Thursday, December 17, 2009

From Metaphysics to Politics: High horses and the myth of identity.

I'd like to start today's philosophical sojourn with a thought experiment. Cut off your pinky in your mind's eye. Are you still yourself? Of course you are. What about your arm? Without your arm, you're still yourself. Both arms, both legs, even your torso - if you could survive as a Futurama-style head in a jar, you'd still be yourself. You'd have lost your gastroenteric and spinal nervous systems, and those go a long ways farther to influencing your "brainy self" than most people realize, but you'd still more or less be you.

The same goes for your hair color. If I woke up tomorrow with blonde hair, but otherwise the same, I'd still be D. If I woke up tomorrow with green skin, I'd still be me. If I woke up tomorrow in a body of the opposite sex, I'd still be who I am, that one thing about me would have just been changed independently of all other things.

How about your past? Take any day of your life, and delete it from your history. It could be the most important day of your life, but you were still you before it, and you'd still go through the changes you'd go through afterwards (although perhaps a radically different set of particular changes) in a continuously changing flux of "you." The same goes for each and every facet of your personality, every emotional reaction you've ever had, and so on and so forth. Take yourself apart, and where is the "you?" There is no "essence of you," aside from a constantly-changing patchwork mish-mash of atoms and the events those atoms have been through.

There is no such thing as "you."

Lots of people, yourself included, have "an idea of you." And as the philosophers Parker and Stone have reminded us, an idea doesn't need to have a referent in order to have effects in the world. The idea of you is a real idea, but it is not the same thing as you any more than your idea of a duck is an actual duck (for clarity, your idea of a duck is not a duck). Actually, when you get right down to it, there's no such thing as "a duck," either (just "atoms arranged duck-wise," which is practically the same thing but not exactly), because all language is language of convenience. So even though there's "really" no such thing as you on the one hand, of course there's "really" such a thing as you on the other. To remain intellectually honest, however, we have to keep both of these senses in mind when we talk about ourselves so that we can make sure that we're not confusing the two in our own minds, conflating them when speaking to others, or equivocating between them while trying to make a point.

Why do we need to do this? Well, to not do this would be careless and stupid, I think. Do you want to be careless and stupid? I don't know. I sure don't. But there's no law saying that you can't be careless and stupid, so to each his or her own, I guess. Keep that in mind for part two, coming soon! (Guess what? Soon is now!)

Much has been said lately, in the corners of the Universe that I frequent (I'm not just talking about the internet here), about all the wrongs that have been done to this group/person at the hands of that group/person. It's a real shame - I'm not being facetious or sarcastic at all here, it really is a shame. Suffering is a part of life, it's not all flowers and rainbows. But then people go and do something weird: rather than actually try to work together to do something constructive about it, some douchebags seem to want only to whine and whine. They seem, for whatever reason, unwilling or unable to get outside their own heads and stop taking things personally. Yes, these things often affect them personally, and that's rotten, but even though it's very real in one sense, it's all in your head in another important sense. Both senses are valuable, because while the former can help you motivate others to be on your side, the latter will help you make your case without whining.

Now, I want to get one thing very straight at this point: some people talk about their problems because they want sympathy, and some people talk about their problems because they want solutions. Some people only respond to talk of problems with sympathy, and some people only respond to talk of problems with solutions. Doing only one or the other of these is incomplete, and that's the TL;DR version of my beef today. As emotional creatures, we need sympathy - so give it when you can! Really! Be sympathetic to your fellow human beings and their experiences. But problems are for solving, too, so offer solutions as well! And when you tell people about your problems, be grateful for what sympathy you do get, and also be prepared to make progress and move towards solutions, which will involve taking a little advice, because it's probably coming your way anyway. So be a little tough on yourself, swallow your pride, and take whatever comes your way as an opportunity to learn.

Or did you think you had the right to tell other people how they ought to respond to you? Or the ability to control how others think of you? You're not the main character, y'know. Everyone's got problems. Sure, lots of people don't know what it's like to be you, but you don't know what it's like to be anyone else, either, so stay off that high horse. Besides, at the end of the day, the world is under no obligation to take you seriously, and you're not entitled to anything. Every single part of you, every facet of your personality, every choice you've made, every word you utter, every action you take, is subject to question and ridicule. So what?

So what, ideed. This is not a rhetorical question, I really mean this: take anything that's happened to you, any injustice you've suffered, whatever storm you've weathered. Ask yourself, "So what?" And keep asking it. So it's wrong - so what? So, it hurts! So what? So this is bad for the whole world! So what? Keep asking so what, and you'll see that dwelling on the negatives is pointless - it's the wrong attitude to take. Yes, it hurts and is bad and is unfair, and yes, that sucks, and yes, that's awful. But so what?

So, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and do something. "I shouldn't have to!" Wrong attitude, asshole. "I already am!" Really? Awesome! Again: so what? We'll go a better way this time: so I'm fixing problems. So what? So I'm making the world a better place! So what? So, things are going to be a little less awful now. So what?

So, hopefully, you're happy with what you're doing and you've found some meaning in your life. So what? Well, isn't that the point? Hasn't that been the point all along? How we survive is what makes us who we are, so how are you surviving? Are you throwing a tantrum, literal or metaphorical, petulantly tapping your foot as you wait for the world to conform to whatever idea of fairness or justice you think it ought to automatically respect? Or are you getting over your bad self, taking care of your own damn needs, and dealing with people by giving them what they need to get on your team and work with you? One of those approaches works. The other is stupid.

This is politics: dealing with people, giving others what they want in order to get them to give you what you want. It's not always fair, it often sucks, but it's how things work. And if you get enough people on your team, you can get things headed towards your way in the long run. Doing this in the best way possible requires an uncommon level of honesty and self-awareness that can only come from refusing to let your wounds define you. If you choose to forge your identity (and imaginary as it is, we all have an identity) from all the wrong that's been done to you, if you insist upon emphasizing your victim status, then you cannot reasonably expect anything other than continuous failure and misery.

But even if you do everything right, then you will still suffer failures and setbacks from time to time. That's just how things go sometimes. It sucks. And things aren't always this simple, I know. What I'm saying is, simplify things for yourself. Are you missing some advantages enjoyed by others in society? That sucks! So take them. If you got a sub-par education, go to the library and give yourself a better one. Shitty social circle? Make new friends. Low self-esteem? Start taking steps to improve your life and build your self-esteem on that. Heal your own wounds. Take control of your own life. You can't ever do it all the way, and you might not win, but you can start, and you can keep at it, and you can refuse to let the bastards keep you down. And then you can put yourself in a position to help others like you, because you'll have something to offer, even if it's only the wisdom of your years or the experience of what doesn't work. I mean, you can't fix everything right away; but you can't even start to fix the world until and unless you've started fixing yourself. And complaints never fixed anything.

This post was featured in the 47th Humanist Symposium.


Ebonmuse said...

I have a feeling that I know what this is in reference to.

Anyway, I do like the "there is no such thing as 'you'" thing. It's a very Buddhist sentiment, and though I don't agree with every single thing the Buddha said, this is one thing he got dead right.

Western philosophers have a similar concept under the term of rigid designators. Is there a possible world in which I do not exist? Of course, obviously. Is there a possible world in which I do exist, but had a different name, different parents, different preferences, a different history, and I wasn't an atheist? Well, then that depends quite a bit on what I mean by "I", doesn't it? Are there characteristics that are essential to defining me, versus those that are just incidental and could have contingently been otherwise without changing who I fundamentally am? Or is it all just dust in the wind, am I just a bundle of contingency, is there nothing that genuinely makes me me?

These are the kinds of circles my brain goes around in on nights when I can't sleep. :)

D said...

I'm one of those folks who thinks that both analytic and continental philosophy are valuable, so of course both camps think I'm a quack. As for what makes you be you, it's the Ship of Theseus problem all over again. Do you just mean the first atoms arranged ship-wise that ever bore Theseus across the sea? Or do you mean the atoms arranged ship-wise that continue to do so on a day-to-day basis? But, of course, explicitly defining what we mean by the term makes the problem go up in smoke.

Similarly, I'd say that a genetically identical copy of you, but with different name/parents/history/beliefs/etc. (same genes, different parents, by getting the same genetic material from the opposite parents, for the sake of argument), would be "you" in one sense and "not you" in a whole bunch of other senses. However, most people seem to think that these senses always "go together," which just ain't so (or if it were, then it would be constantly shifting from moment to moment).

What actually prompted me to write this (in the "straw that broke the camel's back" sense) was a little spat I got into with my brother J. Several, in fact. And conversations I'd had with my father as a result. It has points that tie in with Hutchinson's essay, of course, as well as some stuff I saw on Pharyngula, and a couple of work conversations as well. Post-modernism, identity politics, and taking oneself too seriously have just seemed to crop up in all sorts of places these past couple weeks!

Anyway, thanks for the comment, and have a great evening!