(We are starting to make some real progress here at the old Nature Religion Connection—your site for some cool, cutting-edge speculation. Imagine The Universe “speaking” through you in your every movement and utterance! That is a large chunk of imagining; let’s see if we can pull it off in any reasonable way! Here we go.)
Responsible human beings are very complex mechanisms. Humans that are not responsible for their behaviors are still complex mechanisms just more obviously mechanical. They have some causal events that are not normal, and that allow us to disqualify them from the degree of control we normally think we have. Adults not responsible might be falling down an elevator shaft, or off their medicine for schizophrenia.
When we acknowledge that we are complex mechanisms, we are saying that we have ‘given up the ghost,’ in other words, no ‘soul,’ no magical kind of ‘self.’ There is no single thing—in ‘heaven’ or on Earth—that is a self-initiator, a creator or a mover that is itself not moved by another. Aristotle tried to call it “An Unmoved Mover,” and Christianity just took it to be a “God” who creates the world with no obvious cause and explains ‘him’-self (to Moses) in a neat little self-enclosed definition: “I am who I am,” or “I am that I am”—i.e. Yahweh. “Ghosts” supposedly defy physical realities; they avoid the causes the rest of us cannot, but most of us have learned quite confidently to disbelieve in ghosts, and ‘souls’ too.
The same for any kind of magical “Self”: a self that does things without being caused to do them. Importantly, all our behaviors are caused; how could they not be? What we call “a decision” surely must be some physical activity of the brain. Our bodily movements are clearly muscular and electrical events (physical events) of our anatomy. Ultimately, our movements are determined by the physical laws of our environment and even the state of the particles rolling down to ‘us’ (the particles that are ‘us’?) from the time of The Big Bang.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett contends that there is a perfectly good sense of “Self” that has gotten caught up in much superstition. The self really is “a unitary and cohering point of view of the world;” it is the center of my ongoing “narrative” about who “I” am and what “my” life is about. This story-telling is a Social Reality—we all do it. It has a point and purpose to “me” (my “self”) and the “persons” with whom I live and interact. “The Self” is Real in our kind of Society; it is as real as “a game of baseball,” and as real as “responsibility,” “money,” and “music.” All of these involve very complex behaviors that take on meanings that seem to be in addition to whatever meaning behaviors may have for physics, chemistry, biology, or neurology.
Dennett contends that “The Self” is a kind of illusion, “a cognitive illusion.” at least from some of our points of view. But even then, it is one of the useful illusions needed for the way we live. We seem to be “Selves” that Act Freely and Initiate Events, just as we seem to be, additionally, baseball players, musicians, parents, and bankers.
The following are some of the reasons we believe in a magical self, reasons that have led us into the superstitious beliefs of “A Self” beyond our social realities.
An Information Processor
“Whatever else we are, we are an information-processing system,” Dennett contends, and our “information-gathering apparatus (are) our most impressive causal interface with our surroundings.”
But information processing does not have to be that complex. All processing systems are firstly a form of screening or filtering in a literal sense. A sieve separating the biggest particles from the tiniest is information processing in its simplest form. From there, it is up to you, the designer of this processing system, to use the smallest particles or the largest—the pieces thus separated—and continue their processing to some goal. The whole point of “information processing” is to be selective; it has a particular point of view and some “reasons” for it. It is “a somewhat idiosyncratic way of gathering and partitioning information about the world,” reports Dennett; much as “a self” in its demystified form.
But to demonstrate how Information Processing can be deceptive, leading us to believe that something magical—self-initiation—is going on, Dennett contends we are “essentially an organization of switches and triggers.” He replaces my older mechanical example of selectivity (a sieve, which is not very mysterious or complex) with a more modern electronic example for separating ‘the wheat from the chaff,’ and then bypassing any talk of “purposes” by simply saying that the switches are put together in “an organization.”
And his point is that “input information” into the processor (in this case, us) is often far less evident or dramatic than the “output” results. “All information-processing systems rely on amplifiers of a sort,” he contends; “Relatively small causes are made to yield relatively large effects.” That tends to confuse us; we think that something beyond causes is occurring.
“Input switches,” like photo electric cells or biological sense organs, “transduce” input information into a form usable by the processor. “The ‘firing’ of a retinal neuron may be ‘triggered’ by the arrival of a single photon on (that) receptor,” for example. That is amplification because a photon is staggeringly small. In appropriate circumstances, that single photon may “trigger output effectors”: “arms, legs, mouths, wheels, projectiles, rockets—(that) use very little energy to initiate, modulate, and terminate…(they are) activities that expend dramatic amounts of energy in clearly observable ways,” Dennett insists.
This enhanced output is the result of stored and accumulated energy in the organization or design of the information processing system. “Stored energy is controlled by modulation of lower-energy events,” he says. Human engineers and inventors, but ultimately The Universe, as Mother Nature with her process of Evolution by Natural Selection, began discovering more efficient mechanisms and accumulating efficient mechanisms into more complex mechanical systems long ago. Little in, can seem to result in, much more out. We tend to think we are “free”, free from any causal chain—we are an unmoved mover!
But, a much better answer is: in any good mechanism, Value is in its Design—its Organization of Parts in relation to its environment.
“The Headquarters” Deep Within!
And so in information-processing systems—like other people or animals or even some machines—we do not see, from our vantage point outside them, the processing going on, the work being done, within. Dennett: “We see the dramatic effects leaving; we don’t see the causes entering; we are tempted by the hypothesis that their are no causes.”
Even in our “self,” this deception occurs. We take our “decisions” to be “the focal events in the life of a genuinely free agent,” reports Dennett. “Decisions are ‘voluntary’ if anything is,” he says. But even from “our introspective vantage point,” the “causal paths…are inscrutable.” “We” are supposedly ‘in’ the black box ‘with’ the processing going on, and still we don’t see the mechanisms or causes or “the self.”
We do recognize a certain difficulty about “decisions.” Though we think we “make them voluntarily;” they “can also be seen strangely out of our control,” reports our philosopher. We don’t witness them “being made” in any way! “We witness their arrival,” he contends. “They bubble up to consciousness” from somewhere. We do not know their source, even when it is supposedly within us and just us.
This has lead to an awkward theory, “a strange idea,” says Dennett: Deep inside us lays “A Central Headquarters.” It is “where the buck stops.” as Harry Truman characterized himself as President. It is where the ‘Decider-in-Chief’ resides. “My True Self” is the decider who is the initiator of its own action and who is not divided among itself and so possesses the clear and only view of who it is. Like Yahweh, “I am who I am,” says Our True and Original Self!
Now in electronic information processing, we can think of this HQ as its computer program and a central processor. In biological info processing we can think of it as the Genetic Code and the brain. And these situations are pertinent to us—humans, who are biological and a bit like a computer, but to many of us—we want more. If we took “more” to mean Our Culture and our personal history in that culture, that would be a very good answer. In society, we do have “a sense of self” and “take” a large amount of responsibility for it; we explain who we are in its terms. “Self” is more like a literary device, than an object that takes up space and made of some material: it is the main character of a story.
But even if we avoid any metaphysically ridiculous answers, like “the Self” is a special kind of material—“a soul” or “a spirit,”—we then often fall into personification and reification of a different type. “A True Self” resides in a place, “a headquarters” that is “deep within us,” and is inhabited by—What? Answer: a more unified, more singular Self! It’s like a ‘smaller’ person within our larger person! “Smaller” because—well—it is more unified and singular, but also, I guess, it does have to fit in my head. That is an awkward theory!
What we are really doing, contends Dennett and others, is taking the real Social Process of Self-Formation which is interpersonal, and internalizing it within our own self-awareness. A child learns its role and part, by interaction with parents and teachers and peers, and eventually graduates to a more demanding role—adulthood. The internal dialogue can get really intense at that point!
Do We Need A Center?
We don’t need “a center” as any postulated and supposedly material (or spiritual) “thing,” Dennett contends. We do not need ‘some particle’ that initiates itself physically or even psychologically. We have our modern society and its social roles and our biology and its instincts and conditions; we would be more consistent and wiser if we just left it at that. Our modern problems lay not in discovering our real individual “self,” or “soul, “or “spirit,” or “god.” Our problems lay in our incoherence and inconsistencies of our basic points of view and basic needs.
We have the problem of Human Freedom and Choice flipped on its head. We do “choose” and are “free” to do what we do, usually, normally, unless we are under the influence of an abnormal cause. But “Our Choice” is the last in a line—or more like a pyramid—of Conditions Already Determined, or Screening Processes, already in motion. When we think of information processing from the top down, from “the world view or attitude of a deliberator”—says Dennett, we can distort the whole process.
But with this ‘pyramid’ of qualifications, the top of this process is not in control! By the time “we”—as in “you” or “I”—get our turn to ‘chime in’ “The Situation” has already been Qualified and Quantified through these many “layers.” Physics, chemistry, biology, all play huge roles—how could they not?—but from our point of view as “deliberators” there is still some room for determination. As Cultural Animals, the historical realities of The Human Race and Our Society are determinative, but then so are the Sociological realities, and the Psychological realities of my life, and the neurological realities of my brain. “The Decision” “bubbles up into consciousness,’ but it is only at this highest, latest, social and cultural level that that term—“a decision”—is appropriately applied.
We seem to have made it, but in many ways we do not know how. This process of human information processing has long been tested and refined. Dennett contends that our cultural history clearly shows that we have turned our pattern recognition faculties back upon ourselves—we often review our decisions in search of flawed habits (patterns). We can revise one pattern of behavior with an improved one. “We” are a set of patterns seeking to fit in with a universe of other patterns. In that sense, a pattern has no ‘real’ center; but also in that sense, We seem to do things, and in a way We do!
If we accept This Rather Optimistic Attitude, Dennett contends that we are left with a rosy thought. As Information Processors we are Complex Mechanisms whose ultimate output—its “decisions”—“come bubbling up from below.” And that is fortunate because both ends of the process are real. The bottom of the pyramid is as real and important as the top. Human choices are just as real as neutrinos, but “real” in a different way. Curiously enough, we have ended this this search, and this post, with a conclusion sometimes attained in the history of philosophy and various other abstract human pursuits: We live in a Universe that has stumbled upon a path toward Understanding or Visualizing Itself!
Our profoundest hopes, and the Universe’s course, may not be all that divergent.