Ego as the Radical Assertion of Difference

Posted: August 16, 2012 in Braak, crotchety ranting, crushing genius
Tags: , , ,

So, because I have a job where I don’t have to think very hard, I get to listen to iTunes lectures all day. One of the lectures that I’ve been listening to is Shelly Kagan’s philosophy-intro course “Death.” (I actually stopped listening to it for a while, because he seemed like he was spending a lot of time making sure everyone else was with him in the lectures, and if there’s one thing I don’t have time for, it’s slowing down. I guess that just goes to show that I would kick the shit out of a degree in philosophy at Yale.) One of the things that comes up in a course on death is the question of mind-body duality, and Kagan (even though he doesn’t believe in mind-body duality) obligingly presented a variation on the thought experiment that Descartes used to figure out that the mind was fundamentally separate from the body:

So, imagine this. You wake up in the morning, you get up out of bed. It’s cold. You feel the cold floor under your feet. You feel a cool breeze. You can see your bedroom all around you. You go into the bathroom and you look in the mirror, AND YOU HAVE NO BODY. Nothing there, no eyes or brain or anything like that. You’re not transparent, you’re not invisible, you’re just flat-out bodiless.

Descartes felt like this was pretty strong evidence that the mind and the body must be different things, because how could you imagine one thing both existing and not existing simultaneously? The mind must be different, because if it were the same, you couldn’t conceive of them separately. Or could you?

Kagan goes on with another thought experiment (he says he didn’t make it up, but he also doesn’t say where it came from):

Imagine the morning star in the sky. Good. Now, imagine the evening star in the sky. Also good. Now, can you imagine the morning star existing WITHOUT the evening star? You can? But wait! The morning star and the evening star are the same thing! HOW IS IT POSSIBLE? It must therefore be the case that we CAN imagine something existing and not existing.

I don’t think this is a good argument, because no one has any trouble imagining a thing existing and THEN not existing. The whole point of imagination is that things can pop in and out of existence however you like, and the fact that it’s “the morning star” has an additional identifier. Of course, both morning and evening stars are the planet Venus. But “morning star” isn’t JUST Venus, it’s “Venus-at-this-particular-time-of-day,” and “evening star” isn’t JUST Venus, it’s “Venus-at-this-particularly-different-time-of-day”. So while you can’t imagine Venus simultaneously existing and not existing, you can certainly imagine Venus existing at this particular time of day, and imagine Venus not existing at this particularly different time of day.

But Kagan also made a number of other comparisons, one of them stuck out at me. He said, “Imagine this podium existing and not existing!” Well, that’s hard, how do you imagine a thing existing and not existing simultaneously? But. But here’s the thing, you could imagine the FUNCTION of the podium existing, right? You can imagine papers floating at a convenient reading level without anything to support them, right? You can’t imagine a car existing without a car, but you can definitely imagine driving without a car, right? People just floating down the street in a sitting position, humming to themselves (because the radio is in the car, and there’s no actual car).

In fact, you can basically imagine the predicate of any sentence, both the verb and the object that the verb acts upon, without the subject. I can’t imagine sorting jellybeans without jelly beans, but I can definitely imagine jelly beans being sorted without me. And I can’t imagine looking into the mirror without the mirror, but I can definitely imagine looking into the mirror without eyes (hey, I just did, in this thought experiment!).

So, it doesn’t seem completely strange that I can imagine seeing things or feeling things or hearing things without a body, because obviously I don’t need a subject — I can imagine “[blank] feels the floor,” because I need a verb, and I need an object, but the subject is less important. Which is fine, then, if the mind is only the process of thinking — the world, maybe, is the object, “seeing” or “considering” is the verb — and whatever is doing the thinking, who cares? Whatever is or isn’t there, it doesn’t matter, subject isn’t necessary.

Except, it doesn’t quite solve the problem, which is what I like about the theory. Obviously, I don’t NEED to think of a subject, and therefore it doesn’t matter whether or not “I” am different from “my brain”, but it doesn’t change the fact that if I’m NOT seeing anything, or cogitating or anything like that, if I’m just being I and imagining that I am even though I imagine that my brain doesn’t exist, then “I” and “brain” must still be two different things, right? If I’ve subtracted the verb here and the outside world — locked myself in an oven or something — it’s still fundamentally inescapable that at some point I’m separating the notion of “I” from the mechanism of “my brain”, and therefore they must somehow be ontologically distinct.

Unless, of course (this is the part that I like), “I” isn’t a subject at all, because it’s not a noun at all, it’s actually a verb. We treat it like a noun, but that’s fine, we can treat verbs like nouns in English, and maybe we should say instead of “I”, we should say “I-ing,” because actually I and the Ego aren’t really things at all. They’re functions, performed by the brain (the Invisible Subject) on…what? Data, I guess. We get light that comes from objects, it hits our eyes, gets turned into electricity, and our brain starts crunching the data. A part of the brain has the task of…let’s call it a Radical Assertion of Difference — that some data that comes in through the sensorium is fundamentally different from other data. And maybe it makes predictions about that category of data (category 1, we’ll call it) and it ties those predictions up with that data, while it makes predictions about the other data (category 2 data, and that’s data like, I can see a bird, and based on the way that it’s flopping on the ground, my brain predicts that its wing is hurt). The brain radically asserts two fundamentally different domains of thought: one is “Ego”, the other is “Everything Else”, and then starts building up on top of those domains, keeping them largely divided and periodically throwing information back and forth between them.

This has some pretty interesting implications for personal identity, and I want to write about them to. To start with, though, I’m just going to start trying all the parts of my brain as active verbs that don’t take “I” as a subject. Like, what does it mean to feel bad? “I am depressed.” Well, “depressed” isn’t an active verb, right? If I am depressed, it’s because something is pressing down on me (literally, but obviously “depression” in this sense is metaphorical, so really what is actually happening?). And “I” isn’t a thing anyway, it’s a thing that my brain is doing to data — so, not only, “what is actually happening?” but also, “what is it actually happening to?” And, importantly, why is my brain asserting that what’s happening goes in the “I” category of difference, and not in the “everything else” category of difference?

Oooh! Am I only stuck with two categories?

  1. braak says:

    Incidentally, he does another thought experiment about continuity of identity that this dude from Notre Dame (a philosopher whose name presently escapes me, because fuck personalities) threw a monkeywrench into. It’s the Our Son Built This Tower problem, and I think I’ve solved it pretty easily, using an argument similar to my “Morning Star” counter-argument, which just goes to show that I am probably better at philosophy than people from Yale AND people from Notre Dame.

    You hear that, Shelly Kagan? I HAVE FIGURED OUT THE ANSWER!

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