La genética no es incompatible con la libertad del hombre

" Genetics is not incompatible with human freedom" (Interview with José Ignacio Murillo).

Author: Daniel Capó, Literary critic and columnist for Prensa Ibérica (Diario de Mallorca)
Published in: Both worlds(part 1 and part 2)

Straddling between Philosophy, anthropology and advances in neuroscience, Professor José Ignacio Murillo coordinates an interdisciplinary project of research at Institute for Culture and Society of the University of Navarra called "Mente-Cerebro. Biology and subjectivity in Philosophy and contemporary neuroscience".

José Ignacio, you have been trained as a classical philosopher, with a special attention to both classical and contemporary authors. In this sense, you have worked on the work of Leonardo Polo and translated texts by St Thomas Aquinas, to give two examples. At a certain point, your attention turns to neurosciences and their relationship with today's intellectual framework . The first question I wanted to ask you is obvious: how does neuroscience relate to Philosophy? What are its limits? And, on the other hand, how does financial aid illustrate the human condition?

My interest in neuroscience has developed naturally from my occupation, which has always been preferential within my dedication to Philosophy, in anthropology. Contemporary philosophical anthropology was born at the beginning of the 20th century when the need was felt to integrate and understand in a coherent way all the wealth of knowledge that the human sciences and the natural sciences have been adding to our image of man. The powerful attempt that was made at that time, with authors such as Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner and others, had continuators, but for quite some time it has been somewhat relegated to the margins of the great discussions of Philosophy, which has been dominated above all by existential, scientistic, social or simply ideological approaches, as was the case with Marxism.

One of the aspects that has suffered most in recent decades is the unity of knowledge. The progressive specialization of the research in the natural sciences, combined with an exaggerated mimicry on the part of other fields of knowledge, which are usually called humanistic, has led to an excessive emphasis on methodology, regardless of the subject matter, and to the creation of incommunicating "tribes" in the academic and scientific world. This means that individuals, who are in principle serious and well educated in their specialization program, can guiltlessly ignore relevant achievements that have arisen in other branches of knowledge or that belong to the cultural heritage of humanity. Thus, the paradox arises that in a society of knowledge and information, we can find ourselves forced to "discover new things" every few years, simply because of the lack of speech and dialogue between specialists, and the absence of a unitary horizon of knowledge.

Anthropology has always tried to be an integrative discipline . Nowadays we know a lot about human beings, but we have trouble finding the unity of all this knowledge and judging the relevance of each one. That is why, following this tradition, I have always thought that anthropology should take into account the achievements of the sciences. Human experience coupled with rational reflection allows us to broaden and refine our knowledge about man, but what is achieved in this way must reckon with what is achieved by applying the methods of empirical science. At the very least, what we know in one way and what we know in the other must be compatible. This is also true for science. The hypotheses and the grand approaches that guide the scientific research cannot be forged gratuitously in contradiction with human experience and with other achievements of intelligence.

In his latest essay, The Social Animal, American columnist David Brooks stresses the importance of accommodating public policy to advances in neuroscience. One of these obvious fields is Education. In your opinion, what role can neuroscience play in the field educational? What are we doing wrong in schools and what could we do better?

Why are we interested in knowing about the brain? Perhaps the fundamental reason is to cure diseases and solve problems that derive from its malfunctioning. This is also useful for Education. Some of the problems in education stem from diseases and disorders that are not yet well understood and that may be curable. It also seems clear that if we know better how cognitive processes work, it will be easier to optimise educational methods or to discard those that are not effective.

But when we talk about Education we go beyond what is commonly understood as health. One of the characteristics of the human brain, indeed one of its distinguishing features, is its plasticity and its capacity to offer non-predetermined responses to problems. The Education is a process by which the information and procedures necessary to solve the challenges that will be presented to new human beings are transmitted. However, we do not discover these contents by looking at the brain, but at the social environment and the status of each person. In addition, Education should also help each person to discover who he or she is and what goals are worth pursuing. It is common to judge Education only from the point of view of environmental appropriateness or employability, but if we stop there, we run the risk of considering people as mere tools of the social machinery.

There is another classic discussion with significant ethical implications and that is the role of Genetics and/or the environment in social and cognitive stratification. Can it be said that this is a separate discussion ? How far does Genetics go and where does the influence of the environment begin?

New discoveries in biology are changing our view of this dichotomy. It is now increasingly well understood that genome expression depends on factors outside the genetic code. Then, the organic development itself is conditioned by other factors such as diet, climate and, in a particular way, the subject of activities that take place. In the case of the brain, the extent to which traits such as cognitive abilities or emotional wealth and control depend on Education and one's own decisions is enormous. There is no denying that there are innate or inherited predispositions, capacities or defects. But it is not easy to determine to what extent they will condition or limit their bearers. If there is a harmonious growth and a growing awareness of one's own responsibility, it is possible to compensate for defects and even make the most of them, and to develop habits that enable one to respond more appropriately in different situations. For this reason, along with other reasons, it would be a mistake to rely on Genetics or other conditioning to carry out a programmed control, such as deciding who goes to university or who goes into certain professions, who can or cannot have children, etc. A good social organisation is characterised by making the most of the qualities of its members. But we must not forget that one of these qualities is freedom.

In this sense, one of the classic topics of Philosophy and theology is free will. Some scientists have questioned human freedom and offer deterministic answers. But in reality, are we really free, and what does neuroscience tell us about freedom?

The difficulties in accepting the compatibility between freedom and the functioning of the brain come not so much from science as from a somewhat narrow conception of science, which identifies intelligibility with determinism. According to this, we can only know that which is determined by external laws, i.e. heterodetermined.

This is an idea that, from entrance, does not seem compatible with current physics. In biology or neuroscience, thesis takes the form of mechanicism, that is, thinking of living beings as machines that have no designer but can only act as if they were designed. This ignores the initiative of the living being, which is one of its most distinctive characteristics. Living beings try to impose their ends on the environment in which they find themselves. In the case of man, this also takes the form of free action, in which the agent feels manager of his intervention on the environment and the course he gives to his life. The discussion on freedom has to do with the possibility of this subject of self-determination supported and directed by knowledge.

There are those who, on the basis of results such as those of Benjamin Libet's experiments, think that the brain initiates actions unconsciously before we acquire a sense of authorship. But - apart from the fact that Libet himself does not consider these results to be a denial of freedom - this experiment and others like it often lack an adequate concept of freedom. The actions studied are simple movements, and freedom is identified with the desire or impulse to perform the movement. Apart from other criticisms that can be levelled at these experiments, it is a serious confusion to identify this property with freedom. I am not free, in the strong sense, because I do what I feel like doing, but because I am capable of directing my actions according to far-reaching projects and over the horizon of my whole life: I identify with what I do and I know that I am responsible for it. This way of understanding action - which is no other than that offered, for example, by Aristotle - is more difficult to subject to experimental study, although I do not think this is impossible, and I think it will give us another vision of the neural instructions of human action, freedom and authorship.

To what extent do we not run the risk of falling into a kind of dogmatism of science? Is it possible to make a purely scientific reading of man and humanity?

Paradoxical though it may seem, the risk of scientific dogmatism is evident. In the West, religion has long since ceased to provide, let alone ensure, the socially shared knowledge . Science has tried to partially take its place, but one of the characteristics of science, which gives it clear advantages, is its self-limitation. Each science delimits a field of phenomena and subjects it to a specific method. Acceptance of these presuppositions makes it possible to configure a academic community, which decides what is and what is not acceptable. But in order to organise human life, a global conception is necessary and, moreover, accepting it can only be staff. Science, therefore, although it provides a lot of good knowledge about reality, is not enough on its own to satisfy our intellectual needs.

Those who attack religion as if it were an adversary of science or as if science could replace science are defending a philosophical or religious thesis that has little foundation and are not in a position to offer an alternative to the problems that the other solves. Moreover, it is unfair to present science and religion in general as irreconcilable.

It is curious that many of these furious attackers of religion or of Philosophy, despite their rejection of postmodern and deconstructionist thinkers, supported by a supposed defence of reason, nevertheless have much in common with them. Both use reason in one form or another to destroy the claims of reason, and thus to justify that the most decisive questions of life, the questions of good, evil, happiness, the ultimate meaning of things, etc., cannot be posed and resolved rationally. Thus, for the one and for the other, knowledge, morality and religion are reduced and without a real foundation.

Aristotle claimed that man is the only rational animal. In any case, what we mean by reason remains to be defined. In your opinion, have neuroscientific findings widened or rather narrowed the field of reason? Can we speak of a conscious and an unconscious reason?

When Aristotle defines man as a rational animal, I do not think that he excludes on principle that there may be others. But, if we understand rationality in the same sense as he did, we will also agree with agreement that none of those we know so far is rational. We can speak of intelligence in a broad sense, defining it as the cognitive capacity to solve problems, and this is common to us and other animals. It is also clear that animals feel and some of them have very complex and developed emotions. This is why we enjoy attention with dogs and other animals. But man, as Aristotle also points out, is concerned to discern the true from the false and talks about what is just and what is unjust. When we find an animal that also does this, I dare say that, however different it may look from us, we will understand it better than our dog. That is the sample of rationality that Aristotle talks about.

Returning to Philosophy, which philosophical traditions are best suited to the current state of knowledge in science? Are the classical traditions still useful for conceiving the world?

We can learn from the whole history of Philosophy , but of particular interest are the traditions that have been able to maintain themselves over time and have been able to grow and resolve their limitations in dialogue with others. In the field of neuroscience, analytical Philosophy , although it was born quite burdened by positivism and logicism, has been able to rethink the problems and is one of those that has interacted most strongly with neuroscience and has contributed to formulating the standard approach to the mind-brain problem. Nowadays, phenomenology is also putting forward interesting proposals and even showing its usefulness in experimentation.

For my part, I think that also the Aristotelian tradition, with its attention to the distinctiveness of living beings, and its consideration of them from the point of view of different kinds of causes and vital activities, can help to solve many problems. Let us not forget that Aristotle is regarded as the father of biology. It is true that modern biology has often tried to be constituted in a way that we can call "oedipal", taking this philosopher as its point of departure reference letter , but in order to break with him definitively. However, reality is stubborn, and problems that are dismissed as irrelevant end up reappearing and call into question simplifying or reductionist positions, which avoid radically approaching all the difficulties. Studying living beings is a constant call to realism, because it invites us to question again and again our abstractions and simplifications.

It has been said that religious experience is located in the brain and that mystical states can even be induced. On the other hand, some programs of study point out that liturgy is related to brain structure or that religious man has evolutionary advantages that explain his survival in the modern world. Is this not, in any case, a reductionism B?

Our emotions and perceptual patterns are not only related to the structure of the brain, but to the whole body. In fact, the brain cannot be understood apart from the functions of the living being of which it is a part and its relationship with the environment. As Thomas Fuchs states - in the degree scroll of one of his books - the brain is a relational organ. It is not a subject that controls a body as if it were its own machine, but a special part of the living being in charge of a particular and very sophisticated way of exchange with the environment.

But the environment in which a rational animal lives is much broader than that of other animals. As the anthropologists I referred to earlier said, while the animal has an environment, man has a world; he faces reality from a unitary and all-encompassing point of view, and seeks to find his place in it. It is appropriate to place the question of religion in this context, and not, as some programs of study tend to do, in the context of mere emotional responses. The emotions related to religion or to the attention with God are usually very similar to those that are established in the attention with our fellow human beings: love, repentance, joy, etc. agreement The search for the divine is not necessarily - as some suggest - a search for security, because, when it is healthy, it involves an openness to reality as it is and a willingness to change our desires to bring them in line with the truth of things and, consequently, also with what is truly and objectively good.

Some researchers of religion, when, as some programs of study suggest, they find that religion makes people happier or healthier, draw the conclusion that the disposition to religion is explained by natural selection. But this is only a way of denying the validity of the religious attitude, because it tries to explain it apart from its object. All we can say from that point of view is that the evolutionary process seems to have given rise to a brain open to reality. The same openness that makes science possible is what leads to religion.

On the other hand, it is clear that, as you suggested, the way in which this relationship with the divine is expressed depends on our nature and the characteristics of our organism. A particular case is that of mystical or ecstatic experiences, which are often linked to religion. In my opinion, these experiences, from a cerebral point of view, also have much in common with others that are not produced in that context. It is therefore not surprising that similar states can be induced by drugs or other interventions on the nervous system. It is also interesting that the neural correlate of activities as different as some forms of Buddhist meditation and Christian prayer share some common features. However, this similarity of patterns must be judged in the light of the object of the activity being performed, and not the other way around. We may find similar activations in a vivid dream of a traumatic experience and in actual experience, but this does not obviate the difference. It occurs to me as an example that the same letters can be combined to express different messages.

On the other hand, it is also interesting that programs of study on brain activation during Christian prayer, which is understood as a relationship with a being staff, has shown that the brain patterns are very complex and recruit many different areas of the brain, which makes it very difficult for those who advance overly simple explanations.

Finally, what role do you think neuroscience can play in the future of society? I understand that there are risks involved - and I would like you to point out the most dangerous implications - but also opportunities. What is your vision of the future in this field?

Everything seems to indicate that the influence of neuroscience will continue to grow in the future. As I said before, I believe that the two noblest reasons for pursuing this study are to heal and reasonably improve people's lives, on the one hand, and to know ourselves better, on the other. But neuroscience also offers more sinister possibilities, which must be avoided. Neuroscience can be used, for example, to increase control over people. Much has been said about the warfare applications of this science, and in countries such as the United States, sensitivity to this is beginning to develop topic. The use of brain imaging techniques to determine whether one possesses the profile of a terrorist or a criminal has also been discussed, something that can lead to clear abuses. No less worrying is the interest in neuroscience by large companies, eager to adapt their advertising techniques to new knowledge, with the foreseeable danger of manipulation. Another area that should be handled with care is the application of neuroscience to the improvement of living conditions. This topic, which in English is often called enhancement, and in Spanish is beginning to be translated as mejora or mejoramiento, can lead to significant social inequalities and jeopardise the balance of each person's human nature, for the sake of better cognitive or emotional performance.

All these possibilities and the dangers they entail are a further reason why comprehensive and calm reflection, which are outstanding characteristics of good Philosophy, should accompany and even precede scientific research . Priorities need to be set based on a consideration of what is good for mankind and for humanity in general, conscious also of our responsibility towards future generations.

As for research itself, the need to revisit some initiatives on which high hopes had been pinned is also a call to draw on all the intellectual resources at our disposal to address the problems.