by James Beauregard
In the previous blog I considered neuroethics from the perspective of its world view, which is drawn ultimately from the worldview of the hard sciences. The metaphysics and epistemology of science, however, cannot account for the presence and practice of neuroethics. If I am right, and this is in fact the theoretical foundation of the current worldview of neuroethics, which is itself a subset of the worldview of neuroscience more broadly of the regional ontology science, there are further implications, then all knowledge sought by neuroethics must be sought within the physicalist paradigm of empiricism. All human activity must then be conceived within a philosophical anthropology that is physically and biologically determined. Next, we run into a problem with language; metaphor, the warp and woof of human communication, cannot exist either.
Communication between human beings becomes difficult to envisage since it must be described exclusively in terms of biological processes. At most, an assertion of degree zero rhetoric can be made, a bare-bones use of language in its most literal and closed. At the same time, the very assertion of a concept cannot be accounted for in a strictly held regional ontology of science that is physicalist in nature, an ontology that has no place for ideas, models, or even the notion of “notions.” In such a regional ontology, there is no way to account for or even to recognize our use of metaphor, imagery, abstraction, of models and images, since these require creativity, choice and ingenuity that cannot be accounted for in any physicalist or biological paradigm. This leaves us trapped in a vicious circle in which we cannot account for the fact that we are accounting for something. If we take this position seriously, then we are also forced to acknowledge such things as the history of music, attendance at musical performances, the visual arts conserved displayed so many museums, our rich histories of literature across cultures, the technologies that pervade our daily lives, and our very ability to choose to act either straightforwardly physically determined or are biological and evolutionary necessities.
Finally, there has been a shadow text operative inwhat I have been writing here. It is that of John Macmurray’s historical/conceptual Fields, the conceptual architectures that he created to characterise the history of science and philosophy. As he described it, in the Field of the Mechanical matter used as its organising concept - universe composed of matter operating in a cause and effect paradigm. The methodology of this Field was empirical and mathematical, exemplified by the science of physics. The Field operates within a cause-and-effect paradigm of matter in motion and is ultimately impersonal. Historically, the next Field to develop was the Field of the Organic or biological, a conceptual architecture which organised our understanding not around matter but around the notion of biological organisms. Here, human beings are conceptualised as organisms and biology in all its manifestations superseded physics as the reigning science. The cause-and-effect paradigm physics gave way to the stimulus- response model of activity and adaptation to environment, a vision that is also essentially impersonal in nature, a vision and ultimately reducible to physics.
If we conceive of neuroethics theoretically within this broad historical paradigm, and it is my argument that this is in fact what has happened, then to follow this theoretical vision to its logical conclusion means that neuroethics is not within the realm of possibility. Matter and organism do not yield ethics of any kind.
The ongoing contradiction: neuroethics exists, is practiced, has a steadily growing literature, and has had an important impact on both neuroscientific and healthcare theory and practice. How are we to account for this? A necessary first step is to recognize that neuroethics, as it is actually conceived of, theorized about and practiced, happens outside of the regional ontology of science, and outside of the strict limitations of degree zero rhetoric, and not in John Macmurray’s two conceptual fields of the Material and the Organic. It becomes necessary, to bring theory into alignment with practice and with experience, and this is a task I want to suggest cannot be done within theoretical limits of neuroethics as it currently exists.
 Also, the fact that this is happening outside the Fields of the Mechanical and the Organic indicates that there is, in fact, an outside, that there is something going on beyond the disciplinary boundaries of the regional ontology of science, suggesting that the regional ontology of science doesn’t capture everything about what is. In this case, that something is philosophy, an activity of the Field of the Personal.