What can neuroscience teach us about evil?

Not much. At least, that's what I think. Ron Rosenbaum discusses the question at length in a thorough and thoroughly interesting piece in Slate. Rosenbaum's discussion confirms my impression that neuroscientists think the ability to fabricate colorful and misleading technicolor pictures of brains license them to philosophize with impunity. Here's how Rosenbaum begins:


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. ... They argue that the time has come to replace such metaphysical terms with physical explanations—malfunctions or malformations in the brain.

Rosenbaum goes on to talk a bit about free will, and some cheeky neuroscientists think they've disproved that, too.

All this debunking stuff is based on a very questionable premise: that claims about evil or free will are implicit claims about the way the brain functions. But are they? I think not. You can't disprove the existence of evil or free will by looking at brains if free will and evil aren't neurological phenomena.

The view that free will and determinism are incompatible with moral responsibility is called, sensibly enough, incompatibilism. Many folks -- and I think some of them are neuroscientists -- simply assume that our intuitive, everyday conception of free will is incompatibilist. Thus, if we peek at the brain and find that the springs of action are determined by forces independent of the will, the incompatibilist will declare free will debunked. But I don't find incompatibilism intuitive at all. Experimental work on intuitions about free will show that I'm not the only one. Indeed, recent research suggests that whether or not you have compatibilist or incompatibilist intuitions about free will depends on how extraverted you are, lending some credence to Nietzsche's view that our philosophical commitments reflect our personal dispositions. Anyway, it may be that when someone infers the non-existence of free will (or evil) from a brain scan, they tell us more about themselves than about free will.

About evil specifically, it seems obvious that people with perfectly normal brains do evil all the time. The interesting empirical question about evil is not whether or not there is any. Anyone who doubts it just confused. For the life of me I can't see what anything about the brain has to do with the evil of chattel slavery, the brutality of colonial occupation and dispossession, the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, etc., etc. Rosenbaum gets it right when he says "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')." The interesting empirical question is how it is that people who are not in the least lacking in empathy or disposed to psychopathy can, in the right circumstances, find themselves quite ready and willing to torture, kill, and humiliate other human beings -- to do evil. 

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why the ocean you know and love won’t exist in 50 years

Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?

Videos
  • Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
  • The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
  • If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
Keep reading Show less

Why modern men are losing their testosterone

Research has shown that men today have less testosterone than they used to. What's happening?

Flickr user Tom Simpson
Sex & Relationships
  • Several studies have confirmed that testosterone counts in men are lower than what they used to be just a few decades ago.
  • While most men still have perfectly healthy testosterone levels, its reduction puts men at risk for many negative health outcomes.
  • The cause of this drop in testosterone isn't entirely clear, but evidence suggests that it is a multifaceted result of modern, industrialized life.
Keep reading Show less

Health care: Information tech must catch up to medical marvels

Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's CEO, believes we're entering the age of smart medicine.

Photo: Tom Werner / Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The United States health care system has much room for improvement, and big tech may be laying the foundation for those improvements.
  • Technological progress in medicine is coming from two fronts: medical technology and information technology.
  • As information technology develops, patients will become active participants in their health care, and value-based care may become a reality.
Keep reading Show less