Monday, August 17, 2009

A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Have

I have been traveling for a while; a book reading in Chicago; meeting with a former grad student in SF;a great drive up the west coast to Seattle. I never cease to be amazed how beautiful and varied the US is from one side to another. The trip gave me time to meet some great people, have some very far reaching conversations and read from some unexpected sources. There is one book in particular that I want to pass along.

Lost in the Cosmos by the novelist Walker Percy is a faux self-help book which is, actually, a highly insightful exploration of the problems of the self. Using a series of self-tests written with tongue firmly held in cheek Percy unpacks the fundamental dilemma of being conscious through the slippery and ever shifting nexus of "the self".

A couple of quote from Lost in Cosmos
As soon as the self becomes self-conscious - that is aware of its own unique unformulability in its world of signs - from that moment forward it can not escape the predicament of its own placement in the world.

The self in a world is rich or poor accordingly as it succeeds in identifying its otherwise unspeakable self, e.g., mythicaly, by identifying its otherwise unspeakable self with a world-sign, such as a totem; religiously, by identifying yourself as a creature of God.
But totemism doesn't work in a scientific age because no one believes, no matter how hard he tries, that he can become a tiger or a parakeet.
In a post-religious age the only resources of the self are self as transcendent and self as immanent.

You don't have to agree with all Percy says to see sharp point of his emphasis. Assuming we are the only species on the planet which has granted this evolutionary gift of self-consciousness and, acknowledging the precarious position our use of this gift has placed us in, Percy's insights are timely and useful.

My special thanks to Scott for pointing me to this book.


  1. Hey- good to see you back!

    I think that one thing we really underestimate is just how difficult it is to be fully human. The standard Christian thinking attributes this difficulty to the idea of sin. I disagree. I instead, attribute this difficulty to the idea of "being made in the image of god".

    Consider the Canada Goose paddling along a pond at the onset of winter under a freezing drizzle: it doesn't look like it suffers the least as it dunks its head under the frigid water for bits to eat.

    I think if we were willing to drop back a level of order, from human to the level embodied by geese, we would alleviate almost all of our suffering. But then we'd be giving up that part of us that is captured by the phrase, made in the image of god.

  2. Your quote
    "From that moment it cannot escape the predicament of its own placement in the world"
    seems especially profound. The meaning I attribute to this is that the moment a being acquires self consciousness something new comes into existence, the self, the mind, the soul, the spirit, call it what you will. To the atheist this new 'thing' is transient and inextricably tied to and explained by the brain. To the theist this new 'thing' is persistent and acquires an existence that trancends the brain.

    But regardless, they both agree that something new has come into existence the moment self consciouness is ignited in the brain. This is something so profoundly surprising that it has all the feel of a miracle, much as I shudder at using that word.

    There is of course the mainstream reductionist scientific view of the mind/brain problem. Here they use fMRI to scan the brain while the mind performs some task or other. Then with eager surprise point out what part of the brain has lit up. See, they cry, mind and brain are one and capable of explanation!

    This is as futile as me using an infrared scanner on my computer while it runs programs I have written. Different chips and parts of the chips will light up, depending on what portion of the program is running. This will tell me something (but very little) about the structure of the computer chips and motherboard but it will say precisely nothing about my program. The purpose, functions, methods, intricacies and structure of my program are for the most part independent of the motherboard and will never be discerned by the scanning operation. The beauty, cleverness and elegance of my program will similarly be utterly incomprehensible to such methods of research. And most definitely it will not show that my program and the computer are one and the same thing.
    Switch the computer off and the program dies; or does it? Or perhaps does it continue its existence on some other, newer computer? These are the great divides that separates atheists and theists.

    Some of course label this as an emergent phenomena and indeed it is. But to call it that is merely to label it and not to explain it.

  3. Occasional- I agree with your synopsis. I find that neuroscientists such as Metzinger and Bownds refer to the self as myth and illusion; the only thing that can be real is material; the self is "effemeral". On the other hand, neuroscientists such as Chalmer and Donald see a self that participates in something more than mechanics. Chalmers especially gives serious consideration to the idea of consciousness being fundamental.

    I think as a whole, we're pretty clumsy with the non-material aspects of ourselves. Which is ironic when it's the non-material (think ideas, imagination, reason, experiencing, subjectivity etc.) that makes human being something other than basic animal being.

    Two words that have become interesting to me are, tangible and palpable; the definitions are identical except for one feature: one is real and can be touched by your literal finger, while the other is real and can be touched by your metaphorical finger.

    I don't know that we understand the reality of something palpable yet.

  4. Walker Percy, for me, will forever be thought of as the man who stole Richard Yates' National Book Award in 1962. I mean, The Moviegoer is a good novel, but it's no Revolutionary Road...

  5. Adam,

    Nice book find. Percy ably demonstrates that the self that we hold so common and sure footed is in fact as "slippery" as the quantum world. (at least if you adhere to the Copenhagen understanding.)

    Where those who make Bohr's QM a basis for some sort of "materializing technology of human intention" make their mistake, is that while a superposition is made definite by measurement, the quantum domain has been birthing forth non-quantum domains long before human being shows up.

    I side with the Copenhagen side because I like the idea that the ground of our existence is in-determinant by our standards, which if it were, would suggest that life has to be a certain way- a way that we could control. The success of the non-determinant quantum world suggests to me, that the basis of life is something more subjective than legal: looking at the quantum domain, I see something mysterious compelled and quite able to become; the quantum domain makes our relationship to life, one of trust rather than something legal (law based).

    This said, I would argue that the quantum world is the closest anolog to a human self: while you and I are constituted from the same "physics" each of us embody something that organizes you into you and me into me; something that uses the matter of nature, nurture, culture, semiotics etc., to engender a "triadic" being.

    An interesting question here, becomes, "what affect does the nature of our measuring have on our self's completion of our self?.