Religious Dispatches has just published a very interesting article on the issue of evil in neuroscience. Here is the beginning of it:
“Is evil over?” asked Ron Rosenbaum at Slate last week. “Yes, according to many neuroscientists, who are emerging as the new high priests of the secrets of the psyche, explainers of human behavior in general.” Rightly, Rosenbaum questions the scientism of those who would declare that, since evil — whatever it may be — cannot be pinned down in any specific location or function of the brain, it must not be real.
The article points to a number of ways neuropsychology has been overinterpreted and oversold. Rosenbaum addresses the fetishizing of fMRI images, the ideology that conflates causation and correlation, and the shifting semantics — evil recast as “non-empathy” by one esteemed psychologist (echoing, interestingly, the traditional Christian understanding of evil as a privation).
But it’s the image of scientists as priests that caught my attention. It’s an image that has a lot going for it.
Before I say what exactly it has going for it, however, let me say what it doesn’t have going for it. Science and theology are different. Richard Dawkins is right to say, as he does over and over, that anyone who cares to devote time and effort to understanding evolution can do it. As difficult as it can be, science is, in a very real sense, right there on the page. In fact, in the end there is nothing for it but to be out in the open, to be seen, to be comprehended. This is one of the great joys of science.
Though it has its own joys, theology does not operate this way. Religion does not make sense as a set of strictly empirical claims. It is most definitely not right there on the page. It is not abstract and self-evident; it is concrete and wholly contextual. In this rather academic sense, scientists and priests are dissimilar.
But this is often a distinction without a difference. As has been the case with priests in some times and places, there is in society a great faith placed in scientists. And as with priests and theologians, it is often difficult to say exactly what scientists mean when they enter the public square. “When a white-robed scientist, momentarily looking away from his microscope or cyclotron, makes some pronouncement for the general public, he may not be understood, but at least he is certain to be believed.” Thus wrote Anthony Standen in his 1950 book Science is a Sacred Cow. What was true in 1950 is still true in 2011. Surely such public trust has no precedent outside of religion.