DRMacIver's Notebook

Larger selves

Larger selves

Note: This is transcribed verbatim from my physical notebook, so when I refer to a notebook in here I’m talking about an actual book I’m writing in with an actual pen. I just didn’t want to inflict my hand writing on you.

There are subjects I don’t know how to write about in a way that communicates why they are important to me, either because they always come out flat, or because they come out disordered in their intensity.

One of the subjects that always comes out flat is that I practice a sort of religion. We’re a congregation of one person (me) and not that interested in converts.

Whenever I try to explain it, it comes out sounding like either a joke or some very dry philosophy. Honestly it started out that way. But this matters to me, at quite a personal level, even if I don’t know how to show it.

The joke version goes thus: I believe in a supreme being, in that I think beinghood is closed under union, thus the set of all beings has a superema (a maximal element).

I didn’t say it was a funny joke.

(Technical nitpick: Beings are actually closed under interaction, not union. As a result this gets tricky when you bring relativity into the picture. Don’t worry about this.)

The part of this that actually matters to me is that consciousness, and to some degree personhood, happens at every scale. As I write this, I am not having thoughts and recording them on the page. I am thinking by writing. The thought occurs not in my head, but in the combined head/hand/notebook system. Me plus a notebook behaves like a different, albeit very similar, entity to me without.

The same occurs in conversation. As you and I talk, the pair of us think together. Thoughts are had that we could not have had alone. There is an us above any beyond there being a you and separately also a me.

This is true with action as well as thought of course. I can do things with a knife that I cannot do without. You and I can do things together that we cannot do alone.

Less obviously, it is true of feeling too. Empathy is not feeling what another feels, but it is a sort of second-person form of feeling. As we synchronise there is a form of shared feeling that we have. This is particularly obvious in sex or dance, but also in e.g. games or pair programming. There is a shared feeling between us.

Something that thinks, acts, and feels seems to me to be a legitimate candidate for personhood. It’s certainly not a person in exactly the same way that a human is, but it still seems like a person to me.

You and I together form an us-person distinct from but overlapping with the I-person and the you-person. The same holds for me and my notebook (although I don’t think my notebook on its own counts as a person. I sometimes think it’s useful to think of personhood as continuous rather than binary. In this view, it is merely not much of a person).

If you like, you can substitute “conscious entity” for “person” here, but for me “person” carries more of the right moral and emotional undertones.

This extends further upwards of course. A team has personhood. A company. A country. The world.

I don’t think it requires a human in the mix to be a person. We’re not too far off having AI that I’d consider clearly warranted some degree of personhood. A dog seems clearly nearly or wholly a person to me. A forest is at least as much of a person as a dog.

This also extends downwards. Any reasonably careful degree of attention to yourself and your experience shows that you are made up of parts. You see this with mixed feelings (“part of me feels X while another part feels Y”). Internal family systems and other types of parts work recommend treating these parts of you as people. Maybe they are.

You can also see this with aphasia. You can’t just recall. The best you can hope for is create a space for the part of you that knows the answer to put it when it’s done.

You are not a single unitary entity any more than the notebook and I are - we are cooperating modules working together.

This starts to sound very “the self is an illusion” but that’s bullshit. The self is no more an illusion than a team is. A team is made up of individuals, but the team is created when those individuals work together.

The team exists in the connections as well as in the parts, and there is a health and function of the team above and beyond that of the individual parts.

Much of why this matters to me is that I want to be a better person, and I want to participate in being a better person.

We as people confined to single bodies need to embrace that embodiment, and to learn to self better, but part of how we do that is by learning to participate in larger, better, selves that extend beyond us.