Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died

Anyone who has taken anundergraduate ethics class in philosophy is likely to have encountered thatstrange creature, the hypothetical moral dilemma. There are some classicexamples. My favorite is Judith Jarvis Thomson's case of the unconsciousviolinist. Imagine, she says, that you wake up one morning to discoverthat you have been kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers and that you arenow hooked up to a famous unconscious violinist. If you disconnectyourself from the violinist, he dies. Is it morally acceptable todisconnect yourself? The violinist has a right to life, but you have aright to bodily autonomy. Sorting through this case is supposed to helpus think through potential tensions between a right to life and right to bodilyautonomy and thereby help us to reason clearly about abortion. (I'm notsure it does that exactly, but discussing the case in class almost always leadsmy studentsto their consternationto defend a view of the relationbetween sex and procreation that is pretty close to traditional Catholicteachingbut that's a topic for another post.)

 

I bring up the famous hypotheticalcases because, as William Saletan of Slate.comhas recently pointed out , it'snot just philosophers talking about these cases any more; scientists aregetting into the act. A recent article in the journal, Nature,for example, examined the reactions of patients with certain kinds of braindamage to these cases compared to people with "normal" brains.The conclusion? Patients with brain damage are more utilitarian in theirapproach to moral decision making. It's nice to have science on yourside.

Of course, neuroscientists aren'tjust poaching on traditional philosophical territory; they are interested inspirituality as well. For example, a study published last year in NeuroscienceLetters, (Volume 405, Issue 3, 25 September 2006, Pages 186-190) examinedthe neural correlates of mystical experience. The investigators usedfunctional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study patterns of brainactivation in 15 Carmelite nuns. For discussion of this study, see this link.

I find the work in the new fieldsof "Neuroethics" and "Spiritual Neuroscience" fascinating.Still, it's hard not to feel that Tom Wolfe was on to something when hetitled his essay on contemporary neuroscience, "Sorry, but your soul justdied."

Forget about evolution, CardinalSchnborn, what do you have to say about brain science?

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