Friday, June 12, 2015

The Locus of Self

The locus of self and its implications for our understanding of ourselves as well as the society we are a part of is the topic of this article. I have written about this topic in bits and pieces in other articles preceding this. However, the topic is major enough in itself to be explored separately.
At the heart of it, the conclusion is this: we (at least as we seem to know and model ourselves as) are not residents of the brains and the bodies that we seem to be a part of. We are not outside it in a spatial sense (that would be spooky!) We simply do not have a spatial location. We are enabled by the brains and the bodies in turn. However we do not reside there.

Now the explanation. Firstly ‘we’ in the above needs definition. Let us simplify to define the singular of it i.e. I. The self that we refer to using the pronoun ‘I’ is an illusion, convenient fiction, narrative center of gravity and so on (much has been written by others as well as me on this in previous articles). Hence it does not anyway make sense to look for the location of the illusion. Where does the picture of Mona-Lisa belong? In the pixels, at the retina of the observer or in the abstract plane where that arrangement in that specific pigmentation of color for a specific species called humans has some semantic value (beauty, mystic or whatever else.)?

The self is a complex entity – even as an illusion. It is also very high up in the hierarchy. It seems so obviously mundane to us because the ‘us’ observing and commenting on it is also on the same plane as the self. This is the plane of the strange loop that Hofstadter refers to in his book. The plane of this entity is in the motion and arrangement of the hardware – the primeness and chainium being a good illustrator of it (I have written on this separately.) The hierarchy of systematization is as follows. This tree has some branches that do not grow much beyond their starting point.

Isolated sub atomic particles
Atoms consisting of sub-atomic particles in a specific arrangement
Atoms in isolation
Simple molecules
Chained carbon based molecules
Without nervous system
With nervous system
With language and complex society
Social institutions with causal potency
Static societies with rigid institutions
Individuals or simple socities without generative language

The continuity of the structure as the primary identifier of the unit
What makes an atom unique? If we tracked the existence of a specific oxygen atom, is the atom supposed to be different after an exchange of electron with another oxygen atom in forming a O2 molecule? What if it returns to the atomic state – and we have no idea whether it is the same electron that it “contributed” while forming the molecule that it got back? We do not ask such questions and some may even (partially correctly) brand them as silly. Why? Because the atom is the specific arrangement of nucleus and orbiting electrons. Till such time that arrangement prevails, there is no question to be asked about the identity of specific constituents. The constituents if you may, are fungible. The structure is the identity. Ship of Thesius if you will!
Now moving up, it is trivially obvious that this applies to simple as well as complex molecules – the atoms that make them can come and go as long as the overall structure of the molecule is maintained. One more level up and we bump into genetic material or simple organisms like Viri. Here too, it is universally acknowledged that the complex molecules that make these systems are fungible even if potent. One level up to complex organisms and we realize that even the specific cells (which themselves treat the specific molecules as fungible) are now dispensable. The higher level arrangement matters more.
With human beings, things move forward to abstractions. This is a crucial jump. It is very evident that we never think twice about someone being the same person after an organ transplant (other than brain that is – but that’s anyway a matter of fiction for now.) Entire organs have been replaced in human beings with little difference to their personality or being.
This individuality is what we need to examine to understand the locus of human self.

Where am I?
It is at the juncture that I would introduce the other inference I have reached (and some others before me have reached too.) It is as follows – it is not that animals evolves into apes that evolved into us as we know them. Instead it is the substrate of life that upgraded gradually through evolution to support more and more complex beings with increasing levels of abstraction. This continues down to the pre nervous system animals too. The Maturana model of animals and their nervous systems is relevant here. The nervous systems evolve in response to the pressures of environment. Some of them evolve sufficiently to enable linguistic domains and language. This language enables complex societies. After the complex societies and language are in place, there is sufficient infrastructure for the emergence of selves on the set. We have arrived, not evolved.

In this sense, we are aliens to the bodies. The predecessors to the bodies did not have less evolved versions of the equivalents of the selves. We showed up relatively suddenly (on the timescale of evolution.)