Monday, January 17, 2011

Ethics as a neuroscience

Last week I argued that the field of philosophy has shrunk a lot through the ages. Themes once studied by philosophers are now the subject of another branch of knowledge. How far will this shrinking go? Will philosophy as a special discipline disappear or will something be left of it? I guess that there’ll always remain purely philosophical questions. But let’s take ethics, for instance. Nothing seems further from a scientific intrusion than the study of what is morally right and wrong in our actions; the study of what we can and cannot do in our relationships with other people and society as a whole. Just here we see a variety of approaches, clustered in and also within cultures. However, when reading about the brain, one gets the impression that much of what we consider good and bad is based on the working of neurones and hormones. Neuroscientists can point out the places in the brain where you find moral conscience and even some of our moral feelings, and they can explain how the brain brings about moral behaviour. If one studies the brain long enough, in the end it will be possible to show the sites of our ethical principles, one might think then.
I am the last one to deny the truth of scientific results (unless I have scientific reasons for doing so). It is clear to me that much of what we morally do has a foundation in the physical structure of the brain and that defects of this structure can lead to amoral behaviour (psychopaths are a case in point). So, if brain research makes progress, this may have serious consequences for the status of ethics. Will it make ethics to no more than a comment on the workings of our brain or a practical explanation of it at most? Will it not happen that ethics can do no more than applying what we have to do in view of what is programmed in our brain to the situation in which we are, resulting in rules of moral behaviour? If so, ethics would change from a branch of philosophy into a natural science of moral prescriptions.
Maybe this thought is too pessimistic, if this word still has meaning in a merely physically conceived world (for in such a world pessimism is no longer a point of view that can be substantiated but merely a physically based feeling that something goes in the wrong direction). However, I think that there are good reasons that the relation between ideas and matter, and actually between mind and brain, is not that simple. What is wrong here is the idea is that science and thinking about what science means for us are actually the same. It is something what Ryle called a category mistake or what I, interpreting Habermas, called a distinction between level 1 and level 0 (see my blog dated Dec. 13, 2010). The same idea was expressed by Wittgenstein when he wrote at the end of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (6.54): “He [the reader] must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.” Or in other words: One has to distance oneself from science, for only then one can see it in the right way. That is, one has to philosophize. This does not imply, of course, that philosophy has nothing to do with what our brain physically does.

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