Abstract: Neuroscience and the digital community: what next for the notion of ‘the individual’?

The following abstract was accepted for the international conference ‘Knowledge/Culture/Social Change‘ to be held in Sydney, Australia in November.

The ‘individual’ has attained an unparalleled level of success and acceptance, with the DNA of all major political and economic theories now permeated with the assumption of real existing ‘individuals’. Modern neuroscientific developments however are challenging this assumption, and in this paper I propose to deal with two challenges to the notion of the individual, the ‘extended mind’ theory and ‘eliminative materialism’, attempting a reconciliation within the context of productive internet communities. The goal of the paper will be to outline some of the important ramifications for humanity and the liberal/progressive project.

Firstly, theories of mind such as Andy Clark and David Chalmer’s “the extended mind” suggest a counter-intuitive redrawing of the boundaries of the mind beyond the limits of the cranial cavity and even the body itself. Consider the example of the Alzheimer’s patient who supplements his failing memory with diligent note-keeping and diarising. Information stored in the patient’s diary now becomes his memory, and as such informs his beliefs, knowledge, actions, etc. The film Memento (2000) in which an amnesiac tattoos messages to himself onto his body functioned on a similar premise.

Secondly, the model of mind proposed by Paul and Patricia Churchland dubbed ‘eliminative materialism’ suggests that when neuroscientific advances progress to a point of near-complete modelling of the human brain, we may well arrive to discover that no structural or literal brain functions are found to represent our common-sense ‘manifest image’ of mental function. What happens when no place, structure, or function of the brain can be found to account for “beliefs”, “ideas”, “thoughts”, etc?

In the paper I propose to attempt a reconciliation of the ‘extended mind’ thesis with the promise of ‘eliminative materialism’, by way of the internet technologies that connect so-called “individuals” together into communities. But if parts of our minds can be said to be outsourced to the digital tools we use for communication, storage, and transmission, and if these tools overlap, what kind of entity arises? The paper will draw on the findings of my earlier work in characterising internet communities as a post-human (or post-individual) subject of knowledge and expertise.

Bibliography (incomplete)

Brassier, Ray. Nihil Unbound. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Clark, Andy. Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997)

Clark, Andy & Chalmers, David. “The Extended Mind”. Analysis, Vol. 58, No. 1, Jan., 1998.

Dennett, Daniel. Consciousness Explained. Harmondsworth Eng.: Penguin, 1993.

Meillassoux, Quentin et.al. After Finitude. London: Continuum, 2008.