Dan Dennett’s 1992 article entitled “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity” (available online here) is one of his earlier attempts to argue that the self isn’t real; specifically, that it is a fiction created by human beings who don’t know any better. The route he takes to get there is a somewhat jumbled, confused batch of mixed metaphors, semi-relevant thought experiments, and false implications. In this article, I will try to unravel the tangle Dennett gets himself into and in doing so, resist his conclusion.
Morality is concerned with right and wrong, good and bad. While there are a number of different moral systems and they all justify their values in different ways, few of them disagree on exactly what those core values are. Whether kindness is good because it maximises happiness or because it’s what a virtuous person would do or because we can will that it should become a universal law, no moral system worthy of the name ‘morality’ goes so far as to question the value of kindness itself. This is where Nietzsche comes in. In his On the Genealogy of Morals he does just this, calling our values into question by attempting to uncover exactly where they come from and, in the process, showing us that, far from tenets carved in stone we are beholden to, they are contingent rules we have ourselves devised. In this essay, I will outline and critically discuss a few of the key concepts from the book.
Uncertainty, in common parlance, is a state in which an individual is unsure whether some proposition is true or not. It ultimately, therefore, arises from a lack of information. If we knew everything, like God, if he existed, or had access to a super-AI, like that some technophiles dream about, we would never find ourselves in a position of uncertainty. Moreover, if we could make decisions from a position of absolute certainty, we would be able to eliminate the suffering and/or anxiety that sometimes accompanies our decision-making.
In this article I want to look at what exactly the 19th century philosopher and political theorist Karl Marx had in mind when he talked about alienation, and then examine how this concept might make sense within an existentialist framework (drawing specifically on Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre).
As we use it in everyday speech, ‘alienation’ means to be isolated or separated from a group or activity. While this isn’t completely removed from the way Marx uses it, we do need to get a little more specific than this. For Marx, alienation describes the situation in which workers become separated from their humanity through forced participation in a capitalistic mode of production and that humanity then appears before the individual as something alien in nature, something barely even recognisable anymore.
This article was inspired by Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast #120 in which he talks with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein (whom I’d never heard speak before but who was very impressive) and physicist Max Tegmark about the different ways science and philosophy approach reality. While I obviously recommend the podcast itself and although I constantly refer to Goldstein and Tegmark throughout, if you don’t have the time or inclination, it isn’t necessary to have listened to the podcast in order to follow what I discuss in the article.
This is a follow-on article from an earlier one I wrote entitled A Case Study in Personal Identity: Altered Carbon, where I argued that a person’s mind/consciousness could not be ‘stored’ in a digital medium, and even if it could, transferring that stored information into another body wouldn’t grant the original mind/consciousness immortality. After writing this, I came across an Australian RN Radio podcast (on a program called The Philosopher’s Zone) called Mind Upload. In it, the host, David Rutledge, discusses with Max Cappuccio, a philosophy professor from the United Arab Emirates University, whether it will ever be possible to upload the mind into some type of digital environment. Cappuccio turns out to be as sceptical as I am about this and while his argument was similar to the one I originally put forward, it was different enough that I felt compelled to spell it out in this separate article.
When you think about your life, does it take the form of a narrative, a tale told with you as the protagonist? Is there an arc to your life, an account that makes some overall sense of the things you have done and the things that have happened to you? Philosopher Galen Strawson doesn’t see his life in this way and neither do I.
The idea of the narrative self is the claim that “we constitute ourselves as selves by understanding our lives as narrative in form and living accordingly” (Schechtman, 2011), although there is not necessarily a need to explicitly formulate that narrative. The position I will be arguing against in this article is the one that claims that all ‘selves’ are narrative in form and everyone is therefore constantly narrating their lives in order to construct their ‘selves’. Indeed, if you didn’t narrate your life in this way, the claim goes, you wouldn’t even have, or be, a self.