Stirring Neuroscientific Knowledge in the Social Crucible.

In my last blog, I raised the issue of what I referred to as the real questions arising from the nature and implications of neurocentric criteria of normality and diversity, ontological status (e.g.- of embryos, the profoundly brain-damaged, non-human animals, etc) , and the ways we form and formulate beliefs, policies and laws. The “take home” questions were 1) whether (and how) insight(s) to the neuroscience of painience and sentience (or the translation of neuroscientific information and technology to create organisms that are sentient and\or painient) could provide a metric for moral and social regard and treatment, 2) whether we will be sufficiently sensitive to, and wise enough to appropriately weigh and act upon such knowledge, and 3) if and how such information can – and should be used to inform ethics, policies and laws. If numbers speak to trends in interest and involvement, the approximately 33,000 attendees at this month’s Society for Neuroscience Meeting and almost 200 attendees at the International Neuroethics Society meeting in Washington DC attest to the growth of these fields, both within the professional sphere and in the public eye. Without doubt, neuroscience and the neuroethical issues it spawns are ever expanding, frequently “hot” –  as in the ‘hot off the press’, ‘hot’ as seductive, and ‘hot’ as in controversial  – and arguably important ingredients that simmer in the crucible of social sentiment, action and change…and this can be an often unpredictable if not volatile brew.

For sure, neuroscience has enabled deeper and wider insight to putative substrates and mechanisms of consciousness, mind, self and personhood.  Despite (genuine recognition of) current limitations in the type and extent of such information, the knowledge gained to date has initiated moves from longstanding, dogmatic notions of self and person, to a broader construct of what constitutes the self and a person, that’s more inclusive of the possibility – if not probability – of animal “persons” and machine “selves.”  Of course, differing viewpoints exist, not only within the field of brain-mind studies (including its disciplines of neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, etc); but also between various camps within the sciences and humanities, and even within the public sphere. In the main, these differences reflect and\or stem from various epistemological and anthropological positions that continue to pose questions for both scientific inquiry and social conduct. Indeed, transformations in the construct of self and personhood are certain to impact ethico-legal considerations, policy decisions, ecological trends, if not the human condition at-large.

Working in our group, researchers Nicholas Fitz and Dan Howlader are focusing upon the ways that the increasing advancement, and societal reliance and role of neuroscience and neurotechnology may change current and longstanding ideas of self and personhood, and foster re-examination of more neurocentrically-oriented views of animals, fetuses, the obtunded, computers, and hybrid human-machine beings. Working from the premise that it’s not so much a question of if such epistemic shifts will occur, but when this will happen, Fitz and Howlader are questioning what society will do with this new information and its potential implications for policy and law.

Our general position is that a deepening understanding of the ways that nervous systems and brains are involved in (or evoke) those characteristics that we value as individuals, groups, and a species should compel and sustain the ways that we regard and treat the organisms that possess nervous systems that give rise to such characteristics. Moreover, neuroscience has – and will likely continue to –demonstrate that despite a wide array of individual differences, there are features that are common to nervous systems, and to the organisms in which they are embodied.

Simply put, we must ask whether and in what ways neuroscience might demonstrate the ways that we are alike and differ. Is it possible that neuroscience might afford both purchase and leverage to reconcile apparent differences between individuals, religions, cultures, and even species?  On some level, I think so, but perhaps a bigger and more important question is whether we as individuals, groups, cultures and a species will in fact embrace such knowledge to prompt positive change in our views, values, regard and actions toward those things that “have a brain and are a mind”.

Working with philosopher John Shook, Fitz and Howlader are examining if current ethico-legal concepts and criteria are adequate to deal with the contingencies posed by today’s neuroscientific and neurotechnological challenges, or if ethical and legal concepts and systems need to be adapted, or even developed anew to sufficiently account for and meet the epistemological, anthropological and socio-cultural (and economic) changes that neuroscience fosters.

I’ve stated in the blog before, and un-apologetically do so again here, that we call for frank, pragmatic assessment of neuroscientific and neurotechnological capability and limitations, and an openness to revising scientific facts, philosophical doctrine, and social constructs in preparation for and recognition of the potential proximate, intermediate, and distal effects that such new knowledge – and values – are likely to incur.

Given the reciprocal relationship of knowledge, technology, and culture it will be critical to develop ethical, legal, and political systems that appropriately reflect scientific advancements, apprehend the realities of social effect(s), and aptly guide, if not govern the use and manifestations of science in the public sphere. Knowledge both brings considerable power, and mandates increasing responsibility. To accept one without the other is a recipe for failure.