Notes from 11/28/2011 Meeting of The Neurosciences and the Humanities Working Group at Kent State

At the Neuroscience and the Humanities Workgroup meeting on November 28, 2011, we discussed:

Casebeer, William D. and Patricia S. Churchland. “The Neural Mechanisms of Moral Cognition: A Multiple-Aspect Approach to Moral Judgment and Decision-Making.” Biology and Philosophy 18 (2003): 169–194.

My sketch of notes prior to the meeting:

neural mechanisms of moral cognition (NMMC)

norms vs facts

virtue theory

theory of mind (TOM) and mirror neurons > Asimov’s robots, imagination and reasoning, he created a theory of mind, potentials, but he did much more in TOM

memory (184) > important

moral state space > c.f., Damien Broderick’s science fiction mega-text and narrative phase space

My notes from the discussion:

both authors in philosophy departments

decision making

non-chauvanistic: moral judgement > debate in meta-ethics, do they constitute a belief and can they be true or false, non-cognitivists vs cognitivists

chauvanistic > ethical judgement > presupposes the cognitive side

most neuroscientific article yet read in the group

mirror neurons > where we can think about empathy, however consider the monkey experiment where theory of mind allows one monkey to steal from another > evolution and survival

what are the evolutionary precursors to moral judgement in humans?

evolutionary ethics

neural correlates in human and monkey brains, each reflecting the same behavior

virtue ethics > best empirical direction for ethics

Kantians > empiricism irrelevant to ethics

(178) Children’s ability to lie > how far along that they had a theory of mind > Aristotle – Nicomachean Ethics – youths/feeling > end of ethics is action not knowledge > children > immediate pleasures and pain > develop habit of not stealing > then when they have theory of mind > if not established habit before TOM, they may turn out devious

pointing to the virtue ethics model

shortcomings of brain imaging

Utilitarianism (faculty of calculation) or Kantian (will) > each is one-dimensional

neuroscience > interaction between all parts of the brain > more complex

ethical theories are too flat to account for all of these feedback/empirical reality of brain’s complexity

suspicion of neuroscientific imaging > limitations of what it can “see” and how what it “sees” is interpreted by theory, mathematics, and computer technology

question: what are you guys held up on brain imaging?

people associate brain science with brain imaging

other experiments including lesion studies and brain trauma observation, dissection after the fact, etc.

brain imaging > the real thing > we can see and know the brain (in a sense)

brain imaging is highly theorized

they are not photographing the brain, however

fMRI 101 [on youtube: how MRI works, another explanation, and how fMRI works]

fMRI is a translation, a rhetorical act, a deliberative act

how are these things reified in public discourse and legal discourse

recent discoveries > mirror neurons > discovered by fMRI

discomfort reading this article, also an issue of translation from one discourse to another, one understanding to another

refreshing and illuminating

localizing functions within the brain

V.S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain

limbic system > interwoven into many other areas of the brain including motor control, facial control

systems > use multiple structures/areas within the brain > common function > defined by function rather than by organ

fMRI confirms that there is no moral center within the brain

dispersal, distribution > gives new meaning to Greg Egan’s SF novel Diaspora > metaphor for our understanding of the functions of the brain

Utilitarian vs virtue ethics debate? first part of 20th century > Kantians vs Utilitarians > small skirmishes > after all of this conceptual work, possible to make progress in conceptual debates through empirical evidence

some philosophers say that science cannot tell us anything about ethics: descriptive/science vs normative/philosophy

Stanley Cavell and Jacques Derrida argument > ethical comportment in people

fact-value distinction > science can tell us facts but nothing else

Aristotle > facts and values are different, but they are interrelated in many ways

metaphysical distinction between facts and values > hold this and science will not help you at all

Aristotle and Newton > Newton was a physicist who creates the calculus (along with Leibnitz) to do his science > Aristotle was a biologist > created philosophy to do his biology > Aristotle never forgot that humans are animals > ethics and political science are influenced by this

Phineas Gage > localized view of the brain originates here

Gabriel Giffords – 20/20 program . shows her progress over time, shows where her brain was damaged and what other effects might have been if the wound was different > plasticity issue > the brain rewiring itself > reprogram in a sense

plasticity > to understand the capacity of the brain to heal itself > where a humanities person might get excited

where does the excitement for the humanities mean the failure of science?

do scientists care about what poetry means? some do.

V.S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain

Seneca > woman not acknowledging her disability > chiding her for her behavior > might have had a stroke or other brain issue

science and the humanities > hypothetical questions for each

childhood studies > developing a physics > not mediated by language

going back to Aristotle > he was a collector of animal specimens > categorize > one of, if not the, first libraries, too

writes on poetics, politics, etc. but he wasn’t a writer on religion or the afterlife, he was interested in this life

“human beings desire to know.”

Aristotle’s categories > his shortest work, all encompassing > his logic was invented so that he could relate things in the way that he needed

this seems like the moment for the turn from language (20th century) to the study of the brain

I talked about technical limitations of current imaging technology, but it is amazing what we can do.

also, I mentioned the work of Roger Penrose in relation to quantum mechanics and other conjectures about how the laws of nature will likely prohibit our real-time investigation of the human brain while it is in a living person. issues of resolution and function and organic matter

Henri Bergson’s “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic” > the mechanical encrusted on the living

The Symposium (in Greek it means a wine party for talking and drinking)

irony in Aristotle and Plato?

situational irony > Plato’s Gorgias

rhetorical irony > controlling all questions himself > cannot step outside of himself

We will plan our next meeting at the beginning of spring semester 2012.

Published by

Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.