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?

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Those neuroscientists who disdain the idea of consciousness or free will and believe that Libet has disproved it all ought at least to give some attention to Francis Crick. Crick, whose co-discovery of DNA earned him a Nobel Prize and who recently daringly proposed a scientific locus for free will, offers his candidate for its neural coordinates. In his 1994 study “The Astonishing Hypothesis” Crick places it somewhere in or near the area called "the anterior cingulate sulcus" which is "next to Brodman's area 24. This is on the inside surface [of the skull] ... toward the front … and near the top" of the brain. If that's the center of free will it's the center of evil as well. But even if Crick has trumped Libet, neither has dealt with the most disturbing implications of the new research that purports to find neural explanations for evil.

One can find some of these troubling possibilities laid out in a paper by Jonathan Marks of Harvard's Safra Center for Ethics and Pennsylvania State University in the American Journal of Bioethics. The paper is called "A Neuroskeptic's Guide to Neuroethics and National Security," and in it Marks references a growing resistance to "brain over-claims" within the profession. His objections are technical and ethical. He criticizes both the fetishizing of fMRIs, and their misuse. He reminds laymen looking at all the impressive fMRIs in pop-psych brain books that they are not actual images of individual brains in action, but rather composites based on statistical compilations of images of multiple brains, overlaid with special effects lighting he compares to "Doppler-weather radar images."


"Would it be going too far to call this Photoshopping?" I asked Marks in a phone conversation.

“Photoshopping isn’t the right word, but in one sense, it doesn’t go far enough," he said. The images are “constructed from the start.”

Marks' paper warns of "aggressive marketing" of fMRI scans by intelligence-contractor types as "lie detector" substitutes that could be used to select candidates for "enhanced interrogation" if their fMRI indicates potential deception under ordinary interrogation.

And he offered what I thought was one of the wisest responses to the debate over the existence of evil (and thus free will):

What he suggested is that we ought to act as if we had free will to choose good or evil.

And his warnings against the consequences of believing otherwise are validated by the fantasies of some fMRI enthusiasts. Consider, for instance, one of the more prominent new brain books: David Eagleman's Incognito.

In an excerpt in the Atlantic's "big ideas” issue, Eagleman depicts an Orwellian future in which fMRI scans will be used to preemptively identify those who have the potential to commit acts formerly known as evil, and prescribes for such possible malfeasants a regimen of "prefrontal workout[s]" to "better balance" those selected (how? by whom?) for brain remodeling.

He actually goes so far as to say, "Some people will need to be taken off the streets," on the basis of their fMRIs, "for a longer time (even a life time)." Neuroscientific totalitarianism invades your brain! The ultimate panopticon. No one seemed to notice or to care. It's science!

No mention of constitutional rights or preemptive detention or the Orwellian implications of this for radical dissenters, say, those whose rage against injustice might need to be toned down in the brain gyms.

I hesitate to say it, but these are evil ideas. Indeed, reading Eagleman, and returning to this debate about evil, led me to think about something that had occurred to me in examining the fallacious attempts to scientize Hitler. 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").

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.

I recall an exchange in my conversation with one of the original neuroskeptics, Daniel S. Reich, now head of a research division on nerve diseases at the National Institutes of Health. Reich was one of the first to critique "neuromarketing"—the promotion of fMRI technology to help pushers of commercial products and political candidates learn what words and images lit up what buttons in the brains of consumers and voters.

Toward the end of our conversation I asked Reich if he believed in evil. He was silent for a bit and then started talking about Norway. About degrees of evil. About the difference between the typical suicide bomber and the Oslo killer. How the former has only to press a button to accomplish his murderous goal and never has to see the consequences.

But on that summer camp island in Oslo, Reich said, Breivik was stalking victims for hours. He'd shoot one or more and, according to survivors, not register anything, just continue trudging forward, looking for more.

"He saw the consequences, the blood gushing, heard the screams. He just kept going." Some will try to say this is sociopathy or psychopathy or zero degrees of empathy and other exculpatory cop-outs. But fueled by his evil ideas Breivik kept going. To echo Bullock, if we can't call him evil who can we?