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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2005 / 10 

Graduate School to host talk by Michael Gazzaniga on The Ethical Brain

October 9, 2005

The Graduate School at Virginia Tech will bring to campus renowned neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga Tuesday, Oct. 11, to discuss “The Ethical Brain.”

The talk, the first lecture of the Graduate School Distinguished Lecture Series, will be at 4:30 p.m. in the Multipurpose Room of the new Graduate Life Center at Donaldson Brown, and a reception will follow.

NBC called Gazzaniga “one of the country's preeminent brain scientists and a keen observer of much about human behavior.” According to the New York Times, “Gazzaniga tries to make the leap from neuroscience to neuroethics and address moral predicaments raised by developments in brain science.”

Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, called Gazzaniga’s book The Ethical Brain “an important and fascinating book,” and author Tom Wolfe, who called Gazzaniga “one of the most brilliant experimental neuroscientists in the world,” said Gazzaniga was the most qualified person to discuss “ethical behavior” in a world in which people are often considered “nothing more than robots controlled by a chemical analog computer called the brain.”

“Cognitive Neuroscience has three main issues with respect to the current field of neuroethics,” according to Gazzaniga in a summary of his talk. “First, cognitive neuroscience can help with some current ethical dilemmas such as does the embryo have the moral status of a human being. Second, there are important ethical areas that neuroscientists are being asked to weigh in on, when, in fact, they shouldn’t be. For instance, neuroscience has nothing to say about concepts such as free will and personal responsibility. And it probably also has nothing to say about such things as anti-social thoughts. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, cognitive neuroscience is building an understanding of how brain research will instruct us on ideas like universal morals possessed by all members of our species. This fundamental development will find cognitive neuroscience becoming central to the modern world's view of ethical universals.”

Patricia S. Churchland, in a review of The Ethical Brain in American Scientist Online, says Gazzaniga addresses the issue of “when and how ought we to hold people responsible for their behavior.” His answer, she said, is that we must consider whether the person had other choices of action and that “our institutions for assigning responsibility derive from the need to maintain and protect civil society, which must figure out suitable criteria for when and how to punish those who violate the rules.”

Gazzaniga is director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and the David T. McLaughlin Distinguished University Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Neurological Association. He also serves as president of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute and is the founder of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. He has served on the President’s Council on Bioethics since 2002. His publications include The Ethical Brain, Cognitive Neurosciences III, The New Cognitive Neurosciences and The Mind’s Past.

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