Archive for the ‘self’ Category

Tick…tick…tick—a reply to Ian Brown

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Ship's clock(small)I like Ian Brown’s birthday pieces—about turning 55 in 2009, now 60 in Feb 8th’s Globe and Mail—because they so eloquently express the feelings that come naturally to people on their birthdays, starting around age 30: the sense of time running out, the vision of one’s remaining life as a diminishing resource, the fear that its quality will deteriorate.  He writes:

I began my 60th birthday underslept, with a brewing chest infection, and…not at all pleased to have reached the milestone—standing as I was on the threshold of the no-man’s land beyond sixty. Sixty! I mean, Jesus wept: How did I get to be this old? (more…)

The Human Kludge

Friday, July 19th, 2013

Human Kludge (glowing edges)Natural selection—Richard Dawkins’ ‘blind watchmaker’—has come up with some remarkable designs over four billion years. Those that persisted are, to a greater or lesser extent, effective responses to evolutionary pressures. But many of these design solutions are far from optimal. Natural selection is an opportunist, whose default move is to recombine existing resources, cobbling something together from bits of earlier work rather than redesign from the ground up.

When I worked in software development, it was our default move too. Most programmers don’t mind describing themselves as “lazy.” Reinventing the wheel is rarely the best solution, if you have a library of previously developed, de bugged, tested implementations of rims, axles, and drive trains that have seen a few years of revenue service. Programmers like to re-use their old code because they know it works. Also, it’s usually the fastest way to meet a deadline. “Lazy” can be efficient and smart.

Although they may perform reliably, solutions assembled out of a hodgepodge of old components rarely look as nice as if someone had time to sit down and design them from scratch. And because the components were not originally made to work together , there is a greater risk of unintended side effects.

The Free On-line Dictionary defines a “kludge” (pronounced “klooj”) as:

1. A system, especially a computer system, that is constituted of poorly matched elements or of elements originally intended for other applications.

2. A clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem.

Close scrutiny of the human motivational system reveals a kludgy design. A uniquely human, state-of-the-art module for visualizing and planning the future was bolted on to the emotional apparatus of an iguana. The result works, but not well. On the whole it has been hugely adaptive, allowing us humans to flourish, multiply, and dominate our planet, outcompeting all other large species. But it is far from optimal, often working against itself, driving behaviour that is not at all adaptive either for the individuals involved or for our species as a whole. Moreover, it has unpleasant side effects.

In this post I will outline a theory of this design: how it came to be, its primary components, and why it works as well as it does. I will also lay out some of its shortcomings, and recommend an alternative, improved solution. (more…)

The Illusion of Survival

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

TheIllusion of Survival (small)When people ask what the Phantom Self is about and I have to come up with an elevator speech of a minute or less, I’ve started saying something along the lines of, “There is no fundamental difference between your relationship to your future self and your relationships to other people.” This sometimes strikes a chord, making people want to hear more. It’s better than leading with teleportation, although teleportation is not bad at parties, where people take it as an invitation to play; they light up and start recalling the Hollywood fantasies they enjoyed in their misspent youth, the more outrageous the better. It’s way better than starting off with the idea that we are informational entities, to which people respond as though they’d stepped in something squishy.

There’s no doubt that this material is hard to understand, still harder to explain. It doesn’t help that it’s spread over 60-odd posts written over three and a half years. I can’t distill it all into a one-minute elevator speech. But if I had to pick one key finding—the most important—it would be that personal survival is an illusion. And although support for this claim—which is puzzling and incomprehensible if you come across it cold—is scattered throughout 400 pages or so, no single post addresses this point directly.

So here goes. (more…)

Leary on the Curse of the Self

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Mark Leary begins The Curse of the Self by imagining himself giving a commencement address in which he tells the graduates that in their lives ahead, “The primary cause of your unhappiness will be you.” People make themselves unhappy “because of how the human mind is designed.” That design includes an ability to self-reflect which allows us “to plan ahead, reminisce about the past, consider options, innovate, and evaluate ourselves.” But it also “distorts people’s perceptions of the world…prompting them to make bad decisions based on faulty information.” [Leary,2004, p.vi]

Leary’s book is about the self-inflicted suffering and delusions which arise from how human view themselves—a subject familiar to any Buddhist. Although Leary’s views emerge from contemporary Western psychology, Leary is aware of their convergence with those of the Buddha, who had what Leary describes as “a surprisingly modern view of  the self.”  (more…)

Traces of S.A.N.D.

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

I’m back from a few days in San Rafael, CA, where I was invited to speak at the 2012 Science and Non-Duality Conference (SAND). I’m still trying to digest the experience, but that may be a mistake. The message of Non-Duality is partly a caution against over-analysis, a reminder of the limitations of our concepts, which, after all, are human artifacts. I feel it’s inappropriate to write about SAND in my usual analytical style, so I’ll try to break that habit. Just give impressions, and let emerge what may.

I was repeatedly struck by the improbability of the event. It is a confluence of people from many different streams of origin, some of which seem diametrically opposed to others. That creates, as you would expect, turbulence—but very little conflict (at least not open conflict). The atmosphere of the conference invites exploration, in an optimistic and playful spirit, of the radically different minds of others. (more…)

The Dark Doctrine of the Political Right

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Is a viral meme thwarting social progress?

To me Goldstine said, “Kid, don’t listen to him. You live in America. It’s the greatest country in the world and it’s the greatest system in the world. …. He tells you capitalism is a dog-eat-dog system. What is life if not a dog-eat-dog system? This is a system that is in tune with life. And because it is, it works. Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. …. We know what our brother is, don’t we? He’s a shit. And we know what our friend is, don’t we? He’s a semi-shit. And we are semi-shits. So how can  it be wonderful? Not even cynicism, not even skepticism, just ordinary powers of human observation tell us that is not possible.” —Philip Roth, from I Married a Communist

In 2011, the political dialogue became about rampant inequality, framed by the Occupy movement as a struggle between the 99% and the 1%.

If only it were that simple. Even in an imperfect democracy, a genuine class struggle between 1% and 99% should be a foregone conclusion. Yet the status quo persists, because large numbers of the 99% don’t see anything wrong with it. Those who do are frustrated to watch, in election after election, too many people voting against their own economic interests.

Part of the reason may be the Steinbeck effect. As John Steinbeck observed about the difficulty of organizing for change in the Dirty Thirties, “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” [Steinbeck, 1966] This attitude was evident in a letter to the editor beginning, “I do not deride the 1 per cent; I am motivated to join their ranks.” [Globe and Mail, 2011]

But wishful thinking is not the whole story. Plenty of lifetime members of the 99% have no aspiration to join the more exclusive club. They include most of the middle class who voice no objection to their now-endangered status. There is a deeper problem: they have swallowed an idea.

I call this idea “the dark doctrine of the political right.” It is “dark” in two senses: as in “the dark side,” obviously, but also as in “dark matter.” Dark matter neither glows nor reflects light, and is therefore invisible. From its gravitational effects, it is believed to constitute 83% of the matter in the universe. Some ideas are like that too: invisible, because assumed without any conscious weighing of evidence, yet exerting a gravitational pull on behaviour.

The Dark Doctrine is the idea that all human motivation is fundamentally selfish—that we act out of self-interest and nothing else. Although some people may appear to value moral principles, or to be moved by sympathy for others, they only do so because ‘it makes them feel good.’ At bottom, we’re all driven by the desire to feel good. Selfishness drives all. (more…)

Religion as an Antidote to the Self

Friday, June 15th, 2012

“Why does religion exist?” is a challenging question for both the natural and the social sciences. There is a fact to be explained: a large majority (about 85%) of human beings profess religious beliefs and engage in religious practices. For evolutionary biology, the challenge is to explain why religion caught on so well. Did religions confer a competitive advantage on the members of our species who adopted them? If they once did, do they still confer a competitive advantage? Although a ‘gene for religion’ is unlikely, religious affiliation is heritable: the strongest determinant of an individual’s religion is the religion of his parents. [Dennett, 2006, p 86] Religious observance is costly, requiring the erection of places of worship and maintenance of a priesthood, and could be presumed on that account to reduce the evolutionary fitness of believers as compared to their more worldly competitors. Why, then, have religions flourished? Almost the same question confronts economic theory, which assumes human behaviour is best modelled by Homo economicus, an agent who always chooses what he believes is in his own interests. Why would such agents choose religion, which requires personal sacrifice with no clear payback, or at least without the kind of payback that motivates the same agents in their other transactions such as work for pay and pay for groceries. A parallel question faces psychology. Religions commonly advocate self-denial, which can be presumed to be psychologically repellent. Why are people attracted by institutions and practices which ask them to give up pleasures?

All the world’s major religions try to curb human selfishness. They attempt to break their followers’ obsession with their personal lives, and encourage them to care about something larger than themselves. An aim of religion is to alter human motivation: to guide thought and motivate action in directions that run counter to ‘natural’ inclinations.

I want to examine the hypothesis that religion arose as a response to the emergence of the self as a motivational centre in human psychology. (more…)

Anatta to Agape – Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death

Friday, April 27th, 2012

In a remarkable book, Surviving Death, Mark Johnston reaches several surprising conclusions about persons and personal identity. One of them, as the title implies, is that persons can survive their biological deaths. This claim does not depend on the existence of anything resembling an immaterial, substantial soul; Johnston’s account of post-death survival is entirely naturalistic.

Johnston has packed a lot into five long chapters, originally presented as a Carl G. Hempel lecture series at Princeton. I am impressed by the stamina of the audience, who attended to what must have been a full week of close and often counterintuitive argument and stayed to ask penetrating questions. I doubt I could have followed it all—and so, am grateful to have the lectures in printed (actually e-book) form, for they are rich with insight.

Having read Johnston’s 1997 attack on Parfit’s neo-Lockeanism, “Human Concerns Without Superlative Selves,” I had pegged him as a ‘conservative’ about personal identity. But Surviving Death reveals a theory of personhood as radical as any. (more…)

Parfit’s Retreat: “We Are Not Human Beings”

Friday, March 30th, 2012

In a new paper, “We Are Not Human Beings,” Derek Parfit argues that persons are identically their conscious, thinking parts, which he identifies as their cerebrums.  This is a significant departure from the position he defended in Reasons and Persons, that personal identity consists in non-branching psychological continuity and connectedness with any cause:

Our identity over time just involves (a) Relation R—psychological connectedness and/or psychological continuity, either with the normal cause or with any cause, provided (b) that there is no different person who is R-related to us as we once were. [Parfit, 1984, p 216]

I call Parfit’s new view a “retreat” because it is a move away from the radical insights about what we are which illuminated Reasons and Persons, to a ‘conservative’ account of persons as physical substances. I find the move puzzling, because I can’t see that Parfit is compelled to make it, and disappointing, because it raises once again the fog of mysteries about persons that looked well on their way to being dispelled.

Parfit’s claim that persons are their cerebrums has as a direct consequence that persons cannot survive information-based teleportation. If  I plan to be teleported to Mars, I should accept that my replica on Mars will not be me, because my replica’s cerebrum is numerically different from my cerebrum. The cerebrum is a body part, which, like any other ordinary material object, ceases to exist when it is destroyed. Its replica on Mars is a different cerebrum—hence, if Parfit is right, a different person.

Parfit has long thought that survival—a person’s continued existence—is different from what matters in survival. His new view on what persons are could perhaps coexist with his earlier position that information-based teleportation preserves everything that matters in survival. But such coexistence, I will argue, is an uneasy truce between fundamentally warring ideas. An alternative account of what persons are—informational entities—is a better fit to Parfit’s intuition (which I endorse) that nothing important need be lost in teleportation of persons.

“Why We Are Not Human Beings” is Parfit’s response to animalism—the view put forward by Eric Olson and others that persons are identical to animals, or biological organisms. (In the animalist literature, “human being” is used as a synonym for “human animal.”) In this review of Parfit’s paper, I raise the following points:

  1. The arguments Parfit brings to bear against animalism rely on an intuition that has equal force against the paper’s conclusion that persons are their cerebrums.
  2. The claim that persons are their brains was strongly rejected in Reasons and Persons for reasons that supported a central argument of that book. If we were identical to our cerebrums, Parfit’s main argument against the Self-Interest Theory would be undercut in the same way that it would be if we were identical to our (whole) brains.
  3. The claim that we are our cerebrums weakens Parfit’s argument in Reasons and Persons that “ordinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed and having a Replica.” If I am my cerebrum, it is hard to believe that destruction of my cerebrum is not especially bad for me, even if a replica of my cerebrum is manufactured in its stead. (more…)

The Unity of Persons

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

A joke that comes down to us from Epicharmas of Kos, a 5th century BC comic playwright, is made topical by Greece’s debt crisis:

Months after lending Yiannis five euros, Giorgos catches Yiannis’ sleeve in the agora and asks for his money back. “Ah,” says Yiannis, and stoops to gather a handful of pebbles. He arranges them in a pile. “See this pile of pebbles?” Giorgos nods. “If I add two more,” Yiannis continues, demonstrating this, “is it the same pile?”

“Of course not,” says Giorgos.

“And if I take a pebble away, is it the same pile, or different?”

“Different,” says Giorgos. “So what?”

“Ah. A man is made of small things, is he not?”

“Yes,” Giorgos agrees (being a thoroughgoing physicalist).

“Well, then!” says Yiannis with a Hellenic shrug. “Many days have passed, during which the man to whom you lent those five euros consumed many small things, and excreted others, and, therefore, no longer exists. I’m not responsible for his debts.”

“I get it,” says Giorgos, and punches Yiannis in the face.

Rubbing his bruised cheek, Yiannis complains,“Why did you do that?”

“Me?” says Giorgos. “That wasn’t me.”

The joke works because we know the criterion of personal identity to which both characters appeal is bogus. A person’s identity is not like that of a collection of pebbles. Being responsible for promises and past actions is part of being the same person over time, despite gains and losses of matter, and other changes. But if we, like Yiannis and Giorgos, deny that being the same person consists in the abiding presence of some sort of immaterial substance, it is incumbent on us to give some account of the sameness of persons over time. What is the unifying principle of personhood which makes it true that, for example, Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States is the same person as the Barack Obama who was born at the Kapi’olani Maternity Hospital in Honolulu on Aug. 4th, 1961, and the Barack Obama who directed the Developing Communities Project in Chicago’s South Side in 1986—and different from everybody else? (more…)