Jeopardy ad Absurdum

by


The contamination of an innocent by an excised, malignant consciousness. The phrase popped into Weiss’ head as he drove to the Court. It had been expressed by Manning, his lawyer—his own lawyer—the day before.

“You have to understand,” Manning had said, “there’s a subtext to this trial. It’s very unusual. Obviously. But the question is not so much who killed the old girl, as who is to blame for it. So although your patient is the nominal defendant, and although there is—at this stage—no legal case for you to answer, that could change very rapidly. If the boy is not convicted, for example.”

Weiss snorted. Manning was obviously an idiot. That would be why he went into law instead of medicine.

“I fail to see,” Weiss said, in the icy tones he usually saved for blundering junior doctors, “how even the most doltish jury could fail to convict the boy, when he was seen to kill her and admits he did so.”

Manning’s mud-coloured eyes became colder and his sallow face sterner.

“My opinion is that the circumstances permit the boy to construct a reasonable defence… It would be entirely unprecedented, of course, but that’s how case law works. The point is that you should tread carefully. Hewitt’s no fool. I can tell you how he’s going to play this, because I’d do the same. The contamination of an innocent by an excised, malignant consciousness. That’s the angle he’ll take. And if he pulls it off, they’ll come after you. Not just the Unit, but you personally.”

“What! Ridiculous! Compensation is owed to me! The effect on my private practice, my income…”

“I sympathise with your circumstances, Dr. Weiss. But I can only offer legal advice, not financial advice, and I have done so.”

And now, remembering this conversation, Weiss snorted again, still indignant. Lawyers, patients—idiots, all of them! What did they know of the arcana of nanoneurosurgery? Clearly, he would have to educate them. He parked up behind the ugly brick accretions of the Court, and stamped huffily towards the entrance.

Within the Court, in a small, second-floor room lined with dusty laws and redolent with the shattered lives by which lawyers measure their careers, Hewitt, the defence barrister, looked down from the single window. His attention was captured by a large, over-fed man with a sulky, supercilious expression, a man who traversed the car-park with the air of a royal who has had his red carpet removed. Hewitt’s head moved with his gaze, following the man, while the rest of him remained motionless, giving him the air of a weasel triangulating the chirr of a mouse’s heart. His small, dark eyes glinted with a sharp joy: This trial will change everything.

Indeed, such cases come but once in a lifetime. This one had already triggered a massive public interest, which had been further fed by the blameless appearance and good background of the defendant. Combine that with a motiveless—insanely motiveless—and violent murder, mix it with the more fantastic theories of the human mind, add a pinch of medical malpractice, and you have a newspaper editor’s dream of a story.

But Hewitt wasn’t interested in dreams and stories. They were useful, perhaps; but his cold, pragmatic soul inclined only towards the advancement of his career, and then only to the extent that such advancement could be measured in financial return. And in this case, the returns would be extraordinary. Hewitt would see to that. Yes, the focus on Weiss and his surgical procedures could only grow, with only one consequence.

This will change everything. Hewitt collected up his files and papers, and left his office.

In one of the cells beneath the Court, a boy sat on the edge of a plastic-covered, foam mattress that stunk of Institution. His pale hair looked darker now that it had been clumsily cut short, and his nineteen-year-old face was thinner, eaten up by concerns that would have weighed down broader shoulders than his. Even so, he retained something of the cherubic appearance that had so captured the public imagination. An angel not fallen, surely, but pushed.

He raised his arms and felt along his scalp, tracing a long, ridged scar, first with one hand, and then with the other. Then he clasped his hands together and placed them in his lap.

“You’re up next, kid,” someone said from behind the cell door. The boy nodded without looking up. And very quietly he said to himself, as though thinking aloud:

“But who?”

Hewitt looked across the Court, benignly, taking in the major players: the jurors, like a row of little ciphers (odd how they always all look the same!); the wrinkled old judge, slack-jawed and self-assured; the crew-cut, tortured innocence of the defendant; and Johnson, striding around like a skinny, revenant cadaver. Johnson was making a reasonable case for the prosecution, but the strength of his case was at the same time its weakness. It was predictable.

So—as Hewitt knew he would—Johnson simply walked through the main features of the case. The brutal, unprovoked murder of an old lady, a pensioner, on the street outside her home, in broad daylight, in front of witnesses. The immediate apprehension of the accused, who had stayed at the murder scene. The bizarre behaviour of the accused—pacing back and forth alongside the body, shouting denials, and gripping his hands together as though in prayer. ‘Criminally insane, perhaps, ‘ Johnson had said, leering at the jury, ‘but criminal nevertheless’. And for each facile, predictable brick that Johnson added to his edifice, Hewitt took pleasure in standing up with his small, carnivorous smile and saying, time after time, the same thing.

“I have no questions for this witness, my lord.”

And eventually Johnson was compelled to cede the floor. “The prosecution rests its case,” he said, glancing suspiciously at Hewitt.

Hewitt stood up.

“The first witness for the defence will be Dr. Weiss…”

When Weiss walked into the courtroom to take the witness stand, he was confident, perhaps cocksure. And for a while, his arrogance appeared justified: the first part of the cross-examination was straightforward, even gratifying. Ferret-faced Hewitt started with some comfortable, open questions. Questions which positively begged Weiss to enlarge upon the breakthrough surgical procedures that he had developed at the Carford University Medical School.

“So, Doctor Weiss, would you like to tell us about your background and the kind of operations you undertake in the Glioma Unit?”

Weiss said that he would; and then he did, in great detail. He told them about cancer. He told them about the killer crab and its slow sideways scuttle through soft organs, through delicate lives; about the drugs and bright scalpels that could temporarily bind shut its pincers. He told them about the chance of recurrence forever carried, like a black, unspoken secret, by each discharged patient. Specifically, he told them about glioma:  how the incremental treatment improvements made by jobbing oncologists had contributed nothing to this most intractable cancer of the brain. How the best efforts of the little people, beavering away in their little labs like Father Christmas’ elves, wrapping up new drugs and protocols for failing patients like useless gifts for a senile aunt, had made no significant difference to patient survival. How until he, Weiss, had turned his attention to the disease, only the lucky would survive more than a year after diagnosis, while the very lucky may have kept going for more than two.

Hewitt shifted from foot to foot throughout this sermon, grinning and nodding. Eventually, he managed to insert a question into Weiss’ flow.

“Thank you, Doctor Weiss. But perhaps you could focus more on your specific activities? The specific treatment protocols that you have developed?”

“I fully intend to,” Weiss replied icily. He knew how to deal with people like Hewitt. And he didn’t like being interrupted. “I fully intend to. But first you must understand the nature of the challenge posed by this important disease.”

And Hewitt listened with gratifying humility as Weiss told him why glioma had remained virtually untreatable for so long.

“The problem lies in the blood-brain barrier, that is, the relatively impermeable walls of the cerebral blood vessels.  This barrier lets small molecules, like oxygen and glucose, exit the bloodstream and reach the brain, but not much else. That’s why normal cancer treatment strategies simply don’t work for glioma. You can keep pumping the patient full of drugs until he’s ready to pop, but it will never work. You will never get enough drug into the brain by that approach. The blood-brain barrier always gets in the way. Do you understand?”

“I think so,” said Hewitt.

“Then you are cleverer than my colleagues in the oncology community.”

Weiss looked towards the judge with the kind of laugh that invites complicity. But Judge Evans, an old lady whose face—as delicately wrinkled and yellow-white as the skin on boiled milk—had been dragged down on its right side by a stroke, remained silent and lop-sidedly expressionless.

“And you developed a method for, ah, bypassing this barrier?” asked Hewitt.

“Indeed; my work has now transformed the field of cerebral glioma treatment. I have caged the beast! And in the Weiss Glioma Unit—which I have the honour of directing—we have further refined this revolutionary advance. We are, as you say, bypassing the blood-brain barrier altogether.”

Weiss paused at this point to look around the courtroom. This was a device he often used in his lectures—a dramatic pause, during which he would bask in the attention focussed on him, on him alone, by an enraptured audience. But on this occasion he was distracted, perhaps even discomfited, by the intense, tortured gaze of the defendant. The boy was leaning forward as though poised for supplication, his hands grasping the dock, his lips parted by some inner agony. His hair, previously androgynously long and blond, had been scythed back, drawing attention to an irregularity of growth around the perimeter of his scalp. This, Weiss knew, betrayed the presence of the long scar where he had sawn through the boy’s cranium and lifted aside the top and back of the skull, like taking the lid from a tin, to allow access to the brain.

“Doctor Weiss? You were saying?”

“Yes! Yes. We are bypassing the blood-brain barrier. We are, in effect, simply erasing it from the treatment equation. We do this by removing the diseased brain from the skull and placing it directly in a saline bath containing high drug concentrations. This exposes the cerebral glioma to levels of drug that are therapeutically effective and that actually kill the malignancy.  At the same time, because this drug treatment occurs outside the body, we avoid all the side effects of exposing healthy tissues throughout the body to toxic chemotherapy agents. So, drug-induced nausea and vomiting, weight loss, hair loss, ulcers of the mouth and throat—all are eliminated, along with the glioma itself. My approach has been described, I understand, as a giant leap for medicine.”

Hewitt nodded seriously. “A giant leap. You mean that no precedent exists for this approach? Your method is so novel that there is no reasonable comparator?”

Weiss could see where Hewitt was trying to lead him with this question. A clumsy manoeuvre.

“In fact, there is some precedent for this approach. Specialists have used a similar technique to perfuse highly concentrated drugs throughout cancer-ridden livers or lungs. But only the oncologists at the Weiss Glioma Unit have had the audacity to apply this principle to the brain.”

“Indeed. But there is a difference, is there not, between the level of risk involved in applying out-of-body drug perfusion to a brain as compared to, say, a liver?”

“Naturally. Reconnecting all the facial and optic nerves is not trivial. The procedure severely tests the surgeon’s skill and can be risky. Advances in robotic nanoneurosurgery have greatly simplified matters, but even so the technique is, I fear, beyond the skill or—ahem—courage of many of my colleagues.”

“I fully understand that many of your colleagues are reluctant to attempt this procedure. And nobody is questioning your skill or courage. My question was directed more at the self-evidently critical nature of the brain to the person.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“Well, organ transplants these days are almost routine. People are happy to accept someone else’s liver or lungs in exchange for a few more years of life. But they wouldn’t consider accepting someone else’s brain. Would they?”

“Your point being?”

“My point being that the brain is a special organ, in that it is the seat of our very selves, of everything that makes us be who we are and do what we do. A point that I will demonstrate to be highly relevant to the current situation. But we will return to that later. First of all, Doctor Weiss, for the benefit of the jury, please would you describe the exact method by which you treat a diseased brain? Presumably you do not remove the entire brain from the skull? Or do you?”

“Certainly not! No, we remove one hemisphere at a time. The excised hemisphere sits in the drug bath for sixteen hours, sufficient time for even slowly metabolising cells to incorporate the drug. Then it is replaced, and, if necessary, its sister hemisphere treated similarly.”

“Ah. One hemisphere at a time. First one half of the brain, and then the other. I see.”

“Obviously, if only one hemisphere has the cancer, only that hemisphere needs removal and treatment. Hardly a contentious approach.”

“No doubt. But let us move from the general to the specific. You treated the defendant for glioma, did you not?”

“Yes. I imagine that’s why I was asked to participate in these proceedings.”

Weiss glanced at the jury with a droll expression, as though to share a joke. But they just stared dully back, as responsive as a row of pebbles.

“The defendant’s treatment was not straightforward, I understand.”

“That is completely irrelevant. He was cured, after all.”

“The jury will decide on its relevance, if you will be so good as to describe the defendant’s case. In detail, if you please.”

Weiss glanced again at the boy in the dock and the boy nodded slightly, almost imperceptibly, as though begging Weiss to tell them all. Weiss remembered him well, of course. He had operated on him about a year ago. The boy had been one of the first pair of patients to receive treatment in the new Weiss Glioma Unit. Both he and the other patient had had very similar presentations; each had a small tumour in the right hemisphere, in the primary motor cortex. Inevitably, their symptoms were also similar; in particular, both patients were complaining of loss of use of the left arm. Weiss had operated on the two in parallel, in the same theatre, on the same day. There had been complications, it was true; but how to explain this to the idiot Hewitt?

“From the perspective of the surgeon, everything proceeded in a most satisfactory way. I removed each patient’s right hemisphere, connected the hemispheres to a surrogate blood supply, and cut out the respective tumours. We only treated the right halves of the brains on this occasion; the cancer had not spread to the left halves. After tumour excision, I handed the hemispheres over to the ex vivo team, who placed them in drug baths overnight. The next day, after washing out the drug, I replaced and reconnected the hemispheres. Each patient received the treated right hemisphere, cured and cancer-free. We monitored them throughout the rehabilitation period to ensure that their left body functions, in particular the use of the left arm, had returned. In both patients, recovery was unremarkable, indeed fully successful.”

“But the procedure wasn’t fully successful,” said Hewitt, grinning like a schoolboy. “Was it?”

Weiss took a deep breath. “You must understand,” he said, “that at that time, we were bound by pragmatic considerations relating to the efficiency and economy of state-sponsored health services, not least the rate of patient throughput. Accordingly, we used a system in which two patients could be operated on in parallel, or rather with significant overlap in time.  This was shown to be the most cost-effective use of skills and resources, and we set up the operating theatre to enable this. The defendant was one of a pair of young men with almost identical diseases who were operated on together.”

Hewitt watched him, his affable grin now replaced by a sardonic smirk, but remained silent, mutely inviting Weiss to continue.

“So there was a co-localisation in time and space that I deeply regret. I emphasise that it cannot happen under our new system.”

Weiss had hardly hesitated, but Hewitt pounced immediately, which of course gave the impression that Weiss was evading the question.

“But what?” asked Hewitt, his dark, little eyes glinting with the joy of the chase. “What cannot happen again?”

Weiss ground his teeth. Damn Hewitt and his impertinent questions!

“It’s important to say that this was a new protocol, and we had a very inexperienced ex vivo therapy team… their supervisor, who has now left us, admitted failings in his design of a shared surgical suite with adjacent drug baths, so, ah…”

What happened after the drug treatment?”

Weiss reddened, but controlled his mounting rage. “The hemispheres of the two young men were mixed up.  Each received the other’s right hemisphere.”

For a moment, the courtroom was silent. From the dock, the boy was nodding emphatically, looking absurdly grateful. Hewitt too looked satisfied. The faces of the jurors were unreadable.

“So,” said Hewitt. He was speaking slowly now, relishing each word. “So, two young men came to your unit for treatment, hoping for a cure… and they left your care, each with a hybrid brain comprising his own left hemisphere and the right hemisphere of a stranger.”

Weiss said nothing.

“For the benefit of the jury,” said Hewitt, still with his maddening slowness, “for the benefit of the jury, Doctor Weiss, I wonder if you would remind us of the lateralisation of brain function?”

Weiss seethed inwardly. He could see where this was going, but had no option other than to let Hewitt pursue his thesis.

“To some extent, the human brain is arranged such that the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body,” said Weiss, shortly. “Conversely, the right hemisphere controls left-side function. So, for example, the left arm, left leg, left eye, all connect to the right half of the brain.”

“Just so. In other words, the young men went home with the left side of their bodies controlled by a foreign hemisphere, by the brain of a stranger. By a right hemisphere that was, fundamentally, wrong.

Hewitt strode quickly towards the jury and scanned their faces intensely before turning on his heel to again face the witness-box. “And when did this error become apparent, Doctor Weiss?”

“At their first check-up, six months after surgery. There were signs of a nascent immune response and—”

But Hewitt was not interested in the medical explanation. He already had what he wanted, and he turned again to the jury, triumphant and exultant.

“Six months after the initial surgery, ladies and gentlemen! And the murder was committed, I remind you, four months and two weeks after the initial surgery! Committed, by the left hand of a right-handed man… by the left hand of a man whose left-side body functions were controlled, I remind you again, by the brain tissue of a stranger—the result of procedural negligence at the Weiss Glioma Unit!”

Hewitt’s excited tirade was followed by a rising susurration, composed of whispers and intakes of breath and rustles as the audience moved in their seats to better see the players in this great game. Negligence! Weiss looked down at his knuckles, whitely gripping the old wood of the dock, and fought to remain expressionless. My private practice… my income… my debts… Judge Evans beat her desk with a gavel as hard as her scrawny old arm could allow, while she glared around the courtroom with watery eyes, two wet little ponds set among cross-hatched, cream-yellow banks.

“Thank you, Your Honour,” said Hewitt, once silence had returned. “Now that we have established my premise, that is, that the events in question were perpetrated by brain tissue that does not belong to the defendant—brain tissue implanted in error, by a medically reckless procedure—let us seek further detail on two important points. Firstly, to whom does this interfering nervous tissue belong? What sort of person is the man whose right-side hemisphere has ended up in the skull of our defendant, controlling his left-body actions? And secondly—and this will draw heavily on your testimony, Doctor Weiss, so I would be grateful if you would remain in the witness-box, for the present—secondly, to what extent can a single hemisphere, one half of a brain, independently instigate a given train of action? For example, a sudden, violent blow to the throat of an old lady?”

There was a pause while Hewitt gathered some papers from his assistants. Weiss, unused to waiting on the convenience of others, felt the pain of his injured ego pull the blood from his face and then return it to his cheeks in a suffusion of rage. But his irritation was only partly due to the indignity of addressing questions posed by lesser intellects. In addition, the erosive concern that had grown in his mind like a tumour over recent weeks was now prodding and poking at his id, and occasionally breaking forth to torment his super-ego. Wealthy cancer patients, on whose illnesses he depended for the means to fund a rashly extravagant lifestyle, had become strangely scarce. Increasingly, they were cancelling their appointments with Weiss’ scalpel in favour of less imaginative treatments, treatments that carried less rumour of madness and shame. Hence, the precipitous decline in income from his erstwhile lucrative private practice. Until now, Weiss had thought of it as a temporary blip that would be abolished after the trial—but if Hewitt continued like this…

“So,” said Hewitt, eventually. “About the original owner of the rogue hemisphere. Obviously the gentleman in question is—rightly or wrongly—not on trial today. After all, he himself—or most of him, at least—was in prison on the day the murder was committed. A perfect alibi, perhaps; and yet, the very fact of his imprisonment is suggestive, is it not? Let us summarise his record…”

There followed a list of crimes and misdemeanours, mostly sordid, and sometimes violent. Drugs and theft, of course; also muggings, burglaries, drunken assaults and robberies. The court was left in no doubt that the rogue cerebral hemisphere had a significant and sustained criminal past.

“So, I think that answers the first of my questions,” Hewitt said. “Clearly, the nervous system that controls the defendant’s left hand, the hand that struck the fatal blow, has an abundant record of violent crime. Was the defendant at fault that this criminal proclivity was imported into his body, that it was given control of one half of his complement of limbs? I think not. But we shall return to that later. For now, let us focus on the second of the two questions that I put to you: to what extent can a cerebral hemisphere instigate a course of action independent of the conscious control, or even awareness, of the rest of the brain? Is it possible that the defendant could remain entirely unaware of, and unable to control, the actions of the left side of his body? That two parallel streams of consciousness could exist in the one head and body?”

Hewitt had been pacing up and down in front of the jury; now he walked back to the witness-box and halted in front of Weiss.

“Doctor Weiss, I wonder if you would be so good as to summarise the causes and symptoms of the split brain phenomenon?”

Weiss had known the question was coming, of course; Hewitt had practically telegraphed it.

“Under normal circumstances, the two cerebral hemispheres are intimately connected by a tract of nerve fibres called the corpus callosum. This enables them to function as a co-ordinated unit, as a single brain. If the corpus callosum is severed, as for example through injury or medical need, the hemispheres can no longer communicate with each other. Such patients may be known as split brain cases.”

“And when you operate on glioma patients, using your new technique… when you take out the hemispheres, one by one, before replacing them… do you sever the corpus callosum?”

“Obviously.”

“So all of the patients who leave your operating theatre—including the defendant—are split brain patients.”

“Of course! These questions are moronic!”

“Perhaps. But could you now describe to us the symptoms of a split brain patient?”

“Look, in most cases, you don’t see a huge effect. You can construct experimental conditions to show an effect, for example by letting one eye see one set of information and the other eye a different set of information, but in real life those conditions just don’t happen, and the patients are usually quite normal in their behaviour.”

“Usually. But not always?”

“Obviously, exceptions exist.”

“Would you describe some of these—ah—exceptions?”

“Well, there’s a famous case history—famous because it is so unusual—that describes a split brain woman who would have problems, for example, in filling her shopping trolley. Her right hand, the dominant hand, would take an item from the shelf, and then the left hand would replace the item and reach for some other purchase.”

“Fascinating! Just as though two different people existed inside her, fighting for control! But there are still more apposite examples, are there not?”

“I don’t follow you.”

“Really? But you must have heard of the split brain patient whose left hand—again, the left, mark you—would, apparently of its own volition, attempt to strike its owner’s much-loved wife? The literature records that this poor man would have to grab his left hand with his right to stop it harming her… Or how about the lady with a damaged corpus callosum who reported that her left hand—yes, left hand—lived a life of its own, and would try to strangle her in the night?”

“These types of alien hand syndrome really are extraordinarily rare—”

“As rare, perhaps, as the unprovoked, motiveless murder of an old lady by a boy of previously good character.”

Weiss was silent; Hewitt, too, was happy to pause, to let the jury absorb the inferences and connect the dots. But, just to make absolutely sure that even the slowest juror had grasped the argument, Hewitt painstakingly reiterated what he saw as the basic facts.

“The situation then is this. The defendant developed a glioma in the right hemisphere of his brain. He was treated at Doctor Weiss’ clinic using a procedure that involved removing the right hemisphere. Unfortunately, the defendant did not leave the hospital with his own right-side hemisphere. He left with a hybrid brain, incorporating the right-side hemisphere of a criminal sociopath. So the left side of his body is now controlled by nervous tissue derived from a stranger with a history of violence. Within a few months, this boy, this right-handed boy of previously impeccable character, committed a motiveless, pointless murder, in broad daylight—using his left hand only. And, as we have just discussed, many examples exist of split-brain patients whose left body functions appear to take on a life of their own, acting on impulses and motives that are entirely invisible—and repugnant—to the rest of the mind and body.”

Hewitt looked from the jury to the judge and back again.

“I believe that the only legitimate verdict that you can reach in this case is—at least with regard to the defendant as a whole—Not Guilty. Not guilty, ladies and gentlemen! I rest my case.”

Weiss tried to control the exasperation that was growing inside him like a boil. Surely they wouldn’t let the boy free on the basis of such a mish-mash of hypothesis and conjecture? The fools! Weiss raged silently as the prosecutor, Johnson, took the floor. He had an affected frown of puzzlement, but this gave Weiss a small gleam of hope—did the man have something up his sleeve?

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” he began, wagging a finger. “We are in danger of over-complicating what is in fact a very simple case. The boy who is on trial today killed an old lady. Nobody denies that. Even he does not deny that.”

The jurors, as one, swivelled their heads to peer at the poor, weeping angel. The prosecutor, seeing the danger, hastily continued.

“Regardless of appearances, regardless of manifest contrition, the fact remains that murder has been done, and therefore justice is demanded. Now, I have listened to the defence’s case with interest, of course. We cannot deny that the defendant’s left arm, the murdering arm, was under the control of a foreign, perhaps even a malign, brain hemisphere, implanted as a result of a medical error in Doctor Weiss’ unit.”

Johnson nodded in Weiss’ direction with a friendly, complicit smile. Weiss glared at him. There was something of the mantis about Johnson: tall and cadaverous, with overly large, blue eyes and sunken cheeks, he stalked and hunched around the courtroom on long, thin legs, looking at the jurors as though they were a collection of juicy insects.

“But I feel that we are missing something… Doctor Weiss, we have heard about some very intriguing examples of split-brain patients. Indeed, the defence relies very heavily on instances in which such patients have reported that the left side of their bodies appears to instigate violent actions. But can you tell me of any instance in which a split brain patient has succeeded in doing serious violence, let alone murder, as a result of supposedly independent left-side actions?”

“No. I can’t.”

“No. Indeed, no.” Johnson pulled back his lips in a rictus of delight, like a corpse that had cracked a joke. “Doctor Weiss—what is free won’t?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“We are all acquainted with free will. But what is free won’t?”

“Oh—I know what you mean. Some cognitive scientists use the term to describe the ability of the conscious mind to override unconscious impulses. So although you might have a strong, unconsciously driven urge to murder your boss, the conscious mind won’t allow it. In most cases. Basically, it’s a power of veto.”

“I see. So in cases in which the left arm of a split-brain patient attempts to behave unacceptably, and the right arm stops that behaviour, that is free won’t in play. In other words, a murder—this murder—could have been prevented simply through the exercise of free won’t.

“Well—perhaps. The term is usually used in relation to intact brains.”

Suddenly, and uncomfortably, Weiss found himself in the position of devil’s advocate. He didn’t like Hewitt’s reductionist proposition that the locus of moral responsibility could reside in a sub-segment of the brain, let alone that two loci of responsibility could simultaneously exist in two parts of one brain. But at the same time, he couldn’t completely support Johnson’s argument that the power of veto could completely control the actions triggered by a misfiring hemisphere in a split brain—because if the two hemispheres were not connected, how could the consciousness communicate the power of veto to the misbehaving organs? But Johnson seemed happy with Weiss’ response.

“Yes. And I’m glad you raised the point about intact brains, because some argument exists, does it not, about whether a split brain can be truly said to possess two parallel streams of consciousness—which is the central argument of the defence, of course.” Johnson picked up some papers from the bench and quickly shuffled through them with long, thin fingers.

“Let me quote from ‘Consciousness Explained,’ by Daniel Dennett. Dennett’s views may be summarised as follows: ‘… it isn’t the case that splitting the brain leaves in its wake organisations both distinct enough and robust enough to support such a separate self…’ In other words, ladies and gentlemen, the idea of two separate and conflicting streams of consciousness in a single brain, arising as a result of split-brain surgery and hemisphere mix-up, is an absurd fantasy! That, together with the existence of the ‘free won’t’ power of veto, places responsibility for the murder entirely and unequivocally here—with the defendant!”

Johnson was standing in front of the boy, pointing at him, eyes bulging ghoulishly, like a ghastly messenger of Nemesis come from some lawyer’s grave. The accusation proved too much for the boy, who involuntarily stood, shouting a denial in a voice which wavered and broke with the pain of perceived injustice; but he was drowned out by Hewitt, who also jumped forward, yelling “Objection! Objection! Dennett’s views are irrelevant! The self-interested ramblings of academic philosophers have no place in this court!” while the judge feebly banged her gavel on the bench top.

And eventually the weak hammering of wood on wood had its effect, and the judge’s voice could be heard. It seemed that she was proposing an unprecedented intervention, an interruption to the normal process of the court. Citing the technical and moral complexities of this extraordinary case, and the great importance of setting a legal precedent for any future similar cases, she indicated that she would at this point direct the jury to reach a verdict. No reason, therefore, for the jury to retire.

Of course, Weiss could not then go home; although desperately fatigued, he was also fascinated. Later, attempting to recapitulate the process by which Judge Evans arrived at her extraordinary conclusion, he found himself shutting his eyes and listening again to the voice of the judge as she croaked out the garbled logic behind her verdict.

“We must remember this,” she had begun, perched behind her raised oak desk like an ancient, wrinkled sparrow at an empty bird table. “A murder has been committed, a horrific crime, of which the defendant is accused. And nobody, neither the defendant nor his barrister, is denying that the victim met her end as a consequence of a brutal blow from the left arm of the defendant.”

She glanced belligerently at Hewitt and then turned her rheumy eye to the boy in the dock before continuing.

“The critical question is, to what extent was the defendant responsible for the actions of his left arm? Was it truly the defendant who struck the blow? Or was his left arm simply being used as a weapon by a foreign consciousness that was both invisible to the defendant and beyond his control?”

The boy, with his hands clasped together in front of his chest like an angel before the crib, was watching her, rapt and pleading. He was rocking very slightly, almost imperceptibly, back and forth, back and forth.

“Certainly, Mister Hewitt has made a very strong case for the possible existence of two controlling entities within the defendant’s hybrid brain… two parallel streams of consciousness… I believe you employed that phrase, Mister Hewitt?”

“Yes, Your Honour.”

“And the idea of the co-existence of two separate loci of moral responsibility in a single physical person is given considerable weight by the case studies of split-brain patients that you described…”

The old lady appeared to ruminate on this for a little while before myopically looking around the courtroom for Johnson. Eventually she spotted him in the seat that he had taken throughout the trial, his long frame folded against itself so that he could fit into a chair designed for smaller people.

“On the other hand, Mister Johnson has reminded us that even if the defendant is harbouring a criminally minded hemisphere with a separate consciousness, he still possesses his own consciousness, generated by his own, left hemisphere, which could, perhaps, have freely intervened. Although I acknowledge that this is not certain… but then neither is it certain that a transplanted right hemisphere could generate its own, separate consciousness… This really is a very difficult case…”

Judge Evans paused, her head cocked to one side, as though listening for some voice to guide her. The paralysis of the right side of her face gave her a Janus-like quality; perhaps she looked permanently to two opposing sides, innocence and freedom to the left, and to the right guilt and punishment. Or possibly vice versa.

“Very well. My judgement is this. First, with regard to the term, a ten-year sentence seems appropriate…”

As Weiss listened to the judge deliver her verdict, his professional contempt for an outcome that he considered absurd was gradually, subtly modulated, and then entirely replaced by a new emotion, an emotion which grew like a gall in some deep part of the intuitive side of his brain before triumphantly metastasising into an overt condition that made his heart race and dampened his palms. He became aware of Hewitt’s bright, dark eyes fixed on his own, and as he met the other’s gaze a small charge seemed to pass between them, a little shock of recognition. As the trial finished and the various parties filed out of court, it was an easy matter for the two men to fall into step and start a conversation, without preliminaries, as though they were merely recapitulating an informal agreement that they had already negotiated.

“The precedent set, of course,” said Hewitt, “will form the basis for many appeals. Very many. I intend to form a limited liability partnership to offer the appropriate services. There would, of course, be mutual benefit in an association with a partner who could take care of the medical side of things…”

Weiss nodded solemnly. “As I am sure you have realised, no other party can offer the highly specialised and, er, recondite procedures that are routinely performed in my clinic… It would only be a case of operating on a larger scale…”

And the talk turned to venture capital and high net worth individuals and new premises and marketing budgets before the two men parted company, highly satisfied with their new relationship.

Weiss parked outside his house and got out of the car, still smiling. Only yesterday, he had seen his home as a giant millstone, a sign of the vast debts he had accumulated through an extravagant lifestyle that had exceeded his income so significantly for so many years. Today, the house seemed too small, too unambitious. He would need a bigger residence, no doubt about that.

But he would have plenty of time for that kind of thing. For now, he had arrangements to make, operations to schedule; one operation, in particular. Which of the junior surgeons was on call tonight? Nagel. That was it. Tom Nagel. Weiss keyed a number into his phone.

“Tom? Weiss here…Yes, fine thanks. All over… Very interesting actually. We need to start preparing for a rather unusual operation. And I very much suspect that it will be the first of many. In fact, I am setting up a new company, a partnership, to provide this type of service… Briefly, we are to remove the left arm of a patient, together with those parts of the right hemisphere that are responsible for movement of the left arm… We will receive more than ample fees for the operation, I assure you. But the real financial return comes from the incarceration of the arm and the associated nervous tissue. We will need to keep them alive, ex vivo, for ten years… perhaps less, with good behaviour, but the definition of good behaviour, in this context, will require expert medical input…Yes, we will get fees from re-attaching it after the sentence is over… I very much suspect, Tom, that we can charge what we like… yes. And of course, every prisoner in the country will wish to explore the possibility of having his sentence served only by the guilty parts of his brain and body… This could run and run, Tom.”

Marc Joan
Marc spent the early part of his life in Asia and Europe, and the early part of his career in biomedical research. He draws on this and other experiences for his fiction, which has been published in Structo, Bohemyth, Smokelong Quarterly, Hypnos, Madcap Review, Danse Macabre, The Apeiron Review, STORGY, Literary Orphans, Bookends Review, and Sein und Werden. His novelette, The Speckled God, was published by Unsung Stories in February 2017.

Marc lives in England with his family, and can be contacted via www.marc-joan.com

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*