Sunday, February 19, 2012

Self and Soul: Biology meets Philosophy

Recently, a rather intelligent psychology student was told by a humanities professor that there is no self. Not surprisingly, the professor in question would probably not object to being camped with post-structuralism, so we could probably discard, along with self, a notion such as the good. Like goodness, self has (at least for human beings), biological imperatives. As psychologist Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr. has demonstrated, personality variance is an adaptation to group interaction and sociality. In fact, John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick (discussing the work of psychologists Wendi Gardner and Marilynn Brewer) indicate that any self has three facets (depending on the situation): private, relational, collective.
Neither self nor goodness is necessarily a transcendental signified: granted we could not put either one on a table, but we can clearly define (from real life) aspects of each one. As social creatures who spent most of their heritage as hunters and gatherers (the Pleistocene era spans over 2.5 million years), being fit meant having a sense of self (in the context of others) and being good to others (at times). Cost versus benefit is not the only consideration in terms of being good: research on apes (e.g., Frans de Waal) and on insects (e.g., E.O. Wilson) demonstrates that there can be unconditional gestures of benevolence or instinctual self-sacrifice for the benefit of another (and clearly there are cases of such benevolence in human history).
Any reading in contemporary psychology (e.g., Steven Pinker) would demonstrate that a person (building a sense of personhood) has a conscious mind that creates (for many personal and social reasons) a self. In fact, evolutionary psychologists (e.g., Leda Cosmides and John Tooby) would say that the human mind is to a great extent a product of evolution and still contains responses to our ancient past. Therefore, the mind is not empty at birth, and the self is not constructed entirely from external environment: rather, since the mind has built-in adaptations (e.g., to cooperate, to select a mate, to nurture a child), there are pre-formed building blocks from infancy related to self in a group. Additionally, to say that there is no self denies the biological fact of frontal lobes (especially a prefrontal cortex) where (as often cited by scientists) one’s attitudes, values, and beliefs reside, where individual (self) decisions are made. Without self a human being would be either an automaton or some simple organism whose basic instinct is only to grovel for survival. Self is riddled with memories, emotions, feelings, and most importantly, the ability to plan (abstractly) for the future.
Goodness is mentioned (above) in this note for a reason (since the aforementioned professor has an interest in ethics with a focus on the philosophy of the middle ages – i.e., religious “philosophy”). Our ability to be good, kind, and benevolent is not divinely inspired. Just a little reading in evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology would reveal – as clear as day – that there is a biological notion of self: we could not survive as human individuals in human groups if we had no (human) sense of self. Likewise, for anyone to study morality and ethics and confine oneself to the middle ages (for all of its wisdom) overlooks the advances of the intervening six hundred years – and quite a bit has happened since then, from David Hume and Adam Smith, to Charles Darwin and Antonio Damasio. That is, while we tend to be self-centered creatures, we are able to act kindly toward others for practical reasons that quite often have nothing to do with teleological or divine reasons (e.g., Robert Trivers).
On a related note (since medieval philosophy has been mentioned), two philosophers were recently overheard discussing whether or not souls could have a conversation. While one need not agree with how Daniel Dennett argues that there is no special ingredient (i.e., a soul) in being human, at the same time, to imagine that a soul is somehow self-embodied to the point that it can recognize, think, and converse with another soul ignores completely any findings in science. So, on the one hand, we have someone denying the existence of self (which is more than quantifiable), and, on the other hand, we have others assuming the existence of soul (which is not quantifiable). If there is a special ingredient in being human, most likely it is individually based and has something to do with gene combinations and variations in brain chemicals (i.e., self). Psychologist Jerome Kagan (building off ideas about personality types first advanced by Carl G. Jung) has spent nearly his entire career researching and writing about individualized temperament, concluding that each person is different and special in this sense alone.
In terms of the human species, clearly any special ingredient would include, collectively, certain brain chemicals and the more developed brain functions and parts. Coming back to what initiated this posting, there are parts of the human brain that enable us to conceive of (and to construct, individually) a sense of self. We are creatures that live well beyond any mere sensation of self-awareness – we are aware that we can be aware, and we organize (individually) memories, feelings, and our capacity to plan and direct attention in order to create a self. While not all aspects of the self are (yet) scientifically explainable, no thinking, contempoary person should deny that most of who we are is biologically based. Some naturalistic philosophers before Darwin (e.g., Schopenhauer) argued for uniqueness of character, and now psychologists such as Kagan (and neuroscientists such as Michael Gazzaniga) are proving what has been common knowledge: each of us is an individual self, with different degrees of consciousness and caring. While there is a biological basis for us to be good (since it helps us survive in a group), not everyone is good in quite the same way. Environmental factors have the potential to aid in shaping us, but we comprehend (and create) self from the essential uniqueness of our individual temperament susceptible to such shaping (or not).
Returning to our main point: what are we teaching our college students – many of whom are serious and eager scholars – if we neglect evolutionary biology that clearly complements philosophical ideas? One cannot be only a biological or a (medieval) philosophical thinker: findings in science elucidate many of the core ideas in philosophy and vice versa. The death of the humanities (as Joseph Carroll has so eloquently explained in his books) derives from these very scenarios that create sealed, solipsistic towers of words simply referring to other words (or using words to ignore physical reality) without any reference to the findings of evolution. Let us now begin a conversation where evolutionary science and philosophy are equally engaged.
- Gregory F. Tague