First, Pinker, like so many before him, slanders the 19th century philosopher Herbert Spencer by saying he was a Social Darwinist who opposed all charity: “… Herbert Spencer wrote that do-gooders would only interfere with the progress of evolution if they tried to improve the lot of the impoverished classes and races who were, in Spencer’s view, biologically less fit” (15-16). This is a complete mischaracterization of Spencer’s position. Read Roderick Long’s excellent defense of Spencer against these scurrilous charges here. Protagoras reacts against the same passage in Pinker, and links to a couple more essays by Long.
Second, in making the case that the “unified self” is a myth, Pinker points to studies of people whose brain hemispheres have been separated by severing the corpus callosum. In such cases, the two halves of the brain think and act separately, sometimes contrary to each others’ wishes. More interestingly, Pinker notes, the left hemisphere will construct bogus rationalizations to explain the behavior of the right hemisphere:
For instance, if an experimenter flashes the command “WALK” to the right hemisphere (by keeping it in the part of the visual field that only the right hemisphere can see), the person will comply with the request and begin to walk out of the room. But when the person (specifically, the person’s left hemisphere) is asked why he just got up, he will say, in all sincerity, “To get a Coke” – rather than “I don’t really know” or “The urge just came over me”… (p. 43)Okay, now that’s fascinating: the hemispheres perform different functions, and weird stuff happens when the hemispheres can’t communicate. But does this experiment really show, or even imply, the absence of a unified self? Only for the person whose hemispheres have been severed, as most of ours have not! One obvious interpretation is that the corpus callosum performs an integrative function in normal human beings. Cutting the corpus callosum and then citing the resulting inconsistent behavior as evidence against the notion of a unified self is not unlike unraveling the threads from a baseball and citing the ball’s coming apart as evidence against the notion of a unified baseball.
To be clear: I’m not necessarily saying that there is a unified self. I’m just saying the experiment discussed doesn’t show it.