A good article from the Wall Street Journal about the futility of the scientific pursuit of knowing why humans act the way they do.
“Theodore Dalrymple worked as a prison doctor and psychiatrist in Britain for 15 years. He's known serial killers, petty thieves and everything in between. As he puts it, with a mischievous grin, "I've probably spent more time in prison than the average murderer."
“It's a beautiful summer day in the south of France, and Dr. Dalrymple is holding forth on what we can—and can't—know about the mind of a mass murderer like the Oslo shooter, Anders Behring Breivik. "I don't think we'll ever understand" what makes a person capable of this kind of premeditated murder, Dr. Dalrymple tells me over lunch. What's more, he says, "we don't even know what it is to understand. At what point do you say, 'Aha! Now I understand!'" he asks.
“Dr. Dalrymple is the pen name of Anthony Daniels, author of more than a dozen books of scathing social commentary on everything from crime to travel to, most recently, what he calls "the toxic cult of sentimentality" in modern society. In his writing and in conversation, he returns frequently to the criminals he's known and treated.
“Your garden-variety convicts, he contends, are much simpler subjects than a man like Breivik. To ask them why they steal, he says, "is like asking you why you have lunch." They want something, so they take it. "And since in Britain," he adds with a smirk, "the state does very little to discourage [thieves]," or to incarcerate them when they are caught, "the question is not why there are so many burglars, but why there are so few."
“A Breivik is a deeper mystery. Of him, "you can say, 'This man is highly narcissistic, paranoid and grandiose,'" and this may lead you to seek reasons for that in his past—"his father disappeared at the age of 15 and so on and so forth." But uncovering such facts doesn't solve the mystery because "whatever you find, you would also find among hundreds or thousands or even millions of people who didn't do what he did." There is, he says, "always a gap between what is to be explained and your alleged explanation. So there's always a mystery, and I think that's going to remain."
“Even so, we find irresistible the urge to understand an atrocity like Breivik's, even as we are repulsed by it. When asked whether we hope thereby to understand something about ourselves, the former prison doctor offers an arch denial: "Well, he doesn't tell me much about me." And then, with a morbid chuckle and wary look—"I can't say for you," before adding: "I suppose the only thing one can say is that he tells us about the range of human possibility. But we knew that already."
“The human impulse to explain the inexplicably horrific is revealing, according to Dr. Dalrymple, in two respects—one personal, one political. First, it says something about us that we feel compelled to explain evil in a way that we don't feel about people's good actions. The discrepancy arises, he says, "because [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau has triumphed," by which he means that "we believe ourselves to be good, and that evil, or bad, is the deviation from what is natural."
“For most of human history, the prevailing view was different. Our intrinsic nature was something to be overcome, restrained and civilized. But Rousseau's view, famously, was that society corrupted man's pristine nature. This is not only wrong, Dr. Dalrymple argues, but it has had profound and baleful effects on society and our attitude toward crime and punishment. For one thing, it has alienated us from responsibility for our own actions. For another, it has reduced our willingness to hold others responsible for theirs.”