The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Rethinking the self

I’ve seen several bloggers link, approvingly, to some of David Brooks’ recent columns on psychology and neuroscience, and I’ll join them. I think this conversation couldn’t be more fascinating, mostly because it’s a new one. This isn’t just a nice scientific tux to dress up old (“eternal”) ideas; some of these new notions about how the brain works (or, often, how it doesn’t work) are truly new.

And some of them are truly challenging. What if consciousness isn’t the pilot but rather the spin doctor, coming up with stories to explain your actions only after other, subtler faculties have already committed you to them? Consciousness as giant retcon.

What if there’s not one Robin—expressed in lots of interesting ways, of course—but instead a whole committee, always arguing over whether to actually write something or just post a snazzy image? As Paul Bloom puts it, by way of Brooks, maybe our many selves โ€œare continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control—bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.”

I always think of that claim—who made it? Harold Bloom?—that Shakespeare literally invented modern Western consciousness. The revolution that was Shakespeare’s characterization provided a template that was so seductive, so viral, that it ultimately—after influencing and infecting lots of other writers—became one of the very foundations of our common sense about consciousness, identity, will, and everything else. (I’m probably mangling Bloom’s idea. Oh well: It’s my mangled version that I find so compelling.)

That’s totally magical, but it’s also totally arbitrary. So maybe it’s time for another sea change (Shakespeare!) in the way we think about ourselves. It doesn’t take much to make a big difference; these are the axioms we build our lives around, so if you change one just a little bit, the ripple effects are massive.

In any case, I’m glad a big-time columnist is bringing these ideas to center stage. I do wish there was a forum that was slightly more technical; I don’t want to read the journals, or even anything close to them, really, but I would like to go beyond the too-clean op-ed metaphors that Brooks is bound to by necessity.


We are all strange loops.

This consciousness as retcon idea is fascinating, but I think that its less useful for our everyday interaction than the “Shakespearean” sense of Human.

When dealing on the macro scale, it’s good to know that Quantum Electro Dynamics is there, but Newtonian physics will work just fine.

Tim says…

I think it was Leibniz who argued that an essential feature of consciousness is that it is presented or delivered to the subject. Heidegger makes fun of him, joking that Leibniz turns consciousness into a kind of letter-carrier of the mind: “we a
speak of the delivery of mail.” (Bernhard Siegert tells this story in his book Relays, a philosophical/literary history of the post.)

What if all consciousness is is the delivery agent, the projector registering the millions of mainframe operations of the mind? Actually, “projector” might be too generous – it’s more like the paper printouts old computers used to register/communicate their output. The computer whirrs and clicks, hums and flashes, and then you hear that dot matrix buzz, and walk around to the front to tear off a sheet of paper that reads, “unknown input – error in line 387.” ๐Ÿ™‚

I think the key to downgrading innate cultural hostility to people perceiving themselves as a multitude is discussing a variety of relationships within that particular multitude. I vehemently resist thinking of myself as multiple people partially because when I encounter others (in real life and in art) who present themselves as that, the personae seem to either be incoherently switching places, actively hostile to each other, invoked for the sake of blame, or all three. The main exception is talking to one’s past (“a letter to my 13-year old self”), a frequent trope on TV shows too. It’s very rare for alternate personalities to be seen as getting along and hanging out and harmonizing. (There was that cheezy show about the inside of someone’s brain, I guess.)

Though a notable exception: in my *religion,* lots of Personalities have multitudes of aspects/personae that “hang out with each other” and it’s anything but unappealing.

Also, I seem to have screwed up the threading. This was in response to Penniman.

Matt Penniman says…

My committee finds this idea attractive. What happens when we start speaking of our selves in the plural? We already do this to some extent: people tend to talk about other people’s intoxicated behavior as a separate persona, “a mean drunk” or “she’s a whole different person when she’s had a few”. And the intra-personal bargaining is familiar to anyone who’s ever dieted or tried to write something massive. Maybe we’re nearing a point where it doesn’t sound crazy to talk about yourself as containing multitudes.

Tim Carmody says…

I don’t know if we’re multiple/plural, so much as we are reflexively opaque. I am performing operations that I am not aware of; I see no need, short of a Tyler-Durden-esque lapse of sanity, to posit additional entities. We have bacteria and other organisms living in our gut, without which we couldn’t function; but it still seems lucid to refer to ourselves as single physical entities.

At any rate, it’s also clear to me that our ability/demand to refer to ourselves in the singular is based on 1) linguistic conventions that distinguish between speakers, not selves, and 2) our relative bodily unity, not any sense that we have a unified consciousness or an atomic and irreducible soul. Someone like Nietzsche, Freud, or James would call this an illusion, conditioned by grammar, the body, and the fact that what consciousness DOES present to us is so rich, allowing us to perceive, deliberate, differentiate, and self-reflect.

Tim Carmody says…

PS – if you’re looking for a slightly more smarty-pants distillation of current brain and neuroscience research — and really, even if you’re not — you have GOT to be reading Jonah Lehrer’s blog The Frontal Cortex. It’s consistently among my five or six must-reads.

Word. Didn’t even know about it. RSS’d.

Tim Carmody says…

Dude, I can’t believe you didn’t know about Jonah Lehrer’s blog. I link to it in my Snarkmarket posts something like once a week. If you count Twitter, it’s easily more.

(Sniff) Robin doesn’t read… (Sniff!) my links… (Honk!)

(more likely, he doesn’t pay attention to where I’m sending him)

Yeah, when I do click through, it is in a mad information synthesizing fury. My vision literally blurs. I can’t see the browser address bar, can’t see the blog header. Everything’s covered in a red mist.

So, let me get this straight… it’s like Herman’s Head?

Oh man, I can’t believe I actually remembered what the brain characters looked like.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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