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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.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

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.

Image courtesy of Pixabay,

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.


Image courtesy of  Pixabay .

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).

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

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.




References

  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 http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2019/03/the-struggle-for-consciousness-and-dawn.html

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