Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Concept of the 'Self"- An Excerpt from The Purple Thread of Epictetus

This is a subject I have been tackling at length over the last month in a book I'm trying to put together. This topic has been particularly difficult, but after a good writing session today on draft three of this chapter I think I have most of what I want covered. There is still a good degree of off topic meandering which needs to be trimmed, some topics addressed too briefly and I'm not entirely happy with some of the opening paragraphs, but on the whole I'm finally content with the body of the chapter as a whole. So with all that said I'd thought I'd share this chapter as it stands for now with everyone. At one point I reference the logic problem known as the Ship of Theseus, which I go over in a previous chapter, I linked the wiki article there as a refresher to those who aren't familiar with it.

Chapter 7- Defining the Self

“…because, of all things in the environment an active body must make mental models of, none is more important than the model the agent has of itself.”
-Daniel C. Dennett
Consciousness Explained 

No object will be more considered than ourselves, as we are the object that we seemingly have the most control over, so it is important that we spend at least a chapter considering what our “self” is. It seems painfully obvious to most of us what we are, “I’m me!” one might protest. Looking a little deeper though it is hard to find exactly what we are, what defines “you” and where we should even start to look. When considering objects back in chapter five we noted the need to see things as they actually are, discover what they are made of and strip them of their pretention. It would be less than thorough if we did not do this to ourselves as well as everything around us. Coming to an honest understanding of what you yourself are is an important part of setting yourself free. Because the subject object of much of your thought will in fact be those things that are in your power or those desires that arise in the mind, it is best to understand the object you will be observing the most, which is yourself.

Defining exactly what the self is, is a surprisingly difficult and complex issue that above all others touched upon could easily be its own book. I think it is important to recount how we will be approaching matters of epistemology as recounted in chapter two, and rely only on what is evident to us, or directly revealed. So when discussing the self I will not be making any overtures to a soul or anything spiritual or eternal, if such a realm exists I am completely ignorant of it, and I pretend no knowledge on this subject. Dualism seems dead on the very face of the problem that you are expecting a non-physical thing to interact with a physical thing and aside from wondering how this could possibly happen one would hope to at least be able to measure that interaction. This simple fact makes dualism crumble away on the most simple of observations. For those advocating some special material that makes up the “stuff” of thought and consciousness one would have to question quite seriously where such matter or material would have evolved from.  I will not claim here to have the definitive answers, but I will try to stick to the few things that seem abundantly clear to all of our experiences and not invent other things that we do not perceive in order to explain that which we do.

My own observations, for what they are worth, have lead me to suspect that the mind, of which the self is a part, is like a program or software running on a computer, of which the body, and more precisely the brain, functions as the hardware. The analogy is not perfect, as it is not apparent that anyone designed the hardware or wrote the code specifically, but instead they co-evolved over the millennia. The consequences of this seem to be quite great, and the effect on how we perceive ourselves seem best explained through this lens. For instance our brain seems to be able to adjust its hardware and resource allocation to better conform to what our minds seem to run on a regular basis. There seems to be a good amount of feedback between the two and a certain amount of malleability to create a very adaptable human being. This adaptability is what we are relying on in order to retrain ourselves in how we view and approach the world around us.

Before we get too far into these thoughts, let us consider what the self is and what it is not. There is a tendency to define the self entirely as a mental construct, a part of the mind and not of the body. Epictetus defines the body as something that is beyond our control and falls into the grouping of what is slavish. This in purist terms may be on the surface true. The self is a creation in the mind, it’s the part that separates self from not self, it is what spins the central narrative of your life and organizes it into an abstract of what you believe yourself to be. Even the experience of what our bodies consist of seems to be essentially a totally mental experience, as all our experience seems to take place in the mind. Yet despite this if we take away the body entirely we are devoid of any experience, even the experience of ourselves.

Some might object that in its purest terms you could be a brain in a vat with mental experience, but even then you recognize that at least that the physical brain must exist in order for the experience to take place. A further objection might be that humanity could find a way to “code consciousness” and you could essentially run yourself on a computer; and maybe you could, but one has merely swapped the biological for the artificial, there still needs to be a physical place where the code is “run”. I’m completely agnostic to the viability of this being a possibility, but I’m just pointing out the apparent correlation for the apparent need of a physical medium in which for conscious experience to be centered on. This body is thus in some sense a part of who we are, and what we consider ourselves to be.

The self does not seem to be eternal, defined outside of time or unchanging. This is very clear to us and soon as we do any serious thinking on the topic. You change, your habits change, your body changes, your likes and dislikes and all things about you seem to change over time. You are not who you were when you were a child, you are not who you were even a year ago. The changes may be slow but they accumulate, and if you look back ten years at who you considered yourself to be, you would not consider that person you. “But that was me!”, you might protest. It was, but it isn’t now and now is all we have. With the realization that the self is a flowing changing malleable thing, one would question where does the continuity seem to come from, what is it that gives such a profound sense of me-ness to myself?

One of the most revolutionary concepts that sets Buddhism apart from the other philosophies of his time and even today is the very astute observance that the self is a fluctuating and changing entity. In fact Buddha took it a step further and coined the concept of anatman, roughly translated as no-self. The self is thought to be the result of the five aggregates, and it is the combined effect of these aggregates that creates the “illusion” of a self. These five aggregates in Buddhism are matter (covering all material things including the body), sensation, perception, formation, and consciousness. It is believed that what we consider the self is really just the coming together of these aggregates to form the sense of a central agent. Buddhism also understands that we change over time and it saw clearly the principle problem posed by the Ship of Theseus when we consider something like the self. This was a revolutionary concept set against the backdrop of a Vedic tradition that proposed an eternal soul that was reborn, it’s immortal essence intact, every time a being died. Buddha’s final triumph in reaching Nirvana under the bodi tree is depicted as his battle overcoming the concept of self, of letting go of the superstition of a central enduring agent that persists through time. Once the self is let go of there is no clinging ego that chases after that which ultimately brings suffering. For the Buddha it was the realization that we are not eternal that set him free.

 I however am going to argue that despite all of their correct points and although the self is not some immortal conception that defines the true “me” like some platonic form, there is however a self that the brain creates as a useful tool for existence. Yes it changes over time, and yes it is not immortal, but exists as a useful concept, more real than a calculated center of gravity and something that despite the change that is always there, maintains certain character traits through the course of its existence that are useful to understand. I will take a middle of the road approach to the self, somewhere between the doctrine of it being a total fabrication and the idea that there is an immortal immutable substance that defines the “meness” of being me. I think my difference with the Buddhist view is one based mostly on semantics and an argument over what is real enough to be considered “real”, and in the end may be a somewhat arbitrary difference. You may find it difficult to accept that weather the self is real or not is an arbitrary question, and you would be right that the question is not arbitrary. In answering it though, where we draw the line of what is real is arbitrary, as are many of the lines we draw.

We draw imaginary lines because they prove useful as a concept, not because they are true. For instance your finger is a part of you, it’s your finger. If you were to, for some reason, have your finger cut off, is it still part of you? You might say that it was my finger, or you may insist that it still is your finger. It’s all somewhat irrelevant, it’s a trick of language a trying to box things in with some immutable properties to them, when in fact things flow and change and do not conform to the labels we try to give them. This even applies to the concept of what you are. We regularly expand and contract our sense of self on a minute by minute basis; when driving we can feel the road through the car, and if someone hits your car it is often said that the person hit you, conversely while in moments of introspection we become nothing more than our thoughts often forgetting our bodies are even there. We often make the mistake of deciding that some of these states are more real than the others, when each in its moment is really all that you are, you are simply the center of whatever “you” happen to be experiencing at the moment.

As an example of imaginary lines let’s consider the existence of my home country, the United States of America. It should be very clear to you on some thought that countries aren’t a whole lot different than selves, they exist only as a concept in the mind, as do most social concepts. If everyone on the planet agreed that the United States in fact did not exist, it wouldn’t exist, as there is nothing physical in the world that actually defines it. The borders are for the most part arbitrary, although we believe in them with absolute zeal. Let’s pretend for a moment that the state I am from, Maine, is like the finger in the previous example, let’s say Maine is “separated” from the United States, it becomes absorbed into Canada, something that is “not” the United States. What has actually changed here? Nothing but the perception in the minds of people of what “Maine” and the “United States” is. The landmass we call Maine is still sitting right where we left it, but the idea of a boundary has been adjusted. At a later date the state of Maine could be re-attached, much like a finger could, and it would become part of the United States again. Through all of this nothing physical would have really changed aside from a few flags and possibly what buildings and cities people decided to meet in. What we need to see is that the boundaries we believe in with zeal and certainty are in fact just useful constructs when discussing or considering a thing, but not the true thing itself. Recognize this in what you define as you, and what you consider yourself. For what you consider yourself is but a representation of a thing, who cannot it seems be pinned down. I will say that the self is this very real representation and useful to our understanding of the world around us, but it is not what we commonly believe ourselves to be.

 So if these bounds are arbitrary, then what in fact are we? We are it seems an object created by the brain that acts as the core discerner of what is me and what is not me. The creation of a self stores in it a concept of its being, it compiles the narrative that is “your” story, it identifies your emotions as yours and pertaining to you. It consists of your personality traits, your strengths and weaknesses, it is tied to your body which though lies outside its power is never the less a part of it. The self appears to be the owner of the will, and thus the source of action for the things that are within your power. In fact it is this ownership of volition ultimately that makes the concept of a self important, and why I think Epictetus was correct in focusing so much of his attention on one’s personal actions. It is not our story or ego that set us apart from others, but what makes me, me is that I can choose to act for me, and not for you. It is volition, will and action that makes the representation of me as not you the most useful aspect of this object of thought. While the line may blur here and there, it is this differentiation that sets the self apart from the non self. I am a choice machine, one that considers the variables and acts accordingly. What separates me from not me is the ability to act, hold opinions, assent or disagree, and make judgments.

Once the myth of the enduring self is put aside we are more open to our experience and can begin to perceive it without our own bias skewing it and creating so much drama. Seeing this clearly allows us to understand that it is not about wanting “your” life to go in certain directions as much as just confronting the experience that is before you and making the best of what it is. We are not that which is outside our power, and recognizing that allows us to focus on what matters in the here and now. Properly understanding these boundaries of the self is what we focused on in chapter three. The only part of us that separates us from not us is volition and a point of view. 

While I am sympathetic to Buddhist beliefs about the nature of the self, I do not perceive liberation to be a matter of losing the self completely and “going out”, but more a reigning in of the self. Putting limitations on what we believe the self to be means letting go of our sense of self importance, being less concerned about chasing wants for ourselves and being more concerned with taking virtuous action. Actions taken to indulge a thing that does not persist in any meaningful form seems quite ridiculous when we see in fact what our egos are. While I will address virtuous action in detail in the next two chapters, I am essentially following the Socratic and stoic tradition that unhappiness and cruelty are the result of human ignorance, of not understanding how a contrary act would have resulted in a better world, not just for the injured, but for yourself as well. A huge part of correcting this ignorance is letting go of many things that we try and tie to the self, that we allow our egos to demand of us. It is taking offence to those things that we should not be offended by, becoming protective or defensive over those things which we cling to because we falsely count them as important to us. Once you realize that this part of you that we cling to with such fervor is in fact a collection of stories and merely a kind of center of gravity for your experience and that it has already changed so much over time, you can see that there is nothing to fear and no reason to not be more open to others. Seeing this clearly allows you to let go, to not be afraid to move on and pay attention to the here and now; not the past nor the future.   

So why then is this so hard for us to do? Why do we naturally cling so hard to our point of view? Why are we willing to do so much damage for what can essentially be a small “gain” in some way from a very narrow view of our own perspective?  Essentially the question we come to ask, is why do we have to work so hard in order to view the world in a way that does not bring pain, suffering and frustration to ourselves and others? Why is our perspective this way, and not some other? The self, the brain that creates it and the body to which that brain belongs are all products of evolution. The evolutionary process has no goals, it is a thing indifferent, it is merely a process a consequence of how the world is designed. To put it simply there are things that replicate, and replication takes resources. There are limited resources and thus the things that are best at acquiring those resources and the means to replicate fill the environment with more copies of themselves at the expense of those things that are not as capable. Any time these conditions exist this process will occur. So why is this important and why do I bring it up in this section?

Because seeing this process that created us is the key to understanding the “why” of the human condition and is my single biggest breaking point from Epictetus’ philosophy. Epictetus’ declaration that he was made for his own good and not for his own evil, is in my opinion false, and we are not created it seems for our own good. The human dichotomy of what we are and what we aspire to be is grounded in a battle between the conscious belief of what we are and the carrots and sticks employed by our evolutionary heritage that cause us to value or undervalue things according to how we would consider them in a void. The consequence of this process has a dramatic effect on how we live our lives, it is the process that shaped and molded us and why we see the world the way we do as opposed to some other way. It is why there are common threads and attributes to people and societies across the world and over the great expanse of time. It is why you can read a book written by Xenophon from twenty three hundred years ago and still identify with what the people in the story are going through. You can instantly identify with their wants, desires, their hopes and understand why they take the actions that they do. The goals of their actions do not need to be spelled out, most often you understand them implicitly simply by observing the action taken. Everything may be change, but some stories get told over and over again, the cast and place is all that seems to change. To return to the topic at hand though, the consequence of our evolutionary design and their impact on us is total. Understanding it will be a great aid in seeing the world around you and especially yourself more accurately.

The first thing to understand is that it is not the “self” that is being selected to be replicated into the next generation. This seems clear on any thought about the topic, but it seems to be a misunderstanding by some people that “they are the unit of selection”. It is not your body either; clones of you do not make it to the next generation. So what is it then? It is your genes, and what is selected for is the effects that they exhibit in you. So what does all this mean for you? It means you exist not to be happy, or content, tranquil or free, what you exist for is a means to get your genes into the next generation. I do not want to in any way imply that this is what you should do. What exists in nature carries with it no moral authority, just because a thing is arbitrarily some way through a series of historical accidents does not make it a moral maxim. What we are getting at is that you exist because those who came before you were good at getting  their genes into the next generation, and those traits that they exhibited that got those genes into you are what makes at least a part of you. You are the consequence of the actions of all of those that came before you.

It is almost like Buddhist karma, it is a concrete way that the actions of the past are manifest within you. You are not defined entirely by it, but it shapes the way in which your experience is framed, it is the basis for why some of us struggle with fidelity or eating habits, but why very few people report having issues struggling with cravings of smelling rocks or not being able to keep themselves from running outside when it rains. As the point of central narrative that has to try and predict the consequences of our actions we are lobbied as it were by urges and passions. We are where the friction occurs between calculation and instinct, and this friction occurs because you inherited the urges and frame of reference that got you born. This is not a justification of action based purely on bodily urges or repulsions, quite the contrary, but an exploration of where the root of our struggle to attain a clearer view is centered and emanates from.

This means that you are subject to the poking and prodding that your mind and body are predisposed to feeling by design. It is why we find sex so attractive, it is why we seek a spouse, it is why we seek status, it is why we are inclined to do many of the things that might make it more likely to get our genes passed on, they do not necessarily make for a good life. You are born into the world inclined to look at it in a fashion that leads you chasing everything your desire dangles before you, to be attracted to things that are outside your power, and to view things in a way that makes you miserable so that you are prodded into some action. You exist this way because it was effective in those who came before you, and you inherited their strengths and weaknesses, and a certain measure of effects in the mind and body that reward and punish certain behavior.

Despite all of this, it is not all negative, like all things outside the will it is neither good nor bad it just is. You have been designed with the tools to overcome these barriers; you have reason to think through them, to retrain your mind in how to see with a healthy perspective the world around you. Your body, your senses your mind is constantly informing you, and though it prods and bribes you into some actions, you can begin to ignore the bribes and read from them instead what your body is doing and why, and from that information let it guide your character and your choices. You do not have to be a slave to your nature, you can learn to tame it, and make it serve you instead. When you see it for what it is, you will not be disturbed by the discomfort that your body inflicts on you to tempt you into stopping to pursue right action. You will not take the bribe of pleasure that is promised to you by your mind that might keep you from right action. You will see these tricks for what they are, and you will be able to overcome them.

I also do not want to imply that genetics are total and defining of our experience and character. Richard Dawkins describes genes as kind of a recipe, but it is up to the cook to add the ingredients properly and cook at the prescribed temperature. Anyone who has cooked or baked before knows that slight environmental factors can affect significantly how a dish turns out. So It is with the back and forth between environment and genetics. We are extremely adaptable creatures who can become adjusted to almost any circumstance or environment and who have within our being a certain amount of malleability to train ourselves and through it change ourselves. In fact witnessing this adaptability first hand should inspire us to understand that you can become use to any conditions, and that what we are searching for is not a matter of environment, we have the tools to overcome any environment that doesn’t kill us. It is not that the genes are total, it is that we want to understand that they form the lens we experience our life through, and help shape the body through which we interact with that experience. It is through the senses that were created by this process that we gain information about the world around us. Knowing this we might become more astute in detecting our own biases, prejudices and where we have a tendency to stumble and follow not reason but some other impulse.

This knowledge is useful because it allows you to understand where to best apply the will. It also allows you to better anticipate what you may go through when certain situations arise. It gives us better insights into those around you and allows you to see in them the same humanity that you share. Understanding why we are made the way we are and how we came to be you can attempt to end the cycle of suffering and dissatisfaction, you cannot be bullied by your mind and body. You can align your will with the way things are, shrug off your instincts that would get you into trouble and make decisions based on reason and not bribes and threats. A central thing to understand, and a major break from the Stoic school of thought, is that you are not designed for your own happiness, it can be attained, but you have to work at it. It is not through aligning yourself with your natural inclinations, but by acting on occasion in spite of them.

Is the self anything aside from all of this? It is important to point out that I do not have a definitive answer, merely what seems to me most plausible from my own experience, and I am ultimately agnostic to what the self and the accompanying experience really is. So is our self only a changing construct of a mind and brain forged in evolution of genes and memes that is the representation of something ill defined?  This may be “all” that it is, but if so then it is all that it ever was. Because you suspect this now it does not diminish what it has always been in your life. You have always been this, and if it disappoints you now, it is because you expected too much, but not only that you must see that nothing has changed but the concept of what a self is in your mind. You are what you have always been, and a realization that may be contrary to what had not been strongly considered in the past does not diminish what you are. In fact I would go on to say that if you live a mindful life, if you begin to pay attention to your actions, act on only what is in your power and align your opinions with how the world is, than you will develop a strong sense of who you are. Your narrative of who you are will become better defined, and you will better know what you are made of and who you really are, at least as far as knowing this is possible. This is a boon, and an opportunity for you to become a better person and more adept at living life.

Do not cling too tightly to this narrative, to this self that you have spun. Remember what ultimately separates you from others is your volition and even this will ultimately be taken by death, and this is something outside your power. As we have stated numerous times do not let any identity you claim for yourself be held to tightly or become too entwined in who “you” are, for all will be taken from you in the end. As we stated in the chapter on mortality, a correct view of the self can act as an aid in facing death. You can see clearly that there is nothing to fear when you see how many selves you have spun and how many of them have gone on, and disappeared from the world. The self you had when you are five is gone, and it did not go painfully or with malice, it just disappeared. Recognize that in a way every night we die and every morning we are reborn a new, a new self spun having yesterday added to all of that before it. The narrative changes, the story moves on, and a character that was is no more. It is no great or terrible thing; it is no momentous event weather it happens today or many from tomorrow. It is just the last words in the story, the final part of a narrative that has had many chapters end before. 

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