The awe-inspiringly active philosopher Graham Harman recently wrote a blog post on Thomas Metzinger’s book The Ego Tunnel, in which the author interviews neurophysiologist Wolf Singer. Metzinger asks Singer why he is interested in philosophy, to which he replies that he believes neurophysiology can solve the problems of philosophy.
This view — that the neuroscience will soon scientifically settle once and for all the questions of consciousness, culture and meaning — is surprisingly common in today’s overhyped neuro-culture and is a problem all on its own. But there is another issue in Singer’s view, which has to do with the role that he assigns to philosophy — and even to the humanities more generally — which is that of an ethics department. The argument goes that the neurosciences produce a lot of “profound ethical issues”, which will require ethical debate.
Thus, the old stomping grounds of the humanities — culture and meaning — are being overtaken by the new neuro-overlords, who claim to be able to explain these phenomena scientifically, and the tiny reservation given to the humanities is that of ethics.
But we should not so readily herd ourselves into this encampment. Observing that human phenomena have neural correlates or that our actions have evolutionary roots do nothing to place them in our lives, in the felt experience of the world. To counter this extensive neuro-reductionism, we need, I think, a new material existentialism. Philosophers and cultural theorists never should have accepted the role of primarily engaging with culture and meaning. As Harman says, we “have to get out there and deal with the stones, trees, dust, and sunlight, or we are going to end up as Wolf Singer’s ethics panel.” We have to reacquire the material world as a subject of study and reassemble our position in it.
In a museum setting, this reacquiring and reassembling is done quite literally. Employing a materialist perspective in the museum means not focusing so intently on what scientific developments might ‘mean’ or what the possible (ethical) ‘consequences’ might be. Instead, we should openly embrace materialism and show the complex relations that objects and humans, as part of the same material spectrum, enter in to — a line of thinking that is currently being outlined in a number of philosophical works, such as Jane Bennets Vibrant Matter or Graham Harman’s The Prince of Networks. The object-based practices involved in museum activity offer a unique position from which to speak about the materiality of human existential experience. And what we can see from that unique vantage point is a field that cannot and should not be reduced to a discussion of possible ethical problems arising from the ‘real’ work of neuroscientists.