BUNDLE: Identity problems (2)

The Neglected Problem.

“If, in short, 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, 1998[1]

There is a neglected problem hiding in identity studies.    The neglect stems from a conflict between identity theories and the concept of the illusory self.  We have seen that understanding of identity has focused on both stability and instability:  identities are interesting both because they endure and because they can change.  When we feel like, or act like, a different person than we usually are, what exactly changes?  What’s going on inside? Well, according to the bundle theory / illusory self consensus, there is nothing (”no” particular “thing”) there that can change.  That is, if there’s no self then “who I am right now” has no referent. Illusory self theory implies that we cannot get to a deeper understanding of identity’s dynamism.  We can’t know who’s sailing the ship because there’s no captain.

I think the above quote from Jerry Fodor captures the absurdity of this dilemma, even if he was sort of talking about something else.  Any theorist who tries to resolve the paradox (that a non-self has an identity) will have a lot of explaining to do.  Many established ideas might be threatened, their owners alarmed, and defenses mounted.  While it thus seems reckless to try to open a discussion about it, the attempt might also be a load of fun.

We’ll need a name for the topic of discussion.  The phrase, “neglected problem of identity,” just doesn’t swing.  Neither does “the dynamic mental structure supporting self cohesion.”  We need brevity and a bit of mystery, so we’ll call  our problem the “Showing up Problem.”

To get a sense of what we are up against, let’s return to Marvin Minsky, the pioneering bundle theorist from MIT.  He thought[2] that in the “society of mind” any part could not be very complex or the whole thing could not work.  Therefore any executive function would be at most rather simple.  It would listen to other parts and award control to whichever one “shouts the loudest”.  He supposed that we compensated for the existence of inner conflict with a “myth” of a single self.  At the same time, and somewhat in contradiction, Minsky acknowledged that personal history, self-concept, beliefs and ideals, and all the rest constituted our “mysterious sense of personal identity.”  He discussed at length the problems of self control and long-range goals, and concluded that there must be “silent, hidden agencies that shape what we call character.”  So he treated personal goals as distinct parts of the mind. Minsky makes a similar argument for personal style — personality traits that make us predictable to ourselves and others.

So for Minsky, like so many other thinkers since him, personal identity consists of parts, and when those parts conflict, that is even clearer evidence that a singular, overarching Self does not exist.  I believe this argument should be turned on its head.  The fact that we can be one way now, and another way later, demands some mechanism or structure to pull together the goals, traits, and history of me as (a) the working person when I am at work, and a way to let go of those and pull together different parts that (b) support me being a spouse and parent when I am at home.

This argument makes sense for understanding the everyday roles that we all must have just in order to get along in society.  It makes even more sense in cases where a single person may have more distinct divisions within them.  In the extreme of so-called multiple personality disorder, different subselves may not even be aware of each other.  But there is a wild menagerie of other interesting cases where we split off separate selves.  These deserve their own chapter(s), but for now let’s note their fascinating variety.  They include:

  • Relatively passive on-line alter egos in social media or discussion groups.
  • Identifications with fictional or celebrity characters.
  • Professional aliases.
  • Acting deliberate roles, from role-playing games to thespianism
  • Imagined selves, in a spectrum from daydreaming to imaginary playmates or the adult alter egos called tulpas.
  • Dream egos.
  • Involuntary branches of the self caused by mystical strivings, spirit possession and the like.
  • Out of body experiences.
  • Compulsive and maladaptive daydreaming.
  • Chronic voice hallucinations.
  • Schizophrenia.
  • Dissociative disorders.

That the mind is broken into parts is undeniable.  A logical consequence is that mentally getting anything done requires some temporary assembly of parts for that purpose.  It’s therefore reasonable that there would be a way to assemble a large variety of parts so that a particular identified subself can be in charge of the mind and body.  I propose that such mechanisms be called p-constructs, because they are constructions (i.e., structured assemblies) that implement personas.

If a p-construct sounds like Descartes’s homunculus, don’t worry.  Unlike a homunculus, the p-construct idea is not meant to explain subjectivity by adding an observer inside your head. So a p-construct does not break the taboo against homunculi.  A p-construct is also not a Self, but it might be an organizing principle that holds together the numerous mind parts that together appear to be a Self.  We can say that a p-construct is a holon made out of simpler parts.  Each p-construct within a person would have a different set of mind parts.  Those sets might overlap.  P-constructs might vary in completeness or cohesiveness, thus appearing more or less person-like to the outside world (or feeling more like one inside).

The mind theorist and science communicator Robert Ornstein is firmly in the bundle theory camp.  He describes the mind [3]as having “an uncountable number of small minds.  These are the talents, parts of the talents, the modules, and the policies.”  Talents and modules are major and minor mental abilities, while policies are cognitive biases.  “Small minds” refers to assemblies of these pieces, “wheeled in” (activated together?) to do particular jobs.  Ornstein also includes “governing” as a talent that does “organization, inference, interpretation and control”, and which he clearly identifies as “the self” that is “controlling functions of consciousness.”  He then identifies different personalities in cases of multiple personality as being instances of different small minds.  Ornstein was writing for a popular audience, and so he deliberately avoided more scientifically precise descriptions of his concepts.  We can’t infer with confidence that any of his ideas (the self as a governing talent, small minds implementing personality) can be made to match up to the idea of a p-construct.  But the ideas seem to be in the same backyard drinking together.

One issue that the concept of a p-construct raises (I hope) is what has been abandoned by the recent rush to see the Self as an illusion.  We leave behind decades, even centuries, of thought and study about personality (who we are to others) and Self (who we are inside).  Does it make sense to just throw that knowledge out, or should we find out how it should be re-interpreted in the light of the new sciences of the mind?  The new theories of the Self, left unquestioned and not integrated with the older ones, essentially ignore the Showing Up Problem as if it did not exist.

We shall also use the p-construct idea to talk about the Plural Problem. If I have more than one identity, then how one or the other identity comes to be in charge is a more general question than trying to understand how just plain old me is in charge.  The p-construct will be our term for whatever organizing principle it is that allows this collection of mind pieces to be Tweedledum, and that collection to be Tweedledee.

Thus we’ll say that a subself emerges from the internal mental structuring called a p-construct.  People, and their subselves, can hardly be random bundles of whatever mental parts happen to be loaded into consciousness.  Why? Because a self or subself is defined by having identity, implying some kind of theme or coherent purpose.  These are usually specific enough that subselves conflict with each other in various ways.

We know that a self (illusory or not) implies consciousness and, according to Metzinger[4], “Consciousness is the appearance of a world.  The essence of the phenomenon of consciousness is that a single and unified reality becomes present. If you are conscious, a world appears to you.”  So perhaps we could learn more about the Showing Up Problem by studying the natural history of consciousness and the types of realities that appear to people.

One relevant question concerns the relationship between p-constructs and how consciousness is generated.  Is there a generalized reality-producing (ego tunnel) machine that connects a p-construct with internal and external-facing perceptions?  This is like having every p-construct be a temporary tenant of a single Ego Tunnel machine.  The p-construct would be responsible for focusing attention on specific perceptions, but otherwise would not affect the nature of consciousness.  The alternative would be that reality production is done differently depending on the kind of consciousness involved.  If so, then different p-constructs would incorporate different kinds of consciousness generators.

It’s time to get acquainted with the many ways awareness is manifested.  Let’s next visit the landscape of consciousness.

[1] The Trouble with Psychological Darwinism.  Jerry Fodor, London Review of Books, 1998. T  It sounds like he is arguing for some kind of central self, but he actually distinguishes modular functions like perception from the more complicated, thinking parts of the mind that, he says, are not modular.

[2] The Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky, 1986

[3] Multimind. Robert Ornstein, Maior Books, 2015.

[4] The Ego Tunnel:the Science of Mind and the Myth of the Self.  Thomas Metzinger, Basic Books, 2009.

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