Losing Meaning: Philosophical Reflections on Neural Interventions and their Influence on Narrative Identity

Neuroethics (3):491-505 (2021)
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The profound changes in personality, mood, and other features of the self that neural interventions can induce can be disconcerting to patients, their families, and caregivers. In the neuroethical debate, these concerns are often addressed in the context of possible threats to the narrative self. In this paper, I argue that it is necessary to consider a dimension of impacts on the narrative self which has so far been neglected: neural interventions can lead to a loss of meaning of actions, feelings, beliefs, and other intentional elements of our self-narratives. To uphold the coherence of the self-narrative, the changes induced by neural interventions need to be accounted for through explanations in intentional or biochemical terms. However, only an explanation including intentional states delivers the content to directly ascribe personal meaning, i.e., subjective value to events. Neural interventions can deprive events of meaning because they may favor a predominantly biochemical account. A loss of meaning is not inherently negative but it can be problematic, particularly if events are affected one was not prepared or willing to have stripped of meaning. The paper further examines what it is about neural interventions that impacts meaning by analyzing different methods. To which degree the pull towards a biochemical view occurs depends on the characteristics of the neural intervention. By comparing Deep Brain Stimulation, Prozac, Ritalin, psychedelics, and psychotherapy, the paper identifies some main factors: the rate of change, the transparency of the causal chain, the involvement of the patient, and the presence of an acute phenomenological experience.

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Muriel Leuenberger
University of Oxford


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