Briefly Noted: On Simon Baron-Cohen, Neuroscience and the (Non)Existence of Evil

For those readers with a taste for logical fallacies, perhaps the richest and most sumptuous fare is offered by contemporary neuroscientists trying their hand at (a)theology. The work of neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (not to be confused, ahem, with Sacha Baron Cohen) provides a case in point. Or, so says Andrew Scull in a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement, in which he seeks to show that Cohen’s recent arguments about the human brain and evil are fallacious.[1]

In his essay, Scull interacts with a Baron-Cohen’s recent proposal to “abandon the ‘unscientific term evil’ as an explanatory move” in order to describe the neurological reasons for such horrendous atrocities as the Holocaust. Baron-Cohen argues, basically, that humans commit such atrocities because of “empathy erosion.” That is, “people behave badly because they lack empathy and hence have no compunction about treating other human beings as objects.” Baron-Cohen’s claims rest on findings from functional MRIs, which measure the flow of blood to certain parts of the brain in certain situations. Scull notes that in the book, “it would appear therefore, then, that once we accept the alleged findings of neuroscience, the problem of evil vanishes . . . .” That is, lack of blood flow implies lack of evil.

Scull rightly recognizes the problem with Baron-Cohen’s work. He notes, “correlation is not cause, so finding (rather crude) patterns of activity in the brain is far from demonstrating how we think – not to mention the same regions of the brain ‘light up’ under very different circumstances.” Thus, Scull thinks much of Baron-Cohen’s claims rest on hopeful (for Baron-Cohen) inferences from unclear findings. Most importantly, however, there is a damning irony to the book. If we are all just creatures of the neural activity of our brains, “why would someone like Simon Baron-Cohen attempt to influence us by rational argument?” Maybe there still is, after all, a thing called evil.

[1] Andrew Scull, “Blood flow,” review of Simon Baron-Cohen, Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty (Allen Lane), in Times Literary Supplement (Feb 17, 2012): p. 12.