Apr 19 2007

Blaming the Brain and the Boogeyman

Whenever extraordinary unfathomable human actions take place, like the tragic shootings that occurred this week at Virginia Tech, there is an immediate collective struggle to understand what happened. It creates almost a snapshot of the culture’s current paradigms of the nature of humanity and human behavior. Everyone intellectually grasps for what is at hand to explain events, while career moralizers blame the tragedy on their favorite boogeyman. I don’t pretend to have any profound answers myself, but would like to add my neurological musings and other observations to the conversation.

The Blame Game

When bad stuff happens, the knee-jerk primitive psychological reaction seems to be to blame your enemy – in modern society that usually means blaming an ideological enemy. http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2007/04/16/how-could-loving-god Ken Ham over at answersingenesis was quick to, yet again, blame atheism for the shootings. He wrote: “We live in an era when public high schools and colleges have all but banned God from science classes.”

Others use the event as vindication for their ideas. Dr. Phil was quick to blame violence on TV and in video games. While there is some connection between video violence and aggressive behavior, there is no reason to believe that video violence can send someone on a murderous rampage.

The Psychological Paradigm

Today, rather than moralizing about good and evil, we tend to explore psychological explanations for such behavior – and I think this is a much more constructive approach. While I do not think we can ever completely explain the chaotic forces synapsing around inside a human brain, some dominant factors do peak out and can be noticed. Cho (the shooter) was clearly a disturbed individual. Because Cho sent a package to NBC, we have some documentation as to what was going on inside his head. He was isolated from his peers and from other people in general. In his isolation he harbored a growing resentment for everyone else, especially those around him. The resentment turned to hatred, and eventually to violence. The images he sent to NBC also indicate that Cho was engaging in power fantasies – envisioning himself as a slick stylish shooter like someone out of the Matrix. Power fantasies are a typical way to deal with feelings of low self-esteem and powerlessness.

Other possibilities include a psychopathic disorder, in which Cho would not have had the ability to empathize with other people – to “feel their pain”, or even think of them as individual humans deserving of their own rights. People are merely other things that fill his world, to be dealt with in whatever way suited Cho without consideration to their feelings or rights.

The Neurological Paradigm

Also, there is good reason to believe that Cho was not neurologically well. Many of his behaviors and thoughts are typical of those suffering from schizophrenia. This is a brain disorder that tends to emerge in the early 20’s – Cho was 24. It commonly involves paranoid and bizarre ideation, and a disconnection from reality.

It is probable that the neurological and psychological factors were working in concert, causing Cho to spiral away from reality and decency into a psychotic fantasy world where he had the power and authority to execute his fellow students for their perceived deficiencies.

Morality and Free Will

There is a certain comfort in trying to understand why Cho did what he did, and yet there is simultaneously a lingering discomfort with the psychological/neurological approach, as apposed to the moralistic approach. In other words, it may seem to some, and may also be very bothersome, that explaining Cho’s behavior is equivalent to excusing it – as if Cho were just another victim in a sequence of deterministic events playing themselves out. We don’t want to be deprived of blaming Cho for his own actions, and even despising him for them.

This is a tricky topic. There are those who believe that free will does not exist, and they make a very compelling case for this. The brain, after all, is just a machine following the rules of physics. There is no incorporeal operator inside our heads.

And yet the sense of free will is compelling, almost overwhelming. Although this is a very interesting question, and in fact can have many practical implications, I do not think that a recognition of the deterministic material cause of our brains, and therefore minds, is incompatible with morality and responsibility. The simplest reconciliation is to say that we must act “as if” we have free will, for to do otherwise is not practical. Crimes must be punished and we must all have a sense of our own moral responsibility.

In fact you can argue that having a personal moral sense of responsibility is just as necessary in a world without free will as one with free will. In the former case, our deterministic brains benefit from the “meme” of moral responsibility as it leads to a better practical outcome for us as individuals and as a society.

I other words, we still need morality, we still need to be good people, we can still condemn the actions of Cho – without invoking the “ghost in the machine” or rejecting our growing knowledge of how the brain works.

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