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?

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One person whose work on these matters has received considerable attention lately is the British Professor of Psychopathology, Simon Baron-Cohen. (Yes, cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen aka Borat, but highly regarded as a serious scientist.) He’s the author of The Science of Evil, which seeks to dispose of the problem of evil in part at least by changing its name.

"My main goal," says 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.”

This empathy circuit, he tells us, consists of 13 specific regions of the brain involved in the generation of nonevil choices, among them "the medial prefrontal cortex," "the inferior frontal gyrus," and "the posterior superior temporal sulcus."

Ideally all of these act together empathetically to defeat "single minded focus,” which appears to be Baron-Cohen's explanation for what was previously called evil. Single-mindedness is the inability to "recognize and respond" to the feelings of others. A healthy empathy circuit allows us to feel others' pain and transcend single-minded focus on our own. This theory does, however, seem to carry a presumption that when one "recognizes and responds," one will do so in warm and fuzzy ways. But what about those who "recognize and respond" to others' feelings with great discernment—and then torture them? It happens.

One troubling aspect of Baron-Cohen's grand substitution of a lack of empathy for evil is the mechanistic way he describes it.

He characterizes those who lack empathy as having "a chip in their neural computer missing." He tells us "empathy is more like a dimmer switch than an all-or-none switch." 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 act empathetically—there’s no choice or honor in the matter.

And so evil for Baron-Cohen is just "zero degrees of empathy." And I’m left with the nonempathetic feeling that his boast that he is "replacing" evil with nonempathy is more a semantic trick than a scientific discovery. It’s another instance of what one of the authors in an important collection of academic papers from MIT Press called Neuroethics, calls "Brain Overclaim Syndrome."

A number of papers in Neuroethics pour cold water on the triumphalism of the giddy new pop-sci brain books. It makes clear there is a debate within the neuroscience profession about what exactly all those impressive-looking fMRI images tell us. And these "neurocritics" or "neuroskeptics" warn about the consequences for acting too quickly on these claims. (There is a valuable British website called Neuroskeptic that offers the general reading public these critiques and correctives from the point of view of someone within the profession. People need to know!)

The "Brain Overclaim" paper by Stephen Morse of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Neuroscience and Society is a tongue-in-cheek "diagnostic note" on the grandiosity of the assumptions of the brain-book fad, mainly concerned about the way they have been creeping into jurisprudence. fMRIs have made their way into a Supreme Court opinion this year, for instance; Justice Stephen Breyer cited “cutting edge neuroscience” in his dissent to a ruling denying the right of California to ban violent video games, because the otherwise-pro-free-speech justice was alarmed at neuroscientific studies that claim such games could create mental pathways for actual violence.

But Morse's critique extends beyond the jurisprudential and goes to the heart of the failure of current neuroscience to explain or "replace" evil. 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: We may know the 13 regions that light up on an fMRI when we feel "empathy" (or fail to light up when we choose evil) but that doesn't explain whether this lit-up state indicates they are causing empathy or just reflecting it.

The problem of evil—and moral responsibility—is thus inseparable from what is known in the philosophical trade as "the hard problem of consciousness." How does the brain, that electrified piece of meat, create the mind and the music of Mozart, the prose of Nabokov? Where is consciousness, anyway?

Many neuroscientists, confronted by the "hard problem of consciousness," evade it by citing a quarter-century-old experiment by one Benjamin Libet, which purported to reveal that apparently conscious decisions are actually made unconsciously—preconsciously—some 500 milliseconds (half a second) before the illusion of a conscious decision is made conscious. (A recent paper puts it at a full second.) But Libet’s study fails to explain how the initial unconscious decision is made by the electrified piece of meat—he just kicks the can into the preconscious, you might say—or why we have the illusion of consciousness at all. It does suggest that those who purport to study the science of the brain do themselves—and science—a disservice by failing to learn from the contexts of history, logic, and very basic philosophy.

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