Neuroscientists take on evil
Posted on October 3, 2011
Ron Rosenbaum has written a new, lengthy feature article on Slate that explores how neuroscientists are shaping modern thinking about the concept of evil. The article is excellent and well worth the read, but I should note that the headline “Does evil exist? Neuroscientists say no.” is misleading. The neuroscientists that Rosenbaum discusses do not argue that evil is non-existent. Rather, they are redefining evil in scientific terms.
Here’s a taste:
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.
You can read the full story here.