Selves, Subjects, and Reductionism

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.

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13 Responses to Selves, Subjects, and Reductionism

  1. I appreciate that your have fairly represented my views. Citing two well known dualists – Maritain and Jaspers – against me is like citing Glen Beck as a reason not to vote for Barack Obama’s jobs package, however.

    One point: no, I did not argue for my view that there is no unitary and ontologically distinct self. That was my starting point for the rant (inspired by some feelings of back pain and subsequent analgesics), not the conclusion for it. But I wanted to get a debate going, and it seems I did. However, I have argued for this before, and many others have done so for a long time.

    When I studied the pre-Hellenic Hebrews, in particular the eighth century prophets, I was shocked to discover that they were largely physicalists; no immaterial souls for them. Just recently I read Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae and he, too, while he has an immaterial soul, experience and consciousness (mind) is about “deliberation” and memory rather than experiences.

    It seems to me that one could be a Christian physicalist about everything except God. Of course, that does not sit well in the Augustinian and Athanasian tradition.

    • Michael S. Pearl says:

      John, first of all, I hope your back problem is a muscle matter rather than a disk. Secondly, even Glen Beck might be accidentally correct about something! And I suspect that when Maritain and Jaspers are right it is less a matter of accident than it is with Beck.

      In any event, the Maritain and Jaspers passages were not so much cited against you as they were used to indicate some points which the dialectically charitable physicalist would want to keep in mind when engaging with those who doubt the adequacy of (especially the most reductive forms of) physicalism. Indeed, with charity it would not matter in the least whether Maritain and Jaspers self-described as dualists. In our context here, Jaspers is likely better considered in terms of a concern with whether strict physicalist modes of expression could ever adequately serve the human condition or human being. Similarly, Maritain’s way of discriminating philosophy and religion, wherein philosophy regards “the relation of intelligence to object” and religion is concerned with “the relation of subject to subject”, also very strongly suggests that ontology would not have to be the primary focus or even the keystone to understanding.

      Perspectivalness so thoroughly affects human subjectivity that it is very highly likely that were any human person to attain a significant (even if asymptotic) objectivity, there would still remain a significant semantic component. This, then, recommends remaining always cognizant of the semantic aspects of all thought.

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  3. Nancy says:

    YOu can state that I am my brain cells and you can state that the self is ‘just’ a way of talking. But there’s no proof for that, except the almost circular argument that I am my brain cells because the study of brain cells tells me so.

    • Michael S. Pearl says:

      If your self is (reducible to) just your brain cells or to any other thing(s), then your self would, in fact, just be a way of talking about your brain cells (or to whatever else your self were reduced). Is there “proof for that” reducibility? Well, no. And I doubt that John thinks there is such a proof.

      Believing (or – if one prefers – assuming), as I do, that there is something important about the self which is not contained in reductionist/eliminativist statements regarding this self, the next question with regards to this alleged importance is whether the self has to be an object in order for the self to be important. In other words, is it that only objects can be important?

      I once asked John, “To what does love reduce within physicalism?” He never did reply – maybe because he did not notice the question, or maybe because he had a good enough sense of what I meant by love to realize that a proper response in support of physicalism which was not question-begging would have to be far more extensive than what is usually contained in a blog comment or even a single blog posting. In any event, if love is important, is it an object? Not so far as I can tell. Accordingly, it is not clear to me why the self has to be an object which exists mind-independently.

      • Nancy says:

        If someone is reducible to something else, that doesn’t mean the reduction is in fact the truth about something. I can reduce music to decibels, but music isn’t decibels. I can reduces people to their muscle activity or brain activity, that doesn’t mean I found what human beings ‘actually’ are.

      • Michael S. Pearl says:

        You are saying that a reduction which is not lossless eliminates that which was reduced, and you are saying that a lossy reduction is inherently flawed as a description or explanation. Fine. To what point(s) is your statement a response?

      • Nancy says:

        Reduction doesn’t necessarily mean; finding the essence. In many cases reduction is; narrowing down on a certain aspect. Ockham’s knife might work wonders in some cases, but not necessarily when human beings in their totally are concerned. That’s why I find the music-analogy fruitful: the essence of music (in its totality) doesn’t lie on the most ‘elementary’ level of decibels, noise, sound. The essence of human beings (in their totality) doesn’t necessarily lie on cellular level either.

      • Michael S. Pearl says:

        What incompatibility do you see between your position and mine?

  4. Nancy says:

    There’s no music, there’s only soundwaves and a way to anchor sound… That would be the same (fallacious) argument.

    • Michael S. Pearl says:

      Music might well be analogous to love as discussed in response to your previous comment. In his Preface to Music and the Ineffable, Vladimir Jankelevitch says:

      [M]usic is at once expressive and inexpressive, serious and frivolous, deep and superficial … has a meaning and does not have a meaning. Is music mere divertissement, without import? Or is it an enciphered language … Or perhaps both, together? But this essential equivocation has a moral aspect as well: there is a puzzling contrast, an ironic, scandalous disproportion between the incantatory power of music, and the fundamental inevidence of musical beauty.

      In Sound and Symbol (Princeton/Bollingen, 1973), Victor Zuckerkandl notes:

      If the tune-deaf person is incapable of distinguishing between sense and nonsense in tones, it is because he hears only differences in pitch, not dynamic differences. It is, then, the dynamic quality that permits tones to become conveyors of meaning … Science has described in detail what we hear when we hear a tone … Everything we hear in the tone is, so to speak, prefigured in the physical process, in the length, breadth, shape of the sound wave. If something changes in the tone heard, something must have changed in the physical process. … What we have just described is tone as everyone hears it … as every apparatus registers it: the single tone removed from any musical context, tone as an acoustical phenomenon. It is not tone as a musical phenomenon. … Nothing in the physical event corresponds to the tone as a musical event. … The dynamic event leaves no trace in the physical process. When we hear a melody, we hear things that have no counterpart in physical nature. … If one wished, one could call the dynamic quality of tones a hallucination for the very reason that no material process can be co-ordinated with it; but all that this would accomplish would be to leave us faced with the additional difficulty of comprehending the nature and effect of music …(pp. 21-24)

      Is music a mind-independent object or thing? Does whatever importance there might ever be with regards to music depend upon music being an objective thing? This brings us back to whether the self has to be an object which exists mind-independently. Is whatever importance there is with regards to the self primarily dependent upon the ability to establish or regard the self as a mind-independent object? Or, is it possibly enough to regard the self as a merely semantic object (regardless of what the self is) in order to take up the issue of importance?

  5. Nancy says:

    Yes, we might agree, I was arguing against the reductionist view point, which has the presupposition that reduction means coming to a core truth. (I apologize for my english, it isn’t that good and you formulated it much better already.)
    Science will reduce everything to an object, not because everything is an object, but because science needs something to be a kind of object in order to examine it. The problem lies within science, but science does not want to look at its own limits and would rather say people are exactly what they make of them. Through the ages human beings have been reduced to many things or phenomenons. As Borges wrote (I’ll translate it myself); ‘Through the Muses we have to hear what Jews and Milton called the mind (l’esprit) and what our sad mythology nowadays calls the subconscious’. If he were alive today Borges could have written: and what our sad mythology nowadays calls the brain… If we agree on that, fine. – But what do we do with the philosophical antropological riddle; what is man? if we don’t reduce man to one of his aspects?

    • Michael S. Pearl says:

      Science will reduce everything to an object, not because everything is an object, but because science needs something to be a kind of object in order to examine it.

      Is it science which does this, or is it instead more accurate simply to note that humans operate extensively in terms of concepts which predominately refer to objects?

      The problem lies within science, but science does not want to look at its own limits and would rather say people are exactly what they make of them.

      If it is the case that humans most often conceptualize in terms of objects, and if it is the case that object-orientation predominates within science, then science simply typifies a bias that is common to human thinking. Scientific investigations constricted to what is here being referred to as object-oriented thought can often proceed well enough, and that is because the intentionally limited scope of most scientific activity requires – and seeks – a significantly limited coherence. I suspect that what you are calling the problem rests more with scientistic philosophizing than with science itself.

      But what do we do with the philosophical antropological riddle; what is man? if we don’t reduce man to one of his aspects?

      Arguably, a thorough, consistent reductionism avoids the issue of whether – but more likely denies that – anything is important. One alternative approach is to consider something like Emmanuel Levinas’ notion of otherwise than being, an approach which is most definitely a challenge to scientistic thinking. See in particular Section 5 of Graham Harman and the Levinas Challenge. That matter will be further investigated and expanded upon in an upcoming blog essay.

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