Evil and Consciousness

The other day we saw John Gray's brutal but well-founded review of Stephen Pinker's new book.  The next step is to critique Gray's arguments, which are also problematic.  For example, he is correct here:
Like so many contemporary evangelists for humanism, Pinker takes for granted that science endorses an Enlightenment account of human reason. Since science is a human creation, how could humans not be rational? Surely science and humanism are one and the same. Actually it’s extremely curious—though entirely typical of current thinking—that science should be linked with humanism in this way. A method of inquiry rather than a settled view of the world, there can be no guarantee that science will vindicate Enlightenment ideals of human rationality. Science could just as well end up showing them to be unrealisable.
True enough: Science could do that. In his book, Straw Dogs, Dr. Gray seems convinced that it has done that: that humanity's free will is a sort of illusion. He is joined in this assertion by many neuroscientists:
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.

We have spoken about this problem before, but it's worth taking a moment to note that the notion is doubly self-rejecting. The most obvious self-rejecting sense is when you ask about the consequences of these ideas. If we believe this, shouldn't we reform criminal justice in order to avoid punishing those who are merely being driven to evil? But if we can reform the criminal justice system, in response merely to a concept that troubles our conscious minds, doesn't that mean that we do have some degree of free will after all? In that case, we shouldn't reform the system after all.

One of the scientists interviewed gets this.
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.
That happens to be Kant's solution to the problem as well, from the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals. "I say every being that cannot act except under the idea of freedom is just for that reason in a practical point of view really free[.]" Well, in order to act to change the system, you must have the idea that you are free to act to change the system.

The second way in which the argument is self-refuting is the one in which the rejection of evil produces very clear examples of evil. The reviewer is clear about this in spite of himself.
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.
So the concept refutes itself insofar as it suggests an action we should not be able to take if the concept is actually true; and the concept refutes itself in that it produces clear examples of what it denies exist.  Dr. Gray and the others following this line are simply mistaken.

That is not to say that the Enlightenment view can be recovered in the wake of what we have learned about neuroscience.  I think it cannot be; it is clear that both sub/pre-conscious decisions are often made, and that we are much more informed by the physical nature of our surroundings than was obvious previously.

Yet it is also clear -- follow the third link above for the argument -- that we do make decisions consciously that inform these pre/sub-conscious processes.  We do have some degree of mastery over our fate, at least some free will.  What does that mean?

I suspect it means that the neoplatonists were right after all.  We need a new model for consciousness, one that recognizes both the connection between all things that Plotinus and others saw (an animating force, anima in the Greek, that St. Augustine appears to accept in some of his writings), and also the individual spirit that both Plotinus and the Christian neoplatonists agree upon (for Plotinus, this is the daimon).  Insofar as you have a spirit, you are free.  Insofar as you participate in the life force that binds the world, naturally you are infused and moved by it.  A ship is not free of the ocean that gives it purpose and defines its structure, and which moves the ship as well.

This is a subject that needs much more argument, but it is the place where I think the truth must lie.


Elise said...

we do make decisions consciously that inform these pre/sub-conscious processes. We do have some degree of mastery over our fate, at least some free will. What does that mean?

That we are saved by - or are at least the result of - both grace and works?

Grim said...

Just so.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Nice focus here. Let me ruin it for ya.

I wrote a series about this last year "May We Believe Our Thoughts?" if anyone is interested. I collected the whole batch into links at one posting early in October.

I will throw a slightly angled bit into the mix. Science and humanism are not even the natural allies folks seem to think, never mind synonymous. By history, occultism is the sister of science, not religion.

Grim said...

You are welcome to post links in the comments here, AVI; or you can post the relevant argument, if you wish.

I'm curious, though, what you mean by "May?" Plainly we "can" believe our thoughts because we often do; but how does it make sense to ask permission? If the answer were "No, you may not," who would have standing to give it besides yourself? Only some other being who -- by an exactly similar argument -- may not believe his own thoughts. Since all of his evidence for why you may not believe your thoughts will be thoughts, which he may not believe, he must not believe that you may not believe your thoughts. This is just as incoherent as the argument against free will.

Put another way, if I decide that I may not believe a thought I have -- say, a memory that a traffic light was green when I got to it -- it can only be because of other thoughts I have that conflict with it. For example, I may have the sense-perception-thought of a photograph showing that the light was red; or that plus the sense-perception thought of asking someone else who was there, who says it was red.

In other words if I may not believe in my thoughts, then I can have no evidence for doubting my thoughts. Neither can I rely on appeal to authority, because every authority I can ask is in exactly the same position.

So yes, you may believe your thoughts. That doesn't mean that some thoughts aren't wrong, but that is another problem -- one solvable only by obtaining new thoughts, through other faculties, against which to check the first ones.

douglas said...

One of the interesting points made in the Slate article was this-
"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."

It seems it's equally plausible to imagine that a brain that is trained to be able to commit evil reflects that training in its structures and physical functions. In fact, to me it makes more sense. We know that brain physiology changes due to mental activity- brains underutilized through injury or disease wither, brains that are exercised are more developed in the cortex with more 'wrinkles' etc. Certainly it may be possible that someone who has a brain injury may exhibit behavior problems as a result, but so long as one demonstrates the ability to identify 'good' and 'evil' behaviors (whether they are metaphysical realities or the terms of a social contract), one is aware of whether or not an action they commit might be considered evil. Given that, how does one make the argument that evil cannot exist? At a minimum, it is still extant as a social construct. That then begs the question of why, or perhaps more importantly how we've developed such a social construct.

At this point, I always think it's useful to examine other creatures in our world, which do not observe any system of morals or ethics, and have no rule but survival. Since we should be like them, if there is no evil, how did we even develop the idea of it? Why would we not simply be a more complicated chimpanzee? It's clearly more than the ability to communicate- social animals communicate constantly, and can establish ideas of acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior, and the like, but the 'rules' are simply the understanding of cause and effect and the ability to learn patterns of such. It's been said that character (or integrity) are what you do when no one is looking. Animals have never even dreamed of such a thing. My dog is a good dog, but if I were to leave a hot dog on the counter when I leave the house, I'm sure it will be gone when I get back. Sure, she'll look worried when I get back- but not because she feels 'guilty' that she did it, only because she doesn't want to get busted for eating it. So the idea of character, or integrity- of morals and ethics, really, is one that does not seem explicable in the context of nature. So an answer is sought, and some find it in brain scans- but there's a degree of belief in it, as the question of causation or effect is unanswered, yet some give definitive declarations of the denial of the existence of evil. Surely that belief is no better than one in God and free will, and perhaps worse, as it has less standing in practice.