The next presenter for my series on the Beyond Belief 2006 conference was V. S. Ramachandran, director for the Center of Brain and Cognition. Ramachandran’s specialty is in brain science, where he studies exactly what goes on in the brain under certain controlled circumstances.
One of the central focuses of his presentation was a strong relationship found between temporal lobe epilepsy and ‘religious experiences’. That is to say, those who have temporal lobe epilepsy, or those subjected to experiments that duplicate the effects of temporal lobe epilepsy, tend to have ‘mystical experiences’ that are compatible with their particular religious beliefs.
The specifics of this research is outside of the scope of this blog. However, there are some general philosophical issues about the relevance of brain science to mental states in general and moral reasoning and moral attitudes in specific that do have relevance.
Brain States and Ethics
One line of reasoning that I have encountered in discussing moral theory takes the following general form:
“Those who study the brain have shown that when people make moral judgments, they tend to do X. However, your moral theory has no place in it for doing X. Therefore, we must reject your moral theory.”
I tend not to pay much attention to the different claims that I have heard for “doing X” because the whole line of reasoning is a non-starter. The argument fails for all X, regardless of what X happens to be.
The reason that it fails is because the person making the argument is drawing a false implication from “people tend to do X when involved in Y” to “doing X is a legitimate and sensible aspect of doing Y.” I can fully agree that people tend to do X when they are involved in Y, but still deny that doing X is a legitimate and sensible aspect of doing Y.
For example, whenever people engage in reasoning they tend to employ any of a large number of fallacies. If we are taking measurements of peoples’ brains, we could get data about what is going on in the brain when they employ these fallacies. There has to be some sort of brain function associated with fallacious reasoning. It is hardly the case that when people are rational it shows up in one of these experiments, and when people are irrational we get no data. We get data whether people are being rational or not.
We have to step outside of the data – we have to go someplace else – to judge a particular set of data as ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’.
Similarly, when we get data of people tending to do X when they are involved in moral reasoning, we cannot rationally automatically infer that doing X is legitimate and sensible. The judgment of whether doing X is legitimate and sensible has to come from someplace else. Indeed, if we allow the implication, “we have evidence of people doing X when they are involved in Y,” to “doing X is legitimate and sensible”, we will come to the conclusion that nothing can ever be illegitimate or insensible. Because all brain activities, the sensible and the insensible – are activities that we can collect data on.
Aristotle was able to give us a theory of logic – to distinguish between valid and invalid argument forms – long before we had brain scans. More importantly, it is difficult to imagine how any brain scan could be used to prove that Aristotle wrong in any of his claims. Specifically, we have no reason to accept the argument, “Aristotle’s theory of logic says that doing X is not logical (invalid). However, brain scientists have done brain scans and found that in certain circumstances there is a strong tendency for people to do X. Therefore, the claim that doing X is not logical (invalid) is mistaken.”
In other words, those who think that the study of morality is the study of brain scans are making a category mistake. It is no more true than thinking that a study of validity is a study of brain scans.
Brain States and God
Ramachandran’s presentations concerned brain scans of religious experiences. In this case, Ramachandran appeared to be making the opposite inference. Ramachandran seemed to be saying that because we have brain scans of ‘religious experiences’ that link them to the stimulation of particular parts of the brain, that this proves that ‘religious experiences’ are illegitimate. If we can account for them through brain scans, then we can explain them scientifically, then we can dismiss them as illegitimate.
Joan Roughgarden called him on this. She pointed out that, just as scientists may be able to find a “god center” of the brain, scientists may be able to find a ‘science center’ of the brain. We can easily imagine a set of brain scans that show what is happening in the brain when a person acquires a piece of scientific insight, when the pieces come together and he ‘understands’ some aspect of science. The fact that we get pictures of this would hardly prove that scientific reasoning is somehow illegitimate.
Ramachandran answered that we can connect scientific reasoning to observable and testable elements in they physical universe. If a person is making a claim about a glass of water sitting on a table, we can correspond that to an actual glass of water sitting on an actual table. If, on the other hand, he talks about an angel sitting on the table, and we have no independent confirmation of a gremlin sitting on the table, we know we have a problem. This is what distinguishes the religious experiences from the non-religious experience.
However, this assumes that angels are like glasses of water. If angels are different – if they are able to appear for some people while remaining invisible to others – then the claim that we have something that distinguishes religious experiences from scientific experiences that makes the former illegitimate and the latter legitimate runs into problems.
It is not my intent to defend religious experiences as legitimate. It is only to point out, once again, that the test of legitimacy or illegitimacy can not be read from a brain scan. It is a separate piece of information that one brings to the table. It is a piece of information that one collects somewhere else, and not form brain scans.
The Relevance of Brain Scans
If anybody were to infer from this that I thought that brain science is a waste of time, they would be dead wrong.
Here, consider an analogy to physical medicine. If we take a sonogram of a gall bladder, we can learn a lot about it. However, the sonogram itself does not tell us if the gall bladder is healthy or unhealthy. We bring something to the evaluation with us that we use to categorize different results as healthy and unhealthy.
The brain is an organ like any other. We take readings of the brain to determine how it is functioning. However, whether we categorize a particular functioning as healthy or unhealthy is not determined by the study of the brain alone. We have to evaluate that functioning according to some standard to determine its health.
It is important to note that the concepts of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ are value-laden concepts. It is not an accident or a coincidence that ‘healthy’ is good and ‘unhealthy’ is bad, any more than it is a coincidence that ‘circles’ are round and ‘squares’ are not round. ‘Healthy’ means ‘functioning well’. We can determine how an organ (such as the brain) functions by studying and measuring it, but we cannot read the value of that functioning from our instruments. At least, not from those instruments.
I am a realist about value. Values exist in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Studying the brain (or the body) tells us about a certain state of affairs, but it tells us only part of what we need to know to determine its relationship to a certain set of desires. This is true in the same sense that measuring Tim tells us how tall he is, but does not tell us if he is taller or shorter than Tom. We need to bring something else with us when we look at Tim’s height to determine its relationship to Tom’s height – namely, we need Tom’s height. We need to bring something with us when we look at data on how an organ (such as the brain) functions to determine if it is functioning well or poorly. We need a set of desires.
Anybody who simply points to a brain scan and says, “This is good,” or, “This is bad,” is making a mistake.
There is one other potential impact of brain scans. If we are going to relate states of affairs to desires, then desires themselves must exist. It is quite possible that brain science may, at some point, lead to the conclusion that beliefs and desires do not exist. We may come up with another explanation for intentional action, or we may discover that even ‘intentional action’ is a myth.
Clearly, if we should end up throwing away the idea that there are desires, then we must throw away the idea that value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. Or, we keep the idea that value exists as such a relationship, and we throw away the idea that things have value.
I am actually quite certain that our knowledge of the brain will improve, and that many of the claims I make now will be modified or replaced over time. An individual should be open to the possibility of these types of changes, and be ready to adjust his or her thinking accordingly. The very idea that any contemporary theory can represent a complete and total truth of morality is as nonsensical as the claim that any current theory represents the complete and total truth of physics. It is reasonable to argue that a current theory is better than all theories that came before, yet it is also almost as certain that it is worse than some theory that will come along in the future.
That’s (moral) progress.