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Phil-osophically Speaking: November 6, 2012

The Devil Made Me Do It

“The devil made me do it,” has long been the comical refrain of those seeking to divest responsibility for their actions by placing it on the shoulders of some extraneous outside agent. Is there such a thing as a bad seed; are there some people who are condemned by birth—those born to be bad?

The religious response is that all are born with original sin; that our biological destiny is inherently connected with wrongdoing both great and small. Take the history of human warfare, the ultimate social failure as a distressingly acute example of humankind being red in tooth and claw. Yet, blood lust and carnage are by no means innate as evidenced by the fact that our nature is also strongly inclined to foster cooperative agreements and networks to avoid and defuse hostility. So while Plato correctly observed that “only the dead have seen the end of war,” the human species is not hopelessly belligerent. Nor are we wired to be irremediably depraved. Yet our criminal justice system is increasingly acknowledging uncontrollable predispositions to violence and criminality. Brain scans are frequently accepted as evidence in courts of law to show that the criminal mind is genetically oriented to commit violence and this must be a factor when judging culpability for the crime committed.

This is a very slippery slope in terms of law, morality and psychopathy. To argue that one’s neurological architecture is the causative agent of one’s criminality or even bad behavior is a very foolish and dangerous proposition. It is also bad science. Two decades ago scientific magazines (Discover Magazine was one) referred to the so-called “Gay Gene” as one of the great discoveries of the year. I thought even then that the evidence for this was so risible that I could not help laughing out loud. When science becomes ideologized, dispassionate investigation of the truth ceases to exist. Whatever the provenance of the homosexual personality it is certainly far more complex and multi-factorial than the workings of one miniscule gene. The same is true of violent behavior. We know that there are certain genetic variants that are more dominant with regard to those who commit violent acts, but the vast majority of those with that sequence are not violent.

Genes do not cause behavior; they produce enzymes that when interacting with the environment produces behavioral patterns. The exact nature of these operations is shrouded in ambiguity and mystery. Its anfractuosities are too complex to follow with any precision but it is thoroughly and unambiguously clear that genes do not operate in isolation. What is at stake here, however, is something more than biological processes. It is an attempt to dethrone the conscience, what Adam Smith called the man within, and make human beings something less than moral agents. Its pedigree has a lineage of nearly a century and a half nourished by the half-baked conclusions of the social sciences.

By the 20th century, our crucial inner world was being besieged by Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner, who viewed our mental apparatus as nothing more than an engineering problem to be solved. According to these behaviorists, our most cherished aspirations, beliefs and actions are programmed and our personhood is a psychological myth. Our brains are nothing more than software with an executable code that provides instructions for telling us what to do and what to believe. Human beings were essentially reduced to a glorified data processing system.

Now the cognitive scientist Sam Harris, fresh from proving that God does not exist, is targeting “free will” as the low hanging fruit ready to be picked. This is a dicey proposition because free will touches everything human from religion, law, politics, morality and the very foundation of one’s thoughts and actions. None of this seems daunting to the impenetrably self-assured Harris who delights in depicting our nature as a slave rather than master of its fate. Character, for Harris, is not destiny but software.

It will take more to replace man’s sovereignty than clever wordplay or innovative theorizing. At times I find a scientist like Harris so incandescently preposterous it’s hard for me to keep a straight face when I think of him which, admittedly, is not very often. If free will does not exist then what compelled Harris to write his book Free Will? To write a book requiring the very facility you are denying is not unlike being caught flagrante delicto with the mistress you purport does not exist.

There is a kind of indecorousness that has intruded upon today’s secularist, humanist philosophy that has so gracelessly saturated scientific thinking and is exemplified by the notion that brain scans can detect congenital criminality. It’s as ludicrous as the infamous “Twinkie Defense” that killer Dan White used saying the reason he murdered San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk was chemical in nature, because he switched from a healthy food diet to a sugary one. It is little wonder that the Christian apologist Malcolm Muggeridge lamented about the lack of subject matter for the humorist because the world had become so absurd that to deign to comment upon it was supererogatory.

The distinguished English jurist Lord Moulton considered the most important space in society to be the ‘middle land” between law and absolute freedom in which the individual has to be trusted to obey self-imposed law. That’s the world I want to live in, one that must be negotiated not by punching some keys on a data processing machine but with all its flaws and shortcomings an existence wrought by the heart and soul and shaped with the indelible stamp of free will. To believe anything else is to treat the absurd as sublime.