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Is There More to Neuroexistentialism?

February 24, 2019

Professors Owen Flanagan (Duke University) and Gregg D. Caruso (SUNY Corning) penned an essay called Neuroexistentialism in The Philosophers’ Magazine. It briefly describes the project behind their recent book Neuroexistentialism: Meaning, Morals, and Purpose in the Age of Neuroscience from Oxford University Press. I haven’t yet read the book. But, having read the essay, I’m looking forward to seeing if the book offers other approaches to understanding meaning, morals and purpose than those alluded to in the essay. In the essay, Flanagan and Caruso seem to seek meaning in a trick box within which meaning would prove illusory.

There are two sides to this trick box. On one side of the trick box the search for meaning is trapped between the objective, observable – the work of scientific consensus and the sense making activity of meaning formation within single subjects.

To clarify, the neuroscientific approach, upon which we understand ourselves as 100 percent animal, to quote the essay, is a data driven approach. It is based on empirical, reproducible observations ostensibly free from subjectivity. Any observer of the data would come to the same conclusions.

Phenomenological investigations into meaning, upon which the essay seems to draw, stem from an analysis of the cogito or pre-reflective cogito. We see its appearance in Descartes through Sartre, both cited in the article. Phenomenological investigations place the creation of meaning within the subject.

We are thus trapped between two methodological approaches for conferring meaning on experience.

The other side of the trick box grows from the trouble with meaning. It is unclear, from a scientific perspective, why meaning is necessary. Proposing it as a fundamental, existential need is a statement of a subjective state. There are numerous examples of people who live without meaning or, at least, without meaning in the deep, existential sense to which it feels the authors of the essay allude.

Further, we can just as easily propose that meaning, in itself, is a memetic trick. It furthers the longevity and reproduction of ideas or sense patterns which have adopted ‘the meaning trick’ as a component. Evidence for this proposition is nearly tautological. However, it seems just as plausible, and potentially more satisfying to a data driven mind, as positing meaning as an existential need of the human condition.

We are here trapped in the definition of meaning. Though, that sounds like may well be a question the book covers which is not covered in the essay.

Both sides of the trick box point to a question on the role of the individual, whether as meaning maker, meaning seeker or carrier of memetic instruction. A question that does not, as yet, seem to have a naturalist answer. Namely, what makes one person behave differently than another?

Erich Fromm, in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, speaks towards this with the concept of character. He defines character as “the relatively permanent system of all noninstinctual strivings through which man relates himself to the human and natural world.”

This question may eventually find a naturalist answer. We may one day find there aren’t ‘noninstinctual strivings’ or more, that there aren’t any non-scientifically identifiable and observable causal relationships behind our choices and actions. But the answer is still, as yet, not there.

In the book, Professors Flanagan and Caruso seek “to satisfy our existential concerns and achieve some level of flourishing and fulfilment” in the face of ever more persuasive naturalism. This seems an important question space.

One source of answers may be in what remains unknown. It seems an exploration and celebration of the individual, of the diversity of individuals (e.g. understanding what individuals value, the choices individuals make and what individuals create) may provide a more rewarding, and fruitful avenue than the trick box the essay suggests. This, and others, may be among the answers in the book. I look forward to finding out.

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