For each of the past two years I have taken the presentations from the Beyond Belief conference and written a post summarizing and criticizing each presentation.
I am going to do the same this year. However, this year I will be working under the advantage of actually having attended the conference. The organizers decided, for some reason, to send me an invitation. So, here I sit, in La Jolla, California, waiting for the conference to begin - tomorrow, as I write this, at 8:30 am.
The subtitle for this year's conference comes from Carl Sagan's view of science as a "candle in the dark". Each presenter is to have come to the conference this year to present "a potential solution to a problem that they have identified in their area of expertise or informed passion.
The presenters this year tend to be involved in studying the brain as it relates to some field of study - morality, law, politics, economics.
I have nothing in principle against mixing neural science and ethics. However, I think that there is a serious problem with how the current batch of researchers are going about the problem.
Specifically, I am a moral realist. Furthermore, I reject the claim that there is some hard distinction between 'is' and 'ought'. Loyal readers should be familiar with my claim that we should focus instead on the distinction between 'is' and 'is not'. Morality either belongs in the realm of 'is' (somehow), or it belongs in the realm of 'is not'.
However, this does not tell us where to find morality in the realm of 'is'. In past conferences, I have found that the neural ethicists were looking in the wrong spot.
Let me illustrate with an example. A researcher takes a hoard of subjects and performs brain scans on them while they think about planets and stars and take astronomy tests. He may learn a lot of interesting things, However, it would be a mistake to call this researcher an astronomer. Studying thoughts about stars and studying stars is not the same thing.
Neural ethicists seem to be unaware of this distinction. They study the brain while the subject thinks about moral concepts or works through some moral problem or puts down an answer on some moral test, and they think they are studying morality. They are not. They are studying beliefs and other attitudes on morality
Tomorrow, I will be able to ask this and other questions of the presenters (I hope). I will wait until the Science Network posts the presentations on line before I start posting my summaries. However, I should have something of a head start in writng them.
And, as I have done in the past, I note that the Science Network provides these items for free. If you (like me) think that there should be more of this type of information out there in the world, then please become a member, or make a contribution.