The Struggle for Consciousness and the Dawn of a New Alliance Between Ethics and Science

By Michele Farisco

This piece is a response to Jonathan Moreno's "Why is Congress Afraid of Consciousness?" which was published on this blog on February 19, 2019.

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In his thought-provoking post, author Jonathan Moreno writes about the “reluctance [of US government funding agencies] … to be associated with projects that explicitly describe work on the nature of consciousness.” Moreno surmises that the government’s reluctance stems from the public’s concerns about research that could lead to human manipulation, i.e. for conditioning personal awareness, thought, and action.

Rather than assessing the validity of this claim (which, as an outsider to US funding agencies, I am not able to do), I will take it as a starting point to highlight some relevant aspects from my personal experience in the European brain research program, the Human Brain Project (HBP), an EU-commissioned brain research project.

HBP started in 2013 with a 10-year plan involving hundreds of scientists including those with expertise in Neuroscience to Informatics, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to Medicine and Robotics to Human sciences all coming from more than 100 universities all along Europe. HBP’s final goal is to build a research infrastructure to help advance neuroscience, medicine and computing. Six ICT research Platforms are the core of the HBP infrastructure: Neuroinformatics (access to shared brain data), Brain Simulation (replication of brain architecture and activity on computers), High Performance Analytics and Computing (providing the required computing and analytics capabilities), Medical Informatics (access to patient data, identification of disease signatures), Neuromorphic Computing (development of brain- inspired computing) and Neurorobotics (use of robots to test brain simulations).

Among a number of activities, scientists and philosophers in the HBP have been explicitly charged with studying tough questions about the nature of and neuroscientific connections with consciousness. Both empirical and conceptual approaches are considered necessary because, despite technical advancement in studying consciousness in the laboratory, we still lack a comprehensive conceptual assessment of consciousness. This gap in the clarification of consciousness is not just a harmless philosophical issue: it risks affecting scientific investigation itself.

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The instrumental investigation and assessment of consciousness and its disorders (DOCs, e.g. vegetative state/unresponsive wakefulness syndrome and minimally conscious state) have witnessed remarkable progress in both neuroscientific descriptions and clinical practice over the last years. For instance, neuroscience has advanced significantly in the identification of the so-called ´neuronal correlates´ of specific conscious experiences (Overgaard, 2017), and neuroimaging technology allows a much more reliable assessment of residual consciousness in people with brain injuries (Laureys & Schiff, 2012). Furthermore, neuroscientific advances in our knowledge of consciousness have resulted in the passage from a monolithic way of looking at severe brain damage by the scientific and medical communities to a more graded nosology based on a quantitative assessment of consciousness and on functional neuroimaging technologies (Bruno, Vanhaudenhuyse, Thibaut, Moonen, & Laureys, 2011). This has been possible particularly thanks to the development of so-called ´neuro-technologies´ like brain-computer interfaces (BCI); these technologies have led to impressive and unpredicted results with important theoretical and practical implications, including the implementation of new forms of communication with verbally unresponsive patients and a better assessment of their residual conscious life (Farisco & Evers, 2016). To illustrate, a successful neuroimaging-based paradigm of communication has been experimentally tested in patients with DOCs. These disorders were previously classified as the absence of any aware responsiveness to external stimulation on the basis of behavioral assessment (Owen et al., 2006), but the recent experimental evidence suggests a different diagnosis, one that indicates higher levels of awareness.

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Notwithstanding the important achievements summarized above, neuroscience alone is not sufficient for handling the question about the nature of consciousness. In fact, the meaningfulness of science is grounded in fundamental concepts that need to be made explicit, elaborated, and analyzed from a scientific as well as from an extra-scientific perspective. Specifically, neuroscience knowledge is based on presupposed models that ultimately make neuroscientific results scientifically sound, but epistemically limited. In other words, science works in the laboratory, but applying those understandings to the real lived experience of consciousness does not fully capture what consciousness really is.

It is for these reasons that neuroscientists and philosophers in the HBP analyze consciousness together. A specific sub-project (SP12) of the HBP is dedicated to Ethics and Society. Within this sub-project there are different work-packages, namely the Foresight Lab, the Neuroethics and Philosophy, the Public Engagement and Dialogue , as well as the Ethics Support and the Scientific Coordination. 

Concerning consciousness, joint analysis of empirical results has been carried out with researchers in cognitive science and computational neuroscience, resulting in relevant co-authored publications (Farisco, Kotaleski, & Evers, 2018; Farisco, Laureys, & Evers, 2017) and an international conference on consciousness. In particular, this collaborative work led to the development of a conceptual model of consciousness called the Intrinsic Consciousness Theory (ICT). Starting from the empirical understanding of the brain as intrinsically active and plastic, ICT describes consciousness as an overarching concept covering the intrinsic ability of the brain to develop models of the world, including a model of the conscious actor itself. Even if controversial (e.g., why use the word consciousness to refer to brain activities usually qualified as unconscious?), this model tries to overcome the limitation of our natural language in describing consciousness (Farisco et al., 2017). The basic idea of ICT is that consciousness is not something that emerges in the brain, but rather an intrinsic characteristic of the brain, as long as it retains the abilities to monitor and model the world and itself. These capacities can be aware or unaware, but, according to ICT, they are both conscious activities of the brain. There are both scientific and ethical reasons to use consciousness as an overarching concept covering both aware and unaware brain operations: it is more parsimonious than asserting a sharp distinction between conscious and unconscious operations, and it supports the ethical relevance of brain abilities traditionally qualified as unconscious. This reclassification has direct implications for clinical decisions, namely regarding patients with DOCs (Farisco & Evers, 2017).

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How the HBP manages consciousness research is an example of how the very nature of consciousness can be studied both empirically and conceptually. At the same time, the HBP case exemplifies that the ethical concerns potentially arising from research on consciousness—including the risk of changing/controlling personality, the mind and free will—can be acknowledged and assessed without necessarily stopping the research. In fact the Public Dialogue and Engagement group carries out several activities for exploring citizens´ concerns about the scientific research developed within the HBP in order to increase the scientists ethical awareness. For instance, in preparation of the Opinion on Responsible Dual Use, different public engagement activities were organized, eventually showing that the primary concerns of EU citizens regarding neuroscientific research include the risk of affecting personal identity, of increased surveillance and infringement of privacy, and of hacking future dual use related technologies. However, those public engagement activities also showed that EU citizens support continued neuroscience investments, mainly because they believe that such efforts are beneficial to society (i.e., increasing options for new treatments).

The above suggests that one important difference between US funding agencies decisions and their European counterparts might rest on different conceptions on the interaction between ethics and science. The HBP illustrates how these can be integrated within the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) framework, involving the public in the attempt to make research more ethically sound.


Michele Farisco is part of the Neuroethics team at the Centre for Research Ethics and Bioethics of Uppsala University, Sweden, and of the Neuroethics and Philosophy work package of the European Human Brain Project.

  1. Bruno, M. A., Vanhaudenhuyse, A., Thibaut, A., Moonen, G., & Laureys, S. (2011). From unresponsive wakefulness to minimally conscious PLUS and functional locked-in syndromes: recent advances in our understanding of disorders of consciousness. J Neurol, 258(7), 1373-1384. doi:10.1007/s00415-011-6114-x 
  2. Farisco, M., & Evers, K. (2016). Neurotechnology and direct brain communication. New insights and responsibilities concerning speechless but communicative subjects. New York: Routledge.
  3. Farisco, M., & Evers, K. (2017). The ethical relevance of the unconscious. Philos Ethics Humanit Med, 12(1), 11. doi:10.1186/s13010-017-0053-9
  4. Farisco, M., Kotaleski, J. H., & Evers, K. (2018). Large-Scale Brain Simulation and Disorders of Consciousness. Mapping Technical and Conceptual Issues. Front Psychol, 9, 585. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00585
  5. Farisco, M., Laureys, S., & Evers, K. (2017). The intrinsic activity of the brain and its relation to levels and disorders of consciousness. Mind&Matter, 15(2), 197-219.
  6. Laureys, S., & Schiff, N. D. (2012). Coma and consciousness: paradigms (re)framed by neuroimaging. Neuroimage, 61(2), 478-491. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.12.041
  7. Overgaard, M. (2017). The Status and Future of Consicousness Research. Front Psychol, 8.
  8. Owen, A. M., Coleman, M. R., Boly, M., Davis, M. H., Laureys, S., & Pickard, J. D. (2006). Detecting awareness in the vegetative state. Science, 313(5792), 1402. doi:10.1126/science.1130197

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Farisco, M. (2019). The Struggle for Consciousness and the Dawn of a New Alliance Between Ethics and Science. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

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