April 23, 2024

The birth of neuroethics

Staunchly agnostic or atheist
Most histories of bioethics say that
its origins are deeply religious. America’s best-known bioethics
commentator, Arthur Caplan, recently
told a seminar
that when it took shape in the 1960s
and 70s, “the overwhelming majority of the people who got
interested in bioethical questions were from religious traditions”.

Nowadays bioethics has a rival
offshoot, the fledgling field of neuroethics, which even has a
journal, Neuroethics,
whose bold mission is to transform our notion of what it means to be
a thinking being. But unlike their predecessors in bioethics, the
leading figures in neuroethics are staunchly agnostic or atheist.
Writing in the leading journal Science, neuroscientist Martha
J. Farah, of the University of Pennsylvania, and Nancey Murphy, a
theologian from Fuller Theological Seminary in California, maintain
that “neuroscience will pose a far more fundamental challenge than
evolutionary biology to many religions”. Neuroscience, they say, is
on the brink of proving that “all aspects of a person can be
explained by the functioning of a material system”.

This means that philosophical
dualism, the notion that there can be another mode of being which is
not bounded by quantity, is obsolete. Personality, love, morality and
spirituality all have physical correlates in the brain. Farah and
Murphy believe that neuroscience has all but exorcised the ghost in
the machine.

Despite their self-confident
assertions, it may be a bit early to crow “mission accomplished”.
In concluding their article, they acknowledge that it may take more
than a century “to understand why certain material systems give
rise to consciousness”. ~ Science, Feb 27