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What’s On Your Mind?

by Rick Lewis

In the last century, scientific understanding of the human brain has advanced by leaps and bounds. Meanwhile psychiatry has turned itself into something which someone shortsighted might mistake for a scientific discipline, and even philosophers seem to have made some real progress in sorting out questions to do with the relationship between mind and brain. Philosophers have always tried to understand the various aspects of ourselves – what we mean by happiness, what is courage, how do our minds work, and so on. But can discoveries about the nature of the brain/mind/consciousness throw any light on moral theory? If so, what? Does what is right and wrong depend on what sort of creatures we are? Does the sort of creatures we are affect the way we see right and wrong? Charles Echelbarger has gathered a fascinating collection of articles on this theme, and his own introduction to ‘Mind and Morals’ is on page 6. But the rest of this issue seems to have developed in a somewhat more sinister direction.

The connecting thread in many of the other articles in this issue seems to be an interest in mind, brain, body and the extent to which each can be watched or controlled.

The question of whether abortion should be legal is perhaps the most divisive moral issue in America for decades (the runner-up is probably animal rights – see page 43). Mark Goldblatt (p.17) takes a scholarly and incisive look at the arguments on both sides. Moral relativism with respect to culture, discussed by Gerald Lang (p.24), is extremely relevant to the problems we face in the new world after September 11. Understanding different cultures has now become a survival skill rather than a matter of mere courtesy and interest – but how should we apply that understanding? To what extent can we pass moral judgements on people with different values? To what extent can we afford not to?

The threat of terrorism means that security and surveillance have become even more popular pastimes than previously among government employees around the world. Privacy may become one of those things like gas lamps and Rolling Stones albums that we remember affectionately but associate mainly with centuries past. Scott O’Reilly (p.22) examines the growth of surveillance technology and points out that a philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, was two hundred years ahead of the trend with his design for a maximum security prison called the Panopticon, which allowed a large number inmates to be viewed at all times by a single strategically-positioned guard.

One characteristic of small children is that they like to take things apart to see how they are made. Analytic philosophers are much the same – they want to dismantle propositions and concepts to find out what makes them tick. More alarmingly, Professor Günther von Hagens does something similar with the human body. On page 46 Chris Bloor reports from Body Worlds, the travelling anatomical exhibition currently in London for which the word ‘controversial’ isn’t for once just a piece of marketing hype. Chris examines some of the philosophical questions raised by putting dead bodies on display in an art gallery, but finds the show unmissable. It is worth mentioning in passing that Jeremy Bentham was again ahead of the wave – his own preserved remains have now been on public display in a glass case in University College London for the last 170 years, just as he wanted.

Interestingly, both Scott and Chris independently summon up the spirit of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, historian, social thinker and slaphead extraordinaire, whose death from AIDS in 1984 doesn’t seem to have impeded him from grappling with many of the most pressing dilemmas of the early 21st Century. Foucault tackled issues of madness, punishment, social control, medicine, sex, death and the power relations involved in the observation of one person by another. He was a bright lad, if a little creepy, and I have no doubt that we’ll be hearing even more from him in the decades to come.

Meanwhile, gentle reader, buckle your seatbelt and read on to find out about the philosophy of mind, the morality of the body, proper relations between cultures and the menacing power of the gaze.

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