Getting our heads round neuroscience at AEI

What an interesting afternoon, though an odd one as we sat for 4.5 hours without a break (well, we all took our own breaks, but odd all the same; and no chance to mingle). Video apparently will soon be posted, and I recommend you take a look. Roger Scruton kicked off in splendid style, with a strong supporting cast of Stephen Morse (Penn), Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Duke), Raymond Tallis (London) and Sally Satel (AEI).

The main focus of the afternoon was on the problem of reductionist approaches to the brain -especially in relation to law. If we are “only” chemically-induced brain states, how can we be morally or criminally accountable? The summary view seemed to be that the courts are basically ignoring the claims of fMRI-toting theorists because they have the gumption to realize that a common sense view is to be preferred – accepting the “folk psychology” view that led to and sustains our legal system. Otherwise, there would be no basis for finding anyone guilty, let alone punishing them, and juries have too much sense than to open that particular Pandora’s Box.
More of interest to me – and the question I was set to ask had the chair called on my waving arm – is how the public is making out after a decade and more of news magazine covers telling us where and how our brains are doing this or that. As one speaker tartly noted, we are all good at looking for excuses. Neuroscience, seen as offering a reductionist explanation, would seem to offer the ultimate excuse.
Back in 2007, I moderated a day conference at the National Press Club that touched on both neuroscience and artificial intelligence (under the title, A Spotless Mind?), that included Pat Churchland, Congressman Brad Sherman, and critics of some current and prospective developments from the right and the left.
And I was reminded of a project in which I was involved, convened by Fred Goodwin, former NIMH director, under the auspices of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in 1997-98, under the title Neuroscience and the Human Spirit. It concluded in a 2-day conference at the National Press Club starring Bill Bennett, among others.
We can be glad that AEI is picking up this agenda.

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