Boundaries of Your Body

Kevin Simler, 2014.04.15

Some will say that ‘you’ are your body. That everything that happens to ‘you,’ happens to your body, and vice versa. That you ought to identify, therefore, with your organs and tissues, your face, your DNA, and your brain — in other words, the totality of your biological organism.

Certainly there’s a sense in which you do, already, identify with your body — behaviorally, that is. You’ll go to great lengths to avoid losing an arm or a leg. And if you do lose one, it’ll feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself. It won’t be the end of the world; clearly, ‘you’ will still exist. But you’ll feel less wholly yourself than before you lost the limb. The case is even stronger, of course, if you were to lose part of your brain.

I’m not suggesting that you take this road, mind you. To identify with your biological organism is appealing, certainly, but also problematic. In particular, the body is awfully hard to pin down. If you are your body, where do ‘you’ end? Where does your body leave off and ‘the rest of the world’ begin?

There’s just no good answer to this question.

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The Aesthetics of Personal Identity

Kevin Simler, 2014.04.15

Forgive the seemingly sophomoric question, but…

Who are you, exactly?

Or to put it another way: Which parts or facets of the universe do you identify with?

This question, so easy to ask, is all but impossible to answer in a satisfying way. If you want a hard definition, something you can feel solid and sure about — good fucking luck. Most candidate answers will be shown, with only a moment’s thought, to be riddled with holes.

The longer you think about this question, though, the more you start to wonder: maybe the problem doesn’t lie with any of the answers (per se), but instead with you. Maybe they’re all full of holes because ‘you’ are full of holes.

Sure you’d like yourself to be solid, substantial, and well-defined — but perhaps you’re more porous than you care to admit. Sure it’d be nice if the issue of your identity could be settled, a priori, by some ultimate metaphysical principle — but perhaps it can only be chosen, ad hoc, on the basis of moral, political, or even (gasp) aesthetic concerns.

What if ‘who you are’ turns out — on reflection, and at reflective equilibrium — to be largely a matter of taste? Would that be so hard to swallow?

An exploration in four parts:

  • Body
  • Mind (next week)
  • Soul (…)
  • Pattern (…)

Technical Debt of the West

Kevin Simler, 2014.03.04

(Originally published at Ribbonfarm.)

Here’s a recipe for discovering new ideas:

  1. Examine the frames that give structure (but also bias) to your thinking.
  2. Predict, on the basis of #1, where you’re likely to have blind spots.
  3. Start groping around in those areas.

If you can do this with the very deepest frames — those that constrain not just your own thinking, but your entire civilization’s — you can potentially unearth a treasure trove of insight. You may not find anything 100% original (ideas that literally no one else has ever seen), but whatever you find is almost guaranteed to be underappreciated.

In his lecture series The Tao of Philosophy, Alan Watts sets out to do just this for Western civilization. He wants to examine the very substrate of our thinking, in order to understand and correct for our biases.

So what is the substrate of Western thought?

Well if you’re a fish, water can be hard to see. Same thing here. In order to see our own thinking, we’ll have to triangulate it from the outside.

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A Codebase is an Organism

Kevin Simler, 2014.02.19


Here’s what no one tells you when you graduate with a degree in computer science and take up a job in software engineering:

The computer is a machine, but a codebase is an organism.

This will make sense to anyone who’s worked on a large or even medium-sized software project — but it’s often surprising to new grads. Why? Because nothing in your education prepares you for how to deal with an organism.

Computer science is all about how to control the machine: to make it do exactly what you want, during execution, on the time scale of nano- and milliseconds. But when you build real software — especially as part of a team — you have to learn how to control not only the (very obedient) machine, but also a large, sprawling, and often unruly codebase.

This turns out to require a few ‘softer’ skills. Unlike a computer, which always does exactly what it’s told, code can’t really be bossed around. Perhaps this is because code is ultimately managed by people. But whatever the reason, you can’t tell a codebase what to do and expect to be obeyed. Instead, the most you can do (in order to maximize your influence) is try to steward the codebase, nurture it as it grows over a period of months and years.

When you submit a CS homework assignment, it’s done. Fixed. Static. Either your algorithm is correct and efficient or it’s not. But push the same algorithm into a codebase and there’s a very real sense in which you’re releasing it into the wild.

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UX and the Civilizing Process

Kevin Simler, 2014.01.27

(Originally published at Ribbonfarm.)

To scandalize a member of the educated West, open any book on European table manners from the middle of the second millennium:

“Some people gnaw a bone and then put it back in the dish. This is a serious offense.” — Tannhäuser, 13th century.

“Don’t blow your nose with the same hand that you use to hold the meat.” — S’ensuivent les contenances de la table, 15th century.

“If you can’t swallow a piece of food, turn around discreetly and throw it somewhere.” — Erasmus of Rotterdam, De civilitate morum puerilium, 1530.

To the modern ear (and stomach), the behaviors discussed here are crude. We’re disgusted not only by what these authors advocate, but also by what they feel compelled to advocate against. The advice not to blow one’s nose with the meat-holding hand, for example, implies a culture where hands do serve both of these purposes. Just not the same hand. Ideally.

These were instructions aimed at the rich nobility. Among serfs out in the villages, standards were even less refined.

To get from medieval barbarism to today’s standard was an exercise in civilization — the slow settling of our species into domesticated patterns of behavior. It’s a progression meticulously documented by Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process. Owing in large part to the centripetal forces of absolutism (culminating at the court of Louis XIV), manners, and the sensibilities to go with them, were first cultivated, then standardized and distributed throughout Europe.

But the civilizing process isn’t just for people.
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Hallucinated Gods

Kevin Simler, 2014.01.21

We’ve laid a lot of groundwork over the past two months for me to be able to say this with a straight face:

Julian Jaynes believed that ancient people experienced their gods as auditory hallucinations.

OK, maybe I cringed a little.

For those of you just joining us, this is part 4, the final stop on our idiosyncratic tour of Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness. For the past three essays we’ve been tiptoeing around the ‘gods’ as though they were elephants in the room, but today we will confront them and engage with them directly.

If you haven’t read Jaynes — well, you should. It’s some of the most mind-expanding material you’ll ever encounter. (“Cognitive archaeology”: how’s that for a field of study?) As I mentioned earlier, the consensus on Jaynes is that his book is worth reading even if his thesis is completely wrong. That alone should pique your curiosity.

But if you haven’t read Jaynes, you’ll be tempted to place him on the lunatic fringe, in company with conspiracy theorists, Ancient Alien-types, and Philip K. Dick (the later years). But please don’t do this. It would be a mistake. Even if Jaynes is wrong, the man is as rational and grounded — as ‘properly-hinged’ — as anyone who asks these kinds of questions can be.

I’ve spent a lot of effort, these past two months, preparing us not to reject the idea of hallucinated gods out of hand. But now I ask that you keep just one thing in mind as you continue to read about Jaynes — namely, this objective fact about our species:

The human brain is capable of hallucinating voices.

Yes, hallucinated voices are weird — but they really happen. And sometimes we can even be quite cavalier about them. Every night, for example, we spend an hour or so immersed in a rich hallucinated fantasyland — only to dismiss it, when we wake up, as “just a dream.”

Wait a minute. “Just” a dream? If a dream wasn’t perfectly normal, it would be the weirdest thing that ever happened to you.

So this should give us pause.

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2013 Meta

Kevin Simler, 2013.12.31

Time for the annual ‘meta’ indulgence: writing about the writing process, blogging about the blog itself.

Summary of the year

In last year’s meta post I set myself the (v. reasonable) goal of publishing one essay per week in 2013.

I’m sure you can guess what happened. I made it through February.

Still I ended up shipping 68,000 words (spread out over 26 posts), which is twice as much content as I produced in 2012. I covered a ton of interesting topics and advanced my understanding of the world further than in the previous ~5 years combined. So… nothing to sneeze at.

I’ve also been a blogging resident at Ribbonfarm, which has been hugely rewarding. A lot of my best work has come out of writing for the Ribbonfarm audience. I’m especially fond of Venkat’s tagline, “Experiments in refactored perception,” and the kind of thinking it inspires. Watch for my final essay to be published there in mid-January.

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Neurons Gone Wild

Kevin Simler, 2013.12.10

To reject gods and spirits is easy: just bully them away in the name of science.

But to accept them, or at least our experiences of them, and yet give them a scientific explanation: there’s a task worthy of our art. It demands that we look them in the eye and take them seriously, while standing absolutely firm in our materialist convictions.

I don’t know how much of what I’m about to say is true. All I know is that it’s damn interesting.

Today we court madness from the bedrock of science. Today we will face addictions and compulsions, alter-egos and imaginary friends, angelic voices and demonic possessions, even exorcisms. And we will attempt to ground these madnesses, one and all, in a unified, sane, materialist framework.

We will begin, naturally, with the neuron.

Neurons, selfish and feral

In a recent Edge interview, Dan Dennett pitches the most fascinating new idea I’ve read in a long, long time: That our neurons are powerful computational building blocks in part because they’ve reverted to an older and slightly feral state.

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Accepting Deviant Minds

Kevin Simler, 2013.10.18

There is no question that the mind is vaster and more fluid than our ordinary, waking consciousness suggests. — Sam Harris

At a sleepover when I was 12, a friend told me that he could control his dreams. It didn’t happen every night, he said, but every so often he’d become aware of being in the middle of a dream. Usually at that point he’d wake up, but sometimes, with a delicate act of will, he could remain in the dream long enough to fly around for a bit — or whatever else 12-year-old boys are wont to do in the privacy of their minds.

I called bullshit. In all my experiences, whenever I became conscious of my dreams I would wake up instantly. To be aware of one’s dreaming struck me as physiologically if not logically impossible. But years later I would come to experience these lucid dreams myself. My friend, it turns out, had been right all along.

Looking back on it, what’s interesting is how strong my prejudices were. Even as a 12-year-old I had deep-seated ideas about what constituted a valid conscious experience. Anything outside my own narrow range struck me as illegitimate — as either a lie or confabulation, or else somehow aberrant, like the product of mental illness.

I think we all have these prejudices. But they are a crippling impediment to doing effective cognitive archaeology.

(Welcome back, by the way. If you’re just joining, we’re currently on week two of an idiosyncratic tour of The Origin of Consciousness, Julian Jaynes’ mind-bending book about the mentality of pre- and early-historic humans. No need to worry if you missed last week’s intro; just keep reading.)

So today’s exercise will be to shatter our prejudices about what constitutes a legitimate conscious experience. This is essential for understanding Julian Jaynes’ theory, which is so strange that if we’re not properly prepared for it, we’ll be tempted to reject it out-of-hand.

Incidentally, it will also expand our notion of what it means to be human.
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Mr. Jaynes’ Wild Ride

Kevin Simler, 2013.10.07

If any book deserves to be called a mindfuck, it’s Julian Jaynes’ epic, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

When it was first published in 1976, no one knew quite what to make of it, including some of our most intelligent critics. Daniel Dennett said, “On the face of it, [the theory] is preposterous,” but also, “I take it very seriously.” Richard Dawkins’ ambivalence was even less reserved; he called it “either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between.”

Almost 40 years later, the community still hasn’t reached a verdict; reactions are still all over the map. Some dismiss the theory out of hand, on the basis of its extraordinary conclusions. Others embrace it wholeheartedly, even a bit cultishly, going so far as to found the Julian Jaynes Society (after his death) to carry on his work. But by far the most common reaction is this: it’s bold, it’s reckless, it’s probably wrong — but even still, it’s worth reading.

Think about that for a second. Probably wrong — but worth reading anyway. Preposterous — but worth taking seriously. This is some strange praise. When a theory is wrong, we discard it. When preposterous, we laugh at it. What’s going on here?

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