Neuroethics & Philosophy


Neuroethics & philosophical reflection in the Human Brain Project

Neuroethics provides an interface between the empirical brain sciences, philosophy of mind, moral philosophy, ethics, psychology, and the social sciences. Neuroethics & philosophical reflection adds conceptual clarification of neuroscientific evidence, shaped and informed by brain research. Supporting our understanding of how neuroscientific knowledge is constructed and why or how empirical knowledge of the brain can be relevant to philosophical, social, and ethical concerns.

What is neuroethics? 

Neuroethics is both applied and conceptual. It can be normative and prescriptive, using ethical theory and reasoning to address the practical issues arising from neuroscientific research, clinical and non-clinical applications or public perceptions of neuroscience, what is often referred to as neurobioethics. It can also be descriptive, using empirical data to inform theoretical and practical issues, what is called empirical neuroethics. Our conceptual approach includes a more ‘fundamental’ neuroethics, that provides a theoretical framework that can be used to analyse practical issues, and examine ethical and neuroscientific concept. It also allows us to address the impact of neuroscientific findings on society.

Fundamental neuroehtics: conceptual & philosophical approaches

Basic research in neuroethics shapes and informs our work on applied neuroethical issues Neuroetihcs and philosophy can help with conceptual clarification, and we use conceptual analysis to address issues such as how neuroscientific knowledge is constructed and why or how empirical knowledge of the brain can be relevant to philosophical, social, and ethical concerns. This fundamental neuroethics is empirical and theoretical, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary: using elements from the natural sciences, philosophy of science, language & mind, as well as moral philosophy. 

Neuroethical & philosophical research in the HBP

Models of the human brain

A digital twin, or virtual brain, is a computational model or digital replica of a living or non-living physical object or process. With the human brain being the most complex and difficult to model. Our brains are different and we respond to treatment in different ways: requiring personal approaches to treating conditions that affect the brain. The Human Brain Project is working to demonstrate the predictive and explanatory power of mechanistic human brain network models built to generate functional brain signals that can be linked to behaviour indicators. We use a framework from philosophy of science to assess the validity of these models, beyond statistics and mathemathics, demonstrating how models connect to the reality that they aim to model. Another part of this work is conceptual analysis of the clinical, ethical and societal impact the development of such models will bring. 

Consciousness studies

We are moving towards looking at severe brain injury and damage in more graded terms. Using new ways of assessing consciousness in a quantitative manner, using for example functional neuroimaging technologies. But there are still conceptual, empirical and clinical issues that need to be addressed. Different approaches are not always compatible, which is having an impact on empirical research and interpretation of results. There is also controversy around how to define and detect consciousness that has a direct impact on the clinical management of patients, notably patients with Disorders of Consciousness.

Conceptual clarification can help resolve some of these issues. One part of this work includes a theory of consciousness that is informed by empirical research and clinical evidence: contributing to the identification of criteria for a reliable theory of consciousness. We have developed a list of indicators for detecting consciousness in animals and artificial agents, looking at the possibility to translate this approach to patients with disorders of consciousness. Another contribution from the multidisciplinary research of the Human Brain Project will be strategies for improving the quality of diagnosis and prognosis of patients with disorders of consciousness, and an ethical analysis of these disorders that goes beyond residual awareness. 

Human identity

The development and application of neuro-technologies to modify the brain could have a significant impact on human and personal identity.  Neurotechnology could help us identify universal traits that we all share: our human identity. It could also help identify more specific traits in individuals’ self-conceptions and sameness: our personal identity. We identify and examine epistemological questions: What can neuroscience tell us about humanity? What are the limits of neuroscientific knowledge when it comes to understanding what human beings are? We also explore ontological questions: What are human beings? These epistemological and ontological questions bring ethical issues to the fore: What does it mean to be human? Who are we? Is this an important question, and if so: why?

Neuronal epigenesis

The brain develops in a natural and cultural context that has profound influence on its functional architecture. Lived developmental trajectories, interactions, and social environments impact synaptic connectivity and contribute to the formation of patterns of neural activity. Synaptic epigenesis theories of cultural and social imprinting on our brain architecture suggest that it is thus possible to culturally influence our neural predispositions. We examine the relationships between genotype and brain phenotype: the paradox of non-linear evolution between genome and brain complexity; the selection of cultural circuits in the brain during development; and the genesis and epigenetic transmission of cultural imprints.

Artificial Intelligence

AI research is growing rapidly raising various practical ethical issues related to safety, risks, and other effects that are being widely discussed by researchers worldwide. We aim at further developing the theoretical reflection about AI that is needed to articulate feasible conceptual and ethical tools for assessing AI-related research within the Human Brain Project, as well as its potential applications. With the goal of ensuring that this work is ethically sustainable and will benefit society.

The conceptual analysis which is the core part of our work on AI will support the conceptualisation of relevant notions in order to facilitate a more informed and ultimately a more effective ethical analysis. We engage in conceptual analysis of the intersection of AI and neuroscience, as well as neuroethics and AI ethics. Our goal is developing a conceptual platform that will allow a dialogue between scientific and other kinds of approaches (e.g., ethics, politics, sociology, etc.). 


Kathinka Evers, Professor of Philosophy, Leader of the HBP Neuroethics and Philosophy team 

Arleen Salles, PhD philosophy, Senior researcher & Deputy leader of the RRI workpackage

Michele Farisco, PhD philosophy, Postdoctoral researcher


Register an Ethical Concern

Anyone can requests to address ethical, regulatory and social issues in Human Brain Project research. The POint of REgistration (PORE) is HBP’s mechanism to register and identify these issues and keep track of how they are dealt with.

Register an Ethical Concern