Philosophy and ethics in the frontiers of brain science

With large scale international programs entering new phases, upcoming meetings and a growing debate, new discoveries in brain science always keep fostering ethical and social questions. Philosophy matters, in this field more than in any other, because it reminds us that science sometimes is not only obtaining new facts, but also engaging new ways of thinking about them.

In many ways, the brain is viewed as one of the final frontiers of human exploration. One could wax literary about how the myriad functions of the brain are ‘…wider than the sky’ (here with a nod of homage to both immunologist/neuroscientist Gerald Edelman and poet Emily Dickinson), and how this contributes to what cognitive scientist David Chalmers has called “the hard problem” of persistent impediments to understanding how “mind” occurs in brain.

Such musings aren’t esoteric. Despite all that we’re coming to know about the brain, there is still much to discover. Of course, the challenges – and opportunities – of exploring the brain prompt development and use of ever newer methods and tools to investigate neurological processes that are involved in thoughts, feelings and actions.

Developing these approaches is the focus of several large scale international programs of neuroscientific research, including the European Human Brain Project (HBP) – now poised to enter its second phase, renewed activities of the United States’ Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, and the China Brain Project. There is hope (and explicit or implicit intent) that discoveries in brain science will lead to improved diagnosis and treatment of neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Applications of brain science in medicine can raise a host of philosophical, and ethico-legal questions, issues and problems.

Yet, benevolent as such goals and efforts may be, applications of brain science in medicine can raise a host of philosophical, and ethico-legal issues. And let’s not forget that neuroscientific tools and techniques are increasingly being employed beyond the bedside – for wellness and lifestyle, law, education, occupational performance, and military operations, in ways that are often ethically provocative, if not contentious.

The EU Human Brain Project Summit in Glasgow, Scotland is 17-20 October 2018, and meetings of the International Neuroethics Society and Society for Neuroscience are (9-10 and 11-15) in November, in Washington DC. These meetings will showcase much of the “latest and greatest” achievements in the brain sciences, and will highlight the philosophical, ethical and social implications of exploring this ‘final frontier’. These meetings aren’t ‘stand-alone’ events, rather they serve as a nexus to generate ideas and discussion, and the discourse need not – and should not – stop as the meetings conclude, and as ideas continue to incubate.

It’s in that spirit of continuing and growing the discourse that Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine sustains our thematic issue on Brain Science, Philosophy, and Ethics in Medicine, in conjunction with BMC Neuroscience, BMC Neurology and BMC Medicine. We look to provide a forum for exploring and addressing how new discoveries and developments in brain science foster philosophical, ethical and social questions, issues and problems, and how these may be approached and resolved.

Recognizing the increasingly global scale of neuroscientific initiatives, we’re especially encouraging of international perspectives, insights and discourses. For to paraphrase Nobel laureate Sir William Bragg, often what may be most important in science is not so much obtaining new facts, but as engaging new ways of thinking about them.

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