Bioethics Blogs

Neuroethics – Surfing the Waves of Neuroscience’s Hard Problem


Recently, William Carroll of Blackfriars Hall at the University of Oxford reflected upon a Sunday NY Times article by Karl Ove Knausgaard about neurosurgery. Knausgaard marveled at both the subtlety of the technique (in the cases discussed, in the adept hands of noted neurosurgeon/author Dr. Henry Marsh), and at the idea that all of our thoughts, emotions, actions, if not our “self” might be nested within the folds and crevices of the brain. Carroll too appreciates the capabilities and insights of neuroscience, but ponders Knausgaard’s reductionist view, and in so doing offers the possibility for some middle ground between materialism and dualism. Caroll’s essay prompts us to confront what philosopher/cognitive scientist David Chalmers has called the ‘hard problem’ of neuroscience, namely, how the great stuff of consciousness occurs in the grey stuff of the brain. My colleagues Drs. Peter Moskovitz of George Washington University, and John Shook of the University of Buffalo and I have also been examining the “hard problem”, as well as the problem of falling into “is/ought” kinds of thinking when it comes to what the brain sciences can provide to conceptions of the self, sentience, morality and our social interactions.

Neuroscience, as a science (which possesses the tools, techniques and intent to only study the natural world) is based upon a philosophical ground of metaphysical naturalism, and as such, engages methodological naturalism. Tenets of naturalism include materialism and reductionism, but the brain sciences take some license here. Granted, neuroscience is unraveling more and more of the structure-function relationships of the brain.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.