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The Science of Virtue?

The Science of Virtue?

Is there a way to predict courage—or cowardice—in the face of danger? A new science of stress may be close to answering the age-old question.

An article by Jeff Wise in the August 2008 issue of Popular Mechanics purports to introduce the “science of courage”, highlighting the research of Lilianne Mujica-Parodi, director of the Laboratory for the Study of Emotion and Cognition at Stony Brook University.

She believes that if she can understand the dynamics of the amygdala, she will have found the holy grail of stress research: a way to predict how a person will perform under alarming conditions by examining him beforehand in the calm of a laboratory.

Now the science is interesting enough in its own right. But what jumped out at me is how—at least as described by the columnist—it represents a materialist world view in which courage is not an act of the will, but merely the result of a certain configuration of brain chemistry. This is completely the opposite of a traditional Aristotelian idea of virtue. By this rationale there is nothing heroic about the courageous man and nothing despicable about the cowardly man, each is acting out the programming of his neural chemistry and has no real say in the matter of whether he stand or flees in the face of danger.

Of course all men wonder if when it comes to the point, they will have the courage to stand. But the question is important to the individual (as opposed to an organization such as the military) precisely because we believe the answer tells us something about the character of the man. 

The brain works as a control-system circuit, like a thermostat in your home, with a negative feedback loop….in a tightly coupled home-heating system, the furnace quickly drops below an optimal level and turns off again when the house is warm enough. In a loosely coupled system, the house gets much too cold before the furnace kicks in and then it runs at full blast until the house is sweltering.

C.S. Lewis famously argued that there has never been a culture in which cowardice is a virtue. But it seems we may well be in danger of becoming a culture in which cowardice is not seen as a vice. Who can blame the coward if he is merely the victim of his “loosely coupled feedback loop”?

And who will bother to labor at the difficult task of training our children in the habits of virtue when we believe that there is no such thing?

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