The National Core for Neuroethics was recently fortunate to have Grant Gillett, Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of Otago, visit and spend time with the group as Cecil H. and Ida Green Visiting Professor.

Gillett’s interests are both extensive and diverse, and draws heavily upon his training in neurosurgery, post-structuralism, and analytic philosophy in his dialogue and writing. Although the thinking of individuals such as Michel Foucault, Aristotle, and Frederich Nietzsche are embedded in many Gillett’s texts, he has a particular affinity for the likes of Immanuel Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein. From time to time one will catch a glimpse of phenomenologists such as Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty when reading Gillett, in addition to contemporary theorists such as Daniel Dennett.

Professor Gillett gave a series of four lectures in his capacity as Green College Visiting Professor, although he spent a significant amount of time with other groups in both the University community and Vancouver area sharing his wisdom, insight, and love of knowledge.

The four lectures given by Gillett are listed below, with their accompanying abstract. At the end, I will briefly comment on the threads that tie his philosophy together, as opposed to commenting on each lecture individually.

The Cultural Brain: A Neural Palimpsest

To what extent is the brain a biological system best understood in terms of natural science and to what extent is the brain a cultural product? If the brain is a hybrid, how should neuroethics approach the contentious issues raised by contemporary neuroscience such as free will and the nature of consciousness?

The Warrior Gene: A Case for Neuroethical Diagnosis

What is the warrior gene and why is it over-represented in some racial groups? Is the warrior gene the reason why certain groups are disproportionately highly ranked in the statistics of societal discontent, or should we look further?

Neuroethics and Hysteria: The Mind and Neurological Disorder

It is paradoxical that whereas we normally assume that the mind is an elaboration based on underlying brain processes, hysteria forces us to explore a phenomenon where the mind causes a presentation that looks neurological. What is going on in hysteria and how is that a fairly common tendency produces a disorder in which the person concerned does not seem to know what is going on in his or her own mind/brain?

Neuroethics and Human Identity

Neuroethics encounters significant questions of human identity when we examine the moral rights of embryos, people in persistent vegetative states and other forms of brain damage, and cyborgs. What kind of society are we in danger of producing if we allow a functional conception of neuroethics to prevail in our self-understanding?

The philosophical threads that weave Gillett’s thinking (which draw from the spool of theorists listed above) direct attention to the subjective brains of human beings and that individual’s psyche or soul (Gillett, in discussion, goes to considerable lengths to explain that the word ‘psyche’ is derived from the Aristotelian psuche meaning ‘soul’ as opposed to the Judeo-Christian concept of ‘soul’. Thus a neo-Aristotelian view suggests that neurocognitive skills lay the foundation of an individual’s soul). For Gillett, the subjective brain reflects the life of dasein and mitsein (which Gillett compounds into ‘being-in-the-world-with-others’) of which identity reflects how that human being engages with the complex human life-world (following Husserl). And so, the human brain is involved in a cybernetic relationship with the world which makes the human being a relational creature – that is, one’s neural network is inscribed by biology, culture, social and historical context as so becomes an embodied subject. What is more, from a Gillettian/neo-Aristotelian perspective, human subjectively is enmeshed in neurological processes and functions and his or her place in the life-world. Human actions are thus constrained – not determined – by these contingencies which makes each human subject, effectually, unique.

From all of us here at the Core, we thank Professor Gillett for being ever so generous with his time and for truly enriching and enhancing both our brains and lived experiences.