Brooks no disagreement

What's fun about reading David Brooks is getting to see an ordinary man of no particular intelligence grappling with the really big questions facing humanity. On Monday he made kind of a good point:

While we postmoderns say we detest all-explaining narratives, in fact a newish grand narrative has crept upon us willy-nilly and is now all around. Once the Bible shaped all conversation, then Marx, then Freud, but today Darwin is everywhere.... We’re not a postmodern society anymore. We have a grand narrative that explains behavior and gives shape to history. We have a central cosmology to embrace, argue with or unconsciously submit to.
Today, though, he gets himself into a bit of a mess.

Brooks anticipates what neuropsychology and social science might have to say about Cho Seung-Hui, the teenager who killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus on Monday:
Some will point to the pruning of the brain synapses that may be related to adolescent schizophrenia. Others may point to the possibility that an inability to process serotonin could have led to depression and hyperaggression. Or we could learn that he had been born with a brain injury that made him psychopathic. Or [maybe] he grew up with some form of behavioral illness that would have made it hard for him to interact with and respond appropriately to other people.
From there, Brooks rehearses the standard humanist qualms about scientific models of behavior: Whither the soul? Whither morality?
It’s important knowledge, but it’s had the effect of reducing the scope of the human self.... The scope for individual choice has been reduced, and with it so has the scope for morality. Once, Cho Seung-Hui would have been simply condemned as evil, but now the language of morality is often replaced with the language of determinism.
Brooks would like us to think that this deterministic worldview is a new post-postmodern phenomenon, because it makes for a better column. "The killings at Virginia Tech happen at a moment when we are renegotiating what you might call the Morality Line, the spot where background forces stop and individual choice — and individual responsibility — begins," he writes.

This is, of course, horseshit. Before anyone understood the neurological roots of schizophrenia, insanity was accepted as a defense in criminal trials. (According to Wikipedia, the concept of an insanity defense has been around since the Greeks, and "the first complete transcript of an insanity trial dates to 1724.") Campus shootings like the one at Virginia Tech fit squarely into the classic insanity model, in that the perpetrator gets no material benefit from his violent actions. So when Brooks writes "Once, Cho Seung-Hui would have been simply condemned as evil," we can assume that he's referring to some time before the ancient Greeks.

The real fatheadedness, though, comes at the end. Brooks has been careful to avoid picking a fight with the deterministic explanations for Cho Seung-Hui's actions:
We’re not going to put our knowledge of brain chemistry or evolutionary psychology back in the bottle. It would be madness to think Cho Seung-Hui could have been saved from his demons with better sermons.
But then, in the next paragraph, he turns around and demands a moralistic explanation:
But it should be possible to acknowledge the scientists’ insights without allowing them to become monopolists. It should be possible to reconstruct some self-confident explanation for what happened at Virginia Tech that puts individual choice and moral responsibility closer to the center.
Check out what Brooks uses as evidence for this:
After all, according to research by David Buss, 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women have had a vivid homicidal fantasy. But they didn’t act upon it. They don’t turn other people into objects for their own fulfillment. There still seems to be such things as selves, which are capable of making decisions and controlling destiny. It’s just that these selves can’t be seen on a brain-mapping diagram, and we no longer have any agreement about what they are.
OK -- what?! After paying lip-service to scientific explanations for behavior for ten paragraphs, Brooks runs into an interesting fact about the mind -- everyone fantasizes about killing other people, but very few of us actually do it -- and asserts, without giving any reason, that this difference can only be attributed to some mysterious decision-making destiny-controlling self. What, David Brooks, is so special about that particular fact that it alone couldn't possibly have roots in brain chemistry?

Like 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women, I have had vivid homicidal fantasies. But I also have fantasies that are not homicidal, and one of them is to get David Brooks in a room in front of lots of genuinely smart people and go through a few weeks worth of columns and ask the obvious questions and watch everyone laugh at him.