Where morality lives
angry doc hasn't been posting anything of substance for the past few weeks. He has been struggling: with work, with travel, with politics, with the mechanics of living, with real life, and with ideas, one of which is something featured in this news article:
Scientists locate brain's moral centre
Certain parts of brain activated when faced with moral dilemmas
LONDON: - Scientists have made significant headway into a realm generally left to philosophers and theologians.
In a report to be published in the American Medical Association's journal Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers say they have identified the parts of the brain that help humans when they are faced with difficult moral dilemmas, Britain's The Sunday Times reported.
Using sophisticated brain scanning techniques, researchers found that humans respond to moral quandaries by activating areas of the brain associated with abstract thought and such basic emotions as sex, fear and anger.
'Our research suggests there may be a basis in neurobiology for wisdom's most universal traits,' said Dr Dilip Jeste, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of San Diego.
Dr Jeste and his colleague Thomas Meeks found that when faced with a simple situation calling for altruism, humans call upon the medial prefrontal cortex, an area linked to intelligence and learning.
But when forced to make a difficult moral judgment, other areas in the brain were activated, including those connected both with rational thought and basic emotions.
'Several brain regions appear to be involved in different components of wisdom. It seems to involve a balance between more primitive brain regions, like the limbic system, and the newest ones, such as the prefrontal cortex,' Dr Meeks said.
Increasingly sophisticated brain scanning techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which allows researchers to see which parts of the brain become active when people undertake mental tasks, have made such research possible.
Other recent studies have tried to understand aspects of the human condition such as empathy, compassion and emotional stability, which are widely regarded as part of the intangible concept of wisdom.
A recent paper published in Britain's Nature journal addressed the neurological basis of free will. In it, Professor Patrick Haggard of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, wrote: 'Modern neuroscience is shifting towards a view of voluntary action being based on specific brain processes, rather than being a transcendental feature of human nature.'
Such research has also been used to study disorders such as obesity and gambling, suggesting the brains of people suffering from such afflictions are wired in a way that makes self-control difficult.
'Brain scans of some people suffering from morbid obesity show they have an abnormal response to food. Their brains respond so powerfully that they are driven to eat too much,' said Dr James Rowe, a consultant neurologist and researcher at Cambridge University.
angry doc isn't surprised by the findings - we have long known that thought processes and emotions are related to or 'located' in certain parts of the brain - if a certain part of our brain is damaged, our function, cognition, and indeed personality can change in a way that is largely predictable based on our knowledge of neuroanatomy.
You may argue that morality does exist as an independent entity apart from neurophysiological processes, and that it is morality that activates certain areas of the brain up and not vice versa, but then that would be like arguing that it is the reflection of a tree in the water that causes the tree to exist, and not the other way round. Except for anecdotal accounts of 'reincarnation' (some of which are remarkably convincing), there is no good evidence to show that emotions and thoughts, and by extension consciousness, can exist without a functioning brain, whereas all instances of emotions, thoughts, and abstract concepts we know of and deal with every day exist only in relation to a functioning brain. Near-death experiences, being 'near' death and not actual death, are actually accounts from a functioning brain after the event, and so are not evidence for consciousness outside of a brain. In other words, the concept of morality, as with thoughts and emotions, is an epiphenomenon.
So no, angry doc is not at all surprised by the fact that abstract concepts such as morality and altruism are related to certain parts and are thus functions of the brain. In fact, the opposite will surprise him more.
What does it all mean though?
As the article suggested, the implication is that 'free will' as we currently conceive of it may not be as 'free' as we think it is. Consequently, those of us who are less successful in life - the 'slackers', the 'stupid', the 'lazy' and the 'weak' - and those who are deemed to be morally-deficient somehow - addicts, sociopaths, sexual deviants, repeat criminals, and even that jerk in your office who pisses everyone off regularly - may not be as free to not be what we are than society think.
The flip side also is that those of us who are successful in life, who are kind, patient, wise or compassionate, or otherwise a paragon of a certain virtue, may have less reason to be proud of being who we are than we may now be.
The fact is our current system of ethics and morality is evolved and built upon the assumption of free will, that each man should be held accountable for his wilful actions, and that our current system of meritocracy, of rewarding people, is also based on the assumption that it is just to give higher rewards to those who contribute more and to give those who perform less well lower rewards.
Yet if everything is ultimately contingent on how our brains are wired, are those systems of morality and reward-and-punishment still valid? Are they still just?
angry doc believes that it doesn't matter. At the end of the day, we are still unwilling to let people who steal our possessions get away with it, or to accept that someone who obviously performs less well than us should be rewarded as much as we are - the validity of the concept aside, we will still think it is 'unjust'.
Moral imperative, at the end of the day, is just electrical impulses in our brain.
Labels: in the news