In keeping with the policy of the Humanist to accommodate the diverse cultural social political and philosophical viewpoints of its readers, this occasional feature allows for the expression of alternative, dissenting or opposing views on issues previously broached within these pages.
Because scientific advancements can, through technology, create awesome new powers, science is both revered and feared. And nowhere is this public ambivalence toward science more manifest than in the field of neurology. Brain studies promise and threaten to cut to the very core of our thinking, our feeling, our personality. But how rapid is this progress? In particular, need we worry that scientists will soon be able to read our minds--or is that a baseless concern?
PAST HISTORY, contemporary spy novels, and futuristic science fiction are replete with terrifying tales of attempts by mad scientists or evil militarists to read or control people's thoughts--whether by hypnosis, truth sera, mind rays, magic, or any of a myriad of other mostly imaginary methods. The May/June 2001 Humanist carried an article, "The Science of Reading Minds," in which its author Bruce Hinrichs states in part: "Contemporary brain-imaging techniques are even now verging on having mind-reading capabilities." We believe this article gives a misleading impression and would like to offer a more realistic assessment of the facts.
The implications of "mind-reading" for civil liberties would, of course, be incalculable. Any possibility of conflict between personal privacy and the development of technology for brain investigations is an extremely important concept in a free society, and we must take it very seriously and examine it carefully. Since the issue of "mind-reading" has been raised, there are three pertinent questions that must be addressed. How do we as humanists look upon scientific research and technological advances in general and what limits do we place on them? What are some of the reasons, legitimate and illegitimate, why someone might want to study your or my brain? And just how much information ("mind-reading") might it be possible to obtain, voluntarily or involuntarily, by methodologies available now or in the future?
It's usually said that science and its handmaiden, technology, have three main uses: making it possible for us to explain, predict, and to some degree control the circumstances of our lives. Without these abilities we'd be completely helpless. A complex human society in a complex universe heavily depends on the methods and the discoveries of science and the advancing power of technology. These are especially important to humanism; in fact, without them humanism almost certainly could not have come into existence in the first place. Much of pre-humanistic thinking grew out of unsuccessful efforts to explain, predict, and control the human environment by pre-scientific methods, frequently depending on concepts of what we would call supernatural forces and entities. And our present knowledge of human history, which helps us to understand these mechanisms of pre-humanistic thought, has itself gradually resulted from scientific investigations into the past.
Although the methods of science and technology aren't especially difficult to learn, the same harsh reality that makes us so dependent on them punishes those who ignore small details or take them lightly. A single misplaced decimal point can cause--and has caused--a mighty bridge to collapse. This may be one reason why many people find these disciplines intimidating and choose to leave them and the power they bestow, by default, to an elite group that refuses to be intimidated. The larger society that results, often described as scientifically...