Saturday, June 27, 2009
Most of us go through life pretty much assuming that what we “are” is evident (I am that which perceives, acts, feels and makes my own decisions), and that what the world “is” is also evident (the world is that which I perceive “out there”—land, trees, water, sky, mountains, buildings, animals, other people, objects). Now along comes a book by Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel, (Basic Books: 2009) which, basing itself on the neuroscientific studies of recent years, turns these “obvious” assumptions upside down. It turns out, according to philosopher Metzinger, that what we “are” and what the world “is” are both based on models conjured up by the brain. We each have what Metzinger calls a “phenomenal self model” (PSM)—the conscious model of our organism as a whole that is activated by the brain. As for the world “out there,” it is also a model fed to us by our limited sensory equipment (eyes, ears, nose, taste, touch) and processed by our brains into “a low-dimensional projection of the inconceivably richer physical reality surrounding us and sustaining us.” So consciousness, for Metzinger and neuroscience, takes place in two related and interrelated steps: “First, our brains generate a world-simulation, so perfect that we do not recognize it as an image in our minds.” This specific world-simulation has been refined over evolutionary time to provide us with precisely what we need to survive. Then, “they [i.e. our brains] generate an inner image of ourselves as a whole.” This latter is the phenomenal Ego—the internal image of the person-as-a-whole, as it appears in conscious experience. Neither one of these models puts us “in direct contact with outside reality or with ourselves.” But since we are essentially blind to the fact that both are models, we have the experience of “seeing” reality and being ourselves fully and completely in that real world. This is what Metzinger means by the Ego Tunnel of his title: far from realizing that we are perceiving models created by our brain cells, we are in a kind of tunnel that totally precludes us from realizing this. It is only scientific experiments done in collaboration (to get beyond the tunnel that keeps each individual blind) that provide us with evidence of this counter-intuitive situation. (We should always remind ourselves that the earth as a globe spinning in inconceivably vast space was also counter-intuitive for most of human history.)
The first experiment Metzinger describes is one done in 1998 by University of Pittsburgh psychiatrists Matthew Botvinick and Jonathan Cohen. It’s a kind of play on the oft-reported phenomenon of the phantom limb, where patients who have had an arm or leg removed persist in “feeling” sensation in the absent limb. Botvinick and Cohen contrived a kind of obverse experiment:
“Subjects observed a rubber hand lying on the desk in front of them, with their own corresponding hand concealed from their view by a screen. The visible rubber hand and the subject’s unseen hand were then synchronously stroked with a probe. After a certain time (a mere 60 to 90 seconds when Metzinger tried this himself), the famous rubber-hand illusion emerges. Suddenly, you experience the rubber hand as your own, and you feel the repeated strokes in this rubber hand. Moreover, you feel a full-blown “virtual arm”—that is a connection from your shoulder to the fake hand on the table in front of you.” (p. 3)
The lessons of the rubber-hand experiment, as well as the later out-of-body experiences and experiments Metzinger describes, are profound. For in these situations, the existence and malleability of the PSM or phenomenal self-model, as a model, comes to light. Our brain, that is, creates a model of our bodies that is usually very accurate and immensely useful. But it can be fooled, as it is in the rubber hand experiment, into thinking that a rubber hand is part of itself. Therefore, we come to understand that what we consciously think of as “me,” is really only a model conjured by the brain. We also see that it can be manipulated in such a way that a rubber hand (a fake me) becomes a part of “me,” becomes “mine,” with feelings and sensations. Metzinger then poses a startling question: “Could one create a full-body analog of the rubber-hand illusion? Could the entire self be transposed to a location outside of the body?” (Normally, we think of our “self” as residing somewhere inside our heads.)
His answer is “yes.” In out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs), which Metzinger himself has had (and which Olaf Blanke, a neurologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Lausanne, has triggered in patients by directly stimulating their brains with an electrode), the conscious subject of experience (what I consider “me”) is located in the double. That is, in an OBE, there are typically two representations: the visual one (you see your body lying on a bed, or on an operating table); and the felt one, where you feel yourself hovering above your “body.” This latter hovering you is the “double,” and it is here that the phenomenal self model (“me,” or my “ego”) seems to be located. Hence the term, “out of the body:” “I” am out of my body.
What this means, first and most importantly, is that being conscious means literally creating models—both of what is “out there,” and what is “in here.” We have brain-generated images of what the world “is” and what we “are”, and they work quite well in most cases; but they are not “real” in the sense we think they are—i.e. that “we” are in direct contact with what “is”. They are “virtual,” models that create a center for us, a center we experience as ourselves, as our first person perspective, and which we use to great advantage to do everything needed to survive. And the second and related meaning is that these models can and have been manipulated in scientific experiments, thus revealing their reality as models. That is, if we had a true and enduring picture of ourselves, we would not be fooled by rubber hands, phantom limbs, or OBEs. If we had a true and enduring picture of the world, we would not think that an evening sky is apricot-pink. As Metzinger notes, “there are no colors out there in front of your eyes. The apricot-pink of the setting sun is not a property of the evening sky; it is a property of the internal model of the evening sky, a model created by your brain. The evening sky is colorless. The world is not inhabited by colored objects at all…out there, in front of your eyes, there is just an ocean of electro-magnetic radiation, a wild and raging mixture of different wavelengths….What is really happening is that the visual system in your brain is drilling a tunnel through this inconceivably rich physical environment and in the process is painting the tunnel walls in various shades of color…For your conscious eyes only.” Neuroscientists have evidence of this because of a type of brain injury called “apperceptive agnosia.” This injury prevents the brain from forming a coherent visual model of the outside world, even though the patient’s visual apparatus is intact. So though they can “see,” patients with this injury cannot recognize what it is they are looking at. Their modeling equipment is disabled.
I don’t know about you, but this gives me a kind of vertigo.
So do statements like: “No such things as selves exist in the world.”
Now the Buddha said this, over and over. Indian philosophy and religion talk about this and the related idea that what we take to be “real” is a dream, an illusion. But unless one experiences this “selfless” state for long periods of time, or consistently, this is something most people take on faith, if at all. But now, neuroscientists can refer to something like Cotard’s syndrome, a kind of selfless experience caused by brain malfunction. In it, patients stop using the first-person pronoun and, actually claim that they do not really exist. Metzinger mentions one patient who described herself as “Madame Zero.” The idea seems to be that, again, some part of the self-modeling apparatus is disabled. Metzinger follows this with another key idea: in order to have the feeling of “being someone,” you have to feel that you “own” your body, its sensations, and so on. And this too, is malleable: sports figures like skiers, race car drivers, and others often relate the sensation that their consciously sensed “body” at times is extended to include their skis, the cars they drive, and so on.
What, then, is the essence of selfhood? Again, ownership seems to be the minimal condition (Metzinger demonstrates that neither a “seeing self”, emotions, will or thoughts are necessary—shut your eyes and your sense of self remains.) His theory then becomes something like this:
Minimal self-consciousness is not control, but what makes control possible. It includes an image of the body in time and space (location) plus the fact that the organism creating this image does not recognize it as an image (because of the ‘tunnel’). But the important part is that “we discover that we can control the focus of attention. That we can actively control what information appears in our mind.” And then, taking off from experiments demonstrating that monkeys can control robots (called “slave” robots) by means of their thoughts, Metzinger hits us with this zinger:
“The conscious experience of being a subject arises when a single organism learns to enslave itself.” That is, when it feels as if “I” control myself, or my body-slave.
There are insights and mind-bending statements like this in every part, almost every page of Metzinger’s book and they are too numerous to recount. I will end this discussion, therefore, with Metzinger’s reflections on the notion of “free will.” To begin with, much prior brain research has already established the fact that subpersonal brain events (those that specify action goals and assemble motor commands) arise and begin actions before you are conscious of having the idea to “do” something. But since they do at some point become “conscious,” and thus become bound into the self-model active in your brain, you “experience them as your own thoughts, decisions, or urges to act—as properties that belong to you, the person as a whole.” Thus, it feels as if we are able to simply think about doing something, and then have our bodies make it happen. “We” control our bodies. Metzinger describes this as “the appearance of an agent”—i.e. someone who makes something happen, someone who is in control of his own actions. And free will depends intimately on this idea of “agency.” We feel we are able to do what we want to do, or rather, that what we do is done because we, our conscious selves, our PSM, want to. Moreover, this freely willing self-model is not a production of our minds alone; it involves the social life we engage in around us. Free will is like that: it is a social institution. Metzinger then discusses the implications of the fact that free will, or agency, is only an appearance in our model of ourselves:
The assumption that something like free agency exists, and the fact that we treat one another as autonomous agents, are concepts fundamental to our legal system and the rules governing our societies—rules built on the notions of responsibility, accountability, and guilt. These rules are mirrored in the deep structure of our PSM, and this incessant mirroring of rules, this projection of higher-order assumptions about ourselves, created complex social networks. If one day we must tell an entirely different story about what human will is or is not, this will affect our societies in an unprecedented way. For instance, if accountability and responsibility do not exist, it is meaningless to punish people (as opposed to rehabilitating them) for something they ultimately could not have avoided doing. (p. 128)
Think about this. Virtually every religion and ethical/legal system known to humanity depends on the idea that people are responsible for their actions, and therefore must be held responsible. “You committed murder. You knew what you were doing, you thought it up and wanted to do it, and decided to do it knowing the consequences, and therefore you must pay.” But what brain research seems to be showing us is that, though we cannot really comprehend it ourselves, most of what we do is already decided by our body/brains before our “conscious selves” or models think about it, and “decide” to do it, and rationalize it. Indeed, that these “conscious selves” are models that are useful illusions, but not really free agents in the strict sense of the word. What then?
This is only one of the mind-bending conundrums raised by this book. For anyone who finds this type of deep contemplation fascinating, I recommend that you search out Metzinger’s book, read it, cogitate on it. I think I can safely say you’ll never be quite the same.
Tuesday, June 02, 2009
Given that it’s Memorial Day, when we’re supposed to remember sacrifice, and given that we have a Black American now presiding in the White House, it struck me as an apt occasion to remember just where this mix of black and white derives from. I know of no better place to start than the recent book by Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello, recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history. It fully deserves the honor, for what Gordon-Reed has done is to provide us with a look inside the once-secret life of the household run by that quintessential American, Thomas Jefferson. Author of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia, designer of his Monticello residence, Jefferson was our true Renaissance man, especially in those areas related to freedom and the democratic ideal. And yet, what Gordon-Reed shows us is that that household, Monticello (itself an icon of liberty and freedom), was staffed by over 80 slaves (Jefferson owned 200 for his various estates), and more, was inhabited by Jefferson’s personal concubine and slave, the beautiful Sally Hemings, who bore him several children.
Notwithstanding such sensational facts, this is not a history that revels in what in Jefferson’s time amounted to a public scandal. Quietly, and in beautifully shaped prose, Gordon-Reed simply takes us through the domestic history of Jefferson’s family, including the family of his first wife Martha Wayles (who was “given” Sally Hemings as a wedding present), and shows us how slavery worked in those days in Virginia. In so doing, she leads us to an appreciation of what it must have been like to have endured the conflicts and agonies of decision that faced not only Jefferson himself, but those of his concubine, her enslaved family who lived at Monticello as well, and the children she bore him. Along the way, we learn amazing, and to most of us, little-known facts about slavery, how it worked, and the diabolical logic that kept it intact for more than half of our history.
Consider, for example, how convenient it was for Virginia to change its inheritance laws: where English tradition stipulated that you “were what your father was,” Virginia, in 1662, adopted the Roman rule partus sequitur ventrem, “which says that you were what your mother was.” And why? Because slave owners, realizing that large numbers of African women had been impregnated (raped) by their white owners, would have borne children who, under the English law, would have been free like their white fathers. Under the new law, however, they remained slaves like their black mothers, and hence property owned by the master. The Hemingses of the title were a case in point: Elizaberth Hemings, herself the offspring of a white father, became the concubine of her owner, John Wayles, a white landowner who had earned money in the slave trade. Wayles and Hemings produced six “mulatto” children, among them Sally Hemings, born in 1773 (even with three white grandparents, she remained “black” and a slave.) Adding to the legal plight of slaves was the fact that not only could no word said by a black person be used against a white person in court, but a child born out of wedlock was filius nullius, the child of no one.
Jefferson’s wife, Martha, was John Wayles’ legal daughter, and hence the beneficiary of much of the Wayles estate. This came, with their marriage in 1772, to Jefferson, along with most of the Hemingses including Martha’s half-sister, Sally Hemings. When Martha Wayles Jefferson died in childbirth in 1782, she left three children by Jefferson, as well as her half-sister, Sally, then nine years old. A year before he was named minister to France in 1785, Jefferson moved to Paris. He brought with him Sally’s older brother James, to be trained as his chef in French cuisine. But while he was away, Jefferson’s daughter, Lucy, then a two- year-old, died of whooping cough. Distraught, Jefferson insisted on having his remaining daughter, Polly, brought to Paris to be with him and her sister Patsy. Polly’s traveling companion would be none other than Sally Hemings, then about 14 years old.
It was during this Paris interlude, according to most biographers, that the slave-girl Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s half sister-in-law, became his concubine. We know this partly because of reports that when Jefferson and his family returned to Monticello, Sally Hemings was pregnant. The situation, already deliciously complex, was further complicated by the fact that French laws decreed that any New World slave who set foot on French soil could, if he or she petitioned for it, become a free French citizen. Sally Hemings, though a young slave girl, thus had some leverage over her lover/master, knew it, and used it. Here is how Madison Hemings, one of the offspring of the Jefferson-Hemings liaison, described it years later:
“But during that time my mother became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called back home she was enciente by him. He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him, but she demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. So she refused to return with him. To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia.” (Gordon-Reed, p. 326)
Though this child conceived in Paris died, Sally Hemings subsequently bore Thomas Jefferson several more children. Of course, neither the President nor his early biographers publicly admitted it, but in 1802, the first public disclosure appeared in a paper called the Richmond Recorder, written by one James Callender: “It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY.” (p. 557). Until recently, this and other rumors were the only indication that the writer of the most renowned paean to human freedom, the Declaration of Independence, not only kept slaves, but had a forty-year intimate relationship with one of them.
Gordon-Reed thus takes us through one of the most richly improbable domestic dramas in our history. By juxtaposing the life of an almost sainted American founding father with the lives of the people he kept with him, working for him (he made carpenters of two of his sons by Sally, Beverly and Madison), sleeping with him, bearing his children, and finally, freeing them on his terms only after his death, she gives us a sense of the true, if hidden history of this nation. The ringing words “conceived in liberty” begin to take on new meaning. So does the title often given to Jefferson, the “apostle of freedom,” for Gordon-Reed ends with the question of why the great man did not see fit to free Sally Hemings, or any of the other Hemingses, while he was still alive, or even formally in his will. Her answer involves the benefits he derived from having Sally Hemings bound to him, and the damnation of public opinion if he freed her publicly (the law said an owner had to detail how he would provide for a freed slave, as well as petition the Virginia legislature to give that ex-slave permission to remain, freed, in the state) :
“The only way for a man to control a free woman was to marry her, which he could not do. Selfishness and self-absorption seem far too inadequate as reasons for the way Jefferson treated these members of the Hemings family. There is often great power in simplicity, and the simple terrible fact is that the law vested Jefferson, and other slave owners, with the powers of a tyrant, as he said himself. This domestic tyrant tried to mitigate the meaning of that reality by being as benign as he could. That made it easier for him to see himself as a good man as he indulged his impulses and met his needs—economic, social, and affective—through his control of these family members, to whom he was tied by years of intimate acquaintance, experiences, and blood. He created his own version of slavery that he could live in comfortably with the Hemingses. It suited him. There was never any serious chance that he would have given this up. (p. 640)
Still, Sally Hemings, because of her “bargain” with Jefferson on returning from France, did better than most enslaved Africans. She, and they, were “given their time,” i.e. freed. In 1826 she went to live in Charlottsville, shortly thereafter moving into his home with her son Madison, and in the 1830 census, was counted, along with her sons, as free white persons. Three of her children would follow her to live in the white world, while one remained in the black world.
As to the other Hemingses, who lacked the same leverage, when Monticello was sold in 1831, several were sold at auction. Some ran away. The fate of others is unknown. Some sense of the inhuman obstacles facing them, and all slaves, can be gleaned from the fate of Joseph Fossett, one of the Hemings children. Fossett managed, after he was freed, to gain ownership of five of his children and four of his grandchildren. That is, in order to free his children, he had to BUY them. Gordon-Reed explains:
To avoid application of the 1806 law, he [Fossett] kept them in legal bondage until he decided in 1837 that it was time for a change. In September, he formally emancipated his own family members.
This is one of the many benefits of this deeply revealing and troubling book—illustrating how the fiendish legal system created by the slave-owning South proved, in many ways, as binding to African Americans as their chains. A “nation of laws,” indeed.