What is it Like to be Me?

Alan Carl Nicoll, December, 2018

Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

The question I wish to address is what it is like to be a human being, and in particular, me.  The question arises because of Thomas Nagel’s famous essay “What is it Like to be a Bat?”  The philosophical difficulty seems to be in imagining what an adequate answer to the question would look like.

The following is a selection of diary entries with much irrelevant material omitted.  This does not make for great reading because it tends to be repetitive and unpolished.  The text remains rough, but the choice before me is to either publish it as-is, or delay it for an unforeseeable period.  Material in brackets has been added to clarify the diary entries for blog readers.  So, without further ado:


{10/6/18}  What is a human being?

This question interests me greatly, because myself interests me greatly, indeed, it is the question of questions, the mystery of mysteries.  Today I have a different answer—not because of the dream and the above speculations [omitted here], though perhaps they are a part of the answer, but because I’ve been considering what chaos theory might have to tell me about how the mind works.  At least, I now have a different model-metaphor to apply to the mind.

Before I present that, and it’s hardly earth-shaking, I want to consider this “question of questions.”  It’s not well-formed.  It implies “essentialism” rather than my “models and mysteries” model of, let’s say, science.  To ask, “what is a human being” does not seem to be asking, “give me a good model of a human being,” yet, that is the only form in which the answer can be given or accepted.  To an atheist-humanist-scientific materialist, the concept of “essence of a human being” is useless.  [11/16/18:  That’s rather too strong; a human being is a representative or example of the species Homo sapiens.  If this answer is inadequate, what is lacking must be specified.]

So, that’s rather a jumble of ideas; but back to the less-than-earthshaking thought.

If I think of chaos theory (“CT”) as:  “if a butterfly flaps its wings in South America, does that cause a tornado in Texas?”—a question from the 1980s, I think—then my consideration of “the mind” in this light leads me to say, “the mind is a weather system full of butterflies.”  I had this thought day-before-yesterday.

Let’s consider a response to the CT question.  “What about the other butterflies in South America?”  Surely, the tornado in Texas has a myriad of “causes,” any of which could be singled out and called, absurdly, “the cause.”  This thought raises the multiple causes of Aristotle—“proximate cause” and “material cause” and so on—which I don’t understand well enough to use, so I’m a bit handicapped here.  But the point is that the metaphor is misleading.  The tornado isn’t “caused” by the butterfly; the flapping is just one of countless conditions that go to making up the full cause of the tornado. [10/8/18  This needs much more thought, but here’s one:  to consider separate “causes” at all, it is necessary to “carve nature at the joints,” a procedure that is fraught with countless philosophical difficulties to which I’ve never given much thought.  Assuming that there is a best way to do this carving, we are faced with an array of potential “causes,” all of which combine to create the tornado.  Now, if it happens that among these causes there is only one that, if it is eliminated, also eliminates the tornado, then it would have to be the butterfly, if the claim is to make sense—the claim that the butterfly caused the tornado.  That, at least, surely is impossible.][11/16/18:  If we take that one butterfly as “the cause,” why not say that the egg that that butterfly hatched from was “really the cause”?]

And so it is with consciousness, or “the mind”:  the mind has countless factors that all work together (in a sense; I don’t mean to imply cooperation) to make up a “single thought.”  Just as one butterfly cannot cause a tornado, so one molecule, or one synapse, or one neuron, cannot cause a mind.  Not by itself, but only in conjunction with the countless molecules, synapses, neurons, and other bits that go to make up the whole system in which “the mind” resides.  A tornado, like a mind, is a function of the whole system—the world’s weather, for the tornado; the body, for the mind.  [11/14/18: Today I would add caveats to thinking of the body-mind as a “whole system,” because a human body cannot exist without an environment.  Perhaps, nature has no “joints” where carving won’t do some violence to whatever we want to say about it.][11/16/18:  Pragmatism may offer some guidance here.  What goal am I pursuing by asking these questions?  What is it that I want to accomplish?  Surely, the goal, approximately, is to better understand myself and my species.]

It is this thought that I want to express by way of the metaphor that “the mind is a weather system full of butterflies.”

{10/19/18}  A quote from Steven Strogatz, Ph.D., The Great Courses, DVD course, “Chaos,” The Teaching Company, Chantilly, VA, 2008:  “These studies paint a fascinating but somewhat unsettling [or even] truly disconcerting picture of human existence.  As we go about our lives, all that we feel and perceive and think may be just a reflection of fleeting processes of synchronization among neurons in our brain.”  Part 2, Lecture 24, “The Future of Science.”

In that quote, “synchronization” essentially means neurons firing together, so that the spikes (action potentials) “line up” in time.  However, too much synchronization marks an epileptic seizure, it seems.

{10/26/18}  There are certain questions, philosophical questions, which I return to again and again, like a dog with a favorite bone, gnawing at them repeatedly until nothing is left.  Which makes me sound like some kind of a great thinker, but that’s not what I mean.

Anyway, these questions include, “Who am I?”, “What is truth?”, and especially, “What is the meaning of life?”  Now, as I recently reread Thomas Nagel’s famous essay, “What is it like to be a bat?”, I am motivated to consider, “What is it like to be me?”  I’ve been mulling this over for two or three days.  I’d like to say, “gnawing on it,” but perhaps a better bit of metaphor would be—keeping the dog and bone image—digging it up and burying it, repeatedly, without ever really attacking it.  What annoys me about Nagel’s essay is that he never addresses the question, “What is it like to be Thomas Nagel?” or even, “What is it like to be a person?”  The question haunts the essay.  (I’m not sure what that means, either, but I like it and want to leave it here.)

To proceed at once (or—“finally”?) to try to answer the question, “What is it like to be Alan Carl Nicoll?”  The obvious start is to question the depth of the question:  “Why, it’s obvious, I’m a human being.”  But if Nagel’s question is important, or at least nontrivial, then so is this, and it is not to be answered with a virtus dormativa, that is, a mere category or synonym.  But, it’s not clear how else this is to be answered; since I reject “essentialism,” I cannot be seeking “the essence of a human being,” or “the essence of Alan Carl Nicoll,” because I don’t believe that such a thing exists.  What kind of answer would that be, to provide “the essence”?  I mean, have we ever agreed on the essence of anything?  I don’t feel any confidence in considering quantum mechanics or, really, much of anything to do with physics, in regard to this question.  Perhaps a reader can advise me in this.

I have considered this question of essentialism fairly often, and on looking back in the dictated portion of the “Prison Diary,” I find relatively long pieces at 11/29/07 and 1/28/08.  I find them “good enough for now.”  Looking further reveals, in total, three pages of text which I am not going to recopy here—I’ll put together a blog post to treat the matter in some depth, adding it to this to make something a bit more readable than a diary entry.  [So, for purposes of this post, I’m not going to try to defend the assumption that “the essence of an object is not a useful concept.”]

So, if I can’t state “the essence of A.C.N.,” what can I say about what it is like to be me?  [Nagel’s essay focuses on the subjective experience of what it is like to be a bat.  And he says, more or less, that no objective description can capture that experience.  Yet I am trying to produce such an objective (or “objective”) description.  Which probably explains why I’m having so much trouble.]

{11/14/18}  In my “100 Ideas” notebook I have, “Are my neurons ‘me’?  The essential question of ‘free will.’”  In fact, my neurons are “most of me,” perhaps “the essence of me,” if I want to think of “me” as “my mind.”  But my mind in isolation is no more “me” than my body in isolation is “me.”  It could be argued, as well, that “my body in isolation” is not “my body” because my body cannot exist in isolation.  My body in isolation is not a well-formed concept, if you want to follow gestalt psychology (though, given my feeble grasp of gestalt psychology, these are words I shouldn’t even use) because it’s a figure without a ground.  Of course, “nobody” thinks this way—yet I think it’s correct.

So, after this philosophical hand-wringing, “Are my neurons me?”  Well, it’s a model, and perhaps not the most useful or important of models, and surely a misleading one when given an unqualified “yes.”  Because, even if I want to call my neurons my “mind,” this neglects the important contributions of the peripheral nervous system, glandular secretions, and the gut microbiome (if that’s the term I want)—the source of moods (as I’ve previously speculated, in trying to find a convenient nutshell).  And if I include those “contributions,” do I not also have to include the influences of the external environment?  Is “my mind” the same entity at home alone as it is in an active discussion at the Hemlock Club?  Is there even a stable substrate of “my thoughts” or “my mind right now” that I can call “my mind”?

I can certainly argue that the very expression “my mind” is systematically misleading; but I’m not sure that I want to persuade myself with that argument.  Because where would that leave me?  How can I even think about or talk about “the mind” if I cannot take the words seriously?

Well, don’t I use words like “soul” and “evil” and other terms with which I have issues?  When I use such words, it is with a mental nod of recognition that there need to be scare quotes around them; “mind” must be the same.  That’s doable, clearly.  It’s like talking about “objects” when, in more philosophical moods, we talk of “processes” or “events” or “gestalts” and deny the validity of the concept of a bare physical object.

{11/16/18}  The above is inconclusive, as usually happens when I philosophize.  But perhaps I have achieved a kind of “articulate doubt,” which is what Bertrand Russell says is the outcome of one of his books.  A quick Google search leads me to this:

“Here, as usually in philosophy, the first difficulty is to see that the problem is difficult. If you say to a person untrained in philosophy, “How do you know I have two eyes?” he or she will reply, “What a silly question! I can see you have.” It is not to be supposed that, when our inquiry is finished, we shall have arrived at anything radically different from this unphilosophical position. What will have happened will be that we shall have come to see a complicated structure where we thought everything was simple, that we shall have become aware of the penumbra of uncertainty surrounding the situations which inspire no doubt, that we shall find doubt more frequently justified than we supposed, and that even the most plausible premisses will have shown themselves capable of yielding unplausible conclusions. The net result is to substitute articulate hesitation for inarticulate certainty.”  An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, p. 11, per Wikiquotes.

{11/18/18}  What is it like to be me?  It has been hard to see how to answer this question, but I think now I may be able to.  Categorizing possible answers has been key.

First and most obvious is preferences.  When we’re meeting someone for the first time and we’re trying to decide whether we want them as a friend, we’re likely to ask about their preferences, such as, “What do you like to read?” or “What’s the best movie you’ve seen lately?” and so on.  But this doesn’t come close to the heart of “what it is like” to be someone.

Then there are bits of personal history:  where you’re from, marital status, current employment, what have you done that you are most proud of, and so on.  This is of minor importance, mostly, though the job someone is doing can “speak volumes,” such as if one is a hog butcher.

And there are goals and desires:  “Where would you like to be in five years?” or “What do you most want to accomplish in your life?”  Clearly, these are important in understanding someone.

There are thoughts:  “What do you think about the Guernica?” or, indeed, “What do you think about a lot?”

But if we really want to understand what it is like to be someone, perhaps the most revealing kind of information may be things like, “What makes you cry?” and “Can you be deliberately cruel?”  Situations that typically evoke one’s emotions seem to me to come the closest to what it is like to be someone.  Assuming, of course, in all cases, that we can get thoughtful and candid answers.  Evasions or lies won’t help at all, even if we know they’re lies.

Meta-questions might also work:  “What is the most important, or revealing, thing to know about you?”

I think also that it would take a lot of answered questions—more questions than most people would care to answer, to a stranger or even to a spouse.

For me personally, I think this diary provides more information on my preferences, history, goals, and thoughts than anyone would care to read.  Presumably the “most important” is my criminal past.

But what makes me cry?  Scenes in movies in which an admired character expresses love to another, notably at the end of Cyrano de Bergerac and the parting scenes in Now, Voyager.  Also, when Othello kills Desdemona.  And opera, yes!—Madame Butterfly’s death scene and Rodolfo’s grief over the dead Mimi.  Presumably these are scenes which make many people cry.  Perhaps we want the surprising causes of tears.

Does it reveal who I am if I say that I once wept over a Brahms piano quartet?  Or that I did not weep over the death of my mother?  Is it important to know that I am happy about the first, and that the second tends to depress me and cause me to question myself, though not seriously?  And sometimes I just get weepy over nothing much.

“Take the next two hours and tell me what it is like to be you.”  What a burden this places on one!  Yet, this is what would be needed to get a feel for what it is like to be me, or you.  Somehow, this does not seem entirely satisfactory, but I’m pretty sure it’s the best that I can do.

A shorter question could be, “Tell me the best and the worst things about you.”  But the answers wouldn’t come close to what we want; rather, this is like a place to start.  I daresay that no single answered question, short of the two-hour thing, would be quite enough.  Perhaps now I can lay this matter to rest.

{11/22/18}  One final thought.  My answer to the question is not very satisfying.  I suppose that no answer expressible in words can make us feel what another human feels, but in coming years a technological solution seems almost conceivable, some kind of a helmet, say, that would transmit “brain waves” directly from one brain to another.  Even at that I suppose we could question whether my experience of “the helmet” is the same as yours.

{12/1/18}  What I want to consider is, what has changed about my writing goals.  Last night, while reading [Natalie Goldberg:  Long Quiet Road], I wrote the following:  “‘What is it like to be me?  Here, read my book.  If I have written it well, you will know what it is like to be me, more than if you had lived with me for twenty years.’—That’s the way to write, with that ideal in mind.”

Do I know what it was like to Tolstoy, to be Tolstoy?  I think that I do, somewhat.  What about Thoreau?  Probably somewhat more.  Yet even these great writers are always writing about something other than themselves.  Maybe I feel closer to understanding what it is like to be Anaïs Nin, having read so many of her diaries (which are, in approach, as much fiction as fact, I think; she poses).  Maybe even closer to Cindy Crabb; her Doris work is more honest, naked, and fearless than anything else I can think of.  So, perhaps the heart of Kick Me must be, to make the reader feel what it is like to be me.

No, it won’t do.  I am not only my humiliations and crimes.  I am also my generosity and intelligence and goals and passions.  My idealism.  Some of these are in the book; do I need to throw away the subtitle?  Perhaps not; it still seems an apt description, overall.  But I will add a chapter (already mostly written), “What is it Like to Be Me?”

Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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