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?
– Ron Rosenbaum
A while back, I reviewed Simon Baron-Cohen’s contentious book, Zero Degrees of Empathy, which claims that evil is really nothing more than the absence of empathy. And a bit later, I reviewed David Eagleton’s Incognito, which includes a treatise on reforming the penal system in light of the new neuropsychological understanding of criminal behaviour.
The last two books are prominent targets in Ron Rosenbaum’s “The End of Evil?” an article published by Slate, September 30, 2011.
While Rosenbaum’s article is in some ways only another standard attack on “reductionism” and “scientism,” it nevertheless raises questions which, while they may not fatally undermine the drive toward a physical understanding of human behaviour, do call for serious discussion.
Rosenbaum questions not only the quality of the science but more deeply the philosophical and practical implications of the rising voices of neuroscientists who use fMRI research to argue that while we may do evil things, we do not “choose” to do evil — at least, not in the traditional ways in which we have understood the moral and legal responsibility of “evil.”
It’s too bad that Rosenbaum opted for a combative and derisive tone — “the new high priests of the secrets of the psyche” and “the grandiosity of the assumptions of the brain-book fad” are just two examples — but with a little effort it’s possible to ignore his petulance and consider his criticisms.
At the root of Rosenbaum’s argument is the same emotional recoil that lies at the heart of almost all critiques of similar neuroscience. Rosenbaum is fundamentally disturbed by the idea that “autonomous, conscious decision-making itself may well be an illusion. And thus intentional evil is impossible.” If there is no intent, no choice, then on what basis are we to blame those who do evil deeds? Rosenbaum asks, “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?”
We act as if evil were real. All of us — including you, me, and the most extreme neuroscientist who rejects the concepts of will and responsibility — experience disgust, outrage, and a sense of injustice when we witness or hear of others’ evil deeds. Rosenbaum asks of the thing we call “evil” — “Where is it located: in the material or nonmaterial world? That is the real ‘problem of evil.'”
That’s a revealing question, of course, for in asking it Rosenbaum quite smoothly introduces our old adversary, dualism. His “immaterial world” can be nothing else, can it? Although a self-proclaimed agnostic, he raises the spectre of this silent, conceptual companion that underlies much of the criticism of “scientism”: it leaves no room for the non-physical.
In his brief discussion of Simon Baron-Cohen’s ideas about empathy, Rosenbaum expresses the central objection that many have to any “merely” physical explanation of the mechanics of morality:
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 to act empathetically—there’s no choice or honor in the matter.
It’s this kind of reasoning with which I have the most trouble in these kinds of discussions. Why does a “mechanical” description of the parts of a complex process make that process somehow suddenly simple? Or somehow render our socially-defined practices of regulating desired and undesired behaviour non-functional?
I’m expressed my view in a number of recent posts, but it bears repeating just once more before I move on to other topics.
When you describe how a watch is made, or closer to home, how a neuromuscular reflex pulls my hand back from a lit candle, I have no trouble accepting that the watch is the result of its parts, or that I am still “me” even when I don’t consciously control all of my behaviour.
When morality or cognitive identity are involved, however, many people have a great deal of difficulty accepting that the description of the mechanisms is neither an attack on selfhood nor the end of the story.
In a purely physical world (which any non-dualist has to accept), our moral selves, our character traits, our personalities, our habits and tendencies, our memories and desires, our very awareness of ourselves — everything that we are and everything that we feel and think and experience — all of these things must be the products of physical processes. There’s just no other place from which they can come, and there’s no other place in which they can reside once they’ve been generated.
The self has always been a product of the processes of the brain. What’s different now is that — and only that — we are beginning to be able to describe those processes. Nothing has changed but the accuracy of our understanding of where our selves come from. Nothing stands to be lost but outmoded philosophical categories and terminology.
If the change from the old language to the new proves to be a protracted and sometimes awkward process, so be it.
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But, as I wrote at the beginning, Rosenbaum’s stance is not without merit. He makes several important criticisms of what many see as an emerging science impatiently overreaching its data and rushing into areas for which it is not, at least not yet, prepared.
Thus, none of what I’ve written here is intended to gloss over or to ignore the real difficulties that the new explanation generates. It will take a long time just to describe what happens during different cognitive processes, and much longer to understand how it all works — not to mention how our particular mental mechanisms came to be what they are. Indeed, some of the most egregious claims of evolutionary neuropsychologists fall into this last area, where the “why” questions live.
And Rosenbaum correctly identifies the difficulties with regression which arise when the explanation of conscious mental processes, as he writes, merely “kicks the can into the preconscious.”
In addition, despite what Eagleman and others like him believe, there’s nothing in the present descriptions of cognitive mechanisms that gives us any clear idea of a new basis to morality or a remodeled system of justice. A justifiably cautionary criticism of “scientism” is that some may wish to leap from the “what” to the “therefore” before all of the intermediate steps have been taken.
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The iconic three monkeys illustration that accompanies this piece was chosen because it can comically represent both sides of this complex issue. On one hand, the monkeys can be seen as a caricature mocking the “What evil? There’s no evil!” stance attributed to neuroscientists.
On the other, however, the same monkeys can be seen as depicting people like Rosenbaum, who brook no downgrading of the metaphysical entity they call “evil.”