Watch out! Science is coming for your freedom.
Or better, cognitive neuroscience would be coming for your freedom if it believed that you had any.
Not all neuroscientists believe this. Some do know that science and ethics do not mix.
Others, however, choose to believe that science can resolve ethical issues. They have made it their mission to disabuse you of the notion that you are free.
Last week at Slate Ron Rosenbaum masterfully argued that we should throw some serious doubt on the word of scientists who claim to have resolved long running metaphysical disputes.
Beware of scientists bearing absolute truths.
Do you really believe that a couple or a couple of hundred brain scans can definitively prove whether we have free will?
Cognitive neuroscience is a wondrous field of scientific inquiry. Yet, scientists are often prey to overreach. They discover something about human behavior and they inflate its importance by saying that they have solved the great philosophical issues that have bedeviled mankind.
After all, do you think that you can prove scientifically that God does or does not exist? Surely, there have been rational or logical proofs of God’s existence, but no one with any sense really believes that science will tell us definitively whether God exists. Or, at least, I hope they don’t.
Call it arrogance, if you like. Call it hubris, if you prefer.
Cognitive neuroscientists are seeking to enhance their own social status and the authority of their discipline. Beyond that they seem to be lusting after power.
Rosenbaum notes correctly that: “neuroscientists… are emerging as the new high priests of the secrets of the psyche, explainers of human behavior in general.”
High priests in a cult… it sounds about right. How else can you explain that many of them are now suggesting that they can solve a problem that goes back to Adam and Eve?
They want to tell us whether we are free to make choices and whether we are responsible for our decisions.
Nothing more or less.
For millennia theologians have debated whether or not we have free will. Usually they define it in terms of how much our behavior paves our way to Paradise. How much do the actions that we choose freely influence whether or not our souls will be saved?
Theologians have wondered whether our souls can be saved through our own behavior. They have wanted to know whether salvation requires a mixture of good behavior and religious intervention. Is it enough to be good on your own, or do you need to belong to a church in order to make your way to Heaven?
Some theologians have downplayed the role of free will. They have posited that an omniscient and omnipotent deity can predetermine where you will spend eternity even before you see the light of day.
Calvinists count among the most prominent believers in predestination. The Roman Catholic version, eventually declared a heresy, was Jansenism.
It’s not too much of a leap to go from predestination to predetermined behavior. Of course, religions were more concerned with your soul’s goodness. Scientists seem obsessed with your capacity to do ill.
Where religion thinks in terms of encouraging good behavior, science seems to be bogged down with preventing evil.
Apparently, neuroscientists do not recognize of evil as a metaphysical entity. They are trying to replace it with a notion about a malfunctioning brain.
Rosenbaum writes: “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.”
He adds: “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?”
As you might imagine, this kind of neuroscience is catnip for our non-judgmental culture.
Rosenbaum is trying to recall the important philosophical distinction between mind and brain.
Neuroscientists who reduce all mental acts to mere brain functions are confusing the two.
It’s one thing to observe a misfiring neuronal circuit. It’s fundamentally different to want something, to feel something, or to think something.
Some neuroscientists do understand the difference between mind and brain. Stephen Morse of the University of Pennsylvania wrote: “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.”
It seems narrow-minded and simple-minded to reduce the mind to brain functions.
Similarly, science cannot tell us whether metaphysical entities exist. Surely, you cannot say that they do not exist because science cannot observe them or measure them.
Rosenbaum suggests that we judge the scientific claim by the consequences that would be produced if we were to accept it.
If you can determine with a test who is most likely to commit evil, then you might have to incarcerate that person, without his having done anything wrong. You will have a prison system filled with people who suffer from one or another genetic defect, but who may not have ever done anything wrong.
Everyone would prefer that malefactors like Hitler or Pol Pot or Stalin or Mao had been taken out of circulation, but not one of them was in it alone. They all had many, many accomplices.
Are all of those who participated in the Holocaust or the Killing Fields possessed of the same mental defect that was presumably present in the brains of Hitler and Pol Pot?
If they were not, how do you know that Hitler or Pol Pot had it themselves? Can we really make a one-to-one correlation between a brain defect and behaviors?
Of course, it is never a good idea to begin with an argumentum ad Hitlerem. Extremes don’t make the rules. Once you convince people that one or another person deserves pre-emptive incarceration, what is to prevent you from exercising the same authority to imprison people who think differently from you? Totalitarian regimes have always imprisoned people for having defective thoughts. Surely, they could find a counterrevolutionary gene somewhere if they had to.
But then, if you think that mass murder is always evil, is there any difference between the Killing Fields of Cambodia and Hiroshima? Do you want to class Harry Truman with Pol Pot?
And, what happens when you start looking at less dangerous cases. Everyone agrees that shoplifting is wrong. But wrong and evil are not the same thing. Nor are bad and evil. You can be wrong or bad without being evil.
Do wrong and bad have different brain malfunctions from evil?
What if you discovered a gene that predisposed a person to shoplift? What if you could run a brain scan that could isolate a portion of the brain that turned fuchsia when it saw images of people shoplifting?
Does society have the right to prohibit that person from ever walking into Bloomingdale’s again? And how would you enforce the edict?
And how would you deal with bad behavior that is not criminal? What would you do with people who are just plain rude? What would you do with people who have bad manners because they have relocated to a community where they do not know what the manners are?
Since we cannot prove scientifically that evil exists and cannot prove scientifically that evil does not exist, Rosenbaum recommends that we look at the issue through an idea proposed by Jonathan Marks.
He offers, as a moral principle, that: “…we ought to act as if we had free will to choose good or evil.”
Besides, if there is no evil, and if you are never tempted to do it, then you get no real credit for doing good. And that would not be very much fun at all.