Yesterday a friend showed me a scan of her daughter’s soon-to-be born baby. The scan was taken in Hong Kong and it looked for all the world like a new born child.
Technology, and the science behind them, is moving on rapidly. Such advances have encouraged some to open new fronts in science’s attempt to explain all behaviour and experience in mechanistic terms. The more optimistic proponents of the human genome project claimed that we would understand the genetic causes of every human whim and eccentricity. However, nature proved more complex than these warriors of science had hoped, and most of them have retreated to more modest positions.
Recently their place on the front line has been taken by the neuroscientists with their increasingly sophisticated scanners. Many of them are no less determined to be deterministic. They often interpret their results in ways that suggest our experiences can be reduced to colourful pictures of the brain in action. They talk of brains not minds; it is no longer our genes but our brains that run the show; we, with our all-but-unnecessary consciousness, are merely hitching a ride.
They suggest we are mere onlookers in our lives and in doing so they erode our moral possibilities. But are these theories yet another example of science overreaching itself? Certainly, the use of ‘brains’ as an explanation fits well with the general drift in the cultural narrative. The latter appears to have a growing preoccupation with passivity. Ideas such as ‘suffering from’, vulnerability, mental health conditions and disorders, disability, victimhood etc. are never out of the headlines.
Does this matter? Does it matter to the soon-to-be born child in Hong Kong? Will she want to believe she can decide what is important to her and choose her own ideas about what she might aspire to? Or will he want to know he can make up his own mind about how the world works and what he believes is right and wrong?
Using ‘brains’ instead of ‘minds’ undoubtedly means we think of ourselves differently. We will see ourselves more like automatons. We will still make moral choices, but we will not see them as our choice and responsibility. In a real sense we will lose our minds.
What could we do about it? We could focus on this developing narrative and its implications. We could not let it go by without comment. We could point out the moral hazard involved which threatens us all. We could quietly raise our voice against it for the sake of the soon-to-be born wherever they are.