Which Parts Are “Me”?

Every­thing I am, is surely my brain; but I don’t ac­cept ev­ery­thing my brain does, as “me”.

Though I don’t like the fact, it does seem in my case to be true, that re­flect­ing upon a pas­sion can diminish it. It does seem that in tak­ing a step back from my­self to look at what my brain is do­ing, that this in­tro­duces a greater emo­tional dis­tance from the world, than when I am not re­flect­ing. Though I am ex­tremely cau­tious when it comes to the moral is­sue of how to mod­ify hu­man na­ture, this is one thing that I would change, I think.

The point at which you start think­ing that not ev­ery­thing that goes on your brain is to be iden­ti­fied with “you”, is some­thing of a Ru­bi­con, I fear. And those who prize the in­ten­sity of a sim­ple pas­sion­ate ex­is­tence, above suc­cess in life or a com­plex lay­ered per­son­al­ity, should not cross that Ru­bi­con.

(Though in this case you should ac­cept ad­vice from ra­tio­nal­ists about prac­ti­cal poli­cies for guard­ing your­self, be­cause this is a dan­ger­ous world in which to be un­re­flec­tive. For ex­am­ple: if you don’t fol­low the link to the rest of this post, then sign the #$!@ up for cry­on­ics re­gard­less of what your sim­ple pas­sions say on the sub­ject.)

Still here? Then here is the Ru­bi­con of which I speak:

(1) Never see­ing ex-girlfriend-X again is so ter­ribly un­bear­ably sad!
(2) Why am I so ter­ribly sad?
(3) Damn, my stupid brain is still ob­sess­ing about this when I just want to get over it.

The first sce­nario is what I would call the in­ten­sity of sim­ple pas­sion; noth­ing be­tween the world and the emo­tions. The sen­tence con­tains no “I” to get in the way. There is noth­ing to think about ex­cept the world it­self, the sad­ness and the miss­ing per­son.

In the sec­ond sce­nario it is not the world that is sad, but some par­tic­u­lar per­son, an “I”; and the sad­ness of this “I” is some­thing that can be called into ques­tion.

And in the third sce­nario, the bor­ders of “I” have been drawn in a way that doesn’t in­clude ev­ery­thing in the brain, so that “I” is the vic­tim of the brain, strug­gling against it. And this is not para­dox­i­cal. Every­thing that I am, has to be in my brain some­where, be­cause there is nowhere else for it to be. But that doesn’t mean I have to iden­tify with ev­ery­thing that my brain does. Just as I draw the bor­der of “me” to in­clude my brain but ex­clude my com­puter’s CPU—which is still a sen­si­ble de­ci­sion at least for now—I can define the bor­der of my­self to ex­clude cer­tain events that hap­pen in my brain, which I do not con­trol, do not want to hap­pen, and do not agree with.

That time I faced down the power-cor­rupts cir­cuitry, I thought, “my brain is dump­ing this huge dose of un­wanted pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment”, and I sat there wait­ing for the surge to go away and try­ing not to let it af­fect any­thing.

Think­ing “I am be­ing tempted” wouldn’t have quite de­scribed it, since the de­liber­ate pro­cess that I usu­ally think of as “me”—the lit­tle voice in­side my own head—was not even close to be­ing swayed by the at­tempted dose of re­ward that neu­ral cir­cuit was dump­ing. I wasn’t tempted by power; I’d already made my de­ci­sion, and the ques­tion was en­forc­ing it.

But a dan­ger­ous state of mind in­deed it would have been, to think “How tempt­ing!” with­out an “I” to be tempted. From there it would only be a short step to think­ing “How won­der­ful it is to ex­er­cise power!” This, so far as I can guess, is what the brain cir­cuit is sup­posed to do to a hu­man.

So it was a fine thing that I was re­flec­tive, on this par­tic­u­lar oc­ca­sion.

The prob­lem is when I find my­self get­ting in the way of even the parts I call “me”. The joy of helping some­one, or for that mat­ter, the sad­ness of death—these emo­tions that I judge right and proper, which must be me if any­thing is me—I don’t want those feel­ings diminished.

And I do bet­ter at this, now that my metaethics are straight­ened out, and I know that I have no spe­cific grounds left for doubt­ing my feel­ings.

But I still sus­pect that there’s a lit­tle dis­tance there, that wouldn’t be there oth­er­wise, and I wish my brain would stop do­ing that.

I have always been in­side and out­side my­self, for as long as I can re­mem­ber. To my mem­ory, I have always been re­flec­tive. But I have wit­nessed the growth of oth­ers, and in at least one case I’ve taken some­one across that Ru­bi­con. The one now pos­sesses a more com­plex and lay­ered per­son­al­ity—seems more to me now like a real per­son, even—but also a greater emo­tional dis­tance. Life’s lows have been smoothed out, but also the highs. That’s a sad trade­off and I wish it didn’t ex­ist.

I don’t want to have to choose be­tween san­ity and pas­sion. I don’t want to smooth out life’s highs or even life’s lows, if those highs and lows make sense. I wish to feel the emo­tion ap­pro­pri­ate to the event. If death is hor­rible then I should fight death, not fight my own grief.

But if I am forced to choose, I will choose sta­bil­ity and de­liber­a­tion, for the sake of what I pro­tect. And my per­son­al­ity does re­flect that. What you are will­ing to trade off, will some­times get traded away—a dire warn­ing in full gen­er­al­ity.

This post is filed un­der “moral­ity” be­cause the ques­tion “Which parts of my brain are ‘me’?” is a moral ques­tion—it’s not pre­dicted so much as cho­sen. You can’t perform a test on neu­ral tis­sue to find whether it’s in or out. You have to ac­cept or re­ject any par­tic­u­lar part, based on what you think hu­mans in gen­eral, and your­self par­tic­u­larly, ought to be.

The tech­nique does have its ad­van­tages: It brings greater sta­bil­ity, be­ing less sub­ject to sud­den changes of mind in the winds of mo­men­tary pas­sion. I was un­set­tled the first time I met an un­re­flec­tive per­son be­cause they changed so fast, seem­ingly with­out an­chors. Reflec­tion con­veys a visi­bly greater depth and com­plex­ity of per­son­al­ity, and opens a realm of thought that oth­er­wise would not ex­ist. It makes you more moral (at least in my ex­pe­rience and ob­ser­va­tion) be­cause it gives you the op­por­tu­nity to make moral choices about things that would oth­er­wise be taken for granted, or de­cided for you by your brain. Wak­ing up to re­flec­tion is like the differ­ence be­tween be­ing an en­tirely hel­pless pris­oner and vic­tim of your­self, ver­sus be­com­ing aware of the prison and get­ting a chance to es­cape it some­times. Not that you are de­part­ing your brain en­tirely, but the you that is the lit­tle voice in your own head may get a chance to fight back against some cir­cuits that it doesn’t want to be in­fluenced by.

And the tech­nique’s use, to awaken the un­re­flec­tive, is as I have de­scribed: First you must cross the gap be­tween events-in-the-world just be­ing ter­ribly sad or ter­ribly im­por­tant or what­ever, of them­selves; and say, “I feel X”. Then you must be­gin to judge the feel­ing, say­ing, “I do not want to feel this—I feel this way, but I wish I didn’t.” Jus­tify­ing your­self with “This is not what a hu­man should be”, or “the emo­tion does not seem ap­pro­pri­ate to the event”.

And fi­nally there is the Ru­bi­con of “I wish my brain wouldn’t do this”, at which point you are think­ing as if the feel­ing comes from out­side the in­ner you, im­posed upon you by your brain. (Which does not say that you are some­thing other than your brain, but which does say that not ev­ery brain event will be ac­cepted by you as you.)

After cross­ing this Ru­bi­con you have set your feet fully upon the re­flec­tive Way; and I’ve yet to hear of any­one turn­ing back suc­cess­fully, though I think some have tried, or wished they could.

And once your feet are set on walk­ing down that path, there is noth­ing left but to fol­low it for­ward, and try not to be emo­tion­ally dis­tanced from the parts of your­self that you ac­cept as you—an effort that a mind of sim­ple pas­sion would not need to make in the first place. And an effort which can eas­ily back­fire by draw­ing your at­ten­tion to the lay­ered depths of your self­hood, away from the event and the emo­tion.

Some­where at the end of this, I think, is a mas­tery of tech­niques that are Zen­like but not Zen, so that you have full pas­sion in the parts of your­self that you iden­tify with, and dis­tance from the pieces of your brain that you re­ject; and a com­plex lay­ered per­son­al­ity with a sta­ble in­ner core, with­out smooth­ing out those highs or lows of life that you ac­cept as ap­pro­pri­ate to the event.

And if not, then screw it, let’s hack the brain so that it works that way. I have no con­fi­dence in my abil­ity to judge how hu­man na­ture should change, and would sooner leave it up to a more pow­er­ful mind in the same meta­moral refer­ence frame. But if I had to guess, I think that’s the right thing to do.