Owen Flanagan and Gregg D. Caruso on a new search for meaning

Existentialisms are responses to recognisable diminishments in the self-image of persons caused by social or political rearrangements or ruptures, and they typically involve two steps: (a) admission of the anxiety and an analysis of its causes, and (b) some sort of attempt to regain a positive, less anguished, more hopeful image of persons. With regard to the first step, existentialisms typically involve a philosophical expression of the anxiety that there are no deep, satisfying answers that make sense of the human predicament and explain what makes human life meaningful, and thus that there are no secure foundations for meaning, morals, and purpose. There are three kinds of existentialisms that respond to three different kinds of grounding projects – grounding in God’s nature, in a shared vision of the collective good, or in science. The first-wave existentialism of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche expressed anxiety about the idea that meaning and morals are made secure because of God’s omniscience and good will. The second-wave existentialism of Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir was a post-Holocaust response to the idea that some uplifting secular vision of the common good might serve as a foundation. Today, there is a third-wave existentialism, neuroexistentialism, which expresses the anxiety that, even as science yields the truth about human nature, it also disenchants.

Unlike the previous two waves of existentialism, neuroexistentialism is not caused by a problem with ecclesiastical authority, nor by the shock of coming face to face with the moral horror of nation state actors and their citizens. Rather, neuroexistentialism is caused by the rise of the scientific authority of the human sciences and a resultant clash between the scientific and humanistic image of persons. Neuroexistentialism is a twenty-first-century anxiety over the way contemporary neuroscience helps secure in a particularly vivid way the message of Darwin from 150 years ago: that humans are animals – not half animal, not some percentage animal, not just above the animals, but 100 percent animal. Everyday and in every way, neuroscience removes the last vestiges of an immaterial soul or self. It has no need for such posits. It also suggest that the mind is the brain and all mental processes just are (or are realised in) neural processes, that introspection is a poor instrument for revealing how the mind works, that there is no ghost in the machine or Cartesian theatre where consciousness comes together, that death is the end since when the brain ceases to function so too does consciousness, and that our sense of self may in part be an illusion.

Familiar conceptions of free will are also rejected, such as the following one put forth by René Descartes in the seventeenth century:

“But the will is so free in its nature, that it can never be constrained … And the whole action of the soul consists in this, that solely because it desires something, it causes a little gland to which it is closely united to move in a way requisite to produce the effect which relates to this desire.”

And this conception held by Roderick Chisholm in the twentieth century:

“If we are responsible … then we have a prerogative which some would attribute only to God: each of us when we act, is a prime mover unmoved. In doing what we do, we cause certain things to happen, and nothing – or no one – caused us to cause those events to happen.”

Both of these quotes express a libertarian conception of free will according to which we are capable of exercising sui generis kinds of agency and an unconditional ability to do otherwise. While such a conception of free will is often associated with dualistic and theistic thinking, second-wave existentialists like Sartre (no friend to theism) also embraced a libertarian conception of free will. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre rejects any and all forms of causal determinism – even the “psychological” determinism which finds the immediate causes of action and choices in the desire and beliefs of agents. Sartre’s existential freedom, or so-called radical freedom, maintains that I (as a responsible agent) am not simply another object in the world. As a human being, I am always open to (and engaged with) things in the world. According to Sartre, how I exist in the world is a function of my free decisions to create meaning out of the facts with which I am confronted. Hence, for second-wave existentialists, the existence of free will is disturbing since I must take full responsibility for the meaning of the world in which I exist.

For third-wave existentialists, the reverse is the case: the possibility that we lack libertarian free will is what is disturbing and causes in us existential anxiety. As the brain sciences progress and we better understand the mechanisms that undergird human behaviour, the more it becomes obvious that we lack what Tom Clark calls “soul control”. There is no longer any reason to believe in a nonphysical self which controls action and is liberated from the deterministic laws of nature – a little uncaused cause capable of exercising counter-causal free will. While most naturalistically inclined philosophers have long given up on the idea of soul control, eliminating such thinking from our folk psychological attitudes may not be so easy and may come at a cost for some. There is some evidence, for example, that we are “natural born” dualists, as the psychologist Paul Bloom puts it in his book Descartes’ Baby, and that, at least in the United States, a majority of adults continue to believe in a non-physical soul that governs behaviour. To whatever extent, then, such dualistic thinking is present in our folk psychological and humanistic attitudes about free will and moral responsibility, it is likely to come under pressure and require some revision as the brain sciences advance and this information reaches the general public.

Another source of neuroexistentialism comes in its denial that morality, well-being, and life’s meaning have anything outside the natural world to shore them up. In the past, morality was thought to come from God, but we now know that morality is not transcendent. While human beings are ultra-social animals who are motivated to care for one another, the scientific point of view tells us that this is due to evolution and social learning, not God. Altruism, cooperation, and natural affection, result from the evolutionary pressure to care for one another in order to survive. Beyond evolution, there is also the reinforcement learning mechanisms that help shape our social motivations and normative judgements about the world. According to neuroexistentialism, we need to come to terms with the fact that we are biological systems who rely on patterns of reward and punishment and whose values are contingent products of culture and biology.

Where does all of this leave us with regard to the second component of the existentialist project – the attempt to regain a positive, less anguished, more hopeful image of persons? Well, if mind, morals, and the meaning of life are to be understood as problems inside the naturalistic view of things, not problems that require transcendental sources, we will need to seriously grapple with the following three-part question: (1) How do we combine and harness the growing knowledge and insights of the human sciences with (2) the universal existential concern with meaning and flourishing in order to yield (3) a truthful, liberating, enlightening picture of our problems and our prospects as meaning-finders and meaning-makers. One promising approach for doing this is to pursue a kind of descriptive-normative inquiry into the causes and conditions of flourishing for material beings living in a material world whose self-understanding includes the idea that such a world is the only kind of world that there is and thus that the meaning and significance of their lives, if there is any, must be found in such a world.

During the Enlightenment we saw the beginning of a movement toward naturalism, according to which morals and meaning are to be analysed and understood in terms of history and the other human sciences, not metaphysically or theologically. Over the past few centuries, this movement has continued, and, most recently, we have seen the rise of moral psychology and other interdisciplinary attempts to understand moral development and human values, norms, judgements, and attitudes naturalistically. Contemporary moral psychology, for example, is methodologically pluralistic: it aims to answer philosophical questions about competing ethical perspectives, the structure of character, and/or the nature of moral reasoning, but in an empirically responsible way. There is, in such an approach, a fundamental commitment to naturalism and the belief that moral philosophy should pay more attention to psychology and philosophy of mind. Approaching morality from this naturalistic perspective, informed as it is from psychology and neuroscience, does not require us to abandon traditional morality, just reconceive it.

We need to take a similar approach to other areas of existential concern. For instance, the philosophy of mind has long been preoccupied with what David Chalmers has called the hard-problem – how to explain the subjective nature of consciousness in terms of material brain states and processes. For those caught up in the hard-problem, it seems difficult or even impossible to explain how subjective experience could arise or emerge from brain tissue. Others worry that even if mental events are brain events, our concepts of the mental cannot be mapped onto or reduced to physical concepts. This explanatory or conceptual gap problem, however, is commonplace when we are learning a new way of speaking. The various difficulties associated with treating the hard problem are to be expected when major conceptual change is called for, as it is by the scientific image of persons. Assuming that the details of how consciousness is realised in the brain will be given, and is already being given, by neuroscience, a second problem remains – what Owen Flanagan has called the really hard problem. It can be stated as follows: How, given that consciousness is a natural phenomenon, does human life mean anything? What significance, if any, does living our kind of conscious life have?

The constructive project of neuroexistentialism, then, is to make use of the knowledge and insights of the behavioural, cognitive, and neurosciences to satisfy our existential concerns and achieve some level of flourishing and fulfilment. While much progress has already been made on this front, the project continues. And since naturalism is the only game in town, it’s one we should all hope succeeds.

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Owen Flanagan is James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy at Duke University.

Gregg D. Caruso is Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Corning and Honorary Professor at Macquarie University.

This essay is adapted from their new book, Neuroexistentialism: Meaning, Morals, and Purpose in the Age of Neuroscience, just published by Oxford University Press.