Winter School of Ethics and Neuroscience – day 2: introduction to ethics

The second day of the winter school was split in two tracks, one focused on philosophical matters, the other on practical applications. I chose to attend the philosophical track, where we talked at first about definitions of ethics, morality, judgment, and so on.

The discussion was not easy, especially for me as a newbie of the field (except for some memories of high school’s philosophy class). In these discussions, words are sharp weapons – I felt that every sentence needed to be composed with care, in order to minimise misunderstanding or ambiguity (the fact that we discussed in English and that it was not the most fluent language for most participants did not help). This reminded me of Quantum Psychology and its aim of making English less dangerous when talking about ethical principles and everyday facts.

 

Trolley problem

 

We talked about standard ethics exercises (trolley problems), but the reasoning got quickly overridden by emotions. It is not surprising, as the trolley problem is a way of putting a lot of pressure to make the “right” decision about other people’s lives. I personally could not really get into the mindset of that experiment, because lots of variables were missing or were unrealistic (the people on the tracks were all equal and unknown to me, the trolley could not be stopped in any way, I was the only one able to do something, etc…). That left space to a lot of “moral noise” and to amusingly absurd ideas.

Source: knowyourmeme.com

During the session, I thought that it is theoretically possible to separate ethics from emotions, but ethics would become inhumane. I moreover thought that the effectiveness of emotion-aware ethics lies in the ability to emotionally connect with the involved parties in a given situation. Of course a more detailed knowledge of every possible influence of an action would make its outcome mathematically more positive, but it would take longer to compute and it would be dependent of an objective evaluation of everything, that is often impossible.

Nevertheless, I understand the questions raised by philosophers about the nature, origins and utility of ethics. It enables people to understand what is going on within them instead of acting solely on emotional bursts. I still value emotional input as much as reasoning, because I consider that emotions have been fundamental for the survival of our species (and maybe others too, but it’s hard to prove without doubt or bias), by shaping our decisions in conflictual situations. What I see is that modern humans are challenged on problems that are so huge and complex that our emotions, that helped us solve local, small group problems, are sometimes inaccurate or problematic. So I think that studying ethics and morality in theory is a way of better understanding our decision-making processes, and help us make more informed decisions.

More about this in next post! Stay tuned 🙂

Winter School of Ethics and Neuroscience – day 1: brain reading

The first day of the Winter School was composed of two long sessions. The morning session focused on brain reading: its current state of development, potential applications and ethical issues. As per today, brain monitoring techniques are quite far from “reading thoughts” just like a sound recorder would record a conversation, so our discussions on how ethical it is to potentially read thoughts without a person’s consent (and its implications for privacy) were very speculative.

(Picture source: dailymail.co.uk, 31 May 2013. The winter school participants agreed that putting a brain scan in an article makes it intuitively more reliable, so here is one!)

My impression is that it is not that insightful to know what are the words and sentences that are generated by the brain at a certain moment, also because it is currently more effective to ask the person to tell them aloud. But what about lying? We had a complex discussion about how a brain reading device could detect lying. It could clearly be helpful in detecting if someone is saying yes while thinking no to a certain question; but how about cases of sincere wrong beliefs about given facts, or unconscious filtering of memory, or ill-formed questions? My thought is that it is more insightful to read the brain to know about the current mental state, than going for the high-level information conveyed by words. On that line, some studies tested the hypothesis that a certain set of emotions (and therefore specific mental activations) are triggered by recognising a scene in a picture and could tell for example if that person recognised the crime scene. My first objection is that the brain activation could come from recognising the scene for an unrelated reason, and would therefore be no solid proof.

I find that the application of brain reading in assisting justice would be risky if it were trusted to provide reliable data. The same applies for DNA analysis: if the overall reasoning is unsound, it could even be evidence against someone innocent. My take is that it is just like a new tool in the kitchen: it doesn’t automatically make you a better cook, but in the right hands it can make your job faster or more accurate.

 

6th Winter School of Ethics and Neuroscience

I just came home after the last session of this Winter School, organised by the Berlin School of Mind and Brain. As I am not a neuroscientist nor a philosopher, I feared I would end up understanding as much as this:

… while I actually  managed to follow all discussions quite well 🙂

I attended the philosophical track, that consisted of presentations and discussion around morals and ethics from various angles: philosophical, emotional, cultural and neurological. I find especially interesting to map a lot of connections among these domains. It was sometimes hard to accept that our moral views can be influenced in ways and extents we can’t imagine, but even if I feel that my convinctions are somewhat not as bomb-proof as before, I prefer to be aware of their weaknesses – just like knowing the potential shortcomings of computer programming made me trust them less, but in a more informed way.

I plan to write down a summary of the contents of each session and some of my comments in separate posts. Stay tuned! I will be happy to continue discussing about those themes in the comments.