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On Parfit’s Repugnant Conclusion

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Back in 1984, Derek Parfit’s work on population ethics led him to formulate a possible consequence of total utilitarianism, namely, what was deemed as the Repugnant Conclusion (RC).  For those unfamiliar with the term, Parfit described it accordingly:

For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.

To better explain this conclusion, let’s consider a few different populations, A, A+, and B, where the width of the bar represents the relative population and the height represents the average “well-being rating” of the people in that sub-population:

Figure 2

Image taken from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/repugnant-conclusion/fig2.png

In population A, let’s say we have 10 billion people with a “well-being rating” of +10 (on a scale of -10 to +10, with negative values indicating a life not worth living).  Now in population A+, let’s say we have all the people in population A with the mere addition of 10 billion people with a “well-being rating” of +8.  According to the argument as Parfit presents it, it seems reasonable to hold that population A+ is better than population A, or at the very least, not worse than population A.  This is believed to be the case because the only difference between the two populations is the mere addition of more people with lives worth living (even if their well-being isn’t as good as those represented by the “A” population, so it is believed that adding additional lives worth living cannot make an outcome worse when all else is equal.

Next, consider population B where it has the same number of people as population A+, but every person has a “well-being rating” that is slightly higher than the average “well-being rating” in population A+, and that is slightly lower than that of population A.  Now if one accepts that population A+ is better than A (or at least not worse) and if one accepts that population B is better than population A+ (since it has an average well being that is higher) then one has to accept the conclusion that population B is better than population A (by transitive logic;  A <= A+ <B, therefore, A<B).  If this is true then we can take this further and show that a population that is sufficiently large enough would still be better than population A, even if the “well-being rating” of each person was only +1.  This is the RC as presented by Parfit, and he along with most philosophers found it to be unacceptable.  So he worked diligently on trying to solve it, but hadn’t succeeded in the way he hoped for.  This has since become one of the biggest problems in ethics, particularly in the branch of population ethics.

Some of the strategies that have been put forward to resolve the RC include adopting an average principle, a variable value principle, or some kind of critical level principle.  However all of these supposed resolutions are either wrought with their own problems (if accepted) or they are highly unsatisfactory, unconvincing, or very counter-intuitive.  A brief overview of the argument and the supposed solutions and their associated problems can be found here.

I’d like to respond to the RC argument as well because I think that there are at least a few problems with the premises right off the bat.  The foundation for my rebuttal relies on an egoistic moral realist ethics, based on a goal theory of morality (a subset of desire utilitarianism), which can be summarized as follows:

If one wants X above all else, then one ought to Y above all else.  Since it can be shown that ultimately what one wants above all else is satisfaction and fulfillment with one’s life (or what Aristotle referred to as eudaimonia) then one ought to do above all else all possible actions that will best achieve that goal.  The actions required to best accomplish this satisfaction can be determined empirically (based on psychology, neuroscience, sociology, etc.), and therefore we theoretically have epistemic access to a number of moral facts.  These moral facts are what we ought to do above all else in any given situation given all the facts available to us and via a rational assessment of said facts.

So if one is trying to choose whether one population is better or worse than another, I think that assessment should be based on the same egoistic moral framework which accounts for all known consequences resulting from particular actions and which implements “altruistic” behaviors precipitated by cultivating virtues that benefit everyone including ourselves (such as compassion, integrity, and reasonableness).  So in the case of evaluating the comparison between population A and that of A+ as presented by Parfit, which is better?  Well if one applies the veil of ignorance as propagated by the social contract theories of philosophers such as Kant, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, whereby we would hypothetically choose between worlds, not knowing which subpopulation we would end up in, which world ought we to prefer?  It would stand to reason that population A is certainly better than that of A+ (and better than population B) because one has the highest probability of having a higher level of well-being in that population/society (for any person chosen at random).  This reasoning would then render the RC as false, as it only followed from fallacious reasoning (i.e. it is fallacious to assume that adding more people with lives worth living is all that matters in the assessment).

Another fundamental flaw that I see in the premises is the assumption that population A+ contains the same population of high well-being individuals as in A with the mere addition of people with a somewhat lower level of well-being.  If the higher well-being subpopulation of A+ has knowledge of the existence of other people in that society with a lower well-being, wouldn’t that likely lead to a decrease in their well-being (compared to those in the A population that had no such concern)?  It would seem that the only way around this is if the higher well-being people were ignorant of those other members of society or if there were other factors that were not equal between the two high-well-being subpopulations in A and A+ to somehow compensate for that concern, in which case the mere addition assumption is false since the hypothetical scenario would involve a number of differences between the two higher well-being populations.  If the higher well-being subpopulation in A+ is indeed ignorant of the existence of the lower well-being subpopulation in A+, then they are not able to properly assess the state of the world which would certainly factor into their overall level of well-being.

In order to properly assess this and to behave morally at all, one needs to use as many facts as are practical to obtain and operate according to those facts as rationally as possible.  It would seem plausible that the better-off subpopulation of A+ would have at least some knowledge of the fact that there exist people with less well-being than themselves and this ought to decrease their happiness and overall well-being when all else is truly equal when compared to A.  But even if the subpopulation can’t know this for some reason (i.e. if the subpopulations are completely isolated from one another), we do have this knowledge and thus must take account of it in our assessment of which population is better than the other.  So it seems that the comparison of population A to A+ as stated in the argument is an erroneous one based on fallacious assumptions that don’t account for these factors pertaining to the well-being of informed people.

Now I should say that if we had knowledge pertaining to the future of both societies we could wind up reversing our preference if, for example, it turned out that population A had a future that was likely going to turn out worse than the future of population A+ (where the most probable “well-being rating” decreased comparatively).  If this was the case, then being armed with that probabilistic knowledge of the future (based on a Bayesian analysis of likely future outcomes) could force us to switch preferences.  Ultimately, the way to determine which world we ought to prefer is to obtain the relevant facts about which outcome would make us most satisfied overall (in the eudaimonia sense), even if this requires further scientific investigation regarding human psychology to determine the optimized trade-off between present and future well-being.

As for comparing two populations that have the same probability for high well-being, yet with different populations (say “A” and “double A”), I would argue once again that one should assess those populations based on what the most likely future is for each population based on the facts available to us.  If the larger population is more likely to be unsustainable, for example, then it stands to reason that the smaller population is what one ought to strive for (and thus prefer) over the larger one.  However, if sustainability is not likely to be an issue based on the contingent facts of the societies being evaluated, then I think one ought to choose the society that has the best chances of bettering the planet as a whole through maximized stewardship over time.  That is to say, if more people can more easily accomplish goals of making the world a better place, then the larger population would be what one ought to strive for since it would secure more well-being in the future for any and all conscious creatures (including ourselves).  One would have to evaluate the societies they are comparing to one another for these types of factors and then make the decision accordingly.  In the end, it would maximize the eudaimonia for any individual chosen at random both in that present society and in the future.

But what if we are instead comparing two populations that both have “well-being ratings” that are negative?  For example what if we compare a population S containing only one person that has a well-being rating of -10 (the worst possible suffering imaginable) versus another population T containing one million people that have well-being ratings of -9 (almost the worst possible suffering)?  It sure seems that if we apply the probabilistic principle I applied to the positive well being populations, that would lead to preferring a world with millions of people suffering horribly instead of a world with just one person suffering a bit more.  However, this would only necessarily follow if one applied the probabilistic principle while ignoring the egoistically-based “altruistic” virtues such as compassion and reasonableness, as it pertains to that moral decision.  In order to determine which world one ought to prefer over another, just as in any other moral decision, one must determine what behaviors and choices make us most satisfied as individuals (to best obtain eudaimonia).  If people are generally more satisfied (perhaps universally once fully informed of the facts and reasoning rationally) in preferring to have one person suffer at a -10 level over one million people suffering at a -9 level (even if it was you or I chosen as that single person), then that is the world one ought to prefer over the other.

Once again, our preference could be reversed if we were informed that the most likely futures of these populations had their levels of suffering reversed or changed markedly.  And if the scenario changed to, say, 1 million people at a -10 level versus 2 million people at a -9 level, our preferred outcomes may change as well, even if we don’t yet know what that preference ought to be (i.e. if we’re ignorant of some facts pertaining to our psychology at the present, we may think we know, even though we are incorrect due to irrational thinking or some missing facts).  As always, the decision of which population or world is better depends on how much knowledge we have pertaining to those worlds (to make the most informed decision we can given our present epistemological limitations) and thus our assessment of their present and most likely future states.  So even if we don’t yet know which world we ought to prefer right now (in some subset of the thought experiments we conjure up), science can find these answers (or at least give us the best shot at answering them).

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The illusion of Persistent Identity & the Role of Information in Identity

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After reading and commenting on a post at “A Philosopher’s Take” by James DiGiovanna titled Responsibility, Identity, and Artificial Beings: Persons, Supra-persons and Para-persons, I decided to expand on the topic of personal identity.

Personal Identity Concepts & Criteria

I think when most people talk about personal identity, they are referring to how they see themselves and how they see others in terms of personality and some assortment of (usually prominent) cognitive and behavioral traits.  Basically, they see it as what makes a person unique and in some way distinguishable from another person.  And even this rudimentary concept can be broken down into at least two parts, namely, how we see ourselves (self-ascribed identity) and how others see us (which we could call the inferred identity of someone else), since they are likely going to differ.  While most people tend to think of identity in these ways, when philosophers talk about personal identity, they are usually referring to the unique numerical identity of a person.  Roughly speaking, this amounts to basically whatever conditions or properties that are both necessary and sufficient such that a person at one point in time and a person at another point in time can be considered the same person — with a temporal continuity between those points in time.

Usually the criterion put forward for this personal identity is supposed to be some form of spatiotemporal and/or psychological continuity.  I certainly wouldn’t be the first person to point out that the question of which criterion is correct has already framed the debate with the assumption that a personal (numerical) identity exists in the first place and even if it did exist, it also assumes that the criterion is something that would be determinable in some way.  While it is not unfounded to believe that some properties exist that we could ascribe to all persons (simply because of what we find in common with all persons we’ve interacted with thus far), I think it is far too presumptuous to believe that there is a numerical identity underlying our basic conceptions of personal identity and a determinable criterion for it.  At best, I think if one finds any kind of numerical identity for persons that persist over time, it is not going to be compatible with our intuitions nor is it going to be applicable in any pragmatic way.

As I mention pragmatism, I am sympathetic to Parfit’s views in the sense that regardless of what one finds the criteria for numerical personal identity to be (if it exists), the only thing that really matters to us is psychological continuity anyway.  So despite the fact that Locke’s view — that psychological continuity (via memory) was the criterion for personal identity — was in fact shown to be based on circular and illogical arguments (per Butler, Reid and others), nevertheless I give applause to his basic idea.  Locke seemed to be on the right track, in that psychological continuity (in some sense involving memory and consciousness) is really the essence of what we care about when defining persons, even if it can’t be used as a valid criterion in the way he proposed.

(Non) Persistence & Pragmatic Use of a Personal Identity Concept

I think that the search for, and long debates over, what the best criterion for personal identity is, has illustrated that what people have been trying to label as personal identity should probably be relabeled as some sort of pragmatic pseudo-identity. The pragmatic considerations behind the common and intuitive conceptions of personal identity have no doubt steered the debate pertaining to any possible criteria for helping to define it, and so we can still value those considerations even if a numerical personal identity doesn’t really exist (that is, even if it is nothing more than a pseudo-identity) and even if a diachronic numerical personal identity does exist but isn’t useful in any way.

If the object/subject that we refer to as “I” or “me” is constantly changing with every passing moment of time both physically and psychologically, then I tend to think that the self (that many people ascribe as the “agent” of our personal identity) is an illusion of some sort.  I tend to side more with Hume on this point (or at least James Giles’ fair interpretation of Hume) in that my views seem to be some version of a no-self or eliminativist theory of personal identity.  As Hume pointed out, even though we intuitively ascribe a self and thereby some kind of personal identity, there is no logical reason supported by our subjective experience to think it is anything but a figment of the imagination.  This illusion results from our perceptions flowing from one to the next, with a barrage of changes taking place with this “self” over time that we simply don’t notice taking place — at least not without critical reflection on our past experiences of this ever-changing “self”.  The psychological continuity that Locke described seems to be the main driving force behind this illusory self since there is an overlap in the memories of the succession of persons.

I think one could say that if there is any numerical identity that is associated with the term “I” or “me”, it only exists for a short moment of time in one specific spatio-temporal slice, and then as the next perceivable moment elapses, what used to be “I” will become someone else, even if the new person that comes into being is still referred to as “I” or “me” by a person that possesses roughly the same configuration of matter in its body and brain as the previous person.  Since the neighboring identities have an overlap in accessible memory including autobiographical memories, memories of past experiences generally, and the memories pertaining to the evolving desires that motivate behavior, we shouldn’t expect this succession of persons to be noticed or perceived by the illusory self because each identity has access to a set of memories that is sufficiently similar to the set of memories accessible to the previous or successive identity.  And this sufficient degree of similarity in those identities’ memories allow for a seemingly persistent autobiographical “self” with goals.

As for the pragmatic reasons for considering all of these “I”s and “me”s to be the same person and some singular identity over time, we can see that there is a causal dependency between each member of this “chain of spatio-temporal identities” that I think exists, and so treating that chain of interconnected identities as one being is extremely intuitive and also incredibly useful for accomplishing goals (which is likely the reason why evolution would favor brains that can intuit this concept of a persistent “self” and the near uni-directional behavior that results from it).  There is a continuity of memory and behaviors (even though both change over time, both in terms of the number of memories and their accuracy) and this continuity allows for a process of conditioning to modify behavior in ways that actively rely on those chains of memories of past experiences.  We behave as if we are a single person moving through time and space (and as if we are surrounded by other temporally extended single person’s behaving in similar ways) and this provides a means of assigning ethical and causal responsibility to something or more specifically to some agent.  Quite simply, by having those different identities referenced under one label and physically attached to or instantiated by something localized, that allows for that pragmatic pseudo-identity to persist over time in order for various goals (whether personal or interpersonal/societal) to be accomplished.

“The Persons Problem” and a “Speciation” Analogy

I came up with an analogy that I thought was very fitting to this concept.  One could analogize this succession of identities that get clumped into one bulk pragmatic-pseudo-identity with the evolutionary concept of speciation.  For example, a sequence of identities somehow constitute an intuitively persistent personal identity, just as a sequence of biological generations somehow constitute a particular species due to the high degree of similarity between them all.  The apparent difficulty lies in the fact that, at some point after enough identities have succeeded one another, even the intuitive conception of a personal identity changes markedly to the point of being unrecognizable from its ancestral predecessor, just as enough biological generations transpiring eventually leads to what we call a new species.  It’s difficult to define exactly when that speciation event happens (hence the species problem), and we have a similar problem with personal identity I think.  Where does it begin and end?  If personal identity changes over the course of a lifetime, when does one person become another?  I could think of “me” as the same “me” that existed one year ago, but if I go far enough back in time, say to when I was five years old, it is clear that “I” am a completely different person now when compared to that five year old (different beliefs, goals, worldview, ontology, etc.).  There seems to have been an identity “speciation” event of some sort even though it is hard to define exactly when that was.

Biologists have tried to solve their species problem by coming up with various criteria to help for taxonomical purposes at the very least, but what they’ve wound up with at this point is several different criteria for defining a species that are each effective for different purposes (e.g. biological-species concept, morpho-species concept, phylogenetic-species concept, etc.), and without any single “correct” answer since they are all situationally more or less useful.  Similarly, some philosophers have had a persons problem that they’ve been trying to solve and I gather that it is insoluble for similar “fuzzy boundary” reasons (indeterminate properties, situationally dependent properties, etc.).

The Role of Information in a Personal Identity Concept

Anyway, rather than attempt to solve the numerical personal identity problem, I think that philosophers need to focus more on the importance of the concept of information and how it can be used to try and arrive at a more objective and pragmatic description of the personal identity of some cognitive agent (even if it is not used as a criterion for numerical identity, since information can be copied and the copies can be distinguished from one another numerically).  I think this is especially true once we take some of the concerns that James DiGiovanna brought up concerning the integration of future AI into our society.

If all of the beliefs, behaviors, and causal driving forces in a cognitive agent can be represented in terms of information, then I think we can implement more universal conditioning principles within our ethical and societal framework since they will be based more on the information content of the person’s identity without putting as much importance on numerical identity nor as much importance on our intuitions of persisting people (since they will be challenged by several kinds of foreseeable future AI scenarios).

To illustrate this point, I’ll address one of James DiGiovanna’s conundrums.  James asks us:

To give some quick examples: suppose an AI commits a crime, and then, judging its actions wrong, immediately reforms itself so that it will never commit a crime again. Further, it makes restitution. Would it make sense to punish the AI? What if it had completely rewritten its memory and personality, so that, while there was still a physical continuity, it had no psychological content in common with the prior being? Or suppose an AI commits a crime, and then destroys itself. If a duplicate of its programming was started elsewhere, would it be guilty of the crime? What if twelve duplicates were made? Should they each be punished?

In the first case, if the information constituting the new identity of the AI after reprogramming is such that it no longer needs any kind of conditioning, then it would be senseless to punish the AI — other than to appease humans that may be angry that they couldn’t themselves avoid punishment in this way, due to having a much slower and less effective means of reprogramming themselves.  I would say that the reprogrammed AI is guilty of the crime, but only if its reprogrammed memory still included information pertaining to having performed those past criminal behaviors.  However, if those “criminal memories” are now gone via the reprogramming then I’d say that the AI is not guilty of the crime because the information constituting its identity doesn’t match that of the criminal AI.  It would have no recollection of having committed the crime and so “it” would not have committed the crime since that “it” was lost in the reprogramming process due to the dramatic change in information that took place.

In the latter scenario, if the information constituting the identity of the destroyed AI was re-instantiated elsewhere, then I would say that it is in fact guilty of the crime — though it would not be numerically guilty of the crime but rather qualitatively guilty of the crime (to differentiate between the numerical and qualitative personal identity concepts that are embedded in the concept of guilt).  If twelve duplicates of this information were instantiated into new AI hardware, then likewise all twelve of those cognitive agents would be qualitatively guilty of the crime.  What actions should be taken based on qualitative guilt?  I think it means that the AI should be punished or more specifically that the judicial system should perform the reconditioning required to modify their behavior as if it had committed the crime (especially if the AI believes/remembers that it has committed the crime), for the better of society.  If this can be accomplished through reprogramming, then that would be the most rational thing to do without any need for traditional forms of punishment.

We can analogize this with another thought experiment with human beings.  If we imagine a human that has had its memories changed so that it believes it is Charles Manson, has all of Charles Manson’s memories and intentions, then that person should be treated as if they are Charles Manson and thus incarcerated/punished accordingly to rehabilitate them or protect the other members of society.  This is assuming of course that we had reliable access to that kind of mind-reading knowledge.  If we did, the information constituting the identity of that person would be what is most important — not what the actual previous actions of the person were — because the “previous person” was someone else, due to that gross change in information.

Why I Became a Pro-Choice Advocate

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There have been a number of arguments raised over the years concerning whether or not a woman should have the right to choose to have an abortion or not.  I’d like to briefly discuss the primary arguments that I’ve personally found to be the most compelling.  Personally, I hold the view that a woman should indeed have the right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, and thus I am a pro-choice advocate, though this wasn’t always the case (as a former pro-life/anti-choice atheist, and before that a pro-life/anti-choice Christian).  The primary arguments I’m going to discuss will hopefully illustrate why in fact I hold the pro-choice view that I do, and why I believe it is both rational and reasonable for others to share this view as well.

First, when it comes to determining what individual rights we should or shouldn’t have, we must ask if we want to live in a world where we theoretically begin with no rights at all and then add any desirable rights as needed over time, or where we theoretically begin with every possible right and then remove/restrict rights as desired over time.  It seems obvious to me that the first scenario would be simply absurd and wholly impractical to implement.  Among many other reasons to reject this first scenario, we need only realize that if we began with no rights at all, we wouldn’t even have the right to determine or vote on what rights we should be given at some future point in time.  Furthermore, nobody would have the right to enforce any kind of “no-rights” system put into place.  At the very least, to avoid these absurdities and impracticalities, it is easy to see that the second scenario best describes what any rational person would want.  That is, people want to have as many personal liberties and freedoms as possible with the intention of only excluding certain liberties when they contradict other liberties that are more fundamental.  When it comes to determining which rights should be restricted or excluded in a society (and/or which are most fundamental), people also tend to want to accomplish that decision-making through well-informed democratic processes rather than some particular individual or group making the decision and forcing everyone else to abide by such laws.

Why Have Individual Rights in the First Place?

So what exactly is the primary goal of having and protecting any rights for an individual?  I believe the primary goal that most people (if not all) would agree with is the ultimate intention of creating, maintaining, and living in a society that is conducive to the greatest levels of overall satisfaction and well-being of the lives of every member of that society.  From a libertarian perspective, we could also say that this amounts to a goal of minimizing the magnitude and number of situations in which people are forced into doing something that they don’t want to do.  When we consider the topic of abortion, the primary arguments on either side of the issue tend to pertain to determining and defining which specific individual rights exist (or that arguably should exist) and then we apply these definitions and determinations to the scenario of abortion to see if any rights have in fact been violated.  With regard to this topic, we must also examine the consistency and efficacy of a person’s position on the issue in terms of how well it achieves the aforementioned goal or purpose of having and protecting rights and freedoms in the first place.  It goes without saying that if a person’s position on the issue is such that it’s implementation through any proposed legislation would effectively increase suffering in the world and/or increase the magnitude of people being forced to do things that they don’t want to do, then that person’s position is self-refuting in that it directly contradicts their ultimate reason for wanting to protect individual rights – unless their goal for protecting individual rights substantially differs from the one I’ve stated above, in which case, we would have to evaluate how rational any other stated goal would be in comparison. 

We must also examine the consequences of taking someone’s position on the matter to its logical conclusion, seeing how it would be applied in definitively similar situations, whether or not there would be special exceptions to the rules proposed, and once again whether all of those conceptual elements are consistent with one another.  Ultimately, how we choose to define terms (and their specificity) within this topic of discussion is important for determining the tenability of anybody’s position on the matter.  Let’s take a look at some of the primary arguments that have developed over time while trying to clarify some terminology and definitions along the way.

The Argument for Bodily Autonomy

Perhaps the most primary and fundamental argument in favor of protecting a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy is the argument for bodily autonomy.  In it’s basic form, it simply asserts that an individual has the right to choose who or what uses their body, for what purpose, and for how long.  The most common (and uncontroversial) examples of applying this very basic principle would be preventing a person from being forced to donate blood, tissue, or organs to another person, even if in doing so, it would potentially save that other person’s life.  If anyone abides by this principle and doesn’t believe that a person should be forced to donate blood, tissue, or organs to another person (to use these common examples) then the same principle would also forbid forcing a woman to donate blood, tissue, or organs to an embryo or fetus, even if in doing so, it would potentially save that embryo or fetus’ life.  During pregnancy, starting from conception, the embryo and later fetus indeed use the woman’s uterus, her blood, her tissue (including for the placenta that eventually forms) and even the woman’s food and oxygen resources. This is arguably the most extreme example of one person using another person’s body. If in fact the embryo or fetus’ use of the woman’s body is against the woman’s consent, then a right to bodily autonomy protects that woman’s right to abort that pregnancy, regardless of whether or not that fetus has no chance of surviving as a result.

Some might object and say, what about the embryo or fetus’ rights? Shouldn’t they have the same rights as every other human being? Well, if we treat all human beings equally and give them all the same rights (which is hardly controversial), then this amounts to giving the embryo or fetus the same rights to bodily autonomy as is afforded to the woman. However, the embryo or fetus doesn’t have any other person who is trying to use their body against the consent of that fetus (nor does that fetus have any consent on the matter one way or the other, although this is irrelevant in any case). Thus, one would have to afford the fetus special rights (a right to use another person’s body against their will), and this is a right that isn’t even granted to children that are already born, since a child’s mother isn’t forced to donate an organ, blood, or tissue to that child, even if it can potentially save that child’s life. Thus, arguments against a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy are only tenable if one also denies the right of bodily autonomy. Furthermore, if this right was only denied to a woman with respect to a fetus inside her (and not denied to anyone else), and thus is not consistently applied in all other cases, then we have a special right for fetuses that is being argued for, thus arguing against equal rights for all human beings. The only way to reconcile this and make the individual rights equal for all human beings (while attempting to preserve the life of the fetus) would be to completely abandon the right to bodily autonomy which seems like a position that almost nobody would choose to adopt.

On top of this, if one were to grant these same special rights to a less developed human being residing in a pregnant woman, such as a fertilized egg (the first stage of pregnancy), then women would also lose the right to take certain birth control medications. For example, while common birth control medications such as “the pill”, Norplant, or any other chemical birth control medications primarily function by preventing ovulation and impeding sperm, this isn’t 100% effective and so if the chemicals fail to prevent ovulation or fertilization, then they end up preventing implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterine wall, thus aborting the pregnancy. So it must also be kept in mind that if these special rights were granted to any developing human life residing in a woman’s body (whether a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus), in order to remain consistent with this reasoning, one would also be taking away a woman’s right to use the most common forms of birth control in existence (i.e. chemical/hormonal and IUD methods) since it is well known that they often lead to abortions when they are used.

Defining “Personhood”

Another prominent argument in favor of a woman’s right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, involves the definition of personhood. In the case of the aforementioned argument for bodily autonomy, it was mentioned that the fetus could indeed be granted the same rights as the woman carrying that fetus, and it still wouldn’t deny the woman the right to abort that pregnancy since it is the woman’s right to bodily autonomy that is being violated in that case. However, it is also worth asking on exactly what grounds are people arguing that the fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus should in fact be granted the same rights as the woman carrying it, or any rights at all for that matter? This comes down to defining what exactly we are granting individual rights to. For example, are we granting rights to a fetus because it is human or has human DNA? A skin cell is also human and has human DNA, but we don’t grant rights to skin cells or the like so there is something else more specific under consideration here. It seems that the primary factor here pertains to defining personhood, for it seems undeniable that it is people that should have these shared individual rights. So what exactly is a person or individual and how do we define that concept?

One might argue that a person is simply a human body, but this can’t be correct, because we don’t grant rights to deceased human bodies. We could further clarify the definition of a person to be a human body that isn’t dead, but what about a brain-dead human body? If my mother became brain-dead but remained on life support (with a beating heart and functional organs), and I was given the option to “pull the plug”, if I chose to do so, would I be killing my mother? One way to determine the answer to this question would be to ask another, namely, who or what is my mother exactly? Would my mother be the brain-dead (though otherwise living) human body that lies before me? It may look like my mother, but I would argue that this body isn’t my mother at all, for my mother is a personality, an identity, a collection of memories, or at the very least a conscious and self-aware being that experiences perceptions and emotions.

Who my mother is exactly is ultimately contingent on the configuration and state of her brain, for it is our brain that manifests our personal identities and any particular self. To prove this, one need only consider the fact that if your brain were swapped with that of another person, you would cease to be you even if the rest of your body was kept original and intact. “You” would now have the personality, memories, thoughts, values, interests, likes and dislikes of that other person. On the other hand, you could swap your arms or legs or various other body parts with another person (or simply get them amputated), and you would still be you (so long as your brain was kept intact).

So to return to my hypothetical scenario involving pulling the plug on a brain-dead mother, because my mother is no longer alive in that case, but rather it is only her body that is alive, my pulling the plug would not in fact be an act of killing my mother. In fact, it wouldn’t even be an act of killing “a person”, because as was just illustrated, a person is contingent on a living brain, and more specifically a living brain with a particular configuration and minimal set of features (such that it has conscious experiences at least some of the time). This just goes to show what we value in a person and why we want people to have protected individual rights in the first place. It isn’t because they are living human bodies, but because we know that “people” are conscious, thinking beings and we value this fact and empathize with them and their experiences. We don’t want people to suffer because we know what it feels like to suffer (to varying degrees), and to consider the contra-positive, we also want to maximize the satisfaction and well being of people. So if a particular human being is not able to experience anything at all (that is, there are no perceptions, and thus no consciousness), then what we value in how we define a person is missing in this case, and thus the ultimate purpose for giving that human being rights is no longer applicable, for that human being is unable to suffer, let alone experience anything at all.

Now if we return to the concept of a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus, we can apply the same reasoning and ask the same questions. When exactly does the fetus have the requisite brain structures developed such that it can be conscious and experience anything at all (much like my hypothetical mother was before she was brain-dead)? Well, a fetus doesn’t actually become neurologically active until approximately the fifth month of gestation (an event that the medical community refers to as “quickening”). It is at this point that some of the physical hardware (a complex form of the cerebral cortex) is in place for some future capability of consciousness, however the thalamo-cortical complex is integral for consciousness as well and doesn’t begin to materialize until sometime between the 24th and 28th week of gestation. It isn’t until about two months after that (32nd to 36th week), when a synchronous electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythm starts to signal that there is in fact a global neuronal integration taking place – a process that is a fundamental element of consciousness, working memory, etc.

Thus, before the fifth month of pregnancy (the 20th week), the fetus’ brain hasn’t nearly developed enough of the requisite hardware to be conscious (let alone to be self-aware), and thus it is unable to form an individualized personality, and therefore it is not yet a person based on the definition and reasoning given earlier. It doesn’t yet have this personhood status, the very status that we value and thus the very fundamental status that motivates us to ascribe individual rights to a person in the first place. It should also be noted at this time that the majority of elective abortions on record occur before the fourth month of pregnancy, which is several weeks before the fetus is even capable of being conscious, let alone well before it is even capable of beginning to develop any kind of personality or identity, which are necessary attributes in order to be considered a person as defined above.

Are Pro-Life/Anti-Choice Arguments Tenable?

So there are indeed very strong arguments for protecting a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy including the argument for bodily autonomy and the argument for defining personhood, using reasonable metrics that are based on what we fundamentally value in “people”, and thus why we want people to have protected individual rights in the first place. Arguments against a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy are likely to be ideologically untenable in that they deny a right to bodily autonomy that I think most people aren’t willing to universally (and thus consistently) argue against. These arguments also tend to rely on defining personhood using criteria or attributes that are either arbitrary, not universally applicable or that are unreasonable because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what we actually value in a person. Furthermore, these arguments are also pragmatically untenable since they also deny women the right to use the most common forms of birth control in order to remain consistent with the basic principles that constitute a pro-life/anti-choice position. For these reasons and more, my position on the issue has changed markedly over time, and after careful consideration of the arguments both for and against a woman’s right to choose, I am happy to say that I finally adopted what I found to be the most reasonable, rational, consistent, and ultimately tenable position on the issue.  Indeed, I support a woman’s right to choose, and I believe that the facts demonstrate this to be the most moral position to have on the matter.

Mind, Body, and the Soul: The Quest for an Immaterial Identity

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There’s little if any doubt that the brain (the human brain in particular) is the most complex entity or system that we’ve ever encountered in the known universe, and thus it is not surprising that it has allowed humans to reach the top of the food chain and also the ability to manipulate our environment more than any other creature on Earth.  Not only has it provided humans with the necessary means for surviving countless environmental pressures, effectively evolving as a sort of anchor and catalyst for our continued natural selection over time (through learning, language, adaptive technology, etc.), but it has also allowed humans to become aware of themselves, aware of their own consciousness, and aware of their own brains in numerous other ways.  The brain appears to be the first evolved feature of an organism capable of mapping the entire organism (including its interaction with the external environment), and it may even be the case that consciousness later evolved as a result of the brain making maps of itself.  Even beyond these capabilities, the human brain has also been able to map itself in terms of perceptually acquired patterns related to its own activity (i.e. when we study and learn about how our brains work).

It isn’t at all surprising when people marvel over the complexity, beauty and even seemingly surreal qualities of the brain as it produces the qualia of our subjective experience including all of our sensations, emotions and the resulting feelings that ensue.  Some of our human attributes are so seemingly remarkable, that many people have gone so far as to say that at least some of these attributes are either supernatural, supernaturally endowed, and/or are forever exclusive to humans.  For example, some religious people claim that humans alone have some kind of immaterial soul that exists outside of our experiential reality.  Some also believe that humans alone possess free will, are conscious in some way forever exclusive to humans (some have even argued that consciousness in general is an exclusively human trait), and a host of other (perhaps anthropocentric) “human only” attributes, with many of them forever exclusive to humans.  In the interest of philosophical exploration, I’d like to consider and evaluate some of these claims about “exclusively human” attributes.  In particular, I’d like to focus on the non-falsifiable claim of having a soul, with the aid of reason and a couple of thought experiments, although these thought experiments may also shed some light on other purported “exclusively human” attributes (e.g. free will, consciousness, etc.).  For the purposes of simplicity in these thought experiments, I may periodically refer to many or all purported “humanly exclusive” attributes as simply, “H”.  Let’s begin by briefly examining some of the common conceptions of a soul and how it is purported to relate to the physical world.

What is a Soul?

It seems that most people would define a soul to be some incorporeal entity or essence that serves as an immortal aspect or representation of an otherwise mortal/living being.  Furthermore, many people think that souls are something possessed by human beings alone.  There are also people who ascribe souls to non-living entities (such as bodies of water, celestial bodies, wind, etc.), but regardless of these distinctions, for those that believe in souls, there seems to be something in common: souls appear to be non-physical entities correlated, linked, or somehow attached to a particular physical body or system, and are usually believed to give rise to consciousness, a “life force”, animism, or some power of agency.  Additionally, they are often believed to transcend material existence through their involvement in some form of an afterlife.  While it is true that souls and any claims about souls are unfalsifiable and thus are excluded from any kind of empirical investigation, let’s examine some commonly held assumptions and claims about souls and see how they hold up to a more critical examination.

Creation or Correlation of Souls

Many religious people now claim that a person’s life begins at conception (after Science discovered this specific stage of reproduction), and thus it would be reasonable to assume that if they have a soul, that soul is effectively created at conception.  However, some also believe that all souls have co-existed for the same amount of time (perhaps since the dawn of our universe), and that souls are in some sense waiting to be linked to the physical person once they are conceived or come into existence.  Another way of expressing this latter idea is the belief that all souls have existed since some time long ago, but only after the reproductive conception of a person does that soul begin to have a physical correlate or incarnation linked to it.  In any case, the presumed soul is believed to be correlated to a particular physical body (generally presumed to be a “living” body, if not a human body), and this living body has been defined by many to begin its life either at conception (i.e. fertilization), shortly thereafter as an embryo (i.e. once the fertilized egg/cell undergoes division at least once), or once it is considered a fetus (depending on the context for such a definition).  The easiest definition to use for the purposes of this discussion is to define life to begin at conception (i.e. fertilization).

For one, regardless of the definition chosen, it seems difficult to define exactly when the particular developmental stage in question is reached.  Conception could be defined to take place once the spermatozoa’s DNA contents enter the zygote or perhaps not until some threshold has been reached in a particular step of the process afterward (e.g. some time after the individual parent DNA strands have mixed to produce a double-helix daughter strand).  Either way, most proponents of the idea of a human soul seem to assume that a soul is created or at least correlated (if created some time earlier) at the moment of, or not long after, fertilization.  At this point, the soul is believed to be correlated or representative of the now “living” being (which is of course composed of physical materials).

At a most basic level, one could argue, if we knew exactly when a soul was created/correlated with a particular physical body (e.g. a fertilized egg), then by reversing the last step in the process that instigated the creation/correlation of the soul, we should be able to destroy/decorrelate the soul.  Also, if a soul was in fact correlated with an entire fertilized egg, then if we remove even one atom, molecule, etc., would that correlation change?  If not, then it would appear that the soul is not actually correlated with the entire fertilized egg, but rather it is correlated with some higher level aspect or property of it (whatever that may be).

Conservation & Identity of Souls

Assuming a soul is in fact created or correlated with a fertilized egg, what would happen in the case of chimerism, where more than one fertilized egg fuse together in the early stages of embryonic development?  Would this developing individual have two souls?  By the definition or assumptions given earlier, if a soul is correlated with a fertilized egg in some way, and two fertilized eggs (each with their own soul) merge together, then this would indicate one of a few possibilities.  Either two souls merged into one (or one is actually destroyed) which would demonstrate that the number of souls are not conserved (indicating that not all souls are eternal/immortal), or the two souls would co-exist with that one individual and would imply that not all individuals have the same number of souls (some have one, some may have more) and thus souls don’t each have their own unique identity with a particular person, or it would indicate that after the merging of fertilized eggs took place, one of the two souls would detach from or become decorrelated with its physical counterpart, and the remaining soul would get to keep the booty of both fertilized eggs or so to speak.

In the case of identical twins, triplets, etc., a fertilized egg eventually splits, and we are left with the opposite conundrum. It would seem that we would be starting with one soul that eventually splits into two or more, and thus there would be another violation of the conservation of the number of souls.  Alternatively, if the number of souls are indeed conserved, an additional previously existing soul (if this was the case) could become correlated with the second fertilized egg produced. Yet another possibility would be to say that the “twins to be” (i.e. the fertilized egg prior to splitting) has two souls to start with and when the egg splits, the souls are segregated and each pre-destined twin is given their own.

The only way to avoid these implications would be to modify the assumption given earlier, regarding when a soul is created or correlated.  It would have to be defined such that a soul is created or correlated with a physical body some time after an egg is fertilized when it is no longer possible to fuse with another fertilized egg and after it can no longer split into fertilized multiples (i.e. twins, triplets, etc.).  If this is true, then one could no longer say that a fertilized egg necessarily has a soul, for that wouldn’t technically be the case until some time afterward when chimerism or monozygotic multiples were no longer possible.

If people believe in non-physical entities that can’t be seen or in any way extrospectively verified, it’s not much of a stretch to say that they can come up with a way to address these questions or reconcile these issues, with yet more unfalsifiable claims.  Some of these might not even be issues for various believers but I only mention these potential issues to point out the apparent arbitrariness or poorly defined aspects of many claims and assumptions regarding souls. Now let’s look at a few thought experiments to further analyze the concept of a soul and purported “exclusively human” attributes (i.e. “H”) as mentioned in the introduction of this post.

Conservation and Identity of “H”

Thought Experiment # 1: Replace a Neuron With a Non-Biological Analog

What if one neuron in a person’s brain is replaced with a non-biological/artificial version, that is, what if some kind of silicon-based (or other non-carbon-based) analog to a neuron was effectively used to replace a neuron?  We are assuming that this replacement with another version will accomplish the same vital function, that is, the same subjective experience and behavior.  This non-biologically-based neuronal analog may be powered by ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) and also respond to neurotransmitters with electro-chemical sensors — although it wouldn’t necessarily have to be constrained by the same power or signal transmission media (or mechanisms) as long as it produced the same end result (i.e. the same subjective experience and behavior).  As long as the synthetic neuronal replacement accomplished the same ends, the attributes of the person (i.e. their identity, their beliefs, their actions, etc.) should be unaffected despite any of these changes to their hardware.

Regarding the soul, if souls do in fact exist and they are not physically connected to the body (although people claim that souls are somehow associated with a particular physical body), then it seems reasonable to assume that changing a part of the physical body should have no effect on an individual’s possession of that soul (or any “H” for that matter), especially if the important attributes of the individual, i.e., their beliefs, thoughts, memories, and subsequent actions, etc., were for all practical purposes (if not completely), the same as before.  Even if there were some changes in the important aspects of the individual, say, if there was a slight personality change after some level of brain surgery, could anyone reasonably argue that their presumed soul (or their “H”) was lost as a result?  If physical modifications of the body led to the loss of a soul (or of any elements of “H”), then there would be quite a large number of people (and an increasing number at that) who no longer have souls (or “H”) since many people indeed have had various prosthetic modifications used in or on their bodies (including brain and neural prosthetics) as well as other intervening mediation of body/brain processes (e.g. through medication, transplants, various levels of critical life support, etc.).

For those that think that changing the body’s hardware would somehow disconnect the presumed soul from that person’s body (or eliminate other elements of their “H”), they should consider that this assumption is strongly challenged by the fact that many of the atoms in the human body are replaced (some of them several times over) throughout one’s lifetime anyway.  Despite this drastic biological “hardware” change, where our material selves are constantly being replaced with new atoms from the food that we eat and the air that we breathe (among other sources), we still manage to maintain our memories and our identity simply because the functional arrangements of the brain cells (i.e. neurons and glial cells) which are composed of those atoms are roughly preserved over time and thus the information contained in such arrangements and/or their resulting processes are preserved over time.  We can analogize this important point by thinking about a computer that has had its hardware replaced, albeit in a way that matches or maintains its original physical state, and understand that as a result of this configuration preservation, it also should be able to maintain its original memory, programs and normal functional operation.  One could certainly argue that the computer in question is technically no longer the “same” computer because it no longer has any of the original hardware.  However, the information regarding the computer’s physical state, that is, the specific configuration and states of parts that allow it to function exactly as it did before the hardware replacement, is preserved.  Thus, for all practical purposes in terms of the identity of that computer, it remained the same regardless of the complete hardware change.

This is an important point to consider for those who think that replacing the hardware of the brain (even if limited to a biologically sustained replacement) is either theoretically impossible, or that it would destroy one’s ability to be conscious, to maintain their identity, to maintain their presumed soul, or any presumed element of “H”.  The body naturally performs these hardware changes (through metabolism, respiration, excretion, etc.) all the time and thus the concept of changing hardware while maintaining the critical aspects of an individual is thoroughly demonstrated throughout one’s lifetime.  On top of this, the physical outer boundary that defines our bodies is also arbitrary in the sense that we exchange atoms between our outer surface and the environment around us (e.g. by shedding skin cells, or through friction, molecular desorption/adsorption/absorption, etc.).  The key idea to keep in mind is that these natural hardware changes imply that “we” are not defined specifically by our hardware or some physical boundary with a set number of atoms, but rather “we” are based on how our hardware is arranged/configured (allowing for some variation of configuration states within some finite acceptable range), and the subsequent processes and functions that result from such an arrangement as mediated by the laws of physics.

Is the type of hardware important?  It may be true that changing a human’s hardware to a non-biological version may never be able to accomplish exactly the same subjective experience and behavior that was possible with the biological hardware, however we simply don’t know that this is the case.  It may be that both the type of hardware as well as the configuration are necessary for a body and brain to produce the same subjective experience and behavior.  However, the old adage “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” has been applicable to so many types of technologies and to the means used to accomplish a number of goals.  There are a number of different hardware types and configurations that can be used to accomplish a particular task, even if, after changing the hardware the configuration must also be changed to accomplish a comparable result.  The question becomes, which parts or aspects of the neural process in the brain produces subjective experience and behavior?  If this becomes known, we should be able to learn how biologically-based hardware and its configuration work together in order to accomplish a subjective experience and behavior, and then also learn if non-biologically-based hardware (perhaps with its own particular configuration) can accomplish the same task.  For the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s assume that we can swap out the hardware with a different type, even if, in order to preserve the same subjective experience and behavior, the configuration must be significantly different than it was with the original biologically-based hardware.

So, if we assume that we can replace a neuron with an efficacious artificial version, and still maintain our identity, our consciousness, any soul that might be present, or any element of “H” for that matter, then even if we replace two neurons with artificial versions, we should still have the same individual.  In fact, even if we replace every neuron, perhaps just one neuron at a time, eventually we would be replacing the entire brain with an artificial version, and yet still have the same individual.  This person would now have a completely non-biologically based “brain”.  In theory, their identity would be the same, and they would subjectively experience reality and their selves as usual.  Having gone this far, let’s assume that we replace the rest of the body with an artificial version.  Replacing the rest of the body, one part at a time, should be far less significant a change than replacing the brain, for the rest of the body is far less complex.

It may be true that the body serves as an integral homeostatic frame of reference necessary for establishing some kind of self-object basis of consciousness (e.g. Damasio’s Theory of Consciousness), but as long as our synthetic brain is sending/receiving the appropriate equivalent of sensory/motor information (i.e. through an interoceptive feedback loop among other requirements) from the new artificial body, the model or map of the artificial body’s internal state provided by the synthetic brain should be equivalent.  It should also be noted that the range of conditions necessary for homeostasis in one human body versus another is far narrower and less individualized than the differences found between the brains of two different people.  This supports the idea that the brain is in fact the most important aspect of our individuality, and thus replacing the rest of the body should be significantly easier to accomplish and also less critical a change.  After replacing the rest of the body, we would now have a completely artificial non-biological substrate for our modified “human being”, or what many people would refer to as a “robot”, or a system of “artificial intelligence” with motor capabilities.  This thought experiment seems to suggest at least one of several implications:

  • Some types of robots can possess “H” (e.g. soul, consciousness, free-will, etc.), and thus “H” are not uniquely human, nor are they forever exclusive to humans.
  • Humans lose some or all of their “H” after some threshold of modification has taken place (likely a modification of the brain)
  • “H”, as it is commonly defined at least, does not exist

The first implication listed above would likely be roundly rejected by most people that believe in the existence of “H” for several reasons including the fact that most people see robots as fundamentally different than living systems, they see “H” as only applicable to human beings, and they see a clear distinction between robots and human beings (although the claim that these distinctions exist has been theoretically challenged by this thought experiment).  The second implication sounds quite implausible (even if we assume that “H” exists) as it would seem to be impossible to define when exactly any elements of “H” were lost based on exceeding some seemingly arbitrary threshold of modification.  For example, would the loss of some element of “H” occur only after the last neuron was replaced with an artificial version?  If the loss of “H” did occur after some specific number of neurons were removed (or after the number of neurons that remained fell below some critical minimum quantity), then what if the last neuron removed (which caused this critical threshold to be met) was biologically preserved and later re-installed, thus effectively reversing the last neuronal replacement procedure?  Would the previously lost “H” then return?

Thought Experiment # 2: Replace a Non-Biological Neuronal Analog With a Real Neuron

We could look at this thought experiment (in terms of the second implication) yet another way by simply reversing the order of the thought experiment.  For example, imagine that we made a robot from scratch that was identical to the robot eventually obtained from the aforementioned thought experiment, and then we began to replace its original non-biologically-based neuronal equivalent with actual biologically-based neurons, perhaps even neurons that were each taken from a separate human brain (say, from one or several cadavers) and preserved for such a task.  Even after this, consider that we proceed to replace the rest of the robot’s “body”, again piecewise (say, from one or several cadavers), until it was completely biologically-based to match the human being we began with in the initial thought experiment.  Would or could this robot acquire “H” at some point, or be considered human?  It seems that there would be no biological reason to claim otherwise.

Does “H” exist?  If So, What is “H”?

I’m well aware of how silly some of these hypothetical questions and considerations sound, however I find it valuable to follow the reasoning all the way through in order to help illustrate the degree of plausibility of these particular implications, and the plausibility or validity of “H”.  In the case of the second implication given previously (that humans lose some or all of “H” after some threshold of modification), if there’s no way to define or know when “H” is lost (or gained), then nobody can ever claim with certainty that an individual has lost their “H”, and thus they would have to assume that all elements of “H” have never been lost (if they want to err on the side of, what some may call, ethical or moral caution).  By that rationale, one would find themselves forced to accept the first implication (some types of robots can possess “H”, and thus “H” isn’t unique to humans).  If anyone denies the first two implications, it seems that they are only left with the third option.  The third implication seems to be the most likely (that “H” as previously defined does not exist), however it should be mentioned that even this third implication may be circumvented by realizing that it has an implicit loophole.  There is a possibility that some or all elements and/or aspects of “H” are not exactly what people assume them to be, and therefore “H” may exist in some other sense.  For example, what if we considered particular patterns themselves, i.e., the brain/neuronal configurations, patterns of brain waves, neuronal firing patterns, patterns of electro-chemical signals emanated throughout the body, etc., to be the “immaterial soul” of each individual?  We could look at these patterns as being immaterial if the physical substrate that employs them is irrelevant, or by simply noting that patterns of physical material states are not physical materials in themselves.

This is analogous to the concept that the information contained in a book can be represented on paper, electronically, in multiple languages, etc., and is not reliant on a specific physical medium.  This would mean that one could accept the first implication that robots or “mechanized humans” possess “H”, although it would also necessarily imply that any elements of “H” aren’t actually unique or exclusive to humans as they were initially assumed to be.  One could certainly accept this first implication by noting that the patterns of information (or patterns of something if we don’t want to call it information per se) that comprise the individual were conserved throughout the neuronal (or body) replacement in these thought experiments, and thus the essence or identity of the individual (whether “human” or “robot”) was preserved as well.

Pragmatic Considerations & Final Thoughts

I completely acknowledge that in order for this hypothetical neuronal replacement to be truly accurate in reproducing normal neuronal function (even with just one neuron), above and beyond the potential necessity of both a specific type of hardware as well as configuration (as mentioned earlier), the non-biologically based version would presumably also have to replicate the neuronal plasticity that the brain normally possesses.  In terms of brain plasticity, there are basically four known factors involved with neuronal change, sometimes referred to as the four R’s: regeneration, reconnection, re-weighting, and rewiring.  So clearly, any synthetic neuronal version would likely involve some kind of malleable processing in order to accomplish at least some of these tasks (if not all of them to some degree), as well as some possible nano-self-assembly processes if actual physical rewiring were needed.  The details of what and how this would be accomplished will become better known over time as we learn more about the possible neuronal dynamic mechanisms involved (e.g. neural darwinism or other means of neuronal differential reproduction, connectionism, Hebbian learning, DNA instruction, etc.).

I think that the most important thing to gain from these thought experiments is the realization of the inability or severe difficulty in taking the idea of souls or “H” seriously given the incompatibility between the traditional  conception of a concrete soul or other “H” and the well-established fluidic or continuous nature of the material substrates that they are purportedly correlated with.  That is, all the “things” in this world, including any forms of life (human or not) are constantly undergoing physical transformation and change, and they possess seemingly arbitrary boundaries that are ultimately defined by our own categorical intuitions and subjective perception of reality.  In terms of any person’s quest for “H”, if what one is really looking for is some form of constancy, essence, or identity of some kind in any of the things around us (let alone in human beings), it seems that it is the patterns of information (or perhaps the patterns of energy to be more accurate) as well as the level of complexity or type of patterns that ultimately constitute that essence and identity.  Now if it is reasonable to conclude that the patterns of information or energy that comprise any physical system aren’t equivalent to the physical constituent materials themselves, one could perhaps say that these patterns are a sort of “immaterial” attribute of a set of physical materials.  This seems to be as close to the concept of an immaterial “soul” as a physicalist or materialist could concede exists, since, at the very least it involves a property of continuity and identity which somewhat transcends the physical materials themselves.

Dreams, Dialogue, and the Unconscious

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It has long been believed that our mental structure consists of both a conscious and an unconscious element.  While the conscious element has been studied exhaustively, there seems to be relatively little known about the unconscious.  We can certainly infer that it exists as every part of the self that we can’t control or are not aware of must necessarily be mediated by the unconscious.  To be sure, the fields of neuroscience and psychology (among others) have provided a plethora of evidence related to the unconscious in terms of neuronal structures and activity, and the influence it has on our behavior, respectively.  However, trying to actually access the unconscious mind has proven to be quite difficult.  How can one hope to access this hidden yet incredibly powerful portion of themselves?  In this post, I plan to discuss what I believe to be two effective ways with which we can learn more about ourselves and access that which seems to elude us day-in and day-out.

Concept of Self

It is clear that we have an idea of who we are as individuals.  We consciously know what many of our interests are, what our philosophical and/or religious beliefs are, and we also have a subjective view of what we believe to be our personality traits.  I prefer to define this aspect of the self as the “Me”.  In short, the “Me” is the conscious subjective view one holds about themselves.

Another aspect of the self is the “You”, or the way others see you from their own subjective perspective.  It goes without saying that others view us very differently than we view ourselves.  People see things about us that we just don’t notice or that we deny to be true, whether they are particular personality traits or various behavioral tendencies.  Due to the fact that most people put on a social mask when they interact with others, the “You” ends up including not only some real albeit unknown aspects of the self, but also how you want to be seen by others and how they want to see you.  So I believe that the “You” is the social self — that which is implied by the individual and that which is inferred by another person.  I believe that the implied self and the inferred self involve both a conscious and unconscious element from each party, and thus the implication and inference will generally be quite different regardless of any of the limitations of language.

Finally, we have the aspect of the self which is typically unreachable and seems to be operating in the background.   I believe that this portion of the self ultimately drives us to think and behave the way we do, and accounts for what we may describe to be a form of “auto-pilot”.  This of course is the unconscious portion of the self.  I would call this aspect of the self the “I”.  In my opinion, it is the “I” that represents who we really are as a person (independent of subjective perspectives), as I believe everything conscious about the self is ultimately derived from this “I”.  The “I” includes the beliefs, interests, disinterests, etc., that we are not aware of yet are likely to exist based on some of our behaviors that conflict with our conscious intentions.  This aspect in particular is what I would describe as the objective self, and consequently it is that which we can never fully access or know about with any certainty.

Using the “You” to Access the “I”

I believe that the “You” is in fact a portal to access the “I”, for the portion of this “You” that is not derived from one’s artificial social mask will certainly contain at least some truths about one’s self that are either not consciously evident or are not believed by the “Me” to be true, even if they are in fact true.  Thus, in my opinion it is the inter-subjective communication with others that allows us to learn more about our unconscious self than any other method or action.  I also believe that this in fact accounts for most of the efficacy provided by mental health counseling.  That is, by having a discourse with someone else, we are getting another subjective perspective of the self that is not tainted with our own predispositions.  Even if the conversation isn’t specifically about you, by another person simply sharing their subjective perspective about anything at all, they are providing you with novel ways of looking at things, and if these perspectives weren’t evident in your conscious repertoire, they may in fact probe the unconscious (by providing recognition cues for unconscious concepts or beliefs).

The key lies in analyzing those external perspectives with an open mind, so that denial and the fear of knowing ourselves do not dominate and hinder this access.  Let’s face it, people often hear what they want to hear (whether about themselves or anything else for that matter), and we often unknowingly ignore the rest in order to feel comfortable and secure.  This sought-out comfort severely inhibits one’s personal growth and thus, at least periodically, we need to be able to depart from our comfort zone so that we can be true to others and be true to ourselves.

It is also important for us to strive to really listen to what others have to say rather than just waiting for our turn to speak.  In doing so, we will gain the most knowledge and get the most out of the human experience.  In particular, by critically listening to others we will learn the most about our “self” including the unconscious aspect.  While I certainly believe that inter-subjective communication is an effective way for us to access the “I”, it is generally only effective if those whom we’re speaking with are open and honest as well.  If they are only attempting to tell you what you want to hear, then even if you embrace their perspective with an open mind, it will not have much of any substance nor be nearly as useful.  There needs to be a mutual understanding that being open and honest is absolutely crucial for a productive discourse to transpire.  All parties involved will benefit from this mutual effort, as everyone will have a chance to gain access to their unconscious.

Another way that inter-subjective communication can help in accessing the unconscious is through mutual projection.  As I mentioned earlier, the “You” is often distorted by others hearing what they want to hear and by your social mask giving others a false impression of who you are.  However, they also tend to project their own insecurities into the “You”.  That is, if a person talking with you says specific things about you, they may in fact be a result of that person unknowingly projecting their own attributes onto you.  If they are uncomfortable with some aspect of themselves, they may accuse you of possessing the aspect, thus using projection as a defense mechanism.  Thus, if we pay attention to ourselves in terms of how we talk about others, we may learn more about our own unconscious projections.  Fortunately, if the person you’re speaking with knows you quite well and senses that you are projecting, they may point it out to you and vice versa.

Dream Analysis

Another potentially useful method for accessing the unconscious is an analysis of one’s dreams.  Freud, Jung and other well-known psychologists have endorsed this method as an effective psychoanalytic tool.  When we are dreaming, our brain is in a reduced-conscious if not unconscious state (although the brain is highly active within the dream-associated REM phase).  I believe that due to the decreased sensory input and stimulation during sleep, the brain has more opportunities to “fill in the blanks” and make an alternate conceptualization of reality.  This may provide a platform for unconscious expression.  When our brain constructs the dream content it seems to be utilizing a mixture of memories, current sensory stimuli constituting the sleeper’s environment (albeit a minimal amount — and perhaps necessarily so), and elements from the unconscious.  By analyzing our dreams, we have a chance to try and interpret symbolic representations likely stemming from the unconscious.  While I don’t believe that we can ever know for sure that which came from the unconscious, by asking ourselves questions relating to the dream content and making a concerted effort to analyze the dream, we will likely discover at least some elements of our unconscious, even if we have no way of confirming the origin or significance of each dream component.

Again, just as we must be open-minded and willing to face previously unknown aspects of ourselves during the aforementioned inter-subjective experience, we must also be willing to do the same during any dream analysis.  You must be willing to identify personal weaknesses, insecurities, and potentially repressed emotions.  Surely there can be aspects of our unconscious that we’d like and appreciate if discovered, but there will likely be a tendency to repress that which we find repulsive about ourselves.  Thus, I believe that the unconscious contains more negative things about our self than positive things (as implied by Jung’s “Shadow” archetype).

How might one begin such an analysis?  Obviously we must first obtain some data by recording the details of our dreams.  As soon as you wake up after a dream, take advantage of the opportunity to record as many details as you can in order to be more confident with the analysis.  The longer you wait, the more likely the information will become distorted or lost altogether (as we’ve all experienced at one time or another).  As you record these details, try and include different elements of the dream so that you aren’t only recording your perceptions, but also how the setting or events made you feel emotionally.  Note any ambiguities no matter how trivial, mundane, or irrelevant they may seem.  For example, if you happen to notice groups of people or objects in your dreams, try to note how many there are as that number may be significant.  If it seems that the dream is set in the past, try to infer the approximate date.  Various details may be subtle indicators of unconscious material.

Often times dreams are not very easy to describe because they tend to deviate from reality and have a largely irrational and/or emotional structure.  All we can do is try our best to describe what we can remember even if it seems non-sensical or is difficult to articulate.

As for the analysis of the dream content, I try and ask myself specific questions within the context of the dream.  The primary questions include:

  • What might this person, place, or thing symbolize, if they aren’t taken at face value?  That is, what kinds of emotions, qualities, or properties do I associate with these dream contents?
  • If I think my associations for the dream contents are atypical, then what associations might be more common?  In other words, what would I expect the average person to associate the dream content with?  (Collective or personal opinions may present themselves in dreams)

Once these primary questions are addressed, I ask myself questions that may or may not seem to relate to my dream, in order to probe the psyche.  For example:

  • Are there currently any conflicts in my life? (whether involving others or not)
  • If there are conflicts with others, do I desire some form of reconciliation or closure?
  • Have I been feeling guilty about anything lately?
  • Do I have any long term goals set for myself, and if so, are they being realized?
  • What do I like about myself, and why?
  • What do I dislike about myself, and why?  Or perhaps, what would I like to change about myself?
  • Do certain personality traits I feel I possess remind me of anyone else I know?  If so, what is my overall view of that person?
  • Am I envious of anyone else’s life, and if so, what aspects of their life are envied?
  • Are there any childhood experiences I repeatedly think about (good or bad)?
  • Are there any recurring dreams or recurring elements within different dreams?  If so, why might they be significant?
  • Are there any accomplishments that I’m especially proud of?
  • What elements of my past do I regret?
  • How would I describe the relationships with my family and friends?
  • Do I have anyone in my life that I would consider an enemy?  If so, why do I consider them an enemy?
  • How would I describe my sexuality, and my sex life?
  • Am I happy with my current job or career?
  • Do I feel that my life has purpose or that I am well fulfilled?
  • What types of things about myself would I be least comfortable sharing with others?
  • Do I have undesired behaviors that I feel are out of my control?
  • Do I feel the need to escape myself or the world around me?  If so, what might I be doing in order to escape? (e.g. abusing drugs, abusing television or other virtual-reality media, anti-social seclusion, etc.)
  • Might I be suffering from some form of cognitive dissonance as a result of me having conflicting values or beliefs?  Are there any beliefs which I’ve become deeply invested in that I may now doubt to be true, or that may be incompatible with my other beliefs?  If the answer is “no”, then I would ask:  Are there any beliefs that I’ve become deeply invested in, and if so, in what ways could they be threatened?

These questions are intended to probe one’s self beneath the surface.  By asking ourselves specific questions like this, particularly in relation to our dream contents, I believe that we can gain access to the unconscious simply by addressing concepts and potential issues that are often left out-of-sight and out-of-mind.  How we answer these questions isn’t as important as asking them in the first place.  We may deny that we have problems or personal weaknesses as we answer these questions, but asking them will continue to bring our attention to these subjects and elements of ourselves that we often take for granted or prefer not to think about.  In doing so, I believe one will at least have a better chance at accessing the unconscious than if they hadn’t made an attempt at all.

In terms of answering the various questions listed above, the analysis will likely be more useful if you go over the questions a second time, and reverse or change your previous instinctual answer while trying to justify the reversal or change.  This exercise will force you to think about yourself in new ways that might improve access to the unconscious, since you are effectively minimizing the barriers brought on through rationalization and denial.

Final Thoughts

So as we can see, while the unconscious mind may seem inaccessible, there appear to be at least two ways with which we can gain some access.  Inter-subjective communication allows us access to the “I” via the “You”, and access to both the speaker’s and the listener’s unconscious is accomplished via mutual projection.  Dreams and the analysis of such appears to be yet another method for accessing the unconscious.  Since our brains appear to be in a semi-conscious state, the brain may be capable of cognitive processes that aren’t saturated by sensory input from the outside world.  This reduction in sensory input may in fact give the brain more opportunities to “fill in the blanks” (or so to speak), and this may provide a platform for unconscious expression.  So in short, it appears that there are at least a few effective methods for accessing the unconscious self.  The bigger question is:  Are we willing to face this hidden side of ourselves?