Michael S. Gazzaniga [1] 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[2] 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,

Health

Notes

  1. Michael S. Gazzaniga is President of the American Psychology Society, and director of the Center of Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.”
  4. 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).

Brain-Based Education – Summary Principles of Brain-Based Research, Critiques of Brain-Based Education,”

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,


For ten years (1990-2000) I had the most seductive job a visual artist could imagine as contract art educator at the National Gallery of Canada. The largest spaces in the gallery were devoted to the growing collection of contemporary art. So most educators included some contemporary art along with European, RCA, Group of Seven and modern art . . . in their survey tours of the collection. In the 1990s contemporary art was almost entirely postmodern and it was there in the early 1990s I experienced my own personal experience of the powers and limits of oppositional postmodernism (Altieri 1990). Perhaps I should have paid more attention that day to where the students were from. But they were an animated, interesting and interested group and the Hans Haake exhibition had just opened. I think it was Hans Haake’s (1983) controversial artwork Here is Alcan (Stephen Biko) (purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1983) that abruptly ended my tour. This image of Biko’s severely swollen battered face haunts the history of apartheid and adds weight to the Mandela’s honouring of those heroes like Biko who sought “to redeem the pledge to give a more human face to a society for centuries trampled upon by the jackboot of inhumanity (Mandela 1997). The professor who accompanied the group of CEGEP students from Jonquiere seemed to be personally insulted by Haake’s critique of Alcan and insisted his students leave the gallery immediately.

Yesterday was the thirtieth anniversay of Biko’s death in his prison cell in Pretoria, South Africa. Biko’s friend and biographer, British journalist Donald Woods’ gruesome postmortum photo of Biko was published around the globe resulting in such international indignation that the Security Council was forced to finally enforce the arms embargo they had instated in 1963. In 1994 Nelson Mandela acknowledged that the death of Biko was the first nail in the coffin of apartheid (Conchiglia 2007).

A decade ago Nelson Mandela unveiled the bronze statue of Stephen Bantu Biko by Naomi Jacobson as a contribution towards immortalising his life:

It also gives a certain kind of joy that the financial cost of creating the statue was footed by people in the creative field, including Denzel Washington, Kevin Kline and Richard Attenborough who will be remembered for the film on Biko, `Cry Freedom’. Another contributor is Peter Gabriel whose song `Biko’ helped keep the flame of anti-apartheid solidarity alive. This collaboration of British and American artists bears eloquent witness to Steve Biko’s internationalism (Mandela 1997).

Contemporary artist Jamelie Hassan (1987) reviewed Haake’s work,

Among the other works in this survey, Void Mean has the most visual and emotional impact — perhaps because it brings home Canada’s duplicity in tolerating Alcan’s involvement in the apartheid regime. It is in works like Void Mean that the full potency and immediacy of the issues reach us (and bravo to the National Gallery of Canada, who arranged for its loan during a moratorium on the loan of works from their collection so that Void Mean could be seen in the one Canadian gallery on the Haacke tour). Alcan’s corporate presence is appropriated from its promotional material and juxtaposed to two benign sepia images of a Montreal opera sponsored by Alcan. These images bracket a central, coloured, violent news photo of the dead Stephen Biko. In the accompanying text, Alcan’s involvement in South Africa is described: ‘The most important producer of aluminum sheet and the only fabricator of aluminum sheet in South Africa. From a non-white work force of 2,300 the company has trained eight skilled workers’ (translation from the French). To underline its source, the work is fabricated from aluminum storm windows: the top panels contain Alcan’s silver logo; the bottom panels, the images of the opera and Biko, to reinforce the reality of the violence perpetrated (Hassan 1987).

Bibliography

Altieri, C. 1990. “The Powers and the Limits of Oppositional Postmodernism.” American Literary History. 2: 443-481.
Bois, Yve-Alain; Crim, Douglas; Krauss, Rosalind; Haake, Hans. 1984. “A Conversation with Hans Haacke.” October. Vol. 30. Autumn: pp. 23-48.

Conchiglia, Augusta. 2007. “Steve Biko, la conscience noire.” Le monde diplomatique. September 12, 2007.

Hassan, Jamelie. 1987. “Hans Haacke at The Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, May 15 – June 21.” Vanguard, Vol. 16:4, Sept/Oct 1987.

Mandela, Nelson. 1997. “Address at 20th Anniversary of Steve Biko’s Death.” East London, 12 September 1997. http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/mandela/1997/sp970912.html

Creative Commons License 2.5 Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Stephen Bantu Biko (1940-1977) Thirty Years Later.” >> speechless http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddp3qxmz_361xsrzrh


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.


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).

Notes:
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.

Bibliography

Bakhtin. Answerability.

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.

Winning Hearts

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).

Bibliography

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.
http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddp3qxmz_228hk8bnj


If our minds are what our brains do (Dennett 2003:i) and changing entrenched brain pathways may be harder than we think (Merkl 2007) is the logical conclusion of an entirely naturalistic Darwinian human evolution a more just, humane world or a dystopia? Or you tried to change your mind but your brain wouldn’t let you.

Dennett (2003) argues that the evolution of the human brain over deep time has followed the laws of natural science and that human free will is an emergent phenomena of that same physical process. He forcefully argues that biological determinism does not limit human behaviour to predictable, inevitable outcomes.

Dennett contends that recognition of the true nature of man as an exclusively physical body proscribed by the laws of nature will provide a stronger, wiser doctrine of freedom (Dennett 2003:22) than the belief that the reality of man resides in her immaterial, immortal human soul capable of defying the laws of nature (Dennett 2003:1).

Man’s evolution towards moral thinking and existential interpretations is constituted by higher levels of evolution, more advanced outcomes of the natural evolution of entities towards emergent changes that allowed them to avoid harm and reproduce themselves (Dennett 2003:22).

While Dennett draws on arguments from biology, cognitive neuroscience, economics and philosophy proposing provocative and original arguments, there is a lack of the psychological or sociological2 imaginations in his work. It is in the area of habits (particularly those that are institutionalized or community-sanctioned) that flaws may be revealed in Dennett’s arguments of a logical evolutionary conclusion of an emergent salutary human nature incapable of overriding its material brain yet somehow managing to move beyond its own autopoietic system. Would human nature not follow evolutionary pathways towards conservation of the familiar while eliminating that which is uncomfortably unfamiliar from everyday life? What are the ethical implications for sustaining an authentic pluralism, diversity of cultures? It is in this area of an expanded Derridian hospitality towards the stranger, the unknown that Dennett’s secular humanism fails to respond.

Like Dennett, William James1 (1986:369 cited in Tursi 1999) perceived the same evolutionary principles at work in inorganic matter that have been applied to organic matter. In the same year that James developed his ideas on the relationship between the birth of human consciousness, habit and knowing, Freud explored the concept of habit formation as simple agents of conservation that are instinctual reaching deeply back through consciousness, through organic and even organic compulsions. James seemed to perceive the evolutionary changes in human consciousness as radical agents of variance and development. He aligned habit and knowing so that free human agents develop habits by force of will and character. James regretfully admits that habits are difficult to change after the age of thirty (1890). Freud’s theorized that an organism, including a human being, is disposed towards repeating its own lived experience while protecting itself against unsafe levels of stimulation from the unknown, the unheimlich or the uncanny. Freud argued that the cerebral cortex as the seat of consciousness, recorded negative past experiences of unfamiliar stimuli protected itself by constructed hardened defensive shields against outer stimuli. James acknowledges the way in which habitual sequences and customary feelings provide us with an agreeable feeling of being at home with oneself, whereas unsafe levels of excitation from uncustomary, unfamiliar, incongruous representations evoke distress, doubt, misunderstanding and irrationality (Essays in Philosophy 345). For a more in-depth thoughtful discussion see Tursi (1999).

James “advocates idiosyncrasy, spontaneity, and originality as enrichments to a malleable world, he always returns to habit (Tursi 1999). We reconfigure the unfamiliar or uncanny, the unheimlich to a more welcome pattern (Pragmatism 122).

Just as rivers can be reconfigured so too can our neural networks but deep entrenchment of fast flowing rivers in their time-worn river beds are less flexible, less plastic and more embedded.

It may seem easy to change your mind, but if it’s your brain we’re talking about, maybe it’s harder than we think. A University of Houston professor is looking into this with research into something called ‘brain plasticity (Merkl 2007 ).’

Key Words: brain plasticity, free will, entrenched core beliefs, reconfiguring entrenched brain pathways, habits, character, morality and meaning,

Notes

1 The work of William James, considered by his followers as canonical, has been derided by his critics as classist and elitist. I consider it fortunate that his work has again found a legitimate place even with these critics. James began or contributed to so many debates that have been recently resuscitated.

2 Pierre Boudieu’s studies on the reproduction of social values through cultural institutions through schools and museums, for example, reveal the degree to which entrenched societal values continue to be reinforced in a hidden curriculum that benefits exclusive, powerful social strata. In Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argued that genocide was the logical conclusion of the Enlightenment project with its promise of a better society based on shared western values. The Other who refused modernity would be eradicated through a process of natural selection that ensured a safer world for those with more power to reproduce themselves.

Not just for radicals, but for many mainstream liberals too, the road that began in the Enlightenment ends in savagery, even genocide. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues: ‘Every ingredient of the Holocaust… was normal… in the sense of being fully in keeping with everything we know about our civilisation, its guiding spirits, its priorities, its immanent vision of the world – and of the proper ways to pursue human happiness together with a perfect society (Bauman 1989:8).


Bibliography

Zygmunt Bauman. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p8

Dennett, Daniel C. 2003. Freedom Evolves. New York: Penguin.

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “You tried to change your mind but your brain wouldn’t let you.” >> papergirls. May 3. http://papergirls.wordpress.com/2007/05/04/you-tried-to-change-your-mind-but-your-brain-wouldnt-let-you /

Freud, Sigmund. 1953-75 [1919]. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. Trans. and Gen. Ed. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth, 1953-75.

James, William. 1890. “Habit.” The Principles of Psychology. http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/Principles/prin4.htm

James, William. 1986 [1919]. Essays in Psychical Research. Ed. Frederick H. Burkhardt, Fredson Bowers, and Ignas K. Skrupskelis. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Merkl, Lisa. 2007. “How Plastic Is Your Brain? UH Engineer Seeks Answers.” Medical News Today. May 3. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/medicalnews.php?newsid=69263&nfid=crss


Tursi, Renee. 1999. “William James’ Narrative of Habit.” Style. Spring. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2342/is_1_33/ai_58055905/print

© Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. “If our minds are what our brains do (Dennett 2003:i) and changing our brain’s habits may be harder than we think (Merkl 2007) can we achieve a wiser, stronger freer society through a process of purely natural selection as Dennett predicts?” >> Speechless
http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddp3qxmz_227c46gc3


Why are genetics, neuroscience and evolution perceived as corrosive to notions of free will, personal responsibility and the possibility of negotiating a universal code of ethical values1? Steven Pinker (2002) brilliantly unveils a history of major debates on issues that have become increasingly strident.

Pinker reveals the underlying fear of a religious and secular nihilism engendered by materialist theories of consciousness in which the mind emerges solely from the forces of living matter2. Pinker concedes that ‘debating the Pope [on the ontological leap about the existence of the human soul, the higher purpose of knowledge and love of God] is the ultimate exercise in futility’ (Pinker 2002:187). But Pinker’s argument is that the theory that the mind is purely a physical organ is as humane as the doctrine of the immortal soul. In fact Pinker continues, the doctrine of the immortal soul and the reward of life after death, devalues life on earth (Pinker 2002:189).

Picture this, an exiled, persecuted Persian spiritual leader, invited to speak to distinguished audiences in London, Paris, New York . . . to respond to divergent philosophies that had emerged during his decades of imprisonment. In 1911 after strolling through the Trocadero Gardens near the Eiffel Tower he shared his thoughts on the relationship between mind, body and spirit. He acknowledged the way in which the terminology of soul, mind and spirit differed between the ancient and modern philosophers. The ancient philosophers used the term ‘soul’ as sensations of emotion as a function of the reality. The concept of ‘mind’ was used to describe the power that discussed the reality of phenomena. The concept of ‘spirit’ was used to discuss ‘consciousness’.

Abdul-Baha (1911) offered an alternative to the way in which philosophers described the relationship between body, mind, soul and spirit. He described how the mind as a faculty is a power superior to the soul because through the mind man can investigate the reality of every phenomena. The spirit is a third power differentiated from the soul and the mind. This third power, the spirit, involves an ontological leap of faith and cannot be deduced from a purely rational, scientific investigation of material phenomena. The soul is the motive power of the physical body, the intermediary between the body and the spirit. But it is the mind that can investigate the nature of reality choosing rationally to either open the soul to the spirit or to focus completely on the embodied self dependent on material comforts and needs. Each individual is called to use her rational mind and intellect to investigate truth individually. According to Abdul-Baha, those who choose to live in an entirely material world without need for spiritual qualities risk a weakening and eventual atrophy of the soul.

Pinker replaces the concept of ‘spirit’ with ‘consciousness’ and rejects the concept of the immortal soul leaving us with a mortal brain and a mind dependent on and emanating from purely material living matter. He argues that the “doctrine of a soul that outlives the body is anything but righteous, because it devalues the lives we live on this earth.” (Pinker 2002:189) He argues that it is more humane to use the sciences of physiology and genetics to alleviate suffering from Alzheimer’s and major depression than to rely on the ontological leap of spiritual souls based on the premise that thought and emotion are manifestations of an immaterial soul. What Abdul-Baha is saying is that we don’t need to choose between the two. Science will provide cures for those aspects of mental illness caused by purely physical, physiological or genetic manifestations in the body. But how many of us seriously believe that science will provide answers for existential crises? And what about the ethical and historical relationship between incidents of suicides and the structural, political, economic realities that engendered unhealthy environments in which certain groups of people are socially excluded and at heightened risk for mental collapse? Despair is not a state of consciousness, brain or mind but of the human spirit.

The dilemma lies then with the ethical topography of self and the other to which Pinker responds convincingly. This intrigues me. How far can we go towards a set of universal values within an entirely materialist framework? Or how humane is human nature when disengaged from a higher form of consciousness called the spiritual?

Belief that a purely materialist view that human nature, body with consciousness but not spirit, will lead to a more humane world, a golden age of understanding human nature, resonates with the belief that the science of economics with its dogma of free trade will provide the solution to the extremes of wealth and poverty.

Bibliography

Abdul-Baha. 1911. Causeries d’Abdu’l Baha à Paris (Les ). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Talks

Abdul-Baha. 1911. “Concerning Body, Soul and Spirit.” Paris Talks.

Bergson, Henri. 1907. Creative Evolution (L’Evolution créatrice).

Bergson, Henri. 1932. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion).

Ferguson, A. 1999. “The End of Nature and the Next Man: Review of E. Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption.” Weekly Standard. January 12.

Gould, S. J. 1976. “Criminal Man Revived.” Natural History. 85:10-21.

Kass, L. 1997. “The End of Courtship.” Public Interest. 126. Winter.

Lewis, C. S. 2002. [1952]. “Mere Christianity.” in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York: Harper Collins.

Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin.

Rose, S. 1978. “Pre-Copernican Sociobiology?” New Scientist. 80:45-6.

Wolfe, Tom. 1996. “Sorry but your Soul Just Died.” Forbes ASAP. December 2.

Wolfe, Tom. 2000. “Sorry but your Soul Just Died.” Ellipses.

Footnotes:

1 Pinker cites partisans on the political left and right (Rose, Gould, Kass, Wolfe and Ferguson) who ironically are in agreement that the ‘new sciences of human nature threaten the concept of moral responsibility’ (Pinker 2002:132-3).

2 Pinker’s materialist view of human nature is part of a vast spectrum of materialist theories that are as numerous as divergent religious views. Henri Bergson’s (1859-1941) who enjoyed a cult-like status in his lifetime presented his view of Creative Evolution, Emergent Evolution, the Life-Force through the concept of un esprit vital, which vivified the entire universe with purposeful life. In Creative Evolution (1907) Bergson integrated findings of biological science with a theory of consciousness. According to some readings of the theory of Creative Evolution, Bergson denied the existence of the God of static religion but accepted that some force provided the impetus so that lowest forms evolved purposefully into the more perfected form of Man. (In 1914 the Roman Catholic Church, placed Bergson’s books on the Index of prohibited books. Bergson’s theories were in opposition to Catholic dogma as defined by the 13th century Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas). C. S. Lewis (2002:31-2 [1952]) argued that this Life-Force was really a tame version of God and an open dynamic inclusive religion without the discomfort of moral consequences of rigid Kantian moral imperatives. (Lewis suggests Bernard Shaw as a source of the wittiest version of Creative Evolution.) Bergson’s ideas and the man himself became an object of ridicule to the next generation of French Marxist humanist intellectuals, like Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) although Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Lévinas acknowledged his influence on their thought. Gilles Deleuze’s (1966) Bergsonism realizing the enduring contribution of Bergson’s concept of multiplicity, revitalized his work. Since the 1990s there has been an increased interest in Bergson’s thought.

© 2007 Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Can science bring us into a golden age of understanding human nature? (Pinker 2002)” > Speechless. April 26. http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddp3qxmz_219dwbrzk

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