you respect the one who got shot; I respect the shooter

I’m putting the mind-body dichotomy series on hold for a while in order to read some more on the subject. Currently I’m Kindling my way through Stephen Pinker’s How The Mind Works, which has astonished me and lost me a dozen times already. You’re all disappointed at not getting to hear my half-baked theories on a subject the human race has been debating for thousands of years, I know, but be patient. Some day, the pablum will return.

But I can discuss why this matters to me.

My friends regularly exhort me to open up more, to them and to others. “That’s what the website is for,” I tell them, but they insist this doesn’t count. They insist that I’d meet more interesting people and get less frustrated at my internal dialogue if I “took off the mask.” But this suggestion never really speaks to me.

So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about masks.

If all behavior arises from consciousness, then we’re always choosing to present some face to the rest of the world. In social settings, we put on our charming face; when we’re tired and distracted, we put on our bitter face; when we’re overwhelmed and confessing fears to the ones closest to us, we put on our vulnerable face. But we always make a choice which side of ourselves to present. There’s no “true face” that emerges when we stop choosing to present. It’s masks all the way down.

At the same time, though, the idea of a “true self” makes sense to us. We distinguish between the world Out There (people and streets and hot dogs and engraved pens) and the world In Here (memories and fears and imagination and fantasy). That’s what it means to be self-aware: to distinguish between Self and Other. It’s an experience that everyone who can put thoughts into words has in common. So we all think that there’s something true or ideal inside our heads.

But is an experience that everyone calls the same thing necessarily real?

That’s what my experiments in auto-epistemology have been about. I’m curious as to whether the notion of an “unmasked self” is part of the same cognitive illusion as the Cartesian homonculus, or whether it’s something with a real basis in biology and psychology. As I said, I’ve got some reading and some thinking to do. Thanks for bearing with me.

“Great,” the audience muttered, shifting in their seats and checking their cell phones. “Someone tells the Professor to open up more and his response is to read a book.”

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I watched the children scurry in circles around a two-way mirror

From a high enough perch, all of us are hypocrites.

Conservatives praise the power of the free market to fulfill desires, then rant about indecently dressed pop starlets and the drunken crowds downtown. Liberals insist that the government “keep its laws out of my bedroom,” unless, while in your bedroom, you enjoy consuming trans fats or homeschooling your children. Press either side on the apparent inconsistency and they can argue their way out of it (it’s a question of degree; this is an entirely different case; I’m not saying it should be illegal). And in many cases their arguments hold water. But inconsistency isn’t hard to find.

And I’m not excluding myself in this. I complain about how easy credit and cheap oil are ruining this country all the time. But I know how long I’d survive without my disposable contacts and allergy meds (smart money says nine months; I’m starting a pool).

So none of us are perfectly consistent.

I don’t raise this point to drag everyone down in the mud with me (“we’re all bastards; let’s own up to it; immanentize the eschaton; WAAAGH”). I raise it because I think consistency is a false flag. It’s not a useful tool for weighing ethics.

Break it apart: why is inconsistency such a bad thing? If I accuse someone of inconsistency, I say, “You chose one thing in one context and you chose another thing in a different context.” But we’ve already challenged the notion that there’s a single homonculus living in our brains that pulls the levers to make us go. Empirical science and the philosophy of consciousness suggest that our mind consists of multiple calculating modules. There’s not one “you” that’s “choosing” things, but several.

So if you wrote a six-part article series for the Globe exposing nursing home abuse, then sat on the subway today while an old woman with a cane stood, that’s inconsistent. But the latter action doesn’t make your former choice a mere posture. Maybe you were wrapped up in your reading and didn’t notice her. Maybe you were tired after a long day and decided that someone else ought to offer a seat before you did.

Not offering an old woman your seat is a dick move, to be sure. But it doesn’t render all your previous pro-elderly efforts invalid.

We make different choices when hungry, or tired, or surrounded by people we want to impress, than we do when we’re writing an essay, or watching the news, or driving past the scene of an accident. We do this because the human brain – the result of evolutionary processes – did not evolve to be consistent. It evolved* to fulfill our needs, safeguard and propagate our genes, and to run a series of complex parallel calculations. But since it evolved into the form we recognize today, humans also invented a thing called culture. Culture changes a lot faster than the genetic makeup of its inhabitants, complicating the process even further.

We have a lot of competing data points that go into our decisions. Our declared ethical code is one of these points.

Consistency simply isn’t a natural behavior in the human brain. If it were, morality would be easy. You’d simply make the decision to adhere to a given code of ethics, once, and that would be it. Flip the switch to “Good” and keep walking.

But every code of ethics describes the process of “being tempted” or “acting irrationally” or “losing one’s way.” This is inconsistency rearing its head. A young priest vows eternal celibacy; ten years later, he takes notice of a statuesque blonde. A finance manager volunteers four hours a week at a soup kitchen; coming out of a train station on a business trip, he shoulders by a man asking for spare change. If we view the ethics as natural and humans as inferior, then these acts are frustrating lapses. It’s not useful to call behavior that every human being engages in a “lapse” (lapsing from what?). If we view ethics as an invention and humans as natural, then these acts make perfect sense.

The mind isn’t designed for consistency; it’s designed to constantly recalculate.

Why am I harping on this? Because I’m still curious about “what’s the best way for humans to behave,” and I don’t think “with perfect consistency” is part of it. Every ethical system has its inconsistencies. And even if someone invented a perfectly coherent and logical system of ethics, no human could consistently adhere to it.

We’re all hypocrites. We’re all struggling to figure out what’s right.

P.S. Of all the posts in the mind-body dichotomy series, I’m least happy with this one. But none of my thoughts on the matter have been fully polished, so why should I feel self-conscious today? That’s why it’s a weblog, not an article for the Atlantic: so I can get feedback from friends and ill-intentioned strangers. Hitting “Post”; have at it.

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* When I say “it [the brain] evolved,” I mean “the human species evolved in such a way as to have a brain which possessed these characteristics.” Forgive me the shorthand, as we forgive the shorthand used by others.

bow down before the one you serve

When I wrote last Friday about where my desires come from, I used the example of Laughing Cow cheese. My desire for this cheese went from non-existent (before I tried it) to compulsory (after). I thought that was pretty extraordinary.

Some folks, commenting on my LiveJournal, observed that the manufacturers of Laughing Cow cheese didn’t literally create my desire out of nothing. I had to have some predisposition for soft, sweet cheeses before I tried it. It’s not, as commenter phanatic put it, as if they handed me a ball of roofing tar and I lapped it right up. And I have been presented with free samples in the past – mango-kiwi juices, pre-packaged cookies, tequila shots served by women in cut-off tees – that have not compelled me to buy. So clearly these new experiences tap into some extant disposition in order to create a desire.

That makes sense but doesn’t satisfy. We run into the same problem here that we do with the Cartesian theater. Okay, so desire is created when a new stimulus taps into some extant disposition. Where did the disposition come from? “Evolution” answers some of that – I’m a mammal; I like salt and calories – but not all of it. The human race is similar enough to interbreed but different enough that menus have to warn people about spicy food.

So our predispositions have to come from somewhere. Did they arise in a similar fashion – a combination of exterior stimuli and even earlier predisposition? Let’s go with that for now, as I’m not sure what the alternative would be (god or aliens or ancestor spirits, perhaps) and it makes sense. We enter the world as creatures of pure instinct, survive on mothering until we start collating our experiences, and turn into complex calculating libraries. Makes sense.

Ultimately, then, every desire I have – and thus every action I take – comes from either biology or experience. What does this mean for the notion of free will?

“Free will” is one of those subjects that requires a lot of brush-clearing before two people can even start screaming at each other. No two people mean the same thing by it. So let me lay out what I mean when I talk about free will first.

In my head, it certainly feels like I have free will. Every action I take is either to fulfill some desire, which seems to arise as if from nowhere, or to respond to some instinct. I’m either closing the blinds to keep the light out of my eyes or I’m jumping in fear because something in the movie startled me. Instinct I can write off as subconscious reflex, but the choices feel free and uncoerced.

And yet we established a few weeks ago that the brain is an organ, and a hungry one at that. We also theorized last week that there is no mini-self sitting in our brain pulling levers – no central ego, soul or homonculus that’s the true core. So when I say “it feels like I have free will,” that might not be a useful statement, as “I” might not be a qualified judge. Who is the “I” saying what it feels like in “my” head? Which part of my decision-making process is the “I” evaluating?

Is there such a thing as a decision that doesn’t come from the brain? For purposes of my discussion, no. If I’m sleeping with someone and I kick them to stop them from snoring, that’s different than if I’m sleeping with someone and I kick them because my legs jerked in a dream. So everything that I intend to do, consciously, has to pass through the brain at some point.

Is there any part of the brain that does not have organic components? No. We can debate souls or homonculi if you like, but if you’ve followed the series so far you’ll know I place little weight on them.

Therefore, is there any decision that does not originate from an organic component? It would seem not.

Does this mean there’s no such thing as free will? It depends on what you mean by “free will.” If you mean that there’s an Aristotelian “unmoved mover” sitting in the brain that makes decisions for us, then yes, your notion of free will is in trouble. But if you mean that there’s a difference between consciousness and instinct – that there’s a worthwhile distinction to draw between kicking someone for snoring and kicking someone by leg spasms – then yes, “free will” makes sense.

But is the difference one of degree or one of type? Is consciousness a different process from instinct, or is it just a really complicated nest of instincts?

And if what I call “free will” is just an instinct, then what internal instincts and external stimuli are driving me to ask so many questions about it?

there’s someone in my head, but it’s not me

While visiting Chicago, waiting for a bus at Addison with my man Hawver, two street hawkers approached us. “Would you like to try some Laughing Cow light swiss?”

“Sure,” I said, being hungry. One handed me a sample pack of swiss cheese, about the size of my thumb; the other, a pack of crackers the size of a matchbox. I also got a coupon for $1.00 off a pack of said cheese.

It was tasty enough that I bought a pack the next time I went grocery shopping, to see how well it would complement my lunch. And that went so well that I’ve bought Laughing Cow several times since, even without a coupon.

I had next to zero consciousness of Laughing Cow cheese before this, my primary exposure being the yellow Vache Qui Rit bowl Fraley kept in our cupboard when we lived together. A free sample and a coupon converted me from agnostic to believer in about a week. Four months ago I had no desire for this product; now I have a modest desire. A corporation paid some marketers to sit around a conference table and instill in me a desire where none existed.

As a marketer myself, I find the process curious. As an amateur student of autoepistemology, I find it absolutely fascinating.

This desire for Laughing Cow cheese was created in me by someone else. I can track the steps that it took to happen. Which other desires of mine originated in someone else’s mind? What about my preference for Coke Zero over Diet Coke? My taste in beer? My willingness to drive a rusting import rather than trade up for a newer car? My desire to live in Cambridge? My impulse to live alone? My need to write? My preferred self-image? My religious beliefs, or lack thereof? Who put these thoughts in my head?

Really radical progressives blame modern capitalism for about half of the above. “The consumerist market,” one might say, “encourages people to buy things they don’t need. It touts conspicuous consumption as a way to distinguish yourself from your neighbors, or to alleviate the stress of your job. Consumerism obscures your true desires.”

The funny thing is: I’d agree with them. Up until the last sentence.

Most of us believe in some notion of an ego, or a soul, or some inviolate core that makes decisions. It sits inside our body, either in the center of our brain or in our (metaphorical) heart, and “watches” what happens to us, as if on a screen. When we make a decision, the ego or soul sends instructions to the limbs to move. Descartes didn’t invent this theory of consciousness, but, with the whole cogito ergo sum thing, he made it most popular.

The problem is: (1) the idea of an ego/soul that’s separate from the body it inhabits has no empirical grounding, and (2) it’s not even a satisfactory explanation.

I’m paraphrasing Daniel Dennett here: suppose there is an ego/soul, sitting inside our body, responsible for making our decisions. The answer to the question, “What’s going on in my head?” is “a mini-self is pulling the levers.” That doesn’t answer the mystery of consciousness, though. It merely raises another question: “okay, how does the mini-self make decisions? what’s going on in its head?”

Dennett offers an alternative: there is no one “seat of consciousness” within the brain:

The book puts forward a “multiple drafts” model of consciousness, suggesting that there is no single central place (a “Cartesian Theater”) where conscious experience occurs; instead there are “various events of content-fixation occurring in various places at various times in the brain”. The brain consists of a “bundle of semi-independent agencies”; when “content-fixation” takes place in one of these, its effects may propagate so that it leads to the utterance of one of the sentences that make up the story in which the central character is one’s “self”. Dennett’s view of consciousness is that it is the apparently serial account for the brain’s underlying parallelism.

“Interesting stuff, Professor,” you’re saying, “but what does this have to do with cheese?”

If what we call “consciousness” is really the body carrying out the instructions of different agencies of the brain at different times, then there is no central ego/soul. If that’s the case, then there’s no distinction between the “true desires” of the self and the “false desires” implanted in us by corporations, politicians, churches, peer groups, etc. They’re all equally legitimate inputs. My desire for Laughing Cow cheese, which I was barely conscious of six months ago, is no more artificial than my desire to hang out with a new friend, whom I hadn’t met six months ago.

I’m still not settled on what this means for my decision-making process, except that it makes my job as a marketer easier to swallow.

hit me with your best shot

I got a flu shot on Wednesday.

When filling out the consent and information form prior to getting stuck, I had to think for a moment on whether or not I’d ever had a flu shot before: that’s how long it had been. But I definitely had in college, if not somewhat later. It had been years since the last time, though.

My reasoning: I’m a healthy young man. I rarely get sick. There are so many varieties of the flu that clinics have to guess which form to vaccinate against. And the last time I got a flu shot, the symptoms from the mild virus knocked me on my ass for about 24 hours. None of those made it seem worth it.

My mind was well made up; I was very comfortable in my beliefs. And then my friend Lynn W. raised a point I’d never considered.

Her argument: even if the flu won’t put you out of work, you can still carry the flu virus and infect other people. Getting the flu vaccine reduces your risk for being a carrier. Your concern isn’t being a victim, but being a vector.

And I changed my mind overnight.

This happens to me more often as an adult than it ever did as a child or student. I build in my head a reasonable case for a course of action: a defensible line of arguments, a string of evidence and a good logical warrant that connects the whole package. And then one solid counter-argument comes along and I completely change my mind.

It has nothing to do with the authority or volume of the opposing party. Lynn W’s a friend of mine, but I don’t defer to her judgment on everything; I’m not trying to curry her favor. And I’ve held my ground on things I believe in the past even when nobody agrees with me. Check some of my older posts on voting, for instance.

When I see logic that trumps mine, I embrace it instantly and reject everything else.

I make note of this because I’ve been wondering of late about breaking free of the mind-body dichotomy. I’m curious about the contents of my own head: how did they get there? who put them there and why? As such, my stubbornness makes me curious. Am I holding to this contested belief out of peevishness? Out of a neurotic desire to be an underdog? Out of fatigue or impatience? Or am I rejecting any new ideas because I have yet to see better logic?

So, as odd as it might sound, these abrupt about-faces of belief reassure me more than they worry me. It means the contents of my head yield to reason. The more compelling the logic, the quicker I change my mind. For someone who wants to make sense of the world, that’s a good thing to know.

you know that I wouldn’t say something I didn’t mean

It took me a while to realize, even after I became a humorless atheist, that my thoughts and feelings come from somewhere.

Even if you don’t believe in a soul, or a consciousness separate from the biological processes of consciousness, you probably believe in some distinction between the “nobler” passions, like love and hope, and the “animal” passions, like hunger and fear and anger. The English language reminds us of this distinction all the time. We talk about “educated guesses” vs. “gut reactions.” We distinguish between “blind rage” and “righteous anger” (does anger ever feel unrighteous?).

Of course, emotions don’t always get the short straw: oftentimes we’re encouraged to “go with our heart” rather than calculating something out. Or we’re told to “stop thinking so much” and just “trust our feelings.” This isn’t always bad advice, of course. But it reinforces the same message: that there’s the stuff that happens in your skull, and the stuff that happens in your stomach, and they’re completely unrelated to each other.

If you believe in a soul that’s separate from the body, that makes sense.

For the rest of us, who’ve considered how little the human body is capable of when the brain’s shut off, that leaves a lot of assumptions to unpack. Example: the brain is the greediest organ in the human body, consuming 20 percent of all the energy human bodies burn. What happens if we don’t keep that fire alive? If our brain needs healthy food and plenty of rest to function, does that mean that we make different decisions when we’re hungry or tired than we would otherwise? If our brain is the terminal for all pain signals in the body, does that mean that physical pain can rearrange our decision-making priorities?

A week ago, I wrote a post hinting at my thoughts on the mind-body breakdown: a post that some folks liked, some folks didn’t get, and one person called “the stupidest blog post [they]’ve ever read.” In that post, I presented a couple of similar scenarios with emotional responses and asked which was more “legitimate.” Having read other people’s responses, and having thought about it in the intervening week, I would contend that both responses are equally legitimate.

Getting mad at someone because you just barked your shin is no less legitimate than getting mad at someone for asking you something you consider trivial. Being happy because the sun is shining is no less “real” of a feeling than being happy because you got some exciting news. They’re both emotional states. They’re both reactions that you have to things. They’re both real.

It took me a while to become comfortable with this realization: that sometimes I grew impatient with people because I was hungry, or I got depressed because I was tired, or that I was more sociable after I had a drink or two. My religious background didn’t help. Nor did being an Ayn Rand-style atheist in high school. What really hammered the lesson home was getting out into the working world: getting a job and an apartment. When you become responsible for how much you eat, sleep and drink, you become a lot more responsible for your emotions.

I’m not suggesting that all human relations can be boiled down to the content of your last meal or how rested you are. But I am suggesting we don’t give those factors nearly enough credit.

Some people find the idea that our feelings arise from how comfortable we are unsettling or depressing. They don’t like the idea of being subject to the whims of biology. Not too long ago that idea would have scared me, too. But now I find it comforting. By acknowledging that hunger, fatigue and muscle tension can affect my emotional state, I can take greater control of my emotions. I’m taking on more responsibility for how I feel and react, not less.

At least, that’s how I feel now. Tap me on the shoulder five minutes before bedtime and see if my story’s changed.

night swimming deserves a quiet night

My latest post on Overthinking It compares The Demolished Man vs. Demolition Man – the 1951 Alfred Bester novel to the 1993 Sylvester Stallone action flick. They have more in common than a name, you know. (Serpico deserves some credit for inspiring the initial comparison: thanks Serp)

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Imagine the following two different scenarios.

  1. You and a loved one – a close friend, a family member, a spouse or significant other – get into an argument. It’s not a violent disagreement; just some petty nonsense that you really don’t have time to deal with. You part in bad spirits. Later, another friend calls, asking you something you’ve told them a dozen times already: you snap at them in response.
  2. You’re getting up from your desk at work. You bang your knee on the corner of your desk. It’s not a serious injury – just one of those sharp bumps that makes your eyes water and your breathing tight. A coworker stops by, asking you something you’ve told them a dozen times already: you snap at them in response.

Which is the more “legitimate” reaction: #1 or #2? Which is you just lashing out?

Once you’re comfortable with that answer, imagine these two.

  1. A close friend tells you about a loss that a family member or loved one has recently had. In sympathy with their suffering, you feel your breath start to come short and tears prick at the corners of your eyes. You feel rather subdued for a while; maybe an hour, maybe the rest of the day.
  2. You’re working out: maybe doing yoga, maybe just stretching after a run. You go into a really deep stretch and hold it until the muscle aches. As the muscle starts to shift out of its tension, you feel your breath start to come short and tears prick at the corners of your eyes. You feel rather subdued for a while; maybe an hour, maybe the rest of the day.

Again: which is the more “legitimate” reaction: #1 or #2?

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Busy today; my thoughts on the above questions aren’t fully formed yet. More to come at a later date.