Understanding Humans through Neuroscience
The First in a Series of Conferences on Neuroculture
About This Event

This conference was the first in a series devoted to examining the place of neuroscience in our understanding of the human person, its effect on traditional forms of interpersonal understanding, and the implications of this effect for both public policy and the wider moral climate.

The series further considered Listen to Audio

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the use and abuse of neuroscience in law, ethics, aesthetics, religion, psychotherapy, marketing, politics, and culture. Experts in these various fields stimulated debate and explained what is at stake in a movement of ideas with a far-reaching and an as yet unchallenged impact on the traditional ways of understanding ourselves.

Event Summary

WASHINGTON, FEBRUARY 1, 2010--AEI resident scholar Roger Scruton began the first session of AEI's conference series "Understanding Humans through Neuroscience" by noting the breadth and reach of recent advances in neuroscience. At the same time, he acknowledged that this field should not strive to replace philosophy, law, or aesthetics because the boundaries of neuroscience have not yet been defined.  Experts from around the world met at AEI to discuss those boundaries and warn of potential misuses of neuroscience in modern culture.

In the first panel, Walter Sinnott Armstrong of Duke University discussed what neuroscience can teach us about justice.  He considered the example of a tumor that caused a normal man to act criminally to demonstrate how neuroscience has expanded the traditional array of legal excuses.  Armstrong explained the logic behind this example: "The master conditional for this problem . . . is if causation by conscious will is necessary for full responsibility . . . and if neuroscience rules out causation by conscious will . . . then neuroscience is going to rule out full responsibility." He did not believe this would prove to be the case.

Stephen Morse from the University of Pennsylvania continued this discussion by cautioning against the use of overstatement in neuroscience, what he called neuro-arrogance.  "I start with a little quote from the Economist newspaper in 2002. It warns, ‘genetics may threaten privacy, kill autonomy, make society homogeneous, and gut the concept of human nature. But neuroscience could do all those things first.' . . . I think neuroscience does not threaten actually to do any of those things unless there are revolutionary changes in neuroscience that are going to change our conception of ourselves as human beings, and I see nothing in the current neuroscience that does that yet." Morse explained that neuroscience is not meant to explain away willful action; instead it is meant to explain it.

In the second panel, Raymond Tallis from the University of London gave a play-by-play explanation of how the human nervous system functions. He explained the contrast between neural activity and human experience: "Experiences are nothing like neural activity. And the least you should expect of something is that it should be like itself."

Sally Satel, M.D., an AEI resident scholar, focused on brain imaging and how it is misused in pseudoscience and news articles.  One study she highlighted showed that people will agree to ridiculous statements if the statements were presented with pictures of brain scans providing false proof.  "The scans have a capacity to create the impression that one is literally seeing the mind at work and of course that's not the case at all. The brain image is not a photograph. In fact it's a highly processed and transformed representation of brain activity that is often averaged across many trials and often averaged across many brains," Satel said.



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Speaker biographies

Stephen Morse is the Ferdinand Wakeman Hubbell Professor of Law and a professor of psychology and law in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. Trained in both law and psychology, he focuses on the contributions of the behavioral and neurosciences to criminal and civil law, including individual responsibility and criminal and mental health law policy. Mr. Morse has written for law reviews, journals of psychology and psychiatry, and edited collections, and he has contributed numerous op-ed articles. Most recently, he published Crime and Culpability: A Theory of Criminal Law (with Larry Alexander and Kimberly Ferzan; Cambridge, 2009), and he is currently working on a book titled Desert and Disease: Responsibility and Social Control. Mr. Morse is a diplomate in forensic psychology of the American Board of Professional Psychology; a past president of the American Psychology-Law Society (Division 41 of the American Psychological Association); a recipient of the American Academy of Forensic Psychology's Distinguished Contribution Award; a member of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Mental Health and Law (1988-96); and a trustee of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C. (1995-present). Mr. Morse is currently codirector of the MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project, and he codirects the project's research network on criminal responsibility and prediction. Prior to joining the University of Pennsylvania faculty in 1988, Mr. Morse was the Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychiatry, and the Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong is the Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the department of philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, as well as codirector of the MacArthur Law and Neuroscience Project. His research interests include ethics, philosophy of law, epistemology, informal logic, and philosophy of religion. In applied ethics, he has worked on abortion, nuclear deterrence, the insanity defense, computer ethics, and, recently, environmental ethics. In moral theory, he has written on moral dilemmas, consequentialism, and moral epistemology, where he defends limited moral skepticism. In informal logic, he creates teaching videos and defends the propositional calculus. In philosophy of law, he studies constitutional interpretation and defends a perspectival theory of law that grants some truth to the classic antagonists: legal positivism, legal realism, and natural law theory. He has published a debate book on the existence of God and a book on the independence of morality from religion and God. Currently, he is working on moral psychology and brain science, as well as the uses and implications of neuroscience for legal systems. His recent publications include Morality Without God? (Oxford, 2009) and Moral Psychology (edited, MIT Press, 2007).

Sally Satel, M.D., a practicing psychiatrist and lecturer at the Yale University School of Medicine, examines mental health policy as well as political trends in medicine. She has served on the advisory committee of the Center for Mental Health Services of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and was a member of the Fowler Commission that investigated sexual misconduct at the U.S. Air Force Academy in summer 2003. Her books range from PC, M.D.: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine (Basic Books, 2001) and One Nation under Therapy (St. Martin's Press, 2005), coauthored with Christina Hoff Sommers, to When Altruism Isn't Enough: The Case for Compensating Organ Donors (AEI Press, 2009). Her interest in transplant policy stems from her experience as the recipient of a donated kidney in 2006.

Roger Scruton, a writer, philosopher, and public commentator, has written widely on political and cultural issues as well as on aesthetics, with particular attention to music and architecture. The author of more than thirty books, his most recent ones include Culture Counts: Faith and Healing in a World Besieged (Encounter Books, 2007); A Political Philosophy (Continuum Books, 2006), a response to the development and decline of western civilization; and The West and the Rest (ISI Books, 2001), an analysis of the values held by the West and how they are distinct from those held by other cultures. Mr. Scruton is also a founding editor of The Salisbury Review as well as the founder of Claridge Press, which is now part of Continuum International Publishing Group. He writes a column on cultural matters for The American Spectator and on wine for The New Statesman in Britain. At AEI, Mr. Scruton researches environmental protection from a cultural and philosophical angle.

Raymond Tallis was a professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester and a consultant physician in health care of the elderly in Salford between 1987 and 2006. Most of his two hundred research publications are in the field of neurology of old age (epilepsy and stroke) and neurological rehabilitation. He has published original articles in Nature Medicine, The Lancet, and other leading journals. In 2000, he was elected Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and has been involved in producing two major reports for that institution: Restoring Neurological Function: Putting the Neurosciences to Work in Neurorehabilitation (2004) and Rejuvenating Ageing Research (2009). He has published fiction, three volumes of poetry, and eighteen books on the philosophy of mind, philosophical anthropology, literary theory, the nature of art, and cultural criticism. These offer a critique of current predominant intellectual trends and an alternative understanding of human consciousness, the nature of language, and what it is to be a human being. In October 2009, he was identified by The Economist as seventh in the list of twenty living polymaths.