Thursday, 10 September 2020

DNA? Nurture? What makes us what we are?

Yesterday I read the following short article by Robert Plomin, an American psychologist and geneticist best known for his work in twin studies and behaviour genetics:

Parenting myths and the DNA revolution

I recommend people read this before proceeding further, it is only very short.

My own position is that the notion that we are born blank slates and it is purely the environment that makes everything we are, is preposterous.  I briefly touch on this issue here.  I should stress, though, that our environment does, of course, shape and mould our behaviour.  This is often a persona that one learns to put on in order to be accepted by others.  But also, as we grow older, most of us (but not everyone) can acquire genuine empathy and compassion as a result of their interactions with others.  However, the notion that everything we are -- all our interests, our treatment of others and so on -- is wholly due to our environment, I find extraordinarily implausible.   


The article states that:

 "children growing up in the same family with the same parents are no more similar than if the children were raised in different families".
So, in other words, regardless of whether 2 children are brought up in the same family or whether each of them are brought up in different families, the author is claiming that this will not affect their personalities.  This is compatible with my own position since, though I think we can change by acquiring empathy and so on, this is not something that can easily be taught.  Moreover, this is largely only applicable once one reaches adulthood in any case.

The author states that his fifty years of research shows that:
inherited DNA differences account for about 50% of the differences between children for all psychological traits.  
So what about the other 50% if it is not due to the environment?  This is the interesting part.  The author says:
Following years of research trying to identify the environmental factors that make children in the same family different from one another, I conclude that they are mostly idiosyncratic, random factors over which parents have little control—in a word, chance. 


Of course, saying that the other 50% of all psychological traits is due to "idiosyncratic, random factors" is to say precisely nothing.  He is effectively saying, I have no idea what accounts for the other 50%, it beats me.  In other words he's floundering, flummoxed, unable to come up with any conceivable mechanism for the other 50%.

What seems to me to be happening here is that the author presupposes that we are purely material beings and hence it can only be the environment or our genetic makeup or some combination thereof, that can possibly explain the entirety of our psychological traits.  It seems that virtually the entire academic community are in this straitjacket, confining their thoughts to only those possibilities consonant with a naturalistic metaphysic. Virtually all of them believe that our nature is fixed by something external to the self -- whether it be the environment, genetics, or some combination of both. They are implicitly assuming that everything we are is simply a result of impersonal material processes.

This contradicts our commonsensical conception of the self that I have articulated in many of my blog entries, two very recent ones being here and here.  I regard it as a mistake to suppose that anything material -- whether genes or environment -- has to make us what we are. What we are, our essence, is just a fundamental fact not capable of further analysis. At best we might say we self-actualise our own essence. We make ourselves what we are. That is, we self-cause our own nature.

For me, the fact that his research has been unable to account for 50% of all psychological traits is entirely unsurprising, and indeed, to be expected.  It's like being surprised that people who have imbibed the same amount of alcohol don't all act the same.  Yes, they might all become more gregarious, more impulsive, and so on.  But that's just an influence on their distinct essences.  I suspect the genetic component of us plays a similar role. 

 



Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Is your "self" just an illusion?

Just read this: Is Your 'Self' Just an Illusion?   I reject this idea that the self is an illusion.  I believe we are the very same selves throughout our lives, and perhaps before and after our lives too.  This can be accommodated if we regard ourselves as mental substances (read this recent blog post by me).

However, according to the article and contrary to my position, both John Searle, a philosopher of mind at the University of California, Berkeley, and Colin McGinn, a British philosopher of mind, although apparently sympathetic to the feeling we are persisting selves, both have difficulty in imagining how we could be.

Quoting from the article, John Searle said:
The problem with personal identity is, we feel there is a fact that 'I'm me'. But that's hard to pin down philosophically, because all of my experiences change, all of the parts of my body change, all of the molecules in my body change.

He further stated:

You have to postulate a self to make sense of rational behavior. We want to find a 'soul' that is at the bottom of all this … but, of course, there isn't any. 

Colin McGinn said:

The self is something real, but the self has got to be grounded in the brain — the self's unity over time must be a function of what's in the brain. We don't know how that works, but it must be so.

He also adds:

 All we've got is the idea that you, at a later time, are causally connected to you at an earlier time. That isn't the same thing as you persisting through time.

So they have a great deal of difficulty reconciling this idea that we are persisting selves with the idea that the brain produces consciousness.  I sympathise with this.  Our brains are in a constant state of change.  Thus, how could they produce an unchanging self?

Psychologist and skeptic Susan Blackmore outrightly rejects this concept of persisting selves.  She says:

This so-called 'me' is really just another reconstruction. There was an earlier one 30 minutes ago, and there will be others in the future. But they're really not the same person

She further goes on to say "so there's no self to die", because there is no self prior to death and "there's certainly no self to continue after death".

And she also said:

Death has no sting, because there never was a 'you' to die. Every moment is just a new story.

We regard death as the end of us and something to be feared.  But this presupposes we exist before death -- that we are conscious entities that persist from second to second, day to day, even from one year to the next. But, if there's no persisting self, then all this is an illusion.  We effectively are constantly dying every second, only to spring into being anew the next second.  But the new "you" that springs into being each and every second are always replicas (this can best be understood by a teleportation thought experiment.  See a relevant blog essay by me).    I agree with Blackmore that it's kind of liberating to feel that way.  However, that does nothing to make it true.

Finally, we have the famous Daniel Dennett, a philosopher, who, like Blackmore, outrightly rejects the concept of persisting selves.  He says:

The notion that the only thing that could persist is a little, special, unchangeable pearl of self-stuff seems like a fairly lame solution to the problem.

I agree with all four of the quoted philosophers/psychologist that it is extremely difficult to reconcile a persisting self with the notion that the brain produces such a self; indeed perhaps impossible.  But what if the brain doesn't produce consciousness?  In which case the commonsensical self -- what we might label an immaterial self or mental substance -- no longer encounters any such intractable difficulty.   It's of no avail simply stating it's a fairly lame solution.  I think this is simply a reflection of Dennett's view that science explains reality in its totality (i.e modern materialism) leaving no room for that which cannot be measured, a view which I emphatically reject.    

It seems that if we subscribe to materialism, or indeed any position that has the brain producing consciousness, we ought not just to reject an afterlife, but also the notion that we are selves that persist from one second to the next.  Very few people appear to understand how radical this brain produces consciousness thesis actually is. 

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Is the fear of death rational?

I'm not as afraid of dying as I used to be. It's probably the realisation I have perhaps 30 years left and I've come to terms with that fact, or at least I have to a degree. If one thinks a lot of one's impending death, then I think maybe death loses its sting a bit.

(As an aside, I was vastly more afraid of dying in my 20's. Having said that, I had flu when I was about 18. I was bedbound and at one point thought I might possibly die. I felt so ill that my fear of death, to a large extent, dissipated, and I remember thinking it wouldn't be so bad if I died. Yeah, this was flu, or so the doctor said who came to visit me. Up until then I thought flu was like a bad cold!)

So, why are we afraid of dying? Many people think such fear is irrational and like to quote Epicurus who is alleged to have said:
Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.
Of course he's assuming that death is the end of our existence. Let's go with that. Does that make one's fear of death irrational as Epicurus maintains? I don't think so. Contra Epicurus, I would dispute that it is death per se that we fear. Imagine that we could die for an hour, then come back to life again (similar happens under general anaesthesia). There would be no sense of nothingness, rather we would appear to awaken with no sense of time having passed whatsoever. It would be like teleportation, except through time rather than space. If there's little to no fear dying for an hour, then the same surely applies if we were dead for a day, a year, or arguably even a 1000 years.

No, it seems to me that the fear is of eternal nothingness. It's the idea that it is the end of all things. All our wants, desires, loves, fears, hopes, plans, are suddenly all to no avail. Whatever we have achieved (or whether we have achieved nothing), whoever we have loved or hated, all our hopes, yearnings, fears -- all collapse into complete irrelevance. We are all equal at the end. Because nothing will ever happen to us again. Our lives, our existence, all ultimately meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. In a sense, when we die, the Universe might as well cease to be.

Let me hasten to add that this doesn't mean we can't obtain many satisfactions in life (see this blog post by me). But, at some point, it will all be over. And whatever experiences we've lived through, we're now all in the same boat facing eternal oblivion.

All this is antipathetic and repugnant to the yearning soul. We fear from the bottom of our souls this abyss of nothingness. It appears to rob life of all meaning. Very deep inside us we feel, perhaps know, that this cannot be so.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

The Checker-Shadow "illusion" Part 2.



Around 15-20 years ago I had this sudden insight, a sudden understanding. It was pertaining to so-called perceptual illusions.  I suddenly realised that many so-called perceptual illusions are not in fact illusions at all. Close to ten years ago I wrote a blog post regarding the checker-shadow illusion where I explained that, in my opinion, properly speaking, this is not in fact an illusion at all. Before reading further I recommend that people read that blog post. I would also recommend that people read another blog post by me on perceptual illusions here.   And, although not necessary to read, this blog post too might be of interest.  

On searching on the net I've only ever been able to find one person who holds the same opinion as I do that this shadow-checker "illusion" is not in fact an illusion at all.  And that was merely on a discussion forum.  Indeed, I have been vehemently attacked on this issue by many people (although it is clear to me they simply completely fail to understand my argument). Anyway, just a couple of days ago, I discovered a very interesting review of a book regarding colours and which talks about the checker-shadow illusion.  It says:
“Illusion” implies that our system is fooled, but as far as useful information goes, the checkerboard interpretation is probably better. Try as they might, mathematicians can’t make the computers see the checkerboard. Rather than a demonstration of how easily fooled we are, optical illusions like this one are examples of the brain’s mysterious and irreplicable abilities. It interprets its environment with a sophistication that exceeds our ability to measure and reconstruct physical phenomena. The usual framing has it wrong: Despite A and B having the same SSR, humans are still able to see the checkerboard.

First of all, it's gratifying to at last find someone else that agrees with me.  Two other people actually, both the author of the book and the reviewer.

But, anyway, this underscores the fact that in certain respects computers, at least if merely using visual information, cannot see as well as we do.  The fact that computers cannot see the checkerboard implies that they cannot see their environment very well at all.  This is why autonomous cars can't just rely on cameras but require other sensing methods such as LIDAR.  It also partially explains why fully autonomous cars might still be decades away.  Back in 2014 I predicted 2060, which at that time was vastly later than all the predictions of the various pundits.  Almost to the man they thought that fully autonomous cars would be widespread within 5-20 years.

So, despite using highly sophisticated algorithms, computers still cannot see as well as we do.  An interesting question is why can't they?  Why can't they see the checkerboard?  If it is merely the brain that enables us to see, then whatever physical processes are involved, they surely should be able to be matched by suitably sophisticated algorithms.  To me their failure in this regard suggests that something else is required, that consciousness in and of itself  is playing a pivotal role that is enabling us to see proficiently.



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