Audio Roundup 2019:29

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by Joel Rich

Conscience – Pat Churchland
Conscience is a brain construct rooted in our neural circuitry, not a theological entity thoughtfully parked in us by a divine being. It is not infallible, even when honestly consulted. It develops over time and is sensitive to approval and disapproval; it joins forces with reflection and imagination and can be twisted by bad habits, bad company, and a zeitgeist of narcissism. Not everyone develops a conscience (witness the psychopaths), and sometimes conscience becomes the plaything of morbid anxiety (as in scrupulants). The best we can do, given all this, is to aim for understanding how an impartial spectator might judge us.
No good comes of insisting that unless conscience is infallible or religion provides absolute rules, morality has nothing to anchor it and anything goes. For one thing, such a claim is false. For another thing, we do have something to anchor it—namely, our inherited neurobiology. In addition, we have the traditions that are handed down from one generation to another and, to some degree, tested by time and over varying conditions. We do have institutions that embody much wisdom. Those are the anchors. Imperfect? Yes, of course. Still, an imperfect foundation is better than a phony foundation. What we don’t want to do is fabricate a myth about infallible conscience or divine laws, peddle it as fact, and then get caught out when people come to realize, as they most assuredly will, that it was all made up.
Thus a biological take on moral behavior and the conscience that guides it.

[Me-my simple question to Dr. Churchland’s anchor- > Dear Dr. Churchland

I read your new book with great interest. While I would certainly love to discuss it with you I do have one question that I was hoping you might address.
On page 147 you note that conscience is a brain construct rooted in our neural circuitry. My simple question is once one becomes aware of this fact, why should he feel bound to act according to his conscience? If such an individual had a ring of gyges, why would he choose not to use it to his full benefit?]


Vayikra 25:17 states, “V’lo tonu ish et amito” (“And you shall not wrong one man his fellow Jew”). Rashi comments that this includes onaat dvarim, which includes giving inappropriate advice (Eitzah Sheena Hogenet). I thought this specific application (Eitzah) was forbidden under lfnei Iver (one practical difference would be what hatraah [warning] would be required if you must warn on the specific prohibition). Any thoughts??


Please direct any informal comments to [email protected].

About Joel Rich

Joel Rich is a frequent local lecturer on various Torah topics in West Orange, NJ and supports his Torah listening habits by working as a consulting actuary.

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