Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

"A New Science of Virtues"

For the past few years, I have been a "Project Council" member for an interdisciplinary research program, funded generously by the John Templeton Foundation, of the Arete Initiative at the University of Chicago, on "A New Science of Virtues."  My duties have involved, basically, reading piles of fascinating proposals by really smart people, and then learning from these smart people as they proceed through their funded projects.  (The program is being headed up by Jean Bethke Elshtain, who I greatly admire, and whose recently published Gifford Lectures, "Sovereignty:  God, State, and Self", are a must-read.)

The funded projects are, to put it mildly, diverse -- from studies involving slices of rat brain and dopamine to meditations on aging, mercy, and forgiveness.  (I'll confess to considerable skepticism about whether we really learn much about "virtue", as I understand it, from research with hard-core "mind-is-brain" reductionist premises.  At some point, it seems to me, "virtue" thinking requires the embrace of a richer moral anthropology.)   

One of the funded projects -- the "Stuck with Virtue" conference series -- is being coordinated by a wonderful thinker and writer, Peter Augustine Lawler, author of (inter alia), "Aliens in America:  The Strange Truth about our Souls."  The project is really interesting.  (There was a write-up on one of the events, here, at the First Things blog.  Learn more here.)  I suspect that many MOJ readers -- especially those with any attraction to / interest in the whole "postmodern conservative" / crunchy-Catholic / Wendell Berry / Walker Percy / Front Porch Republic thing -- will be interested in "Stuck with Virtue" and the associated events.  I'd also welcome any thoughts readers have about the larger "Science of Virtues" project.  


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The following works strongly suggest that one can learn absolutely nothing about virtues from "studies involving slices of rat brain and dopamine" or, indeed, from anything based on the assumption or premise that (the properties of) the mind will someday be explanatorily reduced to (the properties of) the brain (or that we'll do better by eliminating all language about the mental as redundant and therefore unnecessary). In short, consciousness, intentionality, and normativity account for the irreducibility of the mind.

· Bennett, M.R. and P.M.S. Hacker. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.
· Bennett, Maxwell, Daniel Dennett, Peter Hacker, John Searle, and Daniel Robinson. Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind and Language. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
· Buller, David J. Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.
· Descombes, Vincent (Stephen Adam Schwartz, tr.). The Mind’s Provisions: A Critique of Cognitivism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
· Finkelstein, David H. Expression and the Inner. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
· Horst, Steven. Beyond Reduction: Philosophy of Mind and Post-Reductionist Philosophy of Science. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007.
· Hutto, Daniel D. The Presence of Mind. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1999.
· Hutto, Daniel D. Beyond Physicalism. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2000.
· Hutto, Daniel D. Folk Psychological Narratives: The Sociocultural Basis of Understanding. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.
· Lloyd, G.E.R. Cognitive Variations: Reflections on the Unity and Diversity of the Human Mind. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 2007.
· Luntley, Michael. Contemporary Philosophy of Thought: Truth, World, Content. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999.
· McCulloch, Gregory. The Life of the Mind: An essay on phenomenological externalism. London: Routledge, 2003.
· Pardo, Michael S. and Dennis Patterson, “Minds, Brains, and Norms” (July 10, 2009). Neuroethics, Forthcoming. University of Alabama Public Law Research Paper. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1432476
· Pardo, Michael S. and Dennis Patterson. “Philosophical Foundations of Law and Neuroscience” (February 6, 2009). University of Illinois Law Review, 2010. University of Alabama Public Law Research Paper No. 1338763. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1338763
· Putnam, Hilary. The Threefold Cord: Mind, Body, and World. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
· Robinson, Daniel N. Consciousness and Mental Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
· Stueber, Karsten R. Rediscovering Empathy: Agency, Folk Psychology, and the Human Sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

In other words, consciousness, intentionality, and normativity are decisive properties or features or characteristics of our mental life which rule out the plausibility of reductionist or eliminativist "hypotheses" being true. In fact, and more strongly, they might be said to rule out the very possibility of such views being vindicated, for as to the various proposals on offer: emergentism, epiphenomenalism, and supervenience, for example, "It cannot even be said that they are working hypotheses, because a working hypothesis is one that will rise or fall on the basis of relevant evidence, and there is no 'evidence' as such that could tell for or against 'hypotheses' of this sort." (Robinson above)

While much if not all of this work swims against the current in contemporary philosophy of mind, I presume its unfashionable status won't count against it when being assessed by a Catholic legal theorist.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Mar 13, 2011 9:18:27 AM

Erratum: "...which rule out the plausibility of reductionist or eliminativist 'hypotheses.'"

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Mar 13, 2011 10:34:10 AM

Thanks for the plug and one of the very best blogs.

Posted by: peter lawler | Mar 13, 2011 6:48:43 PM

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