Monday, July 26, 2010

Are We Not Borg?

This Op/Ed piece by Galen Strawson appeared in the NY Times a few days ago. Strawson is the author of Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics, which I have not read yet. The Basic Argument summarized by Strawson here lies at the heart of my question a few weeks back about where poetic content comes from. How much of poetic composition is active (in the sense that the poet is the agent of the content, the Director, if you will) and how much of poetic composition is a play among language, culture, and consciousness?

The argument over free will seems to me very similar to the argument about consciousness (does either exist?). Consciousness clearly seems to be a “real” phenomenon until we take granular enough a look at the brain's processes, where the reality of consciousness seems to fizzle into the firings of neurons. Free will clearly seems to be a real phenomenon until we take granular enough a look at the brain's processes (or even thermodynamics), where, at some point, choice seems to fizzle away into a deterministic barrage of particles too complex for us to track.

Does the poet choose to put words in a certain order or does it only seem to her that she does so? Is she making the decision to construct or to revise in a certain manner, or is she only enjoying the show and taking the credit while her brain does the work?

Part of the problem here is in the question and in the understanding of what a self (or consciousness) is. When we say "I decided to do X", what we often mean, consciously or unconsciously, is that there is an "I" inside my skull who directed my brain to make the decision to do X, or who informed the brain that we are going to do X. This thinking is another manifestation of Cartesian duality, the idea that the self is something other than or in addition to the way the human brain works. We assume because we feel ourselves thinking and because we seem to be pushing the neurons around that the self is something other than—and perhaps in control of—the flashing of neurons. Furthermore, we tend to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that if we can’t think of ourselves as being in there pushing around the neurons (because the science indicates that we shouldn’t), then we’ve been robbed of something—namely, our selves. We think that if we are aware of our own thoughts, then there must be someone in there who is the one aware (above and beyond the thoughts).

The experiment with monkeys that William Egginton cites in Sunday’s response to Strawson has been reproduced in various versions with human subjects with the same results—namely, confirmation that there is a delay between the moment when the brain, having processed input, determines to take action and the moment when the subject moves to take that action (how could there not be such a delay?). But even more telling is that there is a delay between the moment the brain determines to take action and the moment the human subject is aware of having made such a decision.

The argument of cognitive determinists is that the “self” is essentially the feedback loop (or set of many feedback loops resulting from the many connections of our nervous system’s multiple inputs to our episodic memory) that associates the present state and actions of the body to that body’s past and to certain patterns constructed in memory that correspond to other people, ideas, places, etc. That feedback loop inhabits a kind of continuous present of the space/time between the brain’s computations and the moment the brain’s command to act is carried out, almost instantaneously—so nearly instantaneously that it seems simultaneous, and thus “caused” by our consciousness.

Seen this way, there really is little difference between saying “I decided to do X” and “my brain determined to do X”; it simply requires a slight shift in the way “I” is conceived.

But back to the poets: The Surrealists were fond of automatic writing as a way of letting the subconscious speak naturally and directly (though “speak” may be the wrong word here). Like many other poets of their time and since, they were interested in getting rid of the influence of the ego in poetry, an interest they shared with widely disparate poets despite the obvious differences between the “raw” automatic writing and games of Surrealism and Dada and the more “cooked” versions of this attempt to avoid the “lyrical interference of the ego” by Olson and to “escape personality” by Eliot, among others.

But who is doing the attempting to escape ego? Again these poets are trapped in the Cartesian perspective, which circumscribes their efforts to describe their intentions, their poetics; the poets seem to be able only to express their aesthetic/ethical drives as a battle to circumnavigate the self and get to the mind that seems to lie below or alongside the self. Perhaps Breton’s submersion in psychoanalysis, with its architectural conception of selfhood, prevented him from seeing that his real struggle was not to achieve selflessness in order to get to the genuine workings of the mind (he was already there, as are we all), but a struggle for selflessness as a way to achieve empathy, a struggle of which he was quite conscious in his (Communist) politics. Breton believed that he needed to avoid the mythology of selfhood in order to write genuinely, and he even thought was able to see around the mythology of intention (thus the role of automatic writing and chance operations). But he was not able to see around the mythology of free will (as opposed to “free union”?).

To put it another way: What is an intention (indeed, an ethics, an aesthetic, a politics, or a manifesto) without free will? And what succor is there without free will? The only succor, of course, is The Collective, which is sometimes known as The Universal and whose only access road is empathy and which frequently apotheosizes in the guise of one deity or another.

In Eliot, modern alienation overbears all, and the natural enemy of alienation is empathy. If one escapes from personality, what does one escape into? Tradition (a.k.a. The Collective).

This all, of course, is terrifying to the typical citizen, who can only see political and ethical empathy as a version of militant Fascism or Socialism, as a completely assimilated hive of nameless workers, or as a particular layer of hell where everyone is deprived of facial features and is required to wear a uniform (which they also believe to be required of Socialism).

But, again, back to the poets: If all of the choices are made before we are aware of them, including the choice to continue making choices (editing/revising), then where are “we” in the process of poetic composition? Is there any real difference between automatic writing and extensive revision (as in “The Wasteland”, revised both by Eliot and by Pound)?

Again, the answer requires just a slight shift in the way we look at the “we”—we are those brains making the choices. Poetic composition requires both our active participation and the play among language, culture, and consciousness simultaneously, because a self is the play among language, culture, etc. as filtered through a single brain.

So, yes, there is a difference—and it can be derived from the Basic Argument. A) We cannot be held responsible for being who we are (since “who we are” is determined by forces beyond our control—genetics, geography, diet, culture, etc.). B) Our brains select our words and actions before we become consciously aware of that selection. C) Therefore, our brains are selecting words and actions that are based on “who we are”, and D) when we believe we are making statements of intent we actually are making statements of identity.

When we write our poetics, our aesthetics, our politics, our ethics, we are merely describing our selves. Some of us are raw, some of us are cooked; some spontaneous, some deliberative.

It only requires a slight shift in how we think of “intention”. But do you want to call that "free will"?

Shantih shantih shantih

1 comment:

  1. This is very interesting. I loved the quote in the Op/Ed piece from Ian McEwan.
    My problem with determinism has always centered around the lack of ownership of one's actions, but according to Swanson self can be both pre-determined AND morally responsible.
    You've also created a strong argument concerning the semantics of "I" and "We."