“My main goal,” says Baron-Cohen, “is replacing the unscientific term ‘evil’ with the scientific term ’empathy.’ ” What he means is that instead of calling someone evil we should say they have no empathy.
Baron-Cohen goes to great lengths to posit an “empathy circuit” in the brain whose varying “degrees” of strength constitute a spectrum, ranging from total, 100 percent empathy to “zero degrees of empathy.”
This empathy circuit, he tells us, consists of 13 specific regions of the brain involved in the generation of nonevil choices, among them “the medial prefrontal cortex,” “the inferior frontal gyrus,” and “the posterior superior temporal sulcus.”
Ideally all of these act together empathetically to defeat “single minded focus,” which appears to be Baron-Cohen’s explanation for what was previously called evil. Single-mindedness is the inability to “recognize and respond” to the feelings of others. A healthy empathy circuit allows us to feel others’ pain and transcend single-minded focus on our own. This theory does, however, seem to carry a presumption that when one “recognizes and responds,” one will do so in warm and fuzzy ways. But what about those who “recognize and respond” to others’ feelings with great discernment—and then torture them? It happens.
One troubling aspect of Baron-Cohen’s grand substitution of a lack of empathy for evil is the mechanistic way he describes it.
He characterizes those who lack empathy as having “a chip in their neural computer missing.” He tells us “empathy is more like a dimmer switch than an all-or-none switch.” The big problem here is that by reducing evil to a mechanical malfunction in the empathy circuit, Baron-Cohen also reduces, or even abolishes, good. No one in this deterministic conceptual system chooses to be good, courageous, or heroic. They just have a well-developed empathy circuit that compels them act empathetically—there’s no choice or honor in the matter.
…Many neuroscientists, confronted by the “hard problem of consciousness,” evade it by citing a quarter-century-old experiment by one Benjamin Libet, which purported to reveal that apparently conscious decisions are actually made unconsciously—preconsciously—some 500 milliseconds (half a second) before the illusion of a conscious decision is made conscious. (A recent paper puts it at a full second.) But Libet’s study fails to explain how the initial unconscious decision is made by the electrified piece of meat—he just kicks the can into the preconscious, you might say—or why we have the illusion of consciousness at all.
You get the idea. It’s like the God of the gaps theory, except the setting is the brain itself rather than the fossil record. No matter what studies show, Rosenbaum is going to insist that there is an unaccounted-for area at the beginning of the thought process that can only be satisfactorily “explained” by positing some sort of noumenal vacuum beyond space and time whence all human decisions spring, uncaused. And once again, this is only an issue at all because we insist on perpetuating a distinction between “me” and “my brain”.