Erisology of Self and Will, Part 7: Closing Thoughts

This is the 7th and last 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 discussed some scientific disciplines with bearing on the self, and how their results are interpreted differently by the traditional paradigm vs. the scientific.

Part 5 gave some examples of people expressing “Campbellian” views online.

Part 6 discussed the reasons why the traditional view persists when prescientific thinking on other topics often doesn’t.

Here in Part 7 I’ll end with a summary and some thoughts on how to deal with the problems described in the series.

Summing up

I’ve claimed that there are two different paradigms for thinking about the self and the will, one reigning over the sciences and another over the rest of society. This wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t the case that transparadigmatic communication was common, making incommensurability important.

Some statements about the self and the will originate in the scientific paradigm[1] and migrate to the rest of society where they’re assigned a different meaning. If this new meaning is misleading in the sense of having different implications than its interpretation it the original paradigm, the process constructs a misleading representation of the body of scientific discourse. This is a little bit like misinterpreting someone’s words and actions because they’re from a different culture, giving you the wrong impression of their individual personality — you might think someone is extremely introverted when they’re really just Finnish.

I’ve called the misleading representation a “malformed hybrid” because it’s an unintentional combination, and its implications is disconcerting and worrying to many of us. In theory there could be benevolent and fruitful such hybrids, but I struggle to find examples where a misunderstanding made something better. In this case, the practical consequence becomes that statements about the human mind and will emerging from the sciences are met with needless discomfort and hostility.

I’ve shown that a paradigm incommensurable with the one that guides science dominates society, and that scientific results do indeed get misinterpreted as a result. This paradigm, “Campbellianism” as I’ve called it, have survived and look the way it does because of an unfortunate (con)fusion of ideas peculiar to western philosophical history has made us think we need it for the attainability of certain political goals or the justifiability of our moral judgments.

Expanding into areas beyond the discussion of the self and the will, I’ve claimed that this attitude is part of a broader human (just western? just Platonic?) predilection to see concepts as metaphysically real, and what we find important and central to our lives as important and central in an ontological, transcendent sense.

Anxiety about consciousness, free will and consciousness not being “real”, love not being a communion of spiritual essence, moral responsibility not being Ultimate Responsibility or the universe not having “meaning” other than that which we ascribe to it are all manifestations of a fundamental discomfort with naturalism and its more in-your-face cousin reductionism. I think it’s inevitable that any metaphysical view that assumes an intelligible, coherent universe (by which I mean avoiding outright mystery-pushing handwavery) will face such reactions. But I might be wrong and I’d need to study non-western philosophical thought in greater depth to find out if I’m just universalizing the habits my own particular culture.

The dead end of hard determinism

The current situation is unstable and dangerous, in my opinion. If the issue of differing paradigms is not openly understood and discussed, the “malformed hybrid” will gain power and leave nihilism, fear of science and moral confusion in its wake.

If we tie our conception of moral responsibility to a doctrine that appears to be strangled by science, then we’ll be poorly equipped to handle moral issue in the future. One tactic is to take the “hard determinist” route as some have done and try to shock the system into correction by pushing the idea that there is no free will, no consciousness etc. They are all fictions. For reasons I hope to have made clear, I don’t think this is a good idea. People are more likely to become entrenched in their views and grow increasingly hostile to mind-science than to accept hard determinism. Or if they do accept it, fall into nihilism and moral confusion.

Also, in my view there is no coherent conception of “free will” in the libertarian sense that can be said to exist or not (it can’t be coherently operationalized to be tested against the world), so saying that it doesn’t exist isn’t better than saying that it does. By this I mean that the hard determinists have admitted defeat by allowing the incoherent traditional framing to dictate the terms of the debate. I doubt there are many real differences between the views of hard determinists and Dennett, Flanagan and other compatibilists like me other than simply attitude; they still sort of accept the Campbellian paradigm (simply flipping one answer within it from yes to no), while compatibilists don’t.

This can be seen in the writings of “hard determinist” (if that is the proper term, determinism as such doesn’t enter into her philosophy) and psychologist Susan Blackmore. According to her, selves are memetic constructions that exist because it benefits memes reproductively to create a “center of gravity” for themselves[2]. She recommends for our mental health’s sake that we purge excess memes, avoid reinforcing the sense of self and try to live only in the moment.

While I mostly agree with her substantively, I don’t attitudively (I’m sure that’s a word). She obviously sees memes as alien infestations and something to be expunged if we want to be authentic humans. She doesn’t redefine the self as consisting of memes but instead concludes that it doesn’t really exist. Or, in a way she does, but doesn’t think this new construct is really a self or that we should treat it as such. It therefore looks to me like she’s stuck in the Campbellian way of thinking about what a self is. She says:

Unlike Dennett I neither think the ‘user illusion’ is benign, nor do I want any version of free will that ascribes it to a self who does not exist.

Now, I certainly don’t feel that my memes are alien to me and I do identify with them (whatever that means, they are me — right?). Blackmore may say that this is an illusion but I see it as a matter of definition. Like those who say that freedom (and skill) doesn’t exist, Blackmore appears to say something here that is simply wrong on the face of it. Our experiences might not be what we think they are but they definitely exist. Descartes was clearly wrong about the self but he was right about not being able to doubt that he himself existed. The problem is what that means, not whether it’s true. We do mean something when we say “I” and we’re just discussing what that is.

I think this is a general problem with hard determinism and related viewpoints such as hardline eliminitavism — they cede too much territory. Not that it is easy to reject the Campbellian paradigm altogether rather than rebel within it; I had hard determinist views until not long ago, before I realized that the whole choice situation was resting on faulty assumptions.

What to do

One could hope that the efforts of Dennett, Flanagan and the like to affirm that freedom and consciousness are real in a naturalistic sense will eventually affect the common usage of those terms away from the Campbellian paradigm. If it does it might help to alleviate the negative consequences of the malformed hybrid when it comes to discomfort, but probably won’t help solve the moral confusion. For that we need to explicitly recognize that we cannot base morality on metaphysics[3]. That’s going to be tough, since it requires breaking the uneasy truce between religion and scientific materialism. Them being able to live side by side is a good thing, but it only works if religion agrees to scuttle away and yield territory when science approaches. If that doesn’t happen there will be confrontation.

The risk is that being candid will turn people away if they are on some level appalled by materialism and won’t accept worldened versions of their ideas. Of course, some people are explicitly committed to supernaturalism, and they’re likely to resist these attempts no matter what — simply pointing out the incoherence is unlikely to be effective against doctrines with no aversion to mystery, and their likely future is to become ever more abstract and inscrutable as a defense mechanism. Trying to bludgeon people with scientific evidence is just going to feed the beast (the hybrid).

The situation with moderates is more ambiguous. There’s still room to believe there is something non-causal about the will (if one doesn’t think about it too closely) as long as knowledge about the mind is incomplete. But that room is going to shrink and people will be forced to choose between outright mysticism, the hybrid or something like the materialist-compatibilist account I’ve gestured in the direction of. One (popular!) option is of course to not think about it. Sadly that risks producing the hybrid as a unfortunate “compromise” with all the negative consequences that will have. It does exist today precisely because people don’t think that much about it and are unaware of the incommensurability issue.

If I could give a piece of advice to scientists and science journalists it would be to weigh their words carefully and try to make it as difficult as possible to misinterpret statements by avoiding the words and constructions that are particularly liable to feed the hybrid. Don’t say that a gene causes behavior without saying exactly how; be careful to say how a brain structure’s function is a part of the conscious mind instead of bypassing it, and how ancient evolutionary pressures make you feel and think a certain way rather than act a certain way.

Scientists might be likely to heed such advice (and frequently do) but unfortunately science journalists are less likely to. It’s partly because undermining the paradigm through which a reader is likely to perceive an article makes it more difficult and unrewarding to read and write, and partly because the hybrid lends itself well to sensationalism.

Unnatural demystification

The “worldening process” provokes resistance, regardless of whether it’s done deliberately or through slow cultural change. Even with something like love, which few would call supernatural out loud, we prefer not to be totally explicit with the idea that there is nothing transcendent about it either.

Dennett uses humor as an example. Not that humor is normally considered supernatural, but it is still insufficiently worldened if “funniness” is considered an intrinsic, nonreducible quality rather than something we project onto things. From Consciousness Explained:

And we can know in advance that if we actually come up with such an account, it won’t satisfy everybody! Some people who consider themselves antireductionists complain that the biological account of pain and pain-behavior leaves out the painfulness, leaves out the “intrinsic awfulness” of pain that makes is it what it is, and they will presumably make the same complaint about any account of laughter we can muster: it leaves out the intrinsic hilarity. This is a standard complaint about such explanations: “All you’ve explained is the attendant behavior and the mechanisms, but you’ve left out the thing in itself, which is the pain in all its awfulness.” This raises complicated questions, which would be considered at length in chapter 12, but for the time being we can note that any account of pain that the left in the awfulness would be circular—it would have an undischarged virtus dormitiva[4] on its hands. Similarly, a proper account of laughter must leave out the presumed intrinsic hilarity, the zest, the funniness, because their presence would merely postpone the attempt to answer the question.

His books contain many thought experiments meant to demonstrate how worldening can occur while allowing us to keep our concepts, but by his own admission they aren’t very successful. They’re of course wasted on most of his readers who already agree with the desirability and necessity of worldening; but those who don’t refuse to get the point. Possibly because they don’t understand it, but he thinks that there are other forces at play.

These exercises in imagination-shifting seemed to me to do the trick, but I must say that the message just doesn’t seem to take. I’ve finally come to realize that many people like the confusion. They don’t want to adjust their imaginations. They like to say that I deny the existence of consciousness, that I deny the existence of free will.

Right. Dismantling this mode of thought isn’t easy. We tend to enjoy conceptual realism, and on some level we all wish to live in a world whose fundamental building blocks are the kind of things we find important[5] and where meaning, importance, good and evil aren’t just in our heads. Even staunch materialists take enjoyment in fantasy fiction decribing such realities. A Harry Potter-like world in which Happiness is something that monsters feed on, where Luck is a golden liquid we can ingest and Love is a potent magical force that is studied behind closed doors at the Department of Mysteries resonates deeply with something in us.

Perhaps fantasy fiction and such can actually be helpful. It may very well be that stories of magical worlds work to highlight the difference between such worlds and our own and thus place their characteristics firmly within the realm of imagination. You could read the Harry Potter books as a work of irony, showing us a world structured according to our own intuitive metaphysics and how alien it is compared to what we see around us. Fantasy fiction might also provide an acceptable outlet[6] for our need to feel that Good and Evil is unproblematic, that the moral judgments we make are not only justified but Justified in a way that frees us from having to consider that we might be wrong, or that knowledge of causation plants seeds of doubt about the appropriateness of those feelings of praise or blame that we feel. Abandoning the feelings of moral and intellectual certainty and lack of ambiguity that feels so good is a part of growing up, and we do need to grow up.

Perhaps all that can be done is simply to wait and hope that the scientific image spreads by osmosis. Perhaps we can at some point live with how things not real as in ontologically fundamental can still be real in some other way. Maybe overcompensating by adopting an edgy hard determinism will lose its appeal when rejecting magical wills becomes less noteworthy.

The way there is rocky, though. Several paradigms side by side wouldn’t be that bad if it didn’t give rise to the hybrid, which fuels hostility to science plus moral confusion. I’m still optimistic because I see things going the right way; psychology, genetics and neuroscience have advanced by leaps and bounds and made a place for themselves in the popular consciousness over the last decades. And while the hybrid can do damage in the short term I don’t think it’s ultimately stable. It’s too depressing and we humans are good at rejecting ideas that make us feel bad about ourselves.


My supervisor commented that I ought to qualify the word “sciences” with the word “natural” to emphasize that the naturalistic paradigm is only firmly lodged in the natural sciences and not necessarily in the social and human sciences. I won’t, and it’s telling that he brought it up. I chose this wording because I wanted to make a point, and that is that in my opinion, methodological naturalism is what makes science science. “The scientific project” refers to the enterprise of explaining the universe and everything in it, how it came to exist and have the properties that it does, in a complete, self-contained way. To “do science” is to participate in this project and “sciences” are the disciplines that work towards the common goal of building that explanatory system. Others should not be considered sciences but something else.

Some disciplines called sciences or considered scientific have significant components of “something else” in them, and this is problematic. It bothers me when, for instance, human beings or abstractions like “culture” are treated as prime movers. This isn’t metaphysically defensible and I wish that all disciplines examining the world in some way would make it clear for themselves whether they consider humans to be natural or not. If they do, they need to get rid of explanations using humans (or culture, or anything at all for that matter) as prime movers. And if they don’t, come clean and admit that they subscribe to a supernatural, explicitly antiscientific worldview and acknowledge that they aren’t part of the scientific project.

This is the subject of another essay I wrote for a course in History of Science, and it ties into the themes in this series. I would’ve liked to have had a section in Campbellian Thinking in the Wild about Campbellianism in academic discourse since there is plenty of material to draw inspiration from. Sadly, opening that gargantuan can of worms is beyond the scope of this series. It’s an excellent topic for a rather large book.

To sum up (yes, I’m summing up a footnote), the reason I claim that there is one overarching paradigm encompassing the sciences is that I think that only disciplines working within that paradigm should really be called sciences. That might be a strong claim, but to me it’s inescapable if one draws the assumption of intelligibility to its logical conclusion.

Blackmore argues that memes create a sense of self by evolving to refer to an imagined central mental entity (which we then assume exists independently), e.g “I believe grass is green” is a more fit meme than “grass is green” because piggybacking on our social identity and personal status makes them more likely to be spread and defended by us. The full argument is in her book The Meme Machine.

2017 comment: This post on Otium touches on how identity building works and how it might be relevant to meme fitness.

Shaping our notions of morality and responsibility must be about making decisions, not finding answers. It’s like Monopoly, in that it’s a system of rules we create in order to achieve desirable results (a fun game). We don’t sit silently in deep thought trying to discover the “true” rules of a board game we’re designing or act despondent when we understand that there is no such thing. So it’s all arbitrary? No, some games work better than others, clearly. We do still disagree on what the best possible game is like, of course, but looking for “the True Rules” as a way of solving such conflicts is entirely the wrong approach.

This refers to an earlier discussion of a joke where the explanation of why a herb causes people to fall asleep is that is has “sleep-causing power” (virtus dormitiva in Latin), which of course is not an explanation at all.

2017 comment: In other words, we want actual reality to correspond to our social reality. Being reminded that it doesn’t is painful.

Like how team sports are an acceptable outlet for tribalism and appetite for war.

2017 AD


Now, eight years after I wrote this, I find myself broadly in agreement while wanting to criticize my younger self in a number of ways, such as:

“You go off on tangents too much and opine on things without justifying yourself.”

“You spend too much time on arguing for the superiority of the scientific view even though that’s not your main point.”

“Even when you’re not arguing for it, you throw around a lot of remarks about how the scientific view is obviously correct. It makes you look arrogant.”

“It’s obvious a lot of the writing is just you trying to sound clever with unneccesarily complex and formal sentences. Luckily for you (or rather, for me) I edited most of that out, which suggests I’ve become at least a little less insecure/pretentious. Then again, I don’t have to impress philosophy professors these days.”

“Some parts are meandering and a little non-sequitur. Many things seem to be there because you had read then, found them interesting and wanted to fit them in somewhere.”

“You have to become better at communicating across large inferential distances, often it’s hard to follow your train of thought because it isn’t as obvious what you mean as you think it is.”

“You dismiss people’s need for real, ‘thick’, concepts and an objective, ‘true’, meaning of life too glibly. I have an idea why: you thought you knew about the ultimate meaninglessness of life and had accepted it just fine. You hadn’t. You’d just been inside a system of meaning you took for granted your entire life — the education process (from preschool to university) — and didn’t know what life would be like outside it.”

Still, I feel I have nothing to be ashamed of. I do realize that if I wanted to communicate the main idea more effectively to a different audience (i.e. to people whose job is something other than reading my essays) I should have written a single post with all the irrelevant stuff cut out. Descriptions of the two images a couple of paragraphs each, max. Only a handful of examples. Less padding to get the page count up and less referencing philosophers’ semi-relevant work just to show that I’d read stuff (“engaging with the literature”).

I might write that version some day. Until then, I hope it’s been enjoyable for you dear readers who’ve followed the series to its end. Thanks for listening to me go on and on and on.


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