More on Being Personal Today

So this post--like some others--is meant to be diagnostic.  It's a postmodern and conservative observation on who sophisticated Americans think they are these days.  As an attempt to be an account of what I can see with my own eyes, it's an attempt to be nonjudgmental (for now).

1. We free persons refuse to be “species fodder” or “country fodder” or “History fodder” or even, these days, “family fodder.”  Philosophy today is about make the person--or securing personal being in a hostile environment--the bottom line.   The point of the work of America’s most influential political philosopher--John Rawls--is to explain that we’re neither more nor less than persons.  The job of Rawls is not to be critical but just to articulate the consensus we've already reached about who we are.  

2. Each person is to be regarded as having a free, equal, unique, and irreplaceable existence.  And no person exists merely to serve another.  Each person is free to choose how to live his or her life.  Each person, as a rational agent, is free from nature and so can’t be used as a mere resource by other persons.  Amazingly enough, our scientists tend to defer to our “humanistic” philosophers on these claims, although they don’t believe they’re really true.  

3. It’s a mistake to call our personal orientation “nonfoundationalism.”  The free person is the foundation--the bottom line.  What’s wrong with other foundations is that they get persons killed;  they turn personal being into nonbeing.  Persons are sacrificed for God, country, or noble principle.  No foundations, no wars, no cruelty is our thought today.  That means what John Lennon imagined in his sappy song becoming real is what’s best for personal being. 

4. “Nothing to kill or fight for, and no religion too” sounds like nihilism, but it’s not.  It’s the view that--combined with the highest possible technology--that allows each person to be a person for as long as possible.  Someone might call nihilistic the view that there’s nothing higher than ME.  But the free persons responds--I’M NOT NOTHING.  I’m irreplaceable, and, from my view, being itself is extinguished when I am.  Of course the downside of “no religion too” is that each person is on his own in securing who he or she.  And that means life is really hard in many ways for free persons. 

5. Still, free persons know better than to whine like existentialists today.  The big-time existentialists, after all, were dangerous fanatics--Heidegger a Nazi and Sartre a Stalinist.  Telling people they should seem absurdly miserable without God or whatever leads them to strike out wildly against persons, beginning with themselves.  Today’s sensible persons see nothing noble in suicidal or self-destructive behavior.  Senseless personal destruction--that’s what’s nihilistic! 

6. Sophisticated persons these days criticize existentialists, fundamentalists, and other Christians for believing that there’s more to life than is reasonable, and so for being unable to appreciate that they live in the best times for persons ever.  Rawls, of course, has become the philosopher of personal justice.  And Nietzsche has become the philosopher of personal autonomy, the philosopher who shows us how to celebrate the equal or incommensurable creativity of every human person.  

7. Rawls explains that each person’s choice of a lifeplan can be called reasonable if it has a high probability of personal success.  And so Nietzsche, in that light, can guide us as nonself-destructive (unlike Jim Morrison) and non-nauseous bourgeois bohemians.  We don’t actually want to go over to the dark side, but we want to be loose enough to appreciate those crazy persons--like Pascal or the real or scary Nietzsche--who did. 

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

7 fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Here are 7 often-overlooked World Heritage Sites, each with its own history.

Photo by Raunaq Patel on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
  • UNESCO World Heritage Sites are locations of high value to humanity, either for their cultural, historical, or natural significance.
  • Some are even designated as World Heritage Sites because humans don't go there at all, while others have felt the effects of too much human influence.
  • These 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites each represent an overlooked or at-risk facet of humanity's collective cultural heritage.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists discover how to trap mysterious dark matter

A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.

Surprising Science
  • Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
  • Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
  • The researchers will be able to try their approach in 2021, when the LHC goes back online.
Keep reading Show less