Philosophy Department Joins Regional Debate on Neuroethics

What if you could take a pill and ace tomorrow’s algebra exam? What if depression could be cured with a simple outpatient procedure? What if you could only see “the bright side” of things for the rest of your life thanks to a non-invasive form of brain surgery?

Welcome to the world of neuroethics – an ongoing discussion between scientists, health and legal professionals, and philosophers about the possible futures of a “neuromodified” humanity. And while no one knows how far off society is from utilizing pharmaceuticals or surgery to fix everything, there’s certainly time right now to talk about how we might deal with these prospects.

“It’s hard to say how close we are,” said Dr. Kenneth Williford, chair of the Department of Philosophy. “The brain is extremely complex. We can’t even treat many fairly well understood conditions simply.  There’s plenty of progress being made, and we can certainly expect more; but no one can really know how much more we will make or how fast we will make it.”  ”

Williford is one of several regional researchers and academics considering the issues surrounding neuroscience and its ethical and moral implications. He and several others from his department represent UT Arlington in the North Texas Neurophilosophy Group, which includes participants from Southern Methodist University, UT Dallas, the University of North Texas and UT Southwestern Medical Center. The group is planning a conference in February to discuss neuroethical issues affecting societies across the globe.

This past summer, the Department of Philosophy and UT Arlington hosted a three-day seminar on neuroethics. The “2010 UTA Summer Seminar in Mind, Cognition, and Neuroethics” featured speakers from across the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, leaders in the fields of neuroscience and philosophy. The event was sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and the Office of the Vice President for Research.

Williford said the issues have real-world application, many of which are being considered in medical offices and homes around the country. Examples of neuroethical problems include deciding whether or not to give mind-altering drugs to an autistic person to make them more “normal” or performing surgery on a child’s brain to control their epilepsy.

“What if we had the ability to eradicate criminal intent through neuroscience?” Williford asked.  “Suppose we could basically remove or disable that part of a person’s brain. Would this undermine our age-old conception of criminality?  Would it change our views of the nature of crime and punishment?  These are broader ethical and societal issues emerging from progress within the neurosciences.”

Williford’s own research concerns scientific theories of consciousness, how our current understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the brain relates to the traditional philosophical puzzles about self-awareness and perception. His colleagues, Drs. Charles Nussbaum and Harry Reeder, are, respectively, studying how the mind grapples with musical elements and how consciousness plays a role in science.

At the North Texas Neurophilosophy Group Symposium on Mind, Brain and Society on Feb. 10, the Department of Philosophy will sponsor speaker Jean-Pierre Dupuy, a historian of cognitive science and artificial intelligence. Dupuy founded the Cognitive Science/Philosophy of Science branch of the Ecole Polytechnique in France and is a member of the French Academy of Technology, which advises the French government on technological issues. Williford said Dupuy’s unique knowledge and perspective made him a good choice for the symposium.

“I thought Dupuy would be good to have at [next year’s] conference because of the breadth and depth he brings to the table,” he said. “He has a very deep historical perspective on the prehistory, rise and progress of the cognitive sciences. He also has a broad and deep grasp of social, political, and moral philosophy.”

Williford said the group is working on grant proposals to turn the symposium into an annual event. As additional funds come in, there would be additional collaboration and conversation among experts.

“Eventually our ability to manipulate people’s brains and thereby minds, for good and bad, will increase dramatically,” he said. “The worry is what is this going to do to our self-conceptions, to our ides of virtue? It’s worth thinking about and discussing these issues because clearly the scientific progress we are going to make will eventually have dramatic consequences for how we understand ourselves and the sources of our behavior and values.”

[Story by James Dunning, COLA Communications]

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