Thanks to a post in the Mind Hacks blog, I found a recent letter to Nature by neuroscientist Kenneth Kosik titled Neuroscience gears up for duel on the issue of brain versus deity. Kosic comments that as neuroscientists are increasingly convinced that the mind is entirely a product of the physical brain, and that this may create problems for some religioius individuals.
The slow ramping up of this debate, from Descartes’ dualism in the seventeenth century to the neurophilosopher materialists’ claims of victory today, is about to spill over from an esoteric mindľbrain debate to the divisive question of whether a product of the mind, such as God, can have any traditionally valid existence whatsoever…
…The reappearance of dualism brings back dusty old memories of long-ago battles that may now need to be refought. As we saw from the media ruckus raised by the Dalai Lama’s address to November’s Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington DC (even if this did turn down to a rather low simmer on site), the potential for impassioned disagreement exists.
Personally, I doubt very much that we’ll have creationist fundamentalists repainting their sandwich boards with “Brain Doesn’t Equal Mind!” slogans – this remains a rather esoteric topic that will be very hard to translate from abstract neurophilosophy into something that affects red state soccer moms. Such debates will occur, but won’t become major public flash points. Nevertheless, neuromarketers should keep an eye on how this potential conflict develops. While fMRI scans of brain acitivity reactions to ads are hardly a religious concern, a fundamentalist backlash against neuroscience could feed fears about manipulation of consumer behavior and other ethics issues in neuroscience and marketing. Fear of the unknown (and of what is poorly understood) is by no means limited to one segment of the population.