Evil and Misunderstanding Science

The End of Evil?” is the provocative title of surprisingly narrow-minded essay by Ron Rosenbaum in Slate, in which he claims that neuroscientists promise to antiquate the notion of evil as a metaphysical force – and that they are doomed to fail in this endeavor. Rosenbaum sets up his straw-men neuroscientists (all of whom remain anonymous with the exception of one super-star neuroscientist, who having gotten a lot of attention on Slate will remain anonymous here) who argue that since the brain is a materialistic machine, and since there is no such thing as free will, then the concept of “evil” is nonsensical:

“Of course, people still commit innumerable bad actions, but the idea that people make conscious decisions to hurt or harm is no longer sustainable…Autonomous, conscious decision-making itself may well be an illusion. And thus intentional evil is impossible.”

Rosenbaum is quick to note that what follows is that people are not responsible for their actions, have no moral agency, and are really just victims of their upbringing and genetics (which is absurd), but goes on to claim that the latest research is an “attempt by science to reduce evil to malfunction or dysfunction rather than malevolence.” The only attempt science makes is to explain the world as it is, without any extraneous stories. The human mind happens to be a machine, and sometimes when it malfunctions, we observe “evil” behavior. If malevolence, by which Rosenbaum implies free agency (i.e. a non-physical soul), doesn’t fit into the picture, then why be so upset about it? Rosenbaum seems to be suffering from the same affliction that creates depressive nihilists out of some who learn that they have no free will. Again, the brain is a machine, but it’s not a MacBook Pro; among its many superiorities over traditional machines, the brain is a self-aware agent, complete with intentions, foresight and even some “free-won’t” (the ability to not engage in certain behaviors). So when you hear something like “Autonomous, conscious decision-making itself may well be an illusion,” I hope you flinch because the alternative is that Jesus makes these decisions for you.

But since there is no free will, Ron Rosenbaum didn’t really mean to write a silly article, just as I don’t mean to criticize it. How could he have meant the following? “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.”

It’s true, correlation is not causation; but Rosenbaum is missing the point: it doesn’t matter if those 13 regions cause or reflect when one is feeling empathetic, only that the feeling of empathy is caused somewhere in the brain. The alternative is some dualistic non-explanation like “empathy is an ethereal force floating through space” (unicorns may also have something to do with it).

The real problem with Rosenbaum’s knock on neuroscience’s dominion over ‘evil’ is that one doesn’t need much neuroscience to discuss evil in physical terms. If we accept that the mind/brain are operating entirely materialistically (souls, gods, free wills, etc are not allowed to play this game), then we can say that the phenomenon of evil – whatever that means socially – is founded in people’s brains. We don’t currently know the mechanisms responsible, but they don’t actually matter. We know what evil means (we can define it however we like – syntax is arbitrary) and we know that it has a physical basis just like everything else people do and feel. That’s where we have to stop. If Hitler was evil because “his brain made him do it,” he is not all the sudden excused from his actions. Just because he didn’t have a choice but to act the way he did (because there is no free will) doesn’t mean that he is now a victim of a brain malfunction; by that logic, everyone is a victim of a brain (mal)function – you and I have no free will as much as Hitler didn’t.

Of Eaglemania’s Orwellian dystopia, where people’s intentions are evaluated at the source using fMRI, Rosenbaum writes “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”)”.

Ouch. I dare say, Eaglemania isn’t that evil. And speaking of bad ideas – science does not dictate how we should be running the show. Rosenbaum’s mistake is to connect facts, which are science’s only legitimate domain, with what is universally right and wrong. Science may be able to tell us who has a functional brain; is predisposed to violence; has trouble controlling themselves, etc. But science is silent on the question of what we should do with such people. The fact is that science – including modern neuroscience – has little to say about what our values should be.

Finally, speaking of Breivik, the Oslo killer, Rosenbaum writes: “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 [sic] can we?” First of all, one ought to say “whom” instead of “who.” Second, how are “sociopathy or psychopathy or zero degrees of empathy” cop-outs? What more do you want, Ron? Shall we say that Jesus and Allah made him do it? Or Hitler’s ghost?

This disconnect among scientists, journalists and the public is all too apparent in Rosenbaum’s essay. The “many neuroscientists” he calls on to support his claims remain unknown to the readers (and probably to him), and his strange need to have evil (and likely other feelings and motivations too) come from some super-natural source reveal an intellectual laziness. The bottom line is that evil is not gone; it is rooted in physical phenomena; and scientists are only trying to describe it, quantify it and provide a mechanistic explanation. Perhaps Rosenbaum thinks that since free will does not exist, he is not responsible for writing horseradish articles? Wrong again.

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One comment

  1. Alex Maxim · October 10, 2011

    Great blog post Greg!! 🙂

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