Are There Things We'd Rather not Know?

May, 2002

Donald Kennedy, Ph.D., has a background as a biologist, served 12 years as president of Stanford University, and is currently Editor-in-Chief of the journal Science.

DON KENNEDY: I really do believe that evolution and our history is an important shaper of what we are and how we think about ourselves, and how we think about what we know. And I hope that context will intrude repeatedly on what I try to say.

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Donald Kennedy, Ph.D. Credit: Scott Lasky 
Vampire bats in colonial roosts—a couple of people that I talked to this  evening were eager for me to talk about the vampire bats, because so few people love them except us. Vampire bats nest in colonial roosts, and they go out at night hunting for prey. A sleeping dog, or livestock, or a beautiful woman. And it’s quite obvious that this kind of  predation doesn’t always meet with success. I mean you don’t find a sleeping dog just everywhere. Sometimes some bats score and other bats don’t score. And a zoologist has studied now quite carefully the behavior of vampires who have been individually banded, and so they can be distinguished as individuals within the colony, and watched them over long periods of time. And what turns out is that vampire bats, when they come home with a large blood meal, are apt to share it around. There’s more than I can use, so please have some— you have some, too. And he kept careful track of who the sharees are, and how the sharers treat them. And it turns out that—like humans playing iterated prisoners’ dilemma games, they reward individuals that have shared with them earlier, just as in tit for tat.

In real time is the vampire bat exercising a form of moral decision making, or just operating rationally in a survival game? As more and more is learned about the behavior of animals, it becomes for me at least more and more difficult to get closure on a set of properties that are uniquely and especially human, can be defined unambiguously in that way. So, as we learn more and more about the neural and behavioral capacities of animals, I think the zone of what we think of as uniquely human is gradually shrinking. And as we learn more about how  their brains work it may well change our  attitudes about how different we are from them, thus reducing our sense of being all that special. And that takes me, I must tell you, into a space I’m not entirely comfortable with. There’s this awkward growth of knowledge. It might in the long run change our view of our place in the living world.

Free Will

Now onto the problem of free will, and I’m not going to do any better than—surely not as well as many of you have  already done today with that. But I want to make the point that it might be the last line of defense along with language for defining what makes us uniquely human—at least many people seem to think that. Here we move onto more difficult ground.

Suppose, for example, that we were to learn enough about transmitter biochemistry and neuronal connectivity so that we could explain every single behavioral choice we make in those terms. Would we then be in a position to interpret departures from behavioral norms, as devian phenotypes? At Princeton, John Cohan is doing FMRI analyses of human subjects as they ponder moral choices. Suppose that he eventually arrives at what you might call an architectonics of ethical decision making? Would that threaten our notion of free will?

Suppose that several decades of studies provide a much more complete picture of the way in which people make choices in ambiguous stimulus situations. Would that further shrink the domain we think of as uniquely personal decision making? And what would we do with the results if they suggested that simple noninvasive tests could reveal lesions that suggested irresponsibility or, more seriously, criminal inclinations?  Would we extend the concept of theinsanity defense to cover all phenotypes and abandon our contemporary concept of what constitutes free moral choice?

I raise these questions not because I have answers. The title, “Are there things we’d rather not know?” is itself an embarrassing display of my own ambivalence on this set of points. So, two additional questions then, which I ask in order. First, are we likely ever to get to that level of explanation? And, second, if we did, how would we deal with the ethical sequeli?

Well, I don’t really need to deal with the second question, because I can’t get past the first. I think the level of  complexity in the brain is so great that I don’t believe we will ever reach—certainly not soon enough to worry me—the depths of explanation that would constitute a serious challenge to the notion of exercise of free will or personal responsibility. But I wouldn’t put that preference to the test by suspending research efforts aimed at that goal, because I feel confident that we’re unlikely to get there.

What we are quite likely to accomplish, however, is a level of knowledge that expands the range of neurological phenotypes that could be considered as exculpatory with respect to certain kinds of deviant behavior. That I think is surely in serious prospect, perhaps alreadyhere. And I think that’s going to require some reengineering of the criminal justice system. And I think one of the duties of people who are seriously interested in neuroethics is to predict what directions that might take, and begin to prepare lawyers and others for the prospect.

So, returning to where I started, the first observation post, maybe ravens, vampire bats, and chimpanzees have free will. Maybe the main difference between us and them is that we have language, so we get to talk about ours and to hold conferences on neuroethics. With respect to the brain sciences, are there legitimate concerns that discoveries about the brain could lead to methods of control that all of us in this room would find unacceptable? Some work, for example, might provide information to repressive societies that might then utilize them for their own purposes. Should we regulate such research on the grounds of what use might be made of the results  somewhere in some more Orwellian society? Or in our own society would we condone research in which new  methods are developed to make advertisers or others more able to manipulate behavior in ways of which the subjects were unaware?

We certainly don’t need to see additional power added to the subliminal inputs we already receive in television. But in the main I think the ethical decisions about what work ought to be done needs to belong to the experimenter unless there is the serious prospect of external harm. If they’re mandated by regulation then the doers never have to make their own ethical decisions. And I like circumstances in which people are forced to choose.

Barbara Koenig, Ph.D., is an associate professor of medicine and executive director of the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics. she was coorganizer of the neuroethics conference

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Barbara Koenig, Ph.D. Credit: Scott Lasky 
BARBARA KOENIG: Studying the brain offers a seductive promise, a promise of prediction, the ability to make assessments about people, their motivations, desires and characteristics. And, predictions will span a range of domains, including future ill health and cognitive impairment, potential success in school or employment and violent behavior or even addiction to drugs. I’d like to make the important point, as one of the few social scientists at the meeting, however, since I’m an anthropologist, that, in some ways, whether those predictions prove to be scientifically accurate is less important than our belief in their power.