Minds, Morality and Magnets

Cory, who always keeps me up to speed with mind/body research links, passes along this report--Study Narrows Gap Between Mind And Brain--by Jon Hamilton.

In the article Hamilton reports on a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In that study researchers found that applying a magnetic pulse to the brain affects how participants made moral judgments. The conclusion of the report:

The fact that scientists can adjust morality with a magnet may be disconcerting to people who view morality as a lofty and immutable human trait, says Joshua Greene, psychologist at Harvard University. But that view isn't accurate, he says.

"Moral judgment is just a brain process," he says. "That's precisely why it's possible for these researchers to influence it using electromagnetic pulses on the surface of the brain."

The new study is really part of a much larger effort by scientists to explain how the brain creates moral judgments, Greene says. The scientists are trying to take concepts such as morality, which philosophers once attributed to the human soul, and "break it down in mechanical terms."

If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, Green says, it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.
I've wrestled a lot with these implications on this blog. Many of those posts can be found here.

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11 thoughts on “Minds, Morality and Magnets”

  1. First I assume it's nonsense. If someone is pushing you over, it probably affects your judgment too. Secondly, morality is not ultimate, it's a byproduct - not unimportant of course. Thirdly, what/who/why/how is ultimate? Mechanics won't do it. Spirit will. Such Anointing creates reality including all that is sensed. Like music, it subtends time.

  2. It is one thing to stick someone's head in an MRI while they are asked moral questions, and see what parts of the brain light up. It is another to be able to manipulate moral intuitions by manipulating the brain. If you stimulate the right part of the brain with an electric shock, you can get your arm or leg to spasm. Now we know we can do the same with our moral instincts.

  3. Joshua Greene, way to conflate our fallible moral judgments (which we already knew were very contingent) with the belief that there is a higher moral truth independent of our moral judgments.

  4. I've only just started reading your blog, and I'm excited to find you discussing body/soul issues. My training is in theology, and this article neither surprises me nor disturbs my theology. But, it's after midnight and I'm rather sleepy, so I'll leave it there for now. I look forward to reading more, and reading the links you provided to your other posts on the matter.

  5. Doesn't this simply highlight the fact that humans are not as good at percieving the motivations of others as we like to think we might be. After all, if our ability to morally judge others is manipulated by electro-magnetic fields as WELL as by other people when we truly are "reeds blowing in the wind". It would take a truly objective mind to be able to negotiate the moral mileu without being moved/disrupted by impulses and forces of the natural world. Perhaps the true moral judge of humanity does have to exist externally.

  6. Seems passe to me.

    If I pass a magnet near a radio, I can garble the sound it produces. With advanced EM I can manipulate the sound it produces in specific ways ("shaping" the sound). None of this has any implications on the information *behind* the sound the radio produces - only on the mechanism of production.

    Thus, a person with organic brain defects (say, a forebrain tumor) may develop personality defects causing "immoral" actions. I think most thoughtful observers would recognize this as an impairment of the "machine" for which the "soul" or "agency" behind the machine is not morally accountable.

    In sum, the "discovery" seems rather unsurprising at best and a statement of the obvious at worst and doesn't seem to add much to the actual mind/body discussion on a fundamental level.

  7. Additionally, I think it is fair to say that this is evidence of the deep integration of mind/soul and brain. Polkinghorne has suggested that the "information" element is key and the "interface" is at the quantum level.

  8. Being that magnetic energy induces electronic current, I guess the next rhetorical questions:

    1. The intensity of the magnetic field(s).
    2. Are the magnetic fields transient?
    If transient, then how frequent?
    Do these transients (if highly frequent)
    cause physiological damage to our brain?
    3. Are there steady-state magnetic field
    sources imposed upon us in our daily

    Gary Y.

  9. > "Moral judgment is just a brain process"

    I don't want to encourage mind-body dualism, but the word "just" here is particularly annoying. Do you think Greene would object if I called him "just a meatbag"?

  10. I just read Lous Cozolino's book, The Neurobiolgy of Human Relationships. Dr. Cozolino is on the faculty at Pepperdine University and has studied at Harvard, among other places. While he may not have addressed the concept of soul versus the brain, one of the interesting points he makes is that there is no single brain, just as there is no single neuron, in existance. Dr. Cozolino liberally references evolution, and has extensively studied eastern religion. Brains are not mechanistic, nor are humans. Each brain which comes in contact leaves an imprint on the other. Maybe just this simple observation about brain interaction speaks in favor of the concept of the soul.

  11. @Matthew:
    From what I've seen of Greene, he would take "just a meatbag" as a [b]compliment[/b].

    Ah, yes. Greene. His philosophy is some of the most poorly-thought-out I've seen outside of a Richard Dawkins book. I remember this is the guy who published an article stating that the sole purpose of his research was to "destroy belief in the soul". Apparently he thinks that all the problems of the world are caused by belief in free will, and that everyone would magically become nice to each other if we saw each other as "mere" machines. (Somehow.)

    For the record, I'm not a substance dualist myself. I think there are serious conceptual problems with it, quite independent of any findings of neuroscience. There are perfectly useable monist (even materialist) concepts of the soul which make a lot more sense to me. But the stuff in the linked article is just unremarkable science and bad philosophy.

    It's a truly bizarre leap of inference from saying that interfering with the brain alters decision-making processes to claiming that this somehow disproves the existence of objective morality. [i]Of course[/i] you can alter the way people make moral decisions by interfering with the brain - this has been known for centuries, and is the reason why insane criminals are treated differently from criminals with fully functioning brains.

    This is equivalent to saying that because you can blind someone in both eyes, this somehow proves that the objects they previously could see were not real. I fail to see what relevance this has to morality. Surely moral reasoning is concerned mostly with [i]what[/i] we should do, and only to a lesser extent [i]how[/i] we arrive at these decisions? This stuff reeks of the naturalistic fallacy to me.

    Whilst Greene claims that his motives are altruistic, and that he's saving people from feeling guilt at committing crimes they could not have helped doing, he's pretty much trying to abolish the whole concept of morality because he thinks it will somehow disprove the existence of the soul. Not only is the inference questionable, it seems a pretty heavy price to pay to knock down a concept you find ideologically unacceptable.

    We don't need to defend silly antique versions of substance dualism in order to take on this neurotrash.

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