Sunday 22 August 2021

Back to the Future: The Cartesian Impasse, Neuroethics, and the Return of Scholastic Theory

by Denis Larrivee

Ethics is a pragmatic science. It asks questions such as ‘What should I do’ and ‘How do I know what I should do’ or even ‘Why ought I do what I should do’. It is apparent from such questions that they are dependent on their context and that addressing them is therefore shaped by an information content that affects this contextual relationship. Because these are normative questions, information reflecting on value appraisal can be expected to mould the ethical praxis these questions are intended to address.

In bioethics, and particularly in neuroethics, this information content falls outside the domain of external behaviours and is often understood to entail questions about the physical reality of or the physical effects mediated on the body. Accordingly, how we appraise value for addressing neuroethical questions is closely related to the physical and material aspects of the body; that is, a determination of bodily value is dependent upon our understanding of its physical reality. Hence, the type of information needed for shaping value originates in an appeal to a physical dimension that is constitutive of the body as a specific locus of value appraisal.

For this appeal, it is manifestly evident that the body is a contingent reality; that is, existentially, its form and operation depend on physical aspects of reality independent of itself, but which nonetheless underlie their emergence. Understanding physical contingency, therefore, is fundamental to ascertaining bodily value. This understanding is a domain that has involved a lengthy intellectual investment by science and engendered an even longer philosophical heritage in religion. The conception of contingency in both has shaped the value content that accrues to the body, affecting the ethical theory and praxis of each domain.

Neuroethics, for example, has been defined by the International Neuroethics Society as “... a field that studies the implications of neuroscience for human self-understanding, ethics, and policy.” By this definition, neuroscience lays claim to an epistemological content that guides neuroethical theory and praxis. Neuroethics considers, for example, the brain-related dimensions of normative work at the intersection of neuroscience or the medical ethics of clinical therapy. In laying claim to the epistemological content of neuroscience neuroethics thus conceives of value shaping through neuroscience’s specific capacity to address physical aspects of the neural complexity of the brain and nervous system. Because the interpretation of these findings is influenced by the manner in which physical reality is conceived, what is also implicit in recourse to such findings is the effect on value of the manner of understanding that reality    

In the epistemological claim of neuroscience, there is, for instance, a latent presupposition that neural operation is contingent on a mechanistic understanding, which identifies efficient causal relations as primary aspects of nature – here understood as meta features – that has shaped the conception of what is valued in human cognition. In adopting this presupposition – its general application generally traced to Descartes – neuroscience premises its understanding on the accumulation of facts assembled according to the empirical, hypothetico-deductive method, which is designed to identify causal relationships that ‘explain’ features of natural reality from an extrinsic causal, and which, therefore, serve to validate a mechanist contingency. Scientific facts are thus taken to be truth ‘qualifiers’, i.e., information which makes a proposition true. Truth statements in science have thereby been delimited by that which is ‘constructed’ by human beings rather than by that ‘which is’, a revised understanding of the Aristotelian correspondence notion of truth, a philosophical revision that can be traced to Giambattista Vico. Because ‘facta’ in the Viconian interpretation are conceived as elements of a whole that can be assembled by the mind, Hume regarded them as independent of a specific value content; hence, for cognition and brain operation neuroscientific ‘facts’, which specify elements or processes in the brain, lack value and it is therefore necessary to confer it in normative determinations, with accounting made for how the neuroscientific facts are used to interpret cognitive operation. Thus, neuroscientific facts isolate value from the body, brain, and processes of cognition and must be conferred from outside the body by an extrinsic construal. The adoption of the hypothetico-deductive method for interrogating the physical contingency of the body and cognition has thus served as an epistemological verification of the independence of value from cognitive neuroscience, which underwrites Hume’s fallacy principle, also designated the naturalistic fallacy or Hume’s Law.

The a-normative posture of Hume’s Law, however, which posits that values and facts are irreconcilable, poses a specific quandary for how value and physical reality are related, a relationship essential for bioethics. Because value is conferred extrinsically, its conferral is necessarily conditional, being either relative – here modulated by ‘truth qualifiers’ - or potentially arbitrary. Indeed, the need to confer value is itself indicative of an absence of intrinsic worth. Hence, there is a question of whether value can in fact be imputed to the material world, specifically to the human body and brain.

The tension introduced between the sense of an inherent value attributable to the physical reality of the body and the denial of this presence that is exemplified by Hume’s Law, has been the subject of considerable conjecture by those concerned with the implications of its absence in nature, the latter characterized by science’s understanding of  the body’s contingency on meta features of physical reality. Hans Jonas, for example, identifies in the lack of value an estrangement between man and the natural world.

There is no overlooking one cardinal difference between the gnostic and the existentialist dualism: Gnostic man is thrown into an antagonistic, anti-divine, and therefore anti-human nature, modern man into an indifferent one. Only the latter case represents the absolute vacuum, the really bottomless pit. In the gnostic conception the hostile, the demonic, is still anthropomorphic, familiar even in its foreignness, and the contrast itself gives direction to existence…Not even this antagonistic quality is granted to the indifferent nature of modern science, and from that nature no direction at all can be elicited. This makes modern nihilism infinitely more radical and more desperate than gnostic nihilism could ever be for all its panic terror of the world (Jonas 1966).

In Jonas’ view, therefore, what is specifically introduced by such value neutrality is a division between nature, conceived as that which comprises the essence of physical reality, and the individual (person), who is composed from this reality - which at its bottom reflects a carefully redacted metaphysical conception of contingency, a circumscription that has given rise to existentialist thinking and its nihilistic implications. The notion of a contingency that separates the individual, who is constituted by his body, from his worth has been of specific interest to Christian religious thinking. Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), for example, has expressed sentiments similar to those of Jonas and developed a strikingly similar line of thought.

The human family is facing the challenge of a new Manichaeism, in which body and spirit are put in radical opposition; the body does not receive life from the spirit, and the spirit does not give life to the body. Man thus ceases to live as a person and a subject. Regardless of all intentions and declarations to the contrary, he becomes merely an object. Religion, particularly the Christian religion, opposes this radical separation of the material world and the value laden world of the spirit.

By grounding value in the physical properties of the human body, Christian religion in the words of the Pope thus introduces a challenge to the widely accepted Hume fallacy principle, which separates normative praxis from an epistemological approach described by facts and their associated mechanist interpretation. Hence, Christian religion presupposes an understanding of physical contingency that is distinguished from that of neuroscience.

Nonetheless, this distinctive understanding is not predicated on a thorough dismissal of the epistemological content of neuroethics. For example, both share a common recognition of the validity of the methodological approach pursued by neuroscience in their common recognition of the causal associations endorsed by science, which underpin numerous observable phenomena. However, it is also apparent that the explanatory utility of these meta features alone - the causal modes constitutive of (neuro)scientific accounts that emerge from hypothetico-deductive, experimental reasoning - is insufficient to account for all physical phenomena. 

This insufficiency has led, for example, to the contemporary attempts in philosophy of science to fill lacunae in causality accounts with so called deductive nomological (DN) explanations, which have sought to ‘cover’ non-efficient, physical occurrences by addressing the question of why phenomena occur. The DN model holds to a view of scientific explanation whose conditions of adequacy are derivability, law-likeness, and empirical content and has, together with Hempel’s inductive statistical model constituted scientific explanation’s covering law model. Braillard (2010), for example, cites Design Principle as an a priori, formal state required for the extrinsic causal interactions within the bacterial flagellar motor to occur. 

Described by Hempel and Oppenheim (1948), these explanatory accounts reintroduce analogous Greek and Scholastic metaphysical causal accounts of form and teleology but comprise a lower level of abstraction due to their attempt to fulfill the adequacy conditions of the covering law. Broadly, these seek to account for physical phenomena precisely through the physical contingency of natural phenomena on meta features of physical reality often regarded as intrinsic or relational and that address a why interrogative as to the contingent relation, as, for example, formal and teleological causality.

The need to provide explanatory sufficiency for the occurrence of physical events is therefore indicative of a contingency relation between the events and an explanatory premise that is resident in natural reality but not accounted for by asymmetric and temporally successive, extrinsic interactions. That is, the insufficiency of the mechanistic account springs from an absence of grounding metaphysical features or regularities that undergird the physical world, as for example, a principle of individuation and/or relations between entities, which are incorporated within neo-Aristotelian metaphysical descriptions. Hence, the need to posit additional explanatory accounts implicates additional metafeatures on which the physical world is contingent.

The understanding that has evolved in Western Christianity situates physical contingency within this broader framework. In contrast to the Viconian conception of truth, which coincides with the ‘facta’ accumulated by the scientific method, physical contingency is here understood to be existentially grounded, where truth is coincident with that ‘which is’ - at times taken to approximate operational holisms - an encapsulation of the Aristotelian and Scholastic correspondence notion of truth. In the physical order this framework specifically embraces an asymmetric causal dependency that originates within the personal subject, who is regarded as occupying the apex of an ontological hierarchy emerging from meta features of reality and who comprises an explanatory locus for teleological orientation and value origin.

Conceived as a unified, i.e., holistic, self-directed, causal origin the personal subject recapitulates the radical contingency of physical reality on a personal causal origin constituted by order, rationality, and value, which is the ground of existence itself; that is, a self-contained subject, whose relations penetrate the world of physical reality, identified as God. By contrast, the mechanist understanding that has evolved in neuroscience excludes a physical contingency grounded on a metaphysics of agency that is associated with a personal causal origin. Hence, by extension, its endorsement of the Viconian factual truth notion similarly excludes a resident value in the personal subject; that is, it excludes a value intrinsicity that is constitutive of the subject who is identified with the reality of his body.

The value neutrality that characterizes scientific understanding, indeed, the precluding of an intrinsic bodily value, has notably stimulated some scientific efforts that have sought to identify supplementary metaphysical features in which to anchor the body’s value. This pursuit has chiefly emphasized a retrieval of the Kantian notion of autonomy, with its focus on a metaphysical causal origin that is sited within the subject. The intrinsicity of autonomy, for instance, has served in bioethics to anchor the rights of the subject; that is, the capacity for autonomy is currently regarded as a value content capable of grounding rights entitlement. The identification of the autonomous subject who emerges from the respective contingent metaphysical reality thus marks a common conceptual pathway for religion and science in the evolution of a theory of bodily value.

What is perhaps of interest in all of this is the reversal of endorsement lobbied for by these two traditional adversaries. In a Christian understanding bodily value originates in an appeal to the physical, that is to a contingency made apparent by the material reality of an external world. In the scientific understanding, by contrast, the reality of the physical world is minimized so as to appeal to an evanescent interior. The new endorsements, accordingly, are not only indicative of the fashionableness of intellectual trends, but of the limits of the tepid in its encounter with ‘that which is’.

Sunday 14 March 2021

From the Ereignis Center: a New Podcast!

The Ereignis Podcast 

Dear friends:

These are indeed strange and unusual times we live in. While many of our activities are curtailed Ereignis Center for Philosophy and the Arts is not succumbing to defeatism. Instead, we are launching a new initiative: the EreignisPodcast, or, simply, the ePod, a brief, monthly instalment of news and interviews from the Center.

In our first edition, Stefan Chazbijewicz brings to our attention what he refers to as a form of “chemical persuasion” inherent in the official rhetoric on the pandemic. Also in the podcast Chazbijewicz, an acclaimed director and artist, elaborates on his visual philosophy. A selection of Chazbijewicz’s artworks can be viewed in the Ereignis Gallery.

The first instalment of our podcast is available on the Ereignis YouTube and SoundCloud channels. Comments and questions are welcome: we love to hear from you!

What else is going on at the Center?

On June 11 (mark the day in your calendar) we are hosting our first conference, Being and Event, online. The event is free for the first 100 participants: sign up for a seat here. We accept submissions for papers until April 15. For more information visit our conference page.

Ereignis Center for Philosophy and the Arts is reorganising as a voluntary organisation. Get in touch for more information on how to become a member!

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Conference Announcement and Call for Papers

Ereignis Conference

Event and Becoming

The first Ereignis conference will be free for up to 100 participants. Mark the date in your calendar: 

June 11, 2021

Submission deadline: 15 April, 2021

How does the event puncture the smooth flow of becoming? And what is it like, the event in which we become ourselves?

These are among our key questions in this first, inaugural Ereignis conference, to be held online Friday, June 11, 2021. Hosted by the Ereignis Center for Philosophy and the Arts, and headlined by internationally acclaimed speakers on appropriation and becoming, this conference seeks to merge profound and innovative thought with practical approaches to becoming. How do we come into our own?

When philosophy in the 20th Century took a renewed interest in the concept of event it was with a critique of the classical notion of substance and its modern heir, subject. Accordingly, what we find is a body of thought in which the ontological affirmation of pure becoming as the ground of the genesis of objects reflects the epistemological and ethical priority of events over subjective ideas or concepts. On this basis, the conference aims to provide a platform for conversations between different figures who, each in a way, belong to this body, from Henry Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Martin Heidegger to Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Alain Badiou.

Prioritizing the event involves emphasizing existence and experience as well as Being. Here it might be relevant to cast a brief glance at Søren Kierkegaard’s concept, or rather non-concept, of mellemværende. The English translation ‘being-between’ unfortunately misses the additional connotation of the Danish word which implies accountability, or, to settle an account. This ethical demand involves the positing of the subject in a state of relationality. Existence and experience is a continuous process that precipitates the subject into a direct confrontation with reality and with others. This confrontation is on-going and cannot be resolved by thought; rather, the subject must choose her/his existence, or better the manner of her/his existence. The necessity of choice is highlighted in times of social, political and cultural crises where the deeper resources of the mind are evoked.

You are invited to participate with a paper/presentation under one of these main conference rubrics:

Being/s: We seek contributions that interrogate Being and being/s in their singularity and multitude. We are particularly interested in interventions that break open the deadlock between sacred and secular thought.

  • How is thinking about Being or being/s relevant in our time?
  • Have we lost touch with our being, or should we take up the tasks of guardians and carers for B/being?

Event/s: This conference will further a view of society, technology and personal histories that goes beyond the static and spatial. We are looking for papers that espouse the event as a moment of appropriation and becoming.

  • How do we think about events in their relation to our personal sense of being?
  • How can a thinking about events enable us to go from a static view of technology to an approach that is dynamic and freed from anthropomorphism?

Practice/s: This inaugural Ereignis conference seeks to not only prepare the ground for novel thinking about Being, being/s, and events, but also to show and experiment with formats that combine rigorous thinking with creative and interactive practice. We therefore invite talks, presentations and interactive paedagogical interventions that challenge us to rethink the format of the traditional conference paper. We invite artists, teachers and activists to experiment and engage listeners and viewers in new ways: arts presentations, scripted discussion groups, small workshops.

  • How can the thought of Ereignis, the event of becoming, enable us to find new forms of interaction set in a video conference?

The conference will be held on the Zoom videoconferencing platform, and is free of charge for up to 100 participants. Registration will be required on the platform.


We invite papers that address any of the topics and formats above. Submissions under the Being/s and Event/s headers should be structured, well-argued, and show evidence of rigorous scholarship. For the Practice/s section we seek interventions that challenge the traditional academic conference format, establish new ground, and open up for new ways of thinking and being together. Submissions should include an abstracts (max. 300 words) and a short author bio (max. 50 words), including the authors current affiliation and interest.

Send proposals/abstracts via e-mail by April 15, 2021 to We will return by the end of April with a notification on acceptance.

All presentations will be considered for publication either in a themed issue of Inscriptions or in a dedicated volume of Conference Proceeding on Tankebanen forlag.

Keynote Speakers

James Bahoh, Professor at the University of Memphis;

Jørgen Veisland, Professor at the University of Gdańsk, Poland: “The Appropriation of Being. Dismantling totalitarianism in Unto Madness, Unto Death by Kirsten Thorup”;

Mehdi Parsa, University of Bonn, Germany: “Ethics of Psychosynthesis: Desiring the Event”;

Sharif Abdunnur, Yeditepe University, Turkey: “Think existentially, act on your personal mythology: an interactive workshop.”

Yours sincerely,
Dr. Torgeir Fjeld
Editor-in-Chief, Inscriptions

Sunday 20 December 2020

Life in the Plague Times Still More IV: Personas of Pessimism and Optimism

by Simon Smith 

Looking back at what Agamben has said and what has been said here about it, there seems to be a disconnect. Things aren’t adding up. Agamben’s fears are both legitimate and reasonable and yet the reality of the situation hasn’t entirely borne them out. Perhaps his mistake was to suppose that governments still seek to control their citizens’ movements and their ability to foregather. In truth, governments are more preoccupied with The Economy[1] and rightly so, from their perspective, since economic control is all the control they need. It separates us far more effectively, by making competition our (dis)organising principle and individualism our foundational (anti)social condition. It mollifies social, political, and intellectual desire with a cornucopia of consumables, both literally and figuratively sugar-coated. It obviates our capacity to think and act humanly by entrapping us within a usurious system that forces us to service its requirements, to sustain it, rather than one another. By comparison, the idea that a government might simply stop people doing things sounds almost quaint.

This may explain the superficial similarity between Agamben’s views and those UK Tories/American Republicans who (claim to) believe that we have surrendered too much to precaution and to the virus itself. The cure, we are told by people who have access to the very best in medical care, cannot be worse than the disease. Indeed, and the fact that US infection rates appear to have topped 125,000 per day while their mortality rates are, we are told, averaging a comparatively meagre 1000 per day suggests that this is, indeed, so. Whatever the cure may be, short of complete extinction, it is unlikely to be worse than the disease.

Whilst arguments from the political right are sometimes framed in terms similar to Agamben’s, the differences are important and revealing. What is particularly evident is, as already noted, their concern for and interest in The Economy. Here, in fact, is where I find myself disagreeing, respectfully, with Agamben. For him, the problem is the sanctification of Risk and the new religion, the only ‘true religion of our time,’ that is science. He is likely correct about Risk, but not about the rest. The golden calf before which all others, even the Church, even science, must bow down is The Economy. It directs our lives, conditions our work, sets the terms of our society. It is of supreme and absolute importance and we must be prepared to make every sacrifice to sustain it. That those who are sacrificed are always the most vulnerable, often Black, Asian, and other ethnic communities, is unfortunate but apparently unavoidable. That, it seems, is the great god of Europe and America, that and no other.

The situation is not new. We in the west have never really cared very much about those who had to suffer that we might buy. Way, way back in the ancient days of the 1990s, Peter Singer was calling our attention to WHO statistics showing that 75% of the world’s food resources are consumed by the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population, while the poorest 20% receive just 15% of those resources.[2] Things have changed very little since then. It’s just that, whereas those who are suffering have traditionally been very far away, and therefore easier to ignore, they are now far, far closer. Right on our own doorstep, in fact.

That said, I am not as pessimistic as Agamben, either about covid-present or covid-future. Gloomy, perhaps, but not pessimistic. This is because I am convinced, for reasons philosophical and historical, that it is perfectly possible for people to transcend their circumstances and themselves. We are capable of being better than we are, of recognising the ways in which our actions affect one another, of caring about those affects, and of doing something about it. Human beings are also capable of changing the world for the better. It’s been done before. This capacity for transcendence is what it means to be human. We become ourselves by overcoming ourselves, to coin a phrase. So much, both Farrer and Feuerbach, among others, tell us.

And in case anyone is wondering, self-overcoming or self-transcendence is entirely compatible with Camus views on the Sisyphean nature of existence. To face the absurdity of the universe, to live cheerfully on the edge of the precipice, does not entail nor even tend to suggest that we must surrender our becoming to mere being. Indeed, acceptance of the truth is an essential component of transcendence; how can I strive for better if I do not clearly and honestly recognise the reality of myself and my situation?

In sum, I cannot agree with Agamben that ‘the threshold that separates humanity from barbarism has been crossed.’ The threshold that separates humanity from arseholery has been crossed and re-crossed many times. Indeed, it seems that some people are enthusiastically trying to eradicate that line altogether. It’s called ‘history.’ But humanity is alive and relatively well in the real world, beyond computer screens and quiet, bookish rooms. Human contact is surviving too, though at a distance, obviously; being mostly masked, humanity goes back to its Latin roots, personalising itself with an exaggerated persona.[3] We do what we must to make ourselves understood, to be our understanding selves. More importantly, perhaps, anyone who ventures outside quickly finds themselves paying more attention, looking harder at people, making, in short, more effort to interact. What’s more, it seems we may not be as afraid of others as Agamben supposes. The consensus appears to have coalesced around the idea that wearing a facemask does not protect the wearer per se, it protects others from any infection he or she may be carrying. And if we both wear masks, as many people are willing to do, we protect one another. Not afraid of others, then; afraid for them.

Perhaps such a sunny view of human nature is not to everyone’s taste. Bringing all this to some sort of conclusion, then, one last point. I have, as I say, some sympathy for both Agamben and his critics in all this. It is important to keep in mind that these are strange days indeed. Reading Agamben’s essays, both in Inscriptions and the EJP, it seems clear that he is not enjoining us to rush into the street, there to cough into one another’s faces. However, he is, I think, pointing out some things that ought to genuinely concern if not appal us, perhaps even more than the rampant spread of this plague. Leaving aside the socio-political dangers and the dangers of isolation and separation, we should be horrified that people have been left to die alone in the midst of all this; we should be horrified to learn that our most ancient duties and obligations, those which stand at the very foundation of our distinctly human existence, have been compromised, even abandoned, that ‘cadavers should be burned without a funeral.’ The dead are dead, but we are not, not yet; and Agamben is correct to see this as a sign of barbarism, of inhumanity. We might also point to the hoarding of food and other essentials, the mindless manufacturing of shortages in a crisis, both by those who enthusiastically stampeded into it and those who profited from it. Could we, as a society, as a species, have behaved more shamefully or more foolishly? Almost certainly, ‘yes’; and no doubt we will, given time. Can we, will we, behave better? I should think so, given time.

[1] A reified construction that has become so familiar that we frequently forget how little it really means: people buying things they don’t really need in order to ensure that more things no one really needs can be manufactured from the resources of far poorer countries populated by far poorer people for whom ‘the economy,’ if it means anything at all, means ‘getting enough money to buy food.’

[2] Peter Singer Practical Ethics, (Cambridge: CUP, 1993), 220.

[3] Because the Latin root of ‘person’ is ‘persona’, which means ‘mask’, geddit?.