Thursday, January 19, 2012

The End of Evil?

*The End of Evil?*

*Neuroscientists suggest there is no such thing as evil. Are they right?*

*By Ron Rosenbaum/ Source: **Slate<

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
Overclaim Syndrome."

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

consciousness, anyway?

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

phone conversation.

"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

can we?

*Edited by: Lawyer Asad*

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