Sunday, May 08, 2005

Column on Targetting Individualism (sans typos)

Another Effort to Discredit Individualism
Tibor R. Machan
Regular contributor Jim Holt's column in the May 8, 2005, New York Times
Magazine is all about recent efforts to map the human brain. Some of these
are so successful that they record highly specific brain processes that
are correlated with thoughts and even subconscious perceptual activities.
But don?t count on Holt to report on such matters without a political
agenda. In discussing the fact that the human brain is split and sometimes
when the two spheres are severed things keep on going quite nicely, thank
you, he reproduces this line from New York University philosophy Thomas
Nagel, famed recently for co-authoring The Myth of Ownership (Oxford,
2002): "The ordinary, simple idea of a single person will come to seem
quaint some day, when the complexities of the human control system become
clearer and we become less certain that there is anything very important
that we are one of."
Over twenty years ago another rather prominent philosopher, Derek Parfit,
advanced a similar thesis, in his Reason and Persons (Oxford, 1984),
according to which we are each actually teams?Parfit in fact used the term
"nations"?and not single persons. The whole book was a rather clever piece
of logic chopping in which the main goal seems to have been to show that
no individual human beings exist. And so, no moral or legal order that
rests on the idea of individual rights could be sustained. Nagel, then, is
certainly quite unoriginal but that, of course, would be no problem of he
weren?t so wrong.
My new friend, Barnard Baars, a neuroscientist and author of In the
Theater of Consciousness (Oxford, 1996) made some interesting observations
to me about Nagel?s (and Holt?s) contention, which I reproduce here with
his permission:
"It's complete nonsense from a scientific point of view. My friend Stan
Franklin, who is a mathematician/computer scientist, talks about
?autonomous agents.? Humans are nothing if not autonomous agents?not in a
mystical sense, but in a very specific and causal sense.
"One of the ways we are autonomous is in terms of substitutability of
resources. On the level of food, we like to eat meat, but if that runs
out, potatoes will do. So there are options. In terms of human
relationships, we'd like to have Julia Roberts as our playmate, but there
are other fish in that sea. In terms of making a living, we'd all like to
be paid for our books, but... (etc.) I think that's one of the keys to
autonomy, substitutability of resources.
"Another is flexibility in acquiring knowledge. Humans are by far the best
learners in the animal kingdom, obviously. But acquired knowledge also
shapes who we are and how we define our purposes and interests. Gerald
Edelman, who is a heck of a lot better scientist than Thomas Nagel, makes
a big thing about the distinctiveness of the INDIVIDUAL human brain. His
Neural Darwinism gives a conceptual account of individuality from solid
biological evidence.
"So the NYT quote is complete nonsense supports the social
engineering agenda. Of course that agenda keeps failing in reality!"
Most of us are familiar today with junk science in support of various
environmental and related political programs and how often the government
is eager to cash in on it. (The recent howler about the rate of obesity,
fortunately nipped in the bud shortly after it was floated, is a good case
in point.) Perhaps we need to be alerted to junk philosophy, as well, put
in the service of a political utopia?although, come to think of it, that?s
been going on for centuries. Yet, hasn?t junk science had a long career
itself, yet folks keep falling for it repeatedly?

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