One of the tasks of philosophy is to expose and debunk bad philosophy. And there is a lot of it out there, especially in the writings of journalists who report on scientific research. Scornful of philosophy, many of them peddle scientistic pseudo-understanding without realizing that what they sell is itself philosophy, very bad philosophy. A particularly abysmal specimen was sent my way by a reader. It bears the subtitle: "Without recognising it, Oxford scientists appear to have located the consience [sic]." In the body of the article we read:
This isn't some minor breakthrough of cognitive neuroscience. This is about good and bad, right and wrong. This is about the brain's connection to morality. This means that the Oxford scientists, without apparently realising what they've done, have located the conscience.
For centuries we thought that the conscience was just some faculty of moral insight in the human mind, an innate sense that one was behaving well or badly - although the great HL Mencken once defined it as, "the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking". It's been used by religions as a numinous something-or-other, kindly bestowed by God, to give humans a choice between sin and Paradise.
Now, thanks to neuroscience, we've found the actual, physical thing itself. It's a shame that it resembles a Brussels sprout: something so important and God-given should look more imposing, like a pineapple. But then it wouldn't fit in our heads.
Henceforth, when told to "examine our conscience", we won't need to sit for hours cudgelling our brains to decide whether we're feeling guilty about accessing YouPorn late at night; we can just book into a clinic and ask them for a conscience-scan, to let us know for sure.
Part of what is offensive about this rubbish is that a great and humanly very important topic is treated in a jocose manner. (I am assuming, charitably, that the author did not write his piece as a joke.) But that is not the worst of it. The worst of it is the incoherence of what is being proposed.
I'll begin with what ought to be an obvious point. Before we can locate conscience in the brain or anywhere else we ought to know, at least roughly, what it is we are talking about. What is conscience?
Conscience is the moral sense, the sense of right, wrong, and their difference. It is the sense whereby we discern, or attempt to discern, what is morally (not legally, not prudentially) permissible, impermissible, and obligatory. It typically results in moral judgements about one's thoughts, words and deeds which in turn eventuate in resolutions to amend or continue one's practices.
The deliverances of conscience may or may not be 'veridical' or revelatory of objective moral demands or or objective moral realities on particular occasions. Some people are 'scrupulous': their consciences bother them when they shouldn't. Others are morally insensitive: their consciences do not bother them when they should. If subject S senses, via conscience, that doing/refraining from X is morally impermissible, it does not follow that it is. Conscience is a modality of object-directed consciousness and so may be expected to be analogous to nonmoral consciousness: if I am thinking that a is F, it does not follow that a is F.
So just as we can speak of the intentionality of consciousness, we can speak of the intentionality of conscience. Pangs of conscience are not non-intentional states of consciousness like headache pains. Conscience purports to reveal something about the morally permissible, impermissible, and obligatory (and perhaps also about the supererogatory and suberogatory); whether it does so is a further question. Suppose nothing is objectively right or wrong. That would not alter the fact that there is the moral sense in some of us.
Can conscience be located in the brain and identified with the lateral frontal pole? If so, then a particular moral sensing, that one ought not to have done X or ought to have done Y, is a state of the brain. But this is impossible. A particular moral sensing is an intentional (object-directed) state. But no physical state is object-directed. So, by the Indiscernibility of Identicals, a moral sensing cannot be a brain state.
So that is one absurdity. A second is that it is absurd to suggest, as the author does, that one can examine one's conscience by examining a part of one's brain. Examination of conscience is a spiritual practice whereby, at the end of the day perhaps, one reviews and morally evaluates the day's thoughts, words, and deeds. What is being examined here? Obviously not some bit of brain matter. And if one were to examine that hunk of meat, one would learn nothing as to the thoughts, words, and deeds of the person whose hunk of brain meat it is.
If a person's feeling of guilt is correlated with an identifiable brain state, then one could perhaps determine that a person was feeling guilt by way of a brain scan. But that would provide no insight into (a) what the guilt is about, or (b) whether the guilt is morally appropriate. No brain scan can reveal the intentionality or the normativity of guilt feelings.
There is also a problem about who is doing the examining in an examination of conscience. A different hunk of meat, or the same hunk? Either way, absurdity. Examining is an intentional state. So, just as it is absurd to suppose that one's thoughts, words, and deed are to be found in the lateral frontal pole, it is also absurd to suppose that that same pole is doing the examining of those contents.
I have emphasized the intentionality of conscience, which fact alone sufficies to refute the scientistic nonsense. And I have so far bracketed the question whether conscience puts us in touch with objective moral norms. I say it does, even though how this is possible is not easy to explain. Well, suppose that torturing children to death for sexual pleasure is objectively wrong, and that we have moral knowledge of this moral fact via conscience.
Then two problems arise for the scientistic naturalist: how is is possible for a hunk of meat, no matter how wondrously complex, to glom onto these nonnatural moral facts? And second, if there are such facts to be accessed via conscience, how do they fit into the scientistic naturalist's scheme? Answers: It is not possible, and they don't.
Have I just wasted my time refuting rubbish beneath refutation? Maybe not. Scientism, with its pseudo-understanding poses a grave threat to the humanities and indeed to our very humanity. David Gelernter is good on this.