Sunday, 29 September 2019

Mechanical Man: An Introduction

by Denis Larrivee

In 1748 Julian de la Mettrie published his best known philosophical work, L’Homme Machine, Man a Machine. Often thought to conceptualize the antithesis of a human anthropology, de la Mettrie’s mechanistic and materialistic conception of human nature drew inferences from medical observations he had made on bodily influences over mental processes during illnesses. As a foreshadowing, de la Mettrie’s ‘anti-human’ anthropology resonates today in an empirical era that in recent decades has seen an explosion of knowledge about neural processes. Its modern resonance does not reflect today’s acceptance of his empirical inferences, however, but rather the adoption of a similar philosophical and metaphysical framework that de la Mettries was himself heir to in his youthful education, which had sparked the empirical and later positivistic approaches to scientific investigation of the material world in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, that of an Englishman, Roger Bacon and another Frenchman, Rene Descartes.
Their legacy bequeathed to de la Mettrie a profound and intended division of what was formerly an intended synthesis of explananda for material reality. Roger Bacon’s selection of a posteriori, efficient causal influences for the primary domain of natural investigation and his relegation of form to an immutable, metaphysical Magic launched an empiricist revolution that virtually eliminated the role of a priori explananda from interpretive significance. Epistemologically, the scientific method structured its interpretive conclusions by limiting to experimental design the a posteriori presuppositions latent in its investigative approach. Restricted by design, a posteriori efficient causal influences were no longer invoked as complementary explananda for extrinsic interactions between category entities, but were instead used to explain the categories themselves (i.e., categories were no longer sui generis). In a modern setting, the well-known physicist Steven Weinberg epitomizes this reductive approach to ever regressing material reality. This may be contrasted with physicist and Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin’s synthetic approach to metaphysical form. Importantly, it removed a whole domain of explananda for interactions not included in contiguous, extrinsic relations, which were defined by a priori, autonomously oriented undertakings and were propertied features of a unique class of material entities, living organisms.

Confined to an a posteriori, explanatory domain de la Mettrie evolved the propertied features of his mechanistic anthropology: 1) compositional/reductive, 2) mechanistic/functional, and, later, 3) deterministic, thereby eliminating as a property, autonomously pursued options. The adoption of this property trio thus advanced the antithesis to the three property states traditionally accorded to human nature: a) the loss of its unity, that is, as a holism, entity, or single substance, b) the loss of self, that is, as a center of action origin, and c) the loss of freedom, that is, as in the undertaking of action, here understood the implementation of agency, subject to rational decision making. Accordingly, it eviscerated the notion of human nature as individuated, self present, and self-determined.
As appropriated in the modern era, and amplified by post Cartesian Idealist luminaries like Locke and Kant, the Bacon/Descartes empiricist legacy is often indiscriminately invoked in neuroscience across a cognitive hierarchy. Their interpretive conclusions yield comparable anthropological inferences to those of de la Mettrie, like Metzinger’s Ego Tunnel and Wegner’s causal closure used to argue for determinist behavior. The indiscriminate and exclusive application of a posteriori explananda, however, is increasingly irreconcilable with global neuroscientific phenomena that appear to be structured a priori as a dynamic outcome of autonomous pursuits.
I will argue this last argument by comparing neuroscientific findings, which have been used to underwrite de la Mettrie’s mechanical man at the levels of unity, action source, and action selection, with those that provide for an opening to a more human anthropology as revealed by neuroscience in a priori explananda entailing the dynamic configuring of the human being as a locus of action.  This argument will not be taken up here, however, but will follow with installments contrasting the purposed charges usually devoted to burnishing today's mechanical man versus the epistemological rags often accorded to his countrified human cousin.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Publication Announcement: more neuroethics than you can shake a brain at!

Philosophical Neuroethics: A Personalist Approach
Volume 1: Foundations
by James Beauregard

Neuroethics is a theoretical and practical discipline that considers the many ethical issues that arise in neuroscience. From its inception, the field has sought to develop an ethical vision from within the confines of science, a task that is both misguided and, in the end, impossible. Providing a solid theoretical foundation for neuroethics means looking to other sources, most specifically to philosophy. In this groundbreaking work, the author examines the current underpinnings of neuroethical thinking and finds them inadequate to the task of neuroethics – to think ethically about persons, technology and society. 

Grounded in the physicalist and deterministic presuppositions of contemporary science, and drawing on utilitarian thought, neuroethics as currently conceived lacks the ability to develop a robust and adequate notion of persons and of ethics. Philosophical Neuroethics examines the historical reasons for this state of affairs, for the purpose of proposing a more viable alternative – drawing on the tradition of personalism for a more adequate metaphysical, epistemological, anthropological and ethical vision of the human person and of ethics that can serve as a solid foundation for the theory and practice of neuroethical decision making as it touches on the neurologic and psychiatric care of individuals, our philosophy of technology and the social implications of neuroscience that touch on public policy, neurotechnology, the justice system and the military.
Drawing on the personalist philosophical tradition that emerged in the twentieth century in the works of Mounier, Maritain, Guardini, Wojtyla, and the Modern Ontological Personalism of Juan Manuel Burgos, Philosophical Neuroethics brings to light the limitations of contemporary neuroethical thinking and sets forth a comprehensive vision of the human person capable of interacting with the contemporary questions raised by neuroscience and technology.

Available from

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Publication Announcement: A Ne(uroEthics)w Book is Born!

 And I’m very pleased to say, it’s Open Access!

Neuroethics in Principle and Praxis
Edited by the one and only Denis Larrivee

With the conclusion of the Decade of the Brain and Decade of the Mind, neuroscience has advanced well beyond single neuron functions, and begun to investigate global properties that emerge from central nervous system operation. Core ethical issues for neural intervention, in consequence, now touch on concerns over how the individual as a whole may be affected. Central to these concerns is the fundamental value of the human being, which lends normative weight to questions, interventions, and practices influencing him or her. Yet, despite wide recognition of the crucial relevance of human value, the derivation of metaethical principles that underwrite this value is by no means uniformly agreed to. Why and how the human being is normatively privileged, accordingly, emerge as core questions that frame issues of ethical praxis. This book tackles this dissonance, and exposes the philosophical foundations that are rooting contemporary divisions in ethical approaches to intervention in the nervous system.

Download or order your hardcopy from

Or Tomorrow!

Sunday, 8 September 2019

2nd CFP: Inscriptions Vol. 3, No. 1

Mediatisation and Rivalry

Inscriptions, an international, peer-reviewed journal of contemporary thinking on philosophy, psychoanalysis and the arts, invites contributions to our upcoming issue Outsourced! Mediatisation and rivalry. We are particularly interested in texts that engage notions such as mediation/mediatisation, interpassivity, and mimetic rivalry, and/or further the thought of Slavoj Žižek, Wolfgang Schirmacher, and Rene Girard.
Please note that we are always open to well-crafted and skillfully written scholarly essays (1,500 to 3,000 words), interviews, reviews, short interventions, and opinion pieces that are topical to our mandate ( Prospective authors are encouraged to submit proposals for review prior to their writing/submitting entire full-length manuscripts. Include title, proposal (150 words), short biography, and institutional affiliation in your preliminary submission. All academic essays undergo double-blind peer review.

Deadline for proposals: September 15, 2019. CfP and submission instructions: 

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

Sunday, 1 September 2019

In the Sphere of the Personal: Foreword by Thomas O. Buford

The late and very much lamented Tom Buford, a good friend and a great philosopher, kindly wrote this Foreword for the collection In the Sphere of the Personal: New Perspectives in the Philosophy of Persons, which James Beauregard and I edited back in 2016. 


Personalism has deep roots both in India and in the Western world. In the West its roots lie in the theological controversies in Christianity. There the word ‘person’ came into use when speaking of the three persons of the Trinity. Soon it was used when speaking of individual humans created by God and, bearing God's image, acquiring a dignity not possessed by any other creature. As thought continued and Western science developed, the theological understanding of nature and persons was deeply undercut. It was in this context that Personalism formed to combat what became known as Impersonalism. The latter presented itself in two forms, a substructure such as materialism, as in the hands of Samuel Alexander, or a superstructure, such as Absolute Being or God whose nature manifests itself in all found within it and to which all else, including persons, is subordinated. Spinoza’s thought is a case in point. Over a period of time, grand metaphysical systems lost their appeal, and philosophers became influenced by scientific developments in brain sciences and mental health, in language studies, and political developments that subordinate persons and their freedom to the state, as in totalitarian systems. Such developments also called for rethinking the nature of the person.

Since the formation of the International Forum on Persons, philosophers have presented a plethora of papers, whose central focus has been to defeat Impersonalism in all its forms, and to gain a clearer understanding of persons. Those papers have come from many fields of study, including Philosophy, Political Science, Linguistics, Psychology, and Physics. In this book, we find a wide range of topics, similar to previous meetings of the International Forum. Occasionally, a paper appears that attempts a new formulation of a classic aspect of Personalism. Such a case is Burgos’ search for a full epistemology, which he believes has not been done by Personalists in any thoroughgoing manner. He references Borden Parker Bowne’s Personalism and ignores A Theory of Thought and Knowledge, which is a full account of Personalist epistemology, deeply influenced by Kant. Burgos, on the other hand, is building within Thomism and ultimately Aristotle. From that perspective, he provides a new formulation and is to be congratulated. Regarding a new formulation of persons, Richard Prust continues to develop a theory rooted in resolve. Thus, making an original contribution. These strengths are offset by the omission of transhumanism, and global bioethics. Obviously, no conference can cover all topics, and we can hope that in future conferences, many more of significant contemporary importance will be addressed.