Adbusters, the magazine for and about culture jamming, never ceases to amaze me.  But this time, the thought-provoking issue is not their content per se, but rather one of the Letters to the Editor that they published.  It is from a long-term reader named Taylor Hudson, who begins his missive with this gentle disconnection:  “With a kind smile, I’m writing to share with you why I have canceled my subscription.”  Taylor goes on to explain, in a long and very thoughtful letter, that “It’s not enough to criticize anymore.  It is exhausting, disheartening and counterproductive…  Adbusters has presented or railed around very few true solutions for fostering people’s happiness.  For therein lies the real revolution, right?  To claim the right to be happy and free?”  [Adbusters does have at least one ‘campaign’ that is intended to foster happiness: Digital Detox Week.  Regular readers will recognize its similarity to a regular rant of my own.]

I very much like the gentle manner in which Taylor Hudson made his point to Adbusters, and wish to do likewise for neuroethics. Not to disconnect, but rather to suggest that we regularly scrub our analyses of innovations in the neurosciences to be sure that they are not criticisms devoid of solutions.  It is hardly news to point out that fields such as neuroethics can slip into the realm of nagging, raising alarms about new innovations and the harm they might bring to individuals, to society, to our very way of being.  In fairness, this is a natural outcome of the kinds of issues that we deal with in the field, and probably all of us have tripped up now and again while attempting to avoid that particular pitfall.  But really, it is easy to be a critic.

The challenge in neuroethics is to distinguish ourselves from the neuro-Technophiles, for whom all change is good, and from the neuro-Luddites, for whom all change is bad.  Rather, I suggest that we strive to find a third way, using techniques of close observation to analyze ways in which advances in the neurosciences writ large are or are about to affect us all, and then offering innovative solutions to make it more likely that these wondrous, exciting and even inevitable changes in the world around us, to the extent possible, improve the human condition.

Link to Adbusters’ Magazine and their Digital Detox Week Campaign

Image Credit: Smithereensblog


2 thoughts on “Solutions

  1. I think there is something wrong with claims such as “the neurosciences ought to demand a level of critical fair play.”

    First, it would help to state what a neuroscience is if we talk about taking the middle road of its critical management. Neuroscientists in a hurry searching for new neuroscientific knowledge may have lost patience at this point, but for the audience that remains your steadfastness might be rewarded.

    Is neuroscience about the accumulation of knowledge? Yes. But which knowledge? Certainly it won’t be knowledge of human experience: the neuroscientists’ object of study, the brain, is constructed from culturally idiosyncratic reports of human experience. We wouldn’t, logically, expect this constructed object to provide new experiential knowledge.

    If the neurosciences aren’t, and can’t, be concerned with investigating who or what we are, as we are, in our human affairs, then they must be concerned with their material associations. Knowledge of these material associations won’t tell us anything new about human mores and experience, but they will tell us how to materially enforce or change these experiences through empirical trial and error. Taxes have the same power.

    It follows that it isn’t possible to try and take a middle road of critical etiquette in the neurosciences. It isn’t possible to take any critical path at all once we recognise their strictly material remit. The behaviour of matter under certain conditions of stimulation or partial excision is simply a collection of unarguable, valueless, material facts.

    So, I think there is a danger here. I think the danger we face when presented with the claim that the neurosciences ought to demand a level of critical fair play is that it prompts us to accept the erronous idea that the neurosciences investigate human experience.

    What is dangerous about that? It is dangerous because we conclude that the neurosciences are instructive, when they are only prescriptive. The idea that the neurosiences are instructive in matters of human affairs brings on a whole raft of lay and scholastic believers who offer their talents and expertise in support of it. What is supported, I argue, is society’s prescriptive agenda. I worry about that.

  2. I appreciate Peter’s call for neuroethicists to “improve the human condition”. I often feel preached at rather than inspired when reading about what’s wrong/right about advances in neuroscience. I was encouraged by Peter’s earlier post “Ripples in Political Theory” when he referred to David Brooks’ talk. I think that David Brooks’ talk showed how neuroscience evidence can cause someone (him!) to reevaluate what he held to be true, namely the lack of importance he had placed on the social world. Neuroethics has an opportunity to open our eyes to our assumptions, enable us to wonder at the complexity of the brain, and spur us to reconsider what we are certain is true.

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