Neuroethics – Surfing the Waves of Neuroscience’s Hard Problem

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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. But the hard problem persists; and given the absence of tools or techniques to solve it at present, the most rational explanation of how the grey stuff is involved with the great stuff of consciousness and cognition relies upon token physicalism and/or inter-theoretical reduction as an explanatory model. Simply put, this posits that the contents of our subjective consciousness (i.e. – thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc.) represent tokens of some set of processes of the embodied brain (as it exists in an organism that is embedded in environments).

Any current postulate on how consciousness occurs (and what it really is) at best remains speculative. Here we could give a nod to theories of complexity and emergentism, but not too deeply, as we run risk of using one hypothetical simply to explain another (rather than actually doing justice to the explanans-explanandum relationship). As Carroll notes, from an Aristotelian-Thomistic perspective, brain science has afforded a pretty good view of material, and (especially when taken with other sciences) formal causality, but efficient causality – and final causality (if the latter is meaningful) – remain unexplained. So, let’s admit that there is much to nature that we still do not understand (else the mission of science would be moot), and that the core tenet of neuroscience, as science, is to remain self-critical and self-revising.

Is consciousness a mystery as Colin McGinn and his colleagues (“the mysterianists”) have asserted, or (as I tend to believe) a puzzle to be solved? Well, even McGinn has wavered a bit, moving from claims that we have reached a point of cognitive closure, to instead contending that our current state of understanding is best described as “approaching a cognitive cusp.” We may not solve the puzzle all at once, and I hold that like any really good puzzle, what is puzzling and important is both how the pieces or elements of the construct fit together and what they depict. But there’s arguably more to it: as we approach the puzzle it’s important to ask what it means, that is, what we will do with it, at varying stages and levels of solution. To paraphrase philosopher Hannah Arendt, what’s of real value is not just the work, but instead, is the intent of the task, and how we employ the outcomes of our labors at each step of the way.

Neuroscience can depict how brains work (albeit not completely). Putting neuroscience to work to describe what brain networks are involved in various cognitive, emotional and behavioral processes, including those involved in what individuals and communities hold to be “moral”, is noteworthy, and meaningful. But neuroscience can’t – and shouldn’t be used to – tell us how we ought to think, feel and behave, what morality is, or how to live the “good life”. Yet, the temptation to posit a purely biological basis for what is “normal”, “right”, and/or “good” looms large. Positing a “neuroscience of ethics” is fine on a descriptive level, but we must be critical of – and prepared for – attempts at using this to be prescriptive. And I perceive this as happening on a variety of levels, from the scientific to the socio-political.

Perhaps then, the really hard problem is knowing what to do with the information and capabilities we possess, what to do about the information and capabilities we lack, and knowing if we will be wise enough to know the difference, or recognize our own tendencies toward oversimplification and hubris. So, with a view to neuroscience – and neuroethics – I think that passively sitting upon a cognitive cusp is a precarious position that can foster hazardous perspectives upon the puzzles – and applications – of neuroscience. Brain science will, and arguably should, move forward, and such advancements will certainly exert effect in medical, legal and cultural domains. In light of this, I assert that we must actively “surf” a cognitive crest. This is where and why the discipline and practices of neuroethics as the “ethics of neuroscience” should come to the fore. How we surf, staying balanced and off the rocks, affords opportunity to gain insights to the task, provides a differing view of where we may be going (and from where we’ve come), and makes us better at staying afloat amongst waves of scientific discovery in an often changing, and sometimes stormy social sea.


James Giordano, PhD is Chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program at the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, and is Professor in the Department of Neurology at Georgetown University Medical Center. Follow more of Professor Giordano’s work at, and


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