Neuroscience Day, part two: An admittedly wild article from Slate, with the inspired title “Naughty By Nature”, looking at nymphomania through the lens of neuroscience and free will (and the profound lack thereof). Specifically, the article discusses what’s known as Kluever-Bucy Syndrome, which causes a neurological breakdown in the ability to control one’s sexual urges… [insert joke about the average male libido here], but more generally, it asks the question of whether or not neuroscience can/should explain moral lapses as well as cognitive ones. The examples they use are, by necessity, rather salacious, so be warned – seriously, folks – but the conclusions are too priceless not to post. Perhaps “morally disabled” should be our new watchword, ht JS:

Most of us—materialist and dualist alike—have sympathy aplenty for those patients whose brain disturbances have interfered with their everyday cognitive abilities. We’re perfectly willing to accommodate their intellectual disabilities by, say, helping them create a new mnemonic strategy or giving them a pat on the back or a word of encouragement when they’re trying to remember someone’s name. Yet when chunks of gray matter that have evolved to control and inhibit, say, our sexual appetites and other Bacchanalian drives experience a similar catastrophic blowout, are we so understanding? What if those impairments lead their victims to display … oh, I don’t know, let’s call them moral disabilities? Cases of libidinal brain systems going haywire have our kind-hearted, humanistic materialism rubbing elbows—or butting heads—with our belief in free will and moral culpability.

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If a “good” person’s brain can be rendered morally disabled by an invasive tumor or an epileptic fuse-shortage, subsequently causing them to do very bad deeds, then isn’t it rather hypocritical to assume that a “bad” person without brain injury—whose brain is anatomically organized by epigenetics (the complex interplay between genes and experiences)—has any more free will than the neuroclinical case? After all, perhaps it’s just a matter of timing: The “good” are born with brains that can “go bad,” whereas the “bad” are hogtied by a morally disabled neural architecture from the very start. And although it may be less common, if a “bad” person behaves in an upstanding manner, could that be the result of fortuitous brain damage or epilepsy, too?

It’s all brain-based in the end, including the parameters by which one can contemplate and, especially, execute their free will. Perhaps we’re only as free as our genes are pliable in the slosh of our developmental milieus.