That Somehow Indispensable Word: Neuroskepticism and the Replacement of… Evil

Slate put up a phenomenal piece of ‘neuroskepticism’ by Ron Rosenbaum last week, posing the […]

David Zahl / 10.4.11

Slate put up a phenomenal piece of ‘neuroskepticism’ by Ron Rosenbaum last week, posing the timely question “Is Evil Over?” We’ve been following the recent explosion of pop-neuroscience pretty closely and enthusiastically, mainly for the sympathetic conclusions it is coming to in regards to willpower and agency. However, Rosenbaum wisely cautions us not to swallow these recent claims wholeheartedly, especially those surrounding the topic of evil. Essentially, the trend in certain neuroscience camps (and there are camps!) is to dismiss “evil” as an antiquated concept, one that can explained by faulty brain tissue and exposed by an MRI. That ‘evil’ as we’ve come to know it, is the result of under-developed or under-performing empathy circuitry. Needless to say, the philosophy community finds these explanations to be a little unsatisfying. And as Rosenbaum points out, not all neuroscientists are in agreement on these conclusions, especially when confronted with premeditated acts of malevolence such as the recent atrocities committed by Anders Breivik, which seem to go beyond an inability to empathize with other people’s pain. Rosenbaum is most concerned with the alarming advances neuroscience has been making into the realm of jurisprudence. For him, as well as for many scientists (and philosophers), a lack of free will negates any/all moral culpability in criminal acts – a slippery slope, to say the least. More commentary at the bottom:

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. [ed note: They’re making an unnecessary/illogical jump there. see bottom.]

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?

[Yet] 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.”

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.) [ed note: for the record, you also haven’t read any Luther].

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.

“My main goal,” says [British professor of Pychopathology and cousin of Ali G himself, Simon] 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.”… And so evil for Baron-Cohen is just “zero degrees of empathy.”

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…


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.

The operating assumption for both neuroskeptics and neuro-believers alike, and where we would obviously part ways, has to do with evil being exclusively a matter of conscious or freely-chosen thoughts or actions. This limited conception ignores, of course, the vast sea of human brokenness that lies beneath the surface of conscious awareness, that informs so many of our impulses and dreams and desires. Would that they would consult the Christian tradition! They might hear the unfathomable claim that people are both bound in their actions, particularly their hurtful ones, and morally culpable. That, as history and experience all too often illustrate, evil is not a construct or illusion, it runs deeper than any of us would care to admit, and that there is such a thing as living under a curse. They might also hear about the God who is in the business of redeeming those who can’t redeem themselves, people stuck in patterns that are no less destructive by virtue of their compulsiveness. They might hear, in other words, about the God who is both empathetic and just.

All this to say, as fascinating and potentially corroborative as these neuroscience findings can be, they can only take us so far. Or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein so famously said, “Even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.”