October 9, 2008
Michael S. Gazzaniga  argued that our beliefs about the world and the nature of human experience are merely tendentious and our memories fallible. Therefore we should rely not on “the ubiquitous personal belief systems held by billions of people (which he describes as akin to believing in Santa Claus (Gazzaniga 2005:163) but on modern science to seek out, understand and define our universal ethics grounded in the natural order (Gazzaniga 2005:178). From his viewpoint great religions of the world were conceived by ill-informed humans (not received from the Divine) who lacked competing data about the essence of the natural world (Gazzaniga 2005:162). He explains religious experiences as Temporary Lobe Epilepsy (TLE). He compares the conception of a fetus to the “conception” of a house at Home Depot. When is a fetus a person? When is a house a house? Gazzaniga believes that a fertilized egg is hardly deserving of the same moral status we confer on the newborn child or the functioning adult (Gazzaniga 2005:17-8). He also argued that the aging brain’s level of consciousness should be assessed by scientific means and euthanasia considered as an option (Gazzaniga 2005:33). His reasoning is not robust and appears to be directed to those already converted to his belief system.
However, it is his argument for brain enhancement through genetic intervention that causes a shiver of repugnance:
“Perhaps we should be free to try whatever we can think to try- this is the nature of scientific inquiry. Let an innate moral-ethics system assert itself and stop us from going too far. We have never annihilated ourselves; we have managed to stop short of doing that so far. I am confident that we will always understand what is ultimately good for the species and what is not (Gazzaniga 2005:54).”
One wonders on what planet he has been living.
We are currently listening to political debates around the clock as two nations head to the polls. Different value systems clash as “facts” are presented on each side of debates over contentious issues. We live in a time when scientific facts themselves are challenged as informed readers inquire about motivation and agendas of scientific researchers. Who finances the research? We are all too aware of the ease with which policy makers and decision makers choose comfortable truths over the uncomfortable.
Gazzaniga oversimplifies the awe-inspiring mind-soul-spirit by reducing humans to the chemical brain. He grossly underestimates followers of religions capable of making ethical decisions by considering both scientific information and their religious principles.
He argued that universal ethics are social, contextualized, influenced by emotions and natural survival-instincts. Whether your guide in life is simply “received wisdom” or “the confluence of neuroscientific data, historical data, and other information illuminating our past” he claim s we all share the same hard-wired moral networks and systems and therefore respond in similar ways to similar issues. He further claims that social systems explain individual feelings which are institutionalized into social structure (Gazzaniga 2005:162).”
According to his logic philosophers involved in neuroethics should “use understandings of the brain’s hard-wiring to contextualize and debate gut instincts that serve the greatest good- or the most logical solutions- given specific contexts (Gazzaniga 2005:178).”
“Neuroscience reads brains, not minds. The mind, while completely enabled by the brain, is a totally different beast (Gazzaniga 2005:119).”
Gazzaniga (2005:iv-v) describes neuroethics as a spin-off of bioethics [which] was developed and defined to take medical ethics further, as scientific findings became more advanced and needed more specialized philosophers thinking about what is acceptable and unacceptable in areas like genetic engineering, reproductive science, defining brain death, and so on. [. . . Neuroethics are involved] whenever a bioethical issue involves the brain or central nervous system (2005: v).”
“We now step into the world of neuroethics. This is the field of philosophy that discusses the rights and wrongs of the treatment of, or enhancement of, the human brain.” “Was the medical team acting ethically, putting the patients’ interests first, or was it influenced by the humanitarian prospect of the advancement of specific knowledge about the brain — or by the attraction of the world fame and professional prestige that would follow a high achievement?” “Not just neurosurgeons but other brain scientists are thinking long and hard about the morality (right or wrong) and the ethics (fair or unfair) of what such breakthroughs as genomics, molecular imaging and pharmaceuticals will make it possible for them to do.” “In the treatment or cure of brain disease or disability, the public tends to support neuroscience’s needs for closely controlled and informed experimentation. But in the enhancement of the brain’s ability to learn or remember, or to be cheerful at home or attentive in school, many of the scientists are not so quick to embrace mood-manipulating drugs or a mindless race to enhance the mind (Safire 2003-07-10).”
“The brain’s ethical sense may run deeper than we think. ”The essence of ethical behavior,” writes the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in Looking for Spinoza, his newest book, ”does not begin with humans.” Ravens and vampire bats ”can detect cheaters among the food gatherers in their group and punish them accordingly.” Though human altruism is much further evolved, in one experiment ”monkeys abstained from pulling a chain that would deliver food to them if pulling the chain caused another monkey to receive an electric shock. Damasio does not believe that there is a gene for ethical behavior or that we are likely to find a moral center in the brain. But we may one day understand the ”natural and automatic devices of homeostasis” — the brain’s system that balances appetites and controls emotions, much as a constitution and a system of laws regulates and governs a nation (Safire 2003-07-10).”
“[Brain] scientists . . . debate going beyond the cure of disease to the possibilities of meddling with memory or implanting a happy demeanor (Safire 2003-07-10).”
“Maybe the human brain has a self-defense mechanism that causes brain scientists to pause before they improve on the healthy brain. Would we feel guilty about discovering the chemistry of conscience (Safire 2003-07-10)?”
Folksonomy, taxonomy, tags, key words, classification, semantic web
cognitive neuroscience: moral and ethical aspects, ethics, Damasio, science and religion, chemical conscience, meddling with memory, permalink,
- Michael S. Gazzaniga is President of the American Psychology Society, and director of the Center of Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College.
- According to Gazzaniga it was William Safire who coined the term neuroethics to describe the field of philosophy that discusses the rights and wrongs of the treatment of, or enhancement of, the human brain.”
- The Dana Foundation: “The Dana Foundation is a private philanthropy with principal interests in brain science, immunology, and arts education. Charles A. Dana, a New York State legislator, industrialist and philanthropist, was president of the Dana Foundation from 1950 to 1966 and actively shaped its programs and principles until his death in 1975.”
- Some of these bibliographic entries were inserted using Zotero’s capacity to let “users choose a citation format, such as Chicago, MLA, APA, or others. To add a source from Zotero, a user simply drags that source into an application such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs [and WordPress!!!!], and a properly formatted citation is inserted. Zotero also generates a bibliography of all the sources included in a paper.” I did not choose my preferred citation format or generate the bibliography in the proper Zotero mode yet. This needs tweeking on my part but it was successful.
Citations from Antes, Geertz and Warne (2004).
4. “Body, Emotion, and Consciousness: The Portuguese born neurologist at the University of Iowa College of Medicine and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Antonio R. Damasio, has argued in a number of books that studies of the brain, cognition and consciousness are seriously hampered because neuroscientists traditionally ignore the role of functions and emotions in the brain. 47 He claims that “it is possible that feelings are poised at the threshold that separates being from knowing and thus have a privileged connection to consciousness” (Damasio 1999:43). Emotions are at a fairly high level of life regulation, and when they are sensed, that is when one has ‘feelings,’ the threshold of consciousness has been crossed. Emotions are part of homeostasis, which is the automatic regulation of temperature, oxygen contentration or pH in the body by the autonomatic nervous system, the endrocrine system and the immune system. According to Damasio, homeostasis is the key to consciousness (Damasio 1999:40). Damasio defined consciousness as constructing knowledge about two facts: “that the organism is involved in relating to some object, and that the object in the relation causes a change in the organism” (Damasio 1999:20). Understanding the biology of consciousness becomes, then, a matter of discovering “how the brain can map both the two players and the relationship they hold” (Damasio 1999:20). The interesting thing is that the brain holds a model of the whole thing, and this may be the key to understanding the underpinnings of consciousness (Antes, Geertz, Warne 2004:365).”
“[Damasio's] explanation for this enigma is precisely as follows: “I have come to the conclusion that the organism, as represented inside its own brain, is a likely biological forerunner for what eventually becomes the elusive sense of self. The deep roots for the self, including the elaborate self which encompasses identity and personhood, are to be found in the ensemble of brain devices which continuously and nonconsciously maintain the body state within the narrow range and relative stability required for survival. These devices continually represent, nonconsciously, the state of the living body, along its many dimensions. I call the state of activity within the ensemble of such devices the proto-self, the nonconscious forerunner for the levels of self which appear in our minds as the conscious protagonists of consciousness: core self and autobiographical self.” (Damasio 1999:20) cited in (Antes, Geertz, Warne 2004:365).”
“This is, indeed, a radical embodiment theory and should be of interest to scholars of religion involved in studies of central religious concepts such as personalities, personhood, selves and souls. The very fact of plurality of selves in Damasio’s model should prove useful to the study of religions that deal with multiple selves and souls (Antes, Geertz, Warne 2004:365).”
Webliography and Bibliography
Antes, Peter; Geertz, Armin W.; Warne, Randi R. 2004. Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion. Walter de Gruyter: Berlin/New York.
Anthony Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (New York: Harcourt, 1999).
Michael S. Gazzaniga, The Ethical Brain (New York: Dana Press, 2005).
Henry T. Greely, “Prediction, Litigation, Privacy, and Property: Some Possible Legal and Social Implications of Advances in Neuroscience,” in Neuroscience and the Law: Brain, Mind, and the Scales of Justice . Dana Press.
Safire, William. 2003-07-10. “The Risk that Failed.” New York Times.
Educause, “7 Things You Should Know About Geolocation,” 2008,
We know that we feel an emotion by sensing something happening in our organism (Damasio 1999:279). When the sense of the feeling self is created in our minds through consciousness, then we can know that we feel an emotion. Our proto-self interprets activity patterns of changes to our organism and represents them as knowable patterns necessary for our core consciousness. Mental images arise from neural patterns representing biological changes in our body and brain (1999:280). Without this second level representation into knowable emotions these neural patterns would be simply noise.
Changes related to the body and cognitive states are related to different mechanisms in different sites of the brain although they are both constituted by a collection of neural patterns in a number of brain circuits and involve changes in the body’s chemical profile (1999:281).
Damasio summarizes this feeling an emotion,
[I] s the representation of that transient change in organism state in terms of neural patterns and ensuing images. When those images are accompanied, one instant later, by a sense of self in the act of knowing, and when they are enhanced, they become conscious. They are, in the true sense, feelings of feelings (Damasio 1999:282).
Damasio argues that this cognitive state, when we know we are feeling our emotions, allows us to plan specific, nonstereotyped responses to the emotive bodily state — to choose to pay attention or not to the biochemical changes in our organism. Damasio claims then that this endowment of consciousness of the knowing subject, provides a marked advantage in evolutionary terms over those creatures who have emotions but lack subjective knowledge and therefore the incentive or ability to solve complex problems of survival (1999:284-5).
Damasio distinguishes between core consciousness and extended consciousness. Core consciousness is only slightly above “other foundational capacities, such as action, emotion, and sensory representation, which we share with several nonhuman species (1999:311).” Consciousness begins with a ‘vague, elusive and yet unmistakable’ feeling, a mental image ‘like some kind of pattern built with nonverbal vocabulary or signs of body states.’ (1999:312). The transient core self, which emerges in core consciousness is ‘ceaselessly re-created for each and every object with which the brain interacts’ (1999:17).
Extended consciousness at its most complex and elaborate level provides the key to the examined life (Damasio 1999:5). I interpret this as meaning that extended consciousness allows us to nurture ethical relationships of mutual respect between ourselves and the other-I. The more traditional sense of self “linked to a notion of identity and corresponds to a nontransient collection of unique facts and ways of being which characterizes a person” is what Damasio calls the autobiographical self. The autobiographical self depends on systematized memory and organized recording of the organism’s unique biography.
The recognizable universal Darwinian core emotions are fear, anger, disgust, surprise and happiness. Damasio suggests that most of the time we do not experience these emotions or the secondary or social emotions but we do experience low-grade background feelings. Background emotions such as ‘fatigue, energy, excitement, wellness, sickness, tension, relaxation, surging, dragging, stability, instability, balance, imbalance, harmony and discord (1999: 286) are intimately linked to consciousness, moods, drives and motivations. Core emotions can be experienced as a burst pattern with a rapid onset-intensity-release pattern or a wavelike pattern. Sadness in some forms and background emotions are wavelike patterns. A particular background emotion that is fairly frequent or sustained over a long period of time is better described as a mood not simply a background emotion (1999:341). Damasio acknowledges resonance between his notion of background feelings and developmental psychologist Daniel Stern’s concept of vitality affects and the work of Susanne Langer.
Damasio uses the term image to refer to a mental image as synonym for mental pattern. He distinguishes between this mental pattern or mental image (as in feeling states) and the neural pattern or map of the processing of neural activities as studied in current neuroscience. Damasio’s notion of mental images refers to unconscious images and conscious images that are only accessible through qualia or first-person perspective. Consciousness is an entirely private, first-person phenomenon which occurs as part of the mind (1999:12). Neurologists are able to access neural patterns and maps through advanced technologies so that most individuals will never see this image of their own neural architecture (1999:318). The brain is constantly constructing mental images or mental patterns with a structure composed of ‘visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory and somatosensory modalities’. So Damasio’s images are in no way limited to visual pictures.
For Damasio, the notion of the mind is as a process of continual flow of mental images that become conscious and may be logically interrelated. He uses the notion of thought to describe this flow of mental images that moves forward in time concurrently, convergent or divergent (1999:318).
He describes the limitations of our minds to attend to all the mental images constructed by our brains. He offers the metaphor of a multiple layered subterranean underneath the conscious mind of unconscious mental image, those that our minds did not attend to, a layer of neural patterns and relationships among neural patterns which subtend all conscious and unconscious mental images and a layer of neural machinery which holds records of neural patterns in memory (1999:319).
In spite of his status as leader of thought in consciousness studies, Damasio adopts a humble stance. He reminds us that as science helps us understand consciousness better and ravel some of the mysteries of the mind, there is still enough awe at nature to keep us modest for the foreseeable future (1999:28). It is not through neuroscience, psychology or biology that we will explain the origin of the universe or the meaning of life.
BibliographyDamasio, Antonio R. Descartes’ Error.
Damasio, Antonio R. 1999. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt.
Langer, Susanne. 1942. Philosophy in a New Key: a Study in the Symbolism of Reasons, Rite and Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Stern, Daniel. 1985. The Interpersonal World of the Infant: a View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.
May 7, 2007
With our stunning window view of eagles gliding effortlessly over the waters of Finlayson Arm along the ridges and forested steep hills of Sanich Peninsula, we chose to sit side by side more like an awestruck audience than a couple ordering dinner at a restaurant. Within an hour of my arrival at the Victoria airport I felt like I was in another country. Neither the January weather nor the temperate rain forest in its spectacular topography were part of what had become familiar to me as Canadian. I’d already lived in five provinces and Canada’s newest territory but this warm land was nothing like anything I had experienced. Most of the rest of the drive along the dark and winding highway was an anticlimax to that view, that is until we came to the Malahat lookout.
Eighteen months later we are again faced with a choice. Today may be the last day of familiar habits repeated day after day. I’m not sure if I have seen, experienced and learned enough yet to be able to leave.
When I first arrived I devoured maps and trail books to lcoate myself in this unfamiliar topography. Mountain trails traced on a map are useful when you are hiking between and around rocky outcrops, ancient trees and stumps, narrow footpaths . . . Deep in among the Garry Oak, Arbutus and Douglas Fir hilly slopes and valley confuse the hiker who ends up not really knowing if she is ultimately reaching a higher level or heading downhill. Like yesterday when we heading out looking for the low trail along the shore of Tzuhalem and ending up in Genoa Bay having crossed to the other side of the mountain just by putting one foot in front of the other.
Google earth offered seemingly endless potential for locating myself in space and time. But now I realize that it is most useful for tracing where I have been. Flickr lets me geotag my digital photos and visual art works unto scaled maps so I can zoom in to exact locations. Google video lets me float my shaky images and breathless voice in cyberspace describing what I am seeing in the ‘here-and-now’ so that my future self can better remember places that were once familiar.
I have learned the names of the wildflowers that grow under the oaks, fir and deciduous trees of Mount Tzuhalem. I have learned to name it by latitude and longtitude. I know its smells and sounds. I know how to dress in layers in this ecosystem that constantly changes from cool to warm to rain, wind and sun. I know its panoramas and vistas and the names of the mountains and bodies of water that surround it. But I could still get lost here and end up far from my goal.
And this is the glitch in one’s ethical topography of self. The everyday habits, the things that make a home a home, can be taken away either by choice or necessity from one day to the next. And there you are in some unfamiliar place, re-examining again, locating oneself again.
For those who can control how their lives unfold or seem to think they can, habits repeated day after day, reinforce values and make ethical decisions automatically without a lot of reflection.
But for the nomads, the one’s who travel, the unfamiliar shakes us into thinking consciously, deliberately about entrenched habits, values, goals and perhaps even the meaning of life. This is why this phrase remains with me as a question mark, a point of departure for a line of deep reflection that will never end . . .
an ethical topography of Self and the Other based on an authentic relationship of mutual respect
It is by encountering the stranger, the unheimlich, by getting lost in unfamiliar topographies (Taylor 1989, Murray 1991) that we open ourselves to encountering the Other in a spirit of hospitality and friendship that transcends our habitual ways of knowing. It is the unheimlich that puts into perspective that which we held to be true, about ourselves, our beliefs and our values. If the stranger offers us something that resonates or is dissonant with our own beliefs we are compelled to take them out in the light of day, to examine them with new eyes. It is as if in the mirror-pupil of the Other we see ourselves reflected. If we are mutually respectful we will accept that we are answerable (Bakhtin) to that Other and will at least closely examine our own reflection in her eyes. If we are truly practicing hospitality from a cosmopolitical viewpoint (Bennington and Derrida 1997) we will examine those unchallenged assumptions about our values in a more precise and logical way. We will use more precise instruments and acknowledge that somethings were not as they once seemed and our belief in them need to be revised. Others resonate so soundly that it is evident that they are part of our authentic selves.
I see this outer topography as a metaphor for the inner self. Reconfiguring rivers in that intellectual, emotional, spiritual landscape is to me like reconfiguring entrenched habits of thought or behaviour. It won’t happen through human nature but takes a conscious act of will. Through the conscious re-evaluation of our everyday habits and by willfully changing then repeating them day after day we can more clearly evaluate values, behaviours and with greater lucidity and reason (Changeux and Ricoeur 2000b).
1. This is how I have come to internalize Charles Taylor’s moral topography of self. Psychologist Murray summarizes Charles Taylor’s concept of the moral topography of self.
2. Shields’ concept of an ethical dialogical relationship between self and the other has informed my understanding:
Dialogism offers us the potential within a more sophisticated theory of semiosis to position Self and Other, seeing their relationship for what it is, an ethical one of mutuality in the social construction of meaning.
Changeux, Jean-Piere and Paul Ricoeur. 2000b. What Makes Us Think? A Neuroscientist and a Philosopher Argue about Ethics, Human Nature and the Brain. Translated by M. B. DeBevoise. Princeton: University of Princeton Press.
Bennington, Geoffrey and Derrida, Jacques. 1997. “Politics and Friendship: A Discussion with Jacques Derrida.” Centre for Modern French Thought. University of Sussex. 1 December.
Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Reconfiguring Rivers Ethics Human Nature and the Brain. >> Speechless.
Murray, K. 1991. “A Life In The World In Australia.” Australian Cultural History. 10:32-45.
Shields, Rob. 1996. Meeting or mis-meeting? The dialogical challenge to Verstehen. British Journal of Sociology: 47.
Taylor, Charles. 1989. “Moral Topography of Self.” in Messer L A Sass and R L Wootfolk (eds) Hermeneutics and Psychological Theory: Interpretive Perspectives on Personality, Psychotherapy and Psychopathology New Brunswick Rutgers University Press.
May 5, 2007
American sociologist Amitai Etzioni (2007) argues that Western opinion makers are ignoring the potential of moderate religious beliefs and enriched secular humanism to respond to global transcendental questions that human rights discourse alone does not provide. The West is “falling behind in the global clash of belief systems.” Etzioni claims that the rest of the world is embracing religion in a spiritual surge while Western leaders of thought perceive religion to to be a threat, particularly to the Enlightenment project.
Rather than treating religion, as so many enlightened people do, as a relic of the past, long on passion and short on reason, the enemy of progress and freedom, the West will best learn to differentiate between moderate, civil religious interpretations and violence-prone, fundamentalist ones. The first kind address key transcendental questions that concern our obligations to one another and our cosmic destiny, while seeking to persuade people rather than to coerce them to abide by the religious tenets (Etzioni 2007a).
Etzioni, Amitai. 2007a.”The West Needs a Spiritual Surge” >> Amitai Etzioni Notes. March 6, 2007.
Etzioni, Amitai. 2007b. “L’Occident aussi a besoin d’un renouveau spirituel.” Le Monde. 7 avril.
Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Does the West Need a Spiritual Surge?” >> Speechless. May 4.