William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Scientists: Moral Traits Considered Most Essential Part Of Identity

Close enough?

Answer me this. You’re on the job and the fancy iH20 cooler (with remote iPhone app) blows and shoots a bolt through your skull. The doctors say removing the bolt will kill you and that you must spend the rest of your born days dreading the TSA (think about it). Worse, the company fires you claiming you can no longer work and they refuse to pay for your health care.

Would you be angry? Would you, maybe, use foul language? Would you change from a mild-mannered cubicle-dwelling meekman (a nifty neologism) into a raving those-dirty-buggers vengeance-seeking whirlwind? The latter is what happened to poor Phineas Gage, who did get a 13-pound rod to the brain, and whose personality went from quiet to quarrelsome.

I say “Poor” not because of his accident, but because Gage is trotted out as proof each time a neuroscientist wants to insist that we are our brains. Take the peer-reviewed paper “The essential moral self” by Nina Strohminger and Shaun Nichol in the journal Cognition. They say that after his accident Gage’s “character changed so markedly that those who knew him said he was ‘no longer Gage’.”

They don’t mean this in the sense you say of your wife, “She isn’t herself today.” They mean Gage turned from Gage into a new man, a different person, coincidentally named Gage. Because why? Because changing Gage’s brain eliminated Gage and made somebody else, because materialism insists we are nothing but machines.

Head down to the body shop and trade your old for a new liver and everybody agrees you’re still you. But how much of the brain has to change before you’re not yourself? Swap out one neuron. You still you? Now two neurons? What about replacing “regions” of the brain “associated” with patterns of behavior or moods? Associated has to be in quotes because behaviors and moods are only statistically correlated with certain areas of the brain, a condition which means scientists cannot predict with certainty what would happen if part of your brain went missing or was replaced.

Strohminger and Nichol skate loosely over these facts and instead ask people on the Internet what parts of the brain they could lose and still be themselves. In one “experiment”, they gave 148 people a scenario like Gage’s (but a car accident), although this time the bolt could be removed and the part of the brain squished replaced. They varied the consequences of the surgery.

First was no change: Jim (the victim) was to all observation still Jim. Another was “morality”: Jim loses “his moral conscience—he is no longer capable of judging right from wrong, or being moved by the suffering of others.”

Participants then rated, on an inverted scale from 1 to 7 (making the scale numerical is what makes it science), “The transplant recipient is still Jim.” Curiously, those getting the control had a mean score just north of 2, which means (I’m guessing) that the participants knew they were in a “brain experiment” and gave answers in the direction they thought would please their interrogators. (There is, of course, little to no justification for calculating a mean from an arbitrary scale, but let that pass.)

The highest mean (nearly 5) was for the morality group. The authors: “The moral faculty is part of the mind most likely to be seen as the ultimate explanation for whether a person’s identity endures or fades away.”

The authors invented new ways of questioning citizens, including (citing Freaky Friday) “the soul switch”. To make it juicier, the soul to be switched was John, a pedophile. Most thought John’s soul shifting to a new body would carrying over his perversities.

What can be learned from this? Not much, except that people, including neuroscientists, haven’t given much thought about what it means to be human beings. The danger of misinterpretation is enormous. The researchers actually believed participants were answering the questions they got and were not translating them into language they understood. What is a guy in the street to make of a “morality” center of the brain? Many probably thought things like, “If Jim starts acting like a complete ass after his surgery, then I probably wouldn’t like him as much.”

Listen: these papers are important because they are part of the dark trend which equates humanity with machinery. Consequence? Once grandma starts down the mental slide, at some point she won’t be herself. That’s when you can get rid of her, as is happening in select nations in Europe, which dispatch a euthanasia van to cart what was grandma away. Happens in these United States, too, when we used to call doctors declare a person a “vegetable” (and what do you do with vegetables?).


  1. I will weigh in on this with personal experience. (All names are changed to protect the innocent/guilty but the incident is real.)

    Jane and John Doe are married with children. John has a serious brain hemmorage, resulting in John not remembering his children, having no short term memory and unable to function on his own. Nothing of the “pre-injury” John remains–John is completely different than before the trauma. Is John still John?
    Jane responds to John’s injury and her being pushed into caretaker and single parent by having promiscous sex and becoming an alcoholic. Is Jane still Jane? Is Jane merely becoming who she would have become eventually or who she would have been alone, without John in her life?

    Both people changed incredibly. One was organic, one was not. I don’t have an answer. I am inclined to say that John is not John anymore. And Jane suffered no physical injury, but Jane is nothing like Jane was either. It’s not an easy thing to figure out.

  2. Perception is truth —
    At least to those who can’t see
    Beneath the surface.

  3. Strohminger and Nichol skate loosely over these facts and instead ask people on the Internet what parts of the brain they could lose and still be themselves.

    If they thought they would get sensible answers why didn’t they just zero in on getting the answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything?” This messing around with piddling questions is just a waste of time.

  4. Listen: these papers are important because they are part of the dark trend which equates humanity with machinery

    Dark trend? You agree then with Shelly who implied, via Victor Frankenstein’s narrative, that There Are Things Man Is Not Meant To Know? Your list of consequences gives some weight to this thought.

    You sound as though you would be personally devastated if humanity equaling machinery turns out to be more truth than not.

  5. Briggs

    February 18, 2014 at 1:44 pm


    What is impossible to be so cannot turn out to be so. We are not machines, therefore cannot turn out to be machines.

    And if you think we’re machines (which I don’t think you, DAV, do) then, of course, I had no choice but to write this.

  6. Briggs: Are you then saying/believing that “John” is still “John” in my example, even though there is nothing left of the person that was John before the head injury?

  7. The iron rod went straight through Phineas Gage’s brain and did not stay there. Why do you imply otherwise? The reports that I see on the web are more tempered than you imply. See:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage & http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/phineas-gage.htm

    I’m not really sure what you are going for here.

  8. Nothing is static. From moment to moment we change — the atoms in our bodies, our behaviors, our appearance. Doesn’t matter if the cause is a bolt through the brain or a successfully achieved New Year’s resolution. Personality (whatever that actually is) is altered, although the difference may be imperceptible to most methods of observation. Where you put dividing lines is arbitrary. This area of research is either a gold mine for people good at making stuff up, or a fool’s errand.

  9. Briggs,

    We may be more machine-like than some would wish.

    I’m not really sure what you are going for here.

    He’s going for: your brain does not define “you”. What happened to Gage and how it affected his personality seems to indicate otherwise.

  10. Where does the persona that is suffering from late stage Alzheimer’s “go” ?

    It vaporizes, [stuff] happens.

    I live many personae in my life, but am one person. (It’s the Mystery of the Trinity)


  11. La Longue Carabine

    February 18, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    Participants then rated, on an inverted scale from 1 to 7 (making the scale numerical is what makes it science),

    Funny, sometimes, that when you get the rhythm wrong the words seem more poetical, like…

    I am the very model of the modern statistician
    I know the scales numerical from digital to logical,
    In order…whatever.

  12. Gary, thank you: a fool’s errand.
    No matter how parsed, “… peer-reviewed paper “The essential moral self” by Nina Strohminger and Shaun Nichol,” it is nonsense.
    “… “his moral conscience—he is no longer capable of judging right from wrong, or being moved by the suffering of others.””

    The essence of self is not moral: self is that unique identity we each present; ethics describes our place on the right/wrong sojourn.
    If we turn language on its head this might be a fun game: merely diverting, regardless.

  13. I was part of a Phineas Gage research project. I got to hold the heavy iron rod that went through his skull. It’s amazing he survived. I made this video too, based on measurements of the rod and a CT scan we made:


    Quite a fun project!


  14. Sheri,

    John isn’t John anymore, he has a brain trauma that cannot be healed.

    Jane is still Jane. She just wasn’t able to adapt to the changes in her life.

    In Canada, she would have been able to receive help as long as she asked for it. In the US she became a taker.

  15. What fascinates me, among much else, is the way humans can revise themselves. We can make and break habits. We can change our view of the world. We can decide to radically alter our aims and objectives. I find it hard to imagine a machine that could look at itself and decide it didn’t like what it saw and then form a plan to change itself.

  16. I find it hard to imagine a machine that could look at itself and decide it didn’t like what it saw and then form a plan to change itself.

    Ever seen a Roomba? It goes and finds an electrical outlet when it’s hungry. You might argue that it was programmed to do this. So: when you’re hungry do you form a plan and search out food? Were you taught to do this or reason it out or is it programmed in? Given that cats, dogs, fish and educated fleas search out food, Id go with programmed in.

    “hard to imagine” does not mean “impossible”. Not very long ago, it would have been hard to imagine that a handful of sand (properly processed) could be used for nearly instantaneous cross-country communication. Yet today we have cell phones whose major components are made from silicon which can be found in common beach sand.

  17. Sylvain: Thank you for answering my question. I was beginning to think no one would touch this one. I would note that Jane could and can get help, but she chooses not to. No big, bad lack of government help stood in the way on this one–Jane was and is a government employee. (Your assumption that an alcoholic cannot work is incorrect.)

    DAV-Yes, had two Roombas. I would not call this “learning”. The Roomba will look for it’s base and if it can’t find it, it just “dies” in the middle of the floor (I would start looking for and keep looking for the frig long before starvation set in). It gets trapped under furniture and in corners. If it were “out in the wild”, it wouldn’t survive. I got rid of both of the Roomba and went back to the unintelligent vacs that I plug into the wall.

  18. Sheri,

    The point was a machine that gets hungry and tries to search for food. I’m not claiming they’re very bright. People can also starve to death looking for food. Every year, someone gets lost and discovers to their dismay that cheeseburger trees aren’t indigenous to the area where they are lost but they keep looking. Some even die with food all around them that they just didn’t recognize as food.

  19. DAV: I can kind of see the machine being “hungry”, if you count programming a machine to detect when its battery has reached a certain level of discharge as “hungry”. That would mean if we were machines, then someone would have had to program us to know when our system needs “recharged”, would it not?

    (I just can’t see a Roomba as being hungry. My failing…..)

  20. That would mean if we were machines, then someone would have had to program us to know when our system needs “recharged”, would it not?

    Well, yes. Do you have any idea how you come to know when you’re hungry? Was it something you learned or reasoned out? Or is it built-in? I’m guessing you experienced hunger long before you started thinking about it.

    Same with other things you do. Did you choose to learn to walk or was the drive to do so built-in? BTW: learning to walk is something you did on your own. You likely got encouragement but no one could possibly have taught you how to do it.

    I’m guessing the drive to learn to walk was built-in. We seem to have a lot of built-in features yet people somehow think they are unique and separate from the rest of the animal kingdom. Furthermore, if we have built-in drives why can’t a machine?

  21. What happened to Gage has in various forms happened to many many others by injury and tumor. Also, long-term studies of soldier’s head injuries has revealed the cumulative effect of concussions — and this is known to “change” people’s personalities over years. It’s called chronic traumatic encephalopathy [CTE], which is visible on a brain dissection (& for which the NFL ought to have known better [say the courts] and other sports are coming around [e.g.: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/18/sports/hockey/18concussion.html?_r=1&ref=hockey ].

    So, yes, like it or not the data is there and compounding — brain damage affects personalities, sometimes changing them markedly, and does so in predictable ways.

    Not to mention “brain dead” people — those whose brains only provide minimal functioning for involuntary actions like breathing & heartbeat that keeps a body alive…but…from which no thought is or ever will again be possible….

    Being human and being an animal are not mutually exclusive.

    All of which begs a question: ‘At what point does one cease being human…just a living “meat sack”?’

    But, since certain facts will have no effect whatsoever on those with certain religious predilections, I’ll diverge & offer the following statistic, which, in its way, is revealing:

    The first testicular guard, or “cup” was used in hockey in 1874.
    The first helmet was used in 1974.
    It took 100 years for NHL players to realize that the brain was also important!
    From: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/306063-analyze-this-how-to-improve-the-nhl

    And NHL players, and others at lower levels (for example) opposed mandatory helmets…nobody had to persuade them to wear a cup, however…. That sums things up. Say what one will of one’s identity vs. brain…when injury prevention, or not, is on the line our real priorities are a bit further south.

  22. DAV: Is being hungry built in? Is walking? I would say yes, whether or not you go with God or evolution. In evolution, those who did not recognize hungry, died. As did those who were not adequately mobile. In evolution, I have no idea when these traits came in and how evolution selected for them, but it is theoretically possible. The journey from amoebe to man is a complicated theory. With God, obviously, yes, we were designed to eat and walk (one of which got us in big trouble…..).
    Why can’t a machine? Because “Terminator” would be a documentary? Just kidding. Maybe it goes back to carbon based life forms versus silicone. Silicone would certainly challenge the current ideas in biology. I don’t think I can answer that in a paragraph……

    Ken: Thank you for your input. We are obviously an animal, albeit a very advanced one with characterististics not found in other species. This dilemma is very real to many people. We can save the shell of the person, but saving that which made a person unique is another story. I don’t think we can say that our physical body doesn’t in many ways affect who we are. Illness, injury, etc all can change how we behave. Does that make us a machine? Does that mean there is a mind-body connection and that damaging one part damages the other? It’s becoming harder and harder to deny that there is a not connection. That would make us a hybrid, I guess. (And you are right about our “priorities”!)

  23. Sheri,

    Part of the issue here is that people seem to have rather rigid ideas of what a machine is. Perhaps it’s better to say “physical system” or maybe even “non-biological system”. As time goes on, I think we will find more and more non-biological systems that exhibit capabilities now appearing only in biological ones. Who can say at some point the distinctions between them will not become problematic even when looking under the hood?

  24. DAV–Perhaps. SciFi writers love the concept and address it frequently. I guess I don’t have the belief that humanity will build such a thing. Could one evolve? Maybe? We have robots that do incredible things. Whether or not they can exceed their programmers, time will tell.

  25. DAV, you chose the wrong level at which to draw a parallel. To match the point I was trying to make the Roomba would have to decide it wasn’t going to ‘eat’ any more like people who go on hunger strike. Or to choose to reprogram itself to dance on the rug instead of cleaning up. Or to explore the possibility of sending brief pulses of power to its motors so that it made music. I suggest only humans “think outside the box” because we’re the only species conscious that we are in a box.

    And, yes, I chose to say, “I can’t imagine” because I didn’t want to say, “impossible”.

  26. I suggest only humans “think outside the box” because we’re the only species conscious that we are in a box.

    That we know of — and we can’t be certain about that — furthermore it does not mean nothing else can.

  27. Sheri,

    Jane could have had help because she was working for a good employer and had good health insurance. In Canada, anyone that want this help will get it.

  28. Sylvain: You must have missed the “income-based” counseling services available in the US, the groups like alcoholics anonymous and brain-injury support groups. There are plenty of services available, no matter what your income.

  29. I am, as usual,confused. The subject has a different personality from the one he seems to have had before the accident, but I don’t think any one can possibly claim he has a different soul or spirit.
    There is a difference I’m told between soul and spirit.
    One is Pneuma and the other Psyche.
    A Greek speaking theologian could tell you. I suppose.
    If I’m getting it right personality is not soul.

    Be that as it may, the wife has still the same soul.. and has made poor choices when faced with a difficult situation. She ran away from it. as most of us would who are not saints.

  30. Sheri,

    She had problem before she became an alcoholic. She needed help as soon as John got sick so that she did not become an alcoholic.

  31. Sylvain: Yes, I know that. Although there is some evidence Jane was prime for becoming an alcoholic before John’s injury. However, there exists plenty of help for people in her position, regardless of income. Again, support groups for people dealing with brain injury victims. Counseling based on income. Money has no bearing on what Jane chose to do. It was a decision not to deal with this in a constructive way.

    M E: Interesting. I really don’t know what the difference between soul and spirit is. Jehovah Witnesses tried to explain it to me but I just ended up more confused. It does seem to me that personality and soul are not the same, though one may affect the other.

  32. Sheri:

    John is still John, and Jane is still Jane. Claims to the contrary fall prey to a crude dualism that perceives the mind or soul as a part of/inhabiting the body.

    The reality of human nature, which is Mr. Briggs’ main concern here, is that we are body/soul composites. This may seem like hairsplitting, but the implications of each view differ fundamentally. With dualism, you “have” a body. As a flesh/spirit composite, you “are” your body, just as a basketball is a sphere.

    The soul is composed of no parts and thus cannot be destroyed. However, physical injuries can impair or remove the body’s ability to actualize the purely spiritual intellect and will. The person you knew as John is still there, but a bridge between the immaterial and the material is out.

  33. Brian: That helps. I did not understand what the reasoning behind the question was. I will explore this further, as it is not something I am familiar with. It does sort of sound like hair-splitting, since for all practical purposes, John is never going to be the person we knew if the bridge remains out. From a spiritual perspective, I can see there could be a different answer.
    Thank you.

  34. Sheri:
    I’m glad to be of service. Your open-minded examination of reality is praiseworthy.

    A final distinction to help your efforts: there’s a real difference between John being a different person and acting like a different person. This observation applies to everyone. (Do you think and behave exactly as you did at age twelve? If not, are you now another person?)

    I recommend looking into the different types of causality identified by Aristotle. The logical argument for John being the same person at each stage is that he always has the same material, efficient, and final causes.

  35. Brian: On your question of when I was 12–probably I behave somewhat differently now, as I have many more years experience. What I have difficulty with in my example, is John does not behaving somewhat differently–he is totally different. If you could not see him, you would not know who he is from any of his behaviours. The question also brings up the part that memory plays in all of this–John does not remember his children nor what he did two hours ago. The children are foreign to him. So that will head me in the direction of looking at what loss of memory does! A lot to think about! Thanks.

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