Archive for the ‘self-concern’ Category

On Sympathy

Friday, December 9th, 2011

In the war of ideas, the philosophy of personal identity is gradually giving way to the science of human motivation. As we come to a fuller understanding of how and why we tick, from neurological, evolutionary, and ethological perspectives, the puzzles of personal identity that have perplexed thinkers since Locke’s day become less puzzling. In this journey from paradox to plain understanding, perhaps the most important single step is to abandon the idea that anticipation of experience is rationally required.

Giving up that idea is like giving up geocentrism—the belief that motion is defined with reference to the unmoving earth. When people started to see the earth as just another moving object, man was displaced from the centre of the universe. Many were unsettled and alarmed by this idea. Those with a vested interest in the status quo actively suppressed the Copernican revolution. But the idea has proven itself. We now find it liberating and empowering, no longer a threat. It has given us a better understanding of the real world, and has helped enable useful technologies.

Giving up the idea that one’s relationship to oneself is privileged—that self-interested action is sanctioned by a special class of prudential reasons which have no application to one’s actions on behalf of other people—boots the self from its central position in the rational arena. When we see how things are, that anticipation of future experience is just something we do—not justified by any special relation between us and our future selves, because the relations we have to our future selves are the same kinds of relations we have to other people—then our strongly-motivating self-concern no longer has the whip hand. We can take charge of our own motivation. (more…)

Anticipation and the Extreme Claim

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

The Apparent Rationality of Prudential Concern

Consider the following apparently straightforward inference:

I do not expect to die soon. Therefore I expect to be alive in the future. I expect I will have experiences in the future. I anticipate having experiences in the future. Because experiences can be pleasant or unpleasant, I have reason to care about the quality of those experiences.

Notice the flow of argument: from a straightforward prediction of fact—that my death is not imminent—and the seemingly innocuous observations that persons persist through time, that persons have experiences, and that experiences vary in quality, to the conclusion that I have a reason to care about the quality of my future experiences. The steps in the argument seem innocent and deeply familiar. These ideas are so closely linked as to seem inseparable.

I suggest they seem inseparable because the core concept of a person is that of a subject of experience that persists through time. Because experiences can be pleasant or unpleasant, we think a subject has reason to care about their quality in the future.

By “subject of experience” I just mean whatever has experiences. I am not claiming that the concept of a person is that of a Cartesian ego, or a spiritual substance, or a biological organism, or its brain, or any sort of psychological entity. I claim only that the concept of a person is of something that has experiences. This claim is uncontroversial.

The above argument illustrates how a motivational idea—having a reason to care about something—can be embedded in what appears to be a straightforward factual description. (more…)

Towards a Scientific Theory of Persons

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Paradigm Shift

I do not expect a theory of personhood to match all our pre-reflective philosophical intuitions, even if deeply considered and strongly felt (especially if strongly felt!) for two reasons: (1) our best intuitions on this subject are demonstrably unreliable, and (2) billions of otherwise sane and competent people hold beliefs about personal identity which are unsupported by empirical evidence, but to which they have strong emotional attachment. These two facts strongly suggest that there is something wrong with what we are naively inclined to believe about our identity. Hence we should not be surprised to find that a satisfactory solution, when it is found, will at first seem counter-intuitive. (more…)

Persons in Law

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

We cannot understand the self by examining people in isolation.   Too many important aspects of personhood only appear in a social context.

Thomas Metzinger’s work describes the self-model in which our ideas about ourselves are rooted.  The model is (usually) transparent, in that we operate through it without (usually) any awareness of a distinction between the model and the underlying reality.  It is a model to which we have a profound emotional attachment—most of us care, deeply, about ourselves in the past, present, and future.  As a result, our self-models are motivational.  They spur and shape our actions.  We evaluate possible courses of action by putting our self-models through various simulations, and responding emotionally to the different outcomes we imagine.  The research of Antonio Damasio has begun to show how our emotions must inform our executive decision-making processes in order for us to make what are commonly recognized as ‘rational’ decisions.

Most of what Metzinger and Damasio have to say about the self is as true of isolated individuals as of human beings immersed in society.  But a case can be made that the concept of the self could only have emerged in a social context.   I have argued that our concepts, particularly the entities recognized by our ontology, reflect what is important to us. The spatio-temporal boundaries between ‘things’ are artificial, not natural; they do not exist in nature, but are imposed upon nature by human beings.   A person is an entity whose boundaries roughly coincide with those of a human biological organism.  A person is commonly considered to begin sometime around birth; sooner in some traditions, later in others.  The person is usually thought to persist until biological death; but many people believe that it continues much longer than that; and some believe that if the organism is sufficiently damaged, then the person may cease to exist before its organism dies.

Among other things, a person is a unit of moral and legal responsibility—a bearer of enduring rights and privileges, duties and obligations, merits and demerits, assets and liabilities, debts and credits.  Those attributes of individual persons result from, and depend on, the fact that individuals are members of a larger society.  If a human being is isolated for a long time from other human beings, legal obligation disappears from his life, and moral obligation, if it does not entirely disappear, is vastly curtailed.  I would not go so far as to say that an isolated human being ceases to be a person; only that certain central and important aspects of personhood simply disappear from his or her life.  Having moral and legal rights and obligations is a central and important aspect of personhood. (more…)

Metzinger on the Unreality of the Self

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

In the last chapter of Being No One, Thomas Metzinger addresses the questions with which he introduced the book, a list that includes:

What is phenomenal selfhood?  What, precisely, is the nonconceptual sense of ownership going along with the phenomenal experience of selfhood, or of “being someone”?

In the discussion, he makes a striking comment related to the reality of the self.  If the phenomenal self-model (PSM) is “of a nonhallucinatory kind”:

…the system then represents certain aspects of reality as being parts of itself, and it does so correctly.   What it achieves is not only self-experience but self-knowledge. (Metzinger 2004, p 607)

In reading this passage, I wondered how Metzinger can reconcile it with his claim that ‘no such things as selves exist in the world.’   Here he says that the system represents itself to itself  by means of its PSM, and that it does so “correctly.”  Metzinger certainly admits that systems exist.  Are we not, then, such systems? (more…)

A Special Form of Darkness: Metzinger on Subjectivity

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Our brains represent ourselves, to ourselves, by means of a Phenomenal Self-Model (PSM).  According to Thomas Metzinger, the PSM is characterized by transparency, and a phenomenal quality of ‘mineness.’  Its transparency consists in our unawareness of it as a model.  We look and act ‘right through it’ – we take our models for our real selves.  ‘Mineness’ is a quality that infuses all of our experience which we take to be experience of ourselves.  Although Metzinger uses the terms “mineness” and  “ownership,” it is more than an experience of ownership.  I think “me-ness” aptly captures what Metzinger is after. (more…)

Engaging with the Future

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Our investments in the future do not stop paying dividends when we die.  Other beneficiaries may cash the cheques, but that does not represent a loss to ourselves, because our connections to them are not fundamentally different from our connections to ourselves during our remainder of our lifetimes.  In that way, it’s as though someone else always cashes the cheques.

In practice, this means we need not hold all our future eggs in one basket.  We have no reason to invest only in ourselves.  It is no less rational to work towards goals that benefit other people, or the non-human world, than it is to work for our own benefit.  They may be goals for places far outside our homes, and for times following our personal deaths.  We can commit ourselves to goals at future times when there will be no one alive for whom we now feel full-blown self-concern.  Like Terry Fox, we can engage with a future in which we will no longer exist. (more…)

Death, Revisited

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

I am always skeptical of claims that humans are unique.  The facts that we use tools, and clothes, and language, have failed to differentiate us from other species.  The more we learn about nature, the less well defined seem to be the boundaries between natural domains.

Avoiding sweeping generalizations, I will still say that the human species has gone further than others in some directions, including preoccupation with the future and awareness of death.  I doubt my cat Charlie thinks further ahead than his next meal, and not even that far when his belly is full.  Charlie lives in the day, and in the hour: he hunts with ferocious intensity, and sleeps soundly afterwards.   I, in contrast, devote most of my energy to projects which may not yield results for weeks or years, results which in some cases (like the Phantom Self project) are highly uncertain.   Charlie lives mainly in the scene of his immediate experience; I concern myself mainly with the future portrayed in my imagination.  Charlie’s experience is, by and large, an accurate representation of the world he lives in; but the future events I imagine are often very different from events in the real future, as it finally turns out.

As early as young adulthood, some people feel a need to plan their entire lives.  Our society encourages them: to choose a career path, for example, that will finance a mortgage.   Before young people have paid off their student loans, ads exhort them to start saving for retirement.  Careful planning for the future is praised as prudent behaviour.

Such prudent planning allowed our ancestors to make the transition from roving bands of hunter-gatherers to settled agrarian societies – a transition that presaged a population explosion and the beginning of human dominance of this planet.  Success in farming required thinking about next year.  Migration to colder climates would have been impossible without the ability to think things through: to preserve and tan the hides of slaughtered animals with the intention of making clothes and footwear; to collect stones and sods in summer in order to build shelters for the coming winter.  Natural selection favoured the species – ours – with the greatest ability to plan for the long term.  And so it has continued to this day: our powerful imaginations allow us to coordinate our efforts, invent, design, and build, anticipate potential disasters and sometimes successfully avoid them.   Being so preoccupied with our futures leads inevitably to thinking about our deaths. (more…)

Hazlitt’s Insight

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

The least pain in our little finger gives us more concern and uneasiness, than the destruction of millions of our fellow-beings. – William Hazlitt

As early as 1796, when he was just eighteen, the English essayist William Hazlitt may have become the first Westerner to see that self-concern is not rationally required.

Hazlitt published his insight in 1805, in his Essays on the Principles of Human Action.  Introducing the 1990 edition, John Price informs us that “The reading public and the reviewing journals regarded it, for the most part, with indifference or hostility.”   Hazlitt’s Essays and the idea they contain fell into obscurity for the best part of two centuries, after which the idea re-emerged independently as part of a new wave of thought about personal identity (more…)

The Neurology of Anticipation

Friday, August 27th, 2010

In the previous post, I asked what is the difference between having a painful experience myself and feeling sympathy for someone else’s pain.  The answer seems pretty clear.  My experience of my own pain is neurologically ‘hard-wired’, but there is no direct neural connection between other persons and myself which exposes me to their pain.  Things could have been different.  If we, like the Na’vi of the movie Avatar, had the physiological equivalent of USB-ports which allowed us to connect our nervous systems at will, then we could experience the pains, pleasures, and other sensations of other people while we were connected to them.  The ‘privacy’ of our minds is an anatomical limitation, not a metaphysical necessity.

A parallel question can be asked about future experience.  What is the difference between anticipating my own pain and having sympathy for a friend whose pain I can foresee?  As in the case of present pain, there is a vivid difference in my experience between anticipating having pain, and expecting you to have pain.   There is nothing resembling a direct neural connection between myself, now, and myself in the future, to explain this difference.  Nevertheless, neuroscience can help us understand it: why it is so vivid, why expectation of my own pain makes me anxious rather than just sympathetically concerned, why foreseeing pain in my own future feels like an unavoidable problem for me in a way that foreseeing your pain does not.

Another difference is that sympathy for others, unlike self-concern, seems at least partially under conscious control.  When we feel we cannot afford it, we tend to dial it down or switch it off altogether.  It feels optional, in contrast to the sense of unavoidability that clings to self-concern.

In his book, Hardwired Behaviour, Laurence Tancredi of the New York University School of Medicine offers some clues to an answer from a neurological perspective.  The engine of self-concern is a cyclical interaction between the limbic system, which generates our emotions (giving emotional ‘meaning’ to experience), and the prefrontal cortex, which makes plans and decisions. (more…)