The End of Morality

Part 2 of 2

In the grandiosely titled article “The End of Morality,” published in the July/August Discover, Kristin Ohlson writes of brain experiments not unlike those I wrote about yesterday in “Toward a Brain-Based Theory of Beauty.” Researchers placed subjects in functional MRI scanners, gave them moral dilemmas to think about, and mapped the areas of the brain that lit up during the experiment.

The similarities between the two articles end there. Where the studiers of beauty went no further than asserting what could rightfully be asserted, that there was a correlation between perceptions of beauty and certain areas of brain activity, the studiers of morality marched right past correlation into causation:  “You have these gut reactions and they feel authoritative, like the voice of God or your conscience.  But these instincts are not commands from a higher power.  They are just emotions hardwired into the brain as we evolved.”  Where the beauty study interacted with centuries of thinkers and thoughts about beauty, the studiers of morality are ready to discredit “that inner voice we’ve listened to for tens of thousands of years.”

Ohlson and the researchers she quotes seem to fall into the reductionism of believing that the brain is “all there is,” that there is nothing above or behind what happens in the brain that causes it to behave as it does. She writes of “morality . . . as a neurological phenomenon,” of the “underlying biology” and the “biological roots of moral choice,” failing to see that there may be something underlying the underlying biology, something that can’t be measured in a scanner. Joshua Greene, one of the morality researchers, asserts that “There is no single moral faculty; there’s just a dynamic interplay between top-down control processes and automatic emotional control in the brain.”

The hubris is almost breathtaking:  the article’s headline reads, “Neuroscience offers new ways to approach such moral questions, allowing logic to triumph over deep-rooted instinct.”

This type of reductionistic, naturalistic, materialistic, mechanistic thinking, with its implied determinism, conveys a stunted view of humanity that will diminish our perception of human dignity if we allow it. As Christians — indeed, as humans — we must resist falling prey to this sort of selective memory which remembers that we are dust, but forgets that we received life from the breath of God.


(Postscript:  In all fairness, the two articles that I described were quite different.  The first was a formal scientific study in a scholarly journal, the second an article written by a freelance writer for a popular magazine that has to sell copy to survive.  This fact does not affect my central point, however, which is that the reductionism embodied in the second article — and in so much of the literature surrounding particular fields of research — is false, prevalent, and will diminish our understanding of human dignity if we follow it.)

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Ron KrumposGordon Hackman Recent comment authors
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Gordon Hackman

Yes. It’s the confusion of correlation with causation. No one has ever started by noting the brain activity and then deduced from that the specific content of a given thought. They always start knowing the specific thought content and then correlate it with the activity of certain parts of the brain. But just because certain brain states correlate to certain thought content doesn’t mean they cause the content. The only way one can make such an assertion is by begging the question and assuming from the start that brain states must give rise to specific thought content. The advocates of… Read more »

Ron Krumpos

In my ebook on comparative mysticism I wrote a chapter about morality and conscience, called “Duel of the Dual.” Here is an excerpt: “Conscience” is a misused and misunderstood word. “Have you no conscience?,” ask people of a person who does something which seems to them to be so obviously wrong. Each person has a dual conscience and, occasionally, these two sides do engage in a duel. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic… Read more »