Thinking Of Things, Season 1, Episode 6:

(trans)formations part 1
On being a bit of filth  

From: Notme                                                               23 January1
To: me                                                                         11.34 p.m. 

Hey! I’ve had a quote on my mind lately. It’s from Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren, where at one point she says “There are things you have to do, even if you don’t dare to, because otherwise you are not a human being but just a bit of filth.” Being a human being and not just a bit of filth seems essential for finding meaningness to me. But what does it mean to be a human being? Isn’t everyone a human being anyway? Any thoughts?

I jumped at the opportunity to answer her question, for I knew the answer. It was about personhood. Personhood is to be a conscious of your self as a person, which entails moral responsibility and culpability. Most would agree that a dog does not have personhood, while some think that people do have it, so it definitely is about being a human being.2

To me, the question was irrelevant; no-one is a person in that sense of the word. A human is an animal amongst animals and we can no more overcome our animal nature than a dog or an ant can overcome theirs. I decided to give her the reasoning that had lead me to that answer.

It started with a Danish 19th century philosopher I learnt about in school so long ago it felt like it was in a different life, by a different person. Søren Kirkegaard, as far as I remembered from what my teacher told me, claimed that we are defined as persons by the life-changing choices we make.

From: me                                                                24 January
To: Notme                                                              9.14 a.m. 

Many people would say that it is the choices we make that define us as persons. Not any choices, what Søren Kirkegaard called Choices of dreadful consequences”. These are the potentially life-changing choices that define us. 

Most often however, choices are made first and motivated later, to ourselves and to others. Wouldn’t that imply that we are more defined by how we rationalise our actions in retrospect, rather than by how we choose to act?

Let me give you some examples. In a famous experiment, Richard Nisbett and Tim Wilson laid out four identical pairs of tights on a table in a mall. They asked passersby which pair they preferred. With a great margin, the pair to the right was the most popular. Nisbett and Wilson speculated that the real reason people choose the right-most pair of tights was because of the consumers’ propensity to shop around before reaching a decision (Americans read and shop from left to right). However, that was not the explanation people gave when asked. Some said they liked the material better, some that they liked the texture or the colour. Others thought the quality was the best in that pair. This despite the fact that there was no difference between the four pairs of tights. A decision was made, subconsciously, and when asked why, it had to be rationalised somehow. From the study: “When asked directly about a possible effect of the position of the article, virtually all subjects denied it, usually with a worried glance at the interviewer suggesting that they felt either that they had misunderstood the question or were dealing with a madman.”3 The experiment was repeated with nightgowns with identical results.4

So, how do we reach a decision? Most decisions are reached at an emotional level. We do what feels right. There are a few individuals, which due to brain injury lose the emotional connection to their decision making. When picking up a pen to sign a paper, one of these people may take a quarter of an hour to decide which pen makes more sense to use for the task at hand. All of this person’s decisions are based on logic and logic alone, and it is an enormous handicap, so much so, that logical decision-making is irrational (imagine going grocery shopping for a person like that!).5

OK, even so, play with the idea for a while that all the decisions you make are reached rationally. That you carefully weigh all options against each other until you figure out which one is more logical. And then choose that option. Is that even a choice? Nope–it’s a conclusion. As such, it cannot define who you are as a person. It merely shows how good you are at reaching conclusions given the information at hand.

This is how both Utilitarian and Kantian ethics work. Utilitarian ethics claim that the morally right thing to do is always the one that will maximise the total happiness in the world (or some other measure); Kantian ethics claim that reason commands us to behave morally, such that morality is a matter of logical deduction. To follow these ethics does not define one as a moral being, only as a moral concluder, and thus demands no personhood. A machine would suffice.

Axel: “Rational does in no way mean without emotions. […] you can’t make decisions without emotions, because in order to decide between two (or more) alternatives you have to value one over the other. Since there is no ‘objective’ value (of anything), you need emotions to assign such a value and make decisions. Hence there is no ‘purely rational decision’. And since meaning is a value there is no meaning without emotions.”6

OK, imagine the opposite; imagine that you are who you are most of the time, someone who base choices on what feels right, on gut feeling and intuition. Different parts of you that want different things in a given situation, e.g. one part that wants to exercise, and one part wants to watch a movie, and the decision is reached depending on which of these parts within you that scream the loudest.

How is that a choice? It’s not determined directly by logic, but by your decision making information organ’s life history, making an average based on the sum of previous experiences. As such it seems even deterministic. So, in this case you cannot claim to be defined by your choices either. Each choice is based on a previous moment in your life, so the choice you make is merely a logical subconscious conclusion based on the sum of coincidences that took you to where you are right now.

You are thus not defined by the choices you make. Your decisions and choices are defined by who you already are when you make them. And then you motivate them for yourself and others.

The best one can hope for is the illusion of personhood, tricking ourselves into believing that we are more than just bits of filth.

Kirkegaard was so naive.

From: Notme                                                                    24 January
To: me                                                                              10.24 p.m.

 What you say seems wrong to me (and I don’t know why yet)! Why can’t we consciously go against the decision our subconscious is urging our guts to make?

From: me                                                                       25 January
To: Notme                                                                     8.33 a.m.

Sure, we can do that. But where does the decision to do that come from? If you try to make a decision different from your gut-feeling, that implies a purely logical decision, so again, it will merely define you as a concluder. And before that you have to decide to make a logical decision, which must come from your guts somehow.

From: me                                                                    25 January
To: Notme                                                                  9.22 a.m.

Maybe this example will make it clearer:

I have a friend who went through a tough phase in her life. Afterwards she told me something which surprised me a bit: “At least it made me a better person.” Better than whom?

If our choices are defined by who we already are, then according to ourselves, there is in each given situation a best possible decision, which we make7. If we found another choice better we would have chosen that one instead.

So, if my friend goes through a tough period and, according to her, becomes a better person, she presumably becomes a person choosing differently than before. Looking back at the decisions she made before, and how she would have chosen differently today; remembering who she was then and how that person would make today’s decisions differently, leads her to conclude that she is better now. Because we all make the decisions we deem best, and if we are defined by our choices, this means that we all are the best possible versions of ourselves, in each moment, according to ourselves, and we were always worse people at other times in our lives.

When I pointed out that that was a very bad period in her life and asked if she would rather not have had to go through it, she answered that she would never want to go through something like that again, but she holds the experience in high regard as something good, now that it is over.

This period changed her but it does not define her as a person, because she did not make a Kirkegaardiand decision to change.

We do not define ourselves by how we choose. Rather, who we are shines through in our decisions. We are formed and transformed by our lived experience, and by what we internalise from what we go through. We fool ourselves that we are the best version of ourselves so far, when we are just rationalising who we have become.

Homework: Think of a period in your life that you do not want to have unexperienced but never wish to go through again. Figure out, if you never want to go through something like that again, why do you still not want to have it unexperienced? Did it have any influence in making you the person you are today? Is that person better?

From: Notme                                                          25 January
To: me                                                                    10.42 p.m.

You make a good argument, but I’m still not convinced.

Are you are saying that there is no free will?

From: me                                                            26 January
To: Notme                                                          9.52 a.m.

But isn’t the illusion of free will just as good as the thing itself? If we cannot in any way notice the difference, there is no difference for all practical purposes. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, let’s call it a duck!

A human is an animal just as much as a duck is. Can a duck obtain  personhood? No! And neither can a human. The only difference is that we can believe that we have personhood, and are more than bits of filth.

Time passed. Her answer took so long that I had assumed the argument to be won, that she agreed with me, and how could she not? I was content with being right, and to have explained the truth to my friend. It would be with some surprise I received the reply when it finally came…

Reader, what do you think of transformations? Did I win the argument already, or am I wrong somehow? Do you think education and training in rational thinking helps in making good decisions, or does it help more for rationalising decisions already made in retrospect?

Next Episode: (trans)formations part 2–On being human beings

 TT, Thinking of Things, 2014.