Neuroscience is "in." It is reshaping public culture by giving us new ways to think about why human beings do what they do.
There have been many high profile champions of neuroscience in recent years. One is Sam Harris, neuroscientist and religion critic, who has argued for a "new atheism" that will replace religion with a potent mix of evolutionary biology and reason.
The current star in the neuroscience firmament is Patricia Churchland, a retired professor at UC San Diego. Churchland has written on the subject for years, but her recent book, "Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tell Us About Morality," has garnered considerable attention. Christopher Shea, drawing on interviews with Churchland and others, has written a fascinating article on her ideas in the June 12 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The article is worth reading because Churchland's thinking is a moral mess. It reminds us why religion is the best and indispensable guide to moral behavior.
Churchland is concerned with refuting the claims of scholars such as Jonathan Haidt, who have attempted to soften the militant materialism of modern neuroscience. Haidt, from the University of Virginia, has identified the existence of universal "foundations" of moral thought. For Haidt, people have universal moral intuitions, including fairness and protecting the vulnerable. But to Churchland's way of thinking, Haidt has given us no more than a random list of values, which, lacking roots in biology, have no significance. For Churchland, the biological key to morality is to be found in the role of peptide oxytocin, which solidifies the bond between mother and infant and also generates empathy to include more distant kin.
Churchland emphasizes that oxytocin has nothing to do with right and wrong. The empathy that oxytocin generates is an emotion; it may have the feel of objective morality, but it is not. Building on this biologically rooted platform, culture and society come into play, generating moral decision-making. But, Churchland notes, the moral norms that are created vary tremendously from place to place. And recognizing this diversity, Churchland speaks the language of the moral relativist. For example, she defends the practice of primitive tribes that carry out infanticide in the context of scarcity, and she is slow to condemn the 19th century Hindu tradition of burning wives on their husbands' funeral pyres. "I don't know about their values," she says, "and why they have that tradition."
For Churchland, morality does not come from God or from philosophical intuition. She is opposed to the idea of grand ethical systems because they are not, in her thinking, biologically based. As Shea points out, morality for her seems to be largely a matter of prudence, emerging from the unique circumstances of each particular group.
What is wrong with this system? Everything. For one who is seeking guidance on how to live his or her life, there are no answers here. Churchland's moral relativism is absolutely chilling, not to mention internally inconsistent. She is slow to reject Hindu wife burning, but condemns unrestricted ownership of automatic rifles in America. Yet if, as she claims, there is no objective basis for determining what is right and wrong, how does one come to that judgment? Oxytocin may be important, but scientists once talked of dopamine. And even if oxtyocin impacts my moral choices, those moral choices remain; Churchland provides us with no reason to think that biology will be even remotely as important as moral principles in determining the outcome.
As a rabbi, I welcome research into neuroscience but believe that as much as we are the products of biology, we also transcend it. I make choices about right and wrong by studying sacred texts that record a 2,500-year history of men and women struggling with God's message and with each other as they attempt to define what is moral and what is not. I also draw strength and inspiration from a religious community that cares about values and deepens its search for the good through the practice of ancient rituals and traditions.
I don't believe in easy answers to moral questions. As a liberal person of faith, I reject simplistic moral codes, and I am aware that different religious traditions arrive at different conclusions about good and evil. Nonetheless, the process of moral decision-making that my tradition offers has left me convinced that, as Jonathan Haidt has argued, there is a moral structure to the universe, and despite our differences, the great religious traditions largely agree on what our moral foundations are. And in the moral world in which I live, infanticide and wife burning are always, always wrong.