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Counterintuitive or Counterlinguistic?

December 2nd, 2009 · 19 Comments

Will Wilson at Postmodern Conservative suggests that I must have an extraordinarily strong commitment to reductionism if I’m prepared to bite the bullet and accept the “no further fact” thesis about personal identity, which runs “contrary what every fiber of my being tells me.” Apparently my fibers sing a different tune, since I can’t say I experienced my acceptance of that view as some hard fought battle to overcome a hardwired conviction about the nature of the mind. It felt much more like watching an apparently intractable dispute or puzzle dissolve in the realization that it was a bit of semantic confusion all along: You meant river banks, while I was talking about savings banks—don’t we feel silly!  The premise of Will’s post is that this must represent some kind of resolute insistence on a physicalist theory in the face of the powerful evidence of introspection.  But the “no further fact” view has often been advanced as one that follows, not from some model of how physical reality must work, but from close introspection.  Probably the most famous case in the Western tradition is the Treatise of Human Nature, where it’s not so much the force of relentless logic as close attention to the workings of his own mind that leads Hume to question the idea of some fixed and persistent self:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I call reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.

I had actually forgotten this part, but scanning now, I see that he too stresses that this is a case where language is the true source of the puzzle, and that quandaries about personal identity “are to be regarded rather as gramatical than as philosophical difficulties.” Moving outside the Western tradition, of course, the “no further fact” view dovetails nicely with Buddhism, which is almost entirely an introspective research program. The illusion of the persistent and unitary self, that tradition teaches, dissolves not in the acid of theory but the light of committed inward contemplation.

So why does the idea seem so (ahem) self-evidently true to so many people? I think this is one of many cases where it’s hard to disentangle our raw intuitions about the internal reality we directly apprehend from the mental habits overlaid by language.  Not any quirks of English, of course, but rather the perfectly natural way we talk about a world where strange split-brain disorders are extraordinarily rare, and Star Trek teleporters nowhere to be found.   There is every practical reason to speak of “the person” as a unique and perduring entity who remains the same over the course of a life, just as there is every reason to individuate objects instead of talking about clusters of molecules or parts. We also, quite naturally, have a hardwired concern with the survival of our brains and bodies—having evolved under circumstances where that was, after all, the only way genes were going to get to the next generation.  So it makes sense that we’d end up treating the verbal convention as though it represented a deeper fact of the first importance. In every context we actually deal with, to be told it is an “open question” or a matter of “grammar” whether or not we will survive a particular experience just sounds absurd—like someone trying to pull a fast one—because, of course, it isn’t like that in real world situations: The survival of brain, body, and all the mental traits we’re centrally concerned with go together. Even when it comes to external objects, when we think it’s important whether “the same thing” continues to exist, we have a sense of how weird it is to encounter a different set of conventions, though usually we ultimately recognize that it is a matter of convention. Consider this passage from Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See:

I remembered once, in Japan, having been to see the Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto and being mildly surprised at quite how well it had weathered the passage of time since it was first built in the fourteenth century. I was told it hadn’t weathered well at all, and had in fact been burnt to the ground twice in this century. “So it isn’t the original building?” I had asked my Japanese guide.
“But yes, of course it is,” he insisted, rather surprised at my question.
“But it’s burnt down?”
“Many times.”
“And rebuilt.”
“Of course. It is an important and historic building.”
“With completely new materials.”
“But of course. It was burnt down.”
“So how can it be the same building?”
“It is always the same building.”
I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise. The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.

Little wonder we’re still more attached to the ordinary conventions for ascribing personal identity. But when people talk about the strong intuitions they have about the nature of the self, I think they’re often really talking about an attachment to a linguistic and social convention rather than an unmediated apprehension of what it’s like to be one’s self.

Tags: General Philosophy



19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mark // Dec 3, 2009 at 2:27 am

    You might be interested to know that some of the great European cathedrals get exactly the same treatment as a Japanese temple. For one famous example see the Grossmunster in Strasbourg.

    Others are left to very slowly erode. It all depends on which philosophical view is dominant in the area.

    There’s a constant tension between the people who see a living building and don’t care about the particular stones and people who require that all of the stones be original.

  • 2 Jacob Wintersmith // Dec 3, 2009 at 3:09 am

    I have a rather different line of objection to Wilson’s piece. Basically, I grumble that we lack epistemic access to the being me property he thinks is fundamental, and compare him to a scientist proposing an empirically vacuous theory.

  • 3 x. trapnel // Dec 3, 2009 at 3:28 am

    I think this is entirely right, but I’m not sure how much work is done by *linguistic* habits as opposed to, say, our habits of praising/blaming, our not-unrelated religious beliefs, and the like.

  • 4 The Other Anderson // Dec 3, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    “We have not got rid of God because we still believe in grammar.” Substitute “our ‘selves'” for “God” in Nietzsche’s aphorism, and there you are. Or aren’t.

    Basically, I grumble that we lack epistemic access to the being me property he thinks is fundamental, and compare him to a scientist proposing an empirically vacuous theory.

    Perhaps Wilson is waiting for the “Me boson” to be confirmed by cutting-edge philosophical research.

  • 5 silentbeep // Dec 3, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    As a student of Buddhist philsophy and psychology I have to think this: Hume was very late to this “no-self” game. And so was Douglas Adams. I know we are talking about the “western” tradition here but still -sorry, it’s old news to me.

  • 6 Mahavira // Dec 3, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    I think one could say the same thing about the Buddhist religion itself, namely that before the 20th century, when white westerners began accepting the Buddhist philosophy with the attendant new age corruptions, Buddhism was just one of those peculiar exotic, oriental religions; but the acceptance of it by white westerners somehow brought some legitimation and rational respect to the philosophy. So once the white folks have accepted Buddhism, then its worthy of study. Its all craziness and primitive searches of those peaceful asian people until the white seal of approval is given.

  • 7 Steve M. // Dec 4, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    Isn’t there some recent thinking to the effect that Hume developed some of his views about the non-existence of the persistent ego after having met some French monks who’d been exposed to Buddhist texts?

  • 8 sam // Dec 5, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    On Buddhism and these kinds of questions. Years ago I was reading book of Buddhist texts and came across a story of the Buddha trying to instruct someone. In the story he was attempting that to explain that “we” are not something that has such and such mental states, we are just those mental states (among other things). The example he used was this: “Suppose,” he said, “you were to ask me what was the Ganges. And I said, ‘Well, there’s the water, the banks, the rocks. That’s the Ganges. And you replied, ‘I see the water and the banks and the rocks, but where is the Ganges?’ Do you not see your mistake?”

    I’ve no idea if Ryle ever read that — I suspect he hadn’t.

  • 9 I, Me, Mine, I Me, Mine, I Me, Mine « Around The Sphere // Dec 5, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    […] #2: Julian Sanchez Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Homophobe Belfast MP has great web footprint: a […]

  • 10 D.A. Ridgely // Dec 5, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    silentbeep writes (or would if there were any such entity as silentbeep to do so):

    “I know we are talking about the ‘western’ tradition here but still -sorry, it’s old news to me.”

    I’m fairly sure the very possibility of old news in some sense entails a perduring self for whom it is old.

  • 11 silentbeep // Dec 6, 2009 at 3:36 am

    “I’m fairly sure the very possibility of old news in some sense entails a perduring self for whom it is old.”

    Nope. A self that is “perduring” doesn’t have to exist. If perduring you mean an everlasting, neverchanging self that is essential in some way. If we are talking in a Buddhist sense, on a relative level, there is a me and a you. In the ultimate sense, there isn’t an essential “silentbeepness” that stands apart from all the elements that make up “me.”

  • 12 Keith // Dec 6, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Perhaps Theseus’ ship as imagined by Hobbes may be the source for the Western tradition?

  • 13 Hume, Douglas Adams, and “the self” « The Word Warrior // Dec 6, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    […] Adams, and “the self” Posted on December 6, 2009 by Bento Julian Sanchez puzzles over the resilience of ego-theory: [W]hy does the idea seem so (ahem) self-evidently true to so […]

  • 14 Robin Hanson // Dec 6, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    You make sense to me.

  • 15 Julian Sanchez // Dec 6, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Well, very possibly some of the presocratics had the same notion—it seems like the kind of thing Heraclitus or Zeno might have hit upon, but we only have some very tiny fragments of what they thought.

  • 16 Consumatopia // Dec 6, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    I’m totally confused by this whole argument. The only way I would ever even consider cryogenics/uploading would be if I rejected the Parfit/Buddhist/reductionist point of view. If there’s no further fact about personal identity, why would I bother paying out hard money for brain freezing procedures? It would be the most ludicrous act of vanity I could ever conceive–I would have to believe that I was so special and unique that the future would be improved by my taking up space and resources for thousands of years.

    What really ought to give Hanson and his sympathizers pause is that “defining yourself” as the human race or life in general, as Caplan suggested, is pretty much where both Parfit and the Buddhists ended up, is it not?

  • 17 sam // Dec 6, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    Another Buddhist influence on Western thought may be, I think, to be found in Leibniz’s Monadology. Leibniz was familiar with the Jesuit letters from China on Chinese Buddhist philosophy, especially the Hua Yen School. If you know the Monadology, look up “Indra’s Net” (the Wiki page is informative.)

  • 18 m65 // Feb 16, 2010 at 6:48 am

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  • 19 Luke // Feb 28, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    Consumatopia, I don’t get your concern. Attributes of self such as memories, personality, social relationships, ideals, values, preferences, etc. are all completely compatible with reductionism/patternism. It is only the mysterious and undefinable parts which allegedly can’t be copied from one substrate to another (e.g. an identical organic brain) that is being debated here.

    Nonetheless it’s true that plenty of cryonicists are against uploading. Molecular and biological repair scenarios are quite plausible, so there’s no reason for an argument against uploading to be considered any kind of argument against cryonics. In fact it’s more than a little odd that a person would protest that their personal survival is too valuable to them to consider signing up for cryonics.

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