Who’s Brainwashed?
Progress and hype in the world of neuroscience.

Sally Satel


Kathryn Jean Lopez

LOPEZ: “It is a serious mistake to think that one can erect an ethical system based on science alone.” Is the idea of a science-based ethical system the reigning view today?

SATEL: It’s not dominant among scientists because most scientists are not that interested in stepping out of the lab. They live to design experiments and to make discoveries. And, to their chagrin, write grants.

Yet a number of prominent scientists seem intrigued by the idea that knowledge about the brain will guide us in our social interactions. No less towering a figure than neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga hopes for a “brain-based philosophy of life” based on an ethics that is “built into our brains. A lot of suffering, war, and conflict could be eliminated if we could agree to live by them more consciously.”

According to neuroscientist Sam Harris, “the more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values.” How so? Neuroscience can help answer questions about the neural processes involved in moral decisionmaking and empirical facts can help us act more effectively on our values — for instance, if we value rehabilitation of prisoners then we’ll want to do it more effectively and we will need good data on new therapies. But it is not at all evident how discoverable facts about the brain can constitute a prescription for the way things should be.

Of course, the idea that science is the only source of human knowledge or the only way to enhance the quality of life is not new. We can trace it to the Scientific Revolution of 17th-century Europe. The fruits of that revolution have been among the greatest gifts to mankind, but the proper stance of scientists, as all good investigators know, is to respect the bounds of their discipline. This is true of all specialists.

LOPEZ: What are the implications of neuroscience for individuals’ freedom of choice?

SATEL: This is a momentous question. Our final chapter, called “The Future of Blame” (an homage to James Q. Wilson, who wrote an article with that title) is devoted to this topic. Our specific aim was to address the question “can neuroscience resolve the free will debate?” Heaven knows, neither Scott nor I can resolve it. But neither can neuroscience. Everyone agrees that people can be held accountable only if they have freedom of choice. The longstanding debate is about the kind of freedom that is necessary. Some contend that we can be held accountable as long as we are able to engage in conscious deliberation, follow rules, and generally control ourselves.

Others disagree, insisting that our deliberations and decisions do not make us free because they are dictated by neuronal circumstances. They believe that as we come to understand the mechanical workings of our brains more fully, we’ll be compelled to adopt a strictly utilitarian model of justice in which criminals are “punished” solely as a way to change their behavior, not because they truly deserve blame.

Which “option” you choose — what kind of freedom you deem sufficient — is a philosophical question, not a neuroscientific one. (Spoiler: I endorse the first.)

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.