Persons and their Brains

It is now over 20 years since Patricia Smith Churchland’s book Neurophilosophy was published, and in its wake whole disciplines have sprung into being, proudly sporting the prefix ‘neuro-’ by way of attaching themselves to Churchland’s banner. We have entered a new period in which philosophy, among a substantial community of its practitioners, might be seen as the handmaiden of neuroscience, whose role is to remove the obstacles that have been laid in the path of scientific advance by popular prejudice and superstitious ways of thinking. Brain imaging techniques, which enable us to allocate mental functions to precise cortical areas, and in some cases to establish the neural pathways through which information is processed and decisions formed, have cast doubt on the reality of human freedom, have revised the description of reason and its place in human nature, and caused many people to suspect the validity of the old distinctions of kind, which separated person from animal, animal from machine and the free agent from the conditioned organism. In addition, the more we learn about the brain and its functions, the more do people wonder whether our old ways of managing our lives and resolving our conflicts – the ways of moral judgment, legal process and the imparting of virtue – are the best ways, and whether there might be more direct forms of intervention that would take us more speedily, more reliably and perhaps more kindly to the right result. These developments appear to sit uneasily with the traditional concept of the person, a central concern of philosophy since at least the early Middle Ages. From infancy each of us singles out persons from the rest of our environment as recipients of love, affection, anger and forgiveness. We face them eye-to-eye and I- to-Thou, believing each person to be a center of self-conscious reflection who responds to reasons, who makes decisions, and whose life forms a continuous narrative in which individual identity is maintained from moment to moment and from year to year. Are we then justified in treating the traditional attributes of persons, such as self-identity, thought, free will and consciousness, simply as “folk psychological” concepts to be revised in a physically reductionistic manner, or can developments in neuroscience be interpreted within alternative philosophical frameworks? Furthermore, what are the broader implications for new first, second and third-personal understanding in moral judgment, in the law, in religion, politics and the arts? The purpose of this conference is to discuss and debate these developments from a variety of perspectives, to examine the relevance of neuroscience both to philosophy and to the other humanities of the post-Enlightenment university, and to confront the intellectual issues that surround the emergence of what might reasonably be called a ‘neuroculture.’ For more information, visit the conference website, and to register, visit the Oxford University online shop.