Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Field Notes

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Field Notes

Article excerpt

Speaking in different registers. This past fall I was in Heidelberg at a wonderful conference sponsored by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. One of the meeting's aims was to bring together neuroscientists, sociologists, philosophers, and others to talk about the ethical and social meanings of advances in neuroscience. The organizers not only brought together people from different disciplines, but people from the same disciplines who speak about the same facts in what we might call different "registers."

One of the neuroscientists made critical remarks about what he took to be his colleagues' extravagant claims regarding what neuroscience has already discovered about consciousness. He was careful to indicate that he was not suggesting that neuroscience could not offer profound insights into consciousness. He said he was, after all, a "materialist." He certainly didn't imagine that consciousness arose out of some nonmaterial stuff that was, in principle, beyond the ken of natural science. But he did want to emphasize that, as he said, "we are more than our brains."

Another neuroscientist, whose research explores the biological processes that give rise to consciousness, said in another session, with equal emphasis, that "we are nothing but our brains."

Now neither of those neuroscientists believes that consciousness emerges from somewhere other than our brains. Neither believes in a God that mysteriously inserts nonphysical souls into developing embryos. Neither thinks we need to appeal to a nonmaterial substance to explain the emergence of consciousness. They're both materialists. Yet the registers in which they speak--"we are more than our brains" versus "we are nothing but our brains"--are different. …

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