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The self, this elusive intermediate entity that initiates action

Essayist Tim Parks and philosopher, psychologist, and AI expert Riccardo Manzotti in Aeon, in an excerpt from their new book, Dialogues on Consciousness:

Parks: I see what you’re saying: my experience, which is none other than the accumulation of all the objects my body has encountered, eventually determines my actions. But I’m not altogether convinced. And my problem is this: not only do I have the impression of making decisions, cogitating, not just acting, but I also believe that I ‘organise’ experience. That I see the world in a certain way. I hold a system of political opinions, of aesthetic preferences, and so on. So I feel that, rather than being a world of objects coming together over time to determine an action, I have an inner world that determines how I organise the outer world. I don’t just act as consequence; I decide how to act, coherently.

Manzotti: Let me offer an analogy to suggest the fallacy behind your conception. We’ll stay with cars. When you drive, you turn the steering wheel and, thanks to a complex yet easily understandable coupling of cogs and drive shafts, the vehicle’s front wheels turn accordingly. Is there anything mysterious between the steering wheel and the two wheels that turn? No. Just a chain of cause and effect such that, given the turn of the driving wheel, the front wheels have to turn.

Okay, now imagine an infinitely more complex object, a human body. The world acts on the body, but before the body is going to translate that cause into an effect, an action, a simply enormous, though of course necessarily finite, number of causal events may take place, inside the body and outside. What’s more, unlike the car, which is a fixed object when it comes out of the factory, your wonderful body can change in response to the world, it is teleologically open — so that, to give the simplest example, when you see a face a second time, the experience is different from the first time, because the first experience is still causally active in your brain, hence we have the sensation of recognition. So with this fantastically complex object, the body, we cannot conceive the whole causal chain that precedes an action (this was a favourite observation of Baruch Spinoza’s) and hence we cannot predict what action will be taken. As a result of this conceptual impossibility, we slip into the habit of inventing an intermediate entity, the self, to which we attribute a causal power. We say that I, or my self, caused this to happen. But as David Hume said, we never meet or see a self; we meet ideas, or, as I would say, objects. The self, this elusive intermediate entity that initiates action, is a shortcut, an invention, a convenient narrative to explain our complex experience.

Parks: To wind up then; as you see it: experience, mind, is the world relative to the body, but a world, or an I, that accumulates over the years, that continues to act long after the moment of immediate proximity, creating an ever-changing agglomeration so complex that it becomes impossible to predict how, in the face of a new situation, a new experience, we will behave. And all the tensions we experience, that we call decision-making, or the exercise of freewill, are the ongoing evolution of this agglomeration of world, which is ourselves.

Manzotti: Right. And you don’t need to feel alienated by being at the mercy of a blind material world; you are the world.

More: “You Are the World

Writing, money, art, society, and copyright: A tangled web

Recently in his blog for The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks — novelist, nonfiction writer, translator — has offered some strikingly interesting and cogent reflections on the relationships among and between art, authorship, law, money, ownership, individuals, and twentieth-to-twenty-first century sociocultural realities. Their background is, first, the rise of writing as “a well-defined career track, like any other middle class professional,” and, second, the calling into question of current copyright laws and their long-term or even near-term viability as the opening of international publishing markets and the birth of the Internet have posed extraordinary difficulties for policing and enforcement, and also for the establishment of clear ethical boundaries.

In the last thirty or forty years, the writer has become someone who works on a well-defined career track, like any other middle class professional, not, however, to become a craftsman serving the community, but to project an image of himself (partly through his writings, but also in dozens of other ways) as an artist who embodies the direction in which culture is headed … It became clear that the task of the writer was not just to deliver a book, but to promote himself in every possible way. He launches a website, a Facebook page (I’m no exception), perhaps hires his own publicist. He attends literary festivals all over the world, for no payment. He sits on the jury for literary prizes for very little money, writes articles in return for a one-line mention of his recent publication, completes dozens of internet interviews, offers endorsements for the books of fellow writers in the hope that the compliment will be returned … [I]n the publishing culture we have today any idea that a process of slow sifting might produce a credible canon such as those we inherited from the distant past is nonsense. Whatever in the future masquerades as a canon for our own time will largely be the result of good marketing, self-promotion, and of course pure chance.

— “The Writer’s Job,” February 28, 2012

Paradoxically, then, almost the worst thing that can happen to writers, at least if it’s the quality of their work we’re thinking about, is to receive, immediately, all the money and recognition they want. At this point all other work, all other sane and sensible economic relation to society, is rapidly dropped and the said author now absolutely reliant on the world’s response to his or her books, and at the same time most likely surrounded by people who will be building their own careers on his or her triumphant success, all eager to reinforce intimations of grandeur … But if too much money can be damaging, dribs and drabs are not going to get the best out of a writer either … The key idea here it seems to me is that of a community of reference. Writers can deal with a modest income if they feel they are writing toward a body of readers who are aware of their work and buy enough of it to keep the publisher happy. But the nature of contemporary globalization, with its tendency to unify markets for literature, is such that local literary communities are beginning to weaken, while the divide between those selling vast quantities of books worldwide and those selling very few and mainly on home territory is growing all the time.

— “Does Money Make Us Write Better?” July 20, 2012

Copyright…is part of a mass of legislation that governs the relationship between individual and collective, for the most part defending the former against the latter … Copyright gives the writer a considerable financial incentive and locks his work into the world of money; each book becomes a lottery ticket … [C]opyright keeps the writer in the polis, and indeed it is remarkable how little creative writing today is truly revolutionary, in the sense of seeking a profoundly different model of a society … As soon as we put it like this, as soon as we imagine, or try to imagine, the extraordinary confusion, creative and otherwise, that might occur, the many and fragmented ways people might enjoy and share and despair of putting together reflections and entertainments in words for each other, you can see that it is not going to happen; there is still an enormous demand for the long traditional novel, for works that reinforce the idea of individual identity projected through time and achieving some kind of wisdom or happiness through many vicissitudes. There is simply no form of escapism, mental immersion, or sustained illusion quite like the thousand-page fantasy narrative, whether it be the endless Harry Potters or the Millennium trilogy; if to have that experience we have to guarantee a substantial income to its creator then society will continue to find a way to do that, in the same way European soccer clubs still find ways to pay exorbitant salaries to their star players. Copyright, we see, is not essentially driven by notions of justice or theories of ownership, but by a certain culture’s attachment to a certain literary form. If people only read poetry, which you can never stop poets producing even when you pay them nothing at all, then the law of copyright would disappear in a trice.

— “Does Copyright Matter?” August 14, 2012

IMAGE: Joseph Severn, “Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound,” 1845, public domain via Wikimedia Commons