Erisology of Self and Will, Part 5: Campbellian Thinking in the Wild

This is the 5th 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.

Part 3 offered a sketch of an alternative view, assembled from background assumptions in the physical sciences.

Part 4 discussed some scientific disciplines with bearing on the self, and how their results are interpreted differently by the traditional paradigm vs. the scientific.

Here in part 5 I’ll give examples of people expressing “Campbellian” views online.

[Note: In the ancient year of 2009 when this section was originally put together, social media wasn’t what it is today. Twitter was only just becoming a thing and Facebook was still mostly about what your friends were having for lunch. Reddit was up-and-coming but only about a hundreth of its current size.

So this section using material from forums and the comment sections of online newspapers and magazines (which is where the action was at this time) is going to seem a bit old-fashioned and paltry compared to what could be done today in an online environment where a hundred times more material of this kind is produced. I still think it holds up, because even if I now could get hundreds of examples (and probably go insane in the process) if I just went to Reddit or Twitter to gather material, I’m confident the conclusion would be the same.]

In this section I’ll show some examples of casual conversation revealing Campbellian ideas. Comment threads attached to online newspaper articles are excellent sources of such casual conversation. Written down in a neat and accessible form, their existence makes it practical to do this kind of research for the first time.

I’ve scoured the web for commentary on articles about biology and behavior and come up with a collection of examples. They aren’t meant to be exhaustive or even representative. Far from every commentator expresses themselves in a manner that clearly reveals Campbellian ideas, but those that do tend not to elicit any eyebrow-raising from others, showing that such ideas are at the very least not considered out of the ordinary. The comments are reproduced as they are, with no spelling or grammar corrections.

The first set of examples come from articles about a so-called “infidelity gene”, whose presence has been discovered to increase the risk of men having marital problems due to infidelity.

Long story short. Scientists claim they have found the cause for men’s infidelity, men cheat because “Some” have a deffective gene (gene344)in their DNA so in essence some guys cannot help having multiple partners. Get it?


This comment on “Infidelity Gene Discovered!” on DateHookUp Forum illustrates the very common conflation of causality with circumvention of the self (meaning: the self is non-causal). When there is causality, people “cannot help” what they do. Normally we use the expression “cannot help” when people are coerced into to doing something by external factors. We don’t normally use it to mean that they want to do it and this wanting is a part of their self — when we do it’s because we want to characterize a particular want as not part of the self, typically to excuse behavior. The expression reveals that the poster considers genes and their effects to be an external, coercive factor, one that bypasses rather than contributes to the will.

men will try to find any excuse to cover their a**. Sorry honey, my genes made me do it, honest I didn’t want too!


This one from the same thread is even clearer, and it’s only one of many, many comments saying effectively the same thing: actions with understandable causes are not our own. Saying “my genes made me do it, I didn’t want to” only makes sense in a Campbellian framework, where the self can be thought of as isolated from causality and physical causation goes past it rather than through it. We already know desire to cheat exist, why does explaining how that desire came to exist supposedly make it more ok to give in to it? Something’s off.

In different article on the same subject (“Born To Cheat? Some Men Could Have Infidelity Gene” on appears this comment:

The gene variant is present in 2 out of every 5 men and if you have it, the study shows you’re more likely to be prone to marital dysfunction and a threat of divorce. If you have two copies of the gene variant or allele, you’re twice as likely. /—/ Some people recently told about the study were not completely convinced genetics could govern their relationship fidelity. “Do I believe that that could be true?” Pat Brawley said. “It certainly could be, but I’d have to see a lot more proof.” Kevin Goldsmith says “I think it all has to do with your morals and integrity.”

The last sentence sounds reasonable, but it assumes that what we’d call morals and integrity aren’t already accounted for. That assumption makes sense if you think that morals and integrity are qualities of a self entirely separate from what natural selection acts on. But it’s possible that this gene has its effect exactly by affecting the balance between moral convictions, sexual drive and impulse control – something we would call morals and integrity.

Here is another example showing how nobler emotions and higher mental functions are often thought of as non-biological phenomena.

“However, it’s not ‘all about genes,'” Cloninger says. “Right now it’s only genetically verifiable in about 60 percent of cases. The other 40 percent can be caused by a variety of factors — environment and personality traits like anxiety and impulsivity.”

This is from an article called “Alcoholism: character or genetics?” (in Insight on the News), whose very title is big fat fallacy. Cloninger even phrases “character” as “traits like anxiety and impulsivity” while considering these as obviously not genetic without even thinking about it, apparently.

and i thought that i had a character flaw!! whew!!!


This poster (commenting on Born To Cheat?”) also assumes that one’s character is something genes have nothing to do with.

Dr. Ehrman, I am with you. Morality is not genetic.

— pensive1

Same article. Put this bluntly I’m not even sure where to begin[1]. This latest comment does not specifically refer to morality as supernatural, it could be determined by environment, but the wording suggests that the poster places morality in a causal vacuum. Somewhat more subtly, an article on the same issue says:

Still, it has to be said that we are humans after all, and not montane voles. If we want to have good relationships, then we have the choice to behave accordingly, no matter what personality or genes we’re born with.

This is getting repetitive, but again comes the assumption here that there is something other than our personality that makes our choices, something over and above the normal web of causation that can choose to “override”.

Next we turn to an article about another finding of behavioral genetics, this time about aggression (“’Gangsta gene’ identified in US teens” on

Could it be that the mental choices one makes some how suppress the activity within this gene, rather than this gene having low activity somehow controlling their actions? Wouldn’t this conclude that violence is beyond the control of the individual and therefore not a choice?

— Inquiry

Again genetic factors are thought of as working past the individual, controlling them rather than through the individual, constructing them. It’s followed by:

I dont think so, that case could be possible if 100% of people with that gene were gang members, but if its just half of them, it means that there is space for free choice.

— Anibal


Personal choice would be just one small factor out of a million (socio-)environmental and genetic influences.

— Wil

Then add this on “Monogamy gene found in people” (on

we are often sold the line that we are just genes acting out when this would deny our experience of being causal agents in decision making. Genes are an influence not puppet strings, I feel.

— Rob S

According to these commenters, there are influences toward choices (genetic, environmental and so forth) but this is thought of, I sense, as very different from there being determinants: “Personal choice” is thrown in as a vital ingredient to the mix (which seems to make all the difference no matter how small in proportion), and it is apparently considered an input to the decision-making process on par with and competing with the others (where this input is supposed to come from is anyone’s guess, but I assume somewhere like Campbell’s mysterious source of “creative acts”). This places these commentators with Campbell, since the other side would consider “personal choice” to be the end product of a deliberative process run on a person constructed by “a million socio-environmental and genetic” factors.

In another article (“Are we the prisoners of our genes?” in The Guardian) about violence and neuroscience the idea of a homunculus is openly pushed:

Is there some “me” inside my brain making the big decisions, or is my brain responding to stimuli and directing my actions according to my genetic programming, and then kidding me that I am in charge?

While the writer pretends to consider both a traditional a scientific image, the supposed scientific image is malformed. The scientific results are interpreted through the lens of the traditional image, meaning that even in the option that’s supposed to be without a homunculus the author still can’t avoid positing one. Only in this case it’s one that has no power and is fooled into thinking it’s in charge. But it’s still there. By now we know the opposition’s answer to this: there is no homunculus at all so it can’t be shut out. You are the contents and structure of your brain and since it is in charge, you are in charge and you’re not being fooled[2].

To round off I’ll throw in one more example from the “Gangsta Gene” article, this one containing one particularly revealing prefix:

If choices are subconsciously driven by genes, then one is not actually choosing anything and is being driven by their genetic predisposition, therefore no one would be responsible for crime. And indeed, what would crime be anyway? There would be no basis to define what is a crime and what isn’t.

— Inquiry

The prefix I’m talking about is “sub-” in front of ‘conscious’, and I think it says a lot. The poster, perhaps subconsciously(sic), assumes that genes sit sinisterly in the back and influence our behavior without us knowing. This would certainly fit with the idea of genes as puppet masters, and it’s perfectly in line with Campbellian ideas about our conscious mind being out of reach of the genes (and causality itself) — and if they have effects must have them by bypassing the mind and getting us to act unconsciously. The resulting disconcerting picture is a malformed hybridization; a result of cross-contamination between paradigms growing into an ugly, disturbing beast.

The alternative — that genes indirectly affect the structure of the brain that performs conscious thought and therefore are a part of who we are — is less worrying. At least to me. Of course, many would be hesitant to give up the idea that our thoughts are a rational, free-floating process shielded from biases, imperfections and limitations rather than a bag of biological widgets shaped by evolutionary pressures into fulfilling a certain set of functions well enough. I can’t remember ever believing that, so I can’t comment on what it feels like to have to give it up. Though, I imagine.

• • •

I’m assuming this statement doesn’t come from a coherent, worked-out worldview and is almost certainly meant to say something else than it does on the surface. But taken at face value it’s as ridiculous as saying “cooking is not chemical” or “construction is not physical”. It reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of what you’re talking about, an example of archaic, pre-scientific thinking that’d be considered weird among not-strongly-religious people if it was about anything other than the self.

Reading about the mechanisms by which the self works and asking “But where is the I?” is like walking through a city, looking at the streets and buildings and going “but where is the city?”. Or using an even closer analogy: “It seems like all the major political decisions are made by people — the President/Prime minister, ministers/secretaries, parliament members etc. We’ve been tricked! The government isn’t in charge at all!”

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