Brain Matters – A Conference Report

bm4 copyLast week, Daniel Buchman and I travelled to Halifax to attend the Brain Matters Conference.  About 125 people attended – philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists, and more.  The meeting was quite successful, particularly as it afforded lots of time for hallway conversations.  In the paragraphs below, Daniel and I summarize our impressions of the plenary lectures.

David Healy from Cardiff University gave the opening plenary.  Many will know that Healy had his job offer famously withdrawn by the University of Toronto, with much speculation revolving around the role that pharmaceutical companies had as a guiding hand in the background (for more about the matter, see here.)  At the time, Healy was one of the early voices raising concerns about both efficacy and safety of SSRIs, but in his plenary he focused on a more modern issue: conflict of interest in the pharmaceutical industry.  While there is a abundance of evidence out there about the topic these days,  unfortunately, Healy’s presentation was laced with more innuendo than facts, as was evident in the ensuing discussion when several people challenged him on his evidence and he was forced to back down.

The Friday morning plenary session belonged to Caroline Tait, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Tait, a Medical Anthropologist who identifies as Métis, spoke on how most First Nations or Métis people experience, interpret, and respond to illness, and how this understanding has implications in the formation of Indigenous identity and medical morality.  Tait argued for combining ethical regimes where local Indigenous worldviews are placed on an equal playing field to Western ethical principles. Tait described the case examples of Jordan River Anderson, a child from Norway First Nation House who died from a rare neuromuscular disorder called Carey Fineman Ziter syndrome while the provincial and federal governments fought incessantly on who was financially responsible for his home care. Professor Tait emphasized the reality of how many Indigenous peoples, and children in particular, fall through the cracks of both provincial/territorial and federal systems. The tragic story prompted a Private Members motion called Jordan’s Principle that was passed in the Canadian House of Commons in 2007, and other provinces have since moved to implement, to some extent, Jordan’s Principle to ensure access to government services for First Nations children with complex health challenges.

On Friday afternoon, Walter Glannon from the University of Calgary spoke to a question that has riddled the minds of philosophers since antiquity: do human beings have free will?  Glannon stated that recent studies in the brain sciences suggest that free will is a mere illusion (called the ‘threat’ of neuroscience). If this claim were true, Glannon suggested, society’s current practice of holding people accountable, both morally and legally, would be challenged. Glannon assumed a position of compatibilism and argued that free will and responsibility are not ‘threatened’ by recent empirical work in the brain sciences. Glannon referred to many of the usual suspects on both sides of the debate, such as the infamous Benjamin Libet studies and Daniel Wegner’s provocative book The Illusion of Conscious Will. Glannon also spoke to hard determinist claims, including Robert Kane’s “ultimate responsibility,”and  John Locke’s example of a man who wakes up locked (unknowingly) in a room. Hume’s “liberty of spontaneity,” Fischer’s “guidance control,” and others were offered as  in support of compatibilism. Despite the strength of the philosophical support, he unfortunately did not offer much in demonstrating the contribution of neuroscience to a compatibilist stance on free will. Although Wegner’s and Libet’s causal neurophilosophical models represented the brain science contribution, the only other evidence was a brief mention of Patrick Haggard’s work. Perhaps the most interesting part of the talk was the question period in which strong challenges were raised by members of the audience; at times Glannon answered his critics but other times he was forced to concede that he (or might we suggest, his brain?) could not marshall an appropriate riposte on the spot.

James Bernat from Dartmouth gave what amounted to a Master Class in Brain Death.  A neurologist who has been studying the issue for decades, Bernat took the group through the varying arguments about whether brain accurately represents the biology of human death or not.  Based in systems theory and the concept of emergence, he illustrated how modern technology has made the issue of brain death more challenging: not only has our ability to keep at least some components of biological processes ongoing for long periods of time in the absence of a functioning brain, but as transplantation has become more commonplace, the prospect of physician conflict of interest looms large.  A substantial part of his presentation represented a response to the arguments against the validity of brain death in the recently published study, “Controversies in the Determination of Death” by the U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics. To respond to the President’s Council report, he used the framework offered by the recent paper by Raphael Bonelli and colleagues. Bernat’s thoughtful conclusion was that brain death remains the most accurate concept of human death.

Jonathan H. Marks, Director of the Bioethics & Medical Humanities Program at Penn State, injected a healthy dose of skepticism into claims that neuroscience enhances national security.  Reviewing the various tools that have been trotted out over the years to extract information from individuals, he systematically debunked the value of everything from lie detection to waterboarding. [My own personal favorite is the letter by convicted spy Aldrich Ames sent to the Federation of American Scientists.  I particularly like the handwritten version.]  Of course it is not just the futility of these technologies that purport to reveal the ‘truth’, but the ethically dubious grounds on which they were famously deployed under the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” that Marks decried.

The meeting was brought to a close with a rather inspiring lecture by Neil Levy from the University of Melbourne and Oxford University.  Reminding us of Adina Roskies description of neuroethics as constituting the ethics of neuroscience and the neuroscience of ethics, pointed out that the field of neuroethics has an unprecedented opportunity to move forward using the rigorous tools of experimental philosophy (i.e. the Knobe effect – see also video below), applied to the neuroscience of ethics.  The take-home point was not lost on the audience, and Neil’s lecture (complete with a slide of an iconic burning armchair  – as per the video below) concluded the meeting on a resoundingly high note.


3 thoughts on “Brain Matters – A Conference Report

  1. Peter,

    As one of those who was unable to attend, I thank you very much for the summary. As someone who has done some work on COI, I am particularly interested to hear about some of the challenges posed to Dr. Healy, but I will not press you for public details. Do feel free to email me if you have interest in a follow-up.

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