This is the 3rd part of a series adapted from my 2009 Bachelor’s Thesis in philosophy.
Part 1 introduced the series and its premise: there are two ways to look at the self — a scientific way and a traditional way — and transferring statements from one to the other has weird effects.
Part 2 described the traditional view, using the philosopher C.A. Campbell as a representative.
In part 3 I offer a sketch of an alternative view, assembled from background assumptions in the physical sciences.
The assumption of naturalism
An alternative to Campbell’s contorted efforts to save metaphysical agency through mystery-mongering is to build a different account of the self using science. The two accounts would be easy to compare if they both existed explicitly, but unfortunately they don’t. A fair approximation of the first is laid out by Campbell, but since science isn’t itself in the business of philosophy I can’t really claim there is a coherent scientific image to counter it.
Instead I offer an outline inspired by the very core of science, the assumption of naturalism. In essence, science assumes that there are no unintelligible things, nothing that cannot in theory be accurately described and explained. No miracles. This does not mean that science have discovered that magic doesn’t exist. Naturalism in science is what Owen Flanagan (in echo of Kant) calls a regulative assumption:
Immanuel Kant drew a distinction between the ideas that regulate or guide an inquiry or project, and those that are the result of an inquiry or project so guided. The first kind he called regulative ideas (or ideals), and the second he called constitutive ideas. /—/
Most scientists assume that the world is obedient to “laws”, which they sometimes discover. But the regulative assumption that such laws exist dramatically outstrips the number of occasions on which they are actually discovered. However, when laws such as Newton’s laws of motion are discovered, they become a constitutive part of science.
I’m not claiming that all scientists (or even any) subscribe to exactly the view I’ll present (or even to naturalism in general). But that doesn’t matter, as science itself (as a process and as an institution) does subscribe to naturalism as its conceptual foundation — when science is being done the assumption of naturalism is present. And if there is some underlying construct implicitly present whenever science about the self is done, then we can call this the scientific image of the self. Or, for the purposes of this paper, the paradigm in which scientific results bearing on the self is created.
Naturalism is implicitly assumed by science simply because science seeks to describe how everything works and therefore must assume that this can be done. Of course, if the universe contains only some regularities rather than being completely rule-based the scientific project can still progress a certain amount. But I consider it the ultimate ambition of science to explain the full nature of reality and assume that this is possible, at least in theory. This implies naturalism.
My alternative to dualist selves is a hodgepodge of philosophical and scientific ideas, and not the only possible such. If there is a “real” scientific image, lurking about as a platonic ideal, I don’t claim that this is it. But any such image will share its basic structure and its points of contention vis-à-vis the Campbellian image.
Worldening the self
For lack of a better term, I’ll use the word “worlden” to describe the process of, through redefinition, establish a previously non-natural concept within the natural world through hard, sweaty, philosophical labor and/or cultural change. For instance, to worlden “God”, one would have to supply a definition of God as a part of nature, as a natural phenomenon . You might say that’s impossible because it goes against a fundamental aspect of the concept of “God”. Sure, that may be true for “God”, specifically, but when it comes to the human self I’m convinced it’s both possible and desirable.
A concept that has been — or at least is being — worldened is love. Love has, in our collective consciousness, had a mystical aura and perhaps even been considered literally magical. No more. It’s no longer typically thought of as handed down from the gods but as a natural phenomenon. And importantly, we still consider it real — despite it not being a throbbing piece of mystic-magic. This examples is originally Daniel Dennett’s, he says (in Freedom Evolves):
It is easier to see what the issue is it we switch fantasies for a moment. Recall the myth of Cupid, who flutters about on his cherubic wings making people fall in love by shooting them with his little bow and arrow. This is such a lame cartoonists’ convention that it’s hard to believe that anybody ever took any version of it seriously. But we can pretend: Suppose that once upon a time there were people who believed that an invisible arrow from a flying god was a sort of inoculation that caused people to fall in love. And suppose some killjoy scientist then came along and showed them that this was simply not true: No such flying gods exist. “He’s shown that nobody ever falls in love, not really . The idea of falling in love is just a nice—maybe even a necessary—fiction. It never happens.” That is what some might say. Others, one hopes, would want to deny it: ”No. Love is quite real, and so is falling in love. It just isn’t what people used to think it is. It’s just as good—maybe even better. True love doesn’t involve any flying gods.”
I hope this helps explain why I think it’s a bad idea to say that just because the self is not some otherworldly substance that interacts with the world (rather than being a part of the world) it does not exist. The same is true for free will. Saying that something doesn’t exist because it is not what we thought it was is not helpful. Doing so makes no more sense than he who laments the disappearance of the earth after the Copernican revolution, as described by Flanagan:
Suppose that when the Copernican alternative was offered it was a matter completely internal to science, of no interest to defenders of the humanistic image. The battle would have been fought completely on grounds of empirical and theoretical adequacy and mathematical simplicity. And suppose that in this battle, the Copernicans, with help from Galileo and Kepler (who figured out that planetary orbits were elliptical, not circular), won the day, as they in fact eventually did. Now imagine a forlorn defender of the Ptolemaic view who has accepted defeat saying to his therapist, “We have lost the earth. There is no earth. Earth doesn’t exist.”
Is this guy out of touch with reality? Maybe not. There is a sense in which Ptolemaic astronomy and Copernican astronomy can be said not to mean the same thing by the term “earth” since they assign it radically different, indeed mutually inconsistent properties. According to the first view, the earth is stationary and the center of the universe. According to the second view, the earth is in double rotation—first, on its own axis, second, around the sun—and it is not even the center of the solar system, let alone the universe. The therapist, if she is wise, will see what it is that legitimately worries the Ptolemaic. She might try to relieve his despair by saying, and saying truly, that that there is still a sense in which the two views still mean the same thing by “earth”, namely “this heavenly body we call home.” But the Ptolemaic may rightly respond that he meant much more by “earth” than this thin idea, this primitive core sense. By “earth”, he meant this heavenly body which we call home and that is stationary and lies at the center of the universe. Earth, in his sense, no longer exists. He sees this and even accepts that it is true, but it sickens his soul.
I can only join Flanagan in admonishing that this character is remembered, because it is an excellent metaphor to illustrate the intellectual situation in which science is placing many. The Forlorn Ptolemaic will help us understand why some might think there is no such thing as ”mind” or “the self” or “free will” if each is recast in a naturalistic form.
I mainly use Daniel Dennett’s work as a basis for the scientific image because he is the most diligent in exorcising the idea of the self as a unified entity. He suggests many philosophers committed to materialism in principle are still prisoners of some remnants of dualism. Specifically, the Cartesian idea of the mind interacting with the brain in a specific place has made them think there is or should be a place in the brain where “it all comes together” and experiences happen. This he calls “Cartesian materialism”, and argues that it fails to get rid of the idea of the self as something other than brain activity. That is, Cartesian materialism doesn’t properly worlden the self because the brain processes whose mechanics are understood by neuroscience aren’t considered part of the self; they are thought of as delivering information to the self, not being the self experiencing that information. This has the effect of shrinking the domain of the self as mind science progresses, until it eventually contains nothing (which is pretty much where Campbell ends up).
Dennett, on the other hand, dissects the self and describes it as consisting of different parts, extended in space and time. There is no particular place in the brain where the self is, just as there is, say, no place in a book where the plot is.
The self as composite
The shortcomings of the Campbellian image suggests the characteristics of a more successful alternative. First of all: the self is not external to the brain but a process/structure within it, and we run into trouble when we look into the brain and wonder where exactly the self is. Observing what appears to be complete causation without gaps makes us uncomfortable since it’s the self that should be doing things, not the brain ‘on its own’.
One way out is to define the self as “whatever makes the decisions”. That solves some things but makes it less than obvious what belongs to the self and what doesn’t. What actually made the decision you just made is a diverging web of causal strands that stretches back into the beginning of time, but this isn’t a useful way to define “you”.
So how? To hint at a solution: some of these strands stay inside your body, your brain and your character for very long when traced back in time (such as your innate personality traits or traces of early experiences), others exit you very quickly (such as the bad mood you just got from a store clerk being rude to you or another person physically forcing your hand). This provides some standard by which to judge to what degree properties of your mind are part of your self. Far from a full account, this is only meant to suggest there are ways to do this.
Worldening the self does require that we abandon the notion that it’s uniform, atomic and sharply divided from the non-self. The neuroscientist Marvin Minsky famously compared the mind to a society in a 1986 book, and that metaphor fits perfectly with what I have in mind here. A society has policies towards itself and other societies. Those policies are the result of a complex deliberative political process where different interest fight it out and attempt to influence the circuits that leads to where decisions on the society’s behalf are made.
Whenever controversial decisions are made there are groups who resent not getting their way. This is not unlike the deliberation going on inside a person. We all have various interests within us fighting for the right to dictate policy (our actions) and we can certainly feel sub-persons inside us being angry, anxious or resentful when their interests are subverted. Every time we choose between a pizza and a salad there is one subperson clamoring for salt, carbs and fat and another worrying about the long term health of the body. One of them is going to end up in tears.
Contrast this with the decision to extend your arm to open a door. What makes this different is simply that everyone agrees that it should be done and therefore there is no power struggle and the issue won’t reach conscious awareness — it won’t be a topic of “public debate”.
The most central aspects of the self are like the more powerful part of a country’s leadership, which the varying interests seek to influence. Other, more peripheral parts are like less powerful citizens whose influence is only indirectly in connection with policy. Mood, character and mental health are the equivalents of the state of the economy, culture and social capital.
Dennett has adopted a biological analogy of Richard Dawkins’s making as part of his theory of the self. Dawkins argued in 1976 that the process of evolution is indifferent to the medium on which it acts, and as long as a system fulfills certain criteria it is capable of undergoing evolution. Human culture and the ecology of information snippets and associated behaviors it consists of is such a system. Procreation from the perspective of the culture snippets means being copied from person to person by imitation and cultural learning. The smallest meaningful units undergoing this sort of selection and procreation process were dubbed memes, as an analogy to genes.
In the memetic account of the self, parts acquired by cultural learning are memes and the complex identities we have are ultimately memetic artifacts. Dennett claims that what we call a person is a “meme-infected individual” and that we would possibly not even think of someone as a person if they weren’t “part memes”. It seems plausible to me that a human living in absolute solitude with no cultural experiences and therefore no acquisition of language, no explicit values and only the most rudimentary moral impulses might be perceived as having a self more similar to an animal’s than to a culturally embedded human.
A memetic view of the self has it as gradual, composite, and with parts of varying centrality. Most central are memes that manage to lodge themselves in a position to activate your emotional reaction system and motivate action, in many cases by aligning themselves with preexisting emotional impulses. In this view, your self can actually extend beyond your body by containing pointers to things that you identify with, such as political, religious or ideological belief systems, art and culture — or particular people you care about. Self-growth can be quite literal.
So what makes you reside in you? Think of it like this: the words in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” can be found in millions of places all over the world, but only in an actual copy of the play are they all put together in the right order, instantiating the story. Similarly, what makes your self actually centered in your body is that it’s where all the parts of your self are gathered in a small space and can interact with each other, instantiating “you”.
So there are many ways to describe the self, what it is and what it involves. The approaches I have suggested are not complete, probably not totally satisfactory even for me –— and perhaps not entirely compatible either. That’s not the point. But whatever naturalistic conception of the self we end up with, it will have to have certain characteristics, such as the self being natural and non-magical, composite, have fuzzy boundaries and parts of varying centrality and importance. It will also have an internal structure that functions by an intelligible mechanism.
Freedom as emergent
What does this all mean for freedom? I maintain that freedom is a meaningful concept, despite my dismissal of Campbell. The key is to think of it and define it the right way.
Dennett says we should look at freedom like we look at skill. He uses a basketball analogy to explain this: how well a team does on the court can be explained by skill or luck, most often a combination of both. But what is skill? Maybe the players are skilled because they had good coaches when they grew up. But weren’t they lucky to have good coaches? Maybe they sought them out themselves; but in that case, weren’t they lucky to live in the right place and have parents that supported them? Alternatively, weren’t they lucky to have the necessary talent, motivation and discipline to practice, through a fortunate conjunction of environment and heredity? And on and on it goes.
If we take the history of the players apart we can show that it is all a matter of luck and there is no such thing as skill. This is what we are doing when we say that people are not free because their decision process can be taken apart into a collection of determined events.
But something is obviously wrong with this line of reasoning. There is a meaningful distinction to be made between skill and luck when it comes to the performance of a basketball team. Just because an object ceases to exist when we take it apart into its constituent atoms it doesn’t follow that it doesn’t exist at all. Freedom exists. It’s just like skill or objects an emergent property of a particular arragement of parts.
To tie back to the idea of the self as a country we can say that countries are free actors in international politics. That their policies are determined by the opinions of their citizens and their political structure doesn’t change that. That there would need to be some non-causal input into the political process of a country for it to be considered free is frankly absurd, and we recognize it as such.
There is a shift of perspective involved; when we think that freedom (and skill) doesn’t exist we are viewing a person from outside of time. When seeing a person’s trajectory through time from the outside, everything is determined (or undetermined in an uninteresting random way, that doesn’t matter) and there is no freedom or skill. However, that’s because we assume there is an entity outside of time to which atemporal freedom or skill could be ascribed; an timeless self of whom freedom and skill are potential qualities (but denied in a deterministic universe).
But selves do not exist outside of time. They are not constant, atemporal entities but everchanging composite bundles that exist only at given points in time. Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience, provides a neurological account of different parts of the self in his book The Feeling of What Happens. The core self is a second-order representation of a change in the self-representation of the brain and/or body by an object, either external (a perception) or internal (a memory). The core self only exist for a brief period before it is dissolved followed by the next core self. During its existence it may or may not write to the permanent memory bank. The autobiographical self is this memory bank, the “hard drive” of the mind where individual core selves leave lasting traces that effects future thoughts and actions.
He speculates that some non-human animals possess core selves but not autobiographical selves, meaning they have momentary consciousness but no persistent identity. Damasio thusly thinks of the human self as a series of core selves mounted on the spine of an everchanging Ship-of-Theseus-like autobiographical self partly made of memes.
This view is also present with Dennett, who calls consciousness “a means of interfacing with myself at other times” and with Galen Strawson (in The Self?), who calls his instantaneous selves a “string of pearls” that together constitute him. Derek Parfit also thinks something like this, except that the “pearls” don’t add up to a meaningful single entity to him.
Freedom and skill are meaningless concepts when seen from outside time, but a self at a given time has skill that it has acquired and freedom that it can use.
The notion of responsibility works the same way, what is responsible for a certain act is the self that performed the act, which existed at that time. A self that exist at a later time is partly responsible by virtue of being continuous and overlapping in content with the responsible self. This seems to mix well with our intuitive sense of responsibility; we do think that you are less responsible now for an act that you performed a long time ago when your self was very different compared to its current state.
Again, the purpose of this is not to establish a full-blown theory of freedom and responsibility in a naturalistic framework, but merely to sketch what such a philosophy would probably look like and show that it’s possible. These general properties of the self, freedom and responsibility I’ll refer to as the naturalistic view.
• • •
To further specify what I mean by “naturalism”: it’s not as straightforward to articulate as one might think. At its core it means monism, that everything that exist is ultimately of the same nature and has no relationship, no bond or interaction, with any other kind of substance. Only one kind of thing exists in an ontologically independent sense and all “other” things consist of this single thing in various combinations.
Physicists are the modern heirs of presocratic philosophers, looking for the nature of this single thing, and regardless of what it turns out to be (superstrings, quantum foam, a multiverse wavefunction or a-something-something-whatever) the hope is that it will be simple enough to not require an explanation. Naturalism means that everything else, everything but this single thing everything is made of does require an explanation; there needs to be some way to explain how a thing (a complex arrangement of The Basic Thing) can exist, a mechanism by which it works and how it came about — in principle from the very lowest level.
The best way to define naturalism is perhaps by what it negates. In short: there are no miracles. There is no complexity or order that arises without a specifiable mechanism to accomplish it. In Campbell’s words naturalism is the doctrine that there are no “genuinely creative acts”. Blind forces all the way down. And how could it be otherwise? Anything but a blind force would be some kind of information-processing entity, which requires an internal structure capable of change. Such a structure is by necessity made of different parts, which are separate entities that can be picked apart and looked at separately. And down we go again. Blind, mathematical, perfectly formal, rules and processes is the only possible base case that can stop the eternal recursion any principles requiring interpretation give rise to.
Spinoza sort of defined God such a way, but this is so different from what’s normally meant by the word “God” that I don’t think the word should be used to describe Spinoza’s deity.
2017 comment: It’s interesting reading this now, as I used the same quote about “The Forlorn Ptolemaic” in Case Study: The War on Christmas, but then as an example of a feeling to empathize with, not of something fundamentally wrongheaded. While I don’t think the two uses are strictly contradictory (there is a fundamental difference between social and metaphysical reality that justifies different approaches), my attitude towards situations like this has in fact changed somewhat in the intervening years.
There need to be reproduction with heredity, that is, some information-carrying units are copied and their characteristics passed on to the copy; there also need to be variation, where not all units are alike and differences can arise during reproduction or at other times; and there need to be selection, which means not all units are copied as much and the extent to which they are copied is dependent on their characteristics.
I’m curious about what sort of moral sense a completely uncultured human would have, I assume it would be largely instinctual and disconnected from any sort of rational self that might or might not be there. That doesn’t mean I believe culture creates morality, but other people might be needed for it to develop in an individual, much like how plants need water and sunlight to grow.
2017 comment: This ties in to a thought I’ve been dwelling on recently, namely that many confusions and disagreements are the result of us mixing up synchronic (looking at structures at a single point in time) and diachronic (looking at processes over time) perspectives (this terminology is from linguistics, but I think it’s useful more generally). “Skill” and “freedom” are coherent concepts synchronically but not diachronically.
By this I mean that the type of nondeterminism actually in the cards is on the level of quantum physics. Though not philosophically uninteresting on its own terms, I don’t find it relevant to this discussion since I don’t think this is the kind of nondeterminism people have in mind.
2017 comment: Like this from Existential Comics. Another relevant comic is this from SMBC, timely published just as I was editing this part, mocking (or good-naturedly ribbing, I’m not sure) Dennett and his compatibilism. The comic makes a good point insofar as it’s understandable that compatibilist free will doesn’t quite feel real when you’re not used to it — but Dennett is still right, even as a stick figure, and we must go for what we can get.