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Finding Meaning in the Age of Neurocentrism – and in a Transhuman Future



Written by Mette Leonard Høeg


Through the ordinary state of being, we’re already creators in the most profound way, creating our experience of reality and composing the world we perceive.

Rick Rubin, The Creative Act


Phenomenal consciousness is still a highly mysterious phenomenon – mainly subjectively accessible, and there is far from scientific consensus on the explanation of its sources. The neuroscientific understanding of the human mind is, however, deepening, and the possibilities of technologically and biomedically altering brain and mind states and for engineering awareness in technological systems are developing rapidly. 

The scientific and technological advances come with exciting opportunities as well as new moral and existential questions and uncertainties. Many of them entail a disruption of some of the most fundamental philosophical and anthropological ideas on which our understanding of humans and the functioning of societies rely – such as the experience of the self as an essential and delimited entity, a centre of agency and a source for consciousness – and undermine the conventional distinction between mind and matter, between human individuals and the surroundings and between humans and other sentient biological and technological systems. They trouble the anthropocentric worldview and the idea of the moral superiority of humans to that of other species and bring into view possible trans- and posthuman futures.

Neurocentrism is on the rise. A new understanding of what it means to be human – a new neuroanthropology, as Thomas Metzinger has called it – is taking form. The ethical and existential vacuum that was opened up by the great religious disillusion of the late 19th and 20th century today continues to widen, and with it the space for flourishing of both hopes and fears, excitement and worry about the future of humanity.

Some neurophilosophers are anticipating a deep neuroscientific disenchantment and extensive socio-cultural disruption and observing signs of a new neuroexistential anxiety of Kierkegaardian dimensions in contemporary culture. There are calls for neuroanthropological risk assessment and for a formulation of a new consciousness culture and ethics. Owen Flanagan and Greg Caruso present the potential psychological and emotional disruptions in terms of a third wave of existentialism – a ‘neuroexistentialism’ which they define as: “a recent expression of existential anxiety over the nature of persons, caused by the rise of the scientific authority of the human sciences and a resultant clash between the scientific and the humanistic image of persons.” They present this existential challenge as the most pressing issue in modern consciousness research – “the really hard problem” – describing it as the “special problem for those of us living in the age of brain science; of making sense of the nature, meaning, and purpose of our lives given that we are material beings living in a material world.”

Can meaning and existential comfort be provided to humans within the framework of the non-anthropocentric paradigm, the emerging neuroanthropology and neurocentrism? Contrary to the common view that reductionist and materialist explanations of the human beings and existence are anti-humanist, I will argue that these are in fact compatible with some of the most compelling humanist ideas of existential emancipation and ethics in our culture.

When we look to literature and narrative fiction, it becomes clear that humanism and existentialism already coincide and combine with materialist and anti-essentialist philosophical ideas and outlooks – and this is not just in obscure works with marginal appeal, but in some of the most canonised and admired works of all time that engage audiences and speak to people across time and cultural contexts. Reductionist and materialist explanations of the human being and existence are integrated in the humanist ideas of existential emancipation and ethics in some of the most seminal literary works from the Modernist period, such as Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.

More recently, the reception of Rick Rubin’s The Creative Act has shown how these notions are already resonating strongly and positively in culture and society today. The renowned music producer’s book relies on an anti-essentialist, non-anthropocentric philosophical view. It is highly metaphorical and lyrical, clearly strongly informed by Buddhism, but in a contemporary non-religious way that roughly coheres with modern neuroscience, in particular the predictive processing theory of consciousness – although it also has affinities with panpsychist theories. The Creative Act explains human creativity within a determinist and non-anthropocentric theoretical framework, preserving individuality, personal identity and humanism.

“Think of the universe as an eternal creative unfolding. Trees blossom. Cells replicate. Rivers forge new tributaries. The world pulses with productive energy, and everything that exists on this planet is driven by that energy. Every manifestation of this unfolding is doing its own work on behalf of the universe, each in its own way, true to its own creative impulse. Just as trees grow flowers and fruits, humanity creates works of art … We are all participating in a larger creative act we are not conducting. We are being conducted.”


“The world is the doer and we are the witness. We have little or no control over the content.”

Determinism and creativity are connected here – humans are described both as being conducted or created and as creators. The human creative act is presented in holistic terms, as embedded in the larger natural act of creation, whereby everyone becomes an artist. The creative act is a practice in which humans take part together with and as part of nature, and a practice by which they are formed and determined and to which they also contribute. The work shows how being part of determined chains of cause and effect does not only mean that we are caused and determined by forces outside of our control; the flip side of this is that we also have effect.

Rubin thus explicitly connects the ordinary state of being of humans to a fundamental creative force – or determinism:

“To create is to bring something into existence that wasn’t there before. It could be a conversation, the solution to a problem, a note to a friend, the rearrangement of furniture in a room, a new route home to avoid traffic jam. … In each moment, we are immersed in a field of undifferentiated matter from which our senses gather bits of information. The outside universe we perceive doesn’t exist as such. Through a series of electrical and chemical reactions, we generate a reality internally. We create forests and oceans, warmth and cold. We read words, hear voices, and form interpretations. Then, in an instant, we produce a response. All of this in a world of our own creation. Regardless of whether or not we’re formally making art, we are all living as artists. We perceive, filter, and collect data, then curate an experience for ourselves and others based on this information set. Whether we do this consciously or unconsciously, by the mere fact of being alive, we are active participants in the ongoing process of creation.

Attuned choice by attuned choice, your entire life is a form of self-expression. You exist as a creative being in a creative universe. A singular work of art.”

Choice should be understood deterministically here, in line with the physical law and logic of cause and effect, as the brain’s responses to influences, rather than as in terms of having free will. Like Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Woolf’s The Waves, Rubin shows how particularity, distinction, personal identity and individuality can be preserved in a materialist, anti-essentialist and non-anthropocentric existential framework.

“When we create, we are not just expressing our unique individuality, but our seamless connection to an infinite oneness.”

These literary works show us how there are ways of reconciling and creating a relation of mutual support between humanist views and philosophical reductionism and neuroscientific materialism. And they suggest that literature has an important role to play in the development of meaningful and viable ethical and existential frameworks for human life in the neurocentric age, and in a possibly trans- or posthuman future.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. *Heady stuff*,this phenomenal consciousness and selfness. A young writer friend and associate did not want to associate with it, so I wrote something else for him—something more down-to-earth (Heady stuff, his words, not mine). Meaning, and reason, come in many things, shapes and sizes. I seriously doubt that people who are seekers of those rewards will be much aggrieved by the coming era of neurocentrism and transhumanism. I just added those terms to my tablet’s dictionary. No, seekers will chug along and be as happy as they would have been, had they never seen or heard the words. Right now, there is much more controversy over *intramural speech*, * linguistic discrimination*, *lookism*, and transgender issues. So, unless one is a neuroscientist, one of my good friends is, or, an educator of some stripe (ditto), there is little to be distressed over. Moreover, that friend is not much ruffled by trends , fads or word salad. He tends to be interested in what he can learn and whether that is useful.

  2. *Rivers forge new tributaries* I had to read that three times. It is not my understanding of the relation between rivers and tributaries, unless, of course, the writer was thinking of some mythic, metaphysical somewhere somewhen. No, see, tributaries forge rivers. Inasmuch as rivers may intersect with larger ones, the smaller stream *becomes* a tributary to the larger. However, if,if only if, the two waterways never meet, one being any sort of tributary to the other is moot. Or better, maybe, nil. Sorta like what I have said of infinity: it is neither an objective or a destination. You can’t get there from here.
    There is no *there* there. I like the *intuition pump* (see:Dennett) that metaphysics is useful as. Things which help us think are helpful, so long as we do not intuit too much. AI, for example, intuits a lot. My little tablet cannot make distinctions or inferences; cannot contextualize my intention when I write. It possesses neither consciousness nor understanding, requiring more time, on my part, editing mistakes. Still, I am grateful for the device and what it CAN do.

  3. Fascinating! Did the book discuss emergence — the ability of the universe to create something new from the complicated interactions of a simpler system? Because that is the most creative force of the physical universe, and the reason why our uncontrollable and unpredictable culture comes into existence from everyone’s contributions. Because emergence can be studied scientifically, it may be more useful than the idea of a general creative force.

  4. *The world is the doer,…etcetera…
    So, has *the world* done all these compelling and interesting things, irrespective of conscious/sentient beings, whose interests, motives and preferences drive an ever-expanding complexity? Look, my views are not predicated on any sort of metaphysical jargon or academic verbiage. The anthropological dodge is compelling, when an explanation of how things are rejects our intentional propensity towards complexity. Some of my friends are public intellectuals. A few are academics. Others are autodidacts and polymaths. All in all, however, we tend to do what we have always done, always getting what we have always gotten…even when disguising that with new terms and distinctions. They may adhere, or, like pop culture, come and go. Well-intentioned complexity, in the interest of progress, is driving us towards extinction. Sure, it is fascinating. But not in a good way…seems to me.

  5. I was inattentive. I should have tuned in to the opening line of this post. Why? Because it says, smoothly, what I have been rolling around since Perry’s foray into *levels of reality*, at Stanford, several years ago. Since then, I have claimed much of reality IS contextual. Each of us, whether singularly, or in groups, *make it up as we go*. That feature accounts for Davidson’s notion of propositional attitudes. It is one compelling reason for difference and dissention—attitudes we cherish—above and beyond all reason to the contrary. I contend it is also an instrument of complexity, therewith which, along with competition, we lose any sense of the cooperation needed to,somehow, preserve the human face, too full of itself. I regret being inattentive, but will not lose sleep over that. Re-assessments (do-overs) are not unforgivable, unless, or until they are dismissed, out-of-hand, due to arrogance, ignorance, narcissism or pride. This is better than a day at the office ever was. But, days at the office taught me things, and enabled me to do other things. All good.

  6. So, I was forced ‘off-the-grid’, for several months. Hacked, sabotaged, however one might characterize it. People got uncomfortable with my positions and pronouncements. Those who could, did, shut me up. On reflection, and getting back to some things, I got to thinking on neurocentrism. This posture, seems consistent with other centrist views, which rely upon my IMPs hypothesis. People are driven by their interests, motives and preferences. All of which vary, because, and only because—they do. I can’t know that neurocentrism is here to stay. Think about other centrisims. Those are not natural states, rather, constructs, founded on incident interest, motive and preference. If , in similar fashion, we consider ‘centrist politics’, the same outcome obtains: the ludicrous notion that someone who won the U.S. presidency once, ought also have opportunity to repeat that effort, any and all evidence to the contrary, notwithstanding is just plain wrong. I won’t figure anthropocentrism here: for those IMPs and other reasons.

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