Does "evil" exist?

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Sven Sven's picture
Does "evil" exist?

According to more and more neuroscientists, the answer is: No.

It's a fascinating question and touches directly on the question: Do humans have free will?

If "evil" does not exist, then "goodness" probably does not exist, either.  Life just...is.

6079_Smith_W

Very interesting article, thanks.

That said, I think the thesis is hardly the final word, especially since they can't seem to do any better than to say it is all the result of head blows and aneurysms. 

And part way through the article, it becomes clear that not all professionals are of the same opinion.

I think what Baron-Cohen says regarding empathy is on the right track, but to say that there is no such thing as free will is one of those things that may sound great in philosophy class, but not so in the real world.

Been there, read "A Clockwork Orange", done that.

 

Fidel

Slate.com 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.
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.

Exactly. It's like they've managed to take a blurry photo of a suspect prowling around in the dark and not clear enough to positively ID the fellow.

They are feeling their way in the dark right now. And there are other studies of the mechanical brain using MRIs today as well. The human body is an undisovered frontier. When science and technology is used to reproduce intelligence on the order of an advanced cockroach, people should take notice. Until then, it's like they are feeling their way in the dark, and it's still midnight.

Ken Burch Ken Burch's picture

So...if "evil" doesn't exist, "ENVY" doesn't either...

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Fidel

Generally only poor people are evil. In corrupt and fascist societies, it is generally pointed out and often that mostly the poor are capable of immorality, greed, stupidity, lasciviousness and who murder on another for fun and sport. And the fascist society tends to be very efficient when prosecuting dumb crimes that generally do not pay very well if at all. And the lapdog newz media work hard to make it seem as if the poor and ordinary slobs in general are often enemies of all that is good and wholesome from their superior vantage point. Meanwhile the real crooks and criminals get away with everything from big bank heists to mass murder and even international war crimes without so much as a stern word issued by lapdog newz media. 

knownothing knownothing's picture

I don't believe in evil. What people ascribe good and evil to are relative to their perspective. Killing is evil if it is a Clifford Olson doing it but good when it is us killing Osama bin Laden. This works with most actions. Some are tougher to prove like rape, but still achievable.

Evil is simply the opposite of what we believe to be good. Both of which are relative and don't exist.

Sven Sven's picture

No one can yet say with certainty that free will exists, although my bet is that science will eventually establish that humans have no free will (i.e., our behaviors wholly depend on the chemical and other physical characteristics of our brains and the physical worlds around us -- there is no metaphysical element, like a soul, that rises above and independently controls the brain).  The absolute belief that some people have in the existence of free will is akin, in my mind, to the absolute belief some people have in the existence of a god.  If feels like free will must exist!

But, generally, I tend not to think too much about whether or not free will exists.  Not having free will is a very uncomfortable thought.  If free will does not exist, then there's very little meaning to life: A human's "decision" to engage in a "good" or "evil" activity is no more "good" or "evil" than a tiger "deciding" to drink water, take a shit, or kill another animal.

6079_Smith_W

@ Sven

Agreed. I know there is an argument that we have no will, there is no morality and nothing means anything.

In practical terms though, it does not change the fact that we make decisions and they have consequences.

All it sounds like to me is fatalism - an argument that you have no power because either it is all in god's hands, or the decision has already been made by the Bilderbergs, the CIA or Goldman Sachs. Therefore nothing you do is of any consequence or meaning.

I prefer Mr. Gandhi's approach to the question of will and morality:

"Be the change you want to see in the world"

And Ms. Kollwitz's:

"I am in the world to change the world"

knownothing knownothing's picture

I really liked Tolstoy's view of Free Will in War and Peace. He says that everyone is in a hierarchical system of power, from top-down. Those at the top have more power but less freedom because they have to sacrifice their freedom to get power. He uses Napolean to prove this. He says that by the time he had risen to the Emperor status and by the time he had conquered most of Europe he had no choice but to invade Russia.

On the other hand, if you are someone with no power, like a beggar on the street you have more freedom than anyone in the world. That is why Tolstoy always wanted to give all his wealth and power away.

However, I also agree with Kevin O'Leary when he says that wealth is freedom. The more money you have the more access you have to more choices, but to get that money you have to sacrifice your freedom. So they are both right.

So in conclusion, I don't think it is a question of whether we have free will or not, but when and how do we have varying degrees of freedom that is the question. Also, any system where the amount of wealth you have determines how much freedom you have is an unjust system.

6079_Smith_W

@ knownothing

I'm not sure I see poverty as freedom. Perhaps Tolstoy's point was more a metaphorical statement about attachment than a literal statement about survival and personal freedom and security.

As well, it's not just wealth - there are plenty of other factors that influence how much power and freedom one has. And  some of them don't change depending on how much money you have.

 

knownothing knownothing's picture

6079_Smith_W wrote:

@ knownothing

I'm not sure I see poverty as freedom. Perhaps Tolstoy's point was more a metaphorical statement about attachment than a literal statement about survival and personal freedom and security.

As well, it's not just wealth - there are plenty of other factors that influence how much power and freedom one has. And  some of them don't change depending on how much money you have.

Yeah it is not absolute, but a homeless man can wake up in the morning and he can do whatever he wants. Of course, he still has to eat, drink and stay warm. Whereas anyone with a job and family resonsibilities has to get up and work, pay the bills and put up with our position in the hierarchical power structure. If you don't like the responsibility quit your job, stop paying your mortgage and become homeless. You won't have to go to work but you will have to worry about getting fed.

 Also, someone in a high position of power is not free to say whatever they want. Someone like Harper or when Mulcair made those bin laden coments is less free to make comments that you or I can make and a homeless man is allowed to say pretty much anything because he has no power. But if you want a job then you can't say controversial things except for some exceptional careers (Chomsky Alex Jones.

Northern Shoveler Northern Shoveler's picture

Sven wrote:

But, generally, I tend not to think too much about whether or not free will exists.  Not having free will is a very uncomfortable thought.  If free will does not exist, then there's very little meaning to life: A human's "decision" to engage in a "good" or "evil" activity is no more "good" or "evil" than a tiger "deciding" to drink water, take a shit, or kill another animal.

If there is no free will then basing our ecomomic system on an individual's right to make free decisions in the market place would be absurd.  The term free market is once again shown to be an oxymoron. 

alan smithee alan smithee's picture

I don't know..But I think a round of enthusiastic cheers over grandma being left to die for having no insurance does test my belief in 'evil'

6079_Smith_W

@ knownothing #11

Again, I get the metaphor.

I just don't think it translates all that well into real world problems of having enough food to eat,  a place to sleep and go to the bathroom, and knowing that your words will be heard by others and that you will will feel relatively safe from attack.

I think you present a rosy view of grinding poverty, and play up the suffering of some of our most powerful citizens.

If we want to talk about freedom and choice, I am just thinking of who would have the greater freedom to go into a mall, sit down and read a newspaper - Mr. Harper (and his retinue of bodyguards) or the gentleman who lives in the park up the street from us.

 

knownothing knownothing's picture

6079_Smith_W wrote:

@ knownothing #11

Again, I get the metaphor.

I just don't think it translates all that well into real world problems of having enough food to eat,  a place to sleep and go to the bathroom, and knowing that your words will be heard by others and that you will will feel relatively safe from attack.

I think you present a rosy view of grinding poverty, and play up the suffering of some of our most powerful citizens.

If we want to talk about freedom and choice, I am just thinking of who would have the greater freedom to go into a mall, sit down and read a newspaper - Mr. Harper (and his retinue of bodyguards) or the gentleman who lives in the park up the street from us.

Look, I have lived on the street and I know what it is like to not have any money or power and be helpless. Sometimes I wish i could go back because in some ways I was much more free than I am now with my responsibilities. I have somewhat less freedom now since I gave that up to achieve what I want in life (which is more power to protect myself from the perils of our world)

But don't get me wrong. I don't want to go back. I accept the fact that I have less freedom because I do have more freedom in other ways.

knownothing knownothing's picture

Maybe the question should be does absolute evil exist?

Fidel

Sven wrote:

No one can yet say with certainty that free will exists, although my bet is that science will eventually establish that humans have no free will (i.e., our behaviors wholly depend on the chemical and other physical characteristics of our brains and the physical worlds around us -- there is no metaphysical element, like a soul, that rises above and independently controls the brain).  The absolute belief that some people have in the existence of free will is akin, in my mind, to the absolute belief some people have in the existence of a god.  If feels like free will must exist!

And there are scientists who would agree with you, Sven.

"The thoughts to which I am giving utterance and your thoughts regarding them are the expression of molecular exchanges." Thomas Huxley, 19th century biologist

The only problem with this way of thinking of reality is that it is based on a world view of science that was overthrown at turn of the last century. Huxley's view of reality was based on Newtonian atomic theory - that atoms are the ultimate particles of matter - hard, impenetrable, and indivisible into smaller elements of the sub-atomic. Newtonian reality was matter, space, time, and all obeying unalterable laws of physics such as gravity. 

But Newtonian atomic theory was overthrown since Bohr, Heisenberg, Einstein etc. The idea of absolute space and absolute time was revolutionized and transformed. Scientist as unobserved observer looking on, as implied by Huxley, is no longer. Scientist is now part of the universe he measures. Time and space are relative to the point where scientist does the observing. Albert Einstein showed that space-time and Newtonian laws of motion make sense only with respect to scientific observer and physical conditions present at the time of observation. Atoms are no longer considered hard and impenetrable bits of matter and comprising molecules. The simple act of observing the sub-atomic bits of matter causes them to change behaviour. In a strange sense, the observer and his state of mind is part of a participatory universe. Small bit of inanimate matter view is out. Huxley was probably not just wrong about the brain being hard wired, neuroscientists today think the human brain is capable of re-wiring itself. New studies into neuroplasticity suggest that the brain is more than a mechanical machine. The machine itself is alive and dynamic, like the universe in which we live.

I believe Huxley's view of the brain as mere mechanical facilitator of thought reduced to mere chemical exchanges will be overthrown as well when science makes a breakthrough into understanding consciousness. I think an increasing number of scientists and neuroscientists believe the universe itself may be conscious, and that we are all part of it. We are part of the whole and yet divisible, animated, and utlimately, we are extremely complex organisms existing within a much more complex reality than previously thought.

6079_Smith_W

Who's to say what Huxley meant? 

And in one sense he was completely right. None of that exchange would have happened without electrochemical reactions.

A little bit of VX gas would probably have rendered Huxley and his friend quite speechless.

There is an interesting piece on this week's Quirks and Quarks about scientists who have recreated images received in the brain by measuring blood flow to specific areas of the brain, allowing them to recreate, at least in part, the movie which was being watched by the subject.

Asked if it was a way of reading minds, the researcher said he could not answer that because he could not say for sure where the mind resided.

As to how subatomic physics changes things, it is hard to say. For one thing, in most things in our world Newtonian physics still works just fine, so it has hardly been overthrown.

As well, I may know that the atom is not the smallest unit there is, and that in fact almost all of what we know as matter is just empty space, but it sure wouldn't feel like almost nothing if I were to smash my hand with a brick.

As for the question of absolute evil, I think the term is too loaded to have any meaning.

But again, I think Baron Cohen's point about empathy works as well - whether one feels empathy, whether one sees the world as interconnected or disconnected.

A friend of mine told me once that he felt there was a demonic force behind many of the "evils" in the world, and that essentially it was all driving everything toward death and extinction. While I don't believe in an actual demonic spirit of death, when I look at a lot of the things I see which are going in the wrong way - use of nuclear energy, terminator seed technology and narrowing of genetic diversity in our food, environmental destruction, commodification of everything, including human beings - I have to say that the image is accurate.

 

 

 

 

Fidel

6079_Smith_W wrote:
Who's to say what Huxley meant?

I think we have no alternative but to accept Huxley's view of the brain as mere mechanical facilitator of molecular exchange, and Sven's, from a 19th century POV. Huxley's view of the brain as mechanical, hard-wired and static is considered wholly outdated by today's scientific standard.

Quote:
And in one sense he was completely right. None of that exchange would have happened without electrochemical reactions.

A little bit of VX gas would probably have rendered Huxley and his friend quite speechless.

This is an older medical view of consciousness as well. Since breakthroughs in artificial resperation and heart science, it's been shown that consciousness exists even when the body and brain are thought to be dead by current clinical definitions. There are ongoing studies into consciousness today and using MRI imaging, which is a newer technology and product of scientific understanding of quantum physics. Perhaps human consciousness itself will require a quantum explanation. Some day.

6079_Smith_W

Well that's it, Fidel. He is absolutely right about the brain. Though it is not static and hard wired, and I wouldn't assume that his correct point can be interpreted that way.

In my second example I was trying to point out that that does not always extend to the mind, nor should we assume that all scientists talking about the brain miss that distinction.

(edit)

That's part of why I think the thesis in the article is funny, since it goes no further than mechanical flaws as an explanation for behaviour.

 

 

 

Ken Burch Ken Burch's picture
Fidel

I think the part I disagree with is the 19th century view that we are just a sack of molecular exchanges. It implies that these molecular exchanges occur as specific physical or chemical events in a specific brain structure. If true, then brain damage should be reparable by physical means alone. But more modern views of neuroplasticity allow for a range of factors affecting the nervous system,  many of which are genetic but also inputs of and stimuli over one's life time. What and who I am surely isn't reducable to mere molecular exchanges within the confines of a laboratory of contained physical processes. Scientists are now saying that neurons reproduce and rearrange themselves depending on information and other stimuli perceived by all our sensory inputs over a life time. This current view of the brain has profound implications for brain illnesses once thought by old world science to be incurable because of that physical-mechanical old world view of the brain and consciousness.

Charles Sherrington is considered a founder of modern neurophysiology, and he wrote in conclusion of his research into the human nervous system: "A radical distinction has ...arisen between [physical] life and mind. The former is a matter of physics and chemistry; the latter escapes chemistry and physics." Sherrington arrived at a personal conviction that humanity is comprised of mind and matter and emphasized the distinction. John Eccles agreed when he wrote: "Conscious experiences...are quite different from any goings-on in the neural machinery" In his book, New Pathways in Biology, Adolf Portman wrote: "No amount of research along physical or chemical lines can ever give us a full picture of the psychological, spiritual, or intellectual processes." Canadian neuroscientist Wilder Penfield's conclusions were similar. He spent a life time trying to prove what people like Thomas Huxley said above, that the part of who we are, the I am part of us, can be located in a specific location of the physical brain. That proof eluded him throughout his career.

I think that the mind is dependent on the physical brain, but at the same time there is a dual nature to mind. The human mind uses various mechanisms of the physical brain, but it is something more than these mechanisms alone. I think therefore I am.

Fidel

The case for wonder, free will, God particles etc

Quote:
Modern physics can explain just about everything, except why anything has mass. The Standard Model of physics, which emerged four decades ago, employs an elegant mathematical formula to account for most of the elemental forces in the universe. It correctly predicted the discovery of various leptons and quarks in the laboratory.

But the equation doesn't explain gravity. So the Standard Model requires the existence of some other force that seized the massless particles produced by the Big Bang and sucked them into physicality. The detection of Higgs bosons would confirm this theory -- which is why scientists are smashing protons into one another in a 17-mile round particle accelerator and picking through the subatomic wreckage.
It will take a few more years for definitive results. But most scientists don't seem to appreciate the glorious improbability -- and philosophic implications -- of the entire enterprise.

Scientists still wonder why cosmic particles coalesced into atoms and molecules,  formed stars and eventually stardust, planets etc. And some cientists, like Dr. Ard Louis of The Rudolf Peierls Centre for Theoretical Physics, wonder if there isn't an alternative explanation - one that's been around for millenia. If everything happens, it is not surprising that anything happensCould there be a theistic explanation for the universe? In the end we are all stardust.

Unionist

We are stardust... Billion-year-old carbon. We are golden... Caught in the Devil's bargain. And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Ken Burch Ken Burch's picture

But...didn't they pave Paradise and put up a parking lot?

Fidel

We and the parking lot are stardust. According to the old story of science, we're just sacks of neurons running around aimlessly with no more free will than a carbon molecule. Are we all just prisoners of chemistry? Or do we have free will compatible with a more modern and dynamic view of the universe? And be careful which you choose, because with the new science it could become one of many realities.

Quote:
"Amen, I say to you, if you have faith and you will not doubt, you will do not only this of the fig tree but also if you will say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and fall into the sea', it will be done." - Jesus of Nazareth

alan smithee alan smithee's picture

If we all are just neurons or organisms living on the body of a universal limb,we can conclude that there is no 'evil' but rather there are parasites and cancerous cells infecting the universal body.

Those parasites and cancerous growths would be represented by the right.

Glenl

So it's safe to assume the two guys that murdered my father were Tories?

Fidel

In the early 19th century Pierre-Simon Laplace contemplated Newtonian physics and realized something profound. If there were an omnipresent super intelligence which knows all of the laws of physics and is aware of the state of the universe everywhere at a given point in time, then the super-duper intelligence could both predict the future and reconstruct the past. However, Laplace's demon is a consequence of Newtonian theory and generally incompatible with the notion of free will. Even if there is no such super demon or super intelligence, Newtonian theory suggests that there is some specific state of the universe that might be knowable. This would lead us to believe that the future is fixed by the present and away from belief in free will.

Massimo Pigliucci, an atheist and advocate for science, has written A handy dandy guide for skeptics of determinism in opposing The Atheist's Guide to Reality by Alex Rosenberg.