This series of posts has explored a variety of ways in which agency – the ability of something to initiate action – can be rethought, redistributed, and refactored. Agency can be assigned to things that normally don’t have it, or we can undo our everyday sense of personal agency and think of our behavior as the output of a mechanical process. My not-so-hidden agenda is to battle against the everyday notion of the self, the idea that at the core of a person is something simple and unitary. Maybe this isn’t a battle that needs to be fought – perhaps everyone, these days, is perfectly aware that they are a conflicted assemblages of drives, that personae are fictional, that autonomy is an illusion. Isn’t that conventional wisdom by now, and am I not preaching to the already converted? Hasn’t Freud been repackaged for mass consumption for decades now?
Maybe, but it seems to me that our everyday notions about agency are so baked into our culture and into the very grammar of language that the struggle against them must be ongoing. In this final post I want to explore some of the reasons why you might want to dissect your mind, and why society conspires to make that difficult. In the course of this, we’ll explore some of the moral aspects of the unity and disunity of mind. Fundamentally and perhaps obviously, morality is tied at a very basic level to the idea of a person, so that to attack the idea of personhood can seem to be be almost immoral.
I haven’t focused too much on the pragmatics of actually performing this kind of operation – such as psychological methods for refactoring yourself, or the benefits that might be obtained by doing so. A couple of interesting efforts in that line have recently come to my attention – a therapeutic technique called Internal Family Systems, and an online group trying to encourage each other to develop tulpas, “autonomous consciousness, existing within their creator’s mind…A tulpa is entirely sentient and in control of their opinions, feelings, form and movement. They are willingly created by people via a number of techniques to act as companions, muses, and advisers.” (h/t to Kevin Simler). These efforts are quite interesting, if also somewhat alarming – with this sort of stuff, if you can’t make the leap to considering the products of your imagination literally then it won’t work, but on the other hand if you do, there are very real psychological dangers. When these independent mental entities manifest on their own, we call that schizophrenia, which is no joke.
The moral pressure to have a self
Let’s just assume we have successfully broken down our minds and others. We have, perhaps, achieved liberation from a false and constraining view of ourselves as solid things. Perhaps we have manifested a tulpa, or mapped and reorganized the matrix management chart of our own internal corporation. Maybe we have followed the Buddhist path to achieve release from a false sense of ego. It sounds pretty great! Don’t have that annoying rigid self to deal with anymore, it’s much easier to adapt to situations, you are probably more pleasant company this way.
Unfortunately all the apparatus of society is trying to undo your achievement. The state still thinks you are a unique individual with a social security number, a tax record, and all the other apparatus of citizenship in a modern bureaucracy. You probably have a job that expects you to be a person with certain fixed characteristics, and friends and family and colleagues that expect you to perform your role in the social dramas of everyday life. Many of these people expect you to make and keep commitments, thus forcing an identity to exist in order to connect your future and present beings. James Scott, in The Art of not Being Governed talks about how tribal and nomadic people evade the all-seeing eye of the state, working to make themselves illegible to the bureaucracies that would control them. We civilized types don’t get that option, we are always not only under the eye of the state, but we end up enforcing the same rigid codes of behavior on each other. Social life requires and creates legibility. Thus, maintaining a self is necessary to be a social being. Everybody has to do it, it is a moral imperative of existing in society. The practicalities of daily life require creating roles, which harden into masks.
Just as there is no known society without a religion, so there exist none, however crudely organized they may be, where we do not find a whole system of collective representations concerning the soul, its origin and its destiny…the idea of the soul seems to have been contemporaneous with humanity itself, and it seems to have had all of its essential characteristics so well formulated at the very outset that the work of the more advanced religions and philosophy has been practically confined to refining it….the soul has always been considered a sacred thing; on this ground, it is opposed to the body which is, in itself, profane. It is not merely distinguished from its material envelope as the inside from the outside; it is not merely represented as made out of a more subtle and fluid matter; but more than this, it inspires those sentiments which are everywhere reserved for that which is divine. If it is not made into a god, it is at least regarded as a spark of the divinity.
– Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life
If Durkheim is to be believed, then the unitary self is more than a mere social convenience; it is a necessary feature of what it is to be human. The soul is the locus of everything that is sacred, that is, of our highest values. This makes deconstructing it even more problematic. Trying to reverse-engineer a wiring diagram of the self can be seen as a desecration, a violation of this most holy nexus. Some of the proponents of distributed mind theories play up to this. Marvin Minsky (whose Society of Mind is the direct inspiration for everything here) famously liked to describe minds as “meat machines”, mostly to épater les humanistes. I’m a little less inclined to do that; I feel an obligation to respect that which other people hold sacred, even if I don’t myself. I can empathize with the discomfort of those who would rather not see themselves in mechanical terms; who persist in belief in the soul. We can’t dispose of it without either giving up entirely on sacred values (which suggests philistinism or sociopathy) or finding another repository for them (nature, maybe).
Morality is tightly linked to the set of values defined by sacralization, with the consequence that persons are the definitionally the most important thing there is, with a transcendent value over the everyday. Theistic religion performs this elevation of personhood by means of a divine person that humans are images of; secular humanism performs it more directly, but they both take the idea of personhood as both fixed and of basically infinite value.
Efforts to undermine the single self, then, are seen as subverting of morality. And rightly so! That’s not to say such efforts are actually bad, just that they interfere with standard moral reasoning, which requires there to be a self which makes choices, has some slightly magical qualities called “freedom” and “responsibility”, and is available to give credit or blame to as required. To undermine this is to shirk a duty.
Compassion and self-construction
Regardless of your moral stance, you can’t help but admire the algebraic elegance of the golden rule (GR). I favor Hillel’s formulation (produced, according to legend, when he was challenged to explain the Torah while standing on one foot): “What is hateful to you, do not do to another”. This tiny statement achieves its immense power due to the fact that it is a pointer to something very complex, that is, the selves in question, your own and that of the other. To put this principle into action requires the construction of [representations of] both self and other, and it links them together in a sort of reflexive symmetry. Of course this process is not initatied by GR; instead it is implicit in the existing structures of human life; the feeling and practice of compassion.
Like Newton’s equations of motion, it captures and articulates a basic preexisting relationship. As a software engineer who appreciates high-level languages (that is, my esthetic makes me appreciate symbolic structures that do a lot with a little) I can’t help marvel at this piece of social software. And you don’t have to be a computationalist to feel that; others have called it “the best idea humanity has ever had”.
GR has the form of a command. It doesn’t specify its terms, but in order to follow its instructions, you obviously need to model both your neighbor and yourself, and do so in a such a way as to put these two mental models on a similar footing. Perhaps we use our model of ourself as model for the other, or perhaps its the other way around, or (more likely) it’s a deeply recursive process where our models of self and other are co-created. And while the previous description is of a mental process that takes place in one mind, in reality this is a deeply social and interactive process, where your model of yourself and your other are taking place while the actual other is modeling himself and you. At a very deep level, we make ourselves out of other people.
And yet, if this idea is so great, why hasn’t it taken over the world by now? The arc of history may be bending towards compassion, but if so it bends very slowly indeed. And a part of me can’t help want to take an outside, critical stance towards this universal principle that is beloved of all. I’m not against compassion, but I am against mushiness. And calls for universal compassion always have a tinge of mushiness about them.
Universal compassion is closely related to another problem: it isn’t directly actionable, at least, not at a societal level. It is all very well to treat your immediate neighbors with compassion, but how do you show compassion to the seven billion souls in our tightly-networked world? It simply isn’t possible. Peter Singer, the utilitarian ethicist who advocates doing exactly that, has always seemed frankly nuts to me, in a dry and unappealing sort of way. Humans don’t work that way, our empathic resources are limited and localized. We need an actual other person, not an abstraction of everybody.
Our selves are constructed, but they are constructed by mirroring others, and this process of mutual mirroring is at the root of morality. Compassion, then, is a natural state, based on the fact that our representations of self and other are not that distinct, they co-arise and can’t be fully separated. The Golden Rule works not because of rational calculations of mutual self-interest, but because self-interest doesn’t really exist in pure form. Or in other words, our reality as social beings is prior to our individuality, and our moral sense is rooted in this simple truth.
Disunion, the dark side, and the politics of mind
If there is a community of computers living in my head, there had also better be somebody who is in charge; and, by God, it had better be me.
– Jerry Fodor
The view of a person as disunity, a collection of drives rather than a pointlike reasoning agent, has a whiff of the dark and diabolical about it. The threat of disorder touches on very primal myths; the cosmic battle between order and chaos. Without a central controller, we fear our minds becoming chaotic, and chaos is legitimately terrifying. And if the soul is a spark of the divine, then to wish its dissolution is to rebel against god himself.
Freud was the great chronicaler of the ways in which the natural chaotic tendencies of the mind are submerged and controlled via repression, and the ways in which such repression fails. The order of the mind seems to be inseparable from political order; we use the same structural language to describe it; one is a metaphor for the other; changes in one are reflected in the other. And so our effort to overthrow the tyrannical centralized self, is inextricably linked with the revolutionary movements of the modern age.
We live in an age where an old order has broken down due to its own internal contradictions; and the new order which must necessarily rise to replace it has not yet defined itself. Or, rather, the new orders have failed and collapsed themselves. The fringe political neo-reactionary movement (the latest fad in hip technology circles) is obsessed with the idea of order, and deserves credit for asking the right questions even if their solutions are a mix of the ridiculous and evil. Their willingness to throw over every other human value for stability and order is a pathology, and like all pathologies it is interesting in what it reveals about the structure of the disturbed system.
Anarchists, on the other hand, have the opposite pathology; they are so resistant to the stifling effects of imposed order that they define themselves against it. Serious anarchists try to explain that they aren’t against order as such; just the illegitimate externally imposed order of the state; and they want to make their own order which organically derived, localized, more democratic than democracy. This has, to be charitable, not worked out at any meaningful scale. But the true energy of anarchism comes from its unserious side, its connection to chaos, eros, and the imagined unshackling of desire from repression of both state and superego. Too much disorder is pathology, but the need for freedom is just as basic as the need for order.
The individual mind has the same political tensions within itself. We too have internal battles between anarchic desire and our social obligations; these appear in Freud as the id and superego; with the valiant ego mediating between them. Freud is out of fashion, but I suspect that his basic outline of the structure of the mind and the problems it has to solve are still largely valid. Overly simplistic of course, but Freud was operating at a time when the science of mind was just getting started. Politics, culture, and theories of mind have all changed quite a bit since then. In the early 20th century we had states that were becoming more centralized and powerful; and highlighting the mechanisms and consequences of sexual repression was a major contribution. Today, the state is becoming increasingly irrelevant in world dominated by networks and corporations, and the very idea of sexual repression seems quaint. Yet desire and social restratint still exist; the need to construct and maintain a social self is still a moral obligation, even if we now do it mainly on Facebook. The subterranean pathologies and politics of our time remain to be unearthed.
These posts have not been saying particularly new. That the mind is not a unity has been a commonplace at least since Freud and Nietzsche. The idea that groups can have agency of their own is also not a new idea, It’s even become a graphical cliche since Hobbes’ Leviathan.
Nevertheless I think these ideas are worth reframing and reconsidering. Unless we understand who we are, what the real nature of ourselves and the world we are in, we end up being very bad at managing it. The earlier thinkers about systems of the mind and systems of society haven’t really scratched the surface of the problem, because their intellectual tools were quite limited. Now that we have better tools for thinking about and modeling complex systems, there are tantalizing possibilities of delving into these systems at a more detailed level. We have computers! We need to learn how to use them to investigate the things that matter most.
I said earlier that I wasn’t in the business of providing pragmatic advice, but now I feel obligated to offer a bit of it. We can’t escape the duties of personhood, and the tensions between desire and duty are inescapable, but we can relax and complicate our notions of who we are. We must act as persons, but we can use our imagination and our conceptual tools to expand the range of actions we are permitted. We can let a variety of agents take control, we can create contexts for ourselves that are more open and fluid. Selves are fictional, we are both author and authored, and as such our only hope is to become better writers – more fluent, more practiced, and courageous enough to create on the blank pages of the unknown future.