Big questions

Everyone’s talking about Science Magazine and its list of 125 big questions. Personally I like “Why is time different from other dimensions?”, but that’s down around #50. The interesting question, way up at #2, asks what is the biological basis of consciousness. That’s right up our alley, although it’s questionable if “scientists have a good shot at answering the question over the next 25 years”, which is supposed to be one of the criteria.

But the editors completely missed a key point: what is the value of solving these questions? In the absence of other metrics, let’s think in terms of economic value. If Science had adopted this perspective, they certainly would have included our question: what is the biological basis of religion/religious experience/religious behavior? Whether morality is hard-wired into the brain did make it onto the list, but that’s a little different.

The economic value of understanding this neurotheology question can be summed up in just one word: terrorism. Why do people fly airplanes into buildings or strap on explosives to blow up themselves and some people on a street in the name of religion? It must be more than just the 72 doe-eyed virgins whose ministrations await them in heaven. Just a wild guess, but given the money being spent on the “war on terror”, solving this problem should be worth at least a trillion dollars. The consciousness problem is intensely interesting, but what’s the payoff?

One Response to “Big questions”

  1. Noah Z Says:

    The question of “Is morality hardwired into the brain” seems very unlikely to me. Particularly because morality is so different depending on what culture you live in. For instance, my girlfriend is tutoring a Tibetan man for his citizenship test. She found out there is a part of the test meant to test one’s morality. One of the sample questions was something along the lines of “Have you ever been married to more than one partner?” The correct (and therefore moral) answer is “No.” And a “yes” answer would possibly prevent someone from becoming a citizen. However, in some parts of Tibet there is still polygamy. There are theories that it was due to the fact that families didn’t have much land, if any at all, and they wanted to make sure the land didn’t get divided up so when an older sibling married, the wife was essentially marring all the brothers. It is largely a tradition that has fallen (or is falling) out of fashion with the continual displacement of the Tibetian people, but it is not considered immoral by them. I’m not trying to make a moral judgment here but rather simply illustrating the differences in “morality” in different cultures. Even in America, the government finds murder moral under different circumstances (death penalty, Iraq, etc.).

    Maybe I’m stating the obvious. I guess the idea is that there are universal moral taboos in every culture that may/may not be biological. The only two I can think of cogently arguing are perhaps incest, and murder. Most known cultures (known to western thought), if not all, seem to have some type of taboo on murder and incest. But it seems impossible to test universal moral taboos without doing detailed ethnographical analysis of every culture there is. Even that seems pointless considering that globalization is so pervasive. There aren’t too many, if any, cultures left that haven’t been influenced by it.

    On Sciencemags website they state it in this way:

    Is morality hardwired into the brain?
    That question has long puzzled philosophers; now some neuroscientists think brain imaging will reveal circuits involved in reasoning.

    Reasoning is a lot different than morality. I know there is some evidence to suggest that people who have had damage to the prefrontal lobe have a decreased ability to control violent behavior but that’s not the same thing as morality either. Given that so much of morality is cultural the whole question seems ethnocentric to me.

    I hope this isn’t too off topic but I do think your question is related. A lot of people get morality from their religion. If there is a biological connection to religion/religious experience/religious behavior, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was related to moral development as well.

    Lastly, I wish I could suggest another way to measure the value of these questions other than economics. Given that I believe that economics doesn’t hold the moral value Adam Smith would like it to, and that the only other system I could give would be a religious one which, well, we could stay up all night debating the value system.

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