In one of those enduring moments in comedic history Homer Simpson’s brain nudges him to try using reverse psychology on his son Bart. When Homer wonders out loud what the term means his brain parries with annoyance that he should not use reverse psychology; failing to discern his own brain’s trickery Homer defiantly replies: alright, then I will!
A team of neurologists from the University of Southern California recently conducted an experiment, the results of which appeared to shed light on the nuances of Homer’s inner colloquy and possibly even earn the researchers a platform in quarters once considered strictly the domain of theological inquiry.
The experiment involved 30 subjects, 6 of which had sustained some damage to an area of the brain known as the Ventromedial Pre-Frontal Cortex. The subjects were given a questionnaire in which they were asked to solve the moral dilemma of disposing of one human being’s life in exchange for the survival of many others. Those with VPFC damage stood out significantly in opting for what the scientists called the “utilitarian response”; in other words, they had no qualms about hypothetically inflicting lethal harm on one person if it meant sparing the majority from peril.
In an audacious leap of academic license, Dr. Antonio Damasio, one of the study’s authors, declared that the results confirmed that “part of our moral behavior is grounded…in a specific part of our brains,” and that a well functioning Ventromedial Cortex is “critical for normal judgments of right and wrong’’.
I suspect that damage to the brain would affect a host of its functions, let alone its ability to perform cost-benefit analyses of day to day choices. The average person is also cognitively aware of the fact that emotions often play a pivotal role in moral decisions, and it’s debatable whether a team of highly paid researchers was needed to confirm that premise; politicians have for decades been capitalizing on primal emotions to mobilize the more extreme elements of their contingencies.
But what lurks beneath Dr. Damasio’s conclusions is more the Darwinian principle that our moral affectations are a product of a few changes in the chemical makeup of our most important organ which is the brain. This is a theoretical assumption - firmly entrenched on a wholly materialistic worldview - from which some scientists draw conclusions they have formulated before any experiments are even conducted. In the end it translates into our not being ultimately accountable for our choices.
One could argue that absent moral restrains we placidly shift onto utilitarian mode as it suits our fancy. What Dr. Damasio’s has postulated is that if deficiencies in the brain cortex can jar a person’s moral compass, then it follows that the latter evidently resides in a physical place inside our head, a prisoner of the brain’s adventitious circuitry and not a product of higher forms of cognition that transcend materialistic boundaries.
This is a concept strict Darwinists would gladly embrace as it further marginalizes the notion that the conscious choices we make are willful decisions based on obedience- or disobedience - to certain fundamental moral codes that exist outside of ourselves rather than mere conventions which are the byproduct of evolutionary adaptations to the dominant social or cultural milieu.
Dr. Damasio supported his conclusion by suggesting that the Ventromedial Cortex is a region of the brain with “the primary function of processing feelings relating to empathy, shame, compassion and guilt”. But some may object to the idea that rational decisions are based entirely on feeling, otherwise the human race would not have lasted as long as it has. In fact, the correct moral decision usually runs contrary to our feelings which would commonly yield to the instinct of self-preservation, or a craven pursuit of personal satisfaction, instead of the well being of others.
This so called “utilitarian response” is still one that registers in a moral scale as the subject considers the lesser of the evils available for choosing. People with brain damage may not possess the needed psychic calibration systems to avoid bypassing some of the myriad variables that an uninjured brain would naturally consider before making a decision of great moral import; this is not the same as inferring that our moral will is nothing more than a reflex to random chemo-electrical impulses within the impersonal - yet mysteriously purposeful- anatomy of our brains.
What naturally follows from accepting Dr. Damasio’s inference that our brains are exclusively the seat of our moral intuitions is the scientifically sanctioned absolution of all our moral shortcomings (perhaps even our very intentions to commit wrong). We are trapped in a vacuum of determinism where we are no longer responsible for correctly evaluating the morality of our actions; the victims of a delusion which has been foisted upon us by our brains; a Homer Simpson’s Syndrome if you will.
The more traditional argument, which is snubbed by scientists with loyalties to the Darwinian camp, is that moral judgments are furnished by an irreducible censor referred to as our conscience; and although it may sometimes be led astray, it remains obstinate in its disposition for reminding us of the way things ought to be, and can not be mapped in any specific locale of the brain.
Oddly enough, the scriptures speak of the searing of a man’s conscience as the result of a life lived in rebellion to a transcendent moral code. They stand singularly in contrast to the materialistic approach some scientists uphold which suggests that morality abides strictly within an explainable framework of arbitrary electrical impulses in the brain, where we find we are slaves of a wholly evolutionary process dependent on millennia of exposure to social conditioning.
It is reasonable to conclude, given the results of Dr. Damasio’s experiment, that an impaired brain will have some difficulty in performing functions which may entail decisions of a moral scope; but to extrapolate from those findings that we are inextricable bound to a Pavlovian blueprint of destiny is a task that should be left to Hollywood directors and the porn industry profiteers, not scientists who occasionally like to meander into the camp of philosophy. It is through the usage of a fairly healthy brain that I would wager that analysis.