Science v. Evil

Can we eliminate evil? More than a question of metaphysics, this is also the title of an episode of the third season of Through the Wormhole. I’ve noted before that this particular season has been delving more profoundly into areas once reserved for religious thought. Evil is perhaps the most religious of topics, as distinguishing good from evil is at the heart of many religious traditions. Fast forward from the founding of your favorite religion to today. In order to answer the question of whether or not we can eliminate evil, we turn to neuroscience rather than any sacred book. Looking at brain scans, the scientists of Through the Wormhole have isolated areas that indicate who might be a sociopath—a convenient measure of evil—and also who might be less empathetic than whom. Perhaps drugs could be developed to inhibit sociopathic behavior and tendencies. As always, these episodes leave me somewhat distressed.

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Losing my long-term position in higher education “without cause” threw me into mental turmoil. Never one to use medications for a long term, I was shattered when my doctor suggested anti-depressants. Would this chemical, designed to “correct” my brain chemistry change who I was? The morning the treatment began, I hesitated to take the first pill, staring long at it and wondering if the person I’d been would be lost forever. I hated being on the prescription. Worse, it was a medication that you couldn’t simply stop. The drop in anti-depressants could bring me dangerously low. Although my employment situation hasn’t radically improved since then, I eventually weaned myself from the prescription. Looking back now, I see that time as an interlude in who I was, depression and all. Mine was, thankfully, a mild case. It has, nevertheless, left me wondering about the nature of evil.

Extremely empathetic, I have never had sociopathic tendencies. I care for insects and amphibians, as well as my fellow humans. I react to the emotions of others. Yet, like all people, I suspect, I know that I’ve got my own personal evils with which to struggle. I wonder if it is a matter of degree. Religions often suggest that the solution to evil is repentance and taking the decision to live a new life. What if one’s brain, however, prevents that? Would the administration of a drug amount to a kind of salvation? And what of those theologies based on concepts of human depravity—can neuroscience prove them wrong? When the moral questions are raised, the physical solutions offer answers. Can we ever reconcile belief and biology? The jury may never come back with a verdict on that one.

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