Erisology of Self and Will, Part 4: The Gulf

This is the 4th part of a series adapted from my 2009 Bachelor’s Thesis in philosophy.

Part 1 introduced the series and its premise: there are two ways to look at the self — a scientific way and a traditional way — and transferring statements from one to the other has weird effects.

Part 2 described the traditional view, using the philosopher C.A. Campbell as a representative.

Part 3 offered a sketch of an alternative view, assembled from background assumptions in the physical sciences.

Part 4 will discuss some scientific disciplines with bearing on the self, and how their results are interpreted differently by the traditional paradigm vs. the scientific.

Some quick science of the self

Behavioral genetics is an attempt to find relationships between genes and behavioral traits. Twin studies are a common method, and correlations between behavioral and genetic similarity is seen as evidence that genes influence behavior. This doesn’t mean that genes control a person like a puppet on a string, but that genes can affect behavior indirectly through the way it takes part in building the brain and the rest of the body during fetal development.

Behavioral geneticists and those who interpret their work often speak of “a gene for x”, where x is some behavior or trait. This shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that there is a certain gene sitting around and “causing” behavior. Instead, “a gene for x” refers to any gene whose presence in the genome increases the likelihood of behavior x, all else being equal. A gene that, for instance, codes for a protein that plays a role in the production of joint fluid could be described this way as “a gene for playing hockey” since its presence enables you to move your limbs.

A real example is “the D4 dopamine receptor gene”, which codes for a protein in the dopamine receptors in the brain. What version one has affects how dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates feeling of reward and pleasure, binds to its receptor and thus performs its function. This manifests as a tendency for people with one version to need more stimulation to reach the same level of excitement, becoming more likely to engage in so-called “thrill-seeking” behavior like skydiving or mountain climbing. In such convoluted and indirect ways can genetics lead to behavior differences.

Evolutionary psychology aims to explain features of the human mind and why they are the way they are. Its central thesis is that the mind has been put through evolutionary pressures just like other organs and that one can understand it by seeing features of it as evolutionary adaptations and specifying why it has been advantageous for one’s genes to build a mind with certain features.

A common misconception conflates the evolutionary “reason”[1] why something has evolved with the reasons people have for expressing the associated behaviors. For instance, people don’t have sex because they wish to propagate their genes, they simply desire to do it. But human minds have the particular feature to desire and enjoy sex because genes that contributed to feeling this way were copied more than those who didn’t, for obvious reasons.

This point seems remarkably difficult to get across. Steven Pinker writes about this (in The Blank Slate):

I suspect there is another reason why the explanations are so easily confused. We all know that people sometimes have ulterior motives. They may be publicly generous but privately greedy, publicly pious but privately cynical, publicly platonic put privately lusting. Freud accustomed us to the idea that ulterior motives are pervasive in behavior, exerting their effects from an inaccessible stratum of the mind. Combine this with the common misconception that the genes are a kind of essence or core of the person, and you get a mongrel of Dawkins and Freud: the idea that the metaphorical motives of the genes are the deep, unconscious motives of the person. That is an error.

Yes, and a pretty bad one.

Lastly, neuroscience examines mental phenomena as brain processes. Looking at depression in terms of neurotransmitter levels or compulsive disorders as failure of proper neurological dampening bridges the gap between mental and physical.

A famous case often retold in popular science books is that of 19th century railroad worker Phineas Gage who lost his prefrontal cortex in an accident and suffered an alteration of personality (see for example Oliver Sacks’s An Anthropologist on Mars).

Other cases include patients whose amygdalae (an almond-shaped part of the brain’s limbic system important for emotional reactions) have been damaged or destroyed and as a result having been left without the capacity to fear. Antonio Damasio tells the story of a young woman whose abnormally forthcoming and trusting demeanor that frequently got her taken advantage of could be ascribed to surprisingly symmetric brain damage to both her amygdalae.

Soft incommensurability

In his seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn claimed that science progresses not primarily by continuous accumulation of knowledge but by occasional revolutions. During such revolutions individual scientists switch allegiance en masse, from one set of assumptions, methodologies and interpretational heuristics (called a paradigm) to another.

Controversially, Kuhn claimed that this conversion was just that, a conversion — like changing religions. His justification was that since paradigms consist of different and often incompatible ways to model reality you couldn’t get from one to another by any strict logical process. You need to go through a gestalt shift and see all the scientific evidence through a different lens. Thus, there is no rational basis underlying a paradigm shift and the decision to convert ought to be considered a result of social and psychological factors.

Different paradigms are said to be incommensurable to the extent that statements in one cannot be translated into the other accurately[2]. I don’t think “hard” incommensurability is a particularly common condition in science or that it poses much of a practical problem. As Karl Popper said in response to Kuhn, it’s simply not true that we can’t step outside the frame of discourse; we can by articulating it’s basis explicitly.

Similarly, differences between paradigms can be understood if we articulate the differing assumptions on which they stand. While we can’t get out of discourse itself, we can always get out of a particular frame by articulating its features.

While scientists tend to be able and willing to do this when required, I do think “soft” incommensurability is a real problem in non-scientific contexts[3]; regular people in regular situations aren’t as concerned about defining their terms and working out the implications of their assumptions as scientists qua scientists are.

By “soft” incommensurability I mean that in practice paradigms tend to be local and partially overlapping rather than all-encompassing and logically separated[4] the way Kuhn described them.

So when I say that Campbell’s view and the naturalist alternative are incommensurable, I don’t necessarily mean it as strictly as Kuhn may have meant. It’s mostly one thing I’m after: a statement originates as a product of a paradigm, and that paradigm assigns meaning it. It’s a statement about the properties of and the relationships between concepts in that paradigm. Not necessarily about physical reality[5].

Ideally we attach words to particular concepts, properties and relationships as part of a single stable paradigm. Everyone knows what everyone means when they say something. But in real life, and especially outside academia, paradigms are many, vague, partially overlapping and always in flux. As a result the meanings of words are not perfectly defined and the same word can have different meanings in different paradigms (remember what “the earth” means in Ptolemian and Copernican astronomy).

The two conceptions of the mind are incommensurable in the sense that a statement created in one of them acquires a different meaning when interpreted by the other. This happens because statements have no intrinsic meaning taken in isolation, but is given one only by being mapped to concepts and relationships in a paradigm.

Sometimes there’s really only one possible paradigm, so misunderstandings are unlikely. Other times the multitude of paradigms are obvious enough for us to understand that we need to pick the right one, like when we’re dealing with natural languages. A string of characters that means something in German most likely means nothing in English, so we don’t try to interpret them as English words[6].

The case of the self, however, fits into neither of these slots. There are two major paradigms, and they are in opposition in a non-obvious way. Not only are the assumptions quite difficult to make explicit and thereby defuse the situation, but it’s also not obvious that the gulf even exists.

From the Campbellian perspective

In the Campbellian image the agent is atomic, without any inner structure or mechanism by which it operates. The way Campbell puts it, it seems that anything affecting human behavior in an intelligible way (like character traits) gets labeled as not part of the agent.

The problem with doing it this way is that it becomes difficult to explain how the decision-making actually works; how and why the agent does what it does. Campbell tackles this head on by declaring it a mystery. Seemingly he, like Descartes, considers the self to be at least in some sense not part of the physical world. “Acts of will” are when the agent “reaches into the world”.

If we look back to what Campbell said, he obviously thinks that the idea of the self (or agent, since he’s unclear on the distinction) being “the sole author” of a decision is possible. If this is your view, then any description of decision-making using intelligible causation is in direct conflict with that decision being free (this is similar to the “god of the gaps”- phenomenon, where discoveries of natural mechanisms leave less and less functions for gods).

Progress in the sciences erode the power of this non-causal agent by describing, bit by bit, decision-making and behavior as physical processes. As a consequence, this sort of self can only exist in the narrowing space where science have yet to reach. And if the self needs to be the “sole author” of acts in order to preserve human agency then science marching on means agency is on its way to getting erased. Not surprisingly, if this image of being locked in a shrinking room is explicitly or implicitly lodged in your mind you’re going to find new knowledge threatening.

Behavior genetics and evolutionary psychology paint a picture where genes (either individually as in behavior genetics, or collectively as in evolutionary psychology) control humans from behind the scenes like sinister puppet masters. The more we come to think about genes influencing behavior, the less room there’s left for ‘us’.

Neuroscience threatens partially different aspects of the Campbellian view. Being able to map brain function onto mental function isn’t compatible with the self being atomic, since the brain is extended in space and has different parts doing different things. That humans can lose individual parts of the mind after injury or disease is well established, and shows that the mind is extended and composite just like the brain.

The recourse for the Campbellian is to keep claiming that the mind isn’t the brain, and that the self simply uses the brain systems as tools. This might be possible to imagine, but as an idea it’s living on borrowed time. What happens at the hypothetical point where neuroscientists have mapped the whole brain? The complete process from input to output? The Campbellian might say this won’t happen because the brain needs the self to control it. For which functions the self is needed is left unspecified, however. Moral choice is one candidate, but it’s unclear why this function needs special provisions.

Proponents of this response would probably hope that progress in neuroscience will slow down and stop in the not too distant future. Otherwise we might wind up in a situation where we think of ourselves (our selves?) as powerless existences, trapped outside a world that runs itself[7].

From the naturalist perspective

If we subscribe to the naturalist view of selves as worldened things, as subsets of physical reality, then there is no risk of us being “shut out”. Only if the self is external to the world can it potentially be cut off from having input into it.

From this perspective the sciences of the self are unproblematic. The self is a construct, a name for the collection of mental properties that makes a person who they are, and the process that utilize and shape them. It’s encoded in a brain grown by a genetic recipe and constantly honed and reformed by structured inputs. It consists of attitudes, values, personality traits, beliefs and modes of thought which make up a filter through whom[8] inputs are routed and emerge at the end of the deliberation process as decisions and acts, insights and reactions. Scientific accounts of mental causation in both the direct and indirect sense describe how this process works and how it came to work the way it does. The power of the self and causation is not in competition, since the self is composite and its constituent parts can be studied without excluding them from what is allowed to be called self. Causation is how the self works.

Genes don’t erode the power of the self, instead they’re what enable it to exist in the first place. Biology and environment build the self; they do not compete with it for control over the person. If we let go of the idea that there is a self independent of nature and nurture, then we can also let go of the need to shield this self from the oppressive influences of nature and nurture.

The forces of nature/nurture aren’t to be feared when seen through a naturalistic lens, since it’s not clear where they end and we begin, or even if there is much of a distinction at all. If our selves are memetic artifacts (nurture) implemented in and running on brains built by genes (nature), it’s nonsensical to consider knowledge about how it works threatening to its existence and autonomy.


• • •


The word “reason” isn’t perfect in this context, since it implies agency where none exist. It contributes to the dangerous misunderstanding that the genes’ hypothetical motives are the person’s actual motives. When one uses “reason” in an evolutionary context it refers to why a certain trait has led to a higher number of copies of the genes for that trait. It doesn’t refer to the motives of some agent.

Kuhn’s views are considerably more nuanced than this, and my purpose here isn’t to explain his philosophy but simply to introduce the idea of incommensurability.

2017 comment: I think paradigm incommensurability is an important and useful idea, but more as a cornerstone of erisology than philosophy of science.

2017 comment: Relevant here is my post about how “trading zones” between partially overlapping paradigms work.

2017 comment: If I’d been aware of map-and-territory terminology back then, I would’ve used that: Statements about a map are not statements about the territory, and they might very well mean something else when interpreted as statements about a different map.

Sometimes we do run into such problems with partially different languages like American and British English, where speakers will take different messages from a sentence like “I was pissed.”

“Runs by itself” is an interesting phrase, because it refers to an automaton. It’s seen as unpleasant to consider people to be automatons, but what would be the alternative? A non-automaton is controlled by something outside itself, but then what about the controller? Is that an automaton? If not, is whatever controls it an automaton? Eventually we must get to something that’s an automaton, rendering the system as a whole an automaton. What I’m saying is: it’s impossible to have a complete system that isn’t “automatic” and “runs by itself”.

It’s funny that both Microsoft Word and my supervisor pointed out that the pronoun “whom” should be replaced with “which”. It isn’t a mistake. Since what I refer to is what I claim to be an actual self, in a way it should be adressed like a person.


7 thoughts on “Erisology of Self and Will, Part 4: The Gulf

  1. I think we can still have an “atomic” self if we make the atom into the shape of a human body that contains a brain. The “self” would be “that which negotiates” between our biological drives and our environment. The need of such negotiation for survival causes the brain, and the mental processes that run on it, to emerge via evolution. And if you’ve ever cared for a newborn, screaming for warmth, food, and security, you know that it is a serious negotiation. The child will learn what works and what doesn’t work. And so will you.


    1. First of all: Welcome, first time commenter!

      Second: Sure, we can claim anything as true if we play with words. But an “atom”, in the Greek sense, is something that doesn’t consist of smaller parts and that doesn’t mesh with calling a whole body “atomic”, nor a self – for reasons discussed earlier.

      Your description of a self sounds pretty accurate, a complement to the pantheon of partial accounts in part 3.


      1. Except for the epigenetic traits that emerge only in certain environments, the genes remain a fixed entity throughout life. The self, on the other hand, changes as it learns, and grows, and chooses. So it is insufficient to describe self as just our genes and our environment.

        The will comes in two varieties: (a) our biological drives which animate us to survive, thrive, and reproduce, and (b) a deliberate will, produced by our thoughts and feelings as we calculate the best ways to achieve that purpose.


        1. It’s not that the self *is* just the genes and the environment, but that it is a *product* of genes and environment, like dish of food is a product of ingredients and preparation – but the self continues to be “prepared” for its whole existence.

          I don’t see your a and b as fundamentally different things but rather two of several subsystems in the brain layered on top of each other, the first much older than the second.


          1. The living organism behaves purposefully to survive, thrive, and reproduce. But this is more an instinct than a calculated response until you get to one of the intelligent species. With intelligence we get imagination, evaluation, and choosing, which are required for a deliberately chosen will. The self includes both, of course.

            And we should include with the brain the whole extended nervous system, all of the internal and external sensory apparatus that allow us to experience the external world, our internal feelings, as well as what we think about all of this.

            The self is a real physical object that exists in the real physical world. It cannot be just an “illusion”, because there can be no illusion without a self to experience it.

            Science helps us to explain how it works, just like an auto mechanic can explain how your car works. But it does not “explain it away”. We are still quite real, and so is the car we drive.

            Liked by 1 person

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