Groundbreaking conference in London explores the connection between science and morality

February 9, 2002

LONDON — Is there a scientific basis for morality? Is there a place in the brain where the capacity for morality resides? These were just two of many thought-provoking questions posed at a ground-breaking conference on the "Science of Morality" here on 8-9 February 2002.

Organized by surgeon Graham Walker and held at the Royal College of Physicians, Regents Park, the meeting sought to examine the scientific evidence for a neurological location, genetic basis and/or an innate capacity for morality.

"Wherever one looks inwardly and outwardly, one meets conflict, mostly because of the moral diversity caused by differing perspectives of culture, religion, and age," said Dr. Walker, a prominent London head and neck surgeon and a member of the Baha'i community of the United Kingdom. "In order to eliminate this conflict, we must find a common ground."

Dr. Walker hopes to start building a body of respectable, affirmable evidence of a scientific basis for morality which can act as a locus where varied disciplines can meet and agree.

More than 60 delegates representing a wide variety of medical, scientific and philosophical disciplines attended the conference. Among the speakers were Ian Craig, a world renowned specialist on cyclogenetics from the Institute of Psychiatry in London; Baroness Susan Greenfield, a professor of neuropharmacology at Oxford University and president of the Royal Institute; Faraneh Vargha-Khadem, a professor of neurosciences at the Institute of Child Health, University College, London; and Hossain Danesh, a professor of psychiatry and president of Landegg International University in Switzerland.

Also addressing the event were Robin Dunbar, professor of biological sciences, Liverpool University; Michael Penn, professor of psychology, Franklin and Marshall College, Pennsylvania; Sean Spence, psychiatrist and academic radiologist; Adam Zeman of the department of clinical neurosciences in Edinburgh; and Bill Hatcher, professor of mathematics and philosophy, Laval University, Canada.

"This conference was historic in that it brought together some of the world's most accomplished researchers to explore, in an earnest, open, and cordial search for truth, the biological, psychological and social factors that appear to be responsible for healthy moral development," said Dr. Penn, who presented a paper suggesting that a necessary pre-condition for moral development is an understanding of justice. "The scientists and philosophers participating in the conference are widely respected -- and so the quality of scholarship and research was, in itself, extremely inspiring.

Dr. Danesh delivered the keynote speech, exploring the consonance between science, religion and ethics. His thesis was that humanity is moving from a self-centered, survival-oriented basis towards a peace-centered future.

"Due to the fact that all individuals and societies are subject to the universal law of development and progress, we are able to identify three distinctive worldviews that are present, to a lesser or greater degree, in all human societies," said Dr. Danesh. "These worldviews reflect the particular characteristics of three distinctive phases in the development of every individual and society, which are designated respectively as survival-, identity-, and peace-centred worldviews.

Baroness Greenfield provoked a wide-ranging discussion with her thesis that there is no specific location for the capacity of morality in the brain; rather it is essentially "hard-wired" in response to life experience and genetics, said Dr. Walker.

"She said there is no such thing as a center of consciousness in the brain," said Dr. Walker. "Rather, consciousness is spatially diffuse in the brain. At the same time, she said, it is temporally unified."

Other speakers, said Dr. Walker, presented evidence that suggest the fronto-orbital area of the brain might be the location of a moral center. Specifically, he said, Dr. Vargha-Khadem and Dr. Spence of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Sheffield, UK, said some studies show that injuries to this area before the age of 14 or 15 heal, while injuries sustained later in life seem to deprive an individual of moral judgment.

"The late emergence of sociopathic profiles in children who have suffered early bilateral orbitofrontal lesions suggests that perhaps these regions assume their functional significance later during childhood, possibly after the onset of puberty," said Dr. Vargha-Khadem in response to questions after the conference.

While the discussion was lively and provocative, Dr. Walker said, participants reached a general conclusion that "there is a neurological aspect to morality, or the development of morality."

"This conclusion implies that if there is such a capacity, you can induce this with the right type of exposure to experiences," said Dr. Walker. Alternatively, he said, it seems that exposure to negative experiences might take an individual "down the other pathway to become immoral, and rather more likely to be criminal or sociopathic."

Dr. Walker said he was inspired to organize the conference because of his practice of the Baha'i Faith. "While the connection between religion and science is not unique to the Baha'i Faith, it is certainly a strong tenet," he said. "If indeed there is a consonance between science and religion, then it should be extendable to concepts like spirituality and morality, which is one of the main pillars of religiosity."

A book of the conference proceedings has been commissioned by the Royal College of Physicians.