A significant and worrying lacuna lies at the heart of neuroethics: viz., a coherent conception of personal identity. Philosophically, the consequences are serious; morally, they are disastrous. The entire discourse is constrained by a narrow empiricism, oblivious to its own metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions; worse still, it remains hostage to a latent Cartesianism, which logically and ontologically isolates neuroethicists from their subjects. Little wonder neuroethics lacks an anchor for its normative judgements. This chapter aims to supply that anchor. The key lies in action: action as essentially personal; acts owned; acts intended; and acts that embody those intentions that embody meaning. Such acts are the primary manifestation of ‘personhood’; they are also socially oriented, therefore morally interesting. Action locates persons in a world of objects and, most importantly, others. Crucially, relocating neuroethics within this context of personal activity supplies the logical and ontological foundations for both its judgements and its participants.
- applied metaphysics
- Austin Farrer
- Ludwig Feuerbach
- personal identity
- personalist metaphysics
A significant and worrying lacuna lies at the heart of neuroethical debate. What it lacks is the anchor of a
This chapter aims to supply that anchor, to articulate a conception of persons that will overcome this piercingly divisive dichotomy. It does so, not by privileging one side over the other; a pointless exercise in any event, since neither one is coherent and, besides, they terminate in the coinciding of reductive and flattened abstractions with inflationary, transcendentalised ones. Rather, the dichotomy is overcome by a conception of consciousness grounded in action: action as essentially personal; actions owned, intended; actions that embody those intentions, embody
It is in this empirical sense—the philosophically well-brought-up reader may be reassured to learn—that our conception of persons is to be understood as metaphysical. Our aim, in short, is not to critique the neurosciences or rebut their discoveries. It is no part of our case to deny the role played by understanding the brain and brain-function in understanding consciousness and ‘personhood.’ We wish, rather, simply to demonstrate that—if we may be forgiven—there is more to persons than meets the fMRI.
Personal action is ontologically primitive; it is also empirically, which is to say experientially, irrefragable. I cannot deny the reality of my actions without self-stultification, let alone self-contradiction; no more can I deny the actions of others, actions in which my own are but one ingredient. Action is the foundation, the condition, of experience, so meets Ockham’s razor, edge to edge. As such, action is also
Put simply, personal action is an anti-metaphysical metaphysics. As such, it is also an
There is one further point before embarking on the discussion proper. What follows operates solely from a philosophical perspective; for it is this perspective, we are reliably informed, that neuro
2. Empiricism, realism, and absence
Let us begin with an account, in general terms, of the philosophical problem circumscribed by this lacuna in the discourse.
It is tempting, at first, to state the obvious and assert that the dichotomy threatening to tear neuroethics asunder is a product of reductive physicalism or philosophical materialism. Such reductivism is, after all, characteristic of the scientific method that determines the course of neuroscience and so must inform the neuroethicist’s outlook. In consequence, said neuroethicist will inevitably identify consciousness with the neurological, i.e. physical, processes mapped by fMRI scans and, therefore, persons with brains. All this may be true. And yet, we would do well to remember that the obvious does not always stand on solid philosophical ground; besides which, the assertion is easily countered.
During the last century, the physical sciences have seen such extraordinary—one might even say
So much for tilting at windmills. In reality, we surrender to that first temptation and point our superior philosophical finger at the neuroscientist, only to commit the very mistake we accuse her of, thereby reinforcing an already apparently intractable conflict between two different modes of thinking. Fortunately, it is an important principle of our anti-metaphysical metaphysics that pointing fingers point in two directions at once: acts unfold in consequences, so identify the objects on which they bear; simultaneously, however, they reveal intentions and, crucially, the agent of intentions. The root of the problem, that is, lies not in a faulty science, but in bad philosophy; our obvious assertion is itself symptomatic of the very confused and erroneous thinking that gives rise to the problem. We have, in short, transformed method into metaphysic, and a wholly incompatible metaphysic at that.
The results are incompatible because the transformation issues in some form of realism. It is not, perhaps, that naïve realism which supposes, in Russell’s pithy phrase, ‘things are what they seem.’ Nevertheless, it is close cousin to that self-same ‘plebeian illusion’ which Einstein described, ‘according to which things “are” as they are perceived by us through our senses;’ excepting that, in this instance, experiment and observation substitute for sensory perceptions [2, p. 20]. In fact, this substitution means that our method-cum-metaphysic mirrors most closely Peter Byrne’s ‘innocent realism’ . This, we are told, ‘merely reflects on the content of our empirical claims, notes that most of them do not speak about how the world looks from a human perspective and concludes that the world, its things and properties, is for the most part independent of us and our representations’ [3, p. 40]. That we do not articulate our presuppositions, it does not, of course, follow that there are none to articulate. However, the point is clear: no matter what the epistemic medium may be, we are still claiming to identify, to know about, a world that lies, logically and ontologically, beyond the reach of any actual or possible experience.
Any such claim must prove deeply problematic for the empirically minded, not least because it marks an attempt to found scientific knowledge on that which is
Those maps, models, and diagrams are endowed with objectivity by the formulation and application of rules for their construction, rules that constitute the theoretical framework within which any scientific enquiry must be pursued. The more completely and systematically those rules can be defined, the more likely it is they will supply objective facts; but they are not and cannot be ‘independent of us and our representations’ as the realist imagines. They are objective insofar as they overcome the limitations of the individual enquirer’s perspective by abstracting from the subjective immediacy of ordinary sense experience. As the philosopher and physical chemist, Michael Polanyi explained, rules disregard the individual’s ‘normal approach to experience,’ so remain ‘unaffected by the state of the person accepting… [them].’ They come ‘between our senses and the things of which our senses otherwise would have gained a more immediate impression,’ so regulate the organisation and interpretation of those impressions. What is more, and in some ways more important, those rules are open to evaluation by all those qualified and equipped to do so: viz., the community of enquirers. Hence, their objectivity is underwritten by universal acceptance: the acceptance of all those participating in scientific research, whatever their field [5, pp. 3–4].
To suggest, as we have done, that empiricism and metaphysical realism are incompatible may be strictly true, but it is also, in one rather limited sense, somewhat misleading. In fact, there comes a point within the rationalist’s abstract conceptualising when the opportunity arises for, not merely for compatibility, but for full-blown coincidence. This is the precise point at which realism becomes idealism and vice versa.
For realism, the point arrives when it finally acknowledges the implications of its supposedly ‘minimal dualism’: ‘how we say things are is one thing, how things
The root cause of this metaphysical mistake lies in the assumption that the neuroscientist’s models and diagrams obtain a precise correspondence with the objects modelled and diagrammatised. In representing the biochemical processes of the brain, it is supposed, the fMRI scanner supplies a literal image of, not the corollary of consciousness, but of consciousness itself. Persons, then, are at most a product of, and at least equivalent to, those biochemical processes.
The difficulties that beset such reductive conceptualising are both numerous and notorious; not least, is the tendency to eliminate the moral subject, thereby rendering the whole neuroethical debate redundant. There is little profit to be had from arguing about the moral properties and capabilities of physical processes which are incapable of choice and therefore of responsibility. Any attempt to do so can be no more than anthropomorphic projection: the imaginative conception of impersonal forces as personal ones, which are themselves, we must remember, reducible to the very forces being imaginatively conceived. The rank confusion and, indeed, circularity, entailed by such a move is, we trust, entirely obvious.
A more serious problem, however, may be that equating persons to sheer physical process threatens to eliminate the possibility of meaningful discourse. It does so because, in and of themselves, physical processes do not possess logical properties. The firing of neurones may occur or it may not, but such an event cannot be
It is worth repeating, for clarity’s sake, that it is not the reductive materialism, so called, of the neuroscientist or her
Put simply, the neuroscientist may, if she chooses, conceive of the subjects of her research in purely physical terms, but she cannot conceive herself in the same way. Deny this, and she must concede that her own descriptions of neurological phenomena and all the activities that give rise to them are themselves purely physical phenomena. As such, they must be governed by the same laws of cause and effect that govern all other physical phenomena. There can be no exceptions: the formulation of hypotheses, the devising and performing of experiments to test them, the analysing of results; the sharing of ideas: none of these events can be governed by meaning.
But that is absurd. The neuroscientist’s experiments do not occur, either by accident, or as a function of causal impacts; no more than do the institutions in which neuroscientists work. They are intended activities that some
Having styled herself, no doubt unwittingly, after Descartes’
The bridge between consciousness and the world is broken. We no longer have the means to identify other persons or even ourselves, let alone effect any kind of moral impact. The question we must face, then, is this: under such circumstances of Cartesian ego-isolation, what, in the end, is neuroethics actually
3. Empiricism, action, and presence
To answer that question, we need only return to our empirical starting point. Consciousness must be reconnected with the world; an easy task since we have, the sciences remind us, the very tools to hand. As Ludwig Feuerbach put it, ‘the necessity of this connection is only sensation’ [12, p. 52]. So saying, Feuerbach admonishes us to reject the demand for mind-independent reality and turn instead to those engaged in exploring and explaining the world, those for whom ‘[t]ruth, reality and sensation are identical’ [12, p. 51]. Only there we shall find the conditions of real knowledge. In their activities, he argued, we may plainly see that ‘[o]nly a sensuous being is a true and real being. Only through the senses and not through thought for [or in] itself is an object given in a true sense.’ Crucially, we must be as rigorous as Feuerbach in the application of this principle, so insist that ‘not only the external but also the internal, not only the flesh but also the mind, not only the object but also the ego are objects of the senses’ [12, p. 58].
That ‘sensuousness’ lays the foundations for a more cogent and, ultimately, altogether practical epistemology. At the same time, it provides the terms for constructing—or perhaps more accurately,
While it is perfectly true that, for Feuerbach as for Heidegger, ‘[t]o-be-here [
Metaphysically speaking, it follows from this that consciousness and the world are ontologically co-terminus: the two cannot be separated, are not ‘abstractable in isolation as a subject that has then to be put in relation to an object’ [13, p. 377]. Instead, Hampshire agreed, we are all of us
Otherwise put, the very possibility of self-identification depends logically on being one ‘self-moving body among other bodies’ [6, p. 46]. The ‘being’ that is
All of which means that our Feuerbachian
What we have on our hands, philosophically speaking, is a logically and ontologically primitive conception of human being as physically (and, ultimately therefore, socially) embodied. Embodiment delimits the worldly physical fact that consciousness, personality, is, so determines the self, locating it in one place
No inert substance, then, but the locus of a self-moving, self-directing agency; bodily existence is the focal point from which the impacts and interactions wherein consciousness elaborates and extemporises itself are expressed. Hence, Feuerbach’s avowal: ‘I am a real, sensuous being, and, indeed, the body in its totality is my ego, my essence itself.’ Otherwise put, the body supplies consciousness with that much-needed
If consciousness is to be sufficiently determinate to know anything or do anything, then it must, in Farrer’s phrase, be ‘perfectly embodied;’ at once, both subject and object of experience, consciousness is a feature of the world and so ‘does nothing here without the body’ [8, p. 60]. Crucially, it is this capacity for doing that supplies the ontological and epistemological foundations of a concrete— i.e. combinatorial—ego-profile. That is the ground upon which we shall build our anti-metaphysical metaphysics. Put simply, the physical extensions of consciousness supply our criterion of real being. They do so, because our first and most fundamental experiences are, as the empiricist knows full well, objects ‘of the senses, perception and feeling’ [12, p. 55]. So saying, Feuerbach would use action, more properly
In accessing our environment, so to speak, we are not simply pushing on an open door. We are not, as Farrer put it, ‘swimming in a perfectly featureless medium;’ there is no action
It follows from this that the resistance activity by which our environment is known cannot be random or arbitrary as such; otherwise our attempts to understand and ultimately control it would be fruitless. Without regularity and predictability, consciousness would have no purchase on the world. Hence, as Farrer pointed out, ‘[o]ur conscious experiences find themselves from the start framed by this system’ this regularity and predictability [1, p. 67]. Consequently, experience of resistance, and our engagement with it, take the form of systematic intercourse or controlled interference; that, in turn, supplies consciousness with ‘shape’ or ‘form’. In other words, the interplay between self-activity and resistance activity supplies what Farrer described as the ‘natural unit of thought’ [16, p. 210]. Apart, that is, ‘from my experience of impinging upon, and being impinged upon by, other things or forces, I have no conceivable clue to physical existence, or physical force, or physical interaction’ [16, p. 210]. This is Farrer’s ‘causal solution’ to the problems of realism, ‘minimal dualism’. The world, he reminds us, ‘is not known but as the playground of human thews and human thoughts; were there no free play, there would be no knowledge’ [8, p. 171]. Subject and object are therefore disclosed to one another only as agents of ‘free play’; the features or furniture that occupy our field of action alongside us ‘only become features and so perceptible in so far as they disturb and diversify the field’ [1, p. 234]. In short, the world is (recognisable as) a field of conscious activity and real knowledge is a product of our encounters in and with this field: one may come to know an object ‘only in so far as it varies the disturbances of… [one’s] field—[one] knows it as a class of disturbances.’ We encounter ‘real being’ as it exercises resistance activity; we recognise it by the ‘imprint’ it leaves on our exploratory activities.
To speak ‘objectively,’ then, the world is no more or less than the combination of forces that are continuous with our active explorations. This means that the resistance activities by which the world is known to us and the controlled interference that constitutes our knowing acts are necessarily coeval: consciousness-and-the-world—if we may reiterate a central point—are co-constructed, actualised
This takes us to the ground level of a coherent epistemology. It is also the foundation stone of our metaphysics. To explain: from all that has gone before, it follows that reality as it is known, both by ordinary agents and the most scientifically well-equipped investigators, is to be found, not in inert stuff or substance, but in dynamic process. In Farrer’s Latin phrase,
Action, disturbance-effect, is our metaphysical ultimate;
Thus, to identify what philosophers of mind used to call the ‘seat of consciousness,’ Farrer averred, we need only allow consciousness to pick its own seat by sitting in it [8, p. 24]. Do so, and we shall find that the physical ‘seat’, or more dynamically, ‘vehicle’, of consciousness is located, not in any one phase or feature of the bodily process
This is not, if we may repeat ourselves for a second time, in anyway intended to deny or even diminish the role of the brain in conscious, personal agency. Rather, it is to bestow upon the brain its rightful role and place within the larger, bodily process, which
This is true even when that vehicle does not appear to be moving very much at all. Thinking, for example, about how to frame this sentence is an action and so requires a ‘nerve-plant’ to embody it, however foreshortened the ‘plant’ may be. For thinking, Farrer, reminds us, is the ‘shadow of doing’ and so ‘must be interpreted by a full-blooded doing’ [8, p. 39]. (One suspects that this is the point where many a neuroscientist and neuroethicist commits their fatal error, mistaking this act of interpretation by means of the clue or model of bodily action for ostensive indication or direct denotative reference; and that way, as we have seen, lies metaphysical realism.) For thought apart from overt behaviour, Farrer found an interpretive key right under our noses, so to speak. ‘The best sort of characterisation of thinking is that it is a sort of talking to ourselves’ [7, 29]. The ‘shadow-patterns’ of thought follow same route as speaking, from brain to mouth, taking in lips, jaws, tongue, vocal chords and so on. But they do not get so far: the action-pattern is not fully enacted and the ‘nerve-plant’ fails to flower in ‘full-blooded doing.’ In this way, the act of thinking ‘ghosts’ the act of speaking, stops short of engaging the full physical apparatus of bone and muscle.
The risk of physical reduction here is palpable. As we trace out the route of our action plant, it ill behoves us to ignore the ontological dangers that lie in wait: the abstractions and disjunctions, the dissolution of consciousness into confusion and self-contradiction. Forewarned is forearmed, however; almost literally in this case for, as Farrer pithily put it, we ‘still have mind on our hands just as much as matter’ [8, p. 7].
In fact we have already hinted at the answer more than a little. It lies in the fundamental requirement to make sense of human action as meaningful; to recognise and understand it as governed, not by the diagrammatic laws of cause and effect, but by the rules of discourse and the conventions of the community in which we act. It lies, in short, in the logic of intending. Such logic is essentially presuppositional. It means that the very concept of action in the full and personal sense—the sense, that is, in which we experience it directly in ourselves and the other persons with whom we interact—is only complete when coupled to an intending agent: the owner of the act. In acting, the agent instantiates both the intentional and consequential motifs that make agency what it is: the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of an
Evidently, we have no wish to re-open a logical and ontological chasm so recently closed; equally, no simple reduction will do. Instead, Farrer held out for an agency ‘overplus’ or ‘prior actuality’, insisting that ‘[t]he
We are not, as all of us are no doubt aware, acting and intending in a vacuum. Action and, indeed, everything we have said about it, locates us in a physical
Put simply, acting persons aspire to a lively moral perspicuity by adopting what Charles Conti describes as a ‘metaphysical [i.e. ethically informed] vantage point’ [20, p. 185]. We seek thereby to oversee the means towards realising consequences we actually intend and so avoid colliding with other agents. We view our proceedings, then, not as a ‘Cartesian cogitator but as actor-self and monitor-self simultaneously;’ and so ‘perform our being as we experience it’ [20, p. 185]. In such performances the Cartesian
The social orientation of action coincides—and does occasionally collide—with the ‘internal’ world of conscious deliberation: ‘We sense our compresence with others, so intuit the obligation to act’ [20, p. 186]. Alive to that ‘compresence’, conscious agency is quickened by the possibilities of physical interaction, personal intercourse. That defines the obligation
Unearthing the roots of thought and action, we find that the logic of intending underwrites the concept ‘person’ as a social reality. Logic is not, however, always the most reliable guide to what does and does not exist.7 In view of our much-vaunted empiricism, something a little more concrete would, no doubt, be appreciated. After all, as Farrer reminds us, ‘[i]t is not as though we believed in our neighbour’s personality
Consciousness, then, is awakened, better still
In this way, others supply the terms and conditions of our actions and transactions, thereby staking their claim to the very self they helped create, instilling it with what Feuerbach called ‘the inner life of man’: our social self, our ‘species being’ [15, p. 2]. Like her talk, the other is internalised, metaphysically and morally incorporated into the structure of the self. This process displaces the subjectivity of the subject: its needs, activities, perspective—all felt as intrinsically, immediately present and real,
Taking this one step further, it is, perhaps, sufficiently well known that the derivation of the word ‘person’ lies in the Latin
The essence of consciousness, of ‘personhood’, is fragmentary, consolidated by these exchanged perspectives. This is a commonplace of postmodern identity theories as well as the ‘metaphysical personalism’ (as Conti’s titled his exegesis of Farrer) that we have been mapping here. The ‘unity’ we call a self is actually a function of that primary dialectic of perspectives, the love-relationships into which we are born. In this way, those who had and held us have inexorably bound themselves, their image, into our
It seems we have, at last, reached the philosophical bottom-line. These first and most fertile encounters shape the development of conscious thought and action; they are the grounds which supply form and purpose, sometimes even content, to our explorations and explanations. This is the well-spring of human being, in Martin Buber’s poignant phrase, the ‘cradle of real life’ [22, 29].
Here, then, is an opportune moment to take stock. Let us make the point of moral application plain. Immediately obvious is the absence of any ethical theory, our conception of persons as active agents offers no system or set of rules for the formulation of normative judgements. Being rooted in the personal relations wherein we all, quite literally, find ourselves, our anti-metaphysical,
Applied metaphysics may leave us without a moral theory, but it does not leave us empty-handed. Instead, it supplies the very anchor that our normative judgements demanded from the start: concrete personal connection, the embodiment of moral agency. This rebuts absolutely that Cartesian ghost in—or rather
Philosophically speaking, of course, we have found more than a moral anchor; we also have a coherent logical and ontological framework for our discourse. Personal action supplies the context in which we may clearly see both the particular and the general: first, the analyses and judgements of neuroethics; second, the discipline as a whole and all its participants. Within this framework we may recognise, then understand, and finally overcome the ‘self-sufficing speculation,’ [15, p. xxxiv] which threatens to undermine our efforts. On the one hand, we recall the personal presuppositions of our empiricism: the epistemological requirements of exploring agents that reconnect experience with action, real knowledge with the controlled interference which is the neuroscientist’s stock in trade. On the other, it reveals and resists the temptation to align methodology too closely with metaphysics. This, in turn, allows us to reconcile those binary oppositions—mind and body, intending and intended, subject and object—which do so much to incapacitate every branch of moral philosophy. Reconciliation comes, not by over-inflating empiricism with the transcendental pretensions of metaphysical realism, but by returning us to the only place where those abstract notions can possibly make sense. Mind is a mode of bodily action, body the physical manifestation of mind. Intending and intended are phases of that manifestation, conceptually separable but in reality, i.e. in action, continuous. Subjectivity is essentially other-oriented by virtue of being a reflection of the other who invokes and evokes it in us. Ethically, it denotes obligations owned: my responsibilities as presupposed and, moreover, delimited by my capacity to act in response to a physical and social or personal environment. Being a communal act, objectivity is coeval with this environment: it represents the truth-conditions and epistemic norms laid down by the community of knowing persons. Thus, subject and object are not independent as such, but theoretical perspectives, ways of seeing, of thinking about and understanding the world, the use of which is sanctioned by that community. This does not detract from their truth-value but merely reminds us of the context in which they are first negotiated and defined; that is, transacted with the world by the community of thinkers. Both ethically and epistemologically, then, these theoretical perspectives represent, in their contrasting but congruent ways, the very ‘claimingness’ of others that is our anchor.
Ultimately, then, being firmly anchored by our concept of persons to the solid, social, and inherently ethical ground that entails it, uncouples neuroethical analyses from the arbitrary dictates and philosophical fiats of classical rationalism-cum-realism. Diverted from the rabbit hole of incoherence and irrelevance, which awaits so much philosophical discourse, and possessed of a renewed social conscience, our thoughts and actions are oriented back towards the communities in which even neuroethicists must live and work. Most immediately, perhaps, is the scholarly community whose job it is to map out and delineate our discipline. Beyond that, is the academy itself, whose traditions, standards, and requirements we have imbibed, deploying them rigorously in our own practice. And if we care to look still further, beyond the halls of academe, we may even see the society whose various institutions—from the logico-linguistic to the socio-political—make our investigations possible and before which our contributions will no doubt be held to account.
- The realist is faced with, in Farrer’s words, ‘an X absolutely undefined;’ and so must answer the question, ‘How do I know that it is not the snort of a hippopotamus or the left great toe of an archangel or the taste of asparagus?’ [4, p. 88].
- See also Farrer: ‘Abuse of the analogy between sight and understanding is one of the great philosophical delusions’ [7, p. 29].
- See Robert Spaemann: ‘[t]o be ‘someone’ is not a property of a thing, whether animate or inanimate; it is not a predicate of some previously identified subject. Whatever we identify, is identified either as someone or as something from the word go’ [10, p. 237].
- This, as Farrer observed, gives rise to a whole host of curious questions, not the least of which concerns the place of the neuroscientist herself in evolutionary history. How, that is, did the neuroscientist’s own mind evolve? Since it is no longer a feature of the natural universe, neither is it subject to the requirements of ‘natural utility’ or ‘survival value’ as these terms are currently understood. According to Farrer, it seems that the neuroscientist can only consider the existence of her own mind as being some kind of ‘treat’ or gift bestowed upon her by nature. Such a supposition, however, evidently requires the kind and degree of personification of the natural world that is hardly tenable [8, p. 78].
- See also, Farrer: ‘The notion of energies in a pure or simple state, prior to mutual engagement is physical nonsense. All activity is mutual, as between energies, and all activity thus mutually engaged changes and redistributes itself’ [7, p. 82].
- I am indebted to Charles Conti for pointing out the significance of the double reference here.
- This, as J.N. Findlay reminds us, is because logic provides a guide to the use (and abuse) of language, not what does or does not exist . Cf. Waismann: [22, 23].
- ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.’
- ‘Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue!’