alexandra_thorn: 2009, taken by Underwatercolor (Default)
[personal profile] alexandra_thorn
Back in 2010, I was attended a symposium at Tufts University entitled "Morality
and the Mind," a symposium that brought scientists of cognition into the same
room with policy people, in an effort to set up a dialog on what science has to
say about morality. One of the speakers there made a remark that has kind of
stuck with me. He complained of a "creeping dualism" that causes people to say
very strange things such as "my brain made me do it." He noted the obvious
problem with this statement: "There ain't nobody in here but us chickens." He
has a point, and it's a good one. If you take away my brain, there's no "me"
there to talk about, so pretending that I would behave differently if I had a
different brain doesn't make any sense. If I had a different brain, I wouldn't
be me at all.

But lately I've been thinking about things a bit differently. Sure, without my
brain, there'd be no "me, but the entity that I think of as "me" doesn't really
take up my whole brain. In fact, at any given moment, I'm only aware of a tiny
fraction of all of the memories and ideas that are somehow stored inside my
skull. There's also a lot of active processing by my brain that "I" don't
even know about. I can tell that this processing happens because ideas (like
the idea for this essay) just pop into my head out of nowhere. "I" didn't
do any work for these ideas, yet somehow I'm happy enough to take credit.

Similarly, I've got all these skills and abilities that I'm proud of, even
though the only reason I have them at all is the combination of my genetic
makeup, my upbringing, and the time I've put in to practicing these skills
until I don't have to think about them. A lot of people tell me I'm a pretty
good writer, and I always feel a kind of warm glow when I hear that, even
though I don't really know how to compose a sentence any more than I know
exactly which muscles I need to move in order to walk across the room.

When I focus on this perspective, the thing that I think of as "me" shrinks
away into this tiny little entity riding a much larger creature. It's almost
like horseback riding, where I might be able to direct the animal, but
ultimately it has a mind of its own. A rider has some control over the
performance of a particular horse on a particular day, but the rider can't
change how old or healthy the horse is, its genetic heritage, or how it has
been trained in the past. Except that a horseback rider is huge compared to
the tiny little self that I find myself visualizing, and the mind-body that I'm
not currently aware of has an enormous breadth of abilities beyond what a horse
can do. It's really more like riding a magical, flying, firebreathing dragon.

So I'm this tiny little something riding on this incredibly powerful entity,
which I have some ability to direct, but on some level I really can't control.
My emotional state is intimately tied to what my dragon does, but on a certain
level I don't have much control over it. Sometimes my dragon gets excited and
talks in a too-loud voice. I didn't ask it to do that, but it happens, and
when people around me (or perhaps their dragons?) ask me to quiet down, I, as
the rider, feel guilty. If I tell my dragon to bicycle me to the supermarket,
it'll generally do it without complaining, and I, as the rider, take credit for
the physical feat, even though I know that I have the benefit of having a young
dragon with good knees that has already been conditioned to bicycle 20+ miles a

And if I tell my dragon that it was a pretty cute idea it came up with for
analogizing consciousness as a person riding a dragon, and that maybe it'd be
cool to write up as a blog post, I'm more or less at the dragon's mercy as to
whether this thing actually happens, let alone how well written the post ends
up being. In fact, the last time I asked it to do exactly that, it balked
after making a very minimal start and hasn't been willing to make another
effort for over 2 months.

What good is this analogy? There are actually probably a bunch of applications
and probably a fair number of misapplications. One thing I like is that this
framework helps me to be humble. Another is that it helps me to not beat
myself up too much when I find myself unable to do a thing, either from lack
of motivation or because I haven't developed the relevant skill. It also
gives a different framework for thinking about why other people approach
things differently. We each have only limited control over exactly what our
mind-body dragon is like.
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alexandra_thorn: 2009, taken by Underwatercolor (Default)

February 2015

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