opinion

COLUMN: Neuroscience and philosophy take the stand



It’s like a scene from a “Looney Tunes” cartoon.

A train, moments away from killing five people strapped to the tracks, speeds past your eyes.

You have the opportunity to pull a lever that will switch the train to another track where the train would only kill one person.

In the trolley problem, what do you do?

Research evidence suggests the intricate wiring of our brain can tell us more about what we’d choose more than we might think.

However, we shouldn’t let this scientific understanding of the brain upend the place of philosophy, especially when it comes to legal 
matters.

If you choose to pull the lever and kill only one person, you might think, as a human being, it’s your duty to maximize benefit for the greatest number of people, which is known as 
utilitarianism.

Making a decision based on its specific outcome is 
consequentialism.

Or you might choose not to pull the lever.

Your actions aren’t doing any harm in deciding who should have to die.

Acting according to rules is a deontological approach.

The question might show how we think about morals.

A recent study at Harvard University shows people react differently through different versions of the problem.

In the trolley problem, pulling the lever would kill only one person as a side effect of the decision, but, in a variation of the problem in which you can push one person in front of a train in order to save the lives of five people, your action is a means to an end.

Through a combination of research in neuroimaging and behavioral studies, psychologist and philosopher Joshua Greene showed people react more negatively to killing one person as a means to an end rather than as a side effect of a decision.

This distinction means our notions of responsibility, consent and other ideas might be governed by science more than we think.

In questions of discontinuing life-sustaining care if a patient is going to continue to suffer or in determining the fate of a murderer who suffers from a psychiatric disorder, we can see how it would play a role.

Aaron Krumins at ExtremeTech said the gap between science and the legal system will continue to grow and some neuroscientists like David Eagleman work to reform the legal system to remain up-to-date with neuroscience research.

However, as 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant said, studying concepts of the mind without empirical science is empty and studying science without philosophy is blind.

The trolley problem shows the philosophical theories such as consequentialism and deontology that can’t be separated from science.

For this reason, we mustn’t let our understanding of neuroscience entirely govern what we know about human rationality and responsibility, especially when it comes to the role they play in the legal system.

As Kathinka Evers, a philosopher who studies the ethical questions raised by neuroscience, said, “philosophy and the neurosciences collaborate in a very fruitful manner.”

We need to recognize neuroscience and philosophy go hand-in-hand.

However, if you choose to ignore the work of philosophers in understanding the brain, I’d be the last one to pull the lever on you.

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