Thursday, 28 June 2018

To Walk a Narrow Path: Notes on a Metaphysic of the Social Self

by Simon Smith

Conceived as a social reality, the self is a powerful philosophical tool. Understand the relation between self and other and we understand the nature of personhood. Understand that, and we have the antidote to many of the debilitating dualisms from which western thought has constructed itself. Antiquated oppositions – mind and body, subject and object, transcendence and immanence – may be realigned within a framework in which self and other are intimately reconnected. In order to deliver this antidote, however, the social self must walk a narrow path, one bordered on either side by those very oppositions and the ever-present threat of reduction to one or the other.
On one side, it seems, lies the lure of sociality itself. Too far in that direction and the self is lost amid the flux and flow of interpersonalities. That was Levinas’ famous challenge to Buber’s primal connection, succinctly expressed in the primary word I-Thou. The sheer ‘inclusivity’ of this, Levinas argued, fatally undermines the ontological security of both self and other, so defeats the possibility of real relation: without relata, there can be no relation; and without relation, the essence of personhood itself, morality, must be abandoned. The net result is liable to be some kind of behaviourism, or functionalism as it has become. We are, as Sartre saw, what we do, no more. Concede as much, however, and empirical thinkers will not be long in pressing home their advantage: materialist reduction awaits. With morality gone and nothing to account for but flux and flow, why speak of persons at all? Why speak in fact, of anything but the colliding forces that make up the physical universe?
So much for sociality. Of course, the other side of the path offers no better prospect. Step that way and we are on the road to retreat, back to ontological priority and Cartesian ego-isolationism. One might suppose that, since the laying of Descartes’ machine-dwelling ghost last century, there would be little threat from that quarter. The spirit of radical subjectivity is a restless one, however. Not only does it haunt every kind of realism, as the likes of Peter Byrne and William Alston have unwittingly made clear, it also finds new votaries among trans- and posthumanists – Oxford’s Nick Bostrom, for example – and neuroethicists. Even the most dedicated scholars of personhood, such as the noted Personalist, Juan Manuel Burgos, cannot escape its influence. Burgos’ Modern Ontological Personalism seeks to explicate the self in all its richness and complexity; but still it remains in thrall to the self-in-itself.
Evidently, what is needed here, if we are to keep our concept of persons on the straight and narrow, is a radical re-think of the terms in which philosophical anthropology may be conducted. For this, we turn to two thinkers not commonly associated: Austin Farrer and Ludwig Feuerbach. Serving the more facile needs of empiricists and realists, popular opinion of Farrer and Feuerbach has tended towards misconstruction and the rationalist’s propensity for all-too-easy pigeonholing. Thus, the former is usually designated a merely traditional thinker, an orthodox Anglican apologist; the latter meanwhile is a merely transitional figure, frequently sidelined in favour of more familiar purveyors of the hermeneutics of suspicion. Popular opinion is, of course, entirely wrong.
In fact, Farrer and Feuerbach had more in common than many commentators realise. Crucially, for our purposes, what they had in common was a visionary concept of the self, one that remains in the vanguard of philosophy and theology.
The key to this visionary concept is action; action in the full and proper sense, that is: action as essentially personal; acts owned and authored; acts intended, deliberately executed; acts that body forth those intentions and deliberations, that embody meaning.  Such acts are, indeed, the primary manifestation of personhood. For action is ontologically basic; in Farrer’s Latin phrase, esse est operari: to be is to act, better still, to interact. Further, that locates the self in a world of objects and, most importantly, others; for action is inherently correlative: it requires at least two interagents.
Therein lies the vital clue, not only to what it means to be a person, but to how I become one. Personal action co-opts both self and other in the process of mutual self-construction. In short, personhood is interconstitutive, fully participative: personhood is creative participation in the becoming of another.
Just as it reconnects us, one to another, so personal action also supplies a much-coveted identity criterion. It preserves the self from dissolution, not by capitulating to demands for the prefabricated priority of a self in se, but simply by commissioning each of us as the agent of our own acts. Nota bene, the inference from intended act back to intending agent cannot be made logically ‘watertight’. Rather, it is presuppositional, supplies, that is, not necessary but adequate conditions for making sense of acts as intended, as meaningful.
Fully qualified (in every sense) by the logic of intending, personal action also carries the first condition of knowledge: concrete connection. Reconnecting knowing subjects with objects known overcomes the substantival disjunct at the heart of rationalist thought.  In so doing, it converts empiricist demands for evidence into a pragmatic principle: reality known by the experiencable difference it makes to those who know it. Deny this and every act of explanation, including the one in which we are here engaged, is logically forfeit.
Ultimately, as both Farrer and Feuerbach show, realigning philosophy’s founding dualisms – subject/object, self/other – within a framework of personal action and explanation destabilises the classical metaphysics of the self. In its place, we find a new kind of metaphysics, an anti-metaphysical metaphysics which establishes persons and person-concepts as the logical, ontological, and epistemological bottom line, the key to measuring reality.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Normal service will be resumed in: 5 – 4 – 3 – 2…

by Simon Smith
Salutations, dear reader. Salutations and sincerest apologies for the lengthy break in service here at the British Personalist Forum blog. I can only imagine how empty your lives must have seemed without us; how dismal, how gloomy, how very like the cold embrace of eternity.
There is no despair so absolute as that which comes with the first moments of our first great sorrow, when we have not yet known what it is to have suffered and be healed, to have despaired and recovered hope.[1]
Such is life without us, I know.

Just in case anyone, anyone at all, was wondering, the reason for “radio silence” was an affliction common to those of my accursed race. I’ve been doing it non-stop for the last month. Marking exam scripts, I mean. Let joy be unconfined! Very nearly. It was a long and difficult road, but I, along with my fellow examiners, I trod it and finally reached our destination: the pay cheque at the end.

Believe it or not, marking philosophy exams is not the most exciting way to spend a month, but it is not without its interest. This year, for example, one of my examiners demonstrated a deal of self-knowledge. It’s a surprisingly rare commodity among the honourable fraternity of philosophers, especially given its supposedly foundational place in all our thought and work. There is one, however, one thinker out there who took the Delphic Oracle to heart: Gnothi Seauton, oh yes indeed.
Further interest was aroused, for me at least, by the simple act of spending time with some of the classic in philosophy, or at least the SparkNotes inspired versions of them best known to the poor creatures being examined. The warm afternoons drag on interminably and my eyes inevitably begin to burn and blur from roaming the indecipherable hieroglyphs which pass for handwriting, so my thoughts turn to the authors whose ideas are being mangled.
I am reminded of what a tremendously boring old bugger John Stuart Mill is and how dismal his attempts to reconcile individualism with utilitarianism really are. It occurs to me also that these discussions of free speech and such like, scratched out by panic-stricken students desperately honking down everything they can possibly remember about On Liberty, are as sophisticated as any I’ve heard in the media for ages. This is slightly depressing. And then I come across a student which observes – I’m paraphrasing here – that dear old J.S. may well have been entirely correct in his assertion of the inviolability of free speech; but he failed to notice that this right does not entail an obligation in others to listen to what is being said.
Naked bigotry is far and away preferably to bigotry which garbs itself in moral and political populism; but I don’t know if any of us want to actually see the Nick Griffins of this world in the nude.
I feel a little bit sick now.
With that, rather revolting, thought in mind, it is no surprise that we come next upon Plato and his pals sitting around with their ancient Greek junk hanging out: that’s how philosophy is meant to be done.
Should philosophers be kings? Not unless they put some underwear on, no. And should they do so, not the philosophers I know. Even those who aren’t dipsomaniacs and predatory sex-pests are decidedly not the kind of people you would want in charge of your polis.
Then, of course, there’s the critique of various political systems including, most pertinently, the democratic model. Plato feared that democracy would end up being a competition among interests so vested that, they would spend all their time in the back garden, drinking lager, and throwing shrimp on the barbie, if I may quote the great Australian philosopher, Paul Hogan. Cobber. That’s to say, in a democracy, the power-hungry will say and do whatever they have to in order to get what they want and then, once they’re elected, they can say and do whatever they please. The end result, Plato argued, would be tyranny.
Of course, nothing like that could ever really happen. Silly old Plato.
My favourite scripts – in a Stockholm Syndrome kind of way – are the ones which have opted to answer the questions on Nietzsche. The set text is On the Genealogy of Morality, a difficult work at the best of time. Given how difficult, I’m always a little bit tempted to award the students extra marks just for having a go. Not that I do, obviously and in case anyone is actually reading this. Nevertheless, Nietzsche is hard work and can be very confusing, especially for young minds which are coming up against him for the first time. The students struggle, naturally, but many of them do their best to explain ideas which, in essence, run counter to just about everything they’ve been told by parents, teachers, and any other authority figure whose paths they may have crossed. Every now and then, however, I’ll come across one who, whether by accident or design, has manage to hit on the point, more or less, and that’s always reassuring. 
For me, though, it’s a chance to remember how much I basically agree with our pal Freddy. Wilfully oversimplifying the whole thing, I should say there are basically four key ideas in the Genealogy.
1. Human beings, which is to say persons, are fundamentally social creatures.
We are who we are in relation to others and who we are is dependent upon them. Sometimes these relationships are constructive and creative, sometimes they are hostile and destructive. We all know where Nietzsche put the emphasis, but in either case those relations are the essence of our humanity or lack thereof.
2. Who and what we are depends to a considerable degree on our mythologies, on the stories we tell about who we are.
Myths about good and bad, myths about where we come from and where we’re going, myths about what it all means and, perhaps most importantly, the wellspring of our humanity; all vital things these.
3. Morality is the essence our humanity or “personhood”. We only become human when moral thinking sets foot on the stage. I would add religion in here too, but morality will suffice for the time being.
Morality (and religion) is the internalising of the other: their appropriation of us and ours of them; it’s inception of the inner life of persons (which I think was Feuerbach’s phrase, more or less) and so the birth of our humanity.
4. Humanity, “personhood”, is essentially aspirational, upwardly oriented, self-transcending and whatnot.
Up we go, towards a higher archetype, an analogy for our better selves, the mirror of our hearts: messiah, superman, or post-human, AI-enhanced, super-cyborg, it all comes to the same thing.

That’s an awful lot of essences, I know, but in reality they all come together into one because myth, morality, and self-transcendence are all functions or extensions of an essentially social self. 

Obviously, Nietzsche took a rather dim view of all this and I can’t really blame him, given the state our species has got itself into. And things seem to have got considerably worse since the Genealogy was published in 1887. It is, perhaps, not a great surprise to find Nietzsche railing against the emergence of the human conscience. Given everything that conscience has achieved during the 20th Century and is still achieving now, it’s difficult not to be just the tiniest bit pessimistic about our species. Yes, it’s no wonder really that Nietzsche was
5. Not, as the saying goes, a happy bunny.

Still, at least the marking is finished for another year. 

[1] George Eliot, Adam Bede. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1997.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

An open invitation to contribute to a new book

Dear Professor,
As editor, I am excited to announce the recently commissioned undertaking by InTech Publishing, London, of a new neuro(bio)ethics text themed to a holistic and human perspective, one that promises to be pragmatically useful for the engineering and medical arts.
Neuroethics, clearly, has assumed considerable significance in light of the great strides made in the neurosciences, now reflected in major continental investments in neuroscience made in Europe (The Human Brain Project), America (The BRAIN Initiative) and Asia. With this increasing knowledge there is a growing capacity for intervention in the nervous system, which is evidenced in the many neurotechnologies that can be applied medically or for neuromodulatory purposes; hence, the need for ethical deliberation. 
Much of the current debate has centered on the possibility of harming or modulating human faculties, like autonomous behavior and personal identity; however, determining their physical correlates, that is, how the brain is affected, has been complicated by its great complexity and an empirical approach that has deemphasized a more integrative philosophy of science understanding of its operation. Accordingly, the physical and integrative dimension of intervention has been inferenced only in passing, with current medical and neurotechnological interventions left to arbitrary judgment on their normative outcomes.
On the other hand, there is a growing awareness that organismal and integral, global properties of the brain and body are central contributors in shaping the neural architecture. Psychiatric and degenerative diseases like schizophrenia and alzheimers dementia, for example, appear to be linked to impairments of these global attributes. For this reason I believe that a new approach to configuring the intellectual discourse on neuroethics is both needed and possible, one that will frame it through a synthesis of philosophy of organismal biology, neuroscience, and the respective medical and neurotechnological disciplines. This is reflected in the book's title: Neurobioethics: Bridging Biological Philosophy, Neurotechnology, and Medical Ethics. This theme offers not only a fresh and novel perspective, but one that can also assist in unifying debate anthropologically, while having pragmatic implications medically and technologically.
The book's theme is developed in topical sections that consider such principal organismal attributes with counterparts in human behavior as identity and cognition, organismal unity, autonomy, awareness and responsivity, and social and communicative dimensions. An additional section considers the brain's dynamic systemic (global) operation, that may be impacted during intervention, as appears to happen in epilepsy.
Invitations are broadly solicited from neuro(bio)ethics, neuroscience and global state interactions, neurology and psychiatric diseases, philosophy of biology and mind, and medical and neurotechnologies, with an emphasis on synthetic considerations of one or more topical themes. Registration can be made online at: 
via proposal submission. Kindly distribute to interested scholars.
Book timelines are intended for scheduling purposes.

Denis Larrivee, PhD
Academic Editor
Editorial Board, Neurology and Neurological Sciences Online (USA)
Editorial Board, EC Neurology, London
International Association Catholic Bioethicists
International Neuroethics Society
Loyola University Chicago
Mind and Brain Institute, University of Navarra, Spain

Sunday, 3 June 2018

CFP: Invitation to Contributors for New Book on Neurobioethics

Neurobioethics - Bridging Biological Philosophy, Neurotechnology, and Medical Ethics

Academic Editor
Denis Larrivee

Advances in the neurosciences, following on the Decade of the Brain and the recently ended Decade of the Mind, reflect not merely the pace and evolution of neuroscientific understanding, but, critically, an ascending mastery over neural intervention, with its twin prospects for therapy or neuromodulation. Neurotechnologies, for example, from nanofabrication to interfacial communication, continue to rapidly evolve; yet, medical insights from mental and degenerative diseases illustrate the brain's susceptibility to intrusion revealing the crucial need for ethical evaluation. Normative conclusions attendant on this potential traditionally spring from the value attributed to human anthropology, which then privileges the neural form. The complexity of the nervous system, however, continues to cloud the search for neural correlates of human behavior. Fortunately, synergies among biological philosophy, neuroscience, and medical etiology increasingly reveal that global and organismal properties are crucial to eliciting neural form, like the assimilation of topographical mapping to satisfy the organismal need for self identity; hence, the significant question for neuroethics is not how anthropology is shaped by biology, but how organismal requirements mold the biology that is expressed through human behavior. The book aims a fruitful, and heretofore unexplored, approach to framing the physical parameters needed to ethically evaluate neurotechnological and medical intervention in human cognition. 

Book Topics
Topic 1: Identity and Cognition
Keywords: Deep brain stimulation, Machine-human prostheses, Embedded diagnostics, Schizophrenia, Personal identity, 3-dimensional body image, Anthropomorphism, Robotics

Topic 2: Organismal Unity and Cognition
Keywords: Brain computer interfacing, Motor planning, Motor image, Parkinson’s disease, Embodied, Perception action coupling

Topic 3: Autonomy and Protagonist Representation
Keywords: Closed loop feedback, Neuroaddictive technology, Executive circuits, Comparator model

Topic 4: Awareness and Responsivity
Keywords: Memory therapeutics, Mental decoding, Sensory enhancement, Machine human intelligence, Alzheimer’s, Consciousness diseases, Global workspace model, Classification technology

Topic 5: Social and Communicative
Keywords: Virtual reality, Social networks, Autism, 2 body neuroscience, Mirror neurons, Neuroscience of morality

Topic 6: System and Global State Interactions
Keywords: Electrotherapy, Animal modeling, Epilepsy, Criticality, Global brain dynamics, Distributed cognition

Please follow this link to find all needed information about this book project: