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Monday, December 23, 2013

The phantom self

Set out below is the core section of Gordon Cornwall's analysis of the 'phantom self' (taken from the post to which I provided a link in my previous post on this site).

But first, my brief critique.

I do go along with Cornwall (and with Derek Parfit) to the extent that they deny the existence of any substantive self. What exists are bodies which are, at a basic level, conscious of their existence as (mortal) bodies and, at a more complex (and problematic) level, subject to the illusion of a (potentially independent) immaterial self.

Planning and thinking about the future need not involve these problematic beliefs in any essential way, it seems to me. And imagining possible threats to one's well-being (and the well-being of loved ones) – which of course lies at the basis of intelligent behavior and planning – needn't lead to neurosis or anything like it.

It is true, however, that our awareness of our own mortality does, at a fundamental level, cast a long shadow and put a dampener on joy and real constraints on human happiness.

Parfit's statement (cited by Cornwall) that "ordinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed and having a replica" may be playful. But it seems to me only to make sense if you deny the existence not only of a substantive self but also of the sense of a specific self which a body generates as it 'survives' from minute to minute and from day to day.

This specific-body-generated first-person point of view is what we are, and we would prefer (under most circumstances) that it continue. I don't see how having a surviving 'copy' would allow that to happen.

Finally, Cornwall seems to misunderstand the distinction between the public, objective stance of science and the first-person perspective – which encompasses all of what he calls 'practice' as well as our subjective understanding (even when the latter is informed by science).

I just don't see any serious problems with a straightforward physicalism, at least as it pertains to the scientific understanding of the relationship between the body and the sense of self.


Cornwall writes:

"Belief in the special, separate unity of the self comes naturally to humans. It is the result of a trick of natural selection. Having a self-model is an adaptive feature of complex animals that are capable of moving around. The self-models of such animals are tightly coupled to their motivational systems, which include their emotional systems. The appearance of an immediate threat to self triggers a strong emotional response in most animals, activating the amygdala and launching a flood of psychosomatic and behavioural responses which tend to help them survive the crisis.

Humans are unlike most other animals in that, with our highly developed prefrontal cortices, we are capable of imagining and making detailed plans for the future. As part of imagining the future, we imagine ourselves in the future. Visualizing a threat to oneself in the future triggers an emotional, motivational response similar to that which would occur if the threat were actually happening on the present scene. The response is enabled by strong projections from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala and associated limbic regions of the brain. The ability to label an imagined entity as ‘self,’ and have it trigger this kind of emotional response, is an adaptation that, perhaps more than any other, propelled our species into our present position of earthly dominance. Unfortunately, this adaptation [...] came at a considerable cost in unnecessary suffering. It is an effective design, but not a very good one. It is far from optimal, and certainly not elegant.

One way to view this idea is as another outgrowth of the scientific physicalism that has illuminated so much else. Looking at what we have learned in the past few hundred years, it is hard not to be impressed by scientific physicalism as the source of our most far-reaching and productive changes in outlook. Out of it came the demise of geocentrism. When the direction 'down' was displaced as a fundamental orientation of the universe, so our parochial planet was displaced as its centre. Ceding centre stage is always salutary; it resulted in a widening of horizons, a deeper engagement with extraterrestrial reality.

Scientific physicalism was also Darwin’s mindset. We no longer see ourselves as the pinnacle of creation, but as blood relatives of all other species on this planet, an extended family of creative solutions to the problem of life. They reflect us in countless ways, and we will learn from them for a long time to come. Understanding natural selection, we come to know that we are not the product of a perfect design process. We are beginning to see opportunities to improve on our own nature.

The productivity of scientific physicalism stems from its ontological parsimony. Science does not assume the existence of entities that are not needed to explain observations. Physicalists saw the opportunity to dispense with a fixed framework of space-time in which all objects had a position and velocity. There is no such framework; hence the insights of relativity. Physicalists do not need to assume the existence of God, either. What most people don’t quite realize yet is that the selves they imagine themselves to be can also be dropped from the scientific ontology, with a resulting gain, not loss, in its explanatory power. If you simply look at what is, then Parfit’s famous statement that "[o]rdinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed and having a replica" gains the presumption of truth, for there is no evidence for the existence of anything so mysterious as its negation implies. I should point out that Parfit’s characterization of ordinary survival as ‘bad’ is playful; this insight into what survival amounts to is all to the good. To embrace it is to escape the glass tunnel and engage with life on a broader scale and a longer time dimension, one that extends long after one’s biological death.

One more thing. My approach to this subject has been, and remains, one of intellectual discovery. I’ve always been more interested in learning the truth than in changing myself. Advocates of ‘spiritual practice’ sometimes tell me I’m doomed to failure; the truth cannot be grasped intellectually. Respectfully, I think the jury is out on that. Western philosophers in the analytical tradition have justly been criticized for mistaking their own failures of imagination for metaphysical necessity. So, too, past failures to intellectually grasp religious insights into ‘no-self’ should not be taken as proof that all such attempts in future will also fail. Scientific progress has achieved much, and will achieve much more. I don’t know of any convincing argument that science cannot leap this hurdle."