The Overlapping Magisteria of Neuroethics

Over at the ever insightful Science Progress, Eric Meslin has a great post which thoughtfully challenges Steven Jay Gould’s infamous Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) proposal to resolve the perceived conflict between science and religion.  The core of Gould’s thesis was this:

No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap… The net of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.

Meslin does a fine job of unpacking many of the relevant issues, and I highly recommend reading his comments in full.  A couple of excerpts from his post are particularly relevant to the neuroethics crowd.

The real action can be found at those places where these two magisteria touch, where for perfectly sensible reasons that arise from the necessity of science policy construction, society finds itself trying to reconcile two completely different types of input: those about facts and those about values. In fact, the major bioethical challenges of the past few decades demonstrate that neither science nor ethics alone can effectively answer many science policy questions. Uncritically separating these questions into separate domains (as NOMA would have us do) will inhibit, not promote sound science policy. Progressive bioethics brings them together.

A bit later he says,

Whatever one’s interpretation about the scope of these two magisteria, the real action for science and ethics is not at the level of big questions such as whether God exists, or how do proteins fold…  The real action can be found at those places where these two magisteria touch, where for perfectly sensible reasons that arise from the necessity of science policy construction, society finds itself trying to reconcile two completely different types of input: those about facts and those about values.

I would argue that disciplines such as neuroethics not only lie precisely at the junction between the two magisteria but actually serve as a bridge between the two.  Neuroethics deals with both the values that society places upon advanced technology in the neurosciences as well as the quest (quixotic or no) for neurobiological explanations of moral behaviour.  All in all, a very exciting place to park one’s hat.

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