Thursday, January 10, 2008

Displacing the Immaterial Self

The naturalistic worldview has gained ground, slowly and incompletely, by means of scientific explanations for phenomena that have displaced supernatural explanations. The process of explanatory displacement has relegated god, in the unlikely event he exists, to the role of remote controller: the guy who got the ball rolling, but whose day-to-day supervision isn’t necessary. Things seem to happen quite nicely on their own, in accordance with physical laws and higher-level regularities we discover in the domains of biology, psychology and maybe someday even sociology.

God hasn’t been the only victim of explanatory displacement. Our understanding of life no longer includes the rather elusive concepts of élan vital or protoplasm: we now see it’s all a matter of complex interlocking mechanisms that encode information and control reproduction and behavior.

Next up, and it’s a biggie, is consciousness and the self. It seems pre-theoretically that the mind and body are very different things, and the mind, what we think of as the essential immaterial self, still seems beyond what physicalist science can account for.

But they’re working on it. A team of scientists and philosophers, including neurophilosopher and Center for Naturalism advisor Thomas Metzinger, has published a fascinating paper on how the experience of being a self located in the body can be altered experimentally, thus mimicking, at least partially, so-called out of body experiences. As the abstract in Science has it:

…we designed an experiment that uses conflicting visual-somatosensory input in virtual reality to disrupt the spatial unity between the self and the body. We found that during multisensory conflict, participants felt as if a virtual body seen in front of them was their own body and mislocalized themselves toward the virtual body, to a position outside their bodily borders. Our results indicate that spatial unity and bodily self-consciousness can be studied experimentally and are based on multisensory and cognitive processing of bodily information.

So the quintessential me that I so confidently and continuously feel sitting behind my eyes will move in response to perceptual cues (see the video on the experiment here). This supports the idea that the felt sense of self is construction of the brain in response to sensory input, not the result of being an immaterial something or other. In short, it’s another instance of explanatory displacement, in which a materially based informational process explains what was previously thought to be a categorically mental phenomenon. Out of body experiences can now be understood as what the brain does, not a matter of the soul floating outside the body. As a New York Times article on the experiment put it:

“The research provides a physical explanation for phenomena usually ascribed to otherworldly influences, said Peter Brugger, a neurologist at University Hospital in Zurich, who, like Dr. Botvinick, had no role in the experiments. In what is popularly referred to as near-death experience, people who have been in the throes of severe and sudden injury or illness often report the sensation of floating over their body, looking down, hearing what is said and then, just as suddenly, finding themselves back inside their body. Out-of-body experiences have also been reported to occur during sleep paralysis, the exertion of extreme sports and intense meditation practices.”
The basic sense of self, according to the original paper, is attributable to the fact that we experience “the transparent content of a single, whole-body representation.” In effect, what we experience is a model of ourselves, interestingly enough. Further, in their conclusion the authors speculate that “humans’ daily experience of an embodied self and selfhood, as well as the illusion reported here, relies on brain mechanisms at the temporoparietal junction.” So it looks like the brain, astounding machine that it is, constructs the self, for the self. That’s quite a trick. In displacing the immaterial soul, the physicalist explanation of self doesn’t diminish us, rather it shows what amazing things the physical world can cook up, including, remarkably, our very selves.

Behavior Tech: Lose Weight and Save the Planet

On the strength of his expertise in consumer behavior and diet, Cornell food psychologist Brian Wansink has been appointed director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, home of the food pyramid. His 2006 book, Mindless Eating, has been getting attention and he was recently named Person of the Week on ABC World News (the interview and other news stories are posted on Amazon). His work is all about behavioral technology (behavior tech): how to actually get behavior to change in the direction we want. His thesis is that if we become aware of the determinants of our eating habits, especially the cues surrounding the presentation of food, we can gain more control over them. Supposing we can simply will our way to losing weight doesn’t cut it, since it turns out the will itself is controlled by various factors, internal and external.

This of course isn’t a new idea, but it might seem that way since the myth of willpower perpetually overshadows the practical wisdom of understanding our determinants. We tend to be radical individualists, supposing that behavior is governed by a self that’s more or less immune to influences, but the science of behavior (remember BF Skinner?) calls that assumption into question. A smarter approach, which Wansink’s work exemplifies, is to admit we’re fully in the causal mix. Then we’re in a much better position to realize our ambitions, whether its weight loss or anything else, by means of manipulating our environment to elicit the behavior we want. Example: use smaller plates, keep serving platters and dishes of candy out of sight. The will is weak when temptation is nigh, so get smart and banish temptation.

The idea of becoming aware of our determinants fits in nicely with some spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, which emphasizes the importance of self-knowledge gained through practices such as mindfulness meditation. In fact, the deepest self-knowledge is that there isn’t a substantial self in there, controlling behavior and witnessing experience. We are physical, dynamic processes responsive to contingencies, not puppet masters of ourselves. This very un-American idea won’t catch on anytime soon, but it’s what both science and Buddhism tell us, and what Wansink is ultimately driving at (although he may not realize it).

Getting good at controlling food intake is, as the ABC news story says, behavior change on a small, personal scale. But Wansink understands it can be scaled up: "If you can see that just making certain small changes can have this ripple effect on your life -- man, that's doing people a tremendous service that goes way beyond nutrition and physical activity and health." Behavior tech on a large scale is exactly what’s necessary to address looming collective threats to the environment and global stability. If we can agree on goals (and even many conservatives now admit that action on climate change is necessary), then we we’re much more likely to attain them if we understand the factors that shape behavior. But this first requires admitting that behavior is indeed caused, not a matter of self-initiated will.

Unfortunately, the ideology of radical freedom – the idea that each of us can and should simply choose to make the right choice, independent of circumstances – prevents the smart application of behavior tech, for instance in building safe and healthy schools and communities which elicit good behavior by design. Likewise, the political will to respond to climate change can be mustered, if we come to terms with the fact that the will itself is a function of conditions. Understanding our determinants, we can lose weight and save the planet.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Worldview Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) works on the principle that by fixing faulty beliefs, people can learn to behave more effectively and be happier. As one CBT web site puts it, “clients change because they learn how to think differently and they act on that learning.” According to Wikipedia, “The objectives of CBT typically are to identify irrational or maladaptive thoughts, assumptions and beliefs that are related to debilitating negative emotions and to identify how they are dysfunctional, inaccurate, or simply not helpful. This is done in an effort to reject the distorted cognitions and to replace them with more realistic and self-helping alternatives.”

From a naturalistic standpoint, many people harbor distorted cognitions with respect to their true nature, since they suppose they possess souls, or some non-physical essence which has the power to transcend or contravene causality. They imagine that their choices arise in some respect independently of their body, brain and surroundings, the product of a libertarian, contra-causal free will that moves the body without itself being fully caused by anything else. If we were CBT therapists, concerned for the mental health and optimum functioning of our clients – people at large, let’s imagine – wouldn’t we want to fix this faulty belief? Wouldn’t knowing the naturalistic truth about themselves support healthier attitudes and more effective behavior?

Understanding that cause and effect applies universally (except perhaps in the quantum realm), people would see that they’re determined to act as they do instead of chalking up choices to a mysterious uncaused or self-created self. They’d stop beating themselves (and others) up so much over mistakes, accepting that these were fully determined, not the product of libertarian free will. Armed with the knowledge of the causes behind what they did, they’d be in a better position to change their behavior. (Remember, just because things are determined doesn’t mean they don’t change. They usually do, and often for the better when we put our minds to it in the light of reliable knowledge.) Indeed, some CBT-oriented psychotherapists now use explicit naturalism in their practice when it’s therapeutically appropriate, gently prompting clients to reexamine their belief in contra-causal free will. They’ve found this can help to relieve guilt and shame, lessen anger directed at others (parents, for instance), and open up possibilities for more effective action.

A good therapist uses techniques appropriate to the client, taking her particular problems, strengths and weaknesses into account. Challenging someone’s fundamental beliefs about themselves, however gently, can itself cause distress, which is why not all clients in treatment are candidates for what we might call worldview cognitive therapy. What about people at large? Would they be able to assimilate the naturalistic truth about themselves and put it to good use?

Since people come in all psychological shapes and sizes, responses to naturalism will be equally diverse. Many, perhaps most at least initially, will dismiss out of hand the idea that we don’t have contra-causal freedom. However preposterous from a scientific perspective, the meme of the causally transcendent self, like that of god, is a deeply embedded assumption in our culture, not easily uprooted. And after all, it’s what many (even therapists and counselors) suppose is the locus of responsibility and the necessary catalyst for change. Since determinism is widely equated with fatalism, from a commonsense perspective challenging the existence of the freely willing soul seems to challenge the very possibility of a life worth living. (That it does not is what the naturalist must reassure them about – a big part of memeing naturalism.) So it’s likely that the majority of those hearing about naturalism will remain happy, or not so happy, supernaturalists, psychologically insulated from the logical and empirical case against libertarian free will.

Others, perhaps a significant minority (i.e., those 15% in US polls who count themselves non-religious, up to 50% in Europe, see here), will be in a better position to re-evaluate their ideas about the self and its place in nature. Those receptive to worldview naturalism will likely have already questioned the existence of god and the supernatural “up there,” and so are primed to take the next step. Such individuals are usually independent-minded, open to having their beliefs challenged, and thus more psychologically resilient. Even so, for some the realization that they aren’t little gods will indeed prove stressful. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of several instances in which naturalism provoked an existential crisis of sorts, not a surprise given that one’s deepest assumptions and beliefs are in play. But to my knowledge, in each case the crisis was resolved by a healthy, even transformative, adaptation to the insight that we’re completely included in the causal web. For others, the transition will be easy, either because they have no particular psychological investment in having souls, or were skeptical about libertarian free will from an early age, or both.

For most of those ultimately convinced of naturalism, the change will likely involve a halting but not unduly stressful reconfiguring of the self-concept. The day-to-day subjective experience of being themselves will continue on much as before, but within a very different cognitive context. It’s that new context which, in the considered opinion of naturalists, offers so much. Having discarded the soul, the person is in a far better, reality-based position to think and act effectively, taking into account the cause and effect relations that link her in all respects to her physical and social environment. She’s also better able to take an accepting and compassionate, but not passive, stance towards herself and all other sentient beings caught up in the tumultuous project of life. Once we get past the initial worries about naturalism, the advantages accrue rapidly (as argued at Naturalism.Org and in Encountering Naturalism).

On the other hand, Israeli philosopher Saul Smilansky thinks that large-scale naturalistic worldview therapy is just what the doctor shouldn’t order, since the illusion of libertarian free will is, he thinks, is the irreplaceable basis for psychological and social stability (see his book Free Will and Illusion and a summary of his position here). Daniel Dennett, less dire in his imaginings, still worries about the “environmental impact” of naturalism, suggesting we be cautious in its dissemination (see his book Freedom Evolves). Dennett is right – we have to be responsible in memeing naturalism, making sure people realize that we remain effective agents, who make real choices, whose actions make a difference, who can be held (compassionately) accountable, who are capable of positive self-change, and whose values don’t disappear. All this is perfectly doable, and indeed communities of naturalists (mostly academics at the moment, but increasing numbers of lay folk) are getting along just fine without the myth of supernatural freedom. Progressive skeptics about free will such as Susan Blackmore, Joshua Greene, Derk Pereboom, Will Provine, Tamler Sommers, Bruce Waller and others are making the case that Smilansky is wrong: there are good naturalistic replacements for belief in the soul and free will. We don’t need to traffic in illusions about our fundamental nature to have lives worth living, or to stabilize society. (Smilansky is critiqued here, and free will illusionism is discussed on the Garden of Forking Paths, a blog about Agency Theory.)

Advocates of naturalism believe that by uprooting harmful myths about ultimate responsibility, and by shedding light on the actual causes of behavior, it can ground a stronger personal psychology and a more humane social compact. Imprisoned by the myth of free will, people aren’t as mentally healthy or behaviorally effective as they might otherwise be: they don’t have the power and control conferred by a clear grasp of their causal connections to the world, and they’re barred from the self-acceptance and compassion that flow from seeing that yes, we are the world in its unfolding.

In the first film of the Matrix trilogy, Morpheus offers Neo the choice of a red pill – the route to a rather disconcerting truth – or a blue pill, the way back to a pleasant, but illusory existence. Neo’s choice of the red pill represents the claim on us of truth, the desire to live free of illusion whatever the cost. Fortunately our choice isn’t that stark, since there’s good reason to think that being undeluded about human nature, although initially disconcerting for some, can be the basis for mental and social well-being. As worldview cognitive therapists, we can therefore confidently recommend naturalism to the world’s attention.