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

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