On Philosophy

November 20, 2007

Choosing Who We Are

Filed under: Self — Peter @ 12:00 am

It’s natural to draw a sharp distinction between the internal and external world. But this distinction is often made a bit too sharply, for example in the intuitions of certain people about free will, namely that if it exists it must be purely internal and non-physical. Free will, however, is not what I am concerned with today, rather I am concerned with the distinction that might be made between aspects of who a person is that are thought to be “genuinely” them versus those which are thought to be an imposition on the real person in some way. Consider, for example, the simple fact that we tend to adopt as our own the desires that people around us display. For example, if we spend time around people who place a high value on fashionable clothes we are likely to start valuing them more highly as well, unless we actively despise those people. Such desires might seem not really part of who we are because they come from the external world rather than an internal source. And, more importantly for some, they have not been chosen freely or rationally. Thinking in this way might lead us to divide personalities into a core personality, that is who the person “really” is, and an extrinsic part, that only seems to be who they are but is really a product of the external world.

Now I wouldn’t deny that we might be able to create such a division in name, to label some parts of someone’s personally as core and others as extrinsic. However, I would deny that such a distinction tells us anything significant, that somehow what is labeled as the core personality is more important than the parts of the person’s personality as labeled as extrinsic. Personality as a whole determines the person who someone is, not some part of it. Which means that to favor what is called the core personality or some variation of it over the whole person is simply to favor one possible person over another. And of course there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such judgments, but the person as they are may be better than some alternate version of them that is considered more genuine. Not everything external that has an influence on someone’s personality is necessarily a bad influence on them. For example, we can imagine someone who grows up in an environment that leads them to develop an ethical and self-reliant personality, and that person may very well be better than the person who would have developed without those influences. Nor does it really make sense to suppose that someone might really desire to be the person defined by their core personality rather than the person they actually are, because it is logically inconsistent to wish to be someone else. Of course people do make such wishes on occasion, but they haven’t really thought out what granting that wish would entail, because what they really want is to be able to lead that person’s life while being the same person. But to really be someone else would require a complete personality replacement, and that would be effectively the end of the original person, and so it doesn’t make sense to wish to be someone else, because the person making that wish can never be someone else, at best they can be eliminated and replaced.

A better way to look at how external influences have an impact on the person we are is to think of some past version of ourselves as having before them a number of possible future people they might become. What the external influences do under this model is simply make one of those future possibilities more likely. But just because one of those future people was brought into existence by some particular combination of internal and external factors doesn’t make them intrinsically better or worse than one of those other possibilities who would have been brought about by some other combination. Although those factors determine which possibility is eventually made actual they aren’t themselves part of the person, it is not the case that somehow the factors that brought them into existence are buried within them. Thus the best way to understand the personality of someone, consistent with this understanding, is as completely internal, no matter why they have the personality that they do.

I will grant, however, that when external influences have an effect on us that it makes the choice of which future person we will become not an entirely free one. But that by itself doesn’t tell us anything about those influences. Although freedom is desirable when we are considering the freedom to do what we want, unconstrained by external forces and external threats, that doesn’t mean that a free choice when it comes to what kind of person we will become is necessarily better than an un-free one. What we need is some point of view, carrying with it standards, from which we can legitimately judge whether free choice is necessarily better or worse. But when it comes to matters involving different potential people it is hard to find such a viewpoint. Obviously it will be better for the possible person who is brought into existence by external forces for us to be influenced by them, and thus for us not to have a free choice. And, equally obviously, it will be better for the possible person brought into existence by a completely free series of choices for us to have a free choice. Nor can we appeal to the currently existing person to decide this issue, because they are essentially indifferent to which person they become in the future, only how well things go for those people, and that doesn’t seem to be affected by whether the choices that led to them being that person was free or not.

One way out of this dilemma is simply to privilege the person who actually exists now (somewhat reasonable, given that existence is nine tenths of the law, so to speak). And from the point of view of any actually existing person the factors that made them who they are now were desirable in as much as they had that effect (although they may have been undesirable at the time and their continued existence may be undesirable). Certainly they would mind an alteration of those influences, causing them to cease to exist and be replaced by someone else. Since this is true for all people at all times we might conclude that whatever influences do happen to bring people into existence are acceptable, and certainly not to be condemned. However, such reasoning might seem to dodge the real problem to some significant extent, since it would essentially lead us to endorse everything that occurs, while missing the fact that we might wish to condemn things in some absolute sense based on a comparison as to how well off the people existing with such things existing are compared to those who would exist were such things to be eliminated. For example, it is clear that were wars to be eliminated different people would exist than would in a world were war existed. Obviously it is good for the people who would exist, were wars to continue, to exist. But, in a comparison between the two the people who would exist without war are better off than them, and so we may condemn war in an absolute sense, even though it would be tantamount to suicide if we somehow erased the wars that had previously occurred. Using such a standard we might ask whether people as a whole would be better off were they to be freed from external influences. Surprisingly the answer might be “yes”, despite the fact that some external influences can be beneficial. You see conflicts within a person’s desires can lead to a life that is less than optimal, from their own point of view. And, it seems reasonable to say, a person who is influenced by external factors is more likely to develop desires that conflict with their existing desires. Thus in some absolute sense people as a whole might be better off were they to be freed from such external influences.

But, regardless of whether such freedom is desirable in absolute terms, we can’t eliminate the influence of external forces on our personality. Our psychology is such that we are naturally disposed to mimic other people, and this is one common way in which who we are is changed by the external world. And certainly we can’t rationally try to do away with our tendency to mimic each other; it is only because of it that we have such things as language and society. The best we could hope for then would be to be exposed to only those external factors that are “compatible” with who we already our, which don’t give rise to conflicting desires. But, even given that limited goal I don’t see any obvious changes that we might make to help people avoid “incompatible” external forces, which are compatible and which are incompatible varies from person to person, and thus no sweeping changes will be good for everyone. The best we can hope for is that individuals exercise good judgment on their own, which they are already free to do.

Unfortunately these musings haven’t really provided us with any useful advice or strategies. However, we can use them to answer a question I left open yesterday, namely whether a society that manipulates the desires of the individuals within it on a large scale can be a good one. And, considering what we have established here, the answer must be no. By creating external influences that affect almost everyone uniformly we are almost certain to increase the number of conflicts that arise within the desires of those individuals, because while some people will be compatible with the desires being encouraged not everyone will be. And thus, in an absolute sense, such manipulation is a bad thing.

June 9, 2007

The Philosophy of Proust: The Person

Filed under: Self,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 12:00 am

Note: here I am not trying to explicate the philosophical positions that Proust himself may have had, rather I am using In Search Of Lost Time as a jumping off point from which to investigate various philosophical issues. Obviously then what I have written here is just one part of an ongoing project.

There are three natural candidates to identify the person with: the process of consciousness, the inner personality (a.k.a various properties of that conscious process), and external personality. Of these three we can immediately rule out the process of consciousness as a candidate for being the person. Consciousness may be interrupted, for example, it is reasonable to suppose that at night there are times in which we are not conscious, or when we suffer a blow to the head, or if we are frozen only to be thawed at a later date. If it is interrupted obviously the conscious process before and after the interruption aren’t the same process, although one might be seen as the natural continuation of the other. Thus to adopt it as the person would be to accept that people are constantly dying only to be replaced by imposters, over and over again, and that you yourself have only really existed for perhaps a day, and that the memories you have of existing previously are really the memories of somebody else. Clearly then the conscious process is not what we meant to talk about when we talk about the person.

The inner personality is a much better choice. The inner personality is the way in which a particular conscious process works (how it thinks, feels, its dispositions, memories). Numerous conscious processes could in theory have the same inner personality; even though the same conscious process isn’t present when I go to sleep and wake up the same inner personality is. (Of course there are complications dealing with how the inner personality changes and when the inner personality of one conscious process can be considered the same as, or the natural successor of, that which was present in another. But we will leave these considerations aside for now.) The inner personality is, I think, how we define the person that we think of as ourselves. Drastic changes in our inner personality make us feel like we have become different people. And because of the consistency (as far as we know) between going to sleep and waking up we feel that we are the same person as the one who existed yesterday. So it makes sense to identify the person with the inner personality some of the time. However it doesn’t quite capture what we intend to refer to by talk of the person in most cases. Certainly we don’t have access to the inner personality of anyone but ourselves, except in a very indirect and unreliable way. Thus when we talk of this person or that person we must mean something slightly different.

This brings us to the external personality. The external personality is how a person interacts with others. When talking about the person in the context of thinking of other people it seems natural to define them in terms of our relations to them. How else could we define who they are? (see also) In his book Proust calls this the social personality. He says “… our social personality is a creation of the thoughts of other people. Even the simple act which we describe as ‘seeing someone we know’ is to some extent an intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the person we see with all the notions we have already formed about him, and in the total picture of him which we compose our minds those notions have certainly the principle place.” But, if we define the person in this way, a given body may house more than one person, because if people run in different social circles they may interact with people in one circle differently than they do in another. In Proust’s book Mr. Swann is an example of this. With Proust’s family Swann is one person, but there is also a second Swann, who lives in the highest social circles. And in fact learning about the other Swann is like meeting a second person, according to Proust. Now of course there is a sense in which me might say that these two Swanns are in fact “the same person”. Such a claim, I think, mixes the two definitions of the person. Specifically it is invoking the idea that there is only one inner personality between the two, because we know that except in the most abnormal cases there is only one inner personality per body. It is not that the claim is wrong, but rather that it brings the two ideas together while using only one word, perhaps confusingly.

Distinguishing the two definitions of the person can be philosophically useful. When thinking about psychological continuity, survival conditions, what things look like to a given person, and so on, the first definition of the person, as the inner personality, is the most useful, since in these areas we feel that the first person perspective has some authority. However, when it comes to social and ethical matters I think we are best served by the second definition, first of all because that is the only kind of person we have access to when deciding these matters. And, more practically, it allows us to leave the philosophy of mind aside and to worry only about how that person acts without delving into any sticky issues regarding their inner state.

February 7, 2007

Born Free

Filed under: Free Will,Self — Peter @ 12:03 am

There is no uncontroversial definition of free will. Some define it as the ability to have chosen otherwise, and some define it as self-determination. But I think everyone can agree on what a free choice isn’t. An un-free choice is when some external agency compels you to make a certain decision, whether you are aware of that compulsion or not.

An obvious example of an un-free choice is when someone compels you to do something by threats. Of course it isn’t completely un-free, but, like many things, free choice comes in degrees, in proportion to the extent the external agency influences the choice made. Given your psychology there may have been only one choice you could have rationally made, or only one choice you could have made that you wouldn’t have felt guilty about. And the external forces in question made you take that course of action instead of a number of others that were available to you. But there is still some freedom here, because there was still the possibility of doing otherwise (from your point of view), and so you did have some influence on your final actions, it was just that this influence was overshadowed by the pressures of the situation.

An example of an action that is even less free is the act of perception. When you look at the world you simply see things in a certain way, a way that is determined by what is out there an not be your preferences. Of course there are abnormal situations where we hallucinate, or simply close our eyes and imagine seeing things, but there aren’t examples of normal perception. Another example of an un-free situations is the science fiction scenarios where you are the victim of mind control, where thoughts are forced upon you that you would not have otherwise thought, pushing you down a course of action you would not have otherwise taken.

Free will then is when the majority of the factors that influence your choice are under your control, or in other words, when no external agency is compelling the decision (un-un-free will). So in normal situations do we have free will, defined as un-un-free will? Well normally our decisions are caused primarily by our brains. Certainly external factors (perception) have some affect on what happens in the brain, but the dominant cause, by far, of both decisions and future brain states is our current brain state. Thus whether we have free will or not depends on how our selves are related to our physical brains.

If we are materialists then we either identify the self with the brain directly, or with the functional properties of the brain. In either case since I am identical with my brain, and my brain is the primary cause of my actions then I am the primary cause of my actions, and thus my actions are free (because they are not un-free). On the other hand if we are epiphenomenalists, who think that the brain is a separate mental substance that runs in parallel to the physical brain, without the mind causally influencing the brain, then we would lack free will, since the brain would be an external agency that was in fact the primary cause of our actions, not us. Other possibilities, such as a separate mental substance that interferes with the workings of the physical brain are, of course, ruled out by modern science.

That covers the classical possibilities. But when I speak of the mind I am speaking of the combination of both conscious and unconscious mind. I assume that our self is identical to this sum. But what if we identified the self only with the conscious mind? Many of our actions would then become un-free, since the details of my breathing, my typing, ect are all caused primarily by my unconscious mind. Sure, the conscious mind seems to be the cause of some actions, but it seems possible that many of the thoughts that we have consciously, which are the cause of the actions that we think we are consciously in control of, are themselves created and put into the conscious mind by the unconscious. If this were true it would make the conscious mind controlled by the unconscious, and thus would make us un-free. But, first of all, the details of how the conscious mind and unconscious mind interact have yet to be fully spelled out, and secondly it simply makes more sense to identify the self with the sum of the conscious and unconscious mind. Our memories, our disposition, and our beliefs are usually unconscious, brought only into consciousness when the situation calls for them. Since it is natural to define the self in terms of memories, disposition, beliefs, and so on, and not simply by the contents of the current conscious experience, it seems natural to say that the unconscious as well as the conscious is who we are.

Thus, since materialism is by far the most plausible theory about the mind, I conclude that we are free.

January 21, 2007


Filed under: General Philosophy,Mind,Self — Peter @ 12:09 am

Some philosophers who study the mind propose that what makes the brain conscious is that it is self-representational. Personally I am inclined to agree with the idea that the brain represents itself, but not that this alone is responsible for consciousness. However, to properly address the questions about the possibility of self-representation, and whether the brain can represent at all, we must first develop a theory about representation.

But first consider this image:
What does it represent? At first glance it seems to be representing itself, since the picture contains a copy of itself, including its representational features, within itself. However, since I made that image in a finite amount of time, it obviously can’t contain copies of itself “all the way down”, which would be an infinite number of copies. So maybe it doesn’t represent itself (or does it?), but certainly it represents some other picture, not the one we are currently presented with, that does perfectly represent itself. Even though it cannot contain an infinite number of copies of itself it represents an image that does. (Is the image represented by the image presented here, the one that is perfectly self-representational, conscious? I doubt it, which is why I doubt the theory that self-representation alone is responsible for consciousness.)

But, setting the above thought experiment aside for the moment, what does it mean to claim that one thing represents another? One easy move to make is to say that if something like a picture is representational it does so in virtue of giving us an idea that is about that thing. For example, under this interpretation of representation the picture above only represented a picture that was perfectly self-representational because when I saw it the idea of a picture that was perfectly self-representational came to mind. Sometimes this definition might be workable, but unfortunately not in the context of developing a theory about representation in order to understand the mind, as that would be viciously circular. It is also unable to describe situations in which there is a representation but no mind to interpret that representation. For example, consider two robots that wander around a room, creating a map of obstacles as they go. One of these robots can share their map with the other. But, since the robots don’t literally have maps, they shared data that represents the layout of the room. And we know that it must represent the room (versus being a meaningless collection of ones and zeros) because, when the second robot receives it, that robot is able to use the information to avoid obstacles it hadn’t encountered before. The theory of representation we are looking for needs to be general enough to encompass these cases as well.

Another possible definition of representation is in terms of causation. We might say that one thing represents another only if the two are related by the right kind of causal relationship. Of course this is simply another version of the causal theory, or causal functionalism (see yesterday), and has the same problems. For example, the picture that I used as an example in the very beginning was not caused by a picture that is perfectly self-representational, yet we all agree that is what it represents. Likewise, we might create realistic pictures of imaginary places and people, and these pictures would be understood to represent those places and people. Not some might respond to this by arguing that this is not the case, that the pictures represent our conceptions of those places and people. But that can’t be correct, because if we wanted to represent our idea of a fictional place or person we wouldn’t create a realistic picture, we would create a very stylized picture, in order to convey that the picture is about our personal relationship to the subject matter, and not representational of the subject matter alone (in fact a great deal of modern art seems to explore this idea).

So, now that I have argued against what I think are the unworkable theories about representation, allow me to present one that I think does work, one that is rooted in information theory. The “informational” theory of representation says that a thing A represents a thing B if information about B can be reliably gleaned from A. Or at least this is the simple version. Certainly this theory seems to cover the cases presented here. The picture that I have referred to so often represents a perfectly self-representational picture because we can see the pattern and thus it suggests to us a picture with that pattern extended infinitely. Likewise a picture of a fictional person or place might be said to represent that person or place because it gives us information about them (specifically what they look like), even if there is no real object. To be a completely accurate account though we must relativize the representation to the system that is receiving it. Different systems will deduce different facts from the same item, and thus the same item will represent different things to them. For example, for most of us a smooth rock is simply a smooth rock. However, for people who are well informed about geology and erosion a smooth rock will give them information about the water that brought it to that shape. Similarly, the picture at the top only represents a perfectly self-representational picture because we know how to extend the pattern in our minds, it would not represent a perfectly self-representational picture to a system that could not extend the pattern, or would not conclude that the pattern was incomplete.

And with the informational theory of representation we are ready to tackle the problem of self-representation in general. In fact we can address the more difficult form of the question, which is to ask how a system can represent itself to itself. Under the informational theory the answer is relatively straightforward. Assume the system contains blocks of information that are dealt with as whole units (that is to say that if anything is to represent the system itself it must be one of these blocks). And one of these blocks would represent the system if the system could reliably determine information about itself from one of these blocks. This isn’t hard to imagine, for example the system might be designed to store its current status in an area, including information such as how much storage capacity remains, ect. But how can we tell if the system is deducing information about itself from this raw data or if the data is simply being stored? Well, assuming we have full knowledge about how it works, we can assume that if the system uses that self-information to make decisions (not necessarily behavioral decisions), decisions that make sense on the basis of that information (for example, when the system is low on free space it might decide to delete some data), that it has deduced the relevant facts.

Now there are two notable features of this account. One is that what is being represented depends on a system “knowing” that information (being able to use it), which in turn depends on how the system changes over time (that is how it reacts to information). The second is that self-representation no longer explains the mystery of consciousness, at least not obviously. We would still have to say what kind of systems that were self-representational to themselves would count as conscious, and why.

November 12, 2006

What Matters For Psychological Continuity

Filed under: Self — Peter @ 12:06 am

It is not unusual for people to have forgettable days, days where it is hard to remember exactly what happened, simply because the day was so trivial that nothing stands out. But even in a boring day we are conscious, have experiences, ect. And if these aren’t incorporated into the person we are the next day does this mean the person who existed on that day no longer exists? Certainly not, at least it seems most natural to claim that we are the same person. And so when attempting to define personhood through some kind of psychological continuity obviously memories can’t be the sole basis for this continuity, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to say that we are the same person as the one who lived through such uneventful days.

Must we include memories at all in our definition of psychological continuity? When we consider cases of amnesia it seems like we must, since obviously the person who exists after an amnesia inducing event is not the same person who existed before. Let us assume that our intuitions about such a case are correct. Even so it doesn’t prove that memories have some role to play in our definition of personhood, because when someone’s memories are erased so are their interpersonal relationships, which are based on those memories. I propose that why we feel that the people who exist before and after a case of amnesia are different is because afterwards the person no longer knows about their relationships and role in society. If we could erase all of a person’s memories while leaving the knowledge of their role in society intact I think that we wouldn’t consider that change to have produced a new person. After all, they would still relate in the same way to others, still know their name, ect, although they wouldn’t be able to describe to us why they were in that role.

However a person’s relationships to other people, their role in society, is not enough to define them. We can imagine imposters who take the place of a person, relating in the same way to the rest of the world, and thus being impossible to detect. But, even though we can’t tell that they are imposters, I don’t think that there is any motivation to describe them as the same person. So, in conjunction with a person’s role in society, there must be some internal factors that come into play when defining personhood. Normally memories play the role of the necessary internal factors, but we are not forced to rely on them, there are other internal psychological features that we can appeal to as well.

When we take out memories we are left only with the current way in which a person is thinking. I don’t know of a way to succinctly describe the properties that define how we think, but perhaps style of thought will work. Now obviously I can’t prove that our style of thought is distinct, I can’t even say exactly what other prosperities that it could be broken up into. However, it certainly seems likely that we all have our own unique way of thinking. For example, when we are presented with a picture we will make different connections, and respond to it in different ways. Of course these differences are probably rooted ultimately in our memories, but our memories don’t always actively come into play when thinking, and even if some memory was responsible for our tendency to make a certain connection it is conceivable that we could forget the memory and still make the connection (in fact I suspect this tends to happen quite often). In fact even after a case of amnesia people seem to have a similar style of thought after the event, showing that it is at least partially independent of memories.

And so my proposal is that we can define the psychological continuity that is essential to being a certain person in terms of the person’s role in society and style of thought, without any appeal to memories. Certainly this seems to agree with our experience, or at least my experience. We may remember things on occasion, sometimes when making an active attempt at recalling some piece of information, and sometimes spontaneously when something in our environment jogs our memory. But remembering is only a small part of our total mental life. Much of our thinking occurs without any reference to memory. And if this is the case it seems mistaken to define personhood on the basis of something so rarely used.

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.