The brain develops in interaction with culture

November 16, 2016

Pär SegerdahlThe brain develops dramatically during childhood. These neural changes occur in the child’s interaction with its environment. The brain becomes a brain that functions in the culture in which it develops. If a child is mistreated, if it is deprived of important forms of interaction, like language and care, the brain is deprived of its opportunities to develop. This can result in permanent damages.

The fact that the brain develops in interaction with culture and becomes a brain that functions in culture, raises the question if we can change the brain by changing the culture it interacts with during childhood. Can we, on the basis of neuroscientific knowledge, plan neural development culturally? Can we shape our own humanity?

In an article in EMBO reports, Kathinka Evers and Jean-Pierre Changeux discuss this neuro-cultural outlook, where brain and culture are seen as co-existing in continual interplay. They emphasize that our societies shape our brains, while our brains shape our societies. Then they discuss the possibilities this opens up for ethics.

The question in the article is whether knowledge about the dynamic interplay between co-existing brains-and-cultures can be used “proactively” to create environments that shape children’s brains and make them, for example, less violent. Environments in which they become humans with ethical norms and response patterns that better meet today’s challenges.

Similar projects have been implemented in school systems, but here the idea is to plan them on the basis of knowledge about the dynamic brain. But also on the basis of societal decision-making about which ethics that should be supported; about which values that are essential for life on this planet.

Personally I’m attracted by “co-existence thinking” as such, which I believe applies to many phenomena. For not only the brain develops in interaction with culture. So does plant and animal life, as well as climate – which in turn will shape human life.

Maybe it is such thinking we need: an ethics of co-existence. Co-existence thinking gives us responsibilities: through awareness of a mistreated nature; through awareness of our dependence on this nature. But such thinking also transcends what we otherwise could have imagined, by introducing the idea of possibilities emerging from the interplay.

Do not believe preachers of necessity. It could have been different. It can become different.

Pär Segerdahl

Evers, K. & Changeux, J-P. 2016. “Proactive epigenesis and ethical innovation: A neuronal hypothesis for the genesis of ethical rules.” EMBO reports 17: 1361-1364.

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Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog

What does responsibility mean within a widespread doping culture?

October 23, 2013

We tend to hold individual athletes responsible for doping behavior. This makes it tempting to assume that if we are to fight doping in sports, we need to more efficiently identify these individuals and impose sanctions on them.

But what if doping is a phenomenon with many ramifications? What if doping isn’t invented by individual athletes, but is a social reality where practices and attitudes are formed also by (and with) other actors, such as leaders, trainers, doctors, sponsors… and through the unreasonable expectations of the audience?

Ashkan Atry recently defended a thesis focusing on the social and cultural dimensions of doping. You find his thesis here:

Without denying that individual athletes have responsibility or that sanctions are needed, Atry questions whether it is responsible to primarily hold individual athletes responsible for doping behavior. He argues that we won’t change the current doping culture if we don’t broaden the scope of responsibility to include also individuals and groups other than the athletes themselves.

The thesis develops a broader and more prospective notion of responsibility, to allow us to identify responsibility more responsibly than we far too easily are tempted to do.

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog

Save humanity from the human

August 22, 2013

We must enhance the human; or else humanity will come to an end. Thus dramatically one could summarize the bioethicist Julian Savulescu’s TEDx-talk in Barcelona in July.

The talk lasts fifteen minutes; you can watch and listen to it yourself: The Need for Moral Enhancement.

The idea is that we urgently need medicine and technology to enhance our moral skills; otherwise we will not be able to handle the global threats that we ourselves created: climate change, nuclear weapons, terrorism, starvation, escalating violence.

Globalization, in short, created a world with dimensions to which our hunter-gatherer morality isn’t adapted. Only a moral pill can save us now.

Listening to the talk, I’m struck by how archaic it sounds, despite references to modern medicine and technology. Thus fire-and-brimstone preachers always made people feel the proximity of the end of the world. Thus fire-and-brimstone preachers always made people feel that the cause of the despicable state of the world is their own moral failure. Thus preachers always forced a new awakening:

  • “You’re on the wrong path; I can show you the way!”

The difference is the use of what could be termed the modern rhetoric of empirical justification, in which all claims must be supported by evidence… that is to say, by PowerPoint slides. The rhetoric seems to direct the use of evidence, however, for evidence pointing in undesired directions isn’t cited.

Neither does Savulescu explore alternative ways of thinking. Has globalization really produced a world so big that we cannot handle it? Couldn’t one just as well claim that globalization created a world so miserably tiny and manageable that one might grieve for the death of all that is great?

In the talk, the most archaic form of moralizing is provided with a modernized rhetorical façade, in order to persuade us that only conversion to a biomedically perfected morality can save us now. It is slightly paradoxical.

No wonder the audience looks dejected.

Pär Segerdahl

The temptation of rhetoric - the ethics blog

Athletes’ feeling that doping is okay is socially created

January 24, 2013

Doping is often discussed as the individual athlete’s own decision. The athlete wants to win and strategically chooses to take drugs to reach the goal.

When the cyclist Lance Armstrong recently confessed that he used performance enhancing drugs while he won Tour de France seven times, he personally took responsibility for his actions and presented doping as his own decision.

Simultaneously, he said in the interview with Oprah Winfrey that he didn’t feel like a cheater while he was using the drugs. Doping was experienced as part of the job. It didn’t feel wrong while it went on!

He suddenly spoke of doping not in terms of individuals making strategic choices, but as a doping culture to which he had belonged without reflecting or making conscious choices, and which he now wanted to change.

In a recent article in Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, Ashkan Atry investigates, with Mats G. Hansson and Ulrik Kihlbom, this easily neglected collective origin of individual athletes’ feelings of right and wrong.

Lance Armstrong confessed doping and took full responsibility for it as his own choice. It belongs to the dramaturgy of the responsible confession. But perhaps this dramaturgy presents doping in a misleadingly individualistic light?

Ashkan Atry thinks so. Doping is a culture, materially and emotionally. The phenomenon reaches beyond the individual athlete, and involves not only team-mates but also coaches, doctors, sponsors and fans (with their demands for superhuman performances).

The feeling that it is okay to dope is socially created. To successfully handle doping, we must avoid tempting individualistic perspectives and focus more on social processes and what Atry calls emotional cultures in sport.

I recommend the article as a refreshingly realistic approach to a phenomenon that otherwise easily evokes ineffective moralizing gestures.

Pär Segerdahl

We transgress disciplinary borders - the Ethics Blog

Do I have a self?

May 25, 2012

Viewing neuroscience as a box opener is tempting. The box conceals the human mind; opening the box reveals it.

According to this image, neuroscience uncovers reality. It lays bare the truth about our taken for granted notions of mind: about our concepts of ‘self,’ ‘will,’ ‘belief,’ ‘intention’… Neuroscience reveals the underlying facts about us humans.

How exciting…, and how terrifying! What will they find in the box? And what will they not find? Will they find my ‘self’ there – the entity that is me and that writes these words?

What if they don’t find my ‘self’ in the box! What if my ‘self’ turns out to be an illusion! Can they engineer one for me instead? My life would be so desolate without ‘me.’

But neuroscientists are clever. They control what’s in the box. They surely will be able to enhance my brain and create the ‘self’ that didn’t exist in the first place.

Ideas like these are discussed in a mind-boggling interview entitled,

What strikes me about the neurophilosophical discussion is that it does NOT question the notion of the self. The notion is discussed as if it were self-evident to all of us, as some sort of ‘entity.’ The notion is supposed to be present in ordinary (culturally shaped) self-understanding. What is lacking is the evidence for the notion of ‘the self.’

You’ve guessed where the evidence is hiding: it’s in the box!

Neuroscientists opening the box threaten to disclose that the brain is naked. It might not be garmented in a ‘self’ or in a ‘free will.’ That these ‘entities’ exist in the box were perhaps just illicit reifications of modes of speech present in everyday discourse.

But what is ‘reification’?

Is it not precisely the image of ‘the box’ concealing the realities of mind?

If the tempting ‘box’ image supplies the model of reification – the very form of reification – isn’t the notion that neuroscience, by opening the box, is exposing reifications in ordinary discourse a whirling dance with the same reifying tendency that it is supposed to expose?

The ‘box’ mode of thinking is a simplified use of psychological nouns and verbs as if they referred to ‘entities’ and ‘processes’ in a hidden realm. It is difficult to resist such simplified linguistic imagery.

I’m convinced that neuroscience is making important discoveries that will challenge our self-understanding. But I question the ‘box’ image of these developments as an oversimplification of the very modes of speech it makes it seem we can transcend.

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog

Collection of papers brings out neglected aspect of ethics

April 26, 2012

If you wrestle with ethical and legal difficulties associated with genetic science, a recent virtual issue of the Hastings Center Report could be good to think with.

The issue collects earlier material on ethics and genetics. There are pieces about the perils of genetic-specific legislation; about the difficulties of understanding behavioral genetics; about the prospects of personalized medicine; about the meaning of transhumanism; and much else.

Reading the virtual collection, it strikes me that our ethical difficulties surprisingly seldom are of a purely evaluative kind, or about what is morally right or wrong, or about what we ethically should or should not do.

Our ethical challenges are more typically about thinking well; about understanding complex facts properly; about avoiding tempting oversimplifications in our descriptions of reality.

In short, our ethical challenges are very much about facing reality well.

The philosopher Bernard Williams spoke of thick ethical concepts: notions like “courage” that seem to have both evaluative and descriptive content.

I am inclined to say that ethics is “thick” in this sense. Ethics is more often than not about describing reality justly. Ethical challenges are surprisingly often about coming to terms with oversimplified descriptions that prompt premature normative conclusions.

Just consider these two tempting oversimplifications of genetics, which produce an abundance of normative and political conclusions:

  1. The mistaken assumption that if the main source of variation is not genetic, it will be fairly easy to make environmental interventions.
  2. The mistaken assumption that if the primary source of variation is genetic, environmental interventions will be useless.

These assumptions are discussed in Erik Parens’ paper about why talking about behavioral genetics is important and difficult (on page 13).

Even though it is not its purpose, the virtual collection of papers on genetics makes it conspicuous how often our ethical challenges are of a descriptive kind.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog

Political ambitions threaten the intellectual integrity of bioethics

April 3, 2012

Is there a need to enhance the way bioethicists discuss enhancement?

ConAshkan Atry defended his PhD thesis on doping in 2013temporary ethical debates on human enhancement sometimes resemble bitter political debates in a city council. Implicit or explicit political agendas are expressed as normative claims and are passed as “moral” arguments because they serve “the right cause.”

Consider, for instance, James Watson who said that “we’ve got to go ahead and not worry whether we’re going to offend some fundamentalist from Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

Another example is James Hughes, who almost ridicules moral worries about enhancement by reducing them to some sort of semi-religious “irrational” technophobia.

Liberal proponents of enhancement stress the value of individual autonomy and the freedom too choose one’s lifestyle. In this perspective, any attempt to prohibit enhancement is considered to encroach upon political liberty, hence as being unjust.

Opponents to enhancement, on the other hand, stressing values such as fairness and social justice, argue that without implementing regulations and proper measures, human enhancement will widen the already existing social divide and create a further gap between those who have the means to enhance themselves and those who don’t.

Thus, what drives both parties in the ethical debate on enhancement are more general political conceptions of what social justice is or ought to be.

Human enhancement admittedly raises many important political questions. Concerns about social justice will certainly continue to play a major part in debates on enhancement. Moreover, the political and the ethical spheres admittedly may, to some extent, overlap.

However, here I wish to raise the question whether political concerns fully exhaust what one may call genuine ethical reflection upon the phenomenon of human enhancement, and to what extent political agendas are to be allowed to determine the direction of ethical debates.

What is worrying is a situation where moral philosophical debates on enhancement reach some kind of deadlock position where bioethicists, acting as mouthpieces for rigid political perspectives, simply block their ears and shout at each other as loud as they can.

Arguably, what we may understand as genuine philosophical reflection also includes hearing the other and, more importantly, critically questioning rigid perspectives which limit the ethical horizon.

Indeed, the phenomenon of human enhancement provides a platform for doing so. Human enhancement will not only transform our lives but also necessitate a continuous re-formulation of key philosophical conceptions such as autonomy, freedom, and human nature.

In this regard, the dimension of unpredictability involved in new scientific and technological innovations challenges intellectual habits and requires development of new ways of doing ethics that would enable us to cope with these rapid transformations and perhaps even to foresee upcoming issues.

Reflecting on enhancement beyond the horizon of political ideologies would be a good starting point in this direction.

Ashkan Atry

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