In a recent blog entry, John Wilkins denounces the notion of an existent self saying, “Humans have an insistent need for illusions. … The most interesting illusion to me is that we have selves. It is quite obvious to me that selves are dynamic, fractured, transitory things that occur largely in a single head, which is why we think they are unitary.”
Responding to one commenter’s question about whether the “me” which Wilkins uses has a referent, a referent which might well be the very sort of self which Wilkins seemingly denies, Wilkins explains, “I often rail against what I call the Reification Fallacy: the notion that if we use a word as a noun there has to be a thing the word denotes. ‘Me’ is a social, legal and semantic concept … I, me, we and the other self-referent terms … are just a way to anchor talk. It does not follow that there actually are unitary selves.”
Is Wilkins’ position simply “that selves are dynamic, fractured, [and] transitory” rather than “unitary”? Since “dynamic, fractured, transitory” selves are “obvious”, is it only the “unitary selves” which are illusions?
The state of being dynamic or transitory is not necessarily incompatible with being unitary. Indeed, the very notion of dynamic suggests a coherence – a unitariness - despite changes, and transitoriness does not assuredly preclude unitariness, either by itself or in conjunction with dynamism. This, then, leaves the term fractured as the only descriptor which Wilkins offers that might eliminate the possibility that selves are unitary.
The problem is that fractured is the most loaded of these three descriptors; it can either be intended simply as another way of denying (instead of arguing against) unitariness, or it can be used (in this case by opponents of Wilkins) to indicate an original (even if no longer existent) unitariness. Wilkins could then substitute some other term. He might, for example, replace fractured with disjointed, but it is very highly unlikely that any such substituted term would itself be anything other than a shorthand representation for a more involved argument.
Does Wilkins provide any indication of just what might be such an argument?
Wilkins seems to view favorably the notion that “there is no single you … instead there are a bunch of interconnected, arguing neural networks”, but that notion in no way precludes the unitariness which Wilkins denies. As a matter of semantic fact, that notion actually endorses unitariness (via “bunch” and “interconnected”).
Of course, Wilkins accepts “’Me’ [as] a … semantic concept … just a way to anchor talk”, and it is reasonable to expect that he would be perfectly at ease acknowledging self as a semantic concept. Wilkins would likely also accept the idea of a semantically unitary self, in which case remarks about selves being illusions or fictions are, at best, merely provocative semantics.
But what is the point of such provocative semantics? Is it supposed to effect consideration into the possibility that the self is not irreducible? After all, Wilkins says that it is the notion of experience as (or in terms of ) “an irreducible something or process … that I am disputing.” The question which then immediately rises to the fore is: What does it mean for anything to be irreducible? And, close upon that is this question: Is there anything which is irreducible?
That which were irreducible could be called simple, yet it is exceedingly unlikely that anyone who thinks or speaks in terms of selves regards a self as simple. Wilkins does not object to describing a semantic self in terms of neural networks, but neural networks are not irreducible. For that matter, neurons are not irreducible.
So, what is it that Wilkins thinks distinguishes a reducible neural network (and neurons) from a reducible self?
Well, he does say that “we should not accept things exist that have no definite and expressible nature and which are not investigable.” It is very difficult to imagine how a self is not investigable. On the other hand, it does seem more correct to describe a self as indefinite rather than as definite at least inasmuch as the self is dynamic and since the self is (seems) largely or often unpredictable. Still, these characteristics of the self hardly seem to justify the claim that selves do not exist.
Be that as it may, the really interesting point regards the notion that accepting the existence of a thing somehow depends on there being something expressible about that thing. As a practical or instrumental matter, this is certainly the case. However, as stated, the necessary expressible condition tends towards the most radical conceivable subjectivism, and that certainly is not what Wilkins intends. Rather, it is only the “objective feature[s] of the world” which he seems to mean to have accepted as existing.
Now, the semantics for the term objective is no simple matter. As an antonym of subjective, the term objective is commonly used to indicate mind-independence. In this way an objective feature would be one which exists regardless of whether or not – and regardless of in what way – any mind conceived of or was aware of that feature. In like manner, the term object at its most basic (in this type of discussion) is supposed to indicate something that exists regardless of whether any mind is in any way sensitive to or aware of that object.
A subject, on the other hand, is not just that which is sensitive to any object. A nerve, for example, can be sensitive, reactive, and, yet, it is not a subject. This is why a subject is most commonly equated to a mind. Is a self necessarily something other than a subject? For that matter, is a subject something other than a mind?
If there is no difference between self, subject, and mind, then consistency would demand of Wilkins that if he denies that the self exists outside of semantics, then he also needs deny that subjects and minds exist.
Some strict reductive physicalists will be inclined to deny that minds exist. They will claim that minds reduce to brains. But, brains are also reducible as are the components of brains, and, yet, at some event in the reductive process, awareness is lost.
Wilkins says that “’consciousness’ [is] a word that has, so far as I can tell, no actual meaning whatsoever, and should be abandoned”, and some physicalists may be willing to call for the abandonment of the use of the term awareness for the sake of reductionistic explications in terms of simple physical objects.
The result will be an assured and unremitting unintelligibility (an unintelligibility which might be at least mitigated with a non-reductive version of physicalism).
Wilkins resorts to an apparent attempt at giving some degree of primacy to the matter of what exists. Philosophy of – or in terms of - existence has come to be often referred to as existentialism. There are, of course, varieties of existentialisms, and it is worth noting what Jacques Maritain had to say about this matter:
there are two fundamentally different ways of interpreting the word existentialism. One way is to affirm the primacy of existence … as manifesting the supreme victory of the intellect and of intelligibility. This is what I consider to be authentic existentialism. The other way is to affirm the primacy of existence, but … as manifesting the supreme defeat of the intellect and of intelligibility. This is what I consider to be apocryphal existentialism, the current kind which ‘no longer signifies anything at all.’ [Existence and the Existent, p. 13]
Eliminativist physicalists (or, possibly more precisely, denialist physicalists), some of them at any rate, may shrug off Maritain’s remarks or assert that it is science alone which provides for the “victory of the intellect” while also claiming that it is their physicalism alone that follows from science. Such physicalists are woefully unreflective about science, and that woeful condition was well captured by Karl Jaspers when he said:
materialism and a naturalistic realism have always been with us; similarly, man’s disposition to believe in the absurd is as unchanged as ever … It is only the contents of this faith in the absurd that are partly new: for example, belief in the advent of a definitive happiness for all in a classless society magically brought to birth through violence. … The absurd faiths of the modern era, ranging from astrology to theosophy, and from National Socialism to Bolshevism, suggest that superstition has no less power over the human mind today than it had formerly. … Absurd modern faiths may very well make occasional use of scientific results, without grasping their origin or meaning.
… This science, however, whose name is invoked by everyone, is known to surprisingly few: indeed, there are many scholars … who are unfamiliar with its principles. A crucial feature of modern science is that it does not provide a total world-view, because it recognizes that this is impossible. … science [at least ideally] is always aware of its limitations, understands the particularities of its insights, and knows that it nowhere explores Being, but only objects in the world. … Down to the present, this science has been accessible to the masses only in the form of final results referring to the totality of things, a form that absolutizes and distorts the actual results of science, giving rise to spuriously scientific total views. These reflect modern scientific superstition rather than real knowledge or insight into the meaning, content, and boundaries of science. [Myth & Christianity: An Inquiry into the Possibility of Religion Without Myth, pp. 23-24]
Is a physicalism of the gaps any more justified than a so-called God of the gaps? No.