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."

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The glass tunnel

Adrian McKinty is to blame. He started a discussion on Derek Parfit's perennially frustrating ideas on personal identity and death. You will see that I reiterated my previously-stated views* (which are similar to Adrian's own) in the course of an exchange on the comment thread.

And now I have stumbled across Gordon Cornwall's sophisticated analysis which defends Parfit's view and so implicitly challenges mine.

My intention, then, is to revisit the very important questions that lie behind these discussions, initially by reading and thinking about what Gordon Cornwall has to say. I can't reject it just because it has a mystical or religious feel which I don't like and which makes me suspicious (just as Parfit's approach does).

But first let me make a few general comments on my attitude to Derek Parfit as well as trying to set out the emotional context of my thinking on these matters.

When I first encountered Parfit's 1984 book, Reasons and Persons, I remember concluding that his view seemed inconsistent with planning and caring about one's future, with prudence basically. But Parfit himself seems to have made it into his eighth decade without any trouble – and (if his claims are to be believed) with less stress than would have been encountered had he retained his earlier, more conventional view of human identity.

My main concern, however, is not to decide which view is more conducive to longevity or quality of life, but rather to figure out which view gives the truer picture of our individual selves.

Parfit experienced his change of viewpoint on personal identity from a conventional view to one which did not privilege the future over the past – and which downplayed the centrality and perhaps even the reality of his very existence as a self – as liberating.

Previously, he had, as he put it,

"... seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of the glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others." [Reasons and Persons, p. 281]

This talk about caring for others (especially from a son of medical missionaries) makes me wary. Is Parfit merely adopting (the broad outlines of) an essentially religious outlook and rationalizing it in philosophical terms?

But before turning (in a subsequent post) to examine alternative views more closely, let me set out briefly the broad outlines and emotional drivers of my current position.

My view could be seen to be based on a narrower view than Parfit's, and aspires to an almost animal-like simplicity. ('Almost' because animals don't worry about the future – or foresee their own inevitable deaths.)

Though I doubt that my self has any substantive reality (and to this extent I may have more in common with Parfit than I am assuming here), I know that whatever reality it has is entirely dependent on the continuing existence and proper functioning of this body. Oversimplifying: I am my body.

The tragedy is, of course, that this body, like all bodies, will fail in the end. This is just how things are. Life is tragic (and comic and pathetic), and not at all bathed in sweetness and light as some religiously-inclined people are inclined to see it. From my perspective, at any rate, it seems more honorable – and more honest – to interpret life in pessimistic and uncompromising terms.

This need not entail an entirely non-religious outlook (think of Miguel de Unamuno, for example), though my approach is non-religious.

An anecdote might help explain some of my values and attitudes. Some years ago my mother had very bad pneumonia and spent a number of truly terrible weeks in an intensive care unit: close to death, hooked up to a daunting array of machines and unable to speak (because of a tracheotomy). The family was called in for a meeting with the senior doctors and nurses: they were clearly expecting her to die.

In the ICU, there was a 1:1 ratio of nurses to patients, each nurse on duty assigned to one patient only, and we visiting family members got to know some of the nurses quite well. I don't remember much of what was talked about, but I clearly remember one of them commenting that she preferred dealing with (and liked) patients who fought against death. And my mother decidedly was (and still is) such a fighter.

On more than one occasion when I came to sit by her bed when she was at her lowest ebb and hooked up to all those tubes and machines she turned and appeared to attempt to climb over the bed rails towards me. When I first witnessed this, it took a few moments to realize what she was trying to do. It was at once grotesque and sublime – and extremely moving.

I don't want to make too much of this and suggest that those who "rage against the dying of the light" are right and those who opt for more dignified options are wrong. And I fully realize that of course a nurse – especially one specializing in critical care – is going to prefer patients who don't die on her.

But speaking personally, though I admire those who decide to end their own lives when the signs are that those lives have reached a certain level of completeness, I am rather less keen on going (when the time approaches) with dignity and rather more keen on hanging around for as long as possible.

Now, having aired my general thoughts and feelings on the matter, I will try to put them out of my mind and examine what Gordon Cornwall has to say (see link above) with an open mind.

* See, for example, this post.