*Neuroscientists suggest there is no such thing as evil. Are they right?*
*By Ron Rosenbaum/ Source: **Slate<http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and
Is evil over? Has science finally driven a stake through its dark
heart? Or at least emptied the word of useful meaning, reduced the
notion of a
numinous nonmaterial malevolent force to a glitch in a tangled cluster
of neurons, the brain?
Yes, according to many neuroscientists, who are emerging as the new high
priests of the secrets of the psyche, explainers of human behavior in
general. A phenomenon attested to by a recent torrent of pop-sci brain
books with titles like *Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain<http://www
Not secret in most of these works is the disdain for metaphysical evil,
which is regarded as an antiquated concept that's done more harm than good.
They argue that the time has come to replace such metaphysical terms with
physical explanations -- malfunctions or malformations in the brain.
Of course, people still commit innumerable bad actions, but the idea that
people make conscious decisions to hurt or harm is no longer sustainable,
say the new brain scientists. For one thing, there is no such thing as
*"free will"* with which to decide
to commit evil. (Like evil, free will is an antiquated concept for most.)
Autonomous, conscious decision-making itself may well be an illusion.
And thus intentional evil is impossible.
Have the new neuroscientists brandishing their fMRIs, the ghostly
illuminated etchings of the interior structures of the skull, succeeded
where their forebears from disciplines ranging from phrenology to
psychoanalysis have failed?
Have they pinpointed the hidden anomalies in the amygdala, the dysfunctions
in the prefrontal lobes, the electrochemical source of impulses that lead a
Jared Loughner, or an Anders Breivik, to commit their murderous acts?
And in reducing evil to a purely neurological glitch or malformation in the
wiring of the physical brain, in eliminating the element of freely willed
conscious choice, have neuroscientists eliminated as well "moral agency,"
personal responsibility? Does this "neuromitigation" excuse -- "my brain
made me do it," as critics of the tendency have called it -- mean that no
human being really wants to do ill to another? That we are all innocent,
Rousseauian beings, some afflicted with defects -- *"brain bugs" as
one new pop-neuroscience book calls them -- that cause the behavior
formerly known as evil?
Are those who commit acts of cruelty, murder, and torture just victims
themselves - of a faulty part in the head that might fall under factory
warranty if the brain were a car?
The new neuroscience represents the latest chapter in a millennia-old and
still divisive cultural conflict over the problem of evil, the latest
chapter in the attempt by science to reduce evil to malfunction or
dysfunction rather than malevolence.
*Was Hitler Evil?
*It's a quest I examined in *Explaining Hitler
*: the way the varieties of 20th-century psychological "science" sought to
find some physiological, developmental, sexual, or psychoanalytic cause for
Hitler's crimes. (One peer-reviewed paper sought to trace Hitler's evil to
a mosquito bite -- to the secondary sequelae of mosquito-borne encephalitis
which were known to cause profound personality changes as long as a decade
after being contracted in the trenches of World War I.)
It would be consolatory if not comforting if we could prove that what made
Hitler Hitler was amalfunction in human nature, a glitch in the circuitry,
because it would allow us to exempt "normal" human nature (ours for
instance) from having Hitler potential. This somewhat Pollyannaish quest to
explain the man's crimes remains counterintuitive to many. I recall the
late British historian and biographer of Hitler Alan Bullock reacting to
the claims of scientism by exclaiming to me vociferously: "If he isn't
evil, then who is? ... If he isn't evil the word has no meaning."
Indeed recent developments demonstrate that evil remains a stubborn concept
in our culture, resistant to attempts to reduce it to pure "physicalism."
To read the mainstream media commentary on the Breivik case, for instance,
is to come upon, time after time, the word "evil." Not just that the acts
were evil, but that he, Breivik was, as a Wall Street Journal columnist put
it, "evil incarnate."
But what exactly does that mean? The incarnation of what? Satan? The word
"incarnation," even without explicit religious context, implies,
metaphorically at least, the embedding of a metaphysical force in a
physical body. One can understand the scientific aversion to this as a
description of reality. But evil as a numinous force abides. It is not
surprising that Pope Benedict issued a statement following the attacks in
Norway calling on everyone to "escape from the logic of evil." (Although
what exactly is that "logic"?)
Even if it was not surprising for the Pope to invoke evil thus, it was
surprising to see a devout atheist such as my colleague Christopher
Hitchens invoke "evil" in his "obituary" for Osama bin Laden. Hitchens
admits wishing he could avoid using "that simplistic (but somehow
indispensable) word." But he feels compelled to call whatever motivated bin
Laden a "force" that "absolutely deserves to be called evil."
But what is this "force," which sounds suspiciously supernatural for an
atheist to believe in? Some kind of Luciferian Kryptonite? Where is it
located: in the material or nonmaterial world?
*The Real Problem of Evil
*That is the real "problem of evil" (or, to use the technical term
philosophers employ for conscious, freely-willed, evil-doing:
"wickedness"). We tend to believe it exists: Popular culture has no problem
with it, giving us iterations from Richard III to Darth Vader; politicians
use it promiscuously ("the axis of evil"). But even religious thinkers
continue to debate what it is -- and why a just and loving God permits evil
and the hideous suffering it entails to prevail so often, or even -- if
they shift the blame to us (because God gave man free will to sin) -- why
God couldn't have created a human nature that would not so readily choose
genocide and torture. (For the record, I'm an agnostic.)
This argument has been going on for more than a millennium, at least since
Augustine proclaimed that evil was in the realm of "non-being," which seems
to some a great evasion. Meanwhile pop neuroscience -- and its
not-very-well-examined assumptions -- has taken center stage in the
struggle to put evil in its place under the thumb of science.
One person whose work on these matters has received considerable attention
lately is the British Professor of Psychopathology, Simon Baron-Cohen.
(Yes, cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen aka Borat, but highly regarded as a
serious scientist.) He's the author of *The Science of Evil
*,which seeks to dispose of the problem of evil in part at least by
changing its name.
"My main goal," says Baron-Cohen, "is replacing the unscientific term
'evil' with the scientific term 'empathy.' " What he means is that instead
of calling someone evil we should say they have no empathy.
Baron-Cohen goes to great lengths to posit an "empathy circuit" in the
brain whose varying "degrees" of strength constitute a spectrum, ranging
from total, 100 percent empathy to "zero degrees of empathy."
This empathy circuit, he tells us, consists of 13 specific regions of the
brain involved in the generation of nonevil choices, among them "the medial
prefrontal cortex," "the inferior frontal gyrus," and "the posterior
superior temporal sulcus."
Ideally all of these act together empathetically to defeat "single minded
focus," which appears to be Baron-Cohen's explanation for what was
previously called evil.
Single-mindedness is the inability to "recognize and respond" to the
feelings of others. A healthy empathy circuit allows us to feel others'
pain and transcend single-minded focus on our own. This theory does,
however, seem to carry a presumption that when one "recognizes and
responds," one will do so in warm and fuzzy ways. But what about those who
"recognize and respond" to others' feelings with great discernment -- and
then torture them? It happens.
One troubling aspect of Baron-Cohen's grand substitution of a lack of
empathy for evil is the mechanistic way he describes it.
He characterizes those who lack empathy as having "a chip in their neural
computer missing." He tells us "empathy is more like a dimmer switch than
an all-or-none switch." The big problem here is that by reducing evil to a
mechanical malfunction in the empathy circuit, Baron-Cohen also reduces, or
even abolishes, good. No one in this deterministic conceptual system
chooses to be good, courageous, or heroic. They just have a well-developed
empathy circuit that compels them act empathetically -- there's no choice
or honor in the matter.
And so evil for Baron-Cohen is just "zero degrees of empathy." And I'm left
with the nonempathetic feeling that his boast that he is "replacing" evil
with nonempathy is more a semantic trick than a scientific discovery. It's
another instance of what one of the authors in an important collection of
academic papers from MIT Press called Neuroethics, calls "Brain
A number of papers in Neuroethics pour cold water on the triumphalism of
the giddy new pop-sci brain books. It makes clear there is a debate within
the neuroscience profession about what exactly all those impressive-looking
fMRI images tell us. And these "neurocritics" or "neuroskeptics" warn about
the consequences for acting too quickly on these claims. (There is a
valuable British website called Neuroskeptic that offers the general
reading public these critiques and correctives from the point of view of
someone within the profession. People need to know!)
The "Brain Overclaim" paper by Stephen Morse of the University of
Pennsylvania's Center for Neuroscience and Society is a tongue-in-cheek
"diagnostic note" on the grandiosity of the assumptions of the brain-book
fad, mainly concerned about the way they have been creeping into
jurisprudence. fMRIs have made their way into a Supreme Court opinion this
year, for instance; Justice Stephen Breyer cited "cutting edge
neuroscience" in his dissent to a ruling denying the right of California to
ban violent video games, because the otherwise-pro-free-speech justice was
alarmed at neuroscientific studies that claim such games could create
mental pathways for actual violence.
But Morse's critique extends beyond the jurisprudential and goes to the
heart of the failure of current neuroscience to explain or "replace" evil.
Popular neuroscience has claimed to find the neural locus of love and God
and evil, but Morse points out a fundamental flaw in their logic:
Despite all the astonishing advances in neuroscience, however, we still
know woefully little about how the brain enables the mind and especially
about how consciousnesss and intentionality can arise from the complicted
hunk of matter that is the brain. ... Discovering the neural correlates of
mental phenomena does not tell us how these phenomena are possible.
In other words, correlation doesn't always equal causation: We may know the
13 regions that light up on an fMRI when we feel "empathy" (or fail to
light up when we choose evil) but that doesn't explain whether this lit-up
state indicates they are causing empathy or just reflecting it.
*The Hard Problem of Consciousness*
The problem of evil -- and moral responsibility -- is thus inseparable from
what is known in the philosophical trade as "the hard problem of
consciousness." How does the brain, that electrified piece of meat, create
the mind and the music of Mozart, the prose of Nabokov? Where is
Many neuroscientists, confronted by the "hard problem of consciousness,"
evade it by citing a quarter-century-old experiment by one Benjamin Libet,
which purported to reveal that apparently conscious decisions are actually
made unconsciously -- preconsciously -- some 500 milliseconds (half a
second) before the illusion of a conscious decision is made conscious.
(Arecent paper puts it at a full second.)
But Libet's study fails to explain how the initial unconscious decision is
made by the electrified piece of meat -- he just kicks the can into the
preconscious, you might say -- or why we have the illusion of consciousness
at all. It does suggest that those who purport to study the science of the
brain do themselves -- and science -- a disservice by failing to learn from
the contexts of history, logic, and very basic philosophy.
Those neuroscientists who disdain the idea of consciousness or free will
and believe that Libet has disproved it all ought at least to give some
attention to Francis Crick. Crick, whose co-discovery of DNA earned him a
Nobel Prize and who recently daringly proposed a scientific locus for free
will, offers his candidate for its neural coordinates. In his 1994 study *The
Astonishing Hypothesis* Crick places it somewhere in or near the area
called "the anterior
cingulate sulcus" which is "next to Brodman's area 24. This is on the
inside surface [of the skull] ... toward the front … and near the top" of
the brain. If that's the center of free will it's the center of evil as
well. But even if Crick has trumped Libet, neither has dealt with the most
disturbing implications of the new research that purports to find neural
explanations for evil.
One can find some of these troubling possibilities laid out in a paper by
Jonathan Marks of Harvard's Safra Center for Ethics and Pennsylvania State
University in the American Journal of Bioethics. The paper is called "A
Neuroskeptic's Guide to Neuroethics and National Security," and in it Marks
references a growing resistance to "brain over-claims" within the
profession. His objections are technical and ethical. He criticizes both
the fetishizing of fMRIs, and their misuse. He reminds laymen looking at
all the impressive fMRIs in pop-psych brain books that they are not actual
images of individual brains in action, but rather composites based on
statistical compilations of images of multiple brains, overlaid with
special effects lighting he compares to "Doppler-weather radar images."
"Would it be going too far to call this Photoshopping?" I asked Marks in a
"Photoshopping isn't the right word, but in one sense, it doesn't go far
enough," he said. The images are "constructed from the start."
Marks' paper warns of "aggressive marketing" of fMRI scans by
intelligence-contractor types as "lie detector" substitutes that could be
used to select candidates for "enhanced interrogation" if their fMRI
indicates potential deception under ordinary interrogation.
*We Should Act As If We Have Free Will
*And he offered what I thought was one of the wisest responses to the
debate over the existence of evil (and thus free will): What he suggested
is that we ought to act as if we had free will to choose good or evil.
And his warnings against the consequences of believing otherwise are
validated by the fantasies of some fMRI enthusiasts. Consider, for
instance, one of the more prominent new brain books: David Eagleman's Incognito.
In an excerpt in the Atlantic's "big ideas" issue, Eagleman depicts an
Orwellian future in which fMRI scans will be used to preemptively identify
those who have the potential to commit acts formerly known as evil, and
prescribes for such possible malfeasants a regimen of "prefrontal
workout[s]" to "better balance" those selected (how? by whom?) for brain
He actually goes so far as to say, "Some people will need to be taken off
the streets," on the basis of their fMRIs, "for a longer time (even a life
Neuroscientific totalitarianism invades your brain! The ultimate
panopticon. No one seemed to notice or to care. It's science!
No mention of constitutional rights or preemptive detention or the
Orwellian implications of this for radical dissenters, say, those whose
rage against injustice might need to be toned down in the brain gyms.
I hesitate to say it, but these are evil ideas. Indeed, reading Eagleman,
and returning to this debate about evil, led me to think about something
that had occurred to me in examining the fallacious attempts to scientize
Hitler. Evil does not necessarily inhere in some wiring diagram within the
brain. Evil may inhere in bad ideas, particularly when they're dressed up
as scientific (as Hitler did with his "scientific racism").
As for evil itself, the new neuroscience is unlikely to end the debate, but
it may cause us to be more attentive to the phenomenon. Perhaps evil will
always be like the famous Supreme Court pronouncement on pornography. You
know it when you see it. I don't like its imprecision, but I will concede I
don't have a better answer. Just that we can do better than the
mechanistic, deterministic, denial of personal responsibility the
neuroscientists are offering to "replace" evil with.
I recall an exchange in my conversation with one of the original
neuroskeptics, Daniel S. Reich, now head of a research division on nerve
diseases at the National Institutes of Health. Reich was one of the first
to critique "*neuromarketing*-- the promotion of fMRI technology to
help pushers of commercial products
and political candidates learn what words and images lit up what buttons in
the brains of consumers and voters.
Toward the end of our conversation I asked Reich if he believed in evil. He
was silent for a bit and then started talking about Norway. About degrees
of evil. About the difference between the typical suicide bomber and the
Oslo killer. How the former has only to press a button to accomplish his
murderous goal and never has to see the consequences.
But on that summer camp island in Oslo, Reich said, Breivik was stalking
victims for hours. He'd shoot one or more and, according to survivors, not
register anything, just continue trudging forward, looking for more.
"He saw the consequences, the blood gushing, heard the screams. He just
kept going." Some will try to say this is sociopathy or psychopathy or zero
degrees of empathy and other exculpatory cop-outs. But fueled by his evil
ideas Breivik kept going. To echo Bullock, if we can't call him evil who
*Edited by: Lawyer Asad*