Cross-Post: A Few Thoughts on Neuroscience and Consciousness in Marginal Cases (Stanford CLB Blog)

November 20, 2012 at 23:14 (Law, Neuroethics, Philosophy, Politics)

Over at the blog of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences, I’ve got a post looking at some normatively significant neuroscience in the news. Here’s the intro to that post.

A couple of items in the news over the past few weeks have left me in a peculiar (maybe uncomfortable, but probably healthy) position: partly agreeing with the view of a philosopher whose general approach I bristle at, and receiving with some skepticism the work of a scientist whose project I think is important and worthy of much respect.

Writing in the NY Times’ philosophy column a few weeks ago, William Egginton – whose prior essays in that forum were met, rightly I think, with excoriating or at least cautious responses – set about answering the question “Can Neuroscience Challenge Roe v. Wade?” in the negative.  His view, in brief, is that while neuroscience can supply information about pain-related activity in the brain of a fetus, this information is useless (or maybe he means near-useless, there’s some vacillation) when it comes to “the fundamental question of what counts as a full-fledged person deserving of the rights afforded by a society.”

See the rest of the post on the CLB’s blog.

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Wielding the Wittgensteinian Broom Against the “True” Self

June 13, 2011 at 08:45 (Bioethics, Neuroethics, Philosophy)

Every now and again, a topic falls neatly into your lap. Not only is it well past time to flex my blogging muscles again, but I have been encountering the same set of knotty questions repeatedly; first at several presentations during the Brain Matters 2 conference in Montreal, then in the pages of the New York Times courtesy of the influential and reliably innovative Josh Knobe, and even in a rather popular blog post on Neuroethics at the Core, penned (without collaboration from yours truly, lest you suspect me of double-dipping!) by my advisor and PI. And, of course, I performed something of a touch-and-go on the same matter myself in my previous post here on autonomy and free will. So, then, today’s fare is the self – what, if anything, makes it “true,” and when or whether may we consider it “the same” as it was before?  Read the rest of this entry »

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An (Embellished) Anecdote – Free Will, Autonomy, Selfhood, and Hot Dogs

May 7, 2011 at 21:33 (Great Quotes, Neuroethics, Philosophy, Psychology)

Not long ago, I was walking across campus to the office, slightly behind schedule and thus going briskly so as not to be late. As I passed by the Student Union Building, the most pleasing aroma came to my nose, and I looked to notice that Japadog had set up shop just a few hundred paces out of my way. (Japadog is a hot dog cart that is something of a Vancouver legend, and it is life-changingly delicious.) I felt my feet veering me off to my left as I began to imagine securing some of this delectable fare for myself.

Almost immediately, the fact that I was going to be late if I went even a few yards astray came rushing back to me. Bummer though it was to give up my Japadog, I corrected my course and fastwalked onward. As the smell of kurobuta sausage and wasabi mayo faded into the distance, my philosophically reckless inner monologue exulted: “see, I wasn’t going to just let that happen! Way to exercise free will.

Of course, I caught myself, and posing as my own internal interlocutor, self-responded “hey now, exactly what about that decision makes it look like free will? Given the set of things you care about, the relative value you place on those things, and some basic rules of reasoning, it was literally impossible for you to have chosen in any way but the way you chose, even if it felt like you could have done otherwise. Or do I have to remind you about how what just now played out looked from a brain’s-eye view?

Unable to really argue with myself on that, I eventually came up with: “okay then, genius, but you still have to explain the feeling of satisfaction that comes from looking back on what happened. Are you just gonna say that in fact there was nothing to take credit for and it’s silly to be pleased?

Read the rest of this entry »

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[Cross-post] Neuroethics Journal Club: Judging Mens Rea

March 14, 2011 at 02:13 (Neuroethics) ()

This personal blog is not the only place on the internet you can find me typing into the void; I also contribute to Neuroethics at the Core, the academic blog for the research group I currently work with. Generally, when I hold forth on neuroethics-flavored topics, I’ll be cross-posting between this space and that one. Here’s the first few paragraphs of my post, followed by a link to the whole thing. If you’re inclined to leave a comment, I guess it’s really up to you which version you do so on! Incidentally, while you’re over at the Core blog, I encourage you to check out some of my previous posts there; although there’s only a handful, I’m quite proud of what I’ve contributed.

The National Core for Neuroethics had a lively journal club discussion recently on a paper by Bertram Malle and Sarah Nelson that dealt with “the tension between folk concepts and legal concepts of intentionality.” As I was presenting the paper and facilitating the discussion, I decided to blog about it to share some of the highlights with our readers and crystallize my own thoughts on the matter, stirred up as they were by the proceedings.

The basic gist of the paper is as follows. Malle and Nelson identify “the valid and precise use of the concepts of mental states in reasoning about the defendant’s actions and in assigning responsibility, blame, and punishment” as a central challenge in creating a system of criminal adjudication. (One interesting point to consider going forward is how these same issues might apply to the context of torts, where instead of the epistemic criterion being “beyond a reasonable doubt” one is instead prompted to consider “the balance of evidence.”) In legal contexts, the term used to refer to the mental states in question is mens rea, Latin for “guilty/sinful mind.”

The specific mental state that the paper is concerned with is intention, especially as it relates to intentional action. In the grand tradition of experimental philosophy (though it really wasn’t yet a tradition in 2003!), Malle and Nelson find the by-now familiar faults with how these concepts have been developed in legal theory and philosophy – with theories of intentional action checked primarily against the intuitions of a small, non-representative group of participants in the debate, leading to a confusing mismatch between how the law asks us to use concepts, and how we (generally) are inclined to actually use them.

Read the rest of the post on Neuroethics at the Core.

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