Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.4A, 1-5
Published Online November 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ojpp) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojpp.2013.34A001
Open Access 1
Addressing the Quantitative and Qualitative: A View to
Complementarity—From the Synaptic to the Social
James Giordano1,2, P. Justin Rossi3, Roland Benedikter1,4
1Neuroethics Studies Program, Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics Georgetown University Medical Center,
Washington, DC, USA
2Human Science Center, Ludwig-Maximilians Universität, München, Germany
3University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville, USA
4Orfalea Center, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA
Received October 2nd, 2013; revised Nov ember 2nd, 2013; accep te d N ov ember 9th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 James Giordano et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
History and anthropology reveal the perdurable human characteristic of attempting to create and employ
some form of quantifiable representation of the qualitative aspects of life and the natural world. The re-
cent revolution in the ability to quantify neurobiological processes through advanced neurotechnologies,
and the announcement of comprehensive mapping of neuronal pathways as priorities both within the
United States (e.g. the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnology, BRAIN, Initia-
tive), and internationally (e.g. the European Union’s Human Brain Project) call forth questions about how
data, both quantitative and qualitative, can and should be leveraged to sustain neuroscientific research and
related applications that are ethically sound, technically viable, and socially relevant. As neuroscience
evermore gains influence in medical, public, economic and political spheres, it will be important to ask
(early and iteratively) what such science—as a human endeavor—seeks to achieve, and how the methods
selected (whether quantitative, qualitative, or some combination thereof) may help to realize such goals.
In this paper we explore potential sources of tension, alignment, and integration with respect to the quan-
titative and qualitative domains of neuroscientific research, its influence upon society, and the role that
the field of neuroethics can—and arguably should—play in rendering balance to the use of neuroscientific
knowledge as both lens into the brain, and mirror upon human thought and action. Ultimately, we propose
a stance of complementarity with a view toward maximizing the benefits of both the quantitative and
Keywords: Quantification; Quality; Neuroscience; Technology; Neuroethics; Cognition; Society; Culture
History and anthropology reveal the perdurable human char-
acteristic of attempting to create and employ some form of
quantifiable representation of the qualitative aspects of life and
the natural world (Deacon, 1997; Keijzer, 2001). As Mac
Kinnon notes (in this issue) that the formalization of quantifica-
tion metrics has been both instrumental to, and reflective of
increasing tendencies and trends toward the use of tools (e.g.
knowledge, implements and technics) to define and shape the
ecological parameters of human existence. The periodic expan-
sion of technical and epistemological capability under the ru-
bric of science (as defined and enacted at various points in his-
tory) is testimonial to an ever increasing focus and reliance
upon systems and approaches aimed at objectively quantify-
ing the qualitatively subjective dimensions of human experi-
In looking to older cultures of the East and classical Greece,
and more recently as a consequence of discoveries and
socio-cultural attitudes of the seventeenth through nineteenth
centuries in the West (i.e. Europe and the then nascent United
States), we observe an iteratively greater emphasis upon the
relative importance, meaning, validity and value of quanti-
fiable objectivity (Ronan, 1982). To paraphrase Pythagoras, all
things can be seen as numbers, and the scientific and industrial
revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and re-
sultant technologic turn of the 1900s bear witness to this trend
(Bernal, 1965; Caldwell, 1995). Indeed, the twentieth century
has been termed as “The Epoch of Technology”, and quantifi-
cation has been—and remains—paramount in the application of
science and technology to social issues, and is often regarded as
means to ascribe metrics to enhance the quality of life (Borg-
This prompts the question of how subjectivity and objectivity,
quality and quantity, and explanandum, experience and expla-
nation, are each and all engaged, related and valued (Wurzman
& Giordano, 2009). One apparent view is that quantification
measures variables, relationships, and facts upon which the
quality of life depends. A seemingly reasonably enough claim,
yet it opens a proverbial Pandora’s Box of debatable issues,
questions and problems, as any such trajectories are implicitly
or explicitly based upon assumptions that 1) such qualities are,
in fact quantifiable; 2) there is consensus upon the qualities to
J. GIORDANO ET AL.
measure the methods and units of measurement to be employed,
and 3) quantification can directly or indirectly enhance the
quality of life. However these waters are muddied: “indirectly”,
“enhance”, and “quality” are all ambiguous terms, and quanti-
fication is objective, while quality remains largely subjective.
As noted here too, the value of what is to be quantified, and
how such quantities are leveraged to effect qualitative ends are
often subjectively based, if not biased (Naugle, 2013). Can we,
in fact, objectively measure flourishing, happiness, pleasure,
sadness, suffering, love, hate , beauty, and/or success?
Thus, if and how the objective can enhance the subjective
becomes a question, if not problem of increasing importance, as
society moves toward an ever more ingrained reliance upon
science, technology and the metrics of objectivity to gauge
individual, community, economic and political accomplishment.
While the adage asserting that “money doesn’t buy happiness”,
may bear considerable truth, it begs the question “what does?”
Money—as a concept and device—was developed as a token to
tangibly reflect and allow purchase of quantifiable assets and
goods that influenced and were attributable to an individual’s
station in the ecological niches of a society (Jones, 1969). The
marriage of the metrics of science to the market instantiated
widespread and increasingly homogeneous quantification of the
qualitative aspects of life that could now be formally catego-
rized and compared; not just in nominal terms, or even cardi-
nally, but ordinally as a source and representation of valuation,
position and power. Larrivee and Gini (this issue) reveal that
such quantification of the qualitative aspects and relative
“goods” of life remain the regnant—although nonetheless con-
testable—posture in today’s economically-driven society (if not
much of human culture). To wit the adage, “the one with the
most (not necessarily the best) stuff wins”, was often waved as
a banner slogan of the socio-economic immodesty of the late
twentieth century. What will the momentum of quantification
portend for the c e n t u ry to come?
On Quantifying the Qualitative: From “It” to
Qualitative data are derived from some assessment of subjec -
tively perceived experience (e.g. pleasure, pain, happiness,
sadness). Quantitative data, on the other hand, are obtained
from objective measurement of discrete phenomena. The dura-
ble, frequent, and perhaps fundamental tendency to attributively
impose quantitative dimensions upon qualitative states is not
trivial, convenient or serendipitous. Rather, it appears to reflect
the hierarchical operations of increasingly complex nervous
systems, including the human brain.
The world is comprised of physical entities and spaces that
exhibit definable properties that exist as, and manifest quantita-
tive energetic perturbations of the natural environment (e.g.
fluctuations of photic frequencies; rarefactions and condensa-
tions of molecules of air, etc.). The world as it is can therefore
be regarded as both analog and digital in its existence: It is an
analog entity that is expressed through digital features. Ener-
getic properties and perturbations of the environment are re-
ceived by sensory organs that may be peculiar to various spe-
cies, including humans. Environmental energies such as quanta
of photons, types and numbers of molecules, and/or extent of
physical activity (e.g. molecular movement viz. heat; mass and
force, viz. tactile pressure, etc.) induce changes to the mem-
brane dynamics of sensory nerves that transduce and transmit
impulses to central registration, assimilation and synthetic net-
works of the nervous system (Sporns, 2011). In short, (quanti-
ties of) physical forces from the environment evoke (quantifi-
able) responses from organisms’ nervous systems, and so ob-
jects and events of world (i.e. “it”) are encoded as spatio-tem-
poral responses within the nervous system (i.e. “bits”) so as to
create a representational construct of the exterior and interior
dimensions of an embodied organism that is nested within its
environment (Edelman, 2008). Let’s call this step one.
From “Bits to Wits”: Computation,
Comparison, Decision and Action
Step two involves the iterative abstraction of quantities and
patterns of neural responses within the hierarchically networked
tiers of the nervous system. Projecting and mapping the output
of these levels of neural networks enable multi-dimensional
representations and abstractions to be assimilated, and allows a
form of statistical computation that affords both comparative
and predictive (i.e. decisional) capability (Glimcher, Dorris, &
Bayer, 2005). The patterns of quantitative neural responses
establish a “frequentist” probability that fortifies or diminishes
the likelihood that a given neural response pattern will be yoked
or associated with others. Let’s call this step three, as it builds
upon a process of synaptic weighting (i.e. Hebbian dynamics)
in networked connectivities to establish the functional and
structural components of the types of non-linear Bayesian
computational operations that neural networks (and the brain,
writ large) engage to represent probabilities, relationships, and
expectations of environmental events (Cooper, Intrator, Blais,
& Shouval, 2004; Körding & Wolpert, 2007). This establishes a
neural basis for cognition, emotion, learning, memory, and
decisional action, and we go from “bits” to “wits”.
We do not sense the world as fields of uniformity; it is rep-
resented to us (through the nervous system) as myriad sensa-
tions and perceptions—each and all related to a prior experi-
ence (and emotion) and having some relative valuation, even if
seemingly inconsequential. A bouquet of roses is not merely
red, but a palette of reds, from which we select the one that
most appeals. We do not merely feel “happy” but experience
gradations of visceral responses when we are presented with
objects and subjects of reinforcement and reward. The qualities
of the world are represented with quantitative dimensionality,
and this is preserved on a phenomenological level in our daily
experience (Gallese, 2005). This analog-to-digital-to-analog
conversion may undergird tendencies to quantitatively express
and valuate qualitative aspects of the life-world and experi-
ence(s) of the lived body.
We parse multiple domains of information to a diminished
field of comparison (that is frequently binary) so as to facilitate
emotionality, relationality and decisions. We tend toward sim-
plification so as to enable relative parsimony of choices and
actions, and do so through a process of cognitive statistical
probability (Chronicle, Mac Gregor, & Ormerod, 2004). Here
we confront the apparent paradox of “leveling”. Our phenome-
nal reality and engagement of others are conducted on the
“analog” level. That is, in social intercourse we use “folk” psy-
chological terms to describe inner states and experiences
(Churchland, 2002). Most of us do not look longingly upon an
object of desire and relate our feeling in terms of synaptic
J. GIORDANO ET AL.
spikes or neurochemical flux1. Implicitly, however, we appre-
hend the world in terms of its effect upon us, and seek to de-
scribe phenomenological experience in terms of not only
“what” and “how”, but “how much”, and these estimations
relate our feelings of reinforcement, reward, privation or pain.
We may ask “How do I love thee?” but answer “let me count
the ways”. Would ten “ways of love” be qualitatively “less”
than five, six or nine? And what of beauty? Is this in some way
quantifiable? Can understanding the neural responses to various
visual, auditory and tactile stimuli be used (and of any utility)
to describe the feelings evoked by a work of art, music, sculp-
ture—or another being?2 Can we employ mathematical, physi-
cal and neuroscientific methods to define and predict content-
ment and flourishing, happiness and sorrow, pain and pleasure
and wellness, illness and health—and in so doing, develop
some system of what might be considered neuro-eudaimonia?
Moreover, given that humans exist as actors and agents in an
economically structured socio-culture, what do such questions
infer about the perceived—and pursued—relationship of the
quantity of goods to the quality of life?3
The Neurocentric Trajectory
Much of science—both as intellectual endeavor and socially
valuable tool—depends upon reducing complex natural phe-
nomena to principles, models, and/or measurements (data) that
are objectively assessable, accessible, and appreciable. This
view was instrumental to developing the rational empirical
approach of psychophysics, as championed by Fechner, and
Wundt. Indeed, we can look to their work (as well as that of
von Helmholtz, and William James) as attempts to establish an
experimentally valid (and quantifiable) discipline—psychology
—to bridge phenomenological philosophy, physics and physi-
ology. This afforded not only an address of sensation, percep-
tion and cognition, but provided incipient steps toward insight
to concepts of first person subjective understanding (Verstehen)
and objective relation and explanation (Erklären), that sought
to reconcile the human and natural sciences, and hermeneutic
and scientific traditions4. As Kohls and Benedikter (2010) de-
pict, this empirical approach may be seen as the seeds from
which the field of contemporary neuroscience has grown. Since
its titular establishment some forty years ago, neuroscience has
undergone an evolution in the type(s) and amount of quantita-
tive data that can be utilized to describe and define cognitive
processes. Advances in neuroimaging and neurophysiological
recording, coupled to genetic and computational technology,
have substantially contributed to this trend, and the conjoin-
ment of nanoscalar techniques and technologies within a para-
digm of advanced integrative scientific convergence will only
serve to generate additional and ever more avant discoveries
and developments (Giordano, 2011a,b; Vaseashta, 2012;
Giordano, 2012a; for a recent overview, see the Nuffield Coun-
cil on Bioethics Reporton Novel Neurotechnologies, 2013).
To be sure, an important goal of neuroscience is to advance
an objective (and objectifiable) understanding of the structure
and function of nervous systems. Essential to this point is that
these functions are consciousness, cognition, emotion and be-
havior. The neuroscientific pursuit and utilization of quantita-
tive data are especially challenging because the neural events
that are the focus of investigation putatively influence or sub-
serve those dimensions of cognition and emotions that form the
subjective precepts of reality, and are operative in shaping in-
tent a nd behavior. In this way, neur oscience has serv ed as both
a lens through which to examine the structure and function of
neural systems, and a mirror with which to view and analyze
human nature, the human condition, and human thoughts, emo-
tions and actions within the socio-cultural, economic and po-
litical milieu (Giordano, 2011a; Giordano & Benedikter, 2012a;
Benedikter & Giordano, 2011; Benedikter, Giordano, & Fitz-
Science as human endeavor may be considered to have two
domains—the objective, quantitative domain, in which we mea-
sure, describe, and simplify the natural world; and the subjec-
tive, qualitative domain by which we assess the value of this
knowledge and determine how it ought to be applied (Jaspers,
1963). In some ways, neuroscience blurs this distinction by
implying that the phenomena constituent to the subjective do-
main (emotion, cognition, behavior, and consequently, values,
culture, and ethics, etc.) can be (partially, if not wholly) objec-
tively quantified and potentially, manipulated. This is evi-
denced by and in such nascent fields as neuroeconomics, neu-
romarketing, neuroaesthetics and neurospirituality5. In light of
this, it becomes critical to question, and more accurately pre-
scribe what the “neuro” prefix means in these contexts.
First and foremost, it does not ascribe an absolutist stance of
reductive materialism. At very best, the most mature hypothe-
ses of how consciousness occurs in brain are speculative, if not
conjectural, albeit conjecture based upon the current fund of
epistemological capital. So, while there is much that is known
about the material structure and function of the brain, there is
also much—even apart from the enigmatic efficient causality of
phenomenal consciousness—that remains unknown. We have
posited that it is this corpus of the known, unknown, questions
unanswered and yet to be asked that defines the “neuro” prefix.
In this way, it can be regarded as synecdoche: not merely to
refer to “the neural mechanisms X that putatively are involved
in or subserve Y”, but also to define the current state of the field
of neural sciences and the reality that much of “neuro” infor-
mation and knowledge is iterative and contingent (Giordano,
2011a,b). By assuming this stance, we open the door to possi-
bility, assume a posture of humility, and thus avoid the pitfalls
of false hubris about the actual maturity of the science, as well
as society’s capabilities to exercise prudence in interpretation,
value, and use (Giordano, 2012b).
1For further discussion of the use and misuse of folk psychological and
neuroscientific language, see Giordano J. “Neurolalia—Can we talk our way
through the forest and trees of neuroscience?” NeuroBioethics Blog, 1.
August, 2011; available at w ww .neurobioethics.wordpress.com.
2See here the work of Samir Zeki (ut infra, Note 5), and Robert Solso. For
counter point, see Roger Scruton.
3Questions such as these provide the ra tionale, if not impetus for the field of
4A more detailed discussion of Verstehen and Erklären in the phenomenol-
ogical and hermeneutic traditions can be found in Spiegelberg, H. The Phe-
nomenological Movement: A Historical Introduction. Boston: MartinusNi-
hoff, 1984; and Ehrlich, L. H. Karl Jaspers: Philosophy as Faith. Amherst:
University of Massachusetts Press, 1975.
Can neuroscience provide objective assessments of certain
brain structures and functions? Surely. Are these measures of
5For overvi ews of these fiel ds, see: Glimch er, P.W., Camerer , C.F., Fehr, E .
and Poldrack, R.A. (eds.) Neuroeconomics: Decision Making and the Brain.
Y: Academic Press, 2008; Zurawicki, L. Neuromarketing: Exploring the
rain of the Consume
. NY: Springer , 2007; Zeki, S. Splendors and Miserie s
of the Brain: Love, Creativity and the Quest for Human Happiness. Oxford:
Blackwell 2008; Newberg A.B. The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology o
ious Experience. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.
Open Access 3
J. GIORDANO ET AL.
sufficient granularity and specificity so as to define—and per-
haps obviate—subjectivity? Clearly not; at least as yet. We can
view the brain-mind relationship most accurately as an expres-
sion of token physicalism. At present, many—if not most—
complexmental phenomena cannot be directly or wholly ex-
plained or defined by underlying neuro b i ological process e s. But
current and near-future developments may soon enable an in-
creasing level of objective accuracy. This does not, and need
not infer that such trajectories of research are good, bad, right
or wrong. There is defensible worth in being able to define
“brain phenotypes” of particular subjective states. The prospect
of quantifying such subjective phenomena has inherent value to
medicine in evaluating non-communicative or pre-verbal pa-
tients, or perhaps even non-human organisms, and in develop-
ing interventions of a variety of kinds, not just of the high-tech,
Brave New World, or Clockwork Orange sort. As Reiser has
argued (2009), and Moskovitz advances in this issue, it will be
vital to define the boundaries of science and technology, and
quantification and quality in medicine. Despite the potential for
great benefit, Huxleyan and Burgessian visions foster a creep-
ing unease—if not frank fears—about the Foucouldian pros-
pects of biopower and biopolitics such capability may evoke6.
Might this render subjective discourse superfluous, and default
personal, social, economic, legal and even political decisions
and conduct to some bastardized construct of Wittgensteinian
picture thinking, create widening schisms of status and regard
within societies on the global stage?
Neuroethics—Balancing the Quantitative and
The discipline of neuroethics is well-positioned to address
the ways that neuroscience is articulated, and its outcomes and
products engaged in both our understanding of what it means to
have an embodied brain that evokes a mind (whether human or
otherwise), in various fields of human endeavor. Inherently, a
core question is: Given the scope and speed of neuroscientific
progress, what do we do with the knowledge and capability
available and what do we do about those that are lacking?
Neuroethics’ so-called “first tradition” entails studies of the
putative neural mechanisms involved in proto-moral cognition,
emotions and actions (what we refer to as “neuroecology”;
Giordano, 2011a,b; Giordano & Benedikter, 2012b; Giordano,
Benedikter & Kohls, 2012). While it is popular to refer to this
as “the neuroscience of ethics”, this is a misnomer, and mis-
communicates the strengths and limits of the field. The path
from brain functions to ethics involves many steps, but one
important step is an understanding of how brains function in
resource use and allocation and organismal relationships within
the various niches occupied in an environment. For humans,
this is a tall order. These studies must operate from the natural-
istic epistemology of neuroscience to provide both a lens to
view brain function, and a mirror to look upon humanity with
newfound insight (vide supra).
Part of such insight must be to question how neuroscientific
knowledge is obtained, its validity, and the ways that it might
be employed. This is neuroethics’ “second tradition”—namely,
the ethics of neuroscientific research and its applications. At
this point it is vital to recall that any meaningful ethical analysis
begins with—and is predicated upon—fact. In this case, the
facts upon which a pragmatic neuroethics is structured are that
1) any understanding of the brain remains tentative, 2) the
power conferred by science and technology is enormous; and 3)
there is strong lure of using our current toolkit to (a) quantify
nature, life and experience, as well as (b) to quantify the ways
that our tools and assets can confer relative power, and 4) this
may be inherent to our nature. Jahr recognized almost ninety
years ago that as we increase the font of scientific knowledge,
we must accordingly adapt certain philosophical concepts of
metaphysics, epistemology, anthropology and ethics (Jahr,
1927; Giordano, Benedikter, & Kohls, 2012a,b). Thus, perhaps
most importantly, must we aptly engage the “neuro” prefix to
address, direct and govern the ways that neuroscience should or
should not be employed to effect conceptualizations and striv-
ings for “the good” that we individually and communally hold
to be valuable. In the Thomistic sense—a right measure of
knowledge to guide the right measure of action.
Perhaps then, a valuable first step of neuroscientific pro-
jects such as the newly proposed Brain Research through Ad-
vancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative in the
United States, and the Human Brain Project in the European
Union might be a neuroethically sound appreciation of what
can and cannot be done with the armamentarium of tools pres-
ently at hand (Giordano, 2011b; Giordano & Olds, 2010).This
assuredly provides incentives to develop ever more sophisti-
cated neurotechnologies and techniques. Yet, even if and when
this occurs, we must still rely upon metrics and reports of
qualitative experience that can be correlated to quantitative,
objective depictions of various brain functions and states. Ap-
ropos, we must recognize the value of both qualitative and
quantitative information—not as distinct, but as complementary,
in epistemological, semiotic as well as personally and so-
cially-relevant ways. The human being—and human action—is
based and reliant upon the interaction of multiple dimensions of
representation and signification (Parsons & Shils, 1951; Grin-
ker, 1956; Morris, 1964; Engel, 1977). Thus, the qualitative and
the quantitative provide two very useful sets of tools, means
and styles of representing the world, life and experiences. We
need not perseverate upon the inherent weaknesses of either,
but instead, in the strict definition and practical spirit of com-
plementarity should look to the importance and merits of both.
The papers in this thematic issue of the Open Journal of
Philosophy are committed to, and present this perspective.
Herein, Edward MacKinnon provides a historicity of quantifi-
cation as concept and practice, creating a temporal and cultural
pediment to frame the discourse. Denis Larrivee and Adriana
Gini speak to biological, psychological and social aspects of the
qualitative and quantitative, regarding recent trends in science
and technology, and afford an interpretistic model of quantifica-
tion that they offer as a viable epistemological and practical
approach to assess and affect quality of life. Yet, as Peter
Moskovitz details, attempts at and acts of quantification may be
unviable as metrics for life quality within the context and prac-
tices of healthcare, and Moskovitz provides compelling argu-
ment for medicine to return to, and sustain a strongly qualita-
6For an in depth discussion of Michel Foucault’s work on scientific reason,
quantitation and ordinal values, see Gutting, G. Michel Foucault’s Archae-
ology of Scientific Reason, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995,
and Sheridan, A. Michel Foucault: The Will to the Truth. London: Rutledge,
J. GIORDANO ET AL.
Open Access 5
tive orientation to the needs and treatment of patients. If quali-
tative indices are to be maintained, then it will be important to
advance such metrics so as to keep pace with the multi-di-
mensional and multi-disciplinary approaches aimed at im-
proving the human condition. Rochelle Tractenberg, Futosh
Yumoto and Paul Aisen examine currently used quality of life
ratings, and pose potentially new methods—and vistas—for
addressing, assessing and affecting qualitative domains of ex-
perience in a variety of medical and social settings. Ultimately,
the outcomes and products of science and technology are
manifest in the social milieu, and Francis Ambrosio and Elisa-
betta Lanzilao provide insights to the ways in which visions of
objectivity/subjectivity, and quantitation and qualification may
be the well-spring of “cultural wars” that manifest claims of
authenticity and trumping authority over each other, and pur-
portedly competing worldviews. As Ambrosio and Lanzilao
note, such competition is not only a source of discontent, but is
also one of conflict on a variety of scales that range from the
epistemological to the geo-political and religious. Taken to-
gether, these papers afford a view of the questions, potential,
and problems incurred when addressing and approaching the
quantitative and qualitative, and offer the reader a multi-faceted
vista of the quantitative and qualitative that extends from the
synaptic to the social.
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