Monday, June 18, 2012

Observations on The Ego Trick, Part 2

This is part 2 (Part 1 here) of many installments in my process/review of Julian Baggini's The Ego Trick: In Search of the Self. There is as much personal reflection in this as there is review of the book, and there are also philosophical reflections on the material.

I've was reading Julian Baggini's The Ego Trick during transit days on my European adventure. At first I thought maybe I was musing more philosophical due to being tired on the plane over, but it has continued since I've been here, so maybe it's the continent. Anyway, I've been jotting some random thoughts as I read the book, and here are the 2nd installment.

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We visited the Tobacco Street Synagogue in Budapest a few days ago (or more correctly, the Dohány Street Synagogue), a Moorish Revival era (1850s) Temple that is beautiful inside and out. In the inner courtyard is a cemetery for some of the many, many Hungarian Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

As I walked down the path beside the cemetery, I was deeply overwhelmed by the incredible sense of loss. I found myself crying, even sobbing, in pain. Totally unexpected - there is no Jewish history in my family, and while I am more than 50% German, my family was being ostracized in Chicago during the 1930s and 1940s, not participating in Hitler's insanity.

I wonder which "Bill" felt that experience so deeply, as though my loved ones were buried in that soil. I wonder how my empathy was so easily triggered in a foreign place, for people very different from me, and by events that happened 40 years or so before I was born.

I have never really believed in past lives and reincarnation, to do so would be contrary to everything I know about the brain, about our selves, and about the laws of physics. [Author's note: My girlfriend believes in past lives and thinks that may be the source of my experience.]

Yet something about that experience feels as much "mine" as any memories of my family or knowledge of our family history. The sense of pain and loss felt very personal, very intimate.

Have I changed my mind about past lives? No . . . but I am less sure than I was before that morning in Budapest that this is the only life I have lived.


Reading about the self and not discussing Thomas Metzinger would be to overlook one of the leading researchers and writers in the field. This quote is from Metzinger's article on "Why are identity disorders interesting for philosophers?"

Put very shortly, possessing a globally available and integrated self-representation enables an information-processing system to stand in new kinds of relations to itself (in functionally accessing different kinds of system-related information as system-related information), and if a certain portion of this information is highly invariant, the phenomenal experience of transtemporal identity can emerge. However, we have to be careful at this point: Conceptually, indiscriminability is certainly not equivalent to identity. Identity is a transitive relation, indiscriminability is not. Indiscriminability in the self-model may just cause certain functional invariances – for example on the level of body image, background emotions, or autobiographical memory. However, a transparent representation of such functional invariances can result in the phenomenology of being identical through time, of transtemporal sameness. And this phenomenology is what, first, functionally enables us to refer to ourselves as persons and, second, constitutes the roots of our theoretical discourse on personal identity. Without this phenomenology we could not write a book like this, and you could neither read nor understand it. Conceptual self-representation is anchored in phenomenal self-representation; personal-level properties are to a considerable degree determined by subpersonal properties in the brain.

Metzinger is writing here for fellow philosophers and others who are well-versed in the study of human consciousness, not for the average non-specialist, which is  the audience for Baggini's book. The main point for me in the above passage is that identity is a "transitive relation," and it becomes "transtemporal" (persistent through time) when the information processing systems (including memory) are highly invariant (consistent).

I bring this up because Baggini cites John Locke as the first philosopher to explicitly require memory as a functional part of defining consciousness and identity.

Locke defined ‘person’ in psychological terms, as a ‘thinking intelligent being that has reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places’. The key to personal identity is therefore consciousness: ‘For since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and ’tis that, that makes every one to be, what he calls self; and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things, in this alone consists personal Identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational Being: And as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past Action or Thought, so far reaches the Identity of that Person.’
This has widely been interpreted to mean, as two recent commentators put it, that ‘a person at two different times will have the same consciousness and hence will be the same person [if] the person at a later time remembers having experienced and done what the person at the earlier time experienced and did’.

So, is memory the glue that binds us with a coherent and consistent sense of self? Probably not. Memories are not static "snapshots" from our lives, they are an active process, always in flux, and they are altered each time they are recalled.


Baggini looks at the famous case of H.M., a man who underwent a radical surgery in 1953 to stop epileptic seizures that removed much of his hippocampus, his amygdala, and three other small brain centers in the mid-region of the brain. The seizures stopped but so did his ability to lay down new memories.

He could, however, learn new tasks, revealing different processes for procedural memory and episodic memory. H.M. could hold information for about 20 seconds, revealing a further difference for working memory vs short-term and long-term memory.

Despite all of these issues, H.M. maintained a sense of self, although for him it was always 1953 and he was always 27 years old (the failure of new explicit memory). Years later, he could identify his mother in a current picture, but not himself. Yet he "learned" that he was aging in that he could look in the mirror and not be shocked by his gray hair (an example of implicit memory still working to some extent).

Clearly, from this example, our sense of self becomes increasingly fragile without new memories added to the narrative. But there are core traits, likes/dislikes, values and so on that remain intact.

So what would happen if there were no episodic memories from birth onward - it seems there would be no narrative and therefore no self. Baggini does not raise this issue at all, which is where the real question about memory and self becomes crucially relevant.



I think I was born on the wrong continent.

When I chose Budapest, Vienna, and Prague for this trip, I had no idea why I had chosen these cities and not Paris or Rome or Barcelona. Or even Berlin or Frankfurt, since I am half German by my mother's side. Why did I choose the three capitals (at various times) of the Habsburg and Austro-Hungarian Empire?

My mother's parents came from Germany as young children, but only a few decades before there was no Germany, and it's entirely possible that my heritage is something entirely unknown to me. So maybe I was responding to some deep genetic calling to return to "my land." It's possible (and I have no way of finding out at this point) that "my people" are from this region of the world. Somehow it feels like home - or at the very least I feel comfortable here.

And somehow that argument feels like another ghost in the machine.

My other half, from my father's side, is Irish, Scottish, and mutt. There is some small percentage (1/16) of Sioux blood, and that is interesting to me, but that side of my history holds no charge. I feel no connection to that lineage.

The poet and one-time Dominican monk, William Everson, saw landscape as embodiment of archetypal energies (in the Jungian sense). He wrote about those ideas in terms of the American continent in Archetype West, but I have never seen a comparable work for the European continent.

I wonder if we feel drawn to the landscape as an embodiment of an archetype, if the people who are from that land carry an almost genetic ethos - system of meaning - dictated by that archetypal landscape's influence on our biological and psychological history. It's easy to see how this manifests in biology - especially in more traditionally homogeneous cultures such as Japan or Finland. People from these homogeneous countries tend share distinct genetic patterns and often possess similar physical characteristics, from body size and shape to facial structure.

Why would it not be possible that this is also true in psychological characteristics?

When I asked my friend Tom about these ideas, he rejected the notion of tying "types" of people to genetic heritage. He feels such speculation is undermined by the incredible mixing of peoples over the whole planet (this was thought to be true in Finland, but more recent studies suggest normal genetic drift). He was particularly critical of the notion that Finland offers a homogeneous population of Fins for research purposes, although researchers have found this a still viable sample for genetic mapping.

And as a teacher of Jewish history and the history of antisemitism, he also sees a slippery slope toward eugenics in such speculation. I can understand the fear - six million dead men, women, and children all from one cultural and genetic origin is a frightening precedent. I am reminded, however, of the sports broadcaster who was fired for suggesting that, in general, African athletes had some physiological advantages over Caucasian athletes that allow them to run faster or jump higher. Nothing he said was physiologically wrong - simply saying it out loud was deemed wrong. We are uncomfortable with attributing skills or attributes to people based on genetics due to racism, genocide, or other forms of irrational hate. But this does not mean such differences do not exist.

For example, people of African heritage do not get malaria, but this immunity makes them susceptible to sickle-cell anemia, which Caucasians are not. One group of Jews, the Ashkenazi, have notoriously low levels of HDL, but this does not seem to impact their longevity.

On a more personal level, being German, Irish, and Scottish means I easily get sunburned. I have a friend whose family is from the Mediterranean region and who does not experience sunburn. We are both white/Caucasian men - it's our genetics that makes us different.

When we fear how people may use information, we tend to reject the information rather than deal with the fear or implement safeguards to prevent misuse. That does not change the reality of the information - we can deny it, negate it, or speak against it, but it goes on existing, with or without us.

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