Measuring empathy and cruelty
This week’s TLS has a review by Andrew Scull of Simon Baron Cohen’s book Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty, which argues that cruelty results from a lack of empathy (one is tempted to say, “Duh!”). The six degrees of empathy can be measured by questionnaires and by the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging which can register the presence or absence in the brain of “empathy circuits.” Scull is not convinced and opposes himself to
a spread in popular culture of reductionistic accounts of human behaviour supposedly rooted in hard scientific findings.
But much of this faith is misplaced. Correlation is not cause, so finding (rather crude) patterns of activity in the brain is far from demonstrating how we think–not to mention that the same regions of the brain “light up” under very different circumstances. Human brains are interconnected to an almost unfathomable degree, and complex human actions are infinitely removed from the simple stimuli presented in Baron-Cohen’s and other laboratory experiments, which by their very nature cannot capture how our brains work under these circumstances. Moreover, it is unclear that the extremely indirect and temporally compromised signals that are used to construct fMRI images provide more than the most simplistic look at what is taking place. Since millions of neurons must be active to register on the scan, for example, much is necessarily not being recorded by the instrument. …
The difficulty, as always, is the vast gap between the simple simulated experiments using functional MRI machines and crude stimuli (such as showing pictures of someone being pricked with a pin) and the world of soldiers committing heinous war crimes, of Josef Mengele conducting “experiments” on children in concentration camps, of Turks disposing of more than a million Armenians. We are quite incapable of translating heightened activity in certain regions of the brain into the contents of people’s thoughts, let alone their behaviours. Even framing things in this fashion is to assume, of course, something potentially of greater significance still, and something that Baron-Cohen never bothers to argue for: that our thoughts are the simple product of neural activity in the brain. Might it not be the other way around? What scientific finding, rather than a priori metaphysical assumption, allows us to conclude that human decision-making is a mechanical process, wholly determined by previous mechanical processes? And were we indeed to be mechanical inhabitants of such a universe, why would someone like Simon Baron-Cohen attempt to influence us by rational argument? Surely such an enterprise would be intellectually incoherent, not to mention redundant.
The last two sentences offer an example of what philosophers call “retorsion”–the contradiction between one’s theory of rationality and the exercise of reason that constructed the theory. The theory of reason, often enough, takes no account of the exercise of reason. If a theory of knowledge makes a claim to be knowledge, must it not account for its own genesis?