I delivered a lecture about ethical considerations related to the neuroscience of brain plasticity to a class at Stanford last night, and thought it might be fun to reiterate some of the issues raised for those bright young men and women struggling to understand how to behave in their professional lives. The class is organized by Bill Hurlbut, a Stanford neurologist and bioethicist who serves on the President’s Council for Bioethics, and Bill Newsome, a distinguished neurobiologist (member of the National Academy of Sciences) on the Stanford faculty who has had a long interest in neuroscience-related issues of philosophy and ethics.
The closing questions of my lecture, which you might consider as ‘food for thought’:
1. How can a neuroscience that lucidly explains the origins of “personhood”, “self”, “intentionality”, “free will”, et alia, be reconciled with our great religious and philosophical traditions?
2. How can a neuroscience that explains the origins of behavior be reconciled with what are (from a neuroscience perspective) archaic principles of jurisprudence?
3. Experience-driven “human capacities” are rapidly evolving in modern societies. How long shall we be satisfied with leaving the progressive societally-driven evolution of human capacities to cultural empiricism?
4. How long shall it be before we take the position that everything done by society to and for children and adults (i.e., to their brains) is not good for them? Who shall be the arbiter of “the good”?
5. How should we — and how could we — control the Pandora’s box of “behavioral modification” by a) brain plasticity boosted by b) “smart pills” and by c) genetic engineering?
6. How can we equitably deliver neuroscience-based training that can substantially alter individual human capacity and achievement?
7. What shall be the societal consequences of reducing the variance in human performance abilities â€“ or of optimizing human performance in different specific task domains?
8. How do we reconcile the conflict between human individuality, and the natural impetus by politics, business, and sub-cultures to subvert it?
9. Do the neuroscience and related professional communities bear any responsibility for the ways in which their science is applied in the world? How can we (on what level should we) help assure that our societal governance is neuro-scientifically grounded?
10. Do you really think that the power of neuroscience is less, in its capacities for positive or negative societal change and impacts, than — for example — nuclear physics? [I then asked the students] Are YOU ready to take some personal interest in, or responsibility for its uses?
Over the next months, we’ll revisit and elaborate on these questions when current events or published scientific reports again remind us of their importance — and when we are reminded that, from this time forward, these issues shall worry and in some ways torment human societies, probably forever.