Angry Doctor

Monday, April 06, 2009

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.

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15 Comments:

  • Question, of course, is: Who made YOUR brain?

    By Blogger Beng, At April 06, 2009 11:28 pm  

  • Which begs the question: Who made the brain that made your brain?

    By Blogger angry doc, At April 07, 2009 12:20 pm  

  • 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?


    Hi angry doc, well it is just as long as people think it is just.

    By Anonymous The Void Deck, At April 07, 2009 1:24 pm  

  • I disagree, TVD.

    People may accept the current system as a working system, but they will have no right to *think* it is just.

    The very concept of justice is based on the concept of responsibility which is in turn based on the belief of free will. If free will is not as absolute as we think it is, then at the very least we need to ask ourselves how culpable people should be for their actions (or lack of actions), and at the very worst we could be punishing people for actions they have no control over - which is not to say that we shouldn't, since we already lock mentally-ill patients who commit acts of violence up, but we need to admit to ourselves that it's done more to protect ourselves than to serve any 'justice'.

    By Blogger angry doc, At April 07, 2009 2:50 pm  

  • dear angry doc,

    this is very interesting research.

    one question: are you saying that there is by defintion no such thing as voluntary criminal behaviour?

    thanks.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At April 07, 2009 10:09 pm  

  • "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?"

    That is a good question.

    Classic EEG experiments performed by Benjamin Libet and colleagues (where brain activity commited to behaviour is detected before the subject reported first awareness of the will to act) suggest that conscious thought is not the initial driving force of behaviour.

    At a more mundane level, we know just how much drug addiction can cobble the "free will" of a subject.

    Thus, what we perceive as "free will" is most likely an emergent phenomenon caused by the interplay of brain function and external environment. Conscious thought is only a part player at best (and a powerless backward-referring observer at worst).

    Even so, justice is not an individual-level trait, it is a social-level property. What matters at that level is the interaction between people, not so much the source of behaviour of each component member of society.

    "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'."

    Yes, that is right because the rules of social justice are only relevant to the subset of human population that forms that social group - it serves to simplify and constrain component level behaviour so that society can form in the first place.

    "Moral imperative, at the end of the day, is just electrical impulses in our brain."

    I don't agree with this statement; I find it overly reductionistic.

    For example, it is also trivially true that a person is "just" made of atoms but it is a mistake to attribute the behaviour of a person to "just" interactions at the atomic level.

    Of greater relevance is the organization of those very atoms into complex self-regulating goal-directed systems. I believe that moral imperative is a socio-emergent trait that cannot be meaningfully reduced to impulses at the neuronal level.

    By Blogger Lim Leng Hiong, At April 08, 2009 9:13 am  

  • "are you saying that there is by defintion no such thing as voluntary criminal behaviour?"


    Leng Hiong answered part of the question for me.

    First of all I don't think the authors of the paper are saying that, but I certainly am entertaining that possibility.

    As Leng Hiong alluded to, 'free will' may just be an illusion born out of how our memory works - i.e. we 'think' we made the decision, but the thought that we made the decision is actually something that arises after the event but which we falsely think to be preceeding the event. The brain reacts to the external events, but fools us into thinking that we did. It leaves the question of who 'we' is in this equation though, something which I am still reading up and thinking about...

    Anyway, if free will is not free but an illusion, then the concept of 'voluntary' is no longer valid, and our current concept of justice (by which I think Leng Hiong and I have different definitions of) is also invalid.

    By Blogger angry doc, At April 08, 2009 9:33 am  

  • Leng Hiong,

    I was going to disagree with your final points but then I realise that 'social forces' can affect individuals even in the absence of free will.

    By Blogger angry doc, At April 08, 2009 9:40 am  

  • dear angry doc,

    thanks for the response.

    you mentioned that you are in the process of reading up on the issue: is there literature out there for the layperson?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At April 08, 2009 10:36 pm  

  • I'm glad you are interested in the topic too.

    I suppose a good start would be "The Universe in a Single Atom" by the Dalai Lama, which touches on some of the sceintific findings on the subject, and also gives some information on Tibetan Buddhism (if you are interested in that). I don't agree with some of his points though. Worth a read if you can find it in a library.

    A more technical book is Robert Winston's "The Human Mind", which is written for the mass market, but which I suspect may be a bit difficult for those without a background in medicine or biology nevertheless. It's an interesting account of the discoveries in neurology, but does not in fact draw any conclusion about consciousness. Worth buying and keeping.

    Both the authors above seem unable to abandon their religious views when looking at the subject though.

    The last book (which I am going through now) is "The User Illusion" by Tor Norretranders, which is very heavy-going (for me). I can't judge it yet since I have not finished it.

    My interest in the topic however is less technical and more philosophical: if 'free will' is demonstrated to be nothing more than an illusion, how does and how should that influence how we operate as a society?

    It's a question that doesn't really involve neuroscience (the science is just there to tell people that the question isn't entirely rhetorical or hypothetical), and one which I hope Leng Hiong will pick up on.

    By Blogger angry doc, At April 08, 2009 11:00 pm  

  • "It's a question that doesn't really involve neuroscience (the science is just there to tell people that the question isn't entirely rhetorical or hypothetical), and one which I hope Leng Hiong will pick up on."

    You want me to apply FAMILIAR to the legal system? :p

    But seriously, I suspect that the tussle over the concept of "free will" is pitched by opponents who are basically looking at it from two different organization levels.

    People who believe in "free will" approach the issue from the social level. Simply assigning "free will" by fiat and assuming full culpability by the individual simplifies the justice system to serve society efficiently.

    People who don't believe in "free will" approach the issue from the individual level. A detailed examination of the environmental factors and neurological state of a person ensures maximal fairness to that individual.

    I think that our current justice system already incorporates both approaches; thus it's a difficult to-what-extent question that I suspect would often be resolved by force rather than by reason.

    Let me illustrate this with a thought experiment (loosely based on real-life examples):

    Imagine an airline pilot who landed during a severe thunderstorm and failed activate wing spoiler flaps to stop his vehicle in time, thus overshooting the runway and crashing into a barricade resulting in the death of all crew and most passengers on board.

    Later, investigations revealed that the aircraft was in perfect functioning order, had plenty of fuel left and the next nearest airport in better weather conditions was just a mere 10 minutes of flight time away.

    The captain landed despite his operating manuals clearly mandating that he should never land under such circumstances.

    For the "free will" crowd, it is easy to assign full responsibility to the pilot, since neither the aircraft company nor the airline company is to blame. The case would be concluded, families of the accident victims would have closure and everyone can move on.

    But what if these other details were revealed during the course of the investigations:

    1. The flight was already delayed by two hours on the tarmac due to maintenance issues.

    2. Pilots in the airline company are penalised for exceeding their alloted flight time.

    3. The aircraft had flown through at least 15 minutes of severe turbulence and intense lightning flashes.

    4. The weather at the target airport deteriorated suddenly and this was made known to the pilot only a few minutes before landing.

    5. The aircraft model had old fashioned alarms and flashing lights that went off during the overspeed landing which could have distracted the pilot from extending the spoilers.

    How would this data affect your final assessment of culpability?

    After all, it was the Captain alone who made the flawed decision to land at that airport.

    Or was it? ;)

    By Blogger Lim Leng Hiong, At April 09, 2009 10:19 am  

  • The model I am looking at is more extreme than that!

    Given that:

    1. There is no evidence that consciousness is a 'free-floating' entity that can exist without the presence of a functioning brain

    2. Volition is something that occurs after a neurological event, and not before

    3. Our memory is known to be able to play tricks on us

    One is tempted to draw the conclusion that 'free will' is an illusion, brought about by a 'faulty' memory.

    That is not to say that everything is pre-determined. Minds still react to external events, in perhaps a 'chaos-tic' fashion. Sort of like a Brownian motion of minds - the individual minds do not have control over how they behave, but their behaviour in turn affects the behaviour of others.

    I would like to hear what you think is the evolutionary role of the concept of 'free will' - is it an inevitable phenomenon, or does it confer an advatnage?

    By Blogger angry doc, At April 09, 2009 11:56 am  

  • "That is not to say that everything is pre-determined. Minds still react to external events, in perhaps a 'chaos-tic' fashion. Sort of like a Brownian motion of minds - the individual minds do not have control over how they behave, but their behaviour in turn affects the behaviour of others."

    Wow, that is a pretty extreme view; even if "free will" is totally bogus and consciousness is a mere observer, unconscious aspects of brain function (eg. procedural memory) can still exhibit self-regulation and goal-directed behaviour.

    To me, it's too much of a stretch to use the metaphor of Brownian motion for human minds.

    "I would like to hear what you think is the evolutionary role of the concept of 'free will' - is it an inevitable phenomenon, or does it confer an advatnage?"

    I was trained in both brainz science and evolutionary biology but somehow I can never really put these two topics together.

    In general evolutionary biologists are much happier explaining the evolution of biochemical functions or morphological features and more wary about explaining the evolution of behaviour.

    As for the evolution of concepts, that goes even further into social science territory.

    I can speculate on this topic if you like, but soon I'll start to ramble on about my pet structuralist ideas and you won't know what I'm talking about...

    By Blogger Lim Leng Hiong, At April 10, 2009 6:18 pm  

  • "unconscious aspects of brain function (eg. procedural memory) can still exhibit self-regulation and goal-directed behaviour."

    Well, yes, but that's still unconscious - you can think of individuals as black boxes with no free will who just react to the actions of other black boxes.

    In fact, if there is no free will, then that is the *only* interpretation.

    "I was trained in both brainz science and evolutionary biology but somehow I can never really put these two topics together."

    Well, I am trained in neither, but since I have a blog I am under the illusion that I am qualified to comment on any topic that takes my interest. :)

    I am tending towards a reductionist AND materialist view that evolution determines genes determines structure determines functions determines behaviour (plus of course environmental factors in each of those steps).

    There really isn't good evidence of another factor in the form of a free-floating consciousness or free will involved in that last step. Of course, this can easily be disproved if we can find good evidence of reincarnation or transmigration of the soul/memory.

    My quest is more to try to put what we known about brain science together with a moral imperative.

    I think philosophy is one way of looking at "how to live the good life", but we cannot ignore what we know about neurology and the implications that knowledge has on our concepts of consciousness, self, and free will.

    By Blogger angry doc, At April 10, 2009 11:11 pm  

  • dear angry doc,

    re: literature

    thanks again!

    cheers.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At April 21, 2009 11:43 pm  

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