Friday, October 07, 2011

Evil: Neuroscientists suggest there is no such thing. Are they right?

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By |Posted Friday, Sept. 30, 2011, at 4:24 PM ET

Anders Behring Breivik, suspect in the Oslo killings
Photo by Jon-Are Berg-Jacobsen/AFP/Getty Images.
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. 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?

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