Magnets and Morality

Magnets and Morality

He was turned to steel
In the great magnetic field
When he travelled time
For the future of mankind
          Geezer Butler / Tony Iommi / Ozzy Osbourne / Bill Ward

The hero of the story unwittingly encounters a high energy magnetic field and is forever transformed by it. Though this scenario sounds like it’s straight out of a comic book, it is not science fiction, but science fact.
A team of neuroscientists from MIT made headlines recently when they reported that they could alter a person’s capacity to make moral judgments by sending magnetic pulses into the brain, temporarily disabling a region called the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ).1

Their discovery carries significant philosophical and theological implications. As the lead scientist of the work states, “You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior…To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.”2

Is our sense of right and wrong merely organic? Are those qualities that make humans unique merely the outworking of brain chemistry and physiology? Or is there another way to think about these results?

Previous research demonstrated that the RTPJ displays increased metabolic activity when study subjects are presented with scenarios describing moral actions and beliefs. This finding led the MIT neuroscientists to speculate that this area of the brain plays a role in moral judgment. To test the idea, they sought to temporarily disable the RTPJ of a number of subjects by sending magnetic pulses into the brain. These pulses disrupt the electrical activity of the neurons in this brain region. The RTPJ remained disabled for about 12 minutes when transcranial magnetic stimulation was applied.

During the twelve-minute inactivation, study participants were given several life scenarios and asked to evaluate the moral permissibility of each one. The subjects were presented with one of four possible scenarios in which:

  • the moral actor had a good intent, and his/her action led to a good outcome
  • the moral actor had a good intent, and his/her action led to a bad outcome
  • the moral actor had a bad intent, and his/her action led to a good outcome
  • the moral actor had a bad intent, and his/her action led to a bad outcome

Normally, when one engages in moral judgment, the permissibility of an action is determined from both belief about the actor’s intent and the outcome of the action. An action that produces a bad (or harmful) outcome can be judged as morally acceptable if the intent of the actor was good. Likewise, an action leading to a good outcome can be regarded as impermissible if the actor’s intent was bad.

The researchers discovered that the magnetic pulse to the RTPJ did not prevent the test subjects from making moral judgments, but it did impact their ability to recognize the intent of the actor when determining the permissibility of an action. Instead, each person had to rely largely on the outcome of the action to judge moral permissibility. Presumably, when the RTPJ is unable to function, the subjects no longer receive input about the intent of the actor when making moral judgments. But they were still able to make these judgments. So, despite the headlines, access to the necessary data was lost, but not the capacity to make moral determinations.

Although brain activity studies like these are often taken as evidence for the evolutionary origin of human uniqueness, they can be understood from a Christian perspective. Such a model demonstrates that the human brain is “hardwired” for moral judgment, a provocative notion in light of passages like Roman 2: 14-15, which teaches that all human beings have the Law “written on their hearts.”

Therefore, structures such as the brain’s RTPJ can be thought of as features that were created to support the manifestation of the image of God. The brain can be thought of as the “hardware” that allows God’s image (the “software”) to be manifested. If the hardware is damaged (in this case disrupted by magnetic pulses), the image of God remains. It is still active; it just can’t be properly expressed.

More than mere brain chemistry or physiology, this study supports a biblical creation model that views morality as the product of a moral Being.

  1. Liane Young et al., “Disruption of the Right Temporoparietal Junction with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Reduces the Role of Beliefs in Moral Judgments,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 107 (2010): 6753–58.
  2. “Moral Judgments Can Be Altered,” EurekAlert,, accessed March 3, 2010.