Mind the Gap

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October 29th, 2010

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The discoveries of modern neuroscience have certainly heightened our understanding of the brain and its functions, and have begun to provide us with a physical groundwork for the complicated problem of effectively investigating the mind. While it is certainly beneficial to establish physical principles that underly cognitive function of the brain, how does this effect the larger endeavor of understanding the mind? Neuroscientists such as Rebecca Saxe of MIT are converging on things like the nuroanatomical basis of moral judgment and just scraping the surface of what can bridge the gap between what physically “is” and what metaphysically “ought” to be. In her experiments, Saxe proposes that she has pinpointed the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ) as a brain center for making moral judgments and has conducted experiments with magnetic brain stimulation that can effectively change the moral judgments of her subjects. Please see her TED talk here for a full explanation of her study.

Crossing the gap at the wrong time can lead to dire consequences.

Crossing the gap at the wrong time can be devastating.

In the 1700s, David Hume proposed what has now become known widely as the Is-Ought Problem. He calls for caution in making statements about morality or what “ought” to be based on extrapolations of what “is” and that what ought to be does not necessarily follow from what is. The problem aptly applies to neuroscientists like Saxe whose research make strong suggestions about the neural basis of existence and attempts to bridge the is-ought gap. All of this research is establishing a large library of what “is” concerning the brain, but it also suggests that metaphysical concepts such as morality and meta-ethics can be reduced to neurological connections and connectivity. Hume stresses that while what is and what ought to be are important revelations in and of themselves, what ought to be need not follow from what is. Neuroscience must understand this separation as its advances begin to encroach on many of philosophy’s already well-established concepts.


Brain activity is only one component of our consciousness.

What I’m saying here is that modern neuroscience must use caution in making conclusions about human nature. Empirical evidence can certainly be used to help understand more abstract ideas, but the evidence and the ideas must remain seperate with respect to causality. Making discoveries about brain function and the empirical science behind things like emotion or judgment is a valiant and respectable scientific investigation. However, this pursuit must be kept separate and distinct from the pursuit of understanding how we ought to be or act. Our moral thought is something more abstract and multidimensional than connections between neurons and sequential acton potentials. While investigation of the science of the mind is important, it should not seek to explain our existence nor try to answer philosophy’s greatest problems with calculations and empirical data.

For reference:

The Is-Ought Problem – David Hume via Wikipedia

Theory of Mind TED Talk – Rebecca Saxe (MIT)

David HumeMeta-Ethics – Wikipedia

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4 Comments on Mind the Gap

  • Are you suggesting that whatever our nature is, we need to focus on moral questions separately from it? So if the neurons are wired for us to act less-than-morally, that doesn’t mean we ought to act that way?

    That makes sense. But where do morals come from? Why should philosophy decide what we ought to do? Shouldn’t there be a scientific way of finding out what kind of morality we ought to have?

  • I’m not suggesting that our morality is distinct from our nature. The two are intrinsically linked in my opinion in that we have an intrinsic moral nature as humans. For example, most (if not all of humanity) will say it is wrong to kill innocent people by arbitrary choice or because of a specific physical trait they possess.

    My driving point is that our human existence is a vehicle much greater than the sum of its parts…the parts being neurons and synaptic connections. While the neurons enable the existence, I think we are not subject to their influence in our higher thinking, e.g. morality. We can consciously choose to act morally or immorally at the end of the day, regardless of our instinctive drives. Our uniquely human consciousness makes decisions, not fixed action patterns like many other animals.

    If we can realize that our neurons are telling us to act wrongly, then we certainly ought not to act the way our neurons are suggesting. However, the situation is obviously true in cases with primal behavior such as eating or sleeping…I think our neurons know what’s happening there and you would be foolish to refrain from eating when your stomach hurts with hunger pangs. There, reason and nature walk hand in hand. Largely, the human world functions on the basis of how we think and act after our neurons have fired. You will have a hard time convincing me that our physical nature should determine how we ought to act. If that were the case you would try to mate with everyone on Commonwealth Avenue on your way to class on Monday morning, because as a mammal that’s what your neurons are telling you to do. Its the morally meta-aware side of you that tells you that that behavior is just preposterous.

    As for where morals come from, this is a classic and enduring philosophical question. Do we socially construct morality as a result of being human? Sure, to a certain extent I think so. Do the morals come from God? Some people think so. The fact of the matter is that as humans, we have an innate mechanism for morality and a propensity to deduce what is right and wrong which is greatly fostered and influenced by our environmental and social upbringing and interactions. Its meta-awareness, and science has a hard time explaining that, for example, in the “problem of consciousness” in neuroscience.

    Philosophy should equally, or even more so, influence what we ought to do because it is rooted in the reasoning of the human psyche and considers the ultimate nature of our morality rather than its proximate and physical basis and removes questions from the purely physical world. The real human world functions on the basis of how we think and act after our neurons have fired, and thus this is philosophy’s realm. Science can help explain the behavior we perform and observe on an empirical level, but I don’t think is is the right place to look for a judgment of what is right and wrong or other metaphysical questions. Science helps greatly in contributing to a metaphysical conclusion, but should not be considered the sovereign authority – a healthy combination of the two should be used, and the line clearly drawn between the two worlds.

  • my 3 yr old daughters perceived universe is much smaller than mine. who’s reality is more “real”? more importantly, are we all 3 yr old children in the grand scheme of thigs?

  • I’d say your universe is more real…its filed with much more consequence and implication. But in the larger picture, yeah, we could all be three year old children. Heck, we havent even figured out how to travel within our solar system yet.

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