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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Daily Prompt: Prefer 

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” — Friedrich Nietszche

The other day I was talking with best friend number 3 who asked what’s up with me  reading about philosophy now when it’s dead. I told him I’ve been interested in philosophy since I was 19, I just don’t talk about it much except with my husband (best friend number 1.) And as for philosophy being dead, I think for as long as human beings can think and feel the way we do now, there will always be philosophy.

I have three best friends whom I enjoy spending time with — and two of them almost always disagree with what I say. I’ve known M. who is best friend number 2, for 20 years now, and he is still sarcastic when he talks with me and always tries to makes me see that my arguments are either weak or  “stoopi” (he still can’t pronounce stupid correctly. Lol ) Best friend number 3 is more or less the same — mocking me for my interests and telling me I’m wasting my time reading about these things.

Yet I prefer spending time and talking with any of my three best friends any time than with any other acquaintance. With some people I easily get upset when I am judged for my ideas. I can say I don’t care what they think, but their words can really hurt me. But with these three, they can be brutally honest with me, and they have, and I can still laugh and be grateful to them for being themselves with me and for accepting me for what I am.

We each have our preferences, our own ways of seeing things,but these have not stopped us from being friends.

Prefer

Interstellar and the Self

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Interstellar

 

(photo source)

First off, if you have not seen the movie yet, then stop reading.

Second, if you are a film enthusiast or a film critic, then pardon my own humble review of the movie. I am often told that I miss the point of a movie, to which I reply (but only in my head), so what? I see other things in a movie that move me, and to me that is what matters. I do not have to have the same analysis as everybody else. Our understanding and appreciation of a movie or even a book is ultimately shaped by our own individual experiences, our knowledge of the things around us,  our values, culture and many other factors.

That may have sounded like an attempt at apologetics, so I will move on.

I watched Interstellar a week ago, but waited until today to write about it because I had to give myself time to think and discuss with my husband (a physics major in university) about one of the ideas the movie presented that really fascinated me.

Cooper (not my dearest Bradley), Matthew McConaughey’s character, left earth and entered another galaxy through a wormhole. His travel with the other space explorers took, for them, just hours, but what was hours for them was years for the earthlings.

I cannot and will not even attempt to explain how the element of time was used in this story, but in my own simple understanding of what happened and in my humble second-language-learner English, let me say that Cooper was able to go back to a certain place in time, specifically that period when his daughter thought there was a ghost in her bedroom that was trying to tell her something. It turned out that that “ghost” was actually Cooper himself, from the future, (future Cooper)  trying to stop past Cooper from leaving his family. But then he was told he could not change the past.

Let me pause here to say something about Biblical allusions or religious undertones of which there is a prevalence in today’s science-fiction movies. Interstellar is definitely not an exception. the most obvious allusion is to the man Jesus raised from the dead, Lazarus. NASA’s mission in the film is called “Lazarus.”

The Bible contains a few stories about how lives had been sacrificed for something new or better to start. Death for some for the birth of new ones, like when God flooded the world and spared only Noah and his family and a few animals; or when innocent children were killed because King Herod was afraid that the child who had been prophesied to become king was born, and he wanted to be certain the child would not live to be king; or when Jesus had to die to save the people.

In the same way, Dr. Brand had concluded that it was impossible to evacuate the whole population from earth, so he formulated plan B which was to start a new population from the fertilized embryos. He was willing to abandon the living for the survival of the species. This is not new or uncommon. I think people are constantly sacrificing other people’s lives for a cause, be they good or bad.

One other thing that I was reminded of when I saw that scene where  Future Cooper was begging his daughter (who, of course could not hear him) not to let him, Past Cooper leave, was hell. Would it not be hell to be able to see our past selves making a decision that at present we know to be very wrong, but we have no way to correct it? The way we live our lives is not like how a movie is made where we do several takes. It is hell to watch ourselves making mistakes that affect not only our lives but also the lives of the ones we love  and knowing we cannot undo those mistakes.

That scene from the movie spoke to me the most — the father’s anguish at seeing his daughter again and wishing he had listened to her and not left her. I love Matthew McConaughey (not the same way I love Bradley Cooper, but yes) I think he is a great actor.

That scene also made me think of “conscience,” that tiny voice in the head that tells  one what is morally right or wrong, the guide to making decisions. I would like to think that our conscience is simply our “future selves” trying to guide us to the right direction. Sometimes we listen to our conscience, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we even feel it is absent. Maybe on a holiday.

I do not like movies about aliens, but somehow I am a little disappointed that in this movie, the human being seems to be alone in the universe, that there are no other creatures out there, that it is just us in the vastness of the universe. Are we truly this special? That we have such a huge place all to ourselves? I prefer the idea presented by Stephen Hawking that there are other creatures apart from us that are way more advanced  than our civilization. I would like to think that there are other beings out there, that it is not just us on this tiny planet in the infinite universe. This feeling is the same as when I stand on the shore facing the horizon and wondering if on the other side, there is also somebody standing on their shore wondering the same about the other side.

I have so many questions about our existence. I used to think the answer was in philosophy, and then in neuropsychology, but as years pass, I feel the answer can only be found not within ourselves, not within our planet, but out there in the universe, which means I may never know the answers to my questions. It is sad, but I am hopeful one day somebody will find those answers. And that hope and faith is enough to make me go on living my life, hopefully not disappointing my future self too much.