Theological Neuroethics: Christian Ethics Meets the Science of the Human Brain, by Neil Messer

While I was writing my new book Theological Neuroethics (Messer 2017), I had many conversations with colleagues, students and friends about my current research. Quite often, when I said I was working on neuroethics, they began to look puzzled. Sometimes, people thought I’d said “Euroethics.” Since most of the book was written in the year of the UK’s Brexit referendum, this had the potential to cause all kinds of misunderstanding. But even if they heard the word correctly, some were still puzzled: they had never heard that there was such a thing as “neuroethics,” and it took a little more conversation to explain what it might be.

To be fair to my puzzled friends, nobody at all had heard of neuroethics before about 2002. It was around then that the term was coined to describe the emerging field concerned with a variety of questions about ethics raised by current developments in neuroscience. In an article published that year, Adina Roskies, one of the founders of the field, divided it into two broad branches: the “ethics of neuroscience” (concerned with the ethical conduct of neuroscientific research, but also the ethical implications of some of its findings) and the “neuroscience of ethics” (Roskies 2002). The latter describes some of the most novel (and controversial) parts of the field, such as the neuroscientific study of moral judgement, as well as the implications of neuroscience for more familiar topics like determinism and free will. Roskies also remarked, however, that some of the “most intriguing” aspects of neuroethics could prove to be the interactions between the two branches (2002:21). A case in point might be current – and again controversial – speculations about the technological enhancement of our moral capacities, speculations which have received a highly critical treatment from ISSR’s Harris Wiseman (2017).

I must admit that when I first heard of neuroethics, I was a little sceptical. Was this a genuinely new field, or just a re-branding of parts of bioethics: an example of what some have called “neuromania,” the fashion for attaching a “neuro-” prefix to anything from theology to marketing (Legrenzi and Umtilà 2011)? But as I explored it further, I was persuaded that there really is something distinctive about the collection of topics and debates gathered together under the neuroethical roof. To be sure, some of them – such as the determinism/free will debate, or questions about the treatment of patients in vegetative or minimally conscious states – are familiar from other contexts, and have been around longer than the field of neuroethics itself. But I think there is something distinctive about this collection of ethical questions arising from the study of the brain, taken as a whole. Roskies puts it like this: “[t]he intimate connection between our brains and our behaviors, as well as the peculiar relationship between our brains and our selves, generate distinctive questions that beg for the interplay between ethical and neuroscientific thinking.” (Roskies 2002:21).

A field with that kind of coverage had obvious attractions for someone with my academic background and interests. I first found my way into theological studies when my plans for an academic career in molecular biology were rudely interrupted by a call to ordained ministry in the United Reformed Church, a small British nonconformist denomination with a heritage that includes both Magisterial and Radical Reformation traditions. As a result of this hybrid academic background, my research interests throughout my theological career have been mostly concerned with questions that arise at the intersections between the biological sciences, health care, theology and ethics. My main area of work has been in bioethics, but I have also done some work on science and theology, and some – such as my first monograph Selfish Genes and Christian Ethics (Messer 2007) – that brings the two fields together. Neuroethics, with its range of concerns from the highly theoretical to the very practical, and from the “neuroscience of ethics” to the “ethics of neuroscience”, seems to cry out for the kind of theological engagement that brings together the perspectives of theological ethics and the science and theology field.

So I was surprised how little of this engagement seemed to have taken place. Don’t misunderstand me: of course there has been a good deal of fruitful theological work on neuroscience, over many years. More of that in a moment. But until very recently, there seems to have been remarkably little interaction between neuroethics, as a field, and theological ethics. Neuroethics is a highly interdisciplinary enterprise, but theology is rarely one of the disciplines with a place at the neuroethical table. If you look through the list of contributors to a major neuroethics textbook (such as Illes and Sahakian 2011), you will see philosophers, ethicists, neuroscientists, psychologists, clinicians and lawyers, but you will have a harder time finding anyone who is identified as a theologian.

On the theological side, much distinguished work has been done over many years on theological questions arising from neuroscience, including some of the questions that have re-emerged under the neuroethics umbrella. (One thinks, for example, of Nancey Murphy’s work on determinism and free will, e.g. Murphy and Brown 2007.) And theologians interested in bioethics have engaged with some of the more practically focused issues that re-appear in neuroethics – such as the care of patients in permanent vegetative state, which has long been part of the discussion in end-of-life ethics, and from time to time becomes the focus of culture-wars skirmishes on both sides of the Atlantic. But it is harder to find theological ethicists setting out to engage in a sustained way with the whole package that is neuroethics. If I can put it like this, it’s not difficult to find books with “theology” and “bioethics” in the title, but harder to find any with “theology” and “neuroethics” in the title.

This was the gap that I set out to help fill, but I found that before I could get started on neuroethics itself, I had some ground-clearing to do. My book therefore begins by revisiting some of the recent literature on the cognitive science and neuroscience of religion. One reason for doing this is to tackle head-on the neuroessentialism that is widespread in neuroethics, which seems to be one of the reasons why many neuroethicists assume they need not to engage with religious or theological perspectives. In this climate, it is important to show at the outset that scientific studies of religious belief and experience do not lend much support to the kinds of neuroessentialism or ontological naturalism that would rule out theological perspectives on the human self.

This discussion of the scientific study of religion also gives me the opportunity to survey a range of approaches to theological engagement with neuroscience, and to set out my own methodological stall. I argue for what is probably still a minority position in the science and religion field, inspired by theologians such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in which theology shapes the enquiry and critically appropriates insights from neuroscience and other sources.

The heart of the book consists of theological engagements with four topics representing the full range of neuroethical enquiry. In order to show the kind of difference theology can make to neuroethical debate, I have deliberately kept the coverage broad – acutely conscious that each chapter could have been a book in its own right. Over these four chapters, there is a general move from the “neuroscience of ethics” to the “ethics of neuroscience”. The first topic I deal with is the neuroscientific study of moral judgement: here I focus particularly on Joshua Greene’s functional neuroimaging studies of participants considering the moral thought-experiments known as “trolley problems.” Greene’s work has been heavily criticised on both scientific and philosophical grounds. I give these criticisms serious attention, but go on to argue that – to the extent he can withstand them – Greene may prove a surprising ally to a Christian ethic inspired by theologians such as Barth and Bonhoeffer.

Next, I engage with debates about the implications of neuroscience for debates about determinism, free will and moral responsibility. I draw on previous philosophical and theological work, including that of Nancey Murphy, to resist a hard determinist view. But I then go on to try and re-frame these debates theologically in the light of core themes from the Christian tradition, particularly divine providence, sin and salvation. I propose that such a theological re-framing complicates the debates, but in interesting and fruitful ways.

My third neuroethical topic explores the ethical significance of functional imaging research involving patients with diagnoses of vegetative or minimally conscious states. To understand the significance of this work requires a detour into some highly theoretical discussions about consciousness, the self and (for theologians engaging with these debates) the soul. These seemingly abstract discussions inform some thoroughly practical ethical arguments about the value of such patients’ lives and the kinds of care they call for. I argue that from a Christian ethical perspective, the capacity for consciousness matters less, and differently, that might be supposed in determining how such patients should be treated.

The final chapter discusses the ethics of modifying brain functions technologically, either for therapeutic or enhancement purposes. Here I draw on previous work I have done on the ethical assessment of technological interventions (Messer 2011: ch. 1) and on theological concepts of health and disease (Messer 2013) to argue that there is a coherent and ethically significant distinction between therapy and enhancement. The theological perspective I develop in the book is supportive (though not uncritically so) of therapeutic uses of new neurotechnologies. By contrast, it is more suspicious of neural enhancement projects, though this suspicion calls for wise, theologically-informed discernment case by case rather than a blanket rejection of everything described as “enhancement.”

In all of these areas, I argue that Christian theological traditions can offer distinctive and much-needed contributions to neuroethical debates. The contribution of theology will often require standard neuroethical questions to be reconceived and framed in new ways, enabling creative, illuminating and sometimes unexpected responses to be made to these re-framed questions. I hope that the book will persuade neuroethicists that their field would benefit from a theological contribution, and theological ethicists that they need to engage more seriously with neuroethics. Beyond these two audiences, I hope it will prove interesting to anyone with an interest in the questions that arise at the intersections of religion, ethics and the biosciences, and a concern for the way those questions are answered in law, policy, clinical practice and other such public arenas.


Illes, Judy, and Barbara J. Sahakian (eds.). 2011. The Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Messer, Neil. 2007. Selfish Genes and Christian Ethics: Theological and Ethical Reflections on Evolutionary Biology. London: SCM Press.

—. 2011. Respecting life: Theology and Bioethics. London: SCM Press.

—. 2013. Flourishing: Health, Disease and Bioethics in Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

—. 2017. Theological Neuroethics: Christian Ethics Meets the Science of the Human Brain. London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark.

Murphy, Nancey, and Warren S. Brown. 2007. Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roskies, Adina L. 2002. “Neuroethics for the New Millennium,” Neuron 35:21-23.

Wiseman, Harris. 2017. The Myth of the Moral Brain: The Limits of Moral Enhancement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

By | 2017-11-06T11:53:27+00:00 November 6th, 2017|Categories: Blog|

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