Friday, October 30, 2015

The Problem of Myself 2

Friend and intrepid reader Miranda raised some questions about my earlier post on the problem of self-identity
I am struggling with the idea that an identical twin might be closer to being the same individual than two people who shared the same memories. Your suggestion makes me think of Abigail and Brittany Hensel, conjoined twins who share a body, but who are, nevertheless, very distinct people. Their personalities quite different, with one girl being more extroverted than the other. I think it would be a mistake to think that the fact that the two share most of their limbs and, of course, DNA, meant that they were not two separate individuals. 
I think that this raises a lot of interesting questions, some of which I will address now. 
I do not hold that twins, identical, conjoined, or otherwise, are in any significant sense the same person.  They are no more the same person than two distantly related strangers; or at least that is true past a certain point in development. 
If you hold that personhood begins at conception (as I do), then identical twins were at some stage precisely the same person.  Then that person split into two.  To escape that conclusion, one would have to adopt a more or less medieval view of ontogeny, with a soul flying into the womb after the biological process was underway.  I am not convinced that any such view is coherent. 
If consciousness depends on a functioning nervous system, then I assume that any such division occurs prior to the emergence of consciousness.  This would be the major difference between me and a clone produced by one of my cells.  There is no question of whether the undivided zygote will “wake up” in either or both embryos since it isn’t awake yet.  Existential continuity will begin after two separate individuals have emerged. 
Miranda goes on to note this:
I also think that if a man were to receive multiple transplants and thus was made up of parts that originated from different DNA than his original parts had come from he would still be the same individual as he had been before.
This is the famous “ship of Theseus” problem.  The ship that Theseus rode back to Athens after he slew the Minotaur was preserved in that city (according to legend).  Over time parts of it were replaced as it weathered.  Eventually all the original parts had been replaced.  Is it still the same ship?  I say yes.  At every point in its history, new parts were integrated into old ones according to the original form.  That continuity of replacement grounds identity in the ship just as it does in us.  Our parts are being constantly replaced with new cells and materials.  Over the course of a single lifetime, all the material constituents are replaced about three times.  Yet I seem to be the same boat I was at birth. 
But I am not sure what measure the amount of individuality in a person can be measured. How would you measure it? I look forward to reading more about the continuity of expected futures problem, should you choose to write about it in the future.

I look forward to that as well, for right now I have no idea what I will say.  It seems to me that individuality is not a matter of degree.  I will either have to bear the burdens and get to reap the benefits of my life tomorrow or not.  That will be true regardless of how many parts have been replaced.  I am pretty sure that if I am cloned and my memories downloaded to KB2 I will not taste his breakfast.  I remain convinced that my existential continuity is grounded in this embodied mind.  Beyond that, I am at a loss.  All modern philosophy turns on the mind/body problem.  Consciousness is indeed the hard problem.  

Friday, October 16, 2015

Justice is beautiful because it is good and good because it is beautiful

The following is the beginning of the essay I will present next week at the annual meeting of the Association of Politics and Life Sciences.  We are meeting in Madison, Wisconsin.  

In Book 1 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates silences the sophist Thrasymachus with his famous “honor among thieves” argument.  Thrasymachus argued that justice is merely the interest of the stronger, i.e., that right actions are what subordinates must do in the service of their superiors.  Socrates responded that the “stronger” are so because they are able to cooperate with one another in their drive toward dominion; and so, they must be just at least toward one another.  Justice is then superior injustice even if you accept the view that all human actions are motivated by selfish desire. 
At the beginning of Book 2, the spirited brothers Glaucon and Adiemantus announce their dissatisfaction with this argument and each issues a challenge to Socrates.  These challenges come in the form of claims about what “the many” believe about justice and injustice.  The former argues that, in the view of the many, justice is a mean between the greatest evil and the greatest good.  The greatest evil is to be exploited by someone else.  The greatest good is to be able to exploit others.  The many realize that without restraints on human behavior, they would be the victims rather than the perpetrators of injustice.  They value justice only as a lesser evil.  Glaucon wants Socrates to show him that this view of justice is not correct, that justice is something good in itself.
Adiemantus’ view is more sophisticated.  He grants that the many do speak and act as if justice really were something good in itself; however, what they genuinely desire is the appearance and not the substance of justice.  Justice is like paper money.  It is valuable only because it is valued.  Righteous men value their reputation because it wins them partnerships and good marriages for their children.  Were it not for such commerce, they would not bother about it.  Adiemantus too wants Socrates to show him that justice is something good in itself and not something that is merely instrumental to some selfish end. 
The remainder of the Republic is devoted to Socrates’ efforts to satisfy the two brothers.  I believe that Socrates’ account of justice is convincing.  Socrates argues that justice is in fact the order in a well-ordered soul.  When intelligence governs the passions and the passions govern the appetites, each part of the tripartite soul doing its own proper business, that is justice.  This account succeeds because it presents justice as something not merely good, but beautiful; or more precisely, it is good because it is beautiful.  That is what the brothers crave. 
In this paper I will be making something of a defense on his behalf; however, I will do so by focusing on the simple fact that Glaucon and Adiemantus make their challenges in the first place.  Were Socrates wrong, neither brother would bother to seek an argument in support of justice.  Were Socrates wrong, the popular explanations of justice that the brothers articulate would not make sense, even in their apparently diminished forms. 
This is important because modern political theory and philosophical ethics largely accepts the popular views of justice much as they are articulated by Thrasymachus, Glaucon and Adiemantus.  Justice is indeed valuable in so far as it advances the interests of a population strong enough to defend it.  Even then, it is valued only as a token.  He who carries the token advertises himself as a good partner in cooperative ventures. 
This view has received important support in recent years from evolutionary accounts of morality.  In the work of Christopher Boehm, Michael Tomasello, and David Sloan Wilson, morality emerges in the history of human evolution because it protects the weaker members against the stronger, encourages mutual obligations, and thus allows small groups of humans to effectively compete with other, equally rapacious bands of brothers.  All of human history over the last twelve thousand years or so represents a innovation built out of evolutionary components.  When one group assimilated another rather than annihilating it, bending the assimilated group to its service, much as one organism occasionally assimilates and exploits another, civilization was born.  For this to work, the dominate group must effectively cooperate and to do that competitive behavior within the dominate group must be controlled.  We are back to honor among thieves. 
I will argue that the moral (or the just) could only have functioned in that way because human beings are naturally inclined to see it as beautiful.  The beautiful thing is good because it is noble, beautiful to behold.  In turn, Socrates argues on many occasions in both Plato’s works and the Socratic dialogues of Xenophon, that the good is beautiful.  Socrates admires a beautiful set of armor because he can see that it was exquisitely tailored to some individual other than himself.  It was good for the armorer’s client in so far as it fit him.  It was good for Socrates only in so far as it was beautiful.  Beauty transcends the good which gives it birth.
To take another example from evolutionary psychology, imagine a beautiful house.  Now imagine that there is a verdant forest just behind it, and beyond that a range of hills.  Large picture windows at the front give views of a plain dotted with trees.  Not too far in the distance is a river or lake.  That is a valuable piece of real estate.  Why?  Our ancestors needed access to water and to the occasional prey that gathered there.  They also had to fear predators and other human beings.  They liked to be able to see what was coming and to have somewhere to retreat to.  Our notion of what is a beautiful home was forged as our ancestors moved about and succeeded in finding places that allowed them to flourish and thus become our ancestors.  A Montana ranch house I once visited has all of these elements but none of them were necessary for survival.  It was good because it was beautiful. 
We like to tell stories in which the wicked are defeated and the just triumph.  These stories are beautiful to us because we have a taste for justice.  That taste was a product of evolution because it promoted the successful reproduction of our great great… grandmothers and grandfathers.  That the taste for justice was selected for in our evolution doesn’t change the fact that the object of the taste often has nothing to do with our own reproductive success.  We admire justice even when it has nothing to do with us just as we admire a beautiful painting of a beautiful house that we can never live in.  In that way the taste for the noble transcends the good from which it was born. 

In this essay I will show that inequity aversion, the human distaste for injustice in both two party exchanges and in observations of third party exchanges, show that Socrates was right.  

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Living and the Dead

I have been lecturing on the mind/body problem in my Philosophy 100 course and I took time to describe Hans Jonas’ account of the history of human thinking about life and death.  Jonas was far ahead of his time on these questions, and should be better known and read. 
According to Jonas, substance dualism was a midway between two poles: animism and materialism.  Substance dualists hold that the human being consists of two distinct kinds of substance.  A substance (see Aristotle) is something that can remain the same while it undergoes (hence: substance) change.  So an iron bar can be heated from cold and black to red hot while remaining iron all the while.  Likewise, bricks and boards can be shaped into a church or a bank while remaining bricks and boards.  Substance dualists explain the existence of human consciousness by supposing that the body consists of material substance and the mind (or soul) consists of immaterial substance.  The former is shaped into bones and organs; the latter, into sensations, emotions, and ideas. 
Substance dualism is nothing recent.  The Roman philosopher Lucretius (perhaps the only genuine Roman philosopher, with the possible exception of Cicero) thought that the soul was a subtle kind of material enclosed in the body that escaped when the body was cut open.  Death is like a collapsing balloon.  RenĂ© Descartes, however, is the philosopher most associated with this theory. 
Jonas argued that the most common view, when human beings first began to think about nature, was animism.  Animists suppose that everything in the Kosmos is alive.  Not just human beings, other animals, and plants, but rocks, mountains, and the heavenly lights.  After all, the moon waxes and wanes just as the crops flourish and wither with the seasons.  Ice crystals grow, don’t they?  Mountains sometimes have inner, molten cores, just like spouses. 
This view is common sense and accords with everyday observations but it confronted one big problem, a scandal as Jonas put it.  The problem was death.  Living things die.  How is the animist to understand a corpse?  This problem never goes away and confronting it led in time to a distinction between body and soul.  That led in much more time to dualism. 
Dualism turned out to be incoherent.  If the soul is immaterial, how does it interact with material substance?  Surely the mind can move the body, as any notes who reaches for a glass of beer.  Just as surely, the body can influence the mind, as anyone knows who drank too much beer.  Material interacts with material.  That is essential to its definition.  Billiard balls collide with billiard balls.  If the soul were immaterial substance, then it could not interact with material substance.  If a ghost can walk through walls because it is composed of immaterial ectoplasm, then how can it push against the floor to walk at all? 
Descartes’ substance dualism gave way in short order to materialism.  Everything in the Kosmos is dead.  Dead particles collide with other dead particles.  Biological organisms appear to be alive, but this is only a pretense.  They are puppets, the strings of which are pulled by their molecular constituents.
If the scandal for animism was death, which it tried furiously to deny, the scandal for materialism is life.  Living things do not merely move, they move with agendas.  A rock doesn’t care whether it remains intact or shatters, but a spider moving across a kitchen floor is up to something.  It will succeed or fail, and that is not something that materialism can allow. 
Jonas argued, paradoxically but correctly, that Darwinian Theory refutes rather than confirms materialism.  If living organisms with agendas and consciousness are indeed material things that emerged by mechanical processes, then the dead material in a prebiotic earth was potentially alive.  The potential for soul was present in the primordial soup. 
I think that the pendulum is swinging back toward animism.  No, crystals are not alive in the same sense that we are, but neither are plants.  Yet the subtle growth of crystals is not unrelated to the growth of a child.  Both the one and the other are growing.  Growth in all cases involves the exploitation of the potential already present in material substance.  This, at any rate, is what I have learned. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Problem of Myself

Three of the most basic problems in modern philosophy are different approaches to the same problematic: how can the human individual be part of the physical world around her and separate from that world at the same time.  This is most explicit in the mind/body problem (what is the relationship between consciousness and unconscious matter?).  It is just as fundamental to the problem of free will.  Is my consciousness of choosing and acting the cause of my actions (given the fact that it seems to depend on physical processes) and, if so, how is it the cause?  These two broad topics, difficult as they are, seem easy compared to the third.  What does it mean to say that I am the same person over time when both my physical and mental self are constantly changing? 
There are three general approaches to this question: illusion theory, substance theory, and continuity theory.  The spread is typical of modern philosophy.  You get a null answer (there is no persistent identity or self), a grounding in common sense (self is substantiated in the body or the soul), and an attempt to redefine the question (the self is a continuous series of memories). 
The most prominent defense of the illusion theory comes from two basic principles of Buddhist doctrine.  According to the principle of impermanence, all compounded things will eventually decompose.  This is true of mountains as it is true of human bodies and human minds.  It is true not only “eventually” but persistently.  Everything that exists now has emerged as something else fell the Hell apart.  This is true moment to moment; so my self then is constantly fallout apart into my self now. 
The second principle is interdependence.  There are in fact no individual objects or beings.  When we recognize a tree or some other person as an individual thing, we are abstracting from (which is to say, forgetting) a vast number of other things on which it depends.  The tree is only a tree because it is rooted in a ground that provides moisture and reaches up, through obliging space, to take in the sunlight and air.  Birch trees and Terry Bertrams are like waves on the ocean: temporary ripples riding on an ocean of causation. 
So there is really no persistent me to take responsibility for my actions or to be important enough to worry about.  There is a lot of truth to this view and I think that it is liberating in the way that my Zen teachers have said.  It is not, however, the whole picture.  I am saving for retirement.  At the present rate, I expect to stop working sometime in the next century (assuming that Social Security is intact).  I also expect that it will, in some important sense, be me who retires.  I think that I will be disappointed if I have not saved enough.  Illusion theory offers nothing to comfort me. 
Substance theory is based on Aristotle’s account of change.  For something to change it must become other that it is (or else here has been no change) and remain what it is (or else it has not changed but been replaced).  To account for this you need one substratum and two opposite qualities.  An iron bar becomes hot and red from being cold and black when it is heated.  It remains what it is (iron before and after) but becomes what it is not (hot when it was cold).  So I am the same person because there is something that is me that has not changed (my body or my soul) despite the fact that I changed in many ways. 
The two candidates for individual substance (body and soul) both seem to be lacking.  My body is not the same from moment to moment, let alone through my life.  It seems likely that all my material constituents are replaces once or twice during my lifetime.  Matter and energy flow in and out.  As for the soul, if it’s the same as my consciousness and memories, then it changes along with my body.  If it is something else, what is it?  See this previous post for the difficulties. 
The last approach, continuity of memory theory, is compelling enough that it seems to grab some of my students before I get to it in Introduction to Philosophy.  It was pioneered by John Locke.  I am the same person I was when I was 5 years old because I can remember things that happened to me when I was five.  In the live size photo of me on my mother’s wall I am wearing a sweater.  The photo is black and white but I remember that the sweater was red.  You can't remember what happens to someone else. 
That’s a pretty good answer, but there is a problem.  Suppose that my memories could be downloaded and uploaded by someone else.  Now that guy remembers wearing the red sweater.  Does that mean that he is me?  No.  Tomorrow, when he eats breakfast, he will enjoy it.  I will not. 
Biology offers something useful here.  I began life as a single, fertilized cell, half mommy, half daddy.  All of the specifically human cells in my body (a minority interest among a lot of bacteria, as I understand) trace back their lineage to that Ur cell.  When the cell multiplication formed a blastocyst, there was then established an existentially robust distinction between inside and outside, self and other.  That distinct remains as long as I live. 

Biological continuity is probably the best foundation for a theory of self.  Any philosophically coherent account of soul will have to be grounded in that, as Aristotle argued in his De Anima.  But I am not sure that it answers the most important question.  Tomorrow when I swing my legs out of bed, will that be me that contemplates the event tonight, or a newly regenerated me that only remembers typing this blog.  That is a haunting question.