Book by Neil Messer
Review by Kristi Kola
Neil Messer’s book Theological Neuroethics is ‘an invitation to both Christian ethicists and neuroethicists – as well as others with any interest in either or both fields – to explore what might result from a serious engagement between the two.’ In its few but packed chapters, the author tackles important topics like the neuroscientific study of morality, free will and responsibility, consciousness and its disorders and brain enhancement ethics, where he reviews the arguments coming from the most prominent figures in the area of study and confronts them with Christian teachings throughout the history.
The brain is an interesting organ. Weighing only 1360 grams (2% of our body weight) it consumes 20-50% of the blood oxygen supply, and is the center of thought, consciousness, emotions and desires. And even though we don’t understand fully how it works, it is worth exploring the current theories to get a grasp on what we have learned so far and how we can explain everyday life decisions and personhood.
In the beginning of his quest, Messer addresses the question of what contribution should Christians expect from theology and what contribution from evolutionary, cognitive and neuroscientific accounts, if they wish to understand what it is to be human in relation to God, one another and the world. He attempts to engage in this book a stance where both contribute, but theology is the dominant partner, shaping the understanding and critically appropriating insights from science. He adds that he attempts this approach, also ‘to test the capacity of a Christian theology firmly rooted in its own distinctive sources and methods to appropriate insights critically from evolutionary, cognitive and neuroscientific research, to incorporate them in a theologically-formed vision, and so to articulate a distinctive and compelling theological neuroethics.’
The first major topic Messer discusses is morality.
He quotes Joshua Greene who argues based on his findings (the trolley experiment) that non-utilitarian moral judgements reflect automatic, intuitive decision-making processes in the brain that are the product of our evolutionary history. Deontological moral theories, in his view, reflect the use of reason to rationalize these intuitive judgements after the fact. Much of the time, Greene thinks, our moral intuitions serve us well, but in the complexities of modern life they can lead us into intractable conflicts that can only be resolved by utilitarian reasoning. According to Guy Kahane, an opponent of Greene, these conclusions are situational, simplistic and misleading. Other authors like Singer, Hauerwas and McIntyre have contributed to the debate, but it still remains unresolved.
Messer notes that these debates are in some ways a rerun of eighteenth century arguments about the place of reason and the passions in moral judgement – sometimes explicitly, as when Haidt identifies his model with Hume’s remark that ‘[r]eason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. Regarding these discussions, the kind of moral reasoning Greene thinks we need is a ‘metamorality’, a mode of reasoning that will transcend our tribespecific instincts. He believes this is supplied by utilitarianism, which offers a ‘common currency’ for settling our differences by means of empirically testable proposals about the best outcomes for all concerned. It is worth emphasizing that it is non-utilitarian moral theory that Greene wishes to reject, not our intuitive judgements themselves. Messer points out that in the same vein, utilitarianism can be subject to another moral theory that can be used as ‘metamorality’, leading into a series of debates that will never resolve.
From a Christian perspective, in the Genesis ‘Fall’ narrative, the serpent promises that if they eat the prohibited fruit, the human beings ‘will be like God, knowing good and evil’ (Gen. 3.5). Commenting on this text, Barth acidly remarks, ‘What the serpent has in mind is the establishment of ethics’. In a similar vein, one fragment of Bonhoeffer’s unfinished Ethics begins: The knowledge of good and evil appears to be the goal of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to [overcome] that knowledge. This attack on the presuppositions of all other ethics is so unique that it is questionable whether it even makes sense to speak of a Christian ethics at all. If it is nevertheless done, then this can only mean that Christian ethics claims to articulate the origin of the whole ethical enterprise, and thus to be considered an ethic only as the critique of all ethics.
This reading of the Fall narrative underpins the profound theological suspicion of ethics-as-human-project that Bonhoeffer articulates in Ethics when he writes that the first task of Christian ethics is to overcome the knowledge of good and evil. Ethics, understood as the knowledge of good and evil, is always already part of humanity’s fallen condition, our ‘disunion and estrangement’ from the ‘origin’ in which human beings ‘know nothing but God alone’. It is an aspect of the life we are compelled to live in the world, estranged from God, out of our own resources; a life lived, as Bonhoeffer says, ‘between curse and promise’. Messer argues that if Bonhoeffer is right that Christian theology should understand the human project of ethics in this way, then the critical perspective supplied by Greene’s neuroscientific studies should be remarkably untroubling to Christians. Indeed, he adds, scientists who offer such critiques might even prove to be unexpected allies (perhaps despite themselves) of Christian ethics. First, it should come as no particular shock if Haidt and others are correct that many of what we take to be reasoned moral judgements are in fact post hoc rationalizations of affect-driven moral intuitions. If this research suggests that we humans have a deep-seated capacity for self-deception about what is actually going on in our moral psychology, and a falsely inflated sense of the power and reliability of our practical reason, this looks like something Christian ethics should already know very well about the fallen human condition. If it comes as news to us, perhaps cognitive neuroscience is giving us a useful reminder.
To summarise Messer’s argument in a few key parts.
In short, Messer agrees with Barth and Bonhoeffer who seem to articulate a profound theological suspicion of ethics-as-human-project: the attempt to know about the good on the strength of our own resources of reason and insight. If the critical perspectives on moral judgement offered by Haidt, Singer and Greene are broadly correct, then these authors are playing the helpful ground-clearing role of ‘masters of suspicion’: unmasking the pretentions of a merely human project of ethics and recalling theological ethics to its proper sources and methods.
Bonhoeffer associates the ‘knowledge of good and evil’ with the Fall and the curse that comes in its wake. He argues that ‘judging between good and evil is at the heart of the moral life in this state of disunion; human beings in this state are ‘essentially judges’, and as such are ‘like God, but with the difference that each judgment they pass falls on themselves’. Self-knowledge is another feature of this life: humans in this state are self-consciously aware of the good they have done – and, naturally, grateful to God for it.
According to Bonhoeffer, in the Gospel narratives, Jesus simply refuses this way of life. When either his friends or his enemies invite him to arbitrate on questions of good or evil, he rejects ‘the human either-or that is implied in every such question’. His life is lived in the true freedom of simplicity and single-mindedness: ‘He lives and acts not out of knowledge of good and evil, but out of the will of God. There is only one will of God. In it, the origin has been regained’. Likewise, for his followers, ‘those for whom the knowledge of good and evil has been overcome, there is no longer a choice among various possibilities but always only the one option of being elected to do the one will of God in simplicity’. So, against the preoccupation with good and evil that makes us ‘essentially judges’, Jesus says ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged’ (Mt. 7.1; pp. 313–14). Against our self-conscious knowledge of the good and evil we have done, he says ‘do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing’ (Mt. 6.3) – so that in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt. 25.31-46), the righteous who have fed, clothed and cared for Jesus ‘will not know their own goodness; Jesus will reveal it to them’.
Next, Messer discusses the topic of free will and determinism.
After a careful analysis and explanation of different approaches, both philosophical and scientific, he quotes Karl Barth where he says that there is no contradiction between divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom: ‘The freedom of [the creature’s] activity does not exclude but includes the fact that it is controlled by God. It is God who limited it by law and necessity and it is God who created it free.’ Creaturely freedom, says Barth, operates on the basis, and within the framework and limits, of divine permission. This limitation is not a compulsion laid on the creature, but rather a necessary condition of genuine creaturely freedom: the attempt to act outside the limit of divine permission would be a self-destructive effort to claim godlike freedom. In other words, every aspect of a creature’s activity – including the material conditions that make it possible, the physical cause and effect that it involves and the goal to which it is directed – is governed and given space by divine providence.
In Messer’s theory, the freedom that matters most to Christians is the freedom to orient oneself fundamentally to the good. That freedom is compromised not by our creaturely finitude, but by our sinfulness, our fallen condition: the radical alienation from God that we are both born into and perpetuate through our own willing and choosing.
Perhaps some of the constraints on freedom mapped by psychology and neuroscience can be understood theologically as ways in which individual, corporate or structural sin compromises our freedom to orient ourselves to the good. In the Augustinian perspective that Messer quotes, we are all sinners whose wills are bound, not to the good, but to sin; yet this does not obliterate, but rather diverts and co-opts, our willing and choosing.
‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’ (Rom. 7:19). But to Messer, according to Biblical teachings, it is God’s grace that liberates our bound wills and gives us the hope of attaining our true freedom. This grace can be described, paradoxically, as a form of compulsion or coercion that sets us free. In short, the theological themes of providence, sin and salvation have rich potential to complicate this area of neuroethical discussion in illuminating and fruitful ways.
The next significant topic is on consciousness and its disorders.
In this chapter, Messer starts with a quest to define personhood. He sums up that Boethius’ definition of ‘an individual substance of a rational nature’, originated in a Christological argument,—though it was designed to be applicable to divine, angelic or human persons—, has remained standard in the mediaeval West. This standard, however, has since been reworked by John Locke with his definition of personhood as ‘a thinking intelligent Being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places’, which detached the concept from Boethius’ substance metaphysics and foregrounded two of the features prominent in current debates: self-consciousness and continuity over time.
Other theological accounts surveyed by Messer have often emphasized the social and relational aspects of human personhood: to be a human creature, ‘soul of one’s body’, is to be in relationship with God and one’s fellow-creatures. In itself, this is a welcome emphasis, a valuable corrective to the individualistic approach. But some authors express this in terms of the human capacity for relationships, and this for Messer has its own problems.
For example, Messer quotes Warren Brown when he writes of human ‘soulishness’ as an emergent property whose ‘critical feature ... is the capacity for deep and rich experiences of personal relatedness’: relatedness to others, and ‘[t]he capacity for, and experiences of, relatedness to God’. Now, it is well known, argues Messer, that if personhood is thought to depend on human capacities (such as the capacity for relatedness), this brings into question the moral status of humans who are severely impaired in those capacities. But by describing the ‘capacity for ... relatedness to God’ as an emergent ‘soulish’ property of human brains, Brown also seems to make humans’ theological status dependent on our capacities. His view would seem to bring into question the standing before God of humans whose capacity for relatedness was severely impaired, a troubling conclusion for Christians who wish to affirm that nothing in creation can separate us from God’s love in Christ (cf. Rom. 8.38-39). Messer instead prefers Barth’s account, who emphasizes that it is from first to last God’s action which constitutes the human person as ‘soul of [her] body’.
If Christians wish to think Christianly about the moral regard due to patients with Disorders of Cognition (permanent vegetative state, minimally conscious state, locked-in state), they might find the category of personhood less well suited to the purpose than is often supposed. This thought is reinforced by an early essay of Stanley Hauerwas with a typically arresting subtitle: ‘My Uncle Charlie Is Not Much of a Person but He Is Still My Uncle Charlie.’ By quoting Hauerwas, Messer concludes that trying to answer the question ‘Who is a person?’ may be the wrong approach – or at any rate, not the most illuminating or helpful – one. We might be best advised not to try and discern what is right by looking for a boundary between persons and non-persons, whether that boundary is marked out more inclusively or exclusively.
By revisiting Jesus’ parable of ‘The good Samaritan’, Messer argues that the right question is, instead, ‘What does it mean to be a neighbour – one who acts with love and compassion – to a patient with a Disorder of Consciousness?’. Then neuroimaging evidence of brain activity and consciousness may assume a more modest, but nonetheless invaluable, role in helping to inform a concrete answer to that question.
The final topic discussed is Brain Enhancement Ethics
In this chapter, Messer expains pharmacological and neurotechnological enhancement, and the promises of cognitive, moral and mood enhancing leading to the transhumanism and then posthumanism. He states that transhumanists speculate about radically enhancing intelligence, mood and self-control, developing entirely new senses, radically extending the lifespan, and uploading human minds to computers. Critics however discern questionable assumptions and conceptual confusions in these speculations, especially mind uploading.
An important distinction that surfaces in the chapter is that between therapeutics and enhancement.
In Karl Barth’s terms, the command of God the Creator sets us free to live before God, to live in fellowship with one another, to live the kind of integrated ‘psycho-physical’ life characteristic of human creatures, and to live limited lives in particular places and times, with particular vocations. In this picture, health will be understood as a penultimate, not ultimate, good, concerned with the fulfilment of some of our this-worldly goals and ends: in Barth’s words, the ‘strength for human life’. Diseases and disorders can be understood as internal states or conditions which disrupt our physical or mental functions, so as to hinder or threaten the fulfilment of some penultimate goals of embodied creaturely life: in Barth’s language, a form of weakness opposed to the strength for life. But Messer adds that Barth also maintains that they (diseases and disorders) can remind us of our finitude and mortality, thereby pointing us towards an ultimate hope which lies beyond this mortal life. Thus the author says that a theological evaluation doesn’t yield a proper ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, but generates a strong presumption in favour of therapeutic activity toward the use of pharmacological and neuro-technological interventions to cure or treat diseases, but each case should be assessed with wisdom and humility.
Regarding enhancement, the ethical evaluation will have its roots in the narrative at the heart of the Christian faith: the story of a creation brought into being through the sheer exuberant love of God and pronounced ‘very good’ by its Creator, yet whose goodness is obscured and flawed by the presence of evil in its various forms, including human sin; the story of God’s saving love at work in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ to overcome the effects of sin and evil, and to inaugurate a new age that will be completed at the eschaton, in which humanity and all creation will reach their ultimate fulfilment.
Thus, Messer’s theological analysis does suggest a more general suspicion of neural enhancements, because they can all too easily be motivated by a basic dissatisfaction with the opportunities and limits of human creaturely existence as such. The use of such enhancement technologies easily becomes an expression of that radicalism which, as Bonhoeffer put it, ‘cannot forgive God for having created what is’.
When Messer turns to an ethical evaluation of enhancement technologies, there emerges a strong presumption against the more ambitious goals identified with transhumanism. These so overtly express that basic dissatisfaction with creaturely existence, and sometimes an explicit ambition to become godlike beings, that it is hard to avoid seeing them as counterfeits of the salvation and future hope which in the Christian perspective are to be sought and found in Jesus Christ.
In short, Messer stands for a strong biblical point and tries to incorporate neuroscientific findings, suggesting that sometimes they can shed light on important biblical concepts that were hard to grasp until neuroscience gave its aid in helping us understand better how God has created us, our fallen nature and a biblical redemption story.
** Readability (2/5): technical language with profound, philosophical arguments
** Application (2/5): this book deals mostly with philosophical, scientific and theological arguments about ethics
** General Appeal (2/5): this is a topic very specific for people engaged in an academic, apologetic or neuroscientific field
*** Commitment (3/5): Weekend read or major commitment? Significant read
**** Challenge (4/5): a good read, though philosophical, and thus intellectually challenging
*** Recommendation (3/5): recommended !