As scientists gather more and more information about the very large and the very small, where will they stop? Put another way, if ethics and religion can’t deliver, do we look to science for an answer?
The novelist Ian McEwan has no hesitation in incorporating the latest discoveries in physics and neuroscience in the messy psychological drama that constitutes a novel; in his latest bestseller he investigates the possibility of embedding a mathematical problem within an ethical one which drives along the story within the story. And last week the Guardian hosted a debate between physicist Lawrence Krauss and Julian Baggini on whether science can provide better answers to the big questions of morality than any of the canons of philosophy; now we have a report from the USA in which a Georgia Tech professor has hypothesized lethal weapons systems that are ethically superior to human soldiers on the battlefield (by substituting for the unreliable human hairbreadth trigger robots that are programmed to comply with international rules of war).
Military technology aside, the essential question asks for a bit of out of the box thinking. If we can identify specific biological answers to why we make certain decisions and judgments, then we can look to science as a basis for moral decisions, which are after all only sensible if they are based on reason, which is itself based on empirical evidence. In Lawrence Krauss’ view, ultimately
our understanding of neurobiology and evolutionary biology and psychology will reduce our understanding of morality to some well-defined biological constructs. Continue reading
Monsters are born, not made: the latest round in the debate about criminal responsibility questions the very existence of intuitive morality.
US neuroscientist Sam Harris claims in a new book that free will is such a misleading illusion that we need to rethink our criminal justice system on the basis of discoveries coming from the neurological wards and MRI scans of the human brain in action.
The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously demonstrated in the 1980s that activity in the brain’s motor regions can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Subjects were hooked up to an EEG machine and were asked to move their left or right hand at a time of their choosing. They watched a specially designed clock to notice what time it was when they were finally committed to moving left or right hand. Libet measured the electrical potentials of their brains and discovered that nearly half a second before they were aware of what they were going to do, he was aware of their intentions. Libet’s findings have been borne out more recently in direct recordings of the cortex from neurological patients. With contemporary brain scanning technology, other scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice (long before the preparatory motor activity detected by Libet). Continue reading