Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Back with a Vengeance

Summer is upon us (and by us, I mean me), which means slightly more time for this little adventure I like to call NeoCorTEXT.

As previously blogged about, I have begun reading Who Is Man? by Abraham Joshua Heschel. I highly recommend it. It is a short work that is a collection of his talks given at the Raymond Fred West Memorial Lectures at Stanford University in 1963.

Here are some quotations from Part I that resonate with me:

"The animality of man we can grasp with a fair degree of clarity. The perplexity begins when we attempt to make clear what is meant by the humanity of man."

"He knows that something is meant by what he is, by what he does, but he remains perplexed when called upon to interpret his own being."

"Man was, is, and will always remain a beast, and nothing beastly is alien to him. And yet such an epigram, though rationally plausible, is intuitively repulsive."

Here is where it has direct applications to what I see as my future research:

" has become man by acts of culture, by changing his natural state."

"One's relationship to the self is inconceivable without the possession of certain standards or preferences of value."

"...the problem of man is occasioned by our coming upon a conflict or contradiction between existence and expectation.

and finally: "How shall we articulate exactly what is sensed by us vaguely?"

Now this was only Part I - the introduction to the lectures - where Heschel introduces all the problems and questions. Because it's Heschel, God will enter into the solution somewhere, but it isn't clear yet how or in what way.
However, I believe that neuroscientists today are asking the same questions that Heschel asked nearly fifty years ago: "How shall we articulate exactly what is sensed by us vaguely?" People have a sense that they are somehow different from other animals. Many would say that culture is a key difference. I would say (and this echoes Heschel) that what sets humans apart - what makes humans human - is the ability to assign value to behavior. We don't merely engage in self-observation, we engage in self-judgement. Animals can perceive their position in physical space; humans can perceive their position in "moral space." The question I'd like to ask is: how does the brain engage in this sort of moral perception? How does the human brain make moral decisions? How do we teach morals to our children, and how did we learn them from our parents and teachers?

My motivation here may at first seem confusing: I am (currently) doing research on reading. I'm asking questions about how reading skill is built up in the brain, and how the environment contributes to it. This is analogous: How is moral decision-making skill built up in the brain? How does the environment (e.g. culture, education) contribute to our development of values? There must be similar underlying processes at the biological level. Many schools and camps and whatnot say that they provide a "values education." I'd like to prove it.

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