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Machan's Musings - Another Effort to Discredit Individualism
by 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 if 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 but...it 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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