UNITY: Coherence of the manifold self (3)

Material Causes

Aristotle said that explanations should include a material cause. By this he meant whatever substances are needed for a particular event or thing to happen. Suppose I ask the question, ‘What makes you a unitary personality and allows you to persist as a distinct individual?’  Those who are a little science-minded, or a little fond of the obvious, might say: “Well I’m enclosed in this body. It has a boundary between me and the world around it.” Good for you. That is indeed your material cause.

These days we know that our material uniqueness starts with our DNA, which is also becoming the ultimate ID badge. DNA is a necessary cause of individuality. It is not however a sufficient cause, because each of us also have a unique environment that also affects how we develop. Note that regardless of how many writers try to dumb down the concept, DNA is not a “blueprint”. The closest analogy might be a computer program optimized over and over so that each piece of it is used in numerous and interacting ways. Discarded sections are left in but tagged as obsolete. Random parts are repeated and randomly mutated. Then the computer code is run through a compression algorithm to pack it down, and then it’s encrypted. Placed in a sack of nutrients, it somehow unpacks itself, creates its own interpreter, and runs its program, with constant feedback from the environment (the cell, the body, the encompassing society) affecting the execution and indeed modifying, through epigenetics, the program code itself. There’s different outcomes for different tissues, as well, while the random changes to the working interpreters inside our zillions of cells continue throughout life. That’s how not simple DNA is.

So how do we extract our unique identity from the DNA program? The theoretical biologist and Buddhist mystic, Francesco Varela, has perhaps the most poetic account. His concept is called autopoiesis: how living systems self-organize so that the mechanisms of the system are encapsulated in a boundary that is created by those same mechanisms, and the boundary is what enables the system to function. You see the circularity, almost a self-referencing definition there?  Well …it might go down easier with some concrete examples. Varela says that each person has three distinct, but coexistent autopoietic systems: cellular structure, the nervous system, and the immune system. Cells of course have a membrane defining their extent, but they also get together and form the largest organ in the body, the skin. The skin is the bag that holds us together physically and acts as both barrier and transceiver to the outside world. So it clearly is one material cause of our physical integrity and persistence over time.

The second autopoietic system is the immune system. It’s very nature is to define the difference between self and non-self, and to enforce that as necessary. While it uses the body as its boundary, it also is a virtual boundary, repelling or disposing of invaders. It’s like Gandalf telling the Balrog, “You shall not pass!” (If only there was a non-copyrighted image to stick here!)

The third autopoietic system, the nervous system, has the brain as its extremely high-value, high-function core. Your brain is bounded by the cup of the skull as its primary physical protection. It also has a triple outer layer of membranes, as well as a complex of tightly fused cells around most of its blood vessels, the so-called blood-brain barrier. The penetration of these boundaries is necessary for direct computer to brain interfaces. This is why, even though such interfaces have great promise, and indeed are helping people already, most folks of any sense would find them creepy and even frightening.

And the brain does so much more for our integrity and continued existence. It guides our behavior (usually, hopefully) attempting to ensure that we survive and thrive. It also actually constructs the first-person Self — your very “I” that is your phenomenological essence — as part of a brain-made internal model of the perceived and understood world. This model sets us off (yet another boundary) from whatever ineffable cosmic reality it is that actually surrounds us.

So we have these boundaries, and uniquely programmed biological machinery, that preserve some aspects of an enormously complicated physical pattern over our lifetimes. Is this sufficient to take care of our self continuity? Not really. Any vertebrate animal has of the above boundaries. Some might even have the rudiments of a Self. When we think of ourselves as a person having an identity we are talking about much more, including a self concept (the answer to Who am I?) and the above-mentioned first-person conscious point of view. Philosophers have really dug their teeth into persistence of the Self.

UNITY: Coherence of the manifold self (2)

Mental Multiplicity

Minds are simply what brains do.-
Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind

The human brain has a lot to do, and so, therefore, does the mind. Most of it we are not aware of. Oddly, common sense and science disagree on the meaning of these simple statements.

In science we think that the brain, or at least the nervous system: heads up the body’s “automatic” functions like breathing and metabolism, makes the muscles move the body, decides what’s for dinner, has emotions, does math, and everything in between. Most of these numerous functions are only loosely connected to one another. Science also thinks that only some functions are conscious, that there is no real central control, that the conscious self is largely an illusion, and that all of its so-called decisions are actually determined by numerous, non-conscious factors, even before we are aware of making a decision.

On the other hand, people in general, including children and the blind, think that their essence is a disembodied point of existence behind their eyes and between their ears. This starts in early childhood at about the time (age 4) that we start to believe that other people have mental points of view, too. And even long years after we have first started being taught about the brain (age 9), we believe that the brain is a sort of mental multi-tool, there just to help out the real, feeling self which is, metaphorically if not in fact, located in the heart.[What do you think you are?] We say that if you want to make the right decision, you make it with your heart. But regardless, your decisions are your own, in the sense of both your responsibility for them, and in the sense of your conscious self being their primal cause. Bottom line is: folks are native Cartesian dualists but they get that the brain is useful in some vague way.

These days the scientific approach is where we find new understanding of identity. Let’s start breaking the science part down by addressing the “brain has lot to do” thing.

In 1985 the AI scientist Marvin Minsky wrote a book, The Society of Mind, which said that there was no big mystery in what a mind does, because it emerged from a host of simpler parts that he called agents. Each agent accomplished a particular task, but in a simple, mindless way. A mind was the “society” of these agents. Mental activity emerged from their interactions just like life emerges from myriad chemical interactions and structures that are, by themselves, not alive. Thus Minsky proposed a solution to how a mind can emerge from non-mental stuff.

The ancients did not see how a mind could be born out of matter, so they invented the soul. Because a soul was not matter and did not contain any parts, it was not subject to the inevitable decay of matter, and it therefore was eternal. Plato’s formulation of this was so influential that centuries later the Christian church adopted the it as a core belief. The idea has never died, although it is out of favor with virtually all of science and much of philosophy.

Minsky’s formulation was an early example of modern systems-oriented thinking that complexity emerges from the behavior of multiple, quite highly numerous, parts. This is apropos since the brain/mind complex is widely considered to be the most complicated thing of which we know. The Society of Mind was one of the cracks that released a flood of new work on mind and brain that is still with us today.

Just two years before Minsky’s book his philosophical colleague Jerry Fodor, also at MIT, wrote a book, Modularity of Mind. In it Fodor listed nine properties that would be evidence that a function of the mind was “modular”, which meant that, like Minsky’s agents, it was single-purpose and somewhat independent of other modules. The criteria must derive from a computational point of view because seven of them sound like well-known principles of good software design.

Since these two pioneering efforts the explosion of efforts to understand the mind has put a lot of emphasis on identifying its functional parts. Within that work there is intense debate about: How many parts? What are they? How big are they? How connected or independent are they?

On one end is “massive modularity” with lots of special purpose, quite autonomous parts that are presumed to be evolutionary adaptations. An example would be that very new infants have an inbuilt compulsion to look at patterns that resemble a human face. The modularity criteria here are (as in most evolutionary psychology examples) restriction of a function to specific inputs and rigid timing of occurrence in development.

On the other end of a rather fuzzy spectrum might be cognitivists, who emphasize much fewer, higher level mechanisms such as attention, learning, and memory. These lead to creation of conceptual knowledge and the mental construction of beliefs and cognitive biases to guide actions.

There are many and nuanced positions in between these two, but there appears to be a general belief in something like partial functional independence of many parts of the mind, based a variety of observations and experiments. For example, some illusions continue to happen even after the illusion has been explained to someone. So the perceiving part is independent of the understanding part, thus fitting Fodor’s criterion that a module is not guided by information at higher levels.

Other evidence relates to Fodor’s criterion of localization of modules to dedicated neural architecture. We have all heard the stories of bizarre effects from damage to the brain, even though these are rare and sometimes, but not always, one of a kind. Nearly every day there is a new story of some psychological concept being verified by a consistent pattern in the imaging of neural activity. Even though the concept of functional localization still has its critics, clearly we can no longer think of the brain as just one big tangled, plastic mess.

Psychologists have discovered many cognitive biases that actually reduce the accuracy with which we understand the world. For example, we are unduly influenced to value more those things that we already have. We can be “primed” to make a certain choice, judgment or perception just by prior passive exposure to emotion-laden stimuli. These and many other biases fit Fodor’s criteria that (a) a module is “mandatory”, i.e., operates automatically, and (b) is independent of other processes, in this case reasoning and even reference to previous experiences and beliefs.

In this time of high growth in the sciences of the mind, there are few things that most researchers would agree on. However, if you pick up any popular book about the mind, they nearly all will describe it in ways that mean: there are many interacting parts, most of which function without our needing to think about them, and often without us knowing about them. Given that, we have to ask, what can make such a thing the essence of a person? What holds all those parts together?