April 15, 2014

The Ethnosphere - What And Where Is Human Nature, Really?

I am in full agreement with almost everything Pigliucci says in the above-linked essay about "human nature." I am concerned, however, about what I see as his opinion that a good (unified, comprehensive?) theory of cultural evolution may one day be established.

"...despite much interest and a number of valiant efforts — we really don’t quite have a good theory of cultural evolution at hand."

Though he doesn't directly address the reasons for this lack of a good cultural evolutionary theory, Pigliucci is right about this.

The lack of a "good" cultural evolutionary theory, however, has less to do with our not yet coming up with one than it does with our scientistic expectations. That is, the incorrect belief and insistence that the patterns and practices of human cultural adaptation, extant cultural adaptations and all of those throughout history and prehistory, are reducible to a unified theory containing equations, formulae, and genetic mapping in a manner similar to what mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology apply to other phenomena.

An illustration of only a fraction of the ideas in the Ethosphere and our commentary on them.  This graph represents co-citation patterns based on all articles published between 1993 and 2013 in Nous, the Journal of Philosophy, the Philosophical Review, and Mind.  Photo Credit:  Philosophy@MHS

The reason we don't have a good theory also, and more importantly, has to do with the complexity of culture as an adaptive process.

Culture and cultural evolution are not fully explained by the Darwinian-Mendelian theory of biological evolution, or more recent related efforts called evolutionary psychology and memetics.  Worse, the approaches taken and speculations used in most of these two latter-day efforts are misinforming the public.

Ideas such as beliefs and values and their attendant and complex social relations such as marriage, family, and broader group relations, and the rituals, institutions, codes, and laws that, in turn, attend to them, have different properties from those of atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, organs, bodies, and species.

Cultural phenomena, both within a society at any point in time and through time, and comparatively between societies over large expanses of time, are artifacts of human mental life. They are created, shared, enforced, upheld, maintained, revised, and/or rejected within ever-fluctuating environmental and social and historical contexts.

There is a similarity between cultural phenomena and atoms, molecules, and species in that all are acted upon by conditions and processes in their environments. The difference is in the type and nature of their respective environmental conditions and processes.

Physical environmental contexts are at work on matter, biological individuals, and on cultural phenomena. However, over time the cultural adaptive strategies of individual societies and Humankind as a whole have led to the emergent development of an immense, complex, worldwide cultural environment – an Ethnosphere*. This cultural domain influences the ideas and values of every human society and their constituent individuals.

Non-human species are impacted by the physical environment. The decisions and other behaviors of individuals also influence individual and group survival and reproduction. Cultural phenomena are not completely comparable to matter and species. They are subject not only to the same physical and social influences at work on matter and species, they are also subject to the history and prehistory of ideas.

Take fire, for example. Its controlled use by our human ancestors began almost half a million years ago.  Archaeological evidence shows that it was initially used by Homo erectus for warmth, lighting, and perhaps cooking and protection from predators.  Later, fire was also used to facilitate stampede-ambush hunting. Since those earliest times, there has been a gradual increase in the quality and quantity of ideas about the nature and uses of fire. Since its initial use and spread between bands any new idea about fire has not only been subject to its potential influence on and from the environment, and on the viability and reproductivity of human groups, it has also been subject to the full range of historical and prehistorical ideas, codes, laws, and behaviors pertaining to fire.  Fire usage, once it began and was retained as a worthwhile adaptive stategy, was thereby added as a subset of the totality of Humankind’s cultural knowledge.  Eventually, the knowledge of and behaviors associated with fire became part of the cultural repertoire of all human groups via cultural diffusion or independent invention.

Trying to evaluate and understand the essence or fundamental nature of fire only (reductively) in terms of its relationship to the physical environment (matter), or fireness" as might be found in genes and neurons, or from fire's potential impact on individual and group survival and their biological fecundity, is ludicrous.

Fire ideas may be, to a degree, successfully subjected to the above approaches. However, and far more importantly, ideas about fire are also subject not only to the current market place of ideas (itself an environment separate from material physicality and bio-repro), but to all market places of ideas throughout cultural evolutionary history.

Pigliucci is right. Physio-chemical reductionism (materialism) is insufficient on its own and the Darwinian clone memetics is a misplaced metaphor ineffectively posing as a biologized theory of culture and cultural evolution.

Will there ever be a physical/genetic equation or formula for, or Darwinian explanation of, cultural evolutionary processes and their expression in human lives, past and present? I am doubtful. The best minds in the social sciences over the past century and a-half have failed to reduce this vast cultural complexity, this Ethnosphere, to a "good" unified theory.

I see a parallel between this failure and the failure, so far, to solve the brain-mind problem. The levels of complexity inherent in the entirety of cultural phenomena and their processes and manifestations, past and present, are directly expressed, in large part, in the mental life of the contemporary human individual.

Such information, for the most part, can be "held," "carried," and manipulated by the brain but deep notions about fire and its use are embedded not in our nerve cells and genes, rather in our archaeological sites, textbooks, and libraries.  In practical terms, each person born into a society, aside from the most basal neurologically reflexive responses to the bright light and intense heat of fire which he is born with, must learn the complexities, nuances, and utility of fireness and all other cultural phenomena of his society anew – from others.

Still, this essay is a very good read.

* "Ethnosphere" - "[Y]ou might define the ethnosphere as being the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations, intuitions brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness." https://www.wordnik.com/words/ethnosphere

March 10, 2014

Between Global Tyranny And Anarchy - Where Do You Stand?

by Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2014

There are many rich and powerful people throughout the world, especially in the fields of politics, business, and religion, who work very hard to undermine Humankind's ability to think clearly and independently. Being skeptical, using reason and logic, and placing high value on scientific knowledge are portrayed as threats to the well-being of members of the working class, whose votes and support they need, to the nation, to the national culture, and sometimes to the whole of civilization. What they fear most, however, is the harm critical independent thinking may do to their maintaining and increasing their power and wealth. Conservative political, economic, and religious leaders in the US and elsewhere have developed and perfected a way of undermining such freethinking - plant seeds of doubt about science and couple this with their peculiar notions of patriotism and freedom, as explained in the above article.

This is not a new approach. That is, the use of governmental and economic power (including the use and threat of military force) combined with religious indoctrination to subdue and exploit people and their resources has many historical precedents. In the West, for example, a version of it was adopted as the 19th century strategy for the European colonization of Africa. Those who governed, owned the deep coffers of commerce, and purveyed the Christian religion in Europe pushed their way into Africa, justified and emboldened by their conviction of the superiority of their values, beliefs, behaviors, and technology.

Beginning in the mid-1800s and continuously and tirelessly for the next fifty years, European businessmen, soldiers, administrators, and missionaries, often in a coordinated or mutually-supportive manner, began directing and controlling the minds, lives, and destinies of all the East-Central Africans upon whom they forced themselves. They also imposed their will upon other East-Central Africans whose leaders aided, abetted, and profited from the European incursion. Indigenous freethinking, skepticism, and resistance to the destruction of their way of life on the part of the Africans, not to mention their aspirations, hopes and dreams, were dealt with through European laws and institutions, religious disdain and ridicule, and land and natural resource usurpation. When the Europeans deemed it necessary for achieving their purposes, they also mounted brutal military "pacification" or "punitive" campaigns against the less-powerfully armed Africans.

This strategy worked in almost every case and its legacy remains in Africa. The powerful manipulative influences of Western-style governance, social Darwinistic extractive capitalism, unashamed and unabashed militarism, and Christianity remain. However, at "Independence" these methods of colonial tyranny were passed to, accepted, and have since been wielded by African leaders against their compatriots. If you do not support the full agenda of the tyrannical majority in political, economic, and religious power in many sub-Saharan countries, you are labelled as unpatriotic or rebellious.  If you persist you are "dealt" with in a manner commensurate with the heinousness of your "transgressions." At the same time, indirect yet very powerful influences remain securely ensconced in the hands of the powerful and wealthy inhabitants of the governmental and financial capitals of the West. These are the cultural descendants of those who a century and a half ago initiated this strategy of tyranny and who continue to provide succor to African leaders who "cooperate" with them.

Almost everywhere on the continent those who espouse freethinking, press and speech freedom, skepticism, dissent, and scientific secularism are told to abandon their efforts. They are declared to be power-hungry, evil profiteers bent on undermining the nation and its cultures. And if you do not acquiesce to the majority's "benign," rightful, and righteous tyranny you will almost certainly incur the wrath of the rich and powerful who control government, business, and religion.

Somewhere between such forms of tyranny at one extreme and anarchy at the other is a better worldview and way of life. Specifically, there is a slowly emerging global morality and world order that values democracy, preserves a wholesome blend of conservatism and liberalism, and, most important of all, provides a strong and lasting atmosphere of freedom with responsibility and accountability. Such a path tolerates diversity and dissent and encourages and protects free, scientific secular thought, legitimate public discourse and debate, and reasoning. A viable, sustainable life for each individual, society, and Humankind as a whole is only possible if we work to find, promote, and defend this enlightened humanistic middle ground. It is a necessary human-enhancing and Earth-stewarding way of life that is under attack around the world by the very powerful conservative, self-serving elite who wield political, commercial, and religious power. Even those in politics, business, and religion with the best of intentions toward Humankind and the planet, and there are many such persons, must have their ideas and actions scrutinized and questioned.  No person or ideology, no matter how powerful or influential, is infallible or beyond improvement.

The article linked above is a good example of how powerful and wealthy conservatives in the US are successfully implementing their form of tyranny. Are similar efforts underway in your country? If so, are the rich and powerful using some of the same tactics - being mindful of their admiration and past wholesale importation of Western political, military, economic, and religious beliefs and behaviors?

In response to such tyranny you as an individual can either remain passively neutral, totally support them, or skeptically scrutinize very closely all of their words and actions - political, commercial, and religious - and call them out on their efforts to establish mental or social tyranny over you. If you have taken the first option you are not fulfilling your responsibility as a citizen. If you have chosen the second option or fear choosing the third option you have sadly already become a victim of tyranny. Where do you stand?

January 6, 2014

The Ownership And Immortality Of The Self

The following recently-published articles display some of our current misconceptions, fantasies, and worries about the brain, mind, and self. Such essays by learned experts help define who we are, how we treat others, and what our future might be. They therefore merit our attention and their arguments should not be accepted based on an implied argument from authority. What are they trying to tell us about these important matters and why?

“Possessive Individualism:  Can We Really Own Ourselves?” by John Médaille, The Imaginative Conservative, December 2013

 “The Closing of the Scientific Mind” by David Gelernter, Commentary, January 1, 2014

Notice that all three articles are not published in professional, peer-reviewed scientific or philosophical journals, rather in periodicals intended for widespread public consumption.  What they write in science and philosophy journals has less impact because the circle of readership is smaller.  Therefore, all of us should be concerned about the impact of their ideas on the global public through articles such as those above.  Why?  Because how we as everyday people treat ourselves and others is largely influenced by such public-targeted articles and books.  If our concepts of our selves and the selves of others are given inaccurate meanings, touted as something that scientists want to prove are of lesser significance compared to the functioning of our genes and brains, or when our selves are wistfully portrayed as virtual commodities that might one day live forever embedded in computers, our lives and treatment of each other may easily become adversely affected.  The facts and argumentation in all such for-public-consumption writings should be treated with skepticism and subjected to scrutiny.

John Médaille, an adjunct instructor of theology at the University of Dallas, claims that each of us does not own that which we commonly call our “self” or “person.”  He believes that our self is a gift from other people.  David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, warns that science is trying to destroy or make our selves irrelevant.  Finally, Michael Graziano, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton, asks us to imagine a disembodied self living forever in a computer with freedom to experience anything we can imagine.

When such treatments of this topic present us with distortions and foreboding we should not be surprised that many people find it disturbing.  After all, we are talking about something – our self, our person – that is very intimate and private.  Many people, especially those of a secular-scientific bent, think of their self as their very special, unique once-for-all-eternity existence.  Conversely, nearly two-thirds of the world’s people believe in a deity and some kind of life for their respective selves after their bodily death.  To them their mind, self, person, and soul are one.  Such believers go to considerable extremes to live in a manner that, they have been told, will provide a comfortable and peaceful afterlife for all eternity for their self after their body ceases to live. 

When someone mucks around with core definitions of what we think we know about the personal, private existence of our self and its future, we pay attention, close attention.  It is understandably worrisome to most of us when we learn of unusual or disturbing claims about the self.  We are shaken when we read worrisome essays about the possible end or eventual meaninglessness of the self, our self – that which, and who, we think we are.  The self that, during each conscious moment we are alive, retains ideas about who we are, the things we do, and why we do them.  This self is as good as we get and most of us wish to keep it intact, meaningful, and alive.  What are some of these disturbing assertions?  Do they have any merit in light of what we know about the mind and body from the evidence of biological and psychological science?

Possessive Individualism

Ownership is generally defined as being in possession of or having something.  In its formal sense, ownership means having legal title or right to something - mere possession is not ownership. 

John Médaille’s discussion of the self is couched in terms of its ownership and its importance in social exchanges.  Neither approach, ownership or exchange, tells us what a self is, how it originates, and how it operates within the natural and social worlds it inhabits.

I disagree with Médaille’s view that “of all the objects in the universe, the one thing we cannot own is ourselves” because, he says, “we cannot create ourselves.”  To originate or produce something is not a necessary or sufficient condition for owning it.  The slaves who constructed the Great Pyramid of Giza in 2560BC accrued no ownership of that structure, legal or otherwise.  Further, to have something in one’s possession - a rental car - or as an integral part of one’s corporal being – an artificial heart implanted but not yet paid for – is not a necessary and sufficient condition for one having exclusive ownership of it.  Also, Médaille’s comparison of the potential ownership of the self to ownership of real property and wealth is not helpful.

Médaille further states that each of us is “called into being through an act of love into the ready-made community of the family.”  This is misleading in that it imputes an anthropomorphic, unilineal cause-and-consequence process to life – a community wills a self into existence.  The bio-behavioral reality of all life on Earth is characterized by many components and processes that are causally complex, contextual, and mutually interdependent.

Médaille calls the social and cultural components communities provide the individual, “gifts.”  I think this is misleading in that it anthropomorphs community and society as conscious agents that willfully provide for individuals.  In reality, that which the community provides are no more “gifts” than the sunlight, air, land, and water are gifts to Earth’s living plants and animals.  These natural entities exist and provide conditions favorable to sustaining life.  Such resources are not parceled out as gifts by the planet any more than human communities give selves as gifts.  Community norms and support exist, and human beings who are born into communities make use of them.

We cannot say that we do not own our selves because we cannot “seize control of our origins or be present at our beginnings.” We cannot claim that we do not own our selves because they are dependent upon the nurturing and moral gifts of communities.  I have argued elsewhere that there is a reciprocal relationship between the self and the community where, if we use Médaille’s notion, the individual and his/her self is as much a “gift” to the community as is the nurturing and knowledge provided by the group a gift to the individual.

Médaille’s description of Liberalism seems over-simplified.  Liberalism is far more responsive to its origins in the group and its dependency upon the group’s affirmation than Médaille concedes.  Liberalism, he claims, portrays the group as a threat to the emergence and freedom of the self.  To “find ourselves,” he says, proponents of Liberalism believe “we must lose the community, or at least lose any restrictions the community would impose, other than those we voluntarily select.”  There is a dynamic between the demands of the group and the freedom of individuals but this is not a zero-sum, all-or-nothing process.  The individualism of Liberalism can and must be expressed within the constraining contexts provided by the community.  A Liberalism that only complies with the societal constraints it voluntarily selects runs the risk of damaging or destroying the conservative, stabilizing aspects of community life.  This, in turn, will likely lead to anarchy and the failure of society.  Surely Médaille has mis-characterized Liberalism or set it up as a straw man.

The Scientific Attack on the Self

Computer simulation of the branching architecture of the dendrites of pyramidal neurons.  Wikipedia.

Computer scientist David Gelernter provides an accurate treatment of the self in the context of the mind-body problem.  Contrary to what you might expect given his training and expertise in computer science, Gelernter objects strongly to the comparison of the mind and brain to the software and hardware of a computer.  His five flaws of computationalism (AKA, cognitivism) are noteworthy:

1.    You can transfer a program easily from one computer to another, but you can’t transfer a mind, ever, from one brain to another.
2.    You can run an endless series of different programs on any one computer, but only one “program” runs, or ever can run, on any one human brain.
3.    Software is transparent. I can read off the precise state of the entire program at any time. Minds are opaque—there is no way I can know what you are thinking unless you tell me.
4.    Computers can be erased; minds cannot.
5.    Computers can be made to operate precisely as we choose; minds cannot.

Gelernter’s insights, regrettably, are overshadowed by his hyperbolic, name-calling tirade against scientists and philosophers of mind he argues are in the forefront of a deliberate all-out “assault on the phenomenon known as subjectivity.” Their views, he says, “are threatening all sorts of intellectual and spiritual fields.”  This “problem,” he claims, “originated at the intersection of artificial intelligence and philosophy of mind – in the question of what consciousness and mental states are all about…”  He traces the roots of the problem to early 20th Century behaviorism and accuses binary electronic computing of lighting the “fuse of an intellectual crisis that blasted off in the 1960s and has been gaining altitude ever since.”  [I suppose for good measure he could have thrown in Edward O. Wilson (Sociobiology:The New Synthesis (1975)) as someone who also sought and encouraged the diminution of the self/person.]  Not surprisingly, Gelernter agrees with Thomas Nagel (Mind and Cosmos, (2012)) that “Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the emergence of consciousness – the capacity to feel and experience the world.”

I do not share Gelernter’s foreboding worry that science is trying to destroy subjectivity. Scientific inquiry into mind-brain matters should be allowed to go apace constrained only by provisional, reasonable, and ethical standards and laws. Scientific inquiry will not and cannot defeat much less destroy our humanness, humaneness, or humanity. Consciousness and self are the wellspring and driving forces of science without which the establishment and growth of scientific knowledge would be impossible.

I likewise do not share Gelernter and Nagel’s view that Darwinian evolution (understood as a pluralistic theoretical and methodological approach, as it should be) cannot account for the emergence of consciousness.  I do, however, object to a narrow, scientistic reductionism that reduces the understanding of the self, person, and subjectivity solely to a mapping and accounting of the genetic chemistry and neurophysiology of the brain, or relegates states of mind and subjectivity to the out-box of irrelevant epiphenomena.

Returning to Gelernter, he begins his discussion of consciousness by asking the wrong questions:  “So why should we humans be equipped with consciousness?  So why would nature have taken the trouble to invent an elaborate thing like consciousness, when it could have gotten off without it just as well?”  The process of evolution by natural selection does not invent and imbue characteristics upon species because they “should” have them or need them.  Novel anatomical and physiological characteristics and behavior potentials arise via various mechanisms inherent in living matter and the natural environment.  Some prove adaptive and contribute to the survival and reproduction of individuals.  Others do not.  Gelernter trots out philosopher David Chalmers to help argue that the emergence of consciousness does not follow logically from what we know of our Universe.  A Universe like ours sans consciousness, he says, is entirely plausible.  He’s right.  But questions of why nature invented consciousness when the Universe could get along quite well without it are irrelevant at best, inane and misleading at worst.

Consciousness, in human evolutionary history, was an unanticipated emergent property that arose from the brain functions of higher animals.  How this occurred is, and likely will remain, unknown.  In the human evolutionary lineage consciousness proved to be especially adaptive when brain states began being expressed socially using symbolic language.  That complex matters about the food and dangers of the natural world and the emotional, political conditions of the social world could then be couched in discussions that were not bound by time or place was a quantum leap in our otherwise meager (relatively small teeth, weak muscles) adaptive repertoire.  I see no reason why a Darwinian evolutionary explanation of consciousness and self based on paleoarchaeology, psychology, genetics, and neuroscience cannot, someday, be a compelling, provisional truth of science.

Gelernter has particular disdain for Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity is Near:  When Humans Transcend Biology, (2005)) and the technologist and inventor’s claim that by 2045 machine intelligence will dominate human intelligence:

Whether he knows it or not, Kurzweil believes in and longs for the death of mankind.  Because if things work out as he predicts, there will still be life on Earth, but no human life.  To predict that a man who lives forever and is built mainly from semiconductors is still a man is like predicting that a man with stainless steel skin, a small nuclear reactor for a stomach, and an IQ of 10,000 would still be a man.”

Regarding the self, subjectivity, and mind Gelernter has more useful and plausible ideas to offer:

Subjectivity is your private experience of the world:  your sensations; your mental life and inner landscape; your experiences of sweet and bitter, blue and gold, soft and hard; your beliefs, plans, pains, hopes, fears, theories, imagined vacation trips and gardens and girlfriends and Ferraris, your sense of right and wrong, good and evil.  This is your subjective world.  It is as real as the objective physical world.
The mind has its own structure and laws:  It has desires, emotions, imagination; it is conscious.  But no mind can exist apart from the brain that “embodies” it.  Yet the brain’s structure is different from the mind’s.  The brain is a dense tangle of neurons and other cells in which neurons send electrical signals to other neurons downstream via a wash of neurotransmitter chemicals….

The most important takeaways from Gelernter’s essay are:  Subjectivity matters in our understandings of Humankind.  Subjectivity cannot be reduced to and explained solely by chemistry and physics.

A Virtual-Reality Afterlife

Simplified diagram of Spaun, a 2.5-million-neuron computational model of the brain. (A)The corresponding physical regions and connections of the human brain. (B) The mental architecture of Spaun.  Wikipedia.

Finally, consider the essay by neuroscientist Michael Graziano on the possibility of a virtual-reality afterlife.  He violates all that Gelernter asserts regarding the necessary embedment of consciousness and the self in the biological body.  Graziano lightly addresses but essentially passes by the question of whether or not a version or replica of a self can actually be the same as a self; or how a self could continue to exist without a sentient biological human body (and brain) that most agree is a necessary part of our self, person, subjectivity, and mind states.  Body and mind are one.  When the body dies, self ceases to exist.  These are the basic tenets of monism, by far the dominant paradigm in modern neurology, psychology, and philosophy concerning the relationship between the mind and brain.  If I didn’t know better I might think Graziano, based on the seriousness with which he writes, has succumbed to a neo-Cartesian dualism where the mind/self/soul can actually live on after the death of the body.  He is relatively unconcerned about these problems compared to his interest in what psychological and cultural impact such a technology might have on Humankind.  For me, his ignoring of these problems makes speculation about the psychological and cultural ramifications of a virtual-reality afterlife, well, speculation for naught.  Graziano, in fact, dismisses the problem of how a simulated self can be the same as a real self as follows:

I have heard people say that the technology will never catch on.  People won’t be tempted because a duplicate of you, no matter how realistic, is still not you.  But I doubt that such existential concerns will have much of an impact once the technology arrives.  You already wake up every day as a marvelous copy of a previous you, and nobody has paralyzing metaphysical concerns about that.  If you die and are replaced by a really good computer simulation, it’ll just seem to you like you entered a scanner and came out somewhere else.”

Really?  Graziano actually believes that one day the technology will come that will make a duplicate you, a real you.  He has no qualms about asserting the high probability that someday we will be able to scan and capture the brain wiring of our memories, emotions, and ways of thinking and making decisions and upload them into computer hardware.  This, he claims, will be a “second version of you” that could “live in a simulated world and hardly know the difference.” (italics mine)  He pauses and asks himself if such an incredible thing could ever be possible, “whether we could upload someone’s mind to a computer,” and concludes “yes, almost certainly.”  …  “In fact,” Graziano says, “the more I think about this possible future, the more it seems inevitable.”  It is numbing to think that one day a scanned replica of a person’s self would be indistinguishable from his/her biologically-embedded self.  This, I believe, is highly unlikely because a self, the full range of the psychological and social aspects of a living self, are not, as I argue below, properties that can be captured on scans or electrode printouts.  It is not very likely that full living selves could continue to exist as the same full living selves if they are separated from their biological body-brains.

How, according to Graziano, will the replication of a self-endowed mind be accomplished?  He thinks that “the pattern of connectivity among neurons contains the essence of the machine.  If you could measure how each neurone connects to its neighbours, you’d have all the data you need to recreate that mind.  Scientists," he says, "will likely one day be able create an artificial mind by copying the wiring already present in a real brain.  …  [T]he essence of a human mind is contained in its pattern of connectivity.  Your connectome [a map or wiring diagram of every neuronal connection in a brain], simulated in a computer, would recreate your conscious mind.  …  It seems a no-brainer (excuse the pun) that we will be able to scan, map, and store the data on every neuronal connection with a person’s head.  It is only a matter of time, and a timescale of five to 10 decades seems about right.”

Graziano’s treatment of the psychological, social, and cultural impact of a future virtual-reality afterlife focuses on the meaning of being an individual and being alive.  “For starters,” he says, “it seems inevitable that we will tend to treat human life and death much more casually.  People will be more willing to put themselves and others in danger.”  He also speculates on the sanctity of digital life, human rights, experimentation on simulated consciousnesses, and the criminality of pulling the plug on someone’s “simulated person.”  These issues, he says, are “the tip of a nasty philosophical [and legal] iceberg we seem to be sailing towards.”

Toward the end of his article, I Graziano raised had my estimation of his concern for humanity.  He gives what I at first took as a nod to the impact a virtual-reality afterlife will have on the self, the person, our individuality:  “If simulated minds can be run in a simulated world, then the most transformative change, the deepest shift in human experience would be the loss of individuality – the integration of knowledge into a single intelligence, smarter and more capable than anything that could exist in the natural world.”  But Graziano chooses not to discuss the possibility this might result in a tragic reduction or loss of our humanness, humanity, or humaneness, much less the destructive effect it likely would have on civilization.  Instead he bounds forward to foretell the possibility of merging virtual minds and asks “what is to stop people from merging into überpeople who are combinations of wisdom, experience, and memory beyond anything possible in biology?  Two minds, three minds, 10, pretty soon everyone is linked mind-to-mind.  The concept of separate identity is lost.  The need for simulated bodies walking in a simulated world is lost.  The need for simulated food and simulated landscapes and simulated voices disappears.  Instead a single platform of thought, knowledge, and constant realization emerges.  ...  Real life, our life, shrinks in importance until it becomes a kind of larval phase.”

In the end, Graziano, in a clear expression of humanism, regards the scenarios he describes to be somewhat “intriguing,” but for the most part, “horrifying.”  Although he finds comfort in the fact that he will not live to see such a transformation in human life, as I do, he is optimistic that we will somehow muddle through, as we have since we first took up living in the forest margins and grasslands of East Africa, millions of years ago:  “We always manage to live more-or-less comfortably,” he says, “in a world that would have frightened and offended the previous generations.”


Do I own my self?  Yes, in part.  Am I responsible for creating and managing my self?  Yes.  Am I legally and morally responsible for the voluntary bodily actions which my self initiates?  Yes.  Does a community own my self?  Yes, in part.  Can my person/self live fully intact separate from my body?  Not likely.  How does a brain create consciousness, mind, self, person?  No-one knows, yet.

A self begins in a newborn baby who two members of the community intentionally or unintentionally produce through sexual intercourse.  In this new body the emergence of a self comes into its initial non-material existence as an accompaniment to the proactive sentience of the young brain-mind.  It emerges from a biological substrate that is responding to the food, shelter, comfort, and language provided by the parent(s).  From this biological foundation, with its attendant genomic propensities and the social and cultural milieu an individual is born into, a self is slowly and gradually, over a number of years, created.

Throughout the ensuing life of the individual the self is maintained and modified as the individual’s efforts and conditions will allow, and in response to his/her experience of the natural and social worlds.  Through the process of enculturation the self-bearing individual becomes socially indebted to the family and community of his birth, and bound to the moral systems, prescriptions, proscriptions, sanctions, and actions of the various groups he lives within throughout his/her life.  The brain produces the self which is an emergent property of consciousness.  When the body and its brain die, the self ceases to actively exist.

The rights and ownership of the living self/person are sociocultural constructs and therefore are not inherent in the body or “aliveness” of any human.  However, Locke, Rothbard, and Macpherson’s respective claims (see Médaille) that every human owns his person/self are true.  But their claims are only true to the degree that an individual is able and willing to assert such a claim of ownership, and whether or not his communities of livelihood and residence at any given time affirm that assertion.

More important than the question of do I own my self is the declaration:  I am my self.  A self does not come into existence in response to a call from the community.  It cannot belong exclusively to or be owned exclusively by a body or a community.  It originates, exists, and dies as an active emergent entity of the body.  The self lives, yes lives, each day by directing the body to behave within the natural and social worlds based on the self’s understandings, needs, and desires.  The brain produces the self in a manner that is not yet known, but the brain is not the self.  If you probe the brain with scans or electrodes you will not find the self because it is an immaterial, though animate, manifestation of the activities of the brain.

But, you say, if the self is produced by the brain, then the self must be found in the brain.  Imagine trying to understand the composition and activity of light by tracing a flashlight beam to the reflective cone around the bulb.  Then examine the bulb, then the filament within it, then the streams of electrons traveling through the filament.  This has led you to the batteries and their electro-chemical composition and processes.  Despite your best analysis and description of the chain of events that produce the light, the internal aspects of the batteries will not tell you what the light itself is composed of, or what role the light of the flashlight plays in the natural and social worlds.  The same is true of the mind/self/person.  Someday, how the brain produces the mind/self/person will likely become known.  But this will tell us little about what the mind/self/person is and what it does for individuals and communities in the worlds in which it lives.

The manifestation of the self arises from and is dependent on the brain but it is not the brain.  It functions according to principles and processes different from the principles and processes of the brain.  The self is an amalgam of the physio-chemical processes of the brain and an individual’s mental and emotional states and the learned concepts it (s/he) has assimilated.  It is both of the brain yet separate from it.  Understanding the brain part of the self is neither a complete understanding of the self, nor a complete understanding of its essence or a ultimate rendering of it.

Upon the death of the body, the self has a passive immortality only (as far as we know) in any surviving artifact it compels its body to produce or modify, in the memories of others, or as described in any written, printed, recorded, or radio-transmitted media in which it might appear.  Minus its record in artifacts, memories, or media, there is no postmortem, eternal evidence that a particular self ever existed.  It cannot be found in the living body that produces, houses, and empowers it, and it certainly is not to be found in the corpse it once inhabited.

The self exists in the inner world of each individual as a useful means of unifying, animating, and making personally and socially coherent the processes of the brain and the rest of the body.  The self is a representative produced by the brain that serves as an interfacee between the brain and the natural and social worlds.  Brains themselves cannot do any of the following:  talk, find mates, reproduce, form resource-procuring communities, build structures, produce art, write love letters, vote, sign peace treaties, or otherwise socially bond with other brains.  Selves and persons can do all these.  Without the self, humans would be unguided, insentient, protoplasmic objects.  With it, we become greatly empowered subjects and citizens.

Further Reading on the Self

Self, Self, Self by Rick Lewis, Philosophy Now, Issue 97, July/August 2013

How Old Is The Self? by Frank S. Robinson, Philosophy Now, Issue 97, July/August 2013

A Philosophical Identity Crisis by Chris Durante, Philosophy Now, Issue 97, July/August 2013

The Illusion of Self by Sam Woolfe, Philosophy Now, Issue 97, July/August 2013

Focusing on the Brain, Ignoring the Body by Alessandro Colarossi, Philosophy Now, Issue 97, July/August 2013

Is The Buddhist ‘No-Self’ Doctrine Compatible With PursuingNirvana? by Katie Javanaud, Philosophy Now, Issue 97, July/August 2013

November 21, 2013

The Righteous Mind By Jonathon Haidt: Critique Postscript

There’s so much to be said about moral psychologist Jonathon Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012). I have had my time upon the stage in my critique of the book and am grateful to those who read my post. Let me take things a bit further, however, and discuss one other matter that puts me off about Haidt's work, something I did not address in my critique.  That is, his interpretation of his data on the Left and why members of the Left score as they do on his tests.

Haidt’s portrayal of the Left is incomplete. His claim may be supported by his moral foundation questionnaire but he fails to explain why those on the Left hold the moral positions they do. For example, Haidt claims that members of the Left do not value loyalty as much as members of the Right. Yes, that is true. But the facts of his test result are not sufficient. The matter doesn’t end there. The reasons members of the Left score lower on the loyalty foundation is crucial to understanding the difference between the Left and the Right, and the nature of morality generally.

Members of the Left, at least in the American political domain, have learned from repeated experience that placing their loyalty in politically dominated social processes and institutions too often leads to a reduction in individual freedom or the continuance of outright oppression. To the Left such processes and institutions produce a society that is less flexible and therefore less sustainable in meeting the challenges of a continually and rapidly changing society and world. They believe that to conserve and restrict thought and variation in human behavior lowers the potential for adaptively modifying the processes and institutions of society.  Such adjustment, they believe, is needed to fit new, emergent socio-economic and technological circumstances. For example, the beliefs and values about race and society that were held by a majority of white Americans in the 1950s are not the beliefs and values that should be retained and imposed on an American society that is now more diverse and more highly educated about culture, race, and society than was the general populace of that era.

Members of the Left are acutely aware that too much of what those who tout as the status quo or tradition is intended to impede and control the expression and implementation of greater individual freedom. That is, they believe that giving their loyalty to such restrictive processes and institutions is to underwrite the control and blocking of liberating and growth processes.  Liberation and growth processes, they are convinced, are needed by individuals and societies in order to thrive when being swept along by a rapidly and ever-evolving, technologically-fueled, and global cultural change process. They ask: Why be loyal to political parties, governments, or persons who seek social and an ideological rigidity that addresses social circumstances of the past and present, and not the ever more immediate future?

The biggest mistake the Left makes is to assume it is a matter of common sense and therefore self-evident to all that what is best for America is the greatest possible amount of freedom for all individuals, and a national government that defends and helps the nation’s disadvantaged. It is under such conditions that the Left will unfailingly demonstrate its loyalty, respect for authority, and reverence for leaders, political processes, and institutions. Haidt would have us believe that members of the Left do not care as much about loyalty, authority, sanctity, and reverence as do those on the Right. This is not so. The important difference between the Left and Right in this regard is not their scores on Haidt’s test. Rather, the most important consideration is the conditions under which one is willing to be loyal, respect authority, and respect and revere the sanctity of political processes and social institutions, and when one is not. These conditions are for the most part learned from being taught and from experience, and manifest when acted upon by individuals in societies.  They are not encoded in our genes and neurons, and leaning and pulling us, as Haidt’s rider and elephant analogy would have it, in order to ensure that we are complying with our purportedly omnipotent and evolutionarily-proven primate emotive inheritance, as Haidt argues.

I have much more respect for a person who guards his loyalty closely and pledges it only after due and deliberative consideration in the hope of bestowing it upon social institutions and processes that foment responsibly liberating and adaptive change, than I do those who stridently extend their loyalty to institutions and processes that impede such adaptation. This approach is a common sense expression of a dominant theme in human history – accept and use the proven wisdom of the past but do not become wedded to it. Being bludgeoned into compliance with our prehistoric elders’ belief that Achulean hand axes are best for all needs and occasions would have been a disastrous approach when the people in the next valley were perfecting bows and arrows. Well, you get my drift.

Be loyal, says the Left, only when institutions, political ideologies, and leaders warrant it – when they enhance a responsible growth in human freedom and choice.  This the basic position of the mainstream Left. And, please, do not pony up the argument that the Right is likewise keen on responsible growth in human freedom and choice. I think it can be well-argued that in American society, particularly in the past fifty years, the Left has been more in tune with the basic nature of human cultural adaptation than has the Right. The mainstream Left has never sought anarchy, as the Right too often portrays them. The Left recognizes the need for retaining the best of what has worked in the past. Yet, they also believe in allowing for innovation and the expansion of human freedom to the greatest degree possible. They are very much capable of being loyal to institutions and sociopolitical processes – when such loyalty is warranted.

The Right, on the other hand, has typically had among its ranks the wealthy and powerful – those in society who can better control their wealth and power, and the processes and institutions that produce and support it, if individual freedom in the society is controlled and directed to their, the Right’s, goals and needs. The Left too has it agenda, but their worldview is broader in that it encompasses all members of the society, not only the wealthy and powerful. What is best for every person, they believe, is best for all.

Sure, the key issue here is: What do we mean by “responsible growth” in human freedom and choice? The approach of the Right has its place, as does that of the Left. However, I do not believe nor do I think it can be proven that we need an equal balance of each. I say this because the Right, being generally wealthier and more powerful than those on the Left, have proven to be more likely to do more harm to society and humanity than the Left if they, the Right, wield fifty-percent or more control of the societal and human agenda.

Humankind cannot adhere to the past and ride our planet safely into the future. Every day must be lived freely, effectively guided a little by the past but mostly by the present, and certainly not by a fear of the future where we are prevented from venturing to find betters ways of doing things.

What I’ve said above about loyalty also goes for Haidt’s findings about the Left not being keen on the sanctity and authority moral foundations. Our species does not survive and thrive because we have heapings of loyalty, sanctity, and respect for authority. We survive and thrive because we take risks, try new things, build on the innovations and changes we inherit culturally. It is less useful to think of Left and Right political ideologies scoring higher or lower on moral foundations than it is to ask why segments of a population seek greater or lesser freedom of expression and action. Morality is a dynamic, social artifact of Humankind.  Its deep significance has little to do with our “intuition” or the purported encoding of our behavior in genes and brains. Morality is something that is learned and lived, not a biological drive.

Human morality is best treated as something provisional, evolving, and continually reinvented. Not a physiological imperative bubbling up from our deep prehistoric past, bursting out in our behavior, and varnished over by our reasoning. Our nature is to be responsibly inventive, innovative, creative, and risk-taking.  Their most important moral meaning and significance is made manifest as individual-in-society activities, not at the level of genetic protein coding or neuron electro-chemical processes.

The most important part of our nature, the vast majority of it, is learned. A bit of it vanishes with each of our deaths. Happily and more importantly for the survival of our species, the vast majority of what is our nature is retained in the memories of those remaining after an individual’s death.  This repository of the most important part of our nature is also a lasting legacy comprised of our scientific and humanistic understandings, and something that is discernible in all of our other artifacts. If every human being died tomorrow, the means of adapting to the every-changing physical conditions of Earth would still be available to any one or thing that came here and was sentient enough to understand and apply them. They would not need to look at our genetic code and brain cells to learn what human adaptation and morality are all about.