Journal Entry

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

That Dog, the Self

The comments on the previous post are getting sufficiently interesting that I feel I should summarize them here before expanding on them any further....

Matt asked about the ""Bishop Berkeley/Shankara/Red King" worldview, and I said a bunch of stuff (you can go look at the comments) which comes down to this: I operate from three contrasting positions. That we live in a wholly materialist/causative/rationalist/empirically investigable cosmos, and that we live in a dream of Mind, seem like equally parsimonious hypotheses, irreducible to one another and irreconcilable but on some level isomorphic; between these, as a kind of Hegelian synthesis, and as a matter of practice rather than theory, is the conversation with the Divine -- which for me is usually in the context of monotheistic religious devotionalism.

David Moles argued that, in practice, the idealist and materialist worldviews come to the same thing; I'm not so sure. There's the question of culture (do we simply not have the cultural tools to be rigorous about the idealist hypothesis?) and the question of their emotional valence: for me they feel different.

To which Dave replies:

One might argue from a Buddhist perspective that attachment to a concrete external universe and attachment to a dream are equally attachments -- and, hence, equally misleading.

Which is very true, and it's funny he should say that --

As I was musing on the bus to work this morning about what to add here with regard to the triad posed above -- idealist and materialist cosmologies and devotional practice -- it occurred to me that in a materialist universe, "God" is no more and no less and illusion than "you" are -- if you smack me upside the head, and my house is simultaneously struck by lightning, to attribute either event to the willful action of a metaphysical Self is equally fanciful.

And while this is easy for materialists to embrace in theory, it's difficult in practice. While it's perhaps possible nowadays to find people whose worldview doesn't implicitly rely on a God-in-whatever-clothing, it's difficult to find anyone who actually doesn't believe in the myth of the Self. And if they're myths -- that is, under the materialist hypothesis -- I find the myth of God a useful corrective for the myth of Self.

As Farid Ud-Din Attar says:


The Self's squint-eyed and cannot guide you well
part dog, part parasite, part infidel.
When you are praised your Self swells up with pride
(Aware that praise is quite unjustified);
There's no hope for the Self -- the dog grows fatter
The more it hears men fawn, deceive and flatter.
What is your childhood but a negligence,
A time of carelessness and ignorance?
What is your youth but madness, strife and danger,
Knowledge that in this world you are a stranger?
What is your age but torpid helplessness,
The flesh and spirit sapped by long distress?
...
Such slaves the Self owns! What a catalogue!
How many rush to worship this foul dog!
...
[And though a hundred thousand corpses lie
around you, your fool Self thinks it won't die!]"

-- (from The Conference of the Birds, lines 1970-87, tr. Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis, except for the last couplet which I redid my way)



Re: Negative Capability -- it's something I have always wished to cultivate, and I think I find it easier in philosophy than in fiction. Mary Anne made a comment like this at Wiscon -- that I present things elegantly wrapped up in stories which I view as complex and open-ended in conversation. And this is one of the things the Dark Cabal takes my g-g-g-generation to task for, in contradistinction to the inarguably more artistically mature Kelly Link.

I've been thinking about the Dark Cabalists' post and taking it to heart: I'm working on it. I'll say that here to save myself the trouble of registering a Blogger account to say it there (maybe they'll see the Trackback).

Posted by benrosen at June 14, 2005 10:17 AM | Up to blog
Comments

Here's a shortcoming of text, because I want to see and hear how you hold your mouth when you say "the myth of the Self."

Instructional? "Myth: the Self; fact: (something)"

Perjorative? "Self, a myth and therefore false/unreal"

Narrative? "Self, a myth told to make sense of common experience"

Occult? "Self, a transcendent truth disguised in myth"

Posted by: Dan Percival at June 14, 2005 01:36 PM

Not to be difficult, Dan, but I think it's all four.

The Self is, at the least, a myth in the useful sense of an explanatory narrative.

It is also, to the extent that it is taken as other than metaphor, an illusion. The facts of the matter are different, though it's unclear what they are. But, for instance, we consistently act as though we make decisions -- we do not say "those neuronal connections which can, for convenience, be considered an agency advocating for this course of action have, against this particular set of input data, inhibited the firing of several other sets of connections and gained temporary dominance", nor "the God whose plaything the World is has my body now play this part" -- which, I think, would both be probably more accurate.

The Self is to be regarded pejoratively only insofar as we are fooled by the illusion, and make the ego our master.

As the ragged sufi (according to Attar) said to the king:


Your Self has made of you, my lord, an ass
And sat on you, and set its load on you --
You're just its slave in everything you do
...
My study is to reach Truth's inmost shrine,
And I am not my Self's ass, he is mine

I'm not as sanguine as the ragged sufi about reaching Truth's inmost shrine -- but I agree with him that the ego is a good servant, and a terrible master.

There's some slippage here -- I'm having a hard time deciding what I think about the interrelationship between the (IMHO) idea of believing in an essential/durable/metaphysical Self which is similar to the everyday experience of me-in-the-world, the practice of acting as if a metaphorical Self is fundamental even while theoretically regarding it as a metaphor, and the moral condition of egotism; they are clearly not the same thing, nor necessary nor sufficient to each other. But is there some relation?

I am very nervous about ever asserting a connection between what I consider right (but arguable) ideas, and the capacity for moral action; but here I admit to being tempted...

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 14, 2005 02:56 PM

I wonder about the materialist view of self as you describe it. I think a materialist DOES believe in self, in the sense that a materialist believes that the world is a real thing, and that she is experiencing it. I don't think a materialist would believe in self as a quale, but I think the materialist believes that if "you" smack "me" upside the head, there was a "you" and a "me" to experience that transaction.

I don't think gods even enter into the materialist worldview, and that to say that "I" am no more an illusion that "God" is most emphatically NOT what a materialist believes. To a materialist, "I" am a construction of matter, formed in accordance with verifiable natural laws, and "God" is a metaphorical construct of culture.

Right? Am I conceiving materialism correctly?

Posted by: Matt Hulan at June 14, 2005 03:03 PM

You are correctly describing how most so-called materialists who haven't thought about the matter very carefully would envision it.

However, they are wrong. The Self is precisely a construction of culture, just like God or communism. The idea that there was a "you" and a "me" to "experience" the transaction of the smacking is of precisely the same order as the idea that "America" invaded "Iraq" and "liberated" or "humiliated" the "Iraqi people", or that the Crab Nebula, all the world's milkweed, and my big toe have formed a coalition to ponder the nature of the things with a mean temperature above 5 degrees Kelvin. The only difference with that last one is that the fictions it involves it seem a lot less useful, and less parsimonious in explanation of observed phenomena, than the first two -- to us. But maybe there's some possible culture that would take the Crab Nebula-milkweed-big toe coalition with utmost seriousness and treat "you-me-experience" and "America-Iraq-liberation" as hilarious jokes.

Why exactly did you smack me? Was it the moral act of a free agent? Or did you smack me due to an elaborate causal chain involving genes and male primates in the savannah? Or did you smack me because your pollen allergies were acting up, making your smacking of me a phenotypical expression of the hayseed genome?

The world is stuff. We come upon it and draw lines. We made up the lines. Drawing a border around your body (but wait -- does it include your hair? Fingernails? Clothes? Property? Lungs? Hindbrain? Only some of your cerebral cortex?) and calling it "you" is precisely the same action in kind -- and arguably not much more useful in degree -- as some nineteenth century politicos drawing some lines on a map and calling it "Ghana".

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 14, 2005 03:14 PM

Okay, but I think that's Ben Rosenbaum's worldview, and not the materialist worldview. I'm trying to get a handle on the philosophy of "materialism" for the sake of argument. Having looked at wiki, it seems to me that materialism believes in things as things, and that a materialist would not separate the self from the body.

I think you and I can more or less agree that we believe the self is an illusion, and we can argue about the flavor of that illusion, but I don't think that a strict (and probably mythical - human beliefs are generally more complex than wiki articles would make them out to be) materialist would agree with us.

Posted by: Matt Hulan at June 14, 2005 04:05 PM

Not to be difficult, Dan, but I think it's all four.

Fair enough -- it sounded like you were just going for perjorative, there, so I thought I should ask.

You are correctly describing how most so-called materialists who haven't thought about the matter very carefully would envision it.

Heh. Can we get a referee in here?

I think you've picked up the hammer of "words and concepts are cultural" and started using it to pound in the screw of "there exists a material world." (As someone whose score on the religion test you linked was tied between Postmodernist and Materialist, I hereby declare myself qualified to make this accusation.) I've got no problem with you pounding nails/Supernaturalism, but before you gloat about how badly the materialist screw works with your hammer of Mind, try to allow for the existence of a screwdriver.

To round out the tortured metaphor, one possible screwdriver (phillips or flathead?) may be:

The physical universe exhibits distinctions of both matter/energy and process at multiple levels, from photons to galaxies and beyond, which can be labeled after the fact by human beings with words for purposes of common (and, yes, cultural) reference. It is not necessary to establish the precise boundaries of a phenomenon to verify that there are many other phenomena sufficiently similar, and sufficiently different from others, to justify a meaningful category.

There is no perfect distinction between hurricanes and tropical storms; nor is there a perfect physical boundary at the edge of a hurricane. 'Hurricane' is a metaphor, a myth, a cultural artifact. Should a materialist cede that hurricanes are an illusion, or that broadcasting a hurricane warning is about as useful as writing blog entries about ontology?

Posted by: Dan Percival at June 14, 2005 05:23 PM

Incidentally, this comes from someone who once rounded out a mediocre poem with the lines "... I is a lie / about a liar, not the liar / not the liar in the lie." So I'm not unsympathetic to your direction here.

Posted by: Dan Percival at June 14, 2005 05:32 PM

Hmmm.

I'm not arguing that it's not useful to talk about selves, as abstractions. I'm also not arguing that there isn't a material world. Nor against materialists, since I am one, sometimes.

I was only arguing against sloppily materialism.

But perhaps I read Matt sloppily:
if "you" smack "me" upside the head, there was a "you" and a "me" to experience that transaction

Wouldn't a rigorous materialist say: there were two bodies there, in the "hard" sense that there are hurricanes; and that there were two "experiencing selves" in the "soft" sense in which there are nation-states?

Okay, maybe not quite that soft -- but surely there's a gap, for a rigorous materialist, between the assemblage of physical items which is a body, and the much vaguer set of experiences, qualia, ideals, and language games which is a self?

Maybe I assume too much of other people's ontologies. It wouldn't be the first time.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 14, 2005 07:14 PM

And I'm going to retract right now the association between the belief in the existence of a self, however construed, and any moral conditions. That was offensive.

I've just been at work too long and am feeling punchy.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 14, 2005 07:16 PM

No offense taken at all. My reply was probably more snappish than it should have been; I apologize.

I'm not quite sure what a fully rigorous materialist would say about your case study. I suspect at least two possible responses:

+ The bases for the observed phenomena of selfhood and experience are not well-studied and may not be tractable to study. Therefore, it is best to refrain from making assertions about them. (Except that's more empiricist than materialist, so maybe it doesn't work here.)

+ Nation-states, languages, selves, hurricanes, and bodies are all epiphenomena of a physical universe. The phenomenon of an experiencing Self is similar in kind (complex, dynamic, and material) to phenomena like an ecosystem or an immune system.

Posted by: Dan Percival at June 14, 2005 08:11 PM

Hope you don't mind me crashing in. Interesting conversation.

Picking up on Matt's:

"... it seems to me that materialism believes in things as things, and that a materialist would not separate the self from the body..."

... and Benjamin's:

"... surely there's a gap, for a rigorous materialist, between the assemblage of physical items which is a body, and the much vaguer set of experiences, qualia, ideals, and language games which is a self?"

In the "hard sense" / "soft sense" dichotomy, I'd say a rigorous materialist might argue that there's two distinct bodies, but that the vaguer sets of experiences, qualia, ideals, and language games don't really constitute two coherent "selves". From a psychological angle you could see that unity as an illusion, the psyche as part conscious, part unconscious, as much neuroses and automatic response as "experiencing self". A rigorous materialist might, I'd say, argue that the set of psychological phenomena (or epiphenomena) we happen to be aware of don't add up to a complete psyche, that to talk rationally about the "self" you have to extend your scope outside the boundaries of consciousness. By that argument, I think you could see the physical body as the only valid "chalk outline" with which to mark out the Self.

Posted by: Hal Duncan at June 14, 2005 08:48 PM

Hm. I think a strict materialist view would be that the self is a side-effect of the body; that the difference between the self in the hard sense and the self in the soft sense is a cultural construct.

Even the self in the soft sense, being comprised of things like experience, subconscious motives, and instinct, is generated by brain chemistry. And brain chemistry is generated by the body. I think the pharmacological school of psychiatry is a manifestation of the materialist interpretation of the self. "Experiencing shamanic trances? Take Zyprexa(tm)!" A problem of the self is fixed by brain-chemistry altering drugs. There's no acknowledgement in that discipline of the unconscious, let alone metaphysics.

Dan, I think your screwdriver's a flathead for the hard self or a phillipshead for the soft. Also, I recommend a Dremel attachment for maximum RPMs.

Posted by: Matt Hulan at June 15, 2005 10:24 AM

Further, to refer to a post on the 6/9 blog entry below, I would refine the definitions of Robot and Body as relating to soft and hard self respectively.

Posted by: Matt Hulan at June 15, 2005 10:26 AM

Nation-states, languages, selves, hurricanes, and bodies are all epiphenomena of a physical universe. The phenomenon of an experiencing Self is similar in kind (complex, dynamic, and material) to phenomena like an ecosystem or an immune system.

Right -- and a pantheist God is an epiphenomenon of exactly the same order. That God (the Universe, considered as a Self) "deciding" to do something is no less and no more metaphorical than you "deciding" to do something, or than the idea "birds evolved wings so that they could fly" or "salmon swim upstream because they want to spawn".

A rigorous materialist might, I'd say, argue that the set of psychological phenomena (or epiphenomena) we happen to be aware of don't add up to a complete psyche

Yup, that's my point exactly.

Even the self in the soft sense, being comprised of things like experience, subconscious motives, and instinct, is generated by brain chemistry.

I'd say, rather, that it's generated *through* brain chemistry, *by* the world. You are not a brain in a box. Your "self" is situated as much in your "stuff" and your social world as in your brain per se. Many times when we say "I decided to do that", I understand, the brain agency doing the conscious "deciding" is actually activated *after* the action -- we react to the world, and then we decide why we did it.

Perhaps whether you believe a "complete psyche" to be a sufficiently stable and separable epiphenomenon to merit comparison with a hurricane is really orthogonal to the issue of whether you are a materialist -- there are postmodernist and, what shall I call them, traditionalist materialists? In which case perhaps the traditionalists aren't sloppy -- I just think they are wrong.

And perhaps the self is less problematic in the realm of "is" than in the realm of "should". What is the justification to ally yourself with one set of materially based epiphenomena rather than another? Why consider the set-of-actions-your-body-takes to be "you", in the sense of "that-whose-interests-I-advocate"?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 15, 2005 02:24 PM

Yes, I'm pretty much in agreement with that.

What is the justification to ally yourself with one set of materially based epiphenomena rather than another? Why consider the set-of-actions-your-body-takes to be "you", in the sense of "that-whose-interests-I-advocate"?

I'd say we tend to box up one subset of self-stuff and label it "Me", and that it's largely the presence of the peculiarly distinctive sense of self (whether quale or epiphenomena) which "justifies" the alliegance. But -- again looking at it psychologically -- we might just as easily box our self-stuff up into multiple conflicted subsystems of "Me", each with their own interests and strategies. I tend to distinguish different characterisable identities that are more or less running the Me Show at various points; persona, ego, self, id, even shadow, I think that, metaphorically speaking, the body has numerous drivers wrestling for control of the wheel.

As a for instance, going back to that slapping example, if *you* slap *me* and *I* blow up, totally over-react, and take a tire-iron to your head, is it the same *me* that hits as was hit. I reckon there's a strong association between the sort of narcissistic fury you see in instances of road rage and what a Jungian would call the shadow. People talk of 'losing control', of 'flipping out', and I think what you've got here is a separate sub-system in play, reacting in its own interests, taking over while the day-to-day ego is still trying to figure out the "correct" reaction.

In that sense, the set-of-actions-your-body-takes might be better understood as multiple sets-of-strategies associated with multiple attitudinal modes, multiple "yous".

... perhaps the self is less problematic in the realm of "is" than in the realm of "should".

Practically speaking then, I still find it "unjustified", but if we view the myth of the self as an ideal, do you mean...? As an integrated Me that we "should" be rather than "are" -- an aspirational strategy?

Posted by: Hal Duncan at June 15, 2005 03:49 PM

Right -- and a pantheist God is an epiphenomenon of exactly the same order

Definitely. Though I'd say "kind" instead of "order," because I'd reserve the latter term for describing degrees of compounded complexity, i.e. a sponge is of higher order than its component cells. For that matter, the Earth-Moon system as a system is of lower order than a cell (as far as we know); more matter doesn't necessarily imply higher order.

I'm with you that under strict materialism, "decide" is a metaphor -- but what's incorrect about distinguishing kinds of physical processes by labelling them with specific metaphors? If the process of thought generation turns out to operate isomorphically to the process of genotype change via pressure on the phenotype, well, sure, then we could say that the system "birds" decided to evolve wings, but is there any reason at this point to equate evolution and decision?

Your comment about "should" over "is" helps me a little with navigating your argument. Earlier it seemed that you were saying that an honest materialist would deny that "self" has any useful meaning. Still, I'm finding your questions at the end of your last post so easy to answer that I suspect I'm not understanding them.

Why ally myself with one particular set of epiphenomena? Because they comprise that particular set of phenomena, tightly interconnected with each other and more sparsely with the rest of the universe, which generates (among other things) the narrative of "myself." If they were a different set of phenomena, I'd be someone/thing else. If they were a set that did not generate narrative, there would be no "myself" to ask the question.

Why advocate the interests of that set of phenomena? Because they're what does the advocating. They can go to bat for other phenomena, too, but only so long as this particular batch keeps churning.

I think it might be time for a general disclaimer: I have no way of knowing whether materialism is correct. I think it's useful, and when there's a claim that it's broken, I like to know why. I accept that supernaturalism and other ontologies can be useful, too, although I am personally less inclined to them.

Posted by: Dan Percival at June 15, 2005 07:38 PM

Why ally myself with one particular set of epiphenomena? Because they comprise that particular set of phenomena[...]which generates[...]the narrative of "myself."

That's begging the question, because the constitution of self is not fluid. The epiphenomina in question are constantly regenerating the self in all kinds of different alliances and reconfigurations.

You can see Attar's poem as in part an effort to regenerate a different self, to redraw the borders: "I am not my Self's ass, he is mine" -- just saying that, with serious intention, already begins to create a different configuration. Reading history you can see where the borders of the self have shifted (the difference between the Torah and the later prophets, or the New Testament, in the consitution of self-as-lineage-belonging-to-world and self-as-soul-entangled-in-foregin-and-inimical-world are dramatic. My borders of self were radically shifted when my kids were born.

I think a lot of modern materialist writings gloss over this, and by doing so actually stabilize a particular discourse of selfhood and promote a potentially liberating, but also potentially rapacious individualism. If you do away with (or critically interrogate) God and the Nation and the Race and so on, but remain blind to the Self as similar fiction, then you naturalize "well, but I *want* to do that" in a way that makes that sort of all that's left after "God's will" and "for the good of society" and "as a matter of honor" are gone.

It's a similar sort of move as reifying Nature -- calling certain things (survival of the fittest, sexual propagation of the species) "natural" and somehow "hence desirable" and arbitrarily dedicing that other behaviors -- which, since they take place in the world, are clearly part of nature (because what is the world if not nature? and how can some human behaviors be part of "Nature unspoiled by Man" and others not?) -- are "unnatural" and therefore to be decried.

I'm thinking of, for instance, the implicit assumptions about what is real (good = the body lives longer) and what is not real (good = the soul goes to heaven, Islam triumphs and brings peace to the world, national injuries are avenged, etc.) in Dawkins' "Deisgn for a Faith-Based Missile".

My disclaimer: I do not believe materialism to be broken. On the contrary, I believe it to be coherent, indeed the best-worked-out-in-detail coherent worldview around. I am talking here about an error made by some materialists, not an error intrinsic to materialism.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 16, 2005 11:44 AM

So, I don't know whether this makes any sense or not, but I think one of the reasons that idealism and materialism feel, to me, less opposed to one another than they might, is that materialism is one of the things that leads me to see the self as a constructed fiction. Not the Captain of my Soul, but more a sort of Maggie Simpson character who thinks she's driving the station wagon but is really only spinning the wheel of the car seat.

(I wonder if this is why I keep having trouble remembering to click the "sentient entity" button -- son some level, I'm not really sure either of the answers is correct....)

Posted by: David Moles at June 16, 2005 02:48 PM

I was poking around the web, and I found this fascinating article on a game Ben and I play, called go. At issue in the article is "why did I make such a bad play?" He starts out addressing the notion of a bad play, then starts talking about what "I" means in this context. I thought it was interesting and relevant to this conversation, so here you go.

Posted by: Matt Hulan at June 16, 2005 03:19 PM

David -- try it now.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 16, 2005 04:08 PM

Much better. :)

Posted by: David Moles at June 16, 2005 07:23 PM

peer no deeper into your heart than into a stone;
dig no deeper into your thoughts than into a pool;
step no farther toward truth than toward a moving train;
give me a potato chip.

Posted by: david at June 16, 2005 08:52 PM

Matt: You beat me to it! I've been looking for a way to bring Go into this conversation. (And if you want a game, I'm dan_percival on Dragon Go Server).

Ben: I think I've been interpreting you as saying more than you are. Could you be a little bit more explicit about the mistake that you're wanting to point out? I keep thinking you're saying that correctly-thought-out materialism denies an experiencing self entirely. To me, that would make it broken: a tool with no way to hold it.

I think you might also be reading more into my point about identifying 'myself' with the processes that narrate me than I meant to say. I wasn't so much claiming to know the exact constituents of myself as sort of restating the weak anthropic principle: why do we observe this universe instead of another? Because it is the universe we are in. Why do I experience myself and not something else?

Does it really nullify the self to say that it is constantly shifting and churning? I don't think there can be narrative, much less self, without change.

What's interesting to me about that line you quote from Attar's poem is that the speaker seems to set up a super-self that is not the Self he masters, as opposed to claiming a recursive self-mastery.

No argument at all about the falseness of the natural/unnatural dualism. Doing away with that dualism has to be done carefully, because humans can destabilize nature from within just as easily as from without.

Some stories that this whole conversation is bringing to mind (besides the obvious airship-themed one):

"The Author of the Acacia Seeds," Ursula K. Le Guin. (Collected in The Compass Rose): leads the reader's acceptance of xenonarrative from the easy extrapolations out towards the pantheistic.

"Dust," Greg Egan (adapted to be the first chapter of Permutation City, I believe): consciousness as discrete, unconnected states of information that is not tied to any particular process in time. I'd guess that everyone could pick a different thing to disagree with in this one.

"The Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation," Raphael Carter (available in Starlight 2): knocking the brain off its Turing-complete pedestal.

david: Cool ranch? Salt and vinegar? Barbecue?

Posted by: Dan Percival at June 17, 2005 05:17 PM

hot from the kettle, with some freshly ground pepper and a little salt. i'll do a taste test. the first i will imagine as not existing, the second as being indistinguishable from myself, and the third as a manifestation of my own desire. i'll tell you if they taste different...

Posted by: david at June 18, 2005 05:39 PM

"Swarm", Bruce Sterling: consciousness as an occasionally (but only occasionally) useful tool, to be hung up on a peg most of the time and taken down only when needed.

Posted by: David Moles at June 19, 2005 01:15 PM

Could you be a little bit more explicit about the mistake that you're wanting to point out?

Implicitly -- not explicitly -- regarding the individual self as a constant, metaphysically real object, and making its "happiness" the telos -- the thing to be optimized for.

Which is to say, using the tools of materialism to unravel and explain away various other pieties -- nations, Gods, souls, intuitions -- and resolutely refusing to employ them against our very favorite idol, the Individual.

e.g. ibid, Dawkins:

"If death is final, a rational agent can be expected to value his life highly and be reluctant to risk it."

And why is this, exactly?

An agent valuing some mythic account of the afterlife or the nation or the race or the family as more important than its biological body's continued life is irrational.

An agent however, who places the continuation of its own heartbeat above all else is, presumably, rational.

Do you buy this?

Does it not seem to imply that the narrative the agent is telling itself, that whispery voice in the back of your head that is, in the end, the Self ... " I like my car... this here is boring... I have a lovely wife... I hope I win a Hugo... shit, I'll never finish a story in time for Sycamore Hill..." -- that this voice is real and enduring, rather than a self-created fiction.

But this voice is a liar. The main lie it tells is precisely the one that Dawkins accuses religion of -- "you will not die".

The value Dawkins articulates as obvious, commonsensical, and rational, seems to me to be -- taken to a similar extreme -- precisely as irrational and dangerous as the values of the faith-based missile's inhabitants; and far, far more common.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 23, 2005 02:59 PM

Thank you, that helps immensely. I think I largely agree with you. But this is the internet; we do not speak of agreements here.

Okay, I lied, because I want to weigh in on the Dawkins essay that both of us have trouble with, though possibly for different reasons. I think Dawkins' stumbling block is that he has come up with a powerful tool for describing what is real and hopes to use it to shed light on what is good. Unfortunately, 'real' is a characteristic of all phenomena -- even incorrect descriptions of reality are themselves real. If you and I have been talking hammers and screwdrivers, Dawkins is trying to pull a symphony out of a telescope.

So. Yes. Agreement, definitely on the particular, and I think on the generality as well. Except: now I'm very curious about the implications of how you phrased some things, because they are tantalizingly different from what I would have said.

An agent however, who places the continuation of its own heartbeat above all else is, presumably, rational.

For all that I think Dawkins is overreaching, I don't think this is quite synonymous with the quote you pulled. I think he's saying that a rational actor will act differently when given different expectations about what happens after death. Maybe that's my own filter kicking in. Okay, it's definitely my own filter and I have no idea what Dawkins really meant, because I've just deleted a couple sentences explaining what it says in my (non-literal, constantly changing) head.

Does it not seem to imply that the narrative the agent is telling itself [...] is real and enduring, rather than a self-created fiction.

Hmm. Mind if I split the compound question? It definitely does imply "real" -- but why would that be inaccurate, even if the narrative is a fictional one? (I just re-read and I think you're using "real" here to mean "factual" and the factuality is the important part to you, whereas I read "real" as "actual" and think that existence is foundational (though boring to talk about).)

Secondly, I'm not quite sure what you're getting at with "enduring", since it's Dawkins' contention that the self is not enduring, that this life is all we've got. If I may take a guess, are you saying that even though Dawkins argues that the self will end, his value system contains an implicit assumption that death is a choice to be optimized and not a guarantee?

Posted by: Dan Percival at June 24, 2005 01:04 PM
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