Friday, February 24, 2012

Monothematic Delusions and the Perception of Identity

Patty Keene was stupid on purpose, which was the case with most women in Midland City. The women all had big minds because they were big animals, but they did not use them much for this reason: unusual ideas could make enemies, and the women, if they were going to achieve any sort of comfort and safety, needed all the friends they could get.

So, in the interests of survival, they trained themselves to be agreeing machines instead of thinking machines. All their minds had to do was to discover what other people were thinking, and then they thought that, too. (Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions, 1973)

People are not truth-seeking machines; we are fitness-maximizing machines. Vonnegut invites us to consider the adaptive advantage of agreeing with our fellows, even if our fellows are wrong; to the extent that we are fitness-maximizing machines, we must necessarily be agreement-seeking, even if it means denying the objective truth or the evidence of our own senses. In addition to avoiding violence, agreement on basic matters enables us to effectively pursue our communication goals, including relationship building and self-presentation as well as information transfer. Agreement on basic matters is essential to the use of language. The messages we pass each other in language are short and dense and require a whole world of shared context to be understood. (This is why language that is to be interpreted hostilely, such as legal language, is notoriously incomprehensible: mutual context-assumption serves comprehensibility.) Something as basic as the identity of people must be assumed in order to understand what others are talking about.

It's almost impossible to maintain a belief or set of beliefs when not surrounded by others who share those beliefs. In the laboratory, subjects will fail to report their true perceptions, and instead report that they share the reported perceptions of the group - especially when the task is defined as important (Baron, 1996). In the real world, religious people who leave their communities generally alter their beliefs toward those of their new communities. Agreement, not truth, is the most important function of a human brain.

In the field of psychiatry, a delusion is a fixed, false belief that does not respond to evidence - importantly, not counting widely shared false beliefs, such as widely-shared religious or nutritional beliefs. Delusions are usually a symptom of schizophrenia or another thought disorder. However, a few very specific monothematic delusions - delusions that relate to only a single theme, rather than being wide-ranging - often present in people who are otherwise normal, but have suffered brain injury, such as from a stroke. To me, the monothematic delusions are the scariest delusions because they are the kind of delusion that often afflicts otherwise sane, rational people - that is, people with whom it is easy to identify. The presence of a delusion in a mind like ours forces us to imagine our own minds coping with a delusion. But the content of the monothematic delusions is also profoundly creepy on a deep and probably foundational level. It is creepy that these particular delusions, these particular false beliefs that are not changed by any amount of evidence, occur in just these patterns all around the world.

For example, there is the Capgras delusion, in which the deluded person believes that his close relatives (but not acquaintances) have been replaced with identical-looking duplicate copies,Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style. The most famous example is the patient known as "DS," described in a 1997 paper by V. S. Ramachandran (Hirstein, 1997); DS developed the Capgras delusion after injuring his head in a traffic accident. His delusion was creepily specific: he believed his parents had been replaced by doppelgangers when he observed them visually, but he did not have this belief when he spoke to them on the phone.

The creepiness seems to have a tidy neuroscience solution: DS (and by extension Capgras patients) can recognize faces, but cannot connect the visual recognition with the appropriate emotional response. Auditory recognition and its appropriate emotional response are not so affected. DS sees his mother's face, but doesn't feel the familiar emotions he should feel when looking at his mother; therefore, his senses scream at him that this person is not his mother. The doppelganger story is the only thing that makes sense, given this direct perception.[1]

Most likely, the Capgras delusion is an organic, physical brain situation, like color blindness. Color blindness is not generally held to be a delusion, as it is a disorder of perception, rather than of reason or belief. The apparatus that the self uses to sense the world is broken, one might suppose, but the self inside is unaffected.

But just as a colorblind person may admit that others seem to see colors he does not, the person with a monothematic delusion may admit that his beliefs are bizarre and not held by the rest of the population. Nonetheless, the bizarre perception remains and informs all his other processes, including his internal narrative.

Another monothematic delusion occurs when the afflicted person believes one of his limbs doesn't belong to him - and often wishes to have it amputated. When this bizarre belief was seen as a sexual perversion, perhaps contagious and definitely transmitted via the internet, it was called apotemnophilia (Elliot, 2000). But once it became clear that this, too, was a specific brain wiring issue and not a more general "failure of reason" - when it became clear that affected patients' brains failed to "map" the limb in question onto their internal self-representations (Vallar, 2009) - then the delusion came to be called by the less prurient name somatoparaphrenia.

Here are the rest of the monothematic delusions, from Wikipedia ("Monothematic delusions," 2011):

  1. Fregoli delusion: the belief that various people who the believer meets are actually the same person in disguise.
  2. Intermetamorphosis: the belief that people in one's environment swap identities with each other whilst maintaining the same appearance.
  3. Subjective doubles: a person believes there is a doppelgänger or double of him or herself carrying out independent actions.
  4. Cotard delusion: the belief that oneself is dead or does not exist; sometimes coupled with the belief that one is putrifying or missing internal organs.
  5. Mirrored self-misidentification: the belief that one's reflection in a mirror is some other person.
  6. Reduplicative paramnesia: the belief that a familiar person, place, object or body part has been duplicated. For example, a person may believe that they are in fact not in the hospital to which they were admitted, but in an identical-looking hospital in a different part of the country.

I feel a sinking sense of creepiness in reading these descriptions, of the uncanny. For all these delusions have one thing in common: they are all scary mistakes relating to identity, whether the subject's own identity or that of others. The subject's beliefs violate our own heretofore-unquestioned beliefs about identity - that identity is stable, that its boundaries are those of a body[2], that other people are really out there and are the same people they were a minute ago. The monothematic delusions represent specific breakdowns in our system for keeping identity straight. But in examining these breakdowns, we must gradually come to realize what it means: our system for recognizing ourselves and others, for keeping the characters in our stories straight, is a physical, biological system, just like our eyes. It is a bit of a Rube Goldberg contraption, as we can see from the ways in which it breaks.

Our perception of identity is, to a large extent, direct perception. When we understand this, we must admit that there is no longer a safe "self" nestled inside our brains, reaching out into the world through (sometimes faulty) sensory equipment; even the self itself is made of sensory equipment, which by its nature may be innacurate.

Perhaps when we perceive ourselves and others, we are not perceiving something real, but we are watching our brains constantly manufacturing an illusion.

The monothematic delusions are scary because they force upon us the realization that we perceive identity the way we perceive color: directly and without reason's assistance.

Now the difficult task of the non-delusional person, who perceives his own identity and that of others with as much clarity as he perceives the blueness of a clean sky, is to nonetheless realize that selves and identity do not really exist, but are constructed by the elaborate brain he has the sense of occupying.

As I mentioned earlier, in the discipline of psychiatry, delusion is defined in contrast to the beliefs that exist in the background culture. When being tested for delusion, one is being tested not against some abstract standard of veracity, but against the perceptions of the majority. But we must wonder: even if almost all of the thermometers in a room read 72 degrees, does that really make it 72 degrees inside? Could all those thermometers be wrong together? (Perhaps because they all malfunctioned in the same way?)

Underlying the perception of identity is the brain's capacity for face recognition. Since organic brain damage may result in the loss of the ability to recognize objects, but not faces, or faces, but not objects, it is believed that there is a whole separate machinery in the brain dedicated to nothing but processing faces. The quickest glance at a person's face allows us to immediately perceive the person's identity, sex, mood, age, race, and direction of attention, all crucial information for social animals (Tsao, 2008).

An interesting observation about our facial recognition machinery is that we recognize caricatures (cartoonish portraits exaggerating unusual features) better than we recognize the actual faces that the caricatures represent. Some researchers suggest that this might mean there is a sort of hard-coded "prototypical face" in our brains to which we compare all other faces (Leopold, 2001); others suggest that there is no neutral "norm face" seared into our brains, but rather that we each form our own norm face prototypes based on the faces we are exposed to (Lewis, 1999). (This latter explanation would make sense of the fact that people can generally recognize members of the race of people we were raised among better than members of another race.)

When human faces are rendered in art, they may be endowed with varying degrees of detail, from photorealism to cartoonish minimalism. The drawn heroes of comics are often rendered with especially little detail; Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, suggests that this kind of minimally-sketched, cartoonish face, bare of anything but expression elementals (eyes, eyebrows, mouth), is easier for us to identify with than a more detailed, specific representation of the character (McCloud, 1993). It is as if all we need to mentally render the character, to imagine it having an inner life like our own, are the most basic cues to facial expression.

The fact that cartoons are so easy for us to process into meaningful representations of beings (with inner lives) suggests that our facial recognition processes, perhaps even our keeping-identity-straight processes, are themselves cartoonish. We focus on certain information and the rest is elided. And that's the scary part: we don't perceive this elision. With our fragile but self-important conscious awareness, it is as if we have bright flashlights strapped to our heads, so that everywhere we look is well-lit; meanwhile all around us things squirm in the darkness outside of our perception.

Our mechanisms of perception are some of those dark, squirming things. Visual blind spots are well-studied. But there are analogous blind spots in the perception of identity.

The perception of identity, of ourselves and others, underlies not only ethics but all meaning that we perceive or impose. Everything that is important to us rests on a foundation of the perception of ourselves and others as experiencing beings, with personalities and histories and roles to play within our stories.

Stories themselves may be thought of as a kind of cognitive bias. We imagine ourselves in stories to give our actions and relationships a context within which to be meaningful. Creating an internal narrative is the essential function of the conscious self, and one's internal narrative is by definition what feels most real to the individual. But narrative is itself a kind of primary perception, rather than a process of reason; the person experiencing the Capgras delusion creates the doppelganger-replacement story not through conscious, rational processes, but rather driven by the need to come up with an (emotionally) acceptable explanation for the primary perceptions of face recognition minus appropriate emotion. Believing our own narratives is like the colorblind individual believing his color blindness.

However, the colorblind individual has a strong reason to deny that his perception reflects objective reality: the testimony of those around him. Perhaps the highest-level rational process of all, in humans, is "check your conclusions against those of your peers." The colorblind individual who can (at least intellectually) admit that his perception of colors in inaccurate assures us that he is still one of us - despite his perceptual difference, he can function as our epistemic peer. His mind is working. What worries us most about the Capgras individual is not so much that his brain is "wired" wrong - it's that he will not change his beliefs when confronted by the testimony of others. If he has no "insight," as psychologists call the ability to perceive one's own mental malfunction, it is as if he has no mind - there is, clearly, no "self" safely ensconced inside his brain for us to relate to. So, perhaps the Capgras individual has lost his ability to rationally weigh the testimony of others. Or perhaps his sense that people are not who they seem is so intense and undeniable as to weigh a hundred times heavier, to him, than even visual perception (as those with merely visual disorders generally have insight into their condition).

We must understand the convincingness, the undeniability, of the Capgras individual's delusional perception of identity in order to understand our own white-knuckle death grip on our non-delusional perception of identity. For the Capgras delusional individual experiences opposite processes: perceptive pressure toward believing his delusion, and social pressure to deny it. Not so for the rest of us. For non-delusional perception - ordinary, neurotypical perception - perceptive pressure and social pressure align to enforce belief. That's great - as long as perception reports reality. If there are instances in which individuals almost all perceive wrongly, and there is no widely compelling explanation as to why (as with optical illusions), we are screwed. This process would be expected to fail to report reality in certain situations, leaving us with incorrect beliefs and no clear way to identify and correct them. We might expect misperceptions of a foundational nature to be even more difficult to correct than more superficial counterfactual perceptions.

Science (a sort of "beginner's mind" toward the world) suggests that our alleged selves do not possess the properties they are almost universally perceived to have (such as existing separately from, and on a higher level than, sensory perception). It is exciting for intellectuals to suggest the same. But in practical terms - in social terms - we cannot do other than to assume the existence of the perceived self. We can prove, but never know, that regarding the self, the only part that is real is the feeling of it.

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References

Baron, Robert S.; Vandello, Joseph A., Brunsman, Bethany. "The forgotten variable in conformity research: Impact of task importance on social influence.". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71 (5): 915–927  (Jan. 1, 1996).

Hirstein, William, and V. S. Ramachandran. "Capgras Syndrome: A Novel Probe for Understanding the Neural Representation of the Identity and Familiarity of Persons." Proceedings: Biological Sciences, Volume 264, Issue 1380 (Mar. 22, 1997), 437-444.

Elliot, Carl. "A New Way to be Mad." The Atlantic (December 2000).

Leopold, D. A., O’Toole, A. J., Vetter, T., & Blanz, V. (2001). Prototype-referenced shape encoding revealed by high-level aftereffects. Nat Neurosci, 4(1), 89–94.

Lewis, M. B., & Johnston, R. A. (1999). A unified account of the effects of caricaturing faces. Vis Cognit, 6, 1–41.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, Inc., 1993.

Monothematic delusions. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved November 3, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monothematic_delusion.

Vallar, G., and R. Ronchi. "Somatoparaphrenia: a body delusion. A review of the neuropsychological literature." Exp Brain Res. 2009 Jan;192(3):533-51.

Tsao, Doris Y., and Margaret S. Livingstone. "Mechanisms of face perception." Annu Rev Neurosci. 2008; 31: 411–437.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast of Champions. New York: Laurel, 1973.


[1]In a similar vein, we might doubt the atheism of an atheist who has never, himself, spoken in tongues or used psychedelic drugs. He or she has never experienced phenomena that subjectively feel like the direct perception of gods; upon exposure to this experience, his or her reasoned atheism might very well fall victim to this incredibly tempting sensory data. A weak atheist sees gods and begins to worship them. Only the atheist who has managed to get himself through the direct experience of gods (perhaps lashed to a boat Ulysses-style) and has come out still an atheist can be trusted to remain so in the face of the brain's many entheogenic tricks. Luckily, atheists now have communities of people with similar beliefs to interact with and check themselves against, a necessary condition for belief maintenance; not so for those who doubt the external-world reality of other tricky phenomena generated by the brain, such as the self.

[2]Body envelope violations making up a class of universally "disgusting" stimuli.

52 comments:

  1. "Now the difficult task of the non-delusional person, who perceives his own identity and that of others with as much clarity as he perceives the blueness of a clean sky, is to nonetheless realize that selves and identity do not really exist, but are constructed by the elaborate brain he has the sense of occupying... We can prove, but never know, that regarding the self, the only part that is real is the feeling of it."

    You're using the example of these more obvious delusions to reinforce a more sophisticated delusion deriving from incomplete scientific knowledge treated as final truth. It's somewhat amusing that this scientific denial of the self might even fall under one of the categories of delusion that you list, Cotard delusion - which encompasses the delusional belief that one does not exist. Normally I understand the various scientifically motivated denials of subjective reality (self doesn't exist, time doesn't exist, colors don't exist) in a way originally set out by Husserl - that an intellectual construction, the abstracted world of the natural sciences, founded on the ontology of physics, is being substituted for the "lifeworld", the world that we actually know about in experience. But I'll have to look into the psychiatric analysis of Cotard delusion to see if that has anything to say about the psychological dimension of lifeworld denial or lifeworld displacement.

    It's still a rare person who says explicitly that colors do not exist. But they tend to be given a secondary reality - they exist "in our perceptions", whatever that means. You know, if the whole of reality consists of particles which only have position as a property, then there is no more scope for the actual existence of color inside the brain than there is outside of it. This is why materialist theories of mind tend to end up as crypto-dualisms.

    People are somewhat less inhibited about outright denying the existence of the self. Sister Y tells us that the self exists only as a perception. This is illogical, because who or what is doing the perceiving - "the brain"? Face it, we don't just perceive stuff, we perceive that we are perceiving it, so you can't just sweep the ontologically problematic concept of subjectivity under the neuro-carpet and focus on the objects of perception as the only remaining ontological problem. Perception implies a perceiving subject just as much as it implies objects that are perceived.

    As a physicist I know as well as anyone just how much of a mismatch there is between physical ontology and subjective ontology. But that's precisely why I consider it very likely that the true answer to the ontological problems of consciousness will involve quantum neurobiology. Under some physical ontologies, entanglement can give us complex objective unities that just don't exist in a classically atomistic universe; and the self can be one of those unities.

    There's that famous line from Thomas Jefferson about swearing eternal enmity "against every form of tyranny over the mind of man". That's essentially how I feel about these scientifically motivated denials of reality. An image of reality has been constructed by the sciences; it is at odds with reality as we experience it, and we don't know how it could be otherwise; and so the truth of experienced reality is denied or downgraded, in favor of the intellectually constructed image.

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  2. As an example of the ways of speaking which help to maintain the illusion that this is a coherent intellectual framework, I'll single out the phrase "constructed by the brain". For example, we are told that the self does not exist, but the perception of the self is constructed by the brain. I've already pointed out that perception implies a perceiver as well as a perceived, so who is doing the perceiving of this "constructed" self? At one level, it's the *author* of any such prose, in which we are cheerfully told that we don't exist. They are taking the subject-object structure of perceptual intentionality, focusing just on the object end, and imagining a world in which there are no selves as such, but there are brains which produce free-floating intentional states in which a perceived self exists at the object end and in which there's nothing at the subject end.

    It's an act of imaginative illogic fully equal to anything ever performed in the service of religion. Here the rationale is supposed to be stony adherence to the truth as revealed by science, which "proves" that we simply *can't* exist, so we had better start believing that we don't.

    I'm not arguing with the idea that experiences are in the brain or that their nature has neurological causes. But I would argue it is much healthier to say that the self is real, it is part of the brain, and its perceptions are caused by interactions with the rest of the brain. One might then say that these perceptions are "constructed by the brain" in the sense that their structure and content is an image of "computations" performed in the unconscious part of the brain. But to say that the perceiving subject does not exist except in its perceptions of itself is obvious nonsense obviously motivated by the belief that biology and physics leave no room for an actually existing self.

    If we take a second look at the list of identity delusions, one thing that's striking is that they all sound fallacious because they fail to make obvious connections between facts. Most of them multiply entities beyond necessity - they speak of duplication where they ought to speak of identity. The psychiatric ward you see around you is not a duplicate of the one you went to sleep in - it's the same place. The woman who looks like your mother is your mother - etc. (The two delusions in the list which err in the other direction are Cotard delusion - "I don't exist" - and Fregoli delusion - "this is all the same person in different guises".)

    It's amusing that the avantgarde ideas of self and identity coming out of science and computation *resemble the delusions*! There is no self - the self splits into a million unobserved selves in every moment (many worlds QM) - I am somehow the same person as my simulation on a computer - there is no continuity through time of an existing self, just disconnected person-moments. How remarkable, to argue *against* the reality of the self, and in favor of such ideas, on the example of psychological syndromes which resemble the new ideas yet are dismissed as wrong, delusional, and pathological! That is: you're saying that the people who suffer from these various delusions *are* deluded, and yet you are saying that this is evidence in favor of an ontology of mind which *resembles* those delusions.

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    1. Mitchell -- These ideas of self and identity don't seem to me so avantgarde. Nietzsche, for instance, as Galen Strawson, one of the most penetrating contemporary exponents of the view, powerfully argues, held that there is no persisting and unitary self; and cognate views can be found in Buddhism and Hinduism, as Schopenhauer, who had already arrived at similar views through his engagement with Kantian philosophy, helped popularize. Moreover, in Beyond Good and Evil 54, Nietzsche observes:

      "...Now, with admirable tenacity and cunning, people are wondering whether they can get out of this net -- wondering whether the reverse might be true: that 'think' is the condition and 'I' is conditioned, in which case 'I' would be a synthesis that only gets produced through thought itself. [...] The possibility that the subject (and therefore 'the soul') has a merely apparent existence might not always have been foreign to [Kant], this thought that, in the form of the Vedanta philosophy, has already arisen on earth before and with enormous power."

      (Incidentally, after one of his talks last year, I asked Brian Greene if he was aware of any religious doctrines bearing an affinity with string theory and in reply he said that his brother, a Hari Krishna, typically responds to what he shares about physics with little surprise by recalling some seemingly anticipatory passage in the Vedas.)

      I was also struck by this:

      "An image of reality has been constructed by the sciences; it is at odds with reality as we experience it, and we don't know how it could be otherwise; and so the truth of experienced reality is denied or downgraded, in favor of the intellectually constructed image."

      It would be interesting to know what Mitchell makes of Alex Rosenberg, who aggressively takes up -- in addition to the current state of neuroscience, including some of the material Sister Y marshals, and experimental psychology -- the physics in a direction that richly complements Sister Y's argument, likening this conundrum to the one ingeniously concocted by that smart-ass Zeno: we should expect the relevant science to eventually vanquish the manifest image of ourselves -- as discrete, persisting, unified -- we so dearly cherish (without, of course, the victory having much impact on the persistence of the illusion, given how heavily it was selected for and how so very much we value is implicated in and implicates it).

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    2. Oh, and of course Hume deserves very honorable mention...

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    3. I find that use of the term "self" is confusing or papers over confused thinking. When we say, "Mary's self", we think that we're talking about a thing that Mary possesses or is within Mary or is a part of Mary, or perhaps *is* Mary. But really we're just being deceived by the language, as if we thought that when we said, "for Mary's sake", there are things, sakes, and Mary has one of them. Even something like, "I like Mary's style," is like this as well. Mary doesn't have a thing, a style; rather, she dresses and talks and carries herself in certain ways.

      So when we say, "our selves aren't really what we think they are", we are mistakenly thinking that there is this thing, a self, and it is different from how we perceive this self to be. Really there are characteristics of the ways we perceive and think and feel and speak and act, and when asked to consider these, the way we consider them differs from how they actually are or how others consider them.

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    4. Rob: "These ideas of self and identity don't seem to me so avantgarde."

      It depends which versions you're talking about. But there's really no relation to Buddhism or Schopenhauer. The Buddhist denial of self is the result of conceptual analysis and an interpretation of phenomenology. The scientific denial of self derives from an empirically motivated material ontology. Schopenhauer is a metaphysical idealist - didn't he believe that animals are pure phenomena?

      Nietzsche is sui generis. He certainly entertained the idea of self as illusion, in a way that is untenable for reasons I've already given; but he also entertained the notion of panpsychism, and physical quanta as atoms of will-to-power intentionality. He is on my list of people who have something big to contribute, even now.

      Strawson and Rosenberg, however, are just conventional apologists for lifeworld denial. In the conflict between current scientific ontology and the "manifest image", they've picked the wrong side, and are only of interest as case studies in rationalization of "scientific Cotard delusion" - and there are hundreds of other writers who could play that role.

      JasonSL, the idea that we are "deceived by the language" into thinking there is a self, is another eliminativist gambit that one must learn to ignore. Conscious experience exists, it persists in time, it is not coextensive with the universe, therefore it is a state of some well-defined part of the universe, and that is the self or person, the thing that is Mary. Subtleties about whether we should regard the rest of the body as part of the person do nothing to change the fact that consciousness exists, it persists over time, and it is a natural kind of some sort (and that probably radically understates just how distinct and distinctive an entity it is).

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    5. Hello again, Mitchell. Your characterization of Strawson is puzzling, as I thought he is considered to be one of the most prominent contemporary defenders of panpsychism, and that, since he shares Nietzsche's denial of a persisting self, panpsychism is not necessarily in conflict with that denial ( -the link between the two might be quite profound).

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    6. Mitchell, I'm agnostic on whether conscious experience persists in time, or even whether that's a meaningful statement, but assuming for the moment it does, why does this necessitate that there be a thing that is a "self"? My point is not that selves don't exist; rather, it's that the concept of a "self" is a bad one, and talk about what really does exist (or doesn't exist) should avoid this confused and confusing term.

      It's like the term, "the Morning Star", which was believed to be a star and to be something distinct from "the Evening Star". The use of the term, "the Morning Star", reflected confusion about the actual nature of what was sending light that humans on earth perceived. So arguing against the use of the term, "the Morning Star", does not equate to a denial of the existence of Venus.

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    7. Rob, Strawson turns out to be different to what I thought. His motive for analytically negating self, "ultimate moral responsibility", and "ownership of the future" may be closer to Buddhism than to materialism. He manages to say some correct things about the nature of awareness; but then his Humean tendencies lead him astray. As for contemporary panpsychism, it still takes its ontological lead from atomism, and ordinary atomistic ontology has trouble with realism about the self, whether the atoms are conceived as things in space or as little islands of awareness. This is why quantum mechanics matters, because you can have entities whose states are complex and yet fundamental, in the sense of not just being mereological sums of the simplest possible entities.

      JasonSL, that's a funny example, because the persisting self is the "planet Venus" underlying both the "morning self-moment" and the "evening self-moment".

      You ask, assuming that conscious experience persists in time, why does this necessitate that there is a self? Well, who or what is it that notices that conscious experience persists? Conscious states are states of something, and that something is the self, or part of the self.

      Embracing the bare idea of a persistent self is just the beginning. You still have all the ontological details to figure out. But at least you're then on the right track.

      I don't see what's bad, confused, or confusing about the idea. Something that exists and that keeps existing - I don't see the problem. I certainly believe that your advice, to avoid talking about or thinking about selves, is entirely the wrong thing to do.

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    8. Mitchell, my Venus example may have been imperfect, but in any case, my position is that the "self" is analogous to the "morning star" rather than to "Venus", and that whatever may be analogous to Venus, if there exists such a thing, we haven't found a good description of (there are various candidates I'm open to).

      I worry that we're starting to talk past each other a bit. I'm not asking why the persistence of consciousness requires a self, as I believe you understand a self to be. I'm saying I don't know what people are talking about when they talk about selves, and so I can't assess claims such as "the persistence of consciousness requires a self".

      You write that a self is necessary to serve as a substrate for consciousness. Leaving aside the question of why a non-material substrate is necessary for (non-material) consciousness, your claim doesn't tell me what a self is. Its like my asking what a table is, and you saying that it's necessary for supporting plates and glasses when I sit down to have dinner. It's not like saying what its dimensions are, what it's made of, etc. I.e., what its properties are, not just how it serves.

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    9. Mitchell, you have convinced me that I ought to take quantum physics seriously as a requirement for a correct ontology, and that it's not just "classical physics, but fancier".

      Can you recommend any good introductions or papers, beyond standard physics textbooks?

      Any topics I should pay special attention to as someone who basically doesn't have much knowledge about QM beyond the stuff on LW?

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  3. Hi Mitchell! I am (I hope) not averse to the suggestion that I'm making a retarded argument, but I don't think I'm making quite the retarded argument that you are responding to.

    Here's part of it. You say: "But to say that the perceiving subject does not exist except in its perceptions of itself is obvious nonsense obviously motivated by the belief that biology and physics leave no room for an actually existing self."

    I don't see my analysis as having much to do with physics. Is it the claim of something like "the self doesn't exist" that is the heart of the problem for you? What I am trying to push is uncertainty: we have strong subjective feelings that we are persons (or whatever) with selves with certain properties, and others are persons with selves with similar properties, but these strong feelings are at odds with (a) the strong feelings of others with "broken brains" and (b) certain results of cognitive science. This should cause us to be very suspicious of the stories we experience ourselves starring in, but doesn't mean subjective experience isn't "real."

    I won't ask you to define "real" in regard to selves unless you want to, but do you think chimpanzees have selves that are "real" in the sense that you mean?

    "But I would argue it is much healthier to say that the self is real, it is part of the brain, and its perceptions are caused by interactions with the rest of the brain."

    Can you explain what you mean by "healthier" here?

    "An image of reality has been constructed by the sciences; it is at odds with reality as we experience it, and we don't know how it could be otherwise; and so the truth of experienced reality is denied or downgraded, in favor of the intellectually constructed image."

    I am open to this possibility, but if it is true then am in the stage of "not knowing how it could be otherwise," if anything - how would you - if you were, like me, not a physicist - resolve the issue?

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    1. Certainly it would be possible to make many of your points while still insisting on the robust reality of the self, subjective experience, etc. Indeed, if I had written this essay, I might have used the various scientifically motivated denials as examples of bizarre belief systems which survive because of subcultural approval rather than because of their truth. Though the epistemology of my essay would have been different - I wouldn't be able to attribute disbelief in the existence of colors to a specific organic disorder of the brain.

      Actually, another curious epistemic point is that all the monothematic delusions listed are empirical possibilities. That is, they are consistent with sense experience, whereas ontologies which deny the reality of experience are not. These latter delusions, the "antiphenomenological delusions" of fans of science, are invariably rationalist in origin. An imagined world is being logically developed in the mind of the believer, and any aspect of subjective reality which is ontologically in conflict with it has to be wished away or categorized as somehow not fully real.

      So to recap, we have two types of epistemic failure. One is belief in a scenario that is empirically possible, but factually outlandish: these are the monothematic delusions. The other is unconditional belief in an ontology which provides an approximate causal model of reality, but whose literal truth is empirically impossible (in the broader sense of empiricism which includes all phenomenological observations): these are the newly christened antiphenomenological delusions.

      If the real agenda of this essay was to inspire doubt about the truth of "existential qualia" like the sense that life is worth living (I haven't forgotten that this is an antinatalist blog...), and if we do accept that there is a delusive component to such feelings of meaning or hope, then we could ask whether the delusion in question is more like a monothematic delusion or an antiphenomenological delusion. You could make a case for the latter, on the grounds that there's often a strong apriori component to such feelings - the belief that life just *has* to be worth it. But you could also make the case that e.g. the belief that most people are mostly happy is more like a monothematic delusion: logically possible, but not a rational interpretation of the data.

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    2. "do you think chimpanzees have selves that are "real" in the sense that you mean?"

      Yes. As I said to Rob and JasonSL, the fact that consciousness exists but is not equal to the whole of reality, implies that there are "parts" of reality which are the locus of consciousness, and those are selves. The only reason to quibble over whether chimps (or other animals) have selves, is in case one wishes to reserve the term "self" for something more than "locus of stream of awareness", e.g. "locus of stream of self-awareness", "locus of stream of conceptualized self-awareness"... But chimps are so close to us that I would still expect them to satisfy most of these more refined definitions too. You might have to go to the invertebrates to find an example of an entity where there is an "Inside" - there is a stream of raw awareness - but there's still "no-one home". Is a being which has awareness, but which *never* has self-awareness, a self? Or is it just a "mind", a mind that never reflects?

      The vocabulary and the concepts I use are still woefully primitive, but that's no excuse for hurrying back to the security of the purely objectified ontology of the Galilean natural sciences.

      "I don't see my analysis as having much to do with physics. Is it the claim of something like "the self doesn't exist" that is the heart of the problem for you?"

      Very much so. I tend to emphasize physics because physics plays such a big role in some of the discourse rationalizing the alleged nonexistence of subjectivity. Whether there is an identifiably distinct antiphenomenological discourse grounded in biology would be an interesting question for analysts of eliminativist culture. Such a biological discourse tends more towards crypto-dualism - not actually denying "qualia", but nonetheless seeking to directly identify them with specific biological processes and entities, in a way that becomes obviously problematic only if you move one step down the reductionistic hierarchy and remind yourself just what the ontology of the world is made of, according to the natural sciences... Antimentalistic attitudes arising from psychology are even further afield from this; they are usually based on a peculiar "empirical" form of antiphenomenology, which focuses on behavior and language and dispositional states (think of "methodological solipsism").

      As I remarked in the previous comment, you can certainly doubt this or that subjective belief without becoming an eliminativist or a functionalist-dualist; and it would be interesting and even clarifying to understand how much of your own line of argument depends on ontological claims that I would consider out of bounds. My guess is that there is little or no inherent logical dependence, just some rhetorical dependence in the way you've framed the argument here.

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    3. "Can you explain what you mean by "healthier" here?"

      Closer to the truth; less entangled with claims that are actually false. Antiphenomenological delusion is unhealthy just as monothematic delusion is unhealthy.

      "how would you - if you were, like me, not a physicist - resolve the issue?"

      It's hard for me to say how much of my confidence on these issues does derive from understanding technicalities of contemporary physics. Certainly, being able to see the possibility of a tensor network ontology for quantum mechanics that would allow for the existence of a monadic self... emboldens me in insisting on the reality of the lifeworld. I might otherwise be stuck in Chalmersian dualism or vague Russellian neutral monism.

      There may be an issue of personality here. Consider the reception accorded to the Hameroff-Penrose theory of consciousness. A few of its details can be justly criticized, but really the remark of the Churchlands, that it's a somewhat arbitrary tower of hypotheses, says much more about its status as a theory. One sort of person might completely acknowledge that status, and yet still hold up the theory as an existence proof that there remains room in the sciences for really radical changes of ontology that would be far friendlier to robust realism about selves, qualia, etc. Another person might prefer to believe that, not just current science, but current scientific hermeneutics is broadly correct. By scientific hermeneutics I mean the interpretations of reality which are advanced on the basis of current scientific thinking, without actually being scientific theories or results as such. Antiphenomenological beliefs are certainly part of this current scientific hermeneutics; that's why analytical philosophers are so much in the eliminativist vanguard - their philosophy is a footnote to Newton and Darwin in the same way that scholastic philosophy was a footnote to Plato. But these interpretive glosses are prone to be flushed away when genuinely new knowledge arrives, and that's the fate I foresee for all our fashionable antiphenomenology.

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    4. Mitchell, when I run top (table of processes, the Unix-y utility), one of the processes listed is top itself. So top has the signs of what people call self-awareness. Yet top is a process, not a thing. And processes don't inherently require non-material substrate-things that aren't themselves processes (a computer doesn't *need* a kernel, though it happens that it's very useful to have them).

      I don't want to say that consciousness is *like* a process, or that what you call a self is *like* a kernel. I make the analogy to argue that the relation of a process to itself, and the necessity or non-necessity of another relation between the process and another non-process software thing tells us something about the relation of consciousness to itself and the necessity or non-necessity of another relation between consciousness and some other non-material thing.

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  4. Sister Y,

    "If there are instances in which individuals almost all perceive wrongly, and there is no widely compelling explanation as to why (as with optical illusions), we are screwed."

    Why? If a majority perceive something, how can we judge the minority perspective to be "correct"?

    And why if the self is just an "illusion", is this a problem? How would the experienced "illusory" self differ detrimentally from a conceptualised "real" self?

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    1. That passage leaped out at me, too, but what I question is not how we can judge the minority to be correct (see science, which explains optical illusions), but how that means we're screwed. The record of how much non-truth-tracking is mixed into the truth-tracking ruses which have enabled our species to scale the food chain and wreak havoc on the biosphere, I would think, offers some perverse reassurance that we have already long been screwed.

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  5. Most people -- it might be a cultural universal -- seem to harbor an abiding respect for the natural world, even if the expression of such sentiment is limited to aesthetic reflection (a beautiful sunset). It occurs to me that this might be an instance of profound story-nested bias, a powerful all-entrapping mistake, or conceit, or delusion, that survives for adaptive reasons that are camaflouged in turn by the compelling weight of subjective and collective narrativity. Consider that the "natural world" can be descried (perhaps more accurately) in negative terms, as a kind of tragic blind propulsive force that enables sensory disturbance and extinction (a horrific sunset). That our fidelity to one story fails to arouse suspicion ... is curious.

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    1. Or it may be that this is just an offshoot of the evolved sense of religiosity, which serves fitness ends. That is, there may be nothing adaptive about respect for the natural world, but the way we evolved a propensity to believe in the supernatural has as a spandrel a reverence for the natural world.

      Like, there's no fitness advantage to being able to write fugues or symphonies, but the ability to write fugues and symphonies is what you get when you have the selected-for powers of language and music and reason.

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  6. I've seen a Forwarded Email, I think, which asks you to recollect a memorable incident from your childhood.

    Then, it tells you, that not one of the cells in your current body might have been there at the moment, but still you recollect in such detail.

    That, I think, speaks strongly for points Mitchel (iIrc) was making in response to some other "Simulation" post on this blog.

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    1. Most of your brain cells are the ones you were born with. And recently, so-called "extremely long-lived proteins" were discovered in the nuclei of rat brain cells - individual molecules which may last the whole life of the organism.

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    2. Even if neuronal and neuronal-protein turnover were faster, such that we didn't have any of the neurons we had when we were children, it wouldn't require a separate non-material thing. It just means that the content of recollection must be self-consistent at any point. My (present) memory of an experience when I was five has to agree with my (also present) memory of recalling that experience at times between when I was five and today.

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  7. I'd like to put aside ontology for a moment and address what I take to be the real theme of the post.

    I have just learned of "80000hours.org". This is a site on "high-impact ethical careers". The idea is that you spend about 80,000 hours working in your life, so let's maximize the good you do in that time. The intellectual content is going to be very familiar to anyone who knows the futurist-altruist-utilitarian parts of the net. The concrete charities that they discuss are a mix of GiveWell favorites like mosquito nets for Africa, and futurist organizations tackling "existential risks" to the survival of humanity. Their Facebook profile mentions that you can do more good by getting a lucrative job and then giving the money to a good cause, than by directly working on the good cause itself. This (like the idea that the optimal charitable action is almost always to give all your gift-money to one best charity, rather than to spread it across several) is one of the characteristic memes of the altruist-utilitarian component of this subculture...

    Anyway, my point is that there is an idea here about how to make a better world which combines one conventional and one unconventional ingredient. The conventional ingredient is that you do good by saving as many lives as possible. The unconventional ingredient is the futurist schtick about high-tech extinction and/or transhuman immortality and/or extracting the exact details of the human utility function.

    There is a conventional critique of the conventional ingredient to this strategic vision: what if your "doing good" now just makes things worse down the road? Saving lives now without changing anything else just means there will be a worse die-off later on. Helping people now just creates a culture of dependence and burdens those who do have their act together enough to be productive.

    Meanwhile, the unconventional ingredient - the radical futurist perspective - has always been a potential "critique" of conventional charity itself. You see this in the discussions about extinction, galactic colonization, which utility function gets to dominate the posthuman future, etc. There are supposed to be enormous payoffs at stake, negative and positive, and so it's argued that addressing these issues is far more important than anything else.

    One interesting aspect of 80000hours.org (and "Leverage Research" and perhaps a few other sites) is that it's the beginning of an attempt to synthesize the thesis of conventional charity and the antithesis of futurist charity. Though for now I still don't see a unified conceptual framework in which they both have a place, I just see wish lists that merge the two agendas.

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  8. Now, what I see emerging from the discussion here about delusions is a very unconventional new critique of conventional altruism. You could approach it like this: What if life *isn't* good? What if most people aren't happy, and their lives aren't really worth it - but one of these delusions prevents us from perceiving this? This is a new sort of antithesis to conventional charity, which here is being criticized, not for ignoring huge posthuman payoffs in the future, but for having failed to examine whether the life cycle it seeks to prolong and perpetuate is a good thing in the first place.

    Antinatalist thought, advocacy of a pro-choice position on suicide, etc., are here analogous to friendly AI design, extinction risk analysis, and so on - they are the concrete actions pursued by those who favor the antithesis, the radical alternative conception of what the good is. And so (here is the punchline) what I see is the possibility of synthesis in this direction too. What would the antinatalist equivalent of "80000hours.org" look like?

    (For a long time my own position has been a combination of transhumanism and antinatalism, so that's even more outre, but I think it's up to me to make that one work.)

    OK, I don't think I've actually said much about the specific idea that life-is-good or life-is-meaningful is a full-blown delusion. But I can extend the analogy a little further: that's one of the characteristic memes of the online antinatalist subculture, just as the line about doing more good as a charitable banker than as an aid worker is characteristic of the rationalist utilitarian subculture. One could expect it to show up in the antinatalist equivalent of Leverage Research - who are a little web think-tank drawing up plans for the future of the world which combine conventional and "futurist" idealism. Leverage have an in-house psychological theory which is supposed to give them a chance of getting the whole world on the same page. Of course that is a fanatical and totally unrealistic expectation.

    But wouldn't it be interesting to see their philanthropic-antinatalist counterpart organization? Wait, maybe that's just VHEMT! :-) Or it would be VHEMT with a really detailed plan and a detailed cognitive psychological theory explaining the "pervasive happiness delusion". The psychological component of the plan would be that, as understanding of the happiness delusion was spread, the fire in human affairs would go out, the race would give up, recognize the futility of its existence, and go gently into extinction. There would also be subplans for how to manage the shutting-down of civilization humanely, but the people responsible for that would just be a sort of practical auxiliary compared to the intellectual shock-troops who go door-knocking to explain to the masses why there is no hope, and that they would all be better off never to have existed.

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    1. > What would the antinatalist equivalent of "80000hours.org" look like?

      Back some months ago, I began wondering just that, when I took seriously the idea that not just my life may not be worth living, but life in general.

      What if I really do have an obligation to end life - how do I make that work? Isn't that basically pro-existential-risk charity?

      Of course, the outside view gives me little confidence that a lone individual, deciding that society is evil and must be destroyed, will ever get anywhere. At best, I could hope to get access to some engineered risk (UFAI most likely, I thought at the time), but even that is hard, and now that I don't find the man-made risk scenarios very plausible anymore, there really isn't much of an option available.

      Right now, the best option for 80000hours' Evil Twin is probably to start an antinatalist crackpot think-tank to come up with any kind of realistic scenario at all.

      (It's a bit cranky and not entirely serious, but I considered this a plausible explanation for the Great Filter. SIAI's FOOM argument seems plausible, so why isn't there AI everywhere? It's because the AI is smart enough to understand antinatalism and then ends life on its planet. No expansion, no civilization, just a mostly empty universe with short blips of intelligent life.

      But then, why doesn't this AI go out and exterminate the rest of the universe? If some materialist theory of mind was correct, maybe the amount of instantiated person-moments of an expanding AI would be much greater than the few lives it could reach and destroy, so it's not worth it. But overall that seems implausible, both because of the confused ontology and because a FOOMing AI could probably figure out a non-conscious galaxy-killer anyway.

      But the idea of an anti-utility monster is quite interesting - can a being be unaware of its own unworthiness of existence long enough for it to figure out a way to immunize the universe against life, or are we doomed to re-occur every once in a while, killing ourselves again and again?)

      Additionally, I'm not even convinced anymore that ending life is even morally possible. I'm becoming more and more sympathetic to deontological ideas of consent and non-coercion, so that even if I had the Big Red Button to end the universe, and knew life to not be worth living, I would still not be allowed to press it, as that would violate everyone else's consent.

      If people have a fundamental right to be stupid, then VHEMT is the only thing we can ever do, even if we know that it will likely fail.

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    2. I considered this a plausible explanation for the Great Filter

      In my optimistic mode, I take this very seriously - I made something like that argument in 2008 about future AI (that obviously any future smart AI will wake up and be a cranky-pants antinatalist like me).

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  9. So when you are doing math homework, or thinking about politics, or wondering whether to end a relationship, you have an easy way to test whether your brain is functioning correctly - you talk to other people about it. If everyone else in the class gets the same answer as you, that's strong evidence your method of solving the problem was correct. If the smartest kid in your study group got a different answer, you might think that you had perhaps made a mistake. Humans can always check themselves against other humans, and as I argue in this post, it is very rational that we do so.

    There is no analogous process for a society, however. So when we verify agreement with others, we don't necessarily verify truth - and the larger structure that we are part of, the community, has no way to check itself.

    In this paper, Bryan Frances argues that finding out that an epistemic peer disagrees with you shouldn't necessarily make you adjust down your certainty of a claim's truth. He grounds this in a kind of folk probability theory - if we had hundreds of epistemic peers (I have about five personally, on a good day) and only 2% or so disagree with us, it's much more likely in any given case (says Frances) that the 2% are mistaken, than that the whole rest of the 98% of epistemic peers plus ourselves are mistaken.

    And this is true - if our goal is to be right most of the time. But if our goal is to know the truth, not just be right most of the time, then the disagreement of even a single peer should worry us very much.

    This is because of the Fundamental Theorem of Crackpottery: tons of correct things used to be disbelieved, and tons of incorrect things used to be universally believed.

    In any given case where there is something like an epistemic peer consensus, it's likely that they're right and the dissenters are wrong. But in any (rare) situation in which the greater peerhood community is wrong about something - any important case, that is - it will likely be that a few recognize the error before others. If we seek not to be right most of the time, but to correct the errors of the greater epistemic community, we need to be very worried indeed whenever a mind like ours disagrees with us.

    I try to maintain my uncertainty. I am not certain enough of my own claims to engage in the activities Mitchell mentions above - going door-to-door pissing on everyone's Wheaties. I am certain enough of my own claims to avoid having a child at any cost, and I hope others will do the same, but my anti-hubris wants more brains to think about the idea and see where it leads.

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    1. I am certain enough of my own claims to avoid having a child at any cost, and I hope others will do the same, but my anti-hubris wants more brains to think about the idea and see where it leads.

      Have you met anyone who was once an anti-natalist but no longer is?

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    2. I have hardly met any antinatalists at all, actually. But no, I don't think I've ever met anyone who took that particular pill and then spit it out again.

      Sample size is way small.

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    3. If we seek not to be right most of the time, but to correct the errors of the greater epistemic community

      I don't see what the difference is, unless you're trying to distinguish holding the correct belief from holding the correct belief and convincing others of its correctness.

      And why do we care about holding the correct belief, in and of itself? Mitchell is a substance dualist; Rob and I lean toward substance monism even if we are not fully convinced (Rob may be firmly in the monist camp, but my cursory readings of his posts don't give me the confidence to place him there). But I care about this as an intellectual exercise -- I don't think either metaphysical position has clearly good or ill ethical consequences.

      How do we identify when we should care about correcting epistemic errors and when we shouldn't?

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    4. Why we should care: to the extent that we're taking actions with potentially serious consequences (especially harm that will be borne by others), and to the extent that we justify these actions based on propositions with truth values, we should care a whole lot about the truth value of such propositions, and we should be REALLY sure of their truth before taking action.

      How do we identify when we should care about correcting epistemic errors and when we shouldn't?

      I don't have a great answer for this, but I'd start with the most foundational-seeming things (propositions upon which a lot of other stuff depends) and go up from there. Or perhaps the propositions used to justify the most suffering?

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    5. perhaps the propositions used to justify the most suffering?

      A reasonable heuristic, probably.

      I guess even if there are some cases where holding the incorrect belief is harmless (substance monism vs. dualism), history tells us that, absent extenuating information, incorrect beliefs are more harmful. I wonder why this is, though.

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    6. "I have hardly met any antinatalists at all, actually. But no, I don't think I've ever met anyone who took that particular pill and then spit it out again.

      Sample size is way small."

      I let some of the pill dissolve in my mouth and then spat out the rest. I was never as committed an antinatalist as the regulars here, but I was the only person I personally knew who was at all sympathetic to, let alone a weak adherent of, antinatalism.

      No that you should try to infer much from this.

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    7. "Mitchell is a substance dualist"

      No! My notion of the true ontology is that there are fundamental entities (often I call them monads) which can gain or lose degrees of freedom. Our subjective experience of life is the inside of one single complexified monad, "seen from the inside". In terms of current physical ontology, a complexified monad is something like "a set of entangled particles", but one should instead learn to think of a single disentangled particle as a minimal monad.

      The whole point of this outlook is to make monism possible. If the physical correlate of conscious experience is just a mereological sum of a zillion elementary particles, *that* requires dualism, because the two can't be identified, only systematically correlated at best.

      I'll stop here; if anyone wants more details, they can mail me (see my Blogger profile); but, not a dualist.

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    8. Oh, okay, I misinterpreted you, then. What does "fundamental" mean in "there are fundamental entities"? Is there an exposition of your position anywhere online?

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    9. > There is no analogous process for a society, however.

      What about the study of history? There have been enough temporarily and/or spatially separated cultures that certain lines of thinking have arisen independently, so we can compare their results.

      It's a fairly limited and unidirectional tool, and thanks to modern ideas of moral progress, most of the data is rejected anyway, but at least it's *some* evidence.

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    10. That's exactly what my boyfriend said! Indeed - past societies form a kind of check on our own. I think it's extremely important to read old books and take past societies seriously. Of course, there can no back-and-forth, and there's no way to get outside the human box, but it's something.

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    11. Prepare to be disappointed: that check might be largely negative, helpful in undermining, but leaving little in the way of building material, beyond what we're already, problematically, stuck with.

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    12. " that check might be largely negative, helpful in undermining, but leaving little in the way of building material, "

      More so than most pieces? It's much easier to tear shit down than to build it up, partly because most structures have weaknesses. . .

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    13. Jason: by fundamental I mean, not just a collection of simpler objects grouped together.

      For a longer statement of my views, you could try this, but it will really take much more than that to do it properly. I might have written a paper about it long ago, but I have been preoccupied with the details of physics.

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  10. A general comment: the experiencing self definitely exists in all important senses; otherwise it would probably be morally fine to make new people and monkeys and squirrels.

    What I question is mostly the information we get from this self, the stories it tells us. It exists in a relevant sense, but it is not trustworthy. My next post (an excerpt from my upcoming book) will address this further.

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  11. Another way of expressing this: (my next piece is a much longer exploration of this thought)

    Animals, including wild and farmed animals, have an experiencing self - they experience pain, for instance, when they are eaten alive or killed, and pleasure when they eat or are groomed. Humans have this same kind of self.

    When we look at why humans stay alive despite the pain of existence, though, we don't find that they find that the pleasures of life outweigh the pain. They stay alive because of some kind of meaning/story, provided by the self.

    Animals have no such story. Those of us who don't buy the Logic of the Larder find it ludicrous to argue that e.g. breeding miserable farm animals is okay, because otherwise they wouldn't exist, and existence is good for them. It's somewhat incoherent to say that existence is good for an animal. To the extent that we breed animals, we consider it our responsibility to make sure the animals created will have a "decent" life - not that pleasure will outweigh pain, but that there won't be significant pain for the animal. Nobody argues that dogfighting might be okay as long as you're really nice to the dogs when they're not fighting.

    Most people, however, perceive some kind of meaningful story that justifies their pain to themselves. What I am arguing is that our stories of meaning are bullshit and cannot support the moral weight of justifying the creation of a new life. When examined, common life-justifying stories of meaning, such as religious worldviews, are factually false. Even though I think it is true that most humans eventually find some story of meaning to latch onto, I argue that we cannot use this fact to justify the creation of new beings. There will always be those who, like me, fail to find any meaningful story to pretend is true - we may even be correct that all such stories are bullshit. Once we recognize that the majority of such stories are false, it is difficult to justify the creation of new lives that will necessarily rely on such factually false stories as a reason to continue to live.

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    1. When we look at why humans stay alive despite the pain of existence... They stay alive because of some kind of meaning/story, provided by the self. (My emphasis)

      I wonder if this supposed observation is not a remnant of our tendency to anthropomorphize ourselves. If so much of the stuff people produce when prompted to justification is add-on lying, post-hoc self-deception when not intentional deception of others, then perhaps stories of meaning don't bear nearly as much direct intrapsychic existential weight, but rather largely serve social/group functions.

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  12. Hi I'm James, 22, a schizoid who's very close to taking his own life. I just wanted to comment that I've found this blog very interesting given my suicidal perspective and gives me a measure of comfort to know that there are others with so much sympathy for people who are forced to be alive (like myself). It is likely that I will kill myself next week, I just wish my family could help me through the process rather than me having to go through all this alone, but it seems they'd rather see me alive in anguish than dead.

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    1. It's been a week. It's unlikely you'll return to this blog post again, but if you do I'd be interested in you possibly confirming you're still alive and why you didn't attempt or why the attempt didn't succeed.

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    2. Yeah, same here. There are good and bad reasons to kill oneself. If you're still around, I, and I think other regular commenters here would be happy to help you and help you make the right decision.

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    3. Ditto. James, I hope that at least the suffering you know your suicide would cause family has spurred you think more resourcefully about ways to make life more tolerable. You are only 22. How likely is it that you have exhausted enough of the range options which might improve matters for you?

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    4. Hi. I'm still here. I'm 23 now, although my birthday was one of the worst days of my life. I'm not sure what keeps me going, except that I'm curious to see what I may come to achieve in the future. In the meanwhile I live in daily agony, there's a deep pit inside me that won't go away, not with antidepressants, talk or anything. I feel almost unreal, detached from everything, never feeling any joy. The only thing I try to do at the moment is distract myself with drink and play. Nice to see you TGGP, I know you from Moldbug and Sailer.

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