An Interview with Dr. Alberto Carrara

by Dr. Eugene Fisher Profiles in Catholicism



Dr. Fisher: There is no doubt that today we live in a neurocentric era. You are one of the global figures of so-called neuroethics. What are we talking about? And how did you get there?


Dr. Carrara: In our post-modern time we are literally consumed with ethical controversies about life sciences and technological man-machine hybridization. Think about the fields of the genetic modification, the biotechnologies of medicine, of agriculture, of industrial revolution, consider the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change: steam engines, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, aeroplanes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology and, more recently, the digital revolution, robotics, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. Humanity has entered a new era in which our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads.


It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity.


The modification of nature for useful purposes has distinguished the human family from the beginning; technology itself expresses the inner tension that impels man gradually to overcome material limitations. Technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings.


How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, neuroscience, engineering and communications? How could we not acknowledge the work of many scientists and engineers who have provided alternatives to make development sustainable?


Neuroscience and technoscience, when well directed, can produce important means of improving the quality of human life. It can also produce art and enable men and women immersed in the material world to “leap” into the world of beauty.


Yet it must also be recognized that nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of our DNA, and many other abilities which we have acquired, have given us tremendous power. More precisely, they have given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used.


In whose hands does all this power lie, or will it eventually end up?


In this context, in 1973, the neologism “neuro-ethics” was introduced.


Directly and indirectly, the study of our nervous system touches all of our lives. Think about mental illnesses, brain diseases, COVID-19 effects on the human brain.


Neuroethics, in my lexicon, is a systematic and informed reflection on and interpretation of neuroscience, and related sciences of the mind, such as psychology in all its many forms, psychiatry, robotics, artificial intelligence, and so on, in order to understand its implications for human self-understanding and the perils and prospects of its applications. Neuroethics has developed as a response to the increasing power and pervasiveness of the science of the brain and mind.


Neuroethics is the examination of what is right and wrong, good and bad about the treatment of, perfection of, or unwelcome invasion of the worrisome manipulation of the human brain and through it of the human person.


Neuroethics is commonly held to have two branches, the ethics of neuroscience and the neuroscience of ethics. Under the first heading, neuroethics is concerned not only with ethical issues in the practice of neuroscience (ethical issues in subject recruitment, in the conduct of neurosurgery, in the reporting of neuroscientific findings in academic journals and the popular press, and so on), but also with ethical issues in the application of neuroscience and the technologies and techniques it helps to develop, inside and outside the clinic. Under this heading, therefore, fall concerns about the use of psychopharmaceuticals, or other techniques (direct current stimulation or implantable electrodes, say) to treat mental illness or to enhance the capacities of those without a diagnosable illness. By the neuroscience of ethics we mean, principally, the ways in which neuroscience might help us to understand morality itself: the principles by which we reason, the relative contribution of emotional and non-emotional processes to moral thought, and perhaps even the extent to which moral thought sometimes goes wrong.


Neuroethics should not be identified with reflection on neuroscience alone, but be expanded to include reflection on the other sciences of the mind. Correlatively, I suggest that the neuroscience of ethics should also be understood broadly, encompassing not only the ways in which the science of the mind can help us to understand moral reasoning, but also the ways in which it might help us to understand other perennial philosophical issues (the nature of knowledge, the ways in which self-control is exercised and how it may be lost, free will and the mind/brain relationship, and so on).


So, where an ancient philosopher might have been metaphysician and physicist, ethicist and biologist, a neuroscientist of today can, in essence, return to her philosophical roots and be both scientist and philosopher – a neuroethicist.


I discovered this area of ​​reflection in 2008 when I was studying philosophy. But there is a premise

to do. I was born in 1980, I studied and trained as a chemical-biological laboratory technician. I am a Doctor in Medical Biotechnology at the faculty of Medicine of one of the oldest medical schools, that of Padua in north Italy, a University founded in 1222.


Now, I am a Catholic and religious priest, member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Director of the Neurobioethics’ research Group of the Pontifical Athaeneum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, and also Fellow of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights.


Our research group was established in 2009. Now it is one of the lively realities in neuroethics in the world.


I studied and trained as a chemical-biological laboratory technician. I am a Doctor in Medical Biotechnology at the faculty of Medicine of one of the oldest medical schools, that of Padua in north Italy, a University founded in 1222.


Now, I am a Catholic and religious priest, member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Director of the Neurobioethics’ research Group of the Pontifical Athaeneum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, and also Fellow of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights.


Our research group was established in 2009. Now it is one of the lively realities in neuroethics in the world.


Through our seven study groups on consciousness, neurolaw, neuroesthetics, neuroscience and sexual difference, posthumanism and neurotechnology, we want to offer to the contemporary reflection dealing with neuroscience, an integrated and integral vision of human being that could be realistic, avoiding both neuro-essentialism or neuroreductivism and ontological dualistic interpretations of our constitution.


I hope contemporary neuroethics could be an anthropological framework in order to give practical answers to lots of clinical, political, social, and educational issues.


Neuroscience today offers a great opportunity to enhance out anthropological reflection dealing with who we are. Our main purpose is to integrate science and faith, both are indispensable for our true development as creature.


Dr. Fisher: Thank you for an overview of and insights into your critical work.