Frontal Pole or the Moral Law, What Separates Right from Wrong?

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The mystery of the conscience has fascinated thinkers for centuries. Our ability to determine right from wrong separates us from other animals. On the Christian worldview, morality is founded upon a standard of perfect goodness–God–from which deviations are measured. Christians recognize that without an absolute standard, good and bad are dissolved by the acid of relativism. This immaterial code of conduct for humans is referred to as the Moral Law.

While those hostile to the Christian worldview commonly attack straw men who complain that atheists can’t act morally, this has never been the Christian argument. Christianity is not required to be moral; however, Christianity is the only worldview that adequately explains morality. Failing to recognize this distinction is a common error which confuses moral ontology (the study of being moral) with moral epistemology (the study of gaining knowledge of morality).

The Frontal Pole

Recently, new developments in brain science have some writers jumping to conclusions. A recent article in The Independent titled “You say lateral front pole, I say that little devil/angel that whispers in my ear” has essentially declared the mystery of the conscience solved.  The author of the article states:

“This isn’t some minor breakthrough of cognitive neuroscience. This is about good and bad, right and wrong. This is about the brain’s connection to morality. This means that the Oxford scientists, without apparently realising what they’ve done, have located the conscience.”¹

What is the finding which led him to this conclusion? Scientists now say that the lateral frontal pole is the region of the brain which enables us to evaluate the merit of the choices we rejected. The author of the article asserts that the conscience has “been used by religions as a numinous something-or-other, kindly bestowed by God, to give humans a choice between sin and Paradise.”²

This sounds like and interesting finding, but is it really a smoking gun suggesting the death of a deity? Do scientists now agree that we have located the physical conscience? And does that imply that there is no God?  Hardly.

Other writers have handled the finding with a more appropriate level of humility.

A writer for The Guardian mentions only that :

“A new brain region that appears to help humans identify whether they have made bad decisions has been discovered by researchers.”3

The article also includes a description of the brain as “the most complex organ in the known universe.”4

An article at Science 2.0 simply describes this area of the brain as having been “identified with strategic planning and decision-making as well as ‘multi-tasking.’”5

Surely we should not be so quick to declare the mysteries of the brain–including the conscience and consciousness–solved.

 The Moral Law

Before Jiminy Cricket reminded us to let our consciences be our guide, the Apostle Paul was reminding his brothers in Christ in his letter to the Romans:

“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares” (Romans 2:14-16, NIV).

We know right from wrong not just because our parents teach us, but because the Moral Law is written on our hearts.

The fact that most people will agree upon at least a few universal moral values is a strong indicator that morality is based upon more than shared cultural norms. For example, there is not a culture on the planet that celebrates cowardice or shuns courage.

If morality–objectively right and wrong action–exists, then that is interesting enough. What’s more interesting is that humans beings are built with a sense of morality.  On naturalism, there is no reason for this to be the case. The same can be said about the remarkable fact that we have rational minds capable of comprehending a rational universe.

But we are rational beings, and we are moral beings. The question is, why?

In his work Confessions, Augustine writes of how sin makes us search for answers in the wrong places:

“For it was my sin, that not in Him, but in His creatures- myself and others- I sought for pleasures, sublimities, truths, and so fell headlong into sorrows, confusions, errors.”6

Augustine describes the conscience as more than the product of neural activity behind the face, but as something God sets before our own face:

“Is it not thus, as I recall it, O Lord my God, Thou judge of my conscience? before Thee is my heart, and my remembrance, Who didst at that time direct me by the hidden mystery of Thy providence, and didst set those shameful errors of mine before my face, that I might see and hate them.” 7

Scientific breakthroughs will continue to help us understand the masterpiece we call the human brain. However, excessive faith in science and premature conclusions based on new discoveries will almost certainly cause scientists–like Augustine–to fall headlong into confusion and error.

If the lateral frontal pole turns out to be the machine which gonks out our awareness of morality, then all the more glory to the artisan responsible for its design.

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¹John Walsh, “You say lateral frontal pole, I say that little devil/angel that whispers in my ear,” The Independent, 29 January, 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/you-say-lateral-frontal-pole-i-say-that-little-devilangel-that-whispers-in-my-ear-9094043.html
²Ibid.
3 Ian Sample, “Whoa there! Brain area found to help spot bad decisions,” The Guardian, 28 January, 20124, http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/jan/28/grass-greener-brain-research-lateral-frontal-pole
4 Ibid.
5 News Staff, “What Makes Us Human? The Lateral Frontal Pole Prefrontal Cortex,” Science 2.0, 29 January, 2014, http://www.science20.com/news_articles/what_makes_us_human_lateral_frontal_pole_prefrontal_cortex-128592
6 Augustine, Confessions, 20.
7 Ibid., 69.

Photo credit: jepoirrier / Foter / CC BY-SA

Jason B. Ladd

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Christian, husband, father of five, and Marine fighter pilot. Seeking Peace, Waging War, Defending the Faith. What are you fighting for?
  • justjohn

    “For example, there is not a culture on the planet that celebrates cowardice or shuns courage.”
    are you so sure of that?
    you can “make” it true, only if you prejudicially define the word “culture” to exclude what doesn’t fit the conclusion. yes there are such *cultures* that do celebrate the expedience of running for your life and avoiding risk. ONE example would be the culture of professional thieves (whether behind mohagany desks or sleeping in gutters).
    always must be careful about exerting your own template of the world upon raw data. this is the lax way we all tend to excuse and justify our own deviations from our own stated beliefs.
    cheers.

    • http://www.jasonbladd.com/ Jason B. Ladd

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that the definitions of words is important. However, in light of your exmples, I think my claim still stands. While running away to avoid risk might be viewed as cowardice by an outside observer, the actor may be operating on another principle, such as the expediency you mentioed. Thieves may be in a profession viewed as cowardly by others, but you can be sure they do not view themselves as cowards. And it is certain that most criminals and thugs do not celebrate cowardice. My argument is not that other cultures do not act in a manner which may be viewed as cowardly, rather, that even the individuals or groups that act cowardly do not celebrate their cowardice. Expediency, thriftiness, ability to outsmark a system—maybe. But I have never seen a Society for the Celebration of Yellow Bellied Chickens, or the National Medal of Cowardice in any country or culture.

  • Jerry Nelson

    Thanks for your comment. I am fascinated by this scientific discovery as it relates to the human conscience and morality. I appreciate your perspective. I’m wondering what the phrase at the end “gonks out” means? I don’t know the word “gonks”. Thanks.

    • http://www.jasonbladd.com/ Jason B. Ladd

      Gonk is just a silly solecism to suggest the mysterious nature of how a conscience functions. A calculator calculates. A gonkulator gonks. Sorry…