Monday, April 12, 2010

The Myth Of Magnet Morality

“You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior,”...“To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.”
~ Dr. Liane Young MIT

First, it is beyond me what lengths the critic of absolute morality and moral values will go to in trying to assert that man can be moral without God. Although that is another issue there is a relationship between that and what I discuss in this article.

Recently there was additional ongoing research about discovering the "role of emotion in moral judgement" seeking to find out if individual moral judgements can be altered by manipulating certain parts of the brain believed responsible for morally deciphering and judging the moral actions of others. The question was can those judgements and ultimately perceptions of morality, be altered by manipulation or causing the brain to function abnormally?

The problem is however, that many (such as atheist and Moral Nihilist [who considers himself to be neither],Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, professor of philosophy at Duke University) interpret the study as research on how morality itself comes to be and suggests that the understanding of how one judges or interprets the morality of others is the same set of functioning and or reasoning whereby we construct and conduct moral actions or develop moral values.

To be clear, there is a big difference between understanding the existence of moral values and understanding how one interprets moral actions and values. Mainstream media and radicals such as Armstrong, have managed to blur the lines (when it's convenient) lumping the two together as if the existence of moral values and the interpretation of moral values and actions are one in the same.  What we will discover is that this is a false assumption, one based more on philosophy rather than science. 


Rebecca Saxe, MIT assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences set forth the theory more than 10 years ago that a brain region known as the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) is highly active when we think about other people’s intentions, thoughts and beliefs.

According to MIT News researchers disrupted activity in the right TPJ by inducing a current in the brain using a magnetic field applied to the scalp.

Brief Summary Conclusion:

Researchers found that when these magnets and magnetic fields were applied, the subjects’ ability to make moral judgments that require an understanding of other people’s intentions — for example, a failed murder attempt — was impaired.

As we can see the study said nothing about where moral judgements came from. Only how certain actions were interpreted. Neither did the study infer that moral judgements or that morality was a product of the brain or brain functioning. Simply that when brain functions were manipulated discernment of intents was impaired.

Note On The Discovery:

Certainly much money could have been saved. We already know that substances, like alcohol and cocaine, LSD and other chemicals do the same thing? under the influence, aren't moral judgements impaired? How many pregnancies, deaths,  crimes and other incidences have occurred that would not normally have occurred if it hadn't have been for manipulated or impaired cognitive function? So the major discovery in this experiment seems to be that a strong enough magnet, placed at the right (or wrong place) can also impair discernment and moral judgements.

Under any other circumstance, when a person is impaired or driving while drunk do we claim it to be a great discovery when because of their impairment, they act in a manner inconsistent with how they normally would? Does that make front page news of scientific journals?


So in part 1 of her experiment Dr. Liane Young and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology turned to nine people whose emotional responses were impaired due to damage in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. According to New Scientist, *(who readily acknowledge that brain damage skews our moral compass) these individuals were presented with 24 moral dilemmas, each consisting of four different scenarios of varying acceptability. In one, for example, someone kills another by mistakenly adding poison to their coffee instead of sugar. In another scenario, a person tries but fails to kill another by deliberately poisoning their coffee. Participants ranked the moral acceptability of each scenario on a scale of 1 to 7.

According to New Science:
"The volunteers with brain damage gave failed attempts at intentional harm a 5, rating it twice as permissible as the other volunteers, who opted for 2.5. And the impaired group all rated accidental harm to someone as being less morally acceptable than failed attempts at deliberate harm" (Neuron, DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.03.003).

In part 2 of the experiment Young's team temporarily disabled a brain region considered indispensable for this - the right temporoparietal junction - in 20 volunteers using transcranial magnetic stimulation. This time, volunteers rated failed attempts at harming others as 15 per cent more acceptable than when their brains were not undergoing TMS" (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0914826107).
The conclusion was that both emotion and recognising the difference between outcome and intent of other's moral actions were pronounced.

Once again, is this kind of study worthy of higher education dollars? Does it say anything other than that magnets can also impair judgements in both the normally functioning brain and the abnormally functioning brain?

The Target Of This Research:

Assigning a difference between moral intent and outcome are key components to moral judgements and according to Ms. Saxe, says this of magnetic manipulation:
 "It doesn’t completely reverse people’s moral judgments, it just biases them,"
In other words if a persons brain is altered from functioning normally, they will interpret things in an abnormal manner. Clearly the focus is on the legal community and judgements of punishment where blame and intent are assigned. in other words determining how 'thought crimes' (which atheist Christopher Hitchens says is an invasion of privacy to judge) should be judged. In my opinion, what this is, is an attempt to sanitize judgements allowing the outcome of a crime (if unsuccessful, thus favorable to the criminal) to receive lesser punishments. Therefore, there is a major emphasis on how decisions of the judge and jury will be made at trial. Here's an excerpt from the Discovery News article:
"The research could have powerful implications not just for neuroscientists, but for lawyers as well. Everyday jurors are asked to weigh a person's actions against their intentions. This new study won't transform the legal field, said Owen Jones, a professor of law and biology at Vanderbilt University, but it could "enable sophisticated judgments about responsibility, harm and appropriate punishment."..."This study, and other recent studies like it, are enabling us to peer into the very brain activity that underlies and enables legal judgments," said Jones. "Understanding how legal decisions actually work is a potentially important step toward helping decisions be as fair, just and effective as they can be."
Doesn't that just sound noble? We certainly don't want to punish criminals more than they should be punished now do we? Simply place a magnet at the appropriate place on the head of the family who have lost their loved one and those who have had their life savings stolen and we'll all see things much better...Yea Right!

The Problem:

The glaring problem here is, if the critic wishes to use this as a claim that morality and moral functions are solely a product of brain chemistry, neurobiological processes and synaptic firing within the physical brain, this study places the nail in the coffin for societal and individually contrived absolute moral values. In other words, if the brain can change and values change along with them, then there are no absolute moral values or behavior. Morality is simply a matter of manipulating the brain and calling morality whatever one wishes to state that it is. This, in essence, is called relativism. The implications of relativism are both psychologically and morally offensive.

 According to Discovery News the implications are far beyond what is immediately imaginable. they say, "The research could have big implications for not only neuroscientists, but also for judges and juries."

At relativism's heart is the implication that there is nothing that can be said to be absolutely wrong and that all positions are merely relative to one's association to that position. Carry this out to it's logical conclusion and you'll find that murder, although wrong to those who are murdered, is yet right to the one committing the deed...insert almost every crime imaginable into the conversation and no matter how bad it is or may be to some, it can be purposeful and even pleasurable to others...Thus relativism ushers in the greatest confusion among mankind, by removing everything that is held as absolute truths, replacing them with situation oriented relationships and judgements and ultimately with the illusion of community and culturally derived axioms.


Dr. Liane Young seems to be a classic example of a person who begins a scientific examination with a preconception or predisposition. This is not abnormal in circles dominated by metaphysical atheistic philosophical presuppositional approaches to science and cognitive science. When the belief is that the physical brain is the only place where moral values can be housed, all sorts of obtuse and non empirical assertions are made and propped up as being scientific. 

On the contrary, the materialist will argue that when a person complains of a backache, we don't normally assume that the pain they are feeling in their back has to do with the pain in their neighbors left thumb. The brain is all that we know and we should simply assume that all moral functions are a product of it. That argument has it's merit but as it pertains to morality that premise still does not discover the "ought" of being moral. Where does that "ought" come from? It can be manipulated by any number of actions, but NONE of the actions that can be performed deal with that specific place of "ought" regarding morality. The why or "ought" of morality is still yet unexplained by those who hold to neurobiology of morality and cannot be described empirically as a product of our evolutionary past. In addition blaming moral thoughts and actions on the brain or neurobiology is like blaming or penalizing a handicapped person for their handicap, or a person for being born like they are. This is the ultimate in fatalism, as noone could escape their predetermined neurobiological processes. Freewill is then destroyed under this rubric and ultimately reduced to an illusion.

The Christian has a much better and much more simple answer in which Occam's Razor can be applied...

1- If absolute moral laws and values exist, then God exists.
2- The existence of absolute moral laws and their existence is clear. 
3- Therefore God exists.  

The problem with much of what Dr. Young claims is that from her many writings it is evident that she initially believes that all morality is only a product of biological functioning. This is the naturalist and materialist worldview and may be exciting science to some, but is a ridiculous waste of time, energy and money to others. 



MIT News: Moral Judgements can be magnets 

Smart She found your moral center and twisted it

Discovery News: Magnets can manipulate morality

The following video exposes the difference between biological psychology and faculty psychology. As we can see the MIT study referenced above takes the approach that biological psychology is responsible for moral decisions. Nothing is further from the truth as the "mind-brain" problems exist so much that there is no working model for how neurons are responsible for the immaterial reality of memory or other products of the mind, such as moral decisions.

This following video goes into more detail as to the aim of biological psychology and study of the brain and why that study is faulty.


  1. ".....this study places the nail in the coffin for societal and individually contrived absolute moral values."

    Your whole argument fails on that statement.
    Scientists do not argue that there are absolute moral values.
    Those values are constructs of evolved humans.

  2. I'm still reading through your thoughts on this, but I've got a comment from your main page, Mr. Burnett. You wrote the following:

    The problem is {...} the understanding of how one judges or interprets the morality of others is the same set of functioning and or reasoning whereby we construct and conduct moral actions or develop moral values.

    To be clear, there is a big difference between understanding the existence of moral values and understanding how one interprets moral actions and values

    It's impossible to assess the morality of the actions of another person without appealing to your own moral compass. In effect, the two are exactly the same, regardless of whether your values come from the Bible or humanism or personal experience, etc.

    Your morality is the only thing that allows you to determine whether someone else's actions are moral or not.

    EDIT: reposted to fix spelling, and to better reconstruct the quoted text

  3. Mr. Burnett, I think you're unnecessarily conflating the question of where morality comes from, and how the brain processes it.

  4. Anon says,

    "Scientists do not argue that there are absolute moral values...Those values are constructs of evolved humans"

    Correct as to what scientists argue (so far as my understanding is concerned). Then they (values) are relativistic and humanly contrived values that are only applicable to this time, day and age to whom they are applicable.

    However, we readily identify that there are values that are universal in nature and beyond society. I believe many of these values are not humanly contrived.

    Example: It is right to always protect the young (unless they are killers themselves right-LOL) No, I'm saying that there are univesal moral values that are absolute. Paul outlines some of them in Galations calling them the "fruit of the spirit". These are eternal values, absolute and good in all possible worlds under all possible circumstances. The one's he names are as follows:

    Gal. 5:22-23~"But the fruit of the Spirit is

    23- Meekness,

    against such there is no law."

    These principles and resultant values are eternal, not self contrived, but they are self actualized. In other words as humans we have the capacity to recognize and do them, not as a result of evolution but as a result of the way that God created or formed us. The writer of Psalms reverberates this sentiment:

    Psalms 139:14~I will praise thee; for I am fearfully [and] WONDERFULLY MADE: marvellous [are] thy works; and [that] my soul knoweth right well.

    Now, if I say to you the love you have for your family IS NOT an absolute type of love and value statement, you would argue me down. Just like Eugenie Scott argued down William Lane Craig when he suggested the same. The love would have to be absolute or you underserve your family by doing something that is only temporary and an illusion.

    This leads to the Bud Light (or Miller Light) commercial where the lady asks the man would he save her if she were about to fall off the cliff. He responded yes to every situation except the one where he had to choose between her and the drink. That whole series of commercials is too funny, but the point is clear. His love for her was temporary and a non absolute type of love that would only serve her to an extent, whatever he decided that extent to be.

    As a Christian I would hold that type of love to NOT BE love at all. It's certainly not committment.

    To the point, societal or evolved values cannot be absolute. they only exist up until this point. There are values that exist beyond this point and within society and we readily identify those as being absolute.

    Now, in order to overcome what I am saying in absence of belief in a moral law giver, you would have to affirm that whatever love you have for your family or your offspring is both temporary, non static, always changing or subject to change and illusionary based on societal affirmations. Just don't tell your family that.

    My logic could be flawed, but that's how I see it my fiend.

  5. Whateverman,

    What's up my debating friend? Good to hear from ya!

    I understand what you're saying on one hand about me "conflating" and I take that to mean over emphasizing where morality comes from and how the brain processes it...however, on the other hand, I think modern science goes further than what is necessary in assuming that all moral understandings are either neurobiological, evolutionary or empathetic in nature.

    To me, how I understand morality makes all the difference in the world in how I live and what I accept about life. This is the whole point. If it's all in the brain as some scientists suggest, then it all begins and end with my neurophysiology and I have no obligation to you outside of that. In fact, this little thing called natural selection and survival of the fittest that materialists cling to under the metaphysical naturalist understanding of origins only teach me to position myself at the top of the food chain, not merely to coexist, but to dominate, because I can't adequately judge your ability to coexist. One day you may decide to strike at me, so let me rub you out first-LOL...I know that sounds silly, but that's what actually exists IF we don't believe in a dispenser of absolute moral values.

    Those values, by them being absolute are a law that exists beyond me and is an orderly process whereby I can interact in the world and perceive both the world's and my own actions.

    I yield to the fact perceptions of morality can be manipulated and altered by many natural circumstances, but my perception of the values themselves by that manipulation DO NOT change the values, it only changes my relationship to those values...

    That's why I do not agree with your premise that "my moral compass" is the standard by which moral values are ultimately determined to be right and wrong. Unless that "compass" has been intervened, altered, or corrected by God, we have no clue as to what the standard really is.

  6. Hi Harvey - sorry it took me so long to respond. Incidentally, is "Harvey" ok? I'm never really sure how you'd prefer to be addressed.

    You wrote the following to me: If it's all in the brain as some scientists suggest, then it all begins and end with my neurophysiology and I have no obligation to you outside of that.

    That's certainly how some people perceive it. Speaking only for myself, I prefer to tentatively accept what we can "prove", and leave the question of other possibilities open. What this means is that I accept that our brains are centrally important when it comes to how we make moral decisions. However, where the standards we use to make moral judgments come from is an entirely different question.

    You and I both know that, looking at a car crash, two people can come to different conclusions about how it occurred. This happens despite the fact that there was only 1 car crash, and there was only one way it happened.

    How we perceive a thing does not change the thing itself(***). Similarly, the fact that our brains perceive moral situations differently doesn't speak (in any way) to the fact that there may only be one moral situation. It takes the perception of a God to understand it to its fullest.

    So, if our brains can shape how we perceive and judge things, that doesn't mean God ISN'T at the center of it all. We're simply fallible beings trying in vain to perceive things infallibly.

    Have a good weekend, Pastor...

    *** Quantum mechanics suggests that the very act of observing a thing DOES change it. However, that's a discussion for a different day...

  7. I've added two videos to this post that really add significant detail as to the faults of biological psychology and why it is ineffective in assessing where moral values come from.

    Evolutionary biology is not an answer in addressing the complexity of the information contained within the mind yet alone how, why and and from where moral decisions are derived.

    This is a very interesting study that seems to destroy materialism completely as it is clear that values, memories etc, are immaterial realities that do exist.

    If they can exist, and are independent of biological function, certainly God can exist independently of material reality.


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