Friday, 22 January 2010

Biologically Moral?

Baroness Susan Greenfield was dragged through the press last week for knocking up debt at The Royal Institution through her ambitious renovation project. Reports said she was “escorted off the premises” and locked out of her grace-and-favour flat:

I have to say The Royal Institution is looking fabulous (I’ll admit I didn’t see it before its revamp) and I have never sat in such a conducive lecture hall as the one I sat in last night. They should build more lecture halls after the fashion of anatomy theatres, fit them with purple cushioned seats and allow for plenty of leg room. (I don't mean more anatomy theatres at The Royal Institution, though, but elsewhere.)

So, Dr Guy Kahane, Research Fellow at The Oxford Centre for Neurotics, gave a lecture on evidence supporting a neural basis for morality at The Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, London, last night. He argued that a radically different picture of morality has been emerging since 2001 and that it is still too early to determine whether ethics will be revolutionised by the findings of neuroscience.

Dr Kahane showed us images of activity occurring in different areas of the brain when people make moral decisions based on Utilitarian principles (Mills and Singer) and non-Utilitarian principles (Kant). To give an example: a Utilitarian would be interested in the consequences of an action; so a Utilitarian would lie if it were for the greater good, forming a decision based on counter-intuition. A non-Utilitarian would not lie under any circumstance; a non-Utilitarian’s morality is intuitive.

Dr Kahane said that neuroscience does not favour one way of thinking over another, but there was vocal support from some audience members for Utilitarian principles and James Crabtree, managing editor of Prospect Magazine, who chaired the lecture (and did a great job), added his magazine’s support to Utilitarianism.

I was interested to know what the work of neuroscience would mean for the subconscious. Dr Kahane asked me what I meant. I said I meant the subconscious in terms of its psychoanalytic definition. There was an immediate default to Freud (which irks me slightly as psychoanalysis has had mothers since Freud). “We are studying the subconscious, but it is not necessarily in the way Freud would approve,” Dr Kahane said. Hmm. I can’t see why he would disapprove. Freud worked on a scientific model for his theory. I am interested to know whether neuroscience will ignore it or not. I hope that the origins of emotions won’t be oversimplified in researchers’ pursuit to identify their neural locations.


Paul Taberham said...

I don't know too much about it, but isn't a common criticism of Freud that he wasn't very scientific in his studies, and that his theories were based on interviews with a handful of neurotic people?

Who knows if Freud would have approved of neuroscience. It hadn't been invented yet. Blending both disciplines seems healthy to me, so long as it doesn't turn into an exercise where they try and shoehorn theories together in the aid of making the two disciplines seem compatible. If that makes sense...

Karen Burke said...

Dr Louise Braddock, a psychiatrist and academic, wrote about the legacy of Freud’s project for a scientific psychology in a book called The Academic Face of Psychoanalysis, which she edited with Dr Michael Lacewing. She argued that part of the methodology of psychoanalysis remains scientific and that in Freud’s project for a scientific psychology there are the outlines of a teleological theory of the mind that she calls systemic. She references Sulloway who draws attention to the presence (in Freud) of a mechanistic model of energy flow between neurones.

Dr Braddock suggests that the explanation in psychoanalytic pschology is functional in the same way as functional explanation in the life sciences such as biology and behavioural science.