Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs: AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion
AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion
Neuroscience, Brain & Mind
Why do humans do what they do? What makes us tick? With increasingly sophisticated technology, experts can image, manipulate and scientifically test the human experience to a depth never before realized. Will this technology give us better insight into why we make the decisions we do? Can it help us understand the nature of spiritual experiences? How will understanding the brain affect our self-perception?
Neuroscience is a rich field devoted to studying the many facets of the nervous system. The nervous system includes both the central nervous system, consisting of a brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system comprised of the nerves that lie in the extremities, muscles, and organs. Not all neuroscientists directly study the brain, but brain research tends to capture the attention and imagination of the modern audience. Some even regard the human brain as the most complex organism in the entire universe. Millions of years of biological and cultural evolution have made it possible for our species to compute patterns in nature, be conscious of ourselves, and empathize with one another. Understanding how all of this occurs is a fascinating challenge.
Neuroscience research is advancing at a rapid pace, making exciting progress on a wide variety of issues. These range from the slowing of degenerative diseases such as Huntington’s Disease, ALS and Parkinson’s, to discoveries on how the brain develops in early childhood. Many recent advances in neuroscience also highlight ethical questions with both societal and personal consequences. Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMI), for example, allow biological organisms to interact with inorganic computers in order to increase a person’s lost or waning mobility. Researchers have found that simply thinking about moving a limb activates dozens of motor-control neurons in the brain, allowing for exterior machines to translate thoughts into movements. Paralyzed patients now have the ability to interact with the physical world in ways otherwise prohibited by their state. This is quite an exciting feat; one can only imagine how far this research will take us.
On a chemical level, mood-altering drugs researched by neuroscientists cause major changes in temperament and personality. In these cases, what does it mean to “be yourself”? Should people be legally obligated to take certain medications that would decrease their threat to society? Is there research into other organic or wholisitic cures to neurological imbalances that lead to depression, schizophrenia and addiction? To what extent should we be concerned about the ethical parameters of animal testing, which is essential for this type of research? Unquestionably, the service that neuroscientific research provides is unparalleled, but it is imperative that scientists, policy makers and the public be attuned to
both the newest discoveries as well as the philosophical and ethical
conundrums they raise.
Other concerns center on questions with spiritual ramifications such as the relationship between the human brain and mind. Interdisciplinary research in neuroscience, physics, biology, philosophy and even cosmology has sparked interest in the conversation regarding determinism and free will. The premise is that if actions of minute atoms can be measured with such a high degree of certainty, then can larger aspects of the universe which are comprised of these atoms also be determined with a keenly devised prescription? Do these predictions extend to choices we make, our personalities, and our future? Can we assume biology, conditioning, and probabilistic calculations have declared moot our ability to choose? Theologically speaking, do these determined actions affect our ability to choose good from evil?
As scientists discover more functions and locations of brain activity, other societal concerns may arise. If empathy is identified at a particular point in the brain, could scientists directly intervene to enhance it? Should criminals with abnormal neurological structure receive the same trial and punishment as others? Is there an experimental result that will disprove the traditional assertion of free will, and how will such conclusions affect religious communities and the basis of our justice systems? With such fundamental questions under consideration, it is essential that these and other issues be explored in tandem with neuroscience’s exciting rise from theory to practice.
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