Brain Simulations - an ethical issue
There can be few competitions with such a rich prize - a massive one billion euros. That's what a team of European scientists are aiming to win. In return they are promising to create a simulated computer version of the human brain.
In a blog post last year, and on RichardDawkins.net, I wrote about how brain simulations were necessarily an ethical matter for those who believed in materialism: that there is no non-physical aspect to the universe.
Now simulation of brains is a mainstream scientific project. It's time to sound the alarms. I'm a functionalist when it comes to the philosophy of mind. I believe that consciousness results from the activity of the neural networks in our brains. I don't believe that nerve cells are necessary for consciousness, and that consciousness can arise wherever the appropriation information processing occurs. Functionalist views on consciousness are far from universal even amongst atheist philosophers and scientists, but they are reasonable and they cannot be ignored.
Functionalism means that simulating a human brain has the same ethical issues as cloning a human adult. Functionalism means that a simulation of a human brain has the possibility of being a person, self-aware, and capable of the full range of experiences as a natural human brain. I'm not insisting that functionalism is true, but that we have to take seriously the possibility that it might be, and the consequences of that.
It's not only human brain simulations that should be the subject of ethical review. If functionalism is true then simulations of animal brains can also suffer, and such simulations will be feasible much, much sooner.
This is a matter where those of us who believe in materialism need to insist that research into brain simulations must be subject to the same kinds of controls as research on their natural equivalents. We can't wait until questions start to be asked about whether the suffering of running simulations is real.
My concern is that too many scientists don't believe that this is an ethical matter. We need to change that as soon as we can.