Is Neurotheology the Latest Trend in Bioethics? Reply

What is the latest in bioethics?

Fr Joseph Tham

One of the buzzwords of bioethics in the next few decades will likely be “neuro”.  When I was in medical school, we were told that little is known about how the brain works.  However, neuroscience has gained a lot of knowledge in these last 30 years because of the advances of imaging techniques coupled with powerful computer technology.

The tremendous progress on understanding how the human brain works can revolutionize our comprehension of ourselves and our society.  Hence, there are important ethical implications on how to apply this new knowledge.

I belong to a study group called “neurobioethics” based in Rome that consists of philosophers, ethicists, psychologists, psychiatrists, neurosurgeons, neurologists, radiologists and theologians, because it is necessary to approach this difficult subject from many angles.  I will mention some of the emerging questions of neurobioethics today below.

Some scientists are trying to map the human brain using supercomputers to understand the thought process.  Human thinking is a very complicated process, with many parts of the brain and different neurons firing and receiving message.  Imagine that each of your brain cells (neuron) is assigned to an individual laptop computer, and a million of these computers are linked together to see how these neurons communicate in every thought.  Then, it is possible to find out what happens in the brain when we see colors, hear a song, feel, remember, think, get angry, happy, or sad.

Neuromarketing measures consumer preferences by means of neurological testing.  For example, one can measure brain activity of someone watching an advertisementin order to see how effective it has been.

Could neuroimaging techniques one day allow us to read other’s thoughts, or be used as a polygraph to test if someone is lying?

Knowledge gain from neurosciences can help doctors study brain diseases, and perhaps correct them.  One day, this knowledge can be used to combat diseases such as Autism or Attention Deficit Disorder.  Studies are being carried out to learn how the brains of psychopaths, criminals, and terrorists work.  There are already methods of cognitive enhancement to improve one’s memory, concentration, wakefulness, and IQ.  Could we one day even use this to eliminate bad memories, fear, or violent tendencies?  Could we even modify our moral sense?

Obviously, some of these techniques can be problematic, as they violate our rights to privacy, informed consent, and personal identity.  New laws would have to be enacted to protect citizens, for example, in the use of information obtained from our brain scans in hospitals.

One important issue that emerged is the way we define ourselves.  I think there is a tendency to reduce our humanity to the brain as a complicated computing machine.  We are spiritual and moral beings, and there are many things—such as love, joy, courage, sacrifice, heroism—that could not be examined under the microscope or explained by the most powerful Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or CT scans.

Recently, I attended a two-day conference at Oxford University called “Neurosociety. What is it with the brain these days?” where many of these issues were discussed.  Most of the participants were surprised to see someone dressed as priest in this gathering.   One of them approached me and asked, “Why is the Vatican interested in this?”  Since in the conference, we just heard that neuro has become the new prefix for everything, like neurowater, neuroeconomics, neurolinguistics, I told him tongue and cheek that I was there because I was interested in “neurotheology”.  He was stumped.

Of course, I was only kidding. Well, sort of.

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