The Ethical Brain: Chemical Conscience, Homeostasis and Religion
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,