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’.

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