate professor of philosophy at Drake University, recently published his book titled Philosophical Foundations of Neurolaw, which discusses neuroscience and the role it can play in the American legal system.

As neuroscientists continue to reveal the bio-chemical interactions that underlie human thought and behavior, Roth’s book (Lexington Books, Nov. 2017) attempts to reconcile those scientific explanations with the conception of humans as rational and responsible individuals with free will.

“When we think about what a human is from the prospective of neuroscience, it’s tempting to think that neuroscientists see us as really complicated biochemical machines and everything that occurs in the machine is governed by laws of nature,” Roth said. “When you look at a human that way, as if everything is already determined or can be explained in terms of prior physical causes, some people believe that can’t be squared or reconciled with a person who makes choices, has free will, and who can be held responsible.”

Advances in neuroscientific knowledge prompt important questions about how criminal justice practitioners and policymakers should think about questions of criminal responsibility and culpability, as well as the aims and purposes of incarceration, he said.

Roth began teaching neuroscience and law when he joined the Drake faculty in 2009. He selected the topic when the University approached him to create philosophy classes that would appeal to a variety of academic and professional disciplines.

After several semesters teaching his class on neuroscience and law, Roth realized he had a pretty clear sense of the philosophical issues confronting neurolaw and a lot of material that he had compiled over the years. About two years ago, he started writing.

“Students who have taken the course, especially the ones who have taken it most recently, if they perchance look at the book, they will see that a lot of what’s in this book reflects things we discussed in class,” Roth said. “Ideas, examples and topics that found their way into the book emerged from my teaching of this class. Hopefully, some of my former students will look at it and say ‘Hey! I remember when he came up with that example in class’.”

The biggest challenge in neurolaw lies in translating scientific language to language of feeling, choice, and intent, according to Roth. For example, how do action potential, neurons, or dendrites—all crucial parts of understanding neuroscience—connect with how a person is feeling or thinking when committing a crime? Roth uses the issue of using neuroimaging as evidence in a case to further explore the link between neuroscientific data and motive and emotions.

“I really think philosophy’s value lies largely in its ability to make connections between disparate fields,” Roth said. “I’m a philosopher.  I’m not a neuroscientist or a lawyer, but I think attempts to talk about these issues are often riddled with a lot of confusion so here I’m trying to get clearer about the issues involved so that we don’t get lost.”


Due to the fact that the book was based on his classroom experience, Roth will be using his book to teach future classes. Not only will students have the opportunity to learn from the professor who wrote the book on the subject—but they’ll receive the content at a discounted rate. Roth has arranged for students in his future classes to buy the book at half-price.