Evolution of the Self

Thought-Experimental Results, and More Questions

Evolution of the Self CUIn the story Forking, Elliot Otley is accidentally duplicated.  During part of the story, each Elliot regards his counterpart as another man.  Later, he comes to regard the other Elliot as himself.  The difference between those two attitudes is dramatic.

When he thinks of the other Elliot as a different person, it is as a rival for his property, career and family, everything that he holds dear.  The relationship is one of competition and animosity.  When he starts to think of the other Elliot as himself, the animosity vanishes, replaced by sympathy and understanding.  The relationship becomes cooperative.

When Elliot first learns of the other Elliot’s existence, he responds with hatred and fear, as to a dangerous competitor.  Later, the two Elliots stop competing, and are fully cooperative.  Yet their beliefs about the relevant facts of the case have not changed.  Throughout the story, Elliot knows how travel-by-information works, and what went wrong that led to his duplication.  What changed Elliot’s mind about his relationship to the other was not new factual information.

Was his change in attitude instead brought about by a logical process?  When the two Elliots reach the point of deciding to end the life of “one superfluous Elliot Otley”, both are indifferent as to which will live and which will die.  Is this because they discovered, or thought they discovered, some logical inconsistency in their original position, and so came to an alternative view?   If so, we don’t know it; it is not part of the story.

At different times in the story, Elliot subscribes to two different theories: one, that he and the other Elliot are the same person; the other, that they are different persons.  Many readers may think the question of which of these theories is true, given the stated facts of the case, can be settled by logic.  The philosophical literature of personal identity abounds with arguments of this nature.  To date, no consensus has been reached on an answer.  The puzzles of personal identity seem peculiarly intractable, beset by conflicting intuitions that lead reasonable people to opposite conclusions.  Rather than go over this ground now, I would like to leave open the question whether a logical argument will succeed, and consider a third alternative.  This is the possibility that neither logical argument nor empirical test can decide between the two theories.  That Elliot is under no factual misapprehension when he takes either of the views, and he is making no logical mistake either.  That each theory is internally consistent, and both are underdetermined by the facts.  That the question which of them is true cannot be settled by logic or empirical test.


Let’s turn from the human replication case to an ordinary case.  Most people are willing to say they expect to wake up tomorrow morning.  Perhaps you would say that.  If so, what do you mean by it?

Imagining yourself waking up tomorrow is not like imagining someone else waking up, even if that other person is just like you.  There is a difference in the emotional affect you attach to the images.  The difference is a very vivid one.

When I imagine waking up tomorrow and going through my day, I care what happens to this imagined self.  Caring about myself is more or less automatic.  It does not depend on any special mindset that I am more likely to have some days than others, like a generally benevolent attitude, or an altruistic impulse.  Whatever my mood, I always, or almost always, care what will happen to me.

I expect to have a conversation tomorrow with a customer who is anxious to for me to deliver a custom software component that is critical to his business.  I will phone him tomorrow because that is the day I promised to deliver it.  But the software is not ready; it has a serious bug I’ve been unable to fix.  I contemplate this impending conversation with mild dread.  I rehearse it, try out alternatives.  Will he go ballistic if I tell him it’s delayed?  I imagine being embarrassed when I try to explain.  Should I deliver the software anyway, and pretend I don’t know about the bug?  I am tempted, because the bug is intermittent, and may not affect him right away.  I could probably fix it and send him an update before he knew there was a problem.  But I would feel guilty about that; I don’t regard myself as the kind of businessman who would deliver a product he knows to be dangerously defective.  Maybe I can be upfront with the customer, and offer him the choice: he can take delivery tomorrow, knowing that he may have problems, or he can wait for a fix.  And so I chew on this scene, plan and replan until I settle on a scenario that seems the least unpalatable.

My attitude is completely different if it’s someone else’s problem, not mine.  If I know that someone other than myself has promised to deliver software which is not ready, I am relatively unperturbed.  If someone I like is in this predicament, I may be sympathetic; if it’s someone I dislike, I may gloat.  As long as my own prospects are not significantly affected by the outcome, I can contemplate it more or less indifferently.  If it’s someone else’s problem, I may be more inclined to take the moral high ground and say of course he should not deliver buggy software.  I do not feel personally uncomfortable.

If I am interested enough in someone else’s problem to picture it in detail, the images I have are likely to closely resemble the images I would have if it were my own problem.  Assuming that the customer is the same in both cases, my mental picture of him going ballistic, after being told that the delivery is delayed, is about the same.  My images of the software vendor trying to cope may be quite different, if the vendor is unlike me: more excitable, perhaps, or less honest.  Or, if the vendor is someone much like me, then the responses I imagine him making on the phone are very much the same responses that I would imagine myself making if the problem were mine.  The important difference between these cases is not in the images themselves, but in the emotional affect attached to the images.  In the one case, acute discomfort; in the other, relative equanimity.

We feel a raft of emotions towards ourselves that we do not usually feel towards others.  Dread is one – I dread tomorrow’s conversation with my customer.  I do not dread your conversation with your customer, because it has nothing to do with me.  Eager anticipation is another, as when I can hardly wait to go on vacation, to get out of North Vancouver’s cold November rains and into the glorious, warm sunshine and fragrance of a tropical beach.   Anxiety about one’s own future financial security usually has a sharper, more motivating edge than does concern for others losing their jobs.  I regret my past mistakes; I do not regret yours (although I may deplore them).  This raft of emotions – the way we feel about ourselves – can be lumped together under the label, ‘self-concern’.

Some situations give rise to similar emotions if they involve ourselves or those we love, but to quite different feelings when they involve strangers or rivals.  People commonly take pride not only in their own achievements, but also in the accomplishments of their children, and of groups they belong to.  I do not take pride in the achievements of strangers, unless the strangers belong to a group with which I ‘identify’ in some way, like a sports team attached to my city.  Similarly, I feel ashamed of my own misdeeds and those of my family and my country.  I am not ashamed of my neighbour’s failings or those of the nation next door.  It seems there is another raft of emotions that extend more broadly than the emotions of self-concern – that extend to one’s loved ones, and even into the wider community – but that do not extend to other people or communities with which we do not ‘identify’ (in the loosest sense of the word).

Discussions of personal identity often invoke the idea of “what matters” about continued existence.  This is the idea that each of us has a reason to care about what happens to herself – a special reason that applies only to herself, not extending to others – a reason sometimes called “rational self-interest”, or to use a more old-fashioned term, “prudence”.   Contemporary philosophy has tried to distinguish between ‘what matters’ and personal identity.  Derek Parfit, notably, argued that the puzzle cases of personal identity involving ‘body swapping’ or ‘fission’ of  various kinds – Forking is an example – can be used to show that identity is not what matters.  The idea that there is something that matters in continued existence is not usually called into question.

What is ‘what matters’?  The idea of ‘what matters’ seems to be whatever justifies self-concern – the kind of emotional involvement I’ve been describing with reference to my own future experiences.  I am now in the relationship that ‘matters’ with someone in the future if and only if it is appropriate for me to feel self-concern for that person.

Consider, again, my contemplation of tomorrow’s conversation with my customer, when the problem is my own.  The emotions I experience when I think about this closely resemble the emotions I would have if I were actually in the situation I imagine. My dread of the situation has much the same character as (although perhaps less intensity than) the embarrassed discomfort I would feel if I were having the conversation now.

But those emotions might be absent.  If were a different sort of person – the sort that is described as ‘detached’ – I might think about tomorrow’s conversation with more equanimity.  I might imagine these events as coolly as if I were imagining your problem instead of my own.

Let’s suppose I do so.  Am I making a mistake, to feel detached about my own future?  If I am aware of the relevant facts – if I clearly understand whose future will include this conversation – it is difficult to conclude that I’m making a mistake.  I just don’t care, in that way.  An emotional response may be considered appropriate or inappropriate.  But it is not, in itself, a mistake.

Perhaps my emotional detachment is inappropriate. What does that mean?  Although an emotional response is not in itself a mistake, it may be inappropriate if it is based on a mistake.  If my detachment depends on ignoring some fact about my relationship to my future self – a fact which, if I were aware of it, would make me feel self-concerned instead of detached – then detachment is not the appropriate response.

If, on the other hand, my self-concern is appropriate, that seems to mean that my special, non-detached, discomfort about tomorrow’s conversation is justified.  That something about the relationship between me today, and the person who will be having that awkward conversation tomorrow, justifies feeling about that conversation in almost the way I would feel about it if I were having it now.  That I have a reason to feel that way.

But perhaps I don’t have a reason to feel that way.  Perhaps it’s the other way around: I feel that way because I think I have a reason to feel that way about tomorrow’s conversation.  What reason?  The reason, as commonly expressed, is that it will be my conversation; the conversation will happen to me.

But suppose there is no reason to feel that way.  Rather, I just feel that way when imagining events happening to someone I believe will be myself.  There is no reason for it; that’s just how I feel.

We sometimes experience unjustified or unreasonable emotions.  When vacationing at my lakefront property, I occasionally feel a twinge of envy when my neighbour zooms in on his float plane.  I feel it, despite the fact that I disapprove of his float plane, which disturbs everyone in the bay with its appalling noise and adds to the burden of greenhouse gases smothering our planet in aid of nothing but my neighbour’s convenience and his pleasure in showing off.  Because I have no reason – or no good one – for that twinge of envy, I quickly suppress it, and resume my attitude of smug disapproval.

Could all the so-called ‘selfish’ emotions be like this?  Could self-concern be unjustified in this way?

A Darwinian Story

Why would I feel self-concern if I have no reason to do so?  A little thought about evolution is enough to come up with an explanation, in broad strokes.

It is easy to understand why special emotions that attach to the self may have evolved.  Any animal that can move around needs to have a strong sense of the extents of its body.  An animal needs a vivid, accurate sense of its body – of size, shape, position, orientation, momentum – to make split-second decisions as to whether it can pass between two trees or should go around, decisions that are critical to success, whether in escaping a predator or pursuing a mate.  And animals need to avoid injuring their bodies.  So it makes sense that an animal should have an awareness of its body as something special, have a protective, nurturing attitude towards its body, feel distress if its body is injured, and concerned if it perceives a danger of injury.

An animal which can differentiate the elements of its experience so as to distinguish clearly and accurately between what is and what is not part of its body, and which has a special concern for itself which induces caring for its body and avoiding injury, has an evolutionary advantage over an animal which does not.

Neuroscience has identified specific areas in the brain in which the body – more specifically, the surface, or skin area, of the body – is represented.  These are the Penfield maps, which run along the central sulcus in both hemispheres.  Tactile stimuli applied to the skin cause brain activity in the corresponding location on the Penfield map.  Conversely, direct stimulation of areas of the Penfield map with electrodes gives patients the subjective sensations of being touched on the corresponding part of the body.  The well-known “phantom limb” phenomenon in amputees is understood in terms of the Penfield map; although the arm or leg is missing, the corresponding part of the Penfield map is not.  This gives the amputee the vivid, and often painful, sensation that his missing limb is still present, attached to his body and occupying real space, in a definite position and attitude.  The Penfield map is the neurological ‘implementation’ of the psychological property of body-awareness.  Neurological connections between the Penfield map and structures belonging to the limbic system, which is responsible for emotion, cause a perceived threat to the body to arouse an instant, intense emotional response and avoidance behaviour.  Such connections have obvious survival value.

I have outlined an evolutionary explanation for a special concern for the self in the immediate situation in which an animal finds itself – the here-and-now.  This concern would be advantageous for any ambulatory species with the cognitive ability to make use of it.  I presume that some such explanation is true of rodents, birds, and reptiles, as well as the ‘higher’ mammals.

Human beings think about and plan for the future in great detail.  Our ability to plan is a major factor in our success as a species.  We think ahead; we develop elaborate scenarios in which some members of the tribe hide in strategic places while others stampede the buffalo; at the critical moment, the hidden people stand up, scare the herd into making a sudden right turn, and drive it over the cliff.  The buffalo die; the people eat.  That is how we get on.

Although some non-human species appear capable of planning for the short term, most are not great planners. There may be exceptions among the most highly-developed species. (I do not count the activities of bees or hoarding squirrels, which seem rigidly instinctual, as planning.  However, I am sure I saw intention in a zoo gorilla who, when he heard the keeper coming down the corridor, picked up some of his shit and stood at the bars, poised to throw.  Before opening hours in a Swedish zoo, a chimpanzee named Santino regularly stockpiles stones to hurl at the visitors who will arrive later.)  Humans have an outstanding ability to plan for events in the non-immediate future – events which will take place in scenes remote from, and completely unlike, the one in which the planner makes his plans.  I suspect the ability to think about the future as effectively as we do depends on other abilities, including a well-developed language, and the ability to remember and draw lessons from the past.

As far as we know, the sense of self in most species does not extend much beyond the here and now.  But what, we may ask, would happen to the sense of self in an animal which starts to make detailed plans for the future?  Certainly detailed plans would include plans for the animal’s own future – otherwise the planning would be unlikely to give it an evolutionary advantage.  Human planning evolved as an aid to survival and reproduction for a species that was dexterous and intelligent, but not very strong or very fast.  Once our ancestors began to imaginatively picture themselves in the future, it was only natural that the emotions attached to themselves in the present, should be extended to their images of their bodies in the future.  Imagining themselves in their plans, they projected onto these images the kinds of emotions that evolved to protect them in more immediate situations.

And there you have it – the bare outline of an evolutionary explanation for the special concern we have for ourselves, as opposed to others, in the future.  This naturalistic explanation does not imply any rational justification for self-concern.  The explanation says that we feel the way we do about our future selves because feeling that way improved our ancestors’ chances of survival and reproduction, and therefore conferred an evolutionary advantage on them.  That is not, in itself, a reason for self-concern.

Explanation is Not Justification

All of our common emotional responses are in some way products of evolution.  Most of them, we can safely assume, gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage.  But the fact that an emotion gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage does not provide a rational justification for the emotion.

Take gluttony for example.  Edwin, who is chubby and has been diagnosed with debilitating arterial plaque, has a craving for fatty foods – specifically (since he is from Quebec) for poutine (fries with cheese curds and gravy).  This hunger for fats his body does not need – that actually harm his health – is part of his evolutionary heritage.  Our ancestors did not have dependable, permanently established food sources like our supermarkets.  Until we invented agriculture about 10,000 years ago, eating was a hit-or-miss affair.  Those with a more fat-prone metabolism, who could pack on a few extra pounds when times were good, were more likely to survive than their skinnier relatives who were either metabolically incapable of laying down body fat, or who lacked appetite to eat much more than they needed that day, and who were therefore the first to exhaust their caloric reserves in lean times.  Evidence for natural selection of the fat-prone lies all around us.  According to NHANES data from 2001 to 2004, 66% of adults in the U.S. are overweight, defined as BMI greater than 25. People like myself who are naturally thin, who eat delicious food without restraint, who have difficulty achieving their weight targets in the upward direction, are a minority.  For millions of years, evolution did not favour our somatic type.

Evolution has given Edwin, who is more representative of our species, a craving for fat which does not serve him well as a settled, affluent member of contemporary society.  Having been warned by his doctor, Edwin makes efforts to curb his appetite.  He asks his wife to stop making poutine, and lets his friends know he finds it difficult when they eat it in his presence.  Despite his craving and its evolutionary explanation, Edwin has every reason not to eat poutine.  The reasons not to are rooted in Edwin’s values.  He wishes to preserve and improve his health.  Why?  One reason is that he has a family to provide for; if he suddenly dies of a heart attack, or becomes disabled, they will suffer.  Another reason is that there are things Edwin wants to do – be part of the team to elect the first Green Party MP in Canada, for example – which he will be unable to do if he is dead.  He has career goals too.  And he has not yet seen Venice, or read War and Peace.  He wants to live long enough to see his grandchildren.  Those goals, aspirations and desires – whether justified or unjustified in themselves – outweigh, in his reasoned judgement, the satisfaction he would derive from gorging on poutine.  And so, he tries to resist the urge, and to lead himself out of temptation.  To reduce his suffering, and improve his chances of success, he has a good reason to eliminate the craving by taking appetite-suppressant pills.

And so, perhaps, it is with our emotional attachment to our future selves.  We have strong, highly motivating feelings about persons in the future whom we believe to be ourselves; but we may have no reason to feel that way, or not as much reason as we think we have.

That we think we have a reason to feel the way we do – to worry more about our own financial security than our neighbour’s, to look forward to our own vacations but not our friends’ vacations – is important.  If we did not think we had such reasons, the concept of self would not have such a grip on us – such a strong influence on our behaviour, and moods, and the quality of our lives.  If I think, instead, that perhaps I don’t have any special reason to be concerned about my own well-being over that of others, then I am freer.  Like Edwin, who has learned that his craving for poutine is not a good reason to eat the stuff, I am freer to make decisions that favour the things I value most.  As a moral agent, I may decide to overrule the feelings of self-concern in order to achieve other goals.  That is easier to do – much easier – if I think there is no compelling reason for self-concern.

The evolutionary story – which I have outlined only in the barest details – explains the existence of self-concern without requiring that there be a compelling reason for self-concern.  If this turns out to be substantially correct, then if we wish to find reasons for self-concern, we must look beyond statements like, “The reason I care about my future is that it’s mine – I am the one concerned.”  Such statements beg the question.  If there are good reasons for self-concern, they should be grounded in other, independent values.

The emotions of self-concern make the difference between self and other vivid to us.  Something like the evolutionary story I outlined may explain this vivid difference.  But it does not, in itself, provide us with a reason to obey the urges of self-concern, a reason more compelling than we have to obey any other emotion.  No doubt self-concern has survival value.  For that reason, echoing Voltaire, I will allow that if the self did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.


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