Thinking Of Things, Season 1, Episode 7:

(trans)formations part 2
On being human beings

At a masquerade one puts on a mask in order to demask for each other. (Credit: Aniwa Watts, Wikimedia Commons)

From: Notme                                            4 February
To: me                                                      12.06 a.m.

 I refuse to believe that free will is just an illusion!

I was still groggy early in the morning when I opened my email and was met by this sentence. It would appear the email discussion we had had, Notme and I, concerning whether a human being is anything beyond her “Human Nature” or just a bit of filth, was far from over. And that I had not yet won the argument.

If your transformation is only due to experiencing something very new and different (as it happened to your “friend”), without us making a choice of consequence, then we have deferred agency about our personhood to external circumstances and happenstance.

In the debate on whether a person is a product of nature or nurture, both sides are trying very hard to remove personal responsibility for being who we are, for neither nature nor nurture imply agency. Nature defers responsibility to eons of evolution, nurture to one’s life history. The nature/nurture debate is about understanding people, our behaviour, e.g. to understand a criminal etc. Therefore, it is irrelevant for our personhood. For a person understood is not a person.

What defines us is what we are despite our nature and nurture. To understand a person is to take away her personhood. If I say a person votes for this and that party because of this and that, I reduce her political persona to her nature and circumstances and thus take away her political agency. By claiming to understand a person, I categorise her, I diminish her. I don’t take her seriously. For a person can never be contained in the boxes and pigeon holes we put her in. A person, any person, will always have an infinite number of ways to surprise me; it will never be possible to fully understand her. Not by me, not by herself, not by anyone.

For no-one can be completely defined by their gender, nationality, race, religion, sexuality, age, etc. By explaining another person, you not only diminish her in your eyes, you do it in her eyes as well. You not only create a rift between you and her, you create it between her and herself, and between you and yourself… I suppose that by labelling people, life becomes much easier, by knowing who is who in relation to each other, and one’s own place. But the price for this comfort is enormous… It costs meaningness!

You say that the only way to overcome one’s nature and nurture is with the use of reason. And this you dismiss as a possibility for defining you as a person, since it only shows how good you are at reaching conclusions. I guess that you mean that it is a mere measure of your ability to apply logic. 

But let me ask you this: Why do you think the use of reason will always produce the same outcome? Even with rigorous reason and use of logic on any situation in life, there is still an infinity of possible outcomes. To use logic, one has to have premises, and whatever premises we may have, they will always be incomplete. So there is no determinacy even in logic and reason. The utilitarian and Kantian ethicists therefore strike me as being not even a little bit arrogant, since they assume that they have more information in any given situation than it is possible to have.1

Three ways of being wrong:
1. Using flawed reasoning on correct premises.
2. Using correct reasoning on flawed premises.
3. Using correct reasoning on correct–yet incomplete–premises, for no matter how well you think, your 3. premises will never be complete.

Listen, some choices have to be made as if they were conclusions to be reached. Given who we already are, combined with who that person wants to become, sometimes makes us realise that our gut feeling is not in accordance with how we want to make a decision, of who we want to be making the decisions. If we manage this, if we go against our guts because we know that it is right to do so, after a while this behaviour will be internalised, the choices will lose their dire consequences, our guts will agree with us, and we will have transformed who we are. We will have formed a new set of habits. 

Being predisposed to make certain choices given our background does not automatically mean that we will make those choices. And that is where you are wrong.

Question: Notme was talking about habits in a previous episode as well, saying that habitual repetition makes no mark in our memory, and those moments disappear in retrospect. How important are habits in defining who we are as human beings–for our personhood? How does habit-formation relate to personal transformations and meaningness in moments that matter? 

I was pondering her email all morning, and then, after lunch I sat down with my coffee to tell her how I agreed with her reasoning but not her conclusions.

From: me                                       4 February
To: Notme                                     1.12 p.m.

We live now in an age where the possibility of pigeon-holing a person is greater than ever before. I refer to Big Data, the business idea of knowing who we are so that advertisements can be perfectly tailored for us. By doing so they are trying to put me in a category ultimately containing only one person: Me.

They are trying to understand me, as completely as possible. And you know what: It works! Big data makes billions of dollars. There! Soon our data-mining machines are becoming advanced enough to see through the illusions of free will, personhood and agency, and show us as the bits of filth we really are!

From: Notme                                            6 February
To: me                                                      10.38 p.m.

Yes, big data are trying to take away my personhood, my agency. But they will fail! Even in the category of me, I will not live up to their expectations at all times. A person understood is not a person, and I’m a person. 

Big Data, in the form of governments and corporations both, prefer people without agency; they prefer us to conform to predictability. They prefer us not to be persons. Then they can tailor their ads for us; then they can predict the outcomes of their campaigns.

And it is understandable that they want this. The world would be easier to live in if everybody I did not know was absolutely predictable, and only those I knew had the ability to surprise me once in a while. They are trying to create a context in which everybody is perpetually insecure and tries to conform to one of the identities available to us. If data-mining works, it only means that they see things as they are at this point in time, not how things can be, not how people can be: persons! Human beings! And besides, big data seems to get it wrong quite often…

Stephen Greenhorn: “There’s no such thing as an ordinary human.”2

Listen: I’m not concerned by big data making money from our insecurity and us conforming to consumer identities. I’m concerned with what claiming to understand each other does to our interpersonal relationships. For the more we claim to understand each other and ourselves in terms of identities, the less real interpersonal connection do we have left. Instead of connecting in depth as two immeasurable human beings, we interact through what little surface is left after reducing ourselves and each other to explainable units of identity. 

You have certainly tried to conform to identities in your past, to please everyone around you, to notions of manhood. I have too, and one by-product of that insecure behaviour is the nagging feeling that the identity is not the “real me”. It is as if I was hiding behind a mask. And at the same time as one finds solace and comfort in the hiding place, one wants to be demasked and be seen for who one really is. “If only they could see the real me…”. But the mask was hiding me from myself as much as from anyone else.

Hjalmar Söderberg: “You don’t want to be who you are. You want to be who you imagine that you are.”

From: me                                       7 February
To: Notme                                     9.54 a.m.

So the better we understand ourselves, the more we remove our personhood?!? Is that then what psychoanalysis does: removes our personhood by explaining who we are?

From: Notme                                            7 February
To: me                                                      11.08 p.m.

No it doesn’t.

When I learn about who I am, it’s so that I can go beyond that understandable person and use the knowledge to take responsibility over my own personhood. The moment I understand who I am, I can no longer be that person. Self-awareness and understanding is necessary for demasking another layer of oneself.

From: me                                       8 February
To: Notme                                     9.14 a.m.

Your reasoning is circular. How do you know that when you are “taking off a mask”, you are not simply putting on a different mask, hiding behind a new identity, which you again are unaware of, until you become self-aware enough to learn about it and take off one more mask only to again put on a new one, and so on?

What you call transformations sounds a lot like trance-formations to me, moving from one illusion of personhood to another. We are constantly tricking ourselves that we are persons with free will and agency. When we try to defy being limited and pigeon holed, we trick ourselves even more; then we move from a known illusion into an unknown one. Is it even possible not to have an identity?

From: Notme                                            8 February
To: me                                                      10.12 p.m.

Ha! “Trance-formations”! But you are completely missing my point–again! To me personhood is not about reaching a fixed state of “personhood” separate from identities. It is a process; a constant negotiation of awareness and blindness to identities–to “trances”. If you see it as reaching a fixed state, I agree, then you are going to trick yourself.

To me, it’s the process that matters. Finding oneself in a comfortable place behind a mask, or in todayese: finding your comfort zone, is detrimental to meaningness. Meaningness slowly decays in the comfort zone.

But identities can also be vehicles for meaningful personal and social transformations. If an identity is imposed on us by society, we can claim an alternative meaning of the identity, and use it to gain personal as well as collective autonomy in society. The question is if we are hiding our face behind a mask or holding up the mask with our hands.

Bob Dylan: “He not busy being born is busy dying”3

Agency to go against the gut feeling of who one is, to do as who one wants to be, takes courage, because it may take you outside of the social norm of the context you have ended up in. Seeking personhood may take you outside of a comfort zone. “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.”

And the risk of transformation is worth taking. Without it, you give up your chance to find meaningness in your life, for without claiming agency despite your genes, despite your body and ailments, despite your place in a culture and society, despite your life’s history, despite your age, if you let all these factors merely drag you through life like gravity drags a comet into the searing sun, you are not a human being but just bit of filth…

At first I did not know how to answer her. I attempted a reply many times in the following days but always ended up discarding the draft. Finally I had to admit to myself that what she wrote had gotten to me, and that the reason I couldn’t write a retort was that I no longer believed in my arguments. I had thought I knew something, and through the interaction with, and challenge by, my friend I had transformed my view. I had lost the discussion, and it was good. Only when I realised that could I finally send her my reply.

From: me                                       16 February
To: Notme                                      11.54 p.m.

Maybe Kirkegaard wasn’t so naive after all. You have made it clear to me that maybe it was I who was naive… 

For maybe there is room for personhood and agency after all. We are complex beings and we are interacting with each other in a complex society. And complex systems have many emerging properties so that the system becomes much larger than the sum of its parts. The parts in this case are our genes (nature) and our life history (nurture), and a person is always more than the sum of those parts! You are right!

Also, and thank you for correcting me, I had an oversimplified idea of the possibilities that come from using logic. Again, in complex systems, many variables must be hidden from us, so logic based on hidden premises will not always yield the same result, which again takes away the determinacy of our decisions, and leaves plenty of room for personhood! This is really cool, thank you for pointing this out for me! I shall use it in my blog!



From: Notme                                            17 February
To: me                                                       12.20 a.m.

You are such a scientist! But sure, you’re welcome… and thanks for helping me understand this better… 

Reader, what are your thoughts on transformations? Have they changed from last episode? Do you find it important to take responsibility for your own transformations, for your own personhood? Is there any room for a human being somewhere between nature and nurture? Is a person understood a person, or just a bit of filth?

Next Episode: The Pain in the Brain Game–on how deeply the tossing of balls affects our brains 

Most people contain many contradictions and inner conflicts. Resolving inner contradictions is also a force for transformation.
(a): There may be persons who have inner harmony, without contradiction or conflict. Should they be admired or pitied?
(b): By resolving an inner contradiction and thus transforming, does one change for the better or the worse, or could it be a neutral change? 

Further Stuff

“A Slight Shift” by Anannya Dasgupta. A short text capturing the realisation of one’s conformity and how that realisation incites the first step towards transformation (my interpretation):

 TT, Thinking of Things, 2014.

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  • George Britton

    In what way does the constant transformation (or in computational terms, updating perhaps) of the self-concept represented in every mind make it incompatible with deteminism? The core claim of determinism is not that we, as human beings, can predict what is going to happen next. It is only that phenomena arise from, and only from, their causes within the physical system of existence (which science is in the slow and difficult process of mapping out).

    If anything, the unpredictable nature of a person’s development over their life puts us further away from free will, because we give up on all of our useful knowledge about how our mind is influenced by its environment (whatever scale you look at). All the while, big data predators will have predicted your new-found confidence in your own personal efficacy and will be working on a way to exploit that.

    Arm yourself with understanding, do not compromise your reasoning in order to cling onto an outdated and unhelpful concept in order to feel better about our place within the universe. Understanding that there only feels as if there is an ‘I’ in physical terms protects you from exploitation and unnecessary suffering. Of course, this doesn’t mean free will isn’t worth talking about at all, just that we shouldn’t overestimate it’s important in our decisions. I don’t think we need free will in that primitive sense to be happy.

    • ToT

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

      I think I take issue with you on several points. Your baseline seems to be some sort of scientific reductionism (correct me if I am wrong) which is a world view which does not fulfill its own demands of logical coherence. You assume that the same cause will always have the same effect, while for complex systems, such as ourselves, one cause may have many effects, and one effect may come from many causes. What is interesting with complex systems is the feedback behaviour they exhibit, and our brains contains several levels of complex systems with feedback, we are complex systems made out of complex systems with a lot of feedback on every level. We know, it has been mathematically proved, that such systems can never be well described by us. You may then argue that the world, including us, is still deterministic, just that the cause-effect pattern is forever hidden from us. But what value does such a statement hold? A determinism which is strictly unobservable is at best a metaphysical belief and hold no scientific (and I dare say) philosophical value.

      As of big data being successful in its predictive powers of me I have this to say: What would be needed would then be a simulation of me. But even if I used Tesla’s copying machine from the movie “The Prestige” (or was in some sort of Star Trek transporter accident), and created an extra copy of myself, the two copies would still not behave precisely the same, and the predictive power of the simulation would be fairly useless. What these consumerist big data companies want from us is basically that we fail the Turing test. (Also: the best claims of chat-bots beating the Turing test are from programs simulating people who don’t beat the test…).

      So, I urge you, don’t fall for this techno babble optimism who wants to reduce you to a consuming chat-bot, and grab your unsimulatble personhood! 🙂

      • GRod

        Thanks for your reply! Apologies if the tone of my comment seemed at all standoffish.

        I think perhaps my main issue is that whether you call it happiness or meaningness, our search for this kind of actualisation, by it’s very nature, produces (somewhat) predictable patterns of behaviour, especially given that the strength of big data, for example, is that it is not limited to the processing capacity of a single brain. In future, advances in the power of AI will probably exceed what we are capable of imagining for them at the moment. My argument is reductionistic, yes, but I didn’t mean to imply that anyone is currently capable of predicting the effect of changing beliefs on our behaviour.

        You would need a perfect simulation of a person acting in a meaningless way to predict their behaviour, but we aren’t behaving in a meaningless way. Because we are more than just random generators, we are susceptible to a form of determinism.
        At the end of the day, perhaps our disagreement is about use of terminology. I think that it is good to strive for parsimony across all of the models we make use of. So, the idea of needing to talk of free will and agency in order to live a good life seems unhelpful to me. Really, I guess it just should be clear that everyone on an individual level can believe whatever they need to believe, but if this limits your understanding of the forces which guide your behaviour, then agency could lead to complacency.

        Our disagreement is also empirical in the sense that I think human behaviour is well within the (in future) predictable level of physical organisation that makes up the universe. However, you mention mathematical proofs that show human behaviour cannot be predicted. When I have time, I will certainly read your other posts but I would be happy to read any recommendations you have on this topic! Especially the idea of complex systems creating emergent higher-level feedback-systems that are immune to mathematical prediction.

        Thanks again,


    • ToT

      “I don’t think we need free will in that primitive sense to be happy.”

      With this I am in complete agreement with you. However, as you will see if you read more of this blog, happiness is not something to strive for. I define this term “Meaningness” as something to strive for instead, which is close to the Greek term Eudaimonia, and for that Personhood and agency are absolutely crucial.

      “Of course, this doesn’t mean free will isn’t worth talking about at all, just that we shouldn’t overestimate it’s important in our decisions. ”
      This I also agree with. Our free will, our agency and personhood, are not as a big part of us as we tend to delude ourselves they are. But this I think is made quite clear in the post, right?

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