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Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine
Ethics in the Neurosciences (INM-8)

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At the institute “Ethics in the Neurosciences” (INM-8) several interdisciplinary projects contribute to the analysis of neuroscientific findings from the perspective of philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, and ethics.

The work group “Representation and Modelling” focuses on issues in the philosophy of science and philosophy of mind. It examines the enormous progress of the neurosciences in exploring the neural realizations of specific cognitive capacities and recent developments in computational neuroscience that aim at the simulation of brain activities in neural networks. One aim of the work group is to evaluate the theoretical commitments and criteria for the success of such models.

While there has been significant progress in establishing correlations between brain states and mental states, there are as yet no satisfactory neuroscientific explanations of such key mental traits as self-consciousness, intentionality, or the qualitative aspect of phenomenal experience. The work group investigates how these are represented in the brain.

The concepts ‘person', ‘personhood’, and ‘personality’ are of central relevance to our self-conception. The work group “Person and Neuroethics” investigates selected aspects of personal life from both a conceptual and an empirical viewpoint. From a philosophical perspective, the usage of terms for aspects of personal life in the empirical sciences equivocate between subjective and objective notions of human consciousness. One task of the work group is to provide a conceptual clarification of the presuppositions in empirical research and to relate empirical results to a conceptually sound understanding of personal life.
Self-referential consciousness is considered to be a constitutive element of personality in neuro-psychological research as well as in psychiatric practice. In order to analyze its role in the life of a person, the understanding of the phenomena of self-consciousness needs to be sharpened both conceptually and empirically. Recent philosophical and neuroscientific research suggests that one has to deal with self- referential attitudes and states rather than with a “self“ or an “I” as referents of egological vocabulary. The conceptual analysis has to be related to the use of egological terms in psychiatry, where it is employed to describe directly or indirectly observable states of a person with psychiatric disorder.

The use of new neurotechnologies and their possible influence on self-conscious states raise several ethical concerns beyond standard bioethical problems such as informed consent, incidental findings, and privacy. These technologies give cause to serious concern regarding possible alterations of a person’s self-referential attitudes, personality structure, and capacities to lead the life of a person. Therefore, identifying normatively relevant properties of personality and personhood is an essential requirement for the ethical evaluation of neurotechnological systems.

The use of machine learning methods in the neurosciences opens up a new field of research at the intersection of ethics and philosophy of science. In cooperation with other INM departments, particularly INM-7, INM-8 aims to identify prerequisites for the responsible handling of AI-based diagnostic procedures in clinical neuroscience. More far-reaching problems are associated with fundamental ethical concepts such as responsibility and justice. In the context of AI, established norms for the use of such concepts are likely to need updating.