Thursday, December 9, 2010

292: The Brain and the Battle of the Hemispheres

Animation of an MRI brain scan, starting at th...Image via WikipediaYou should listen to this. Don't be discouraged, if it sounds too difficult to understand immediately. I'll explain it in detail for you, but you have to read this. It is fascinating.

What you witness here is really the state of the art in philosophy of today. An example how philosophy has to become interdisciplinary to flourish. Ok…get ready and fasten seat belts….

"Traditional theories of moral psychology emphasize reasoning and “higher cognition,” while more recent work emphasizes the role of emotion. The present fMRI data support a theory of moral judgment according to which both “cognitive” and emotional processes play crucial and sometimes mutually competitive roles.

The present results indicate that brain regions associated with abstract reasoning and cognitive control (including dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex) are recruited to resolve difficult personal moral dilemmas

in which utilitarian values require “personal” moral violations, violations that have previously been associated with increased activity in emotion-related brain regions.

Several regions of frontal and parietal cortex predict intertrial differences in moral judgment behavior, exhibiting greater activity for utilitarian judgments. We speculate that the controversy surrounding utilitarian moral philosophy reflects an underlying tension between competing subsystems in the brain."

This is the summary of an article written by Joshua Greene and others and published in the scientific magazine Neuron in October 2004. What does it say?Basicly this:

In the brain are two regoins which are involved in moral decision making. One region is highly active when we throw in a lot of emotion to come to a moral judgement, the other is predominantly active when we use rational reasoning to arrive at a moral judgement. In certain situations these two brain regions are even in competition with each other.

To understand the backgrounds of this observation we have to read the dissertation of Greene which he presented in November 2002 at Princeton University, US. He begins chapter one with this statement:

"This essay is an attack on common sense—moral common sense, in particular. Mounting evidence suggests that our sense of right and wrong is a finely honed product of natural selection.

We think about moral matters as we do in large part because our kind of moral thinking, in the heads of our prehistoric ancestors, enabled them to reproduce more effectively than their competitors, leaving us, their descendants, to inherit their world.

But the world they left us is radically different from the world we now inhabit, and, as a result, what was biologically advantageous for them may prove disastrous for us. At the risk of being overly dramatic, I propose that the fate of humankind will turn on our ability, or inability, to transcend the common sense morality we inherited from our ancestors.

The great global problems of our time—the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the disruption of the environment, etc.—can only be solved through cooperation and compromise among people with radically different moral outlooks. And this, I believe, is unlikely to happen so long as the people of the world hold fast to their respective versions of moral common sense."

What is meant here is this: The battle of the hemispheres, which is pointed at in the Neuron article, is due to the evolution of the brain. More precise, due to the fact that parts of the brain still use the impulses of our (prehistoric) ancestors to get to moral judgements, although these impulses no longer fit in our modern world.

An example: John and Sally love to have sex with each other. They take every precaution to prevent pregnancy. They just love the sex. However, they are brother and sister.

INCEST!!! They should be condemned! A primary (emotional) reaction."The evolutionary explanation is familiar enough. Matings between close relatives are especially likely to result in children with birth defects, making a powerful aversion to sex between close relatives an important biological advantage." (p.299)

Ok, we may feel a bit uncomfortable with their behavior given our cultural background, but nevertheless we could conclude…who are we to judge, if this is their way to spend time together? A more rational reaction.

Like Greene says: "Debunking intuitions through a better grasp of moral/evolutionary psychology will likely serve us well as we strive for moral consistency by putting some distance between us and our intuitions."

To state it in a bit simplistic way: these intuitions, or as Greene calls it, common sense morals, come from the evolutionary more primitive parts of the brain, while reasoning and logic are more recent evolutionary brain parts.

What we see here from a philosophical point of view is an argument for utilitarian ethics based on evolutionary psychology, moral psychology and neurobiological observation. And this is the approach of philosophical discourse in 2010.

Joshue Greene is assistant Professor at Harvard since 2006. He has a homepage and it is sensational, not visually but with respect to the content. You can read almost everything he has published, including his dissertation. Everything can be downloaded as PDF.
This is where you can find it:

The Discussion
(yet to be added)

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