Saturday, 31 December 2011

Origins of the self

I was pleasantly surprised when I chanced upon this article on the BBC website, since it is an area of personal interest to me. This article is about the awareness of others thinking and is actually related to a primate study. Here is the BBC's overview:

Whilst this has not been published yet, we can still look at the potential implications and have a glance at the science behind it. We can also see how it relates to our favourite insight around here, which relates to the insight of the 'self' not existing in real life. 
If you are new to all of this basically the core insight, is that what you perceive of as “you” does not exist in real life. If you actually look in to the truth of this, you will discover that there is no abiding “you” or “I” controlling your life, it actually lives itself and what you thought to be “you”, is actually a convincing illusion manufactured by the mind. 

Don't worry this is not far fetched, Buddha worked it in 500 BC and modern day philosophers such as Julian Baggini and Thomas Metzinger and also various pioneering neurologists, would also agree that the self is an illusion. It seems inconceivable but it is something entirely demonstrable in real life and once you have seen this insight, you are able to see through the illusory and false aspects of reality.

The one thing that hovered over me since I was liberated and became clear to me, was that if there was no self, then there could never have been a self that ever existed. Not once since the big bang, could a self have ever existed and as a consequence of this, there had to be a logical series of steps, leading up to the development of cognitive faculties, language and eventually Homo Sapien's unique “sense of self”, which I originally believed, invoked a structural requirement that we all confused for something real. This never really tallied with me and I thought it was a real mystery so I started researching everything I could about cognitive evolution.

Of course if we look at some Vervet monkey studies, such as the ones conducted by Seyfarth & Cheney (1997) and Fischer (et al 2000); we clearly see a pattern of communication, that was purposeful between primates and this was an extension of just mere animal calls, that denoted emotional states. In the study, they managed to identify the alarm calls that Vervet monkeys make, in response to different predators such as, snakes, birds of prey and leopards. It would seem to follow, that communication could have appeared by a combination of gestures and grunts originally and this was passed on as a very primitive 'proto-language'

In order for this to happen though, the faculties had to be in place already, for pattern recognition of communication and in particular, a basic network of mirror neurons was already needed to be established. So how did this network already exist? Theists would have used the fully blown intellectual surrender strategy, of intelligent design, however, it is obvious that another explanation is more likely, so we need to dig deeper to unravel this mystery.

We see that there is a complex network of mirror neurons in primates, since various studies have been conducted and we can see the similar brain structures that are used in human communication skills. Notably, these are 'Broca's' and 'Wernicke's' areas.

These regions appear similarly in primates and it is apparent, that these parts of the brain also play a role in pattern recognition. In the 80's and 90's, the researchers at Parma university established that certain actions done by a primate would stimulate the same brain area, as when a primate witnessed a researcher copying the same action, when scanned in an fMRI scanner. This led to the hypothesis that these neurons are important in recognising the behaviour of other animals. 

Whilst there are objections to this hypothesis, they seem to be the work of dualist philosophers and whilst the brain is so complex, we cannot reduce the action down to the neuron itself being intelligent. It would seem obscene to do that really anyway, since it is an instrument in an overall system. The fact remains, that the mirror properties of neurons, serve a functional requirement, in the pattern recognition of behaviours, that it seems, is unquestionable. The human brain is far more complicated but it appears that we have more complex layers of neurons exhibiting mirror properties.

Now, once we read this outline of the study on the BBC site, we see a feasible line of how this neural network came to be. Rather than language developing a structural requirement of self, we see that quite plausibly, there has to be a structural requirement of self present before a proto-language can appear. So in this sense, we get to a position where we would have to acquire certain skills first, before we can conceive of a language. So what we need to do is think up of a few instances where the ability of behaviour prediction would give us a survival advantage as a primate. Before recognising knowledge in others, we would have to have certain faculties developed, in order to recognise the world around us first.

Obviously the first two striking ideas, are preempting a violent outburst from another primate and also preempting the behaviour of prey when hunting. We can descend further down the tree of mammals, to see that these things are ingrained throughout many species. We do not necessarily need mirror neurons here in order to react to challenges and react to the movements of prey but in having knowledge of how other primates and objects are behaving and being able to predict their intentions, now that is a useful faculty. 

We see this faculty in ourselves now, except it is not always expressed as a thought. We have all had gut feelings about a pub fight, someone being dishonest and various other scenarios. These are not always expressed as thoughts but as feelings or actions, as instinct.

To illustrate simply, lets just say that I surprised you by bouncing a ball at the wall from the far side of the room and as I threw it, I shouted “catch”. You were able to almost catch it on the rebound but it all happened so fast. At no point did you have to think about the trajectory of the ball bouncing off floor, walls and ceiling, it is just an innate ability to do something. In the same way that there are actions that are just taken, we also have intuitions, can tell when people are in a bad mood without speaking to them, spot someone ill etc...

This innate ability to do certain things, is below the level of thought, we would likely label these as facets of the subconscious. We have this innate pattern recognition and these things in humans, are represented as thoughts ABOUT the fact of the matter. We can sometimes say Miss X is in a bad mood, I should cheer her up but at no point do you have to engage your faculties to spot someone in a bad mood, this is done automatically for the most part.

From here you will act according to the parameters of this interaction, you will likely speak to them in more sympathetic tone for example. Here we are representing a far more advanced system, which has been shaped by evolutionary psychology, social parameters and various other things. The point being made here though, is that behavioural recognition is an innate ability.

So with these intuitions of the behaviour of objects and people, we create a reasonable argument for communication, becoming an extension of these intuitions. Particularly in the case of the Vervet monkeys, it figures that the extension of alarm signals could feasibly come from behavioural recognition but I was never entirely satisfied with this explanation.

So, in taking this idea that primates are showing awareness of another's knowledge, this represents an even further incursion, in to our notions of what intelligence is required, to have an idea of another precondition, for purposeful communication. It would seem that a precondition of foresight and intuition was not enough alone, to facilitate anything more than basic purposeful communication, comprised of alarm calls. It just seemed to be that awareness of some one else's knowledge, might just be one of the missing keys in unlocking the mystery. In order to show awareness of another's knowledge, this indicates a structural requirement of awareness of another subject, having the ability to think and exhibit certain behaviours. In order to recognise that behaviour in others...

That must mean it is recognised in your self.

Then we have this structural requirement before any complex proto-language appears and voilĂ : we invoke a self concept, whilst we were still howling in the trees.

So to have this innate intuition about the knowledge of others, must mean that we are aware of others as separate thinking beings. Of course their language is very limited in scope but we see here, that there is a structural requirement in that very recognition of another as a separate thinking creature. Here we have already made a distinct split, that the other creature is a living, thinking being.

So lets prod this with a stick a little since it is pretty out there. Now does this prove there is a self? I mean I just admitted it there did I not? This structural requirement is necessary and therefore, it must exist. With me so far?

Well lets see, I have backed myself in to a corner here, having invoked a structural requirement but unfortunately, that means we are jumping to a dogmatic conclusion. To demonstrate, as a structural requirement, the brain has to make this distinction of separation and this would logically figure. Does this make the distinction real? More to the point, should the question really be “Is this distinction true?”

We would like to say yes on the level of concepts. Yes there is a distinction to be made and yes, it has a relevant truth value, in terms of us being able to conceptualise about the objective world right in front of us but the reality is....

The truth in real life is.... it is NOT true at all.

The truth of the matter is this:

The mind produced that clear distinction and nothing that the mind creates, can ever be true in of itself.

Anything the mind makes can only ever be and is never anything more, than a representation of the noumenal* world.
(*Remember Kant's distinction is that we can only ever be aware of a representation of the noumenal world, which we call the phenomenal world. The noumenal is the world as it actually is and the phenomenal, is the world as we perceive it by means of representations of the senses).

It follows that your 'self' can never be true, since it is never anything more than a representational split of the noumenal world by the mind.

The mind made the distinction but it is merely a representation of perceptions and therefore, it is nothing more than a thought produced by the mind. From this division we can layer whatever concepts we like, such as self ownership, agency, free will, no matter what properties you think up about the self.

Underneath it all though, there is a concept that your entire life rests on, this distinction made by the mind. With all this stuff added on it does not mean one iota because it is all based on a mind made thought.
a concept + a concept = a new concept or 2 distinct concepts
No matter how we alter this, we always end up with concepts, since we always start with a concept. Therefore “you” can never be anything more than a concept. You do not exist, you never did, you are an illusion.

Seriously, take it back that far and the mind produced an intuition of separation, in order for it to make this division. Self is entirely the product of the mind, a concept. It has no truth value in of itself, it is a representation of the noumenal world. That is about as blunt as we can boil it down, there is no you.

Ahhh... but who made the distinction in the first place? I hear you cry. In order for the mind to distinguish between two things, there had to be a self already there. So now you have to come up with a solution that allows a primate to invent a self concept, meaning the self was there all along, before it could even conceptualise.

A self that didn't think?

No that doesn't work. It could mean that every organism, had to have a self regardless of whether it could conjure one up or not. So how about a simple organism? Can you plausibly tell me that a common cold has a self? It is no more absurd for me to say this, how do you know every organism has not got a self and only primates? You could use the brain as the self to identify with but there again, you don't think you are a brain, you clearly believe you are more than just a brain.
I would agree, that there are other species, who have a structural self requirement and it is a product of the mind, that much is observable. It certainly has utility the concept of self but you just have to keep in mind, it is only a concept. Actually believing this illusion is real, can cause all sorts of problems, like living a lie and beating yourself up over it.
The findings may be proved wrong in this study eventually but to be fair it seems pretty obvious that this is a logical step, in facilitating communication and that it represents a missing link. It also shows that the self is made by the mind, which is true, all you have to do is look.


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