The brain and the concept of evil

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“Why did evolution invent conscious experience and pain if we are machines, in principle no different from cars?”  — Henry Marsh, Robert Sapolsky’s Behave is tour de force of science writing. 

I have finally found a book that articulates what I have been thinking about for the last couple of years. (I haven’t read it yet, but I will very soon as I’ve already ordered on Amazon.)

In his review of the book, Marsh says, “Sapolsky uses the analogy of a car with faulty brakes to describe antisocial human behaviour. A mechanic will not accuse the car of being evil but instead will explain its bad behaviour in terms of its malfunctioning parts. Human behaviour is no different – it is determined by the mechanics of our brains. The difference is that we understand very little about them and so we invoke the mythical concept of a controlling self (which Sapolsky describes as a homunculus) located somewhere in our heads. Concepts such as ‘evil’, he argues, have no place in the modern world of scientific explanation. If people behave badly, it is because of the neurological, genetic, hormonal and environmental determinants that shaped their brains, not because of any evil nature. He concedes that punishment may be necessary as a deterrent but is adamant that it should not be seen as a virtue.”

Last year I wrote about my thoughts on people’s lack of control on their negative behavior as it may be determined by a malfunction in their brains (On Compassion, Forgiveness and the Brain ) Today, I came across Marsh’s review of Sapolsky’s book, and I am so happy that a renowned neuroendocrinologist and author from Stanford actually wrote about how the concept of “evil” has no place in the modern world of scientific explanation.

I can’t wait to read this :

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst 

 

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Easter Thoughts on “The Young Pope”

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          Even if you are not Catholic but like stories that are character/theme-driven and thought-provoking and makes you pause and reassess your faith or values or both, then you would probably like this TV series.

          I agreed with this CNN review of The Young Pope when I watched the first half of the first season. I thought the development was too slow, and it was almost painful to watch. But my friend was certain I would like it (and you have to trust your friends, right?) Indeed it turned out to be one of the few TV series that I truly enjoyed not because it’s entertaining (I don’t find it entertaining) but because it has a cathartic effect on me as a viewer (me being raised Catholic, a woman and mother). I find the dialogue quite well-written and added to the picturesque shots of the Vatican, the show seemed to me like a literary novel with sound and imagery.

This is perhaps the only TV series that made me grab the tissue so many times in its last 4 episodes, not because it is sentimental but because the characters, finally fully developed in the latter half of the season, are shown to be all broken people who try to be whole. What truly resonates with me is the mother-child motif which is central to the story. (As a mother who works in another country and only gets to embrace her son 2-3 days a month, I am easily moved by scenes of children missing their parents, their feeling of being abandoned, unloved.) The feeling of being abandoned, of being unloved by the very people you expect to love you because they brought you into this world, is ever present in the young pope.

Watching this show where characters deal with memories of their painful childhood, infertility, broken dreams, faith crisis, etc. – all part of being human, can purge a viewer of the pain and pity and fear that these sufferings evoke. That is what it did to me anyway, not because I went through all of these things myself (I didn’t), but as the characters are fully developed, there is empathy for what they have been through; and, I may not like what they did but understand how and why they became who they are.

         (Spoiler alert: Stop reading if you don’t want to know details of the show!)

This show also makes use of dichotomies, the ones most obvious to me are the following:

Free versus Determined
Cardinal Gutierrez and Cardinal Kurtwell were both abused as a child, but their respective responses to the abuse were quite different. Both are homosexuals, but Gutierrez is strongly against sexual abuse whereas Kurtwell insists that what he has become (preying on the powerless, especially young men) is a result of the abuse he suffered as a child. The Pope praised Gutierrez for turning his fear into anger and becoming an advocate for victims of abuse.

What this dichotomy made me think is the idea of free will and determinism. Are we truly free to steer our lives into a particular direction, like Gutierrez did, choosing NOT to be an abuser like Kurtwell, but defending those who are being abused as he once was?

One may say Kurtwell was simply making the abuse he suffered as a child as an excuse for what he really wanted to do as an adult – abusing young men. But then again, how much of what we do is dictated by our inner desire, and how much of this desire is brought about by the many different factors that influence our everyday lives?

Will a child born into a violent family but grew up with a loving and gentle adoptive family become violent as well? Nobody knows for sure because there are other factors that will determine his personality later on, one of which is genetics.

And then there’s the brain. (Please click on the link to understand what I mean.)

Old versus young
The title is deceiving. The pope may be young but he feels and sees himself as old. In one scene, he refers to Sofia as being one of the young people, to which Sofia replies that they are the same age. Yet the Pope tells her, “We used to be the same age.” As he is now the Father of millions of Catholics, his “age” accelerated with the many responsibilities that go with being pope.

The Pope also adheres to the old practices of the old church when the Roman Catholic Church exerted enormous influence in people’s daily lives. (Not unlike Trump, he’s willing to build a new and stronger wall to keep out those who do not agree with him.)

In his last conversation with his friend Cardinal Dusolier who asked him, “When are you gonna grow up?” the Pope answered, “Never. A priest never grows up because he can never become a father. He will always be a son.” Later when Dusolier expressed his desire to go back to Honduras because he could no longer bear being in the Vatican after a young man who had wanted to become a priest jumped to his death from the very spot where they were standing because the Pope’s new directive disqualified him from entering the seminary, the Pope answered him in words that may seem very heartless, insensitive but to me are very reasonable and so true: “If you give up now, now that you’re faced with the burden of responsibility and your own guilty conscience, when will you ever grow up?”

What does being grown up mean? Does it mean pretending not to be hurt by the painful past? Or does it mean acknowledging that same painful past while facing the present with all its challenges?

Imagination versus Reality
In his conversation with the Prime Minister, the Pope mocked the Prime Minister who had just given him statistics (reality) on the unpopularity of the church (particularly the Pope) and his (the Prime Minister’s) growing popularity among the Italians. He said the PM lacked imagination of which he (the Pope) and God have so much.
To me what best exhibits this dichotomy is the story between Lenny (before he became a priest) and the young woman he met in California. They spent a week together, and he had a wonderful time with her. The young woman told him he could touch her legs, but he never did. Yet the very fact that he didn’t, made this non-event even more firmly implanted in his memory. If he had touched her legs, most likely he would have forgotten whatever happened between them before that “event”! But because he didn’t, the scene is like frozen in his memory (think: Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn!)

Imagination is more powerful than reality.

Lost versus Found
In an unsent letter to the young woman he met in California, Lenny recalled the time the young woman told him he could touch her legs, but he didn’t and wrote, “There, my love, is love lost…And you shining gleam of my misspent youth, did you lose or did you find?”

The Pope, his childhood friend Cardinal Dusolier, Sister Mary were all orphans, abandoned by their parents. Did their parents lose them? Did they lose their parents? Or did they find each other and became, the three of them, a family?
          Perhaps when we lose something or someone, we only have to look and realize that something or someone else has found us.

Happy Easter!

the young pope