Does evil exist? Neuroscientists say no.

Does Evil Exist? Neuroscientists Say No.

Does Evil Exist? Neuroscientists Say No.

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 30 2011 4:24 PM

The End of Evil?

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

Anders Behring Breivik, suspect in the Oslo killings
Anders Behring Breivik, suspect in the Oslo killings, leaves the courthouse in a police car

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?

The new neuroscience represents the latest chapter in a millennia-old and still divisive cultural conflict over the problem of evil, the latest chapter in the attempt by science to reduce evil to malfunction or dysfunction rather than malevolence. It's a quest I examined in Explaining Hitler: the way the varieties of 20th-century psychological "science" sought to find some physiological, developmental, sexual, or psychoanalytic cause for Hitler's crimes. (One peer-reviewed paper sought to trace Hitler's evil to a mosquito bite—to the secondary sequelae of mosquito-borne encephalitis which were known to cause profound personality changes as long as a decade after being contracted in the trenches of World War I.)

It would be consolatory if not comforting if we could prove that what made Hitler Hitler was a malfunction in human nature, a glitch in the circuitry, because it would allow us to exempt "normal" human nature (ours for instance) from having Hitler potential. This somewhat Pollyannaish quest to explain the man’s crimes remains counterintuitive to many. I recall the late British historian and biographer of Hitler Alan Bullock reacting to the claims of scientism by exclaiming to me vociferously: "If he isn't evil, then who is? ... If he isn't evil the word has no meaning."

Indeed recent developments demonstrate that evil remains a stubborn concept in our culture, resistant to attempts to reduce it to pure "physicalism." To read the mainstream media commentary on the Breivik case, for instance, is to come upon, time after time, the word "evil." Not just that the acts were evil, but that he, Breivik was, as a Wall Street Journal columnist put it, "evil incarnate."

But what exactly does that mean? The incarnation of what? Satan? The word "incarnation," even without explicit religious context, implies, metaphorically at least, the embedding of a metaphysical force in a physical body. One can understand the scientific aversion to this as a description of reality. But 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."

But what is this "force," which sounds suspiciously supernatural for an atheist to believe in? Some kind of Luciferian Kryptonite? Where is it located: in the material or nonmaterial world?

That is the real "problem of evil" (or, to use the technical term philosophers employ for conscious, freely-willed, evil-doing: "wickedness"). We tend to believe it exists: Popular culture has no problem with it, giving us iterations from Richard III to Darth Vader; politicians use it promiscuously ("the axis of evil"). But 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.)

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.