Day 5 Cambridge: neuroscience

Friday started with the talk ‘Brains and Machines’, by distinguished neurobiologist Peter Clarke of the University of Lausanne. Peter started by outlining the history of the idea of the brain as a neuronal machine (Democrates, Descartes, La Mettrie, d’Holbach etc). Making the point that brain activity seems to underlie all our conscious experience, he went on to describe the effects of recent brain stimulation experiments. This was followed by a discussion of the implications for free will, the soul, religious faith etc.
Prof Clarke expanded on this theme in the second talk,‘Genetics, brain plasticity and personhood’. Emphasizing recent evidence of the effects of damage to the prefrontal lobes, he explored whether we are responsible for our immoral behaviour or simply the victims of inadequate brains. The discussion made reference to the astonishing case of a teacher found guilty of sexual deviation (possession of child pornography, intereference with a young child etc), who was observed to have a serious tumour in his frontal lobes. After succcessful treatment he returned to normal behaviour – only for the tumour to later grow back, accompanied by a recurrance of deviant behaviour …
There was also a discussion as to whether criminality and violence are genetically programmed or arise from environment, in the light of recent evidence (conclusion – mixture of both). This was a terrific lecture, which I think will be downloadable from the Faraday Institute website in a few days..

Peter’s talk was followed by a talk on brain enhancement by Pete Moore, the well-known science writer. Pete’s talk concerned the possibility of building an artificial brain by the process of scanning a human brain into a computer, storing all the information…and then allowing it to carry on as normal, including the interaction with other ‘uploaded brains! The aim here would presumably be that one could live forever through the computer. Pretty futuristic stuff – I didn’t really get a clear of the process, or the program that would run such a brain, but it was an intruiging talk. Peter has a recent book on the subject called ‘Enhancing Me’ published by Wiley; you can see a you_tube clip on it here

The last talk of the conference was by Alan Torrance, Professor of systematic theology at the University of St Andrews. Titled ‘Theological and philosophical perspectives on recent developments in neurosceince’, this was a rather more serious affair, with a full discussion of physicalism, dualism and pluralism. I won’t attempt to summarize it (way beyond my knowledge of philosophy), but I think there will be a recording on the Faraday website soon.

The conference wrapped up with a formal drinks and dinner, in the best Cambridge style. It turns out Prof Torrance is also a very good violinist (ex-Scottish Chamber Orchestra) as is his son, a promising soloist, so we had a great discussion about music afterwards. ..

All in all it was a most enjoyable conference….I’m trying to put together a slideshow of photos of speakers and delegates, along with a good snapshots of Cambridge…many thanks to Christoff S hope you got hope safely!

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