Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What Am I?

Reflections and Considerations on the Topic of the Self

Part Two of Five

This won't make any sense if you have not read Part One: Do I Exist?

I cannot contemplate myself in a state apart from a sensation. Hunger, frustration, cold, bloodlust, anger. Whenever I apply these terms to myself, I do so on the basis of certain sensations that I am feeling that I associate with these states. If I were in the state without the corresponding sensation, I would feel as though something else were in the state. If your body were starving, but you could not feel it, you would feel as though something other than yourself were starving. I think that this is true of almost all parts of your body, so I say that I am separate from at least most of my physical body.

I am situated in the world. I am subject to space. At first, one might think that this is a step back, since it implies that we are wherever our body is. However, imagine a man whose body (sans head) was being kept alive in China while only his head was being kept alive and talkative in Germany. If you asked him where he was, wouldn't he say Germany? It is evident, however, that we exist in the world at a certain point in space. (4, 7, 10)

I am capable of sensation. This means that I am nothing dead. These sensations change. (3, 6, 8)

I am capable of contemplation and mental activity. I am self-aware. (2)

I am moving throughout time. I am I despite motion. (1, 5, 9)

I am capable of will (4).

What am I?

I am whatever it is that is capable of contemplation and mental activity, capable of changing sensation, capable of persisting through time, capable of will, self-aware, and situated in space.

So, it would seem that I am a brain. Specifically, a part of a brain (since there are parts of the brain not related to any of the above characteristics). I am not unchanging, because the brain does change, grow, and diminish over time. I am not united, because the brain is active in different ways at different times leading to changing desires, wills, and attitudes.

Now, I ask, removing all other features of my body and leaving only my brain behind, could I say that I am that? If that brain can produce self-aware, willing, sentient consciousness, then am I there?

But, then, do we really need the brain at all? Let us suppose a machine were perfected that could produce self-aware, willing, sentient consciousness. Would that consciousness not regard itself as I?

And that's when I realize that, really, I am not my brain. I am a self-aware, willing, sentient consciousness. I am produced by the brain's activity, but even if my brain were to die and be replaced bit-by-bit by tiny machines that perform the same functions, I would persist. I am the consciousness generated by the brain, not the brain itself.

It occurs to me, especially exemplified by the wording I chose in the paragraph before last (“Would that consciousness not regard itself as I?”) That there is one other detail that needs to be attended to. Many brains may produce self-aware, willing, sentient consciousness, but why is it that in one case I am there and in all other cases I am not?

Looking from the outside, picturing a brain in a vat generating consciousness, I cannot find myself there. I cannot look at myself from the outside any more than my eye can see itself. I must look from the perspective of consciousness generated by the brain in the vat. If I am looking at the brain from the outside, then I am not the brain.

And that is when I see the whole matter from a new angle.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A New Policy

I have what you would call a flaky personality. I pick up a lot of projects and interests and abandon them just as quickly for other projects and interests. I am especially guilty of this when it comes to books, I start a lot of them but finish only a tiny fraction of that. Because my goals and projects are constantly shifting, nothing gets done.

I realized that especially with two recent events. The first was reading Wittgenstein's Tractatus. About halfway through I began to lose interest and started looking for something else to read, but, thank God, I could not focus on anything. I realized at that moment that whenever I abandoned one text I was reading for no reason apart from my mind losing focus, I devalued every book I might read wherein my mind might lose focus (all of them). I was perpetuating a policy of not finishing anything that couldn't be done all in one go.

The second was finishing my "Do I Exist" blog in its entirety. After revising it and coming to a different conclusion the second time around, I began to fear that I did not have ample grounding or knowledge to finish it to my satisfaction. It should be noted that I only felt that way after a day of not working on the paper, as long as I was working on it, I felt confident enough. Other projects began to come up in my mind until I decided that I could do nothing until I finished that blog.

Based on these two experiences, I have two new policies.

1. If a project is undertaken, it should be pursued to its completion with as few rest days as possible. The more time spent at rest the more unappealing the project begins to appear.

2. Finish all projects undertaken, unless it is decided that one does not want to complete the project at all. Projects must never be put off for another time, if I intend to complete it in my lifetime, it must be completed now.

I'm curious to see if I become any more productive with these new self-imposed rules.

Do I Exist?

Reflections and Considerations on the Topic of the Self

Part One of Five

I am not well read on this topic (or any topic, for that matter), but I am quite interested and this seems like the sort of question that one can just jump into since it concerns a matter wherein introspection is a meaningful investigation. Naturally, reading what other people have said becomes useful when it comes time to refine and make sense of one's introspective discoveries, but having an initial conception provides something to be refined.

It seems that we must start by discovering what we mean by “I.” First, to begin discovering what I am lets look at what I do or what things I can say about myself.

What is it that I normally might say that I am doing or say are facts about myself?

1. I am typing on a keyboard.
2. I am contemplating the nature of the I.
3. I am cold.
4. I am a libertarian.
5. I will type on a keyboard.
6. I am thirsty.
7. I am drinking.
8. I am not thirsty.
9. I have typed on a keyboard.
10. I am in California.

All of these could reasonably apply to I. I would like to elaborate on these sentences....

Numbers 1, 5, and 9, I think, show something very interesting. It says that whatever is typing on the keyboard in the present (1) is identical to what will type on the keyboard in the future (5) and identical to what has typed on a keyboard in the past (9). We can see here that it is tempting to say that there must be something unchanging for this to be true. Something must be consistent from 9 to 1 to 5 if I did, am doing, and will do all three.

Number 2 denotes that I must be capable of contemplation, therefore I must be capable of mental activity.

Number 3, however, seems to require a body that possesses heat receptors, this only seems true at first, though. Cold can be understood two ways: having a low temperature or having the sensation associated with heat receptors responding to low temperature stimuli. In the former case, something physical is required, in the second even a disembodied mind could experience that as an illusion. Do we ever associate the former with I? Do we ever say “I am cold” and mean, literally, I have a low temperature? In a way, we do, when we say we are cold we are implying that we are in an environment that has a low temperature, but we always say it on the basis that our heat receptors are responding to stimuli. For this reason, I say that whatever we might mean when we say “I am cold,” all we can actually experience is the feeling of cold. I can not actually experience a drop in temperature.

Number 4 says either that I can be a part of a political party, that I can subscribe to certain set of doctrines or attitudes, that I can hold certain beliefs, or that I can consider myself to have something in common with certain kinds of people.

Number 6 seems to say that I can have needs. Thirst is, after all, the sensation of needing a drink. But much like cold, we only say that we are thirsty on the basis of our sensation of thirst. Suppose our bodies needed water, but we had no sensation of it, in that case we would not say that we are thirsty. This is another example of I having the experience of a sensation.

Number 7 says that I am capable of action. I am performing a movement. Now, suppose someone fired a shock into my brain that caused my hand to grab a can, move it toward my mouth, and pour its contents down my throat. In this case, would I be drinking? I say 'yes,' but not in the same sense. I say that I would be drinking in the same sense that I am in California in number 10. I am in the situation of drinking, but I would not say that I am drinking in the sense that it is normally used, that is, in the sense of willing an action.

Number 8 simply says something like number 6, only its negation. Rather than a sensation of thirst it is an absence of a sensation.

Number 10 indicates that I am situated. Regardless of my choice, the fact is that I am in California right now. Why is it that I am in California? Even apart from any sensation of being in California (perhaps I feel very much like I am in New York?), I am, in fact, in California. This means that I am subject to space.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I Hope You Hate The Moral Landscape

I'm coming rather late to this discussion, and admittedly, I have not read Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape, but after winding down from something else that I was writing, I decided to read an article Harris wrote trying to defend his book from certain criticisms. Now, to acknowledge my biases ahead of time, I thought Sam Harris was wrong from the moment I watched his TED video on moral landscapes (it was not difficult to see that he smuggled the "well-being" value into his argument without a factual justification, thereby not actually providing us with any moral facts), and I thought Sam Harris was dangerous ever since I read The End of Faith where he says that it is morally acceptable to kill people who hold sufficiently dangerous beliefs (I can understand that kind of thinking from a relativist or a nihilist, but if you actually believe in moral truths and say that, I think you're dangerous), but now I feel quite secure in saying that if humanity ever succumbs to scientifically powerful dystopia, our scientist overlords probably took inspiration from Harris.

However, some people were not ready for this earthly paradise once it arrived. Some were psychopaths who, despite enjoying the general change in quality of life, were nevertheless eager to break into their neighbors' homes and torture them from time to time. A few had preferences that were incompatible with the flourishing of whole societies: Try as he might, Kim Jong Il just couldn't shake the feeling that his cognac didn't taste as sweet without millions of people starving beyond his palace gates. Given our advances in science, however, we were able to alter preferences of this kind. In fact, we painlessly delivered a firmware update to everyone. Now the entirety of the species is fit to live in a global civilization that is as safe, and as fun, and as interesting, and as filled with love as it can be.

It seems to me that this scenario cuts through the worry that the concept of well-being might leave out something that is worth caring about: for if you care about something that is not compatible with a peak of human flourishing -- given the requisite changes in your brain, you would recognize that you were wrong to care about this thing in the first place. Wrong in what sense? Wrong in the sense that you didn't know what you were missing. This is the core of my argument: I am claiming that there must be frontiers of human well-being that await our discovery -- and certain interests and preferences surely blind us to them.

Ignoring the fact that you're violating someones, granted Kim Jong Il and the Boston Stranger, dignity as a human being to form their own preferences, it is blatantly an attempt to set one value as the most valuable simply by altering people's minds.

I expect that a good many people will think Harris is onto something pretty neat here (although, try to imagine what he's saying with less violent characters. Like imagine him altering the brains of people who are too individualistic, too free spirited, too patriotic, or too protective if it happens to conflict with what he thinks humanity really wants), but I hope that most who encounter this statement will react with something like anger and loathing. However, while reading this, a scary thought occurred to me: with increasing scientific knowledge and increasing technology, one day the only thing that will keep this from being implemented is that sufficient people hate the idea enough.

And if it were implemented, there wouldn't be enough diversity left for anyone to wonder if it might not be a bad idea.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Letter to Todd Strandberg

I've been feeling nostalgic lately, and as part of that nostalgia I logged onto As a teenager just out of Junior High, that website was the most important reading material to me. I even owned the Are You Rapture Ready dead tree version of the site's articles.

Even though my mindset is now pretty much as far from that site's philosophy as you can get, a lot of my thought really started there. It was there that I picked up my interest in politics and apologetics, which led to my interest in C. S. Lewis, which led to my interest in philosophical debate, which led to me actively critically analyzing my beliefs, which led to me ceasing to be a Christian among other things.

So, feeling grateful, I shot Todd Strandberg, the site's owner, an email.

Hello Todd,

Yesterday I suddenly felt compelled to log onto, just to see how the site looked. I do this every so often, just because I get a little nostalgic sometimes and like to visit websites I once frequented. I discovered your site the summer before my freshman year of High School (2003), and was instantly hooked. I used to spend all night reading and re-reading the articles on the site, to the point that I used to print out my favorites and give them to teachers at school to get their thoughts (it was a private Christian school).

Over time, I have left the Christian and the theistic fold. Still, I like to look back on all the influences on my thinking over the years, and your site was a big one. From your site, specifically the Nearing Midnight weekly commentary, I developed my interest in politics and my interest in how Christianity relates to the world's varying perspectives, which led to my interest in philosophy, which is now a very big part of my life.

Even though you and I are no longer in agreement, I just wanted to give you a big thanks. Looking through the site yesterday made me remember what an influence you were back in those days when I used to spend my nights looking up the word “rapture” just to see what information I could find.


I genuinely want to express my gratitude for his site, but I can't deny that part of me also wants to see my e-mail show up on the Interesting Email page.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Everything Dated Prior to this Post

Has been imported from other blogs that I've had over the years.

The posts have, in most cases, been edited either to correct minor spelling and grammar errors, to remove author's notes, to remove references to other blogs that were not imported, or to make certain stylistic changes that I am compelled to make (most images were added later). I try to keep the intent of the original blog intact (because seeing things that changed and things that stay the same is what makes importing these blogs fun, and to do that the old blogs need to say the same things they said back then).

The blog where I originally posted everything prior to "On Religion" has since been deleted. All other blogs will include a link to their original posting.

I would like to stress that the things written in these old posts often do not represent my current thought, but they represent the evolution of my thought. Although, I can't deny, that I often find some version of my current beliefs in these old blogs. It's comforting to see the consistency, but disheartening to see the sometimes small growth and change.