Monday, October 3, 2011

Neuroscience on Evil

Slate has a piece up today discussing the current neuroscientific perspective on the problem of evil. I have a degree in experimental psychology, so I generally find myself in agreement with neuroscientists with one key exception. The vast majority of neuroscientists tend to view consciousness as an epiphenomenon of neural activity - that is, simply what we experience as the result of having a whole bunch of neural firing going on in our heads. From this perspective, will or consciousness does not initiate activity but rather reflects whatever activity happens to be going on in the brain. It's a subtle distinction, but an important one. It implies that we are essentially slaves to our brains, with no ability to change, evolve, or improve ourselves. As a magician, I find this to be a worldview vastly at odds with both my philosophy and my own direct experience.

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?

The whole article is quite interesting, even though I disagree with its general conclusion. There's really too much to summarize except to add that it really makes no difference whether you call bad actions the result of brain dysfunction or evil intent from a social perspective. If you have a criminal who has demonstrated a desire to harm others, wherever that desire comes from, he or she needs to be removed from society. This is the basic function of prison - to keep the rest of us safe from such individuals. Many criminals do show decreased functioning in areas of the brain that control impulses, but at the same time it is possible to engage in activities with the express goal of improving your brain's executive function. That's much of what working magick is all about.

On the one hand, Thelema rejects the notion of metaphysical evil in much the same way as these neuroscientists do. From moment to moment, True Will is simply True Will and the right course of action is to follow it wherever it leads. On the other hand, in Thelema it is also considered essential to discipline the mind and the will so that an accurate impression of the nature of True Will can emerge, free from the limitations of condititioning programs that are essentially reactionary in nature rather than a manifestation of the authentic self. If there is in fact no such thing as Will, it would seem that Thelema is a pointless pursuit, but on the other hand, self-discipline is generally necessary in order to achieve the greatest possible success in life. Maybe that's why The Book of the Law so emphatically states that "Success is thy proof." When a method works it works, regardless of what you decide to call it.

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Gordon said...


Perfect image choice for this piece. It has layers and everything. :)

I tend to largely buy the consciousness as epiphenomena thing except for the fact that consciousness somehow changes the outcome of quantum experiments. (It's a wave till you look at it, then it's a particle.)

How does a side effect manage to do that? (That's not rhetorical. I really want someone to tell me!)

Ananael Qaa said...

Thanks! I figured an "evil brain" was just what I needed to illustrate this one.

Consciousness also seems to affect quantum diodes, which an epiphenomenon really shouldn't be able to do. It's a small probabilistic effect, but still, that it happens at all is pretty remarkable.

Gordon said...

The absence of the Higgs-Boson and the discovery that neutrinos can probably move faster than light will hopefully cause a reboot in our lifetime.

Because the overwhelming majority of the mass of the universe is missing and an apparent "helpful side-effect of monkey brain evolution" appears to literally cause existence to form and unform depending on what it focuses on.

Smells like a paradigm shift in the original sense of the word to me.

Really hope I'm around to see it. There'll be royal-wedding-style street parties where I live, at least.

Anonymous said...

Catching up on your posts I missed while traveling.

When people look at an fMRI scan and say there's no such thing as free will, they are confusing "explaining" with "explaining away." As though they expected to see a little man in the brain making the decisions.

The best model I've seen of free will is that it's the subjective experience of a deterministic process in the brain, specifically the act of selecting from several options, where the best answer is non-obvious. One advantage of that definition is that it describes the phenomena, and you can explain how it works in as much detail as you like without somehow breaking the definition.

People who expect free will to be some inexplicable process are like people who define magick as "stuff science can't explain." It might sound fine now, but as science pushes forward, the definition completely breaks.

And congratulations on your book! I'm ordering a copy next time I get a box from amazon.

Ananael Qaa said...

The best model I've seen of free will is that it's the subjective experience of a deterministic process in the brain

See, that's essentially the epiphenomenon model, which I don't personally buy - at least not as a complete explanation. I'm of the opinion that consciousness initially arises from the interaction of neural processes, but that it's coherent in its own right.

According to this model, a change in consciousness can be picked up by the brain's neural systems just like a change in neural processing can be picked up by consciousness. That's simple Hermeticism, really - "as above, so below."

Anonymous said...

You know, what you said is actually closer to what I believe than what I'd said. Because I do work with an energy-level structure that also influences thoughts (and therefore actions).

For discussions of free will, as long as the non-physical parts are also deterministic (which they seem to be to me), it doesn't really matter if all those deterministic parts are neural or if some are energetic, it's still a subjective experience of the deterministic process of selecting from a non-obvious set of options.

Now I'm wondering why I went with the "everything is nerves" model in the first comment. Probably because I normally talk about this sciencey stuff with non-mages, so I leave the energy parts out. So thanks for calling me on it.