Evolutionary biology and neuroscience
are adding to our understanding of a historically unscientific area.
Morality may be something different for
everyone; it may be the set of rules handed down by God to Moses on
stone tablets, or the system in which karma is passed through the
Dharma. But morality is also a decision-making process, one that plays
out in the brain in the same way a mechanical decision-making process
plays out on a computer. Clerics, theologians, and, in the last century,
anthropologists have put forward various answers to the riddle of how
our species stumbled upon the concept of goodness. Now, neuroscientists
and evolutionary biologists are adding to that understanding.
Discoveries in these fields have the potential to achieve something
remarkable in this century: an entirely new, science-based understanding
of virtue and evil.
Marc Hauser, author of Moral Minds
(Ecco, 2006) and director of the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory at
Harvard University, is at the forefront of the emerging scientific
discussion of morality. David Poeppel of the University of Maryland is
on the cutting edge of today’s brain and neuroscience research. I spoke
with both of them about what science can contribute to the human
understanding of good and bad.
The first thing I discovered is that
applying a scientific approach to a murky, loaded issue like morality
requires understanding the problem in material terms. You have the
event, in this case the moral decision. Then you have the space where
the event plays out, the brain. Some aspects of the decision-making
process are fluid and unique to the individual. To form a crude and an
unoriginal analogy, this would be like the software code that the brain
processes to reach decisions about what is morally permissible and what
is not. Other aspects are fixed, like hardware.
Marc Hauser is an expert on the former.
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