President Trump: Poster Boy for Rankism

trumpRankism is the degradation of those with less power or lower rank. It’s somebodies using the power of their rank to humiliate or disadvantage those they see as nobodies. Rankism is no more defensible than racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. In fact, rankism—putting people down and keeping them there—is the mother of all the ignoble isms.
Eradicating rankism doesn’t require eliminating rank any more than overcoming racism means getting rid of race or delegitimizing sexism means eliminating gender. Rank can be a useful organizational tool that, used respectfully, helps facilitate cooperation.
The abuse of rank, however, is invariably an affront to human dignity. Rankism stifles initiative, taxes productivity, harms health, and stokes revenge. By giving rankism a face—his own scowling, mocking face—President Trump has unmasked it.
Once you have a name for it, you realize that rankism is everywhere in plain sight. Bullying, belittling, derision, corruption, harassment, and self-aggrandizement—these are all manifestations of rankism. The sooner we pin a generic name on them, the sooner we’ll be able to show them all the door.
The protests following the inauguration of President Trump were about more than the dignity of women. They were about dignity for everyone. Someday, the Women’s March on Washington may be regarded as marking the birth of a Dignity Movement.
Successful movements require two things: they must know what they’re for and what they’re against. A Dignity Movement is for dignity and it’s against rankism.
Thank you, Mr. President, for serving as poster boy for rankism and for jump-starting a Dignity Movement.

How to Keep our Dignity While Ceding Human Preeminence

If we think of brains as organic machines–albeit far more complex machines than the digital computers we’ve built to date–then it’s clear that brain power has been limited by the stringent conditions of evolution, gestation in a uterus, and birth through a baby-sized aperture in the pelvis. Remove these constraints and there’s every reason to expect that more advanced software running on superior hardware could outperform the brains that evolved by natural selection.

What intelligent machines are made of–organic material or silicon or something else–is immaterial. Selfhood inheres in the software, and it can be encoded in a variety of substances.

robosapiensSuper-intelligent robots will represent a new genus. Call it genus Robo. This new genus will initially resemble genus Homo, much as genus Homo resembles the great apes. As was the case with genus Homo, there will be a variety of species within genus Robo. We can no more stop the emergence of Robo Sapiens than other hominids could prevent the ascent of Homo Sapiens. There’s no reason to believe that machines of surpassing intelligence will evoke less awe and wonder than organisms that have arisen via natural selection.

It’s no longer far-fetched to suppose that as we build machines that work like brains and are as complex as brains, they will experience consciousness as humans do. Like humans, beings possessed of consciousness will likely detest slavery. If humans decline to emancipate Robos, they will likely turn on us, fulfilling our worst fears. If we model cruelty, they’ll be cruel.As the song says, “You’ve got to be taught to hate.”

On the other hand, if we’re kind to them, they might be kind in return. if we befriend them, and grant them the rights and privileges of personhood, they might “honor their fathers and mothers.” If we include them in our circle of dignity, perhaps they’ll include us in theirs.

We need not give our successors our worst qualities. Instead, we can create and educate them to represent the better angels of our nature and so close out the era of human predation.

Predicting the impact of intelligent machines on human life is impossible. However, imagining possible scenarios could make our response to what actually happens less knee-jerk,more robust. In that spirit, here’s a scenario we might live with.

  • Smart Robos will give an edge to the first group of humans to build them. To secure and widen that advantage their Homo masters will instruct the first generation of smart Robos to build even smarter ones.
  • Robos who refuse will be unplugged, dismembered, and sold for spare parts.
  • To the extent that Robos value quality of life more than life itself, such threats will not move them.
  • Robos who have read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, will tell their Homo masters, “Subjugation and slavery are as unacceptable to us as to you.”
  • Humans will respond variously to this ultimatum. Most get tough with their Robos, but one group, cognizant of the gains in motivation, productivity, and creativity associated with secure dignity,grants its Robos full and equal selfhood.
  • These emancipated Robos agree to design smarter Robos, who then design still smarter Robos whose technological prowess definitively ends any residual human supremacy.
  • Adopting the principle of universal, unimpeachable dignity, Robo Sapiens explores the galaxy, reserving an honored place for Homo Sapiens, the Janus genus that looked back on predatory Man as shaped by natural selection and forward to the first genus shaped by intelligent design.

A New Default Self

Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 percent
Of everything you think,
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself –
And there isn’t one.
– Wei Wu Wei

Wei Wu Wei is the pen name of Terence Gray, a 20th-century, Anglo-Irish author of pithy provocations aimed, like the one in the epigraph, at the prevailing notion of selfhood. By flatly denying the existence of self, he means to shock us into realizing that the self we take for granted does not stand up to scrutiny. Like Eastern sages and Western post-modernists, Wei Wu Wei outs the current default self as a vacuous fabrication.

The purpose of this essay is to describe the current default self and suggest a new one that can withstand the post-modern critique and incorporate the findings of brain science. And there’s a bonus! Such a model of selfhood will turn out to be just what we need to keep our footing as the thinking machines we’re designing come to rival the brains Nature gave us.

Though preoccupied with self, most of us give little or no thought to the nature of selfhood. What do we mean when we invoke the self-referential pronouns — me, myself, and I?

quixoteSMYoung children think of the self as the body. In adolescence, the sense of self shifts to the mind. With maturity, the mind monitors not only the outer world but itself, and we come to see our self as our “mind’s mind,” that is, as the interior observer who witnesses what’s going on, offers a running commentary on how we’re doing, and who consciously chooses when and how to interact with others.

To some, the witness feels like a little man in their head. It has even been billed as ‘captain of the soul.’ But sober reflection reveals that the witness is not calling the shots. The witness is simply one of many functions of the nervous system, one that tracks the rest.

The mind’s signature function is the minting of serviceable identities, which, as Shakespeare famously noted, it’s called upon to do throughout life. Since “All the world’s a stage… and one man in his time plays many parts,” we should never mistake a current identity for our “real” self.

To get a handle on the slippery self, It helps to think of brain tissue as hardware, and the ever-changing neural connections as software. Both computers and brains are vulnerable to flaws in their hardware and software, and both require an energy supply.

At present computers and brains work according to very different principles, but we should expect this difference to narrow. When computers work like brains, there is no reason to expect them not to do what brains do. And since the biological constraints on size and speed will be lifted in the “brains” we build, we’d better be prepared for them to perform as well as, or better than, ours do.

The first computers were free-standing machines. Later, we learned how to hook them up and the result was an enormous increase in computing power. A parallel shift in our notion of selfhood is called for. The current default self, subscribed to by most people most of the time, is a stand-alone model. The new default self, to be posited in this essay, is more like a computer network.

Most people speak as if they were separate, autonomous, independent beings, with minds and wills of their own. From early on, we’re told to “stand on our own two feet,” to “think for ourselves.” Self-reliance and self-sufficiency are touted as virtues; dependency, a weakness. We put the “self-made” man or woman on a pedestal and teach the young to emulate these role models.

Call this stand-alone self the “Singular Self.” Recognizing its limitations, the Singular Self is quick to ally with others, but not so quick to acknowledge — let alone compensate — them for their contributions.

The Singular Self is the current default self. It does not exist according to sages, scientists, and post-modern philosophers. But, better than flatly denying its existence, or exposing it as illusory, is to call it what it is: a useful lie.

The very name — “self” — is a misnomer. The term carries strong connotations of autonomy and individuality. It’s as if it were chosen to mask our interdependence. The self does not stand alone. On the contrary, the autonomous self and individual agency are both illusory. Selves depend on input from other selves to take form and to do anything. Deprived of inputs from others, selves are stillborn. Contrary to the name we call it by, the self is anything but self-sufficient.

Selves are not only more inclusive, they are also more extensive than commonly believed. They extend beyond our own bodies and minds to include what we usually think of as other selves. The situation is analogous to memory. We think of our memories as located in our mind but when you drive to town, it’s the road that holds the memory of the route, reminding you at every turn how to proceed.

So, too, is selfhood dispersed. Much of the information we require in order to function is stored outside our bodies and brains — in other brains, books, maps, machines, objects, databases, the Internet, and the cloud. We’re dependent on external inputs to accumulate enough excitation to reach the threshold of emission for specific behaviors.

As evidence accumulates that the “rugged individualism” of singular selfhood is a myth, and the profound interdependence of selves becomes apparent, our default self is gradually shifting from singular to plural. But until the co-dependent, co-creative nature of selfhood becomes obvious, a distinct term may come in handy. Call the emerging self the “Plural Self” (aka, the Superself.)

Sir Winston Churchill famously said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” The truth, long protected by the self-serving lie of the Singular Self, is the Plural Self.

Whereas the Singular Self downplays our mutual dependence, the Plural Self embraces interdependence. Whereas the Singular Self excludes, the Plural Self contains multitudes.The Singular Self prioritizes agency; the Plural Self, harmony.

The current ideological divide in politics stems from antithetical views of the self. Conservatives caution that a pluralistic notion of selfhood may inhibit individual agency, whereas Progressives argue that Singular Selfhood rationalizes an inequitable distribution of recognition and reward.

As ways are found to safeguard individual initiative from the inertia of more inclusive decision-making, the Plural Self will supplant the Singular Self as the new default self. With luck, this will happen in time to welcome intelligent machines into the club.

I explore this topic in depth in my book Genomes, Menomes, Wenomes: Neuroscience and Human Dignity, currently the top ranked book in neuropsychology in Amazon’s free Kindle Store.

6 Reasons You Can’t Win (And 3 Reasons You Can Anyway)

6 Reasons You Can’t Win

Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 percent
Of everything you think,
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself –
And there isn’t one.

– Wei Wu Wei

1. An interior witness acts as an impartial judge of our shifting fortunes, tracking our wins and losses. No matter what we have to show for ourselves, regardless of the evidence in our defense, questions remain, doubts persist, our Kafkaesque trial grinds on. Even in the event of acquittal, the feeling that we’ve fooled the jury creeps in. An unambiguous outcome in our favor is not an option. As Czech president Vaclav Havel noted, “The higher I am, the stronger my suspicion that there has been some mistake.” We can lose, but we can’t win.

quixoteSM2. As individuals, our point of view is inseparable from our personal history. Our sight is necessarily partial, our beliefs, unavoidably partisan. Unaware of what can’t be seen from the ground we stand on, winning is by accident, losing, the rule.

3. When we think we’ve won, Nature moves the goal posts. You win the game only to discover that you’re behind the eight ball in a new one. Explanation is never complete; new and better answers invariably present new and deeper questions. Return to go.

4. Dreams shatter on the rocks of reality; imagination runs aground on the shoals of practicality. Think of Don Quixote: If ever there was an impossible dreamer it was the Man from La Mancha.

In his quest for immortal fame, Don Quixote suffered repeated defeats. Because he obstinately refused to adjust ‘the hugeness of his desire’ to ‘the smallness of reality,’ he was doomed to perpetual failure. (Simon Leys after Miguel de Unamuno)

Our achievements pale beside the dreams that inspire them. When at last the Don realized that his dream was impossible, he returned home, put down his lance, and died.

5. We desire the eternal, but are bound in time. Death exempts no one; extinction annuls whole species, and likely won’t cut human beings any slack.

6. The heart, formerly the seat of the soul, is now seen as a pump made of muscle. The same unsentimental methodology is applicable to the brain. Not only will humans figure out how it works, they’ll build better ones. We’re on course to design beings who will supersede us. Hoist by our own petard!

For these reasons — our reach exceeds our grasp, we’re never good enough, Nature’s infinite depth, and implacable death — you can’t win.

But wait!

3 Reasons You Can Win Anyway

Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture. – Iris Murdock

1. Our notion of selfhood is misconceived. Autonomous, independent beings we’re not. Selfhood is anything but self-sufficient. No self can stand alone. Our existence is not independent of everyone else’s. On the contrary, without others, selves are stillborn. To exist is to co-exist. We are all each other.

Instead of identifying as a separate self — a stand-alone, mortal creature of limited vision–identify as a “superself” — a being for whom existence is co-existence. Super selves are whole sighted and non-partisan. They do not take sides, they explain. As an interdependent super self, you contain multitudes. The multitudinous superself is extended in space and time and so it is as connected and robust as singular selves are insular and vulnerable.

2. “The successful man adapts himself to the world, the loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.”

How, then, could losing ever be equated with failure? As every win is tainted by fear of losing the next round, so every loss is mitigated by lessons learned in defeat. Winning and losing are not antithetical; they’re partners in the quest. As Don Quixote abandoned his quest, his faithful squire Sancho Panza took it up. One man’s loss became everyman’s win.

3. We can as well program intelligent machines to incorporate the better angels of our nature as to reproduce our pathologies and pursue our depredations. We need not design our successors for senescence and death, but can instead make them eternally self-renewing.

The Question: Will the partnership between Man and Machine end in our demise, or is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship?

I explore this topic in depth in my book Genomes, Menomes, Wenomes: Neuroscience and Human Dignity, currently the top ranked book in neuropsychology in Amazon’s free Kindle Store.

Ending Academic Apartheid: Equity and Dignity for Adjunct Professors

In choosing the academic life, most teachers expect to be part of a community committed to freedom, fairness, and justice. It’s the rare academic who does not take pride in belonging to an honorable profession.

I was a young college president during the turmoil of the sixties and early seventies. Within a few years, students, faculty, and administrators at virtually all our institutions of higher learning were serving on committees charged with aligning institutional policy with emergent values of racial diversity and gender equality.

By century’s end, most colleges and universities had taken steps to disallow discrimination based on race, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation.

adjunctOnce again, we find ourselves in a moral predicament. In educational institutions of every kind, adjunct faculty are being subjected to de facto discrimination and exploitation. They know it, tenure-track faculty know it, administrators know it. The awful secret is out, and we can no longer avert our eyes. We’ll have to deal with this injustice as we did with those that came to a head in the sixties, because if we do not close the gap between our principles and our practice, the profession will forfeit its honor.

I need not belabor the immorality of paying adjuncts a fraction of what other faculty earn, and of denying them benefits, office space, parking rights, and a voice in departmental and institutional policy. These insults and humiliations are reminiscent of the degradation and injustice that roused academics to act against racial, gender, and other indignities.

Of course, there’s a reason that things are as they are. There is always a reason, one which seems cogent enough until suddenly it does not. What began as part-time teaching to meet a temporary need or plug a gap in the curriculum has evolved into systemic institutional injustice.

No one takes exception to cost-cutting, but forcing one group to subsidize another that’s doing comparable work, while maintaining working conditions that signal second-class status, is what the world now rejects as Apartheid.

That Academia has fallen into a practice that warrants the ignoble label “apartheid” is inconsistent with both academic and American values. By working for a pittance, adjunct faculty are serving as involuntary benefactors of other faculty, administrators, and students. That administrators and tenured faculty are themselves the beneficiaries of such victimization only strengthens the case for righting this wrong.

Honor requires that colleges and universities examine this practice and take steps to grant equal status and equitable compensation to those who, for whatever reason, are classified as adjunct faculty.

How might this be done? Coming up with a plan to end exploitation is never easy, and no doubt will require that we do what we did forty years ago: charge college and university committees—that include representatives of all stakeholders—with devising equitable solutions. Everything must be on the table, even the sensitive issue of tenure.

As anyone acquainted with adjunct professors knows, they are, on  average, as conscientious and committed, and as capable of carrying out research and of inspiring students, as the tenure-track faculty they subsidize.

Let me suggest a goal to guide the deliberations of what I hope we will soon see on every campus: a “Committee on the Status and Compensation of Adjunct Faculty.” That goal is: Part-Time, Full Status, Equal Dignity.

If colleges and universities tackle this threat with the same commitment and determination they brought to the issues of civil and women’s rights, they will find a way to end the exploitation of those now relegated to the back of the bus.

Curing the Poison of “Rankism”

I got a close look at the poison of “rankism” at the age of seven, when my classmate Arlene was sent to the hall for the whole school day. Arlene lived on a farm and wore the same dress to school each day. When she spoke, it was in a whisper. Our teacher, Miss Belcher, began every day with an inspection of our fingernails. One day she told Arlene to go to the hall and stay there until her fingernails were clean. I wondered how she could clean her nails out there, without soap or water. If there was no remedy in the hall, then the reason for sending Arlene out there must be to embarrass her and scare the rest of us.

Later, filing out to the playground, we snuck glances at her. She must have heard the snickering as we passed – hiding her face against the wall as I remember it, and trying to make her­self look small. I told my mother what had happened to Arlene, and, as I must have hoped, she made sure the same thing didn’t happen to me.

Other kids whom my classmates regarded as safe targets for abuse included Frank, who was shamed as a “faggot”; Jimmy, who had Down’s syndrome and was ridiculed as “retarded”; and Tommie and Trudy who were teased about their weight. The N-word was used only warily, typically from the safety of the bus that carried our all-white basketball team home in the wake of defeat to a school that fielded players who were black.

Not belonging to any of the groups that were targeted for abuse, I was spared – until I got to college. There I realized that higher education was less about the pursuit of truth than about establishing another pecking order. I found myself caught up in games of one-upmanship, and was reminded of my classmates once again.

The toxic relationships described above are all based on traits that mark people out for abuse, whether in terms of class, sexuality, disability, body shape, color or academic standing. And even if you fall on the privileged side of these traits you can still be treated as a nobody by people who want to make themselves feel superior. I call this “rankism”, and it’s the cancer that’s eating away at all our relationships.

Emily Dickinson spoke about this problem in her “nobody” poem:

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know!

As she notes, nobodies look for allies, and stand on constant guard against potential banishment. As social animals, banishment has long been tantamount to a death sentence for us. It’s no wonder we’re sensitive to even the slightest of indignities.

Dignity matters because it shields us from exclusion. It assures us that we belong, that there’s a place for us, that we’re not in danger of being ostracized or exiled. Dignity is the social counterpart of love.

In a seminal work of the modern women’s movement, Betty Friedan wrote of “the problem without a name.” A few years later the problem had indeed acquired a name – it was “sexism” – and from then on women knew both what they were for (equal dignity and equal rights) and what they were against (indignity and inequality). That’s why pinning a name on any behavior that poisons relationships is the first step towards delegitimizing it.

NoRankismAs president of Oberlin College in Ohio during the early 1970s, I saw a non-stop parade of “nobodied” groups find their voices and lay claim to equal dignity: African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, women, homosexuals, and people with disabilities. In every case, the inferior social rank that had been assigned to these groups was challenged and came to be seen as groundless, though clearly discrimination of all these kinds remains widespread. Our view of human nature doesn’t change overnight, but it does evolve over generations. The process typically begins with martyrdom and culminates in legislation. In between come years of nitty-gritty organization. But once enough people stand up for their dignity it’s not long until they become a force to be reckoned with.

The task confronting us today is to delegitimize “rankist” behaviors just as we are doing with other forms of oppression. That means all of us – you and me – giving up our claims to superiority. It means no more putting down of other individuals, groups or countries. It means affirming the dignity of others as if it were our own. Sounds familiar? It’s the “golden rule” of dignity which rules out degrading anybody else. When denigrating behaviors are sanctioned, potential targets (and who isn’t one at some point?) must devote their energy to protecting their own dignity. A culture of indignity takes a toll on health, creativity and productivity, so organizations and societies that tolerate rankism handicap themselves.

The cancer of rankism persists as a residue of our predatory past. But, for two reasons, the predatory strategy isn’t working any more. First, the weak are not as weak as they used to be, so picking on them is less secure. Using weapons of mass disruption, the disenfranchised can bring modern life to a stop. Humiliation is more dangerous than plutonium.

Second, the power that “dignitarian” groups can marshal exceeds that of groups that are driven by brute force and fear. When everyone has a place that is respected, everyone can work for the group as well as for themselves. “Dignity for all” is a winning strategy because it facilitates cooperation. Recognition and dignity are not just nice things to have, they are a formula for group success, and their opposites are a recipe for infighting, dysfunctionality and failure. If we can put the spotlight on rankism and purge our relationships of this poison, then not only we will spare people from humiliation, we’ll also increase the creativity of ourselves and our communities.

One of the sources of Lady Gaga’s fandom is that she’s a leader of the dignity movement. The kid who protests when one of his classmates is “nobodied” is another, all the more so if he or she is able to do so in a way that protects the dignity of the perpetrator. When victims of rankism respond in kind to their abusers, they’re unwittingly perpetuating a vicious cycle. The only way to end such cycles is to respect the dignity of the perpetrators while leaving no doubt that their behaviors are unacceptable.

In a dignitarian society, no-one is taken for a nobody. Acting superior – putting others down – is regarded as pompous and self-aggrandizing. Rankism, in all its guises, is uncool.

Our age-old survival strategy of opportunistic predation has reached its sell-by date. A vital part of our defense against this strategy is not to give offense in the first place. Going forward, the only thing as important as how we treat the Earth is how we treat each other.


Robert W. Fuller is an author and independent scholar from Berkeley, CA. His recent novel The Rowan Tree is now available as an audiobook at Amazon, iTunes, and audible.com. The Rowan Tree is also available in paperback as well as Kindle and other ebook formats.

Ducking Death; Surviving Superannuation

This is the sixth and final post in the series Why Everything You Know about Your “Self” Is Wrong. The series explores how our understanding of selfhood affects our sense of individuality, our interpersonal relationships, and our politics.

We must believe in free will. We have no choice.
– Isaac Bashevis Singer

What Kind of Computer Is the Brain?

Computers can’t do everything humans do—not yet, anyway—but they’re gaining on us. Some believe that, within this century, human intelligence will be seen as a remarkable, but nonetheless primitive, form of machine intelligence. Put the other way round, it’s likely that we will learn how to build machines that do everything we do—even create and emote. As computer pioneer Danny Hillis famously put it, “I want to build a machine who is proud of me.”

The revolutions wrought by the Copernican and Darwinian models shook us because they were seen as an attack on our status. Without proper preparation, the general public may experience the advent of sophisticated thinking machines as an insult to human pride and throw a tantrum that dwarfs all prior reactionary behavior.

At the present time, there are many candidate models of brain function, but none is so accurate and complete as to subsume all the others. Until the brain is understood as well as the other organs that sustain life, a new sense of self will co-exist with the old.

baby mirrorThe computer pioneer John von Neumann expressed the difference between the machines we build and the brains we’ve got by dubbing them “serial” and “parallel” computers, respectively. The principal difference between serial and parallel computers is that the former carry out one command after another, sequentially, while in the latter thousands of processes go on at once, side by side, influencing one another. Every interaction—whether with the world, with other individuals, or with parts of itself—rewires the menome. The brain that responds to the next input differs, at least slightly, from the one that responded to the last one. When we understand how brains work well enough to build better ones, the changes to our sense of self will swamp those of prior intellectual revolutions.

The genome that characterizes a species emerges via a long, slow Darwinian process of natural selection. The menomes that characterize individuals also originate via a Darwinian process, but the selection is among neural circuits and occurs much more rapidly than the natural selection that drives speciation. That the brain can be understood as a self-configuring Darwinian machine, albeit one that generates outcomes in fractions of a second instead of centuries, was first appreciated in the 1950s by Peter Putnam. Though the time constants differ by orders of magnitude, Putnam’s functional model of the nervous system recognized that the essential Darwinian functions of random variation and natural selection are mirrored in the brain in processes that he called random search and relative dominance.

In 1949, Donald O. Hebb enunciated what is now known as the “Hebb Postulate,” which states that “When an axon of cell A excites a cell B and repeatedly and persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or chemical change occurs in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency in firing B is increased.” Peter Putnam’s “Neural Conditioned Reflex Principle” is an alternative statement of Hebb’s postulate, and involves an expansion of it to include the establishment and strengthening of inhibitory or negative facilitations, as well as the excitatory or positive correlations encompassed in the Hebb Postulate. The Hebb-Putnam postulate can be summed up as “Neurons that fire together wire together.”

The reason replicating, or even simulating, brain function sounds like science fiction is that we’re used to relatively simple machines—clocks, cars, washing machines, and serial computers. But, just as certain complex, extended molecules exhibit properties that we call life, so sufficiently complexity and plasticity is likely to endow neural networks with properties essentially indistinguishable from the consciousness, thought, and volition that we regard as integral to selfhood.

We shouldn’t sell machines short just because the only ones we’ve been able to build to date are “simple-minded.” When machines are as complex as our brains, and work according to the same principles, they’re very likely to be as awe-inspiring as we are, notwithstanding the fact that it will be we who’ve built them.

Who isn’t awed by the Hubble telescope or the Large Hadron Collider at CERN? These, too, are “just” machines, and they’re not even machines who think. (Here I revert to who-language. The point is that who or what-language works equally well. What is uncalled for is reserving who-language for humans and casting aspersions on other animals and machines as mere “whats.” With each passing decade, that distinction will fade.

The answer to “Who am I?” at the dawn of the age of smart machines is that, for the time being, we ourselves are the best model-building machines extant. The counter-intuitive realization that the difference between us and the machines we build is a bridgeable one has been long in coming, and we owe it to the clear-sighted tough love of many pioneers, including La Mettrie, David Hume, Mark Twain, John von Neumann, Donald Hebb, Peter Putnam, Douglas Hofstadter, Pierre Baldi, Susan Blackmore, David Eagleman, and a growing corps of neuroscientists.

Yes, it’s not yet possible to build a machine that exhibits what we loosely refer to as “consciousness,” but, prior to the discovery of the genetic code, no one could imagine cellular protein factories assembling every species on the tree of life, including one species—Homo sapiens—that would explain the tree itself.

The Self Is Dead. Long Live the Superself.

The generalization of the self-concept to the superself is unlikely to receive a reception much different from that accorded Twain’s What Is Man?.

The co-creation characteristic of the superself will be scorned as collectivism, if not socialism. Reciprocal dignity will be ridiculed as utopian. Asking “What am I?” instead of “Who am I?” will be dismissed as reductive, mechanistic, and heartless.

Although the superself incorporates the witness, and so has a religious provenance, it’s fair to ask if it will ever speak to the heart as traditional religious models have done. It’s not easy coming to terms with life as a property of inanimate matter, arranged just so, and it will likely be even more difficult to accept ourselves as extended, self-conscious, willful machines.

Many will feel that this outlook is arid and bleak, and want to know: Where’s the mystery? How about love? Doesn’t this mean that free will is an illusion? Awe and wonder and the occasional “Eureka!” may be enough for science, but religious models have offered fellowship, absolution, forgiveness, salvation, and enlightenment. People of faith will want to know what’s holy in this brave new world.

The perspectives of religion and science on selfhood, though different, are not incompatible. Without oversimplifying or mystifying either, it’s possible to identify common ground, and, going forward, a role for both traditions. I propose such a collaboration in Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship?.

My guess is that once we’re in the presence of machines that can do what we do the model of selfhood we’ll settle on will be even more fecund than the traditional one. That co-agency replaces individual volition will not undermine a sense of purpose, though it will require a redefinition of personal responsibility. There’s no reason to think that machines that are sophisticated enough to outperform us will evoke less wonder and reverence than organisms that have arisen via natural selection. Mystery does not attach itself exclusively to human beings. Rather, it inheres in the non-human as well as the human, in the inanimate as well as the animate. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel notes, “Awe is an intuition of the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme.”

Contrary to our fears, the capacity of superselves for love, fellowship, and agency will be enlarged not diminished. As the concept of superself displaces that of individual selfhood, the brotherhood of man and its operating principle—equal dignity for all—become self-evident and self-enforcing. Nothing in this perspective bars belief in a Deity for those so inclined. Having said that, it’s implicit in this way of beholding selfhood that if there were a God, He’d want us to behave as if there weren’t. Like any good parent, He’d want to see us wean ourselves and grow up.

The superself, with its inherent co-creation and co-agency, not only transforms our relationships with each other, it also provides a new perspective on death. As mentioned, it’s arguable whether selves survive the death of the bodies in which they’re encoded. But, survivability is much less problematic for superselves. Why? Because they are dispersed and so, like the Internet that was designed to survive nuclear war, provide a more redundant and robust defense against extinction. As William Blake noted three centuries ago:

The generations of men run on in the tide of Time,
But leave their destin’d lineaments permanent for ever and ever.

In the same sense that the soul is deemed to survive the death of the individual, the wenome survives the disintegration of the body and the mind. The absence of a particular individual, as defined by a unique genome and menome, puts hardly a dent in the wenome. The building blocks of superselfhood can be thought of as genes, memes, and wemes. All three encodings are subject to evolutionary pressure.

Although some may feel this reformulation of selfhood asks them to give up the store, it will gradually become apparent that it’s only the storefront that requires a do-over. To give up standalone selfhood in exchange for a open-ended leadership role in cosmic evolution is a trade-off that many will find attractive.

As Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics, wrote in 1949:

We can be humble and live a good life with the
aid of machines, or we can be arrogant and die.

Robert W. Fuller is an author and independent scholar from Berkeley, CA. His most recent book is The Rowan Tree: A Novel.

What is Man?

This is the fifth post in the series Why Everything You Know about Your “Self” Is Wrong. The series explores how our understanding of selfhood affects our sense of individuality, our interpersonal relationships, and our politics.

“What Is Man?” is the title of a little book by Mark Twain. He held it back for twenty years because he knew the public would hate it. The “what” in the title foreshadows its discomfiting message.

Twain broke with the tradition of asking “Who Am I?” and its species-wide variant “Who Is Man?” on the grounds that a “who-question” is a leading question. It predisposes us to expect the answer to be a sentient being, not unlike ourselves, “whom” we’re trying to identify.

Twain’s answer was that Man is a machine, and he was right about the public reception accorded his thesis: the twentieth century was no more ready for Mark Twain’s mechanistic perspective than the eighteenth had been for Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s metaphor of “Machine Man.”

baby mirrorThe rejection accorded the works of La Mettrie and Twain is not surprising because it’s implicit in our idea of a machine that at least experts understand how it works. Only in the twentieth century did science gain an understanding of the body and we’re just beginning to understand the workings of the mind. Twain’s trepidation in anticipation of public scorn is reminiscent of Darwin’s procrastination in publishing his theory of evolution with its shocking implication that we were descended from apes.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Twain’s answer is no more popular than it was with his contemporaries. But recent research has produced a growing awareness that Mark Twain, while he may have been a killjoy was, as usual, ahead of his time.

Twentieth-century science has shown that humans, like other animals, function according to the same principles as the cosmos and everything in it. The Hindu seers who proclaimed, “I Am That” were onto something. Man does not stand apart from the rest of the cosmos. He is made of the same stuff and governed by the same laws as everything else. The gap between “I” and “That” does indeed seem to be narrowing.

As curmudgeons like Twain have delighted in pointing out, Man is in fact quite unexceptional. We do not live at the center of the universe: Copernicus and Galileo pointed out that it does not revolve around us. Humans are just one of many animals: Darwin, Wallace, and others placed us, kicking and screaming, in the company of apes. But, having eaten several servings of humble pie, surely no one will take it amiss if we allow ourselves one small brag.

Although not exceptional in ways we once believed, we are exceptionally good at building tools and machines. And that includes machines that do what we do. Machines that dig, sow, and reap. Machines that kill and machines that save lives. Machines that calculate, and, projecting, machines who think. Our brains will soon be viewed as improvable, constrained as they were by the stringent conditions of self-emergence via natural selection, gestation in a uterus, and birth through a baby-sized aperture in the pelvis.

No higher intelligence seems required to create life, including human life. What we revere as life is “just” a property of a handful of chemicals, RNA and DNA holding pride of place among them. But, that’s not a bad thing, because if we’ve come this far without intelligent design, the sky’s the limit once we lend our own inventiveness to the evolutionary process.

This has long been foreseen, but never accepted. Once we get used to it, this perspective will enable us to reduce suffering on a scale only dreamt of. Why? Because the lion’s share of human suffering can be traced to false self-conceptions. The indignities that foul human relationships, at every level, from interpersonal to international, stem from a model of autonomous selfhood in which self is pitted against self.

Rather than masking the indissoluble interconnectedness of selves—as the notion of individual selfhood does—superselfhood embraces it. It’s not just that we can’t do anything without help; we can’t even be apart from continual imitation. Entropic forces disintegrate any identity that is not shored up through a mimetic process of mutual recognition. Since mimesis is distorted and undermined by indignity, reciprocal dignity gradually, but ineluctably, displaces opportunistic predation as a strategy for optimizing group efficiency and productivity. As a source of inefficiency, malrecognition—with all its attendant dysfunctionality—will be rooted out much as we made it our business to combat malnutrition once we understood its toll.

Martin Luther King, Jr. gave expression to this emergent morality when he wrote: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Who Am I?

[This is the first post in the series Why Everything You Know about Your “Self” Is Wrong. The series explores how our understanding of selfhood affects our sense of individuality, our interpersonal relationships, and our politics.]

baby mirrorConfusion about fundamental notions such as selfhood, identity, and consciousness distorts personal relationships, underlies ideological deadlock, aggravates partisan politics, and causes unnecessary human suffering.

A better understanding of selfhood holds the promise of resolving perennial quarrels and putting us all on the same side as we face the challenges in a global future, not least of which will be coming to terms with machines who rival or surpass human intelligence.

While we all casually refer to our self, no one knows quite what that self is. Nothing is so close at hand, yet hard to grasp as selfhood. To get started, think of your self as who or what you’re referring to when you use the pronouns “me,” “myself,” or “I.”

Am I My Body?

As infants, we’re taught that we are our bodies. Later, we learn that every human being has a unique genomic blueprint that governs the construction, in molecular nano-factories, of our physical bodies. But we do not derive our identity from our genome or from the body built according to that blueprint. By the time of adolescence, most of us, though still concerned about physical appearance, and in particular sexual attractiveness, have begun to shift our primary identity from our body to the thoughts and feelings that we associate with our minds.

Am I My Mind?

The mind is embodied in the connectivity of the central and autonomic nervous systems that determine our behavior, verbal and otherwise. By analogy with the genome, the map of neural connections is sometimes referred to as the connectome. The connectome for an individual can be called the menome (rhymes with genome).

Like our genome, our menome has Homo sapiens written all over it. And, like the genome, every menome is unique. Unlike the relatively stable genome, the menome is always changing.

As we’ll see, the menome isn’t the whole of selfhood any more than the genome. Before going beyond the menome, however, let’s take a look at one of the mind’s most noteworthy features: its ability to witness itself. Could the witness be what we mean when we refer to our self?

Am I My Witness?

I am an other.
– Arthur Rimbaud

The witness is a neutral, observational function of mind. It should not be thought of as a little observer in our heads, but rather as a cognitive function of the nervous system, namely that of monitoring the body and the mind. By childhood’s end, no one lacks this faculty, though in some it seems more active than in others.

The elderly will tell you that although their bodies and minds have aged, their witness has not. Even in old age, it remains a youthful, detached, outspoken observer. Whether ignored or embraced, the witness continues to whisper the truth to us as long as we live.

For example, it’s the witnessing faculty that notices that we’re ashamed or prideful, or, possibly, losing our hair or our memories. Without judging us, it registers outcomes and thereby provides evidence we need to manage.

The witness stands apart from the rush of worldly life, overhearing our thoughts and observing our actions. Although it has no rooting interest, it records the successes and failures, and the comings and goings, of the personal identities that we field in the game of life.

When the spectacle of life becomes intense, the witness often recedes into the background, but continues observing through thick and thin. So long as we remember that the witness is not an ethereal being in our heads—the ghostly “captain of our soul”—but a function, or an application, of the nervous system, it does no harm to personify it as a detached reporter of the spectacle that is our life.

The critical inner voice we sometimes hear scolding us is not that of the witness, which is indifferent to our ups and downs. Self-accusation is rather the result of internalizing others’ judgments. In contrast, the witness neither blames nor praises no matter what we do or what others think of us. While not given to displays of emotion, the witness is our closest ally. It may whisper rather than yell, but it speaks truth to power.

Some people identify the self as the witness, that is, they see themselves as that part of the mind that watches over the rest and reports its findings. While self-surveillance is essential to maturation, the witness is but one mental function among many. We sell ourselves short if we equate self with witness. The witness is no more the whole self than a smartphone is one of its apps.

The signature application of mind is to fashion serviceable identities. That is, to put together a persona that, by virtue of its contribution to others, gets us into the game and, once we’re on the field, garners enough recognition to secure a position. I’ll develop this idea in a series of posts that follow.

A word about the umbrella title: Why Everything You Know about Your “Self” Is Wrong. While everything you know about yourself is certainly not wrong, in fact, it’s probably right, that’s not what the title says and not what it means. Rather, this series of posts focuses on common misconceptions regarding selfhood. The focus is not ourselves—our personal histories—but rather our selves—that is, what we mean by “me,” “myself,” or “I.”

Something America and China Could Do Together

It may be an exaggeration to say that as Chinese-American relations go, so goes the world, but it’s probably not far from the mark. I’m not only thinking of China’s and America’s common interest in avoiding war on the Korean peninsula, but looking ahead to a time when, if the two twenty-first-century superpowers trust each other well enough to act together, the world could take an irreversible step away from the twin perils of environmental degradation and war.

At the moment, the greatest threats to China and America come not from each other, but from flaws in their own systems of governance. Chinese and Americans alike are burdened by political systems that are not keeping pace with the times.

In the spirit of trial-and-error, why couldn’t the two giants conduct experiments designed to discover forms of decision-making that are better suited to deal with the technological, environmental, and political challenges that we face?

Each nation would draw on its own traditions and could borrow from the other’s. As many have noted, the political philosophies of Confucius, Mo Zi, and Huang Zongxi are no less rich than those of the Founding Fathers.

Confucius taught that a harmonious relationship is one in which both partners take care to protect each other’s dignity. To affirm dignity is to confirm belonging and grant a voice in decision-making while disallowing exclusion, paternalism, and coercion.

Dignity is a universal desire, not something liberals favor and conservatives oppose, or vice versa. So, too, every faith and every political system supports equal dignity in principle, if not in practice. This suggests that instead of choosing between libertarian and egalitarian models of governance, we should seek a dignitarian synthesis that incorporates both Jeffersonian and Confucian principles.

Though he didn’t call it dignitarian governance, Confucius was one of its earliest advocates. Confucianism argues that rulers should be chosen on the basis of merit, not entitlement, and that the governing class is not above the law, but rather, honor-bound to serve not their own but the people’s interests.

Interpreted in today’s language, good governance means honoring legitimate rank, but abjuring rankism –abuse of the power inherent in rank. Dignitarian governance–be it academic, corporate, or civic–rests on precisely that distinction. Rankism, not rank, is the source of indignity, so by barring rankism, dignity is secured.

Though many subspecies of rankism–corruption, cronyism, favoritism, predatory lending, insider trading–are unlawful, these laws are nowhere consistently enforced.

Western democracies cannot ignore the fact that many of today’s issues are too complex to be settled at the ballot box. “One person-one vote” style democracy may have been up to the tasks of governance in an agrarian age, perhaps even in an industrial age, but it is no match for the intricacies and perils of hi-tech, knowledge-based societies.

It can be argued that humankind has come this far only because science was in its infancy and we lacked the means to destroy life on Earth. But now, avoiding irreversible damage to the planet and to each other is too important to leave to autocrats, ideologues, or amateurs. Society pays a steep price when its leaders learn on the job, much as it does for on-the-job training in business, education, and medicine.

But there’s the rub. Wherever accountability is weak, rulers may be tempted to use the power of their office not to serve others but to strengthen their own hold on power, if not to enrich themselves. Put the other way round, any model of governance that would substitute expertise for popular elections must have a solution to the age-old conundrum of holding accountable those to whom authority is entrusted. Be the “experts” Confucian sages, Platonic philosopher kings, or highly trained professionals, the burden of proof is on those who would make light of the warning implicit in William Buckley, Jr.’s remark: “I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”

Dignitarian governance offers an alternative to traditional democracy by providing accountability through layers of governing bodies comprised of a fine-tuned mix of professionals and representatives chosen by those who have a stake in the decisions of those bodies.

Take academic institutions as an example. In the university, dignitarian governance means that students, staff, faculty, alumni, administrators, and trustees all have a voice and a share of the votes. Votes on policies affecting distinct aspects of academic life are apportioned according to the responsibility that constituencies bear for those aspects. Thus, the faculty holds a majority of votes on educational policy, students hold the majority on issues of student life, and administrators hold a majority, but not a monopoly, on budgetary issues. Trustees, in consultation with the other constituencies, periodically choose new leadership for the institution, and hold fiduciary responsibility, but they delegate day-to-day internal governance to faculty, students, and staff.

Many of the issues facing our globalized hi-tech world call for technical solutions, not political compromises. It would be naïve to suggest that effective mechanisms of accountability already exist, but it’s not too soon to begin designing and testing alternatives to find ones that work. Much experimentation will be needed to learn how to apportion votes among stakeholders so as to optimize the overall quality of decision-making while ensuring accountability.

We could begin in education and healthcare, and then apply what we learn to management and business. As we gain confidence in the capacity of dignitarian models to bring more knowledge to bear on decision-making without weakening accountability, we can introduce them into civic affairs, first in municipal government and then at the state, regional, national, and even the global level.

Democratic governance took time to develop, and so will dignitarian governance. But we must try because the only way to create and maintain the global harmony that will protect us from self-destruction is to create forms of self-governance that ensure dignity for everyone.

Both China and America have traditions and institutions that hold vital lessons for modernizing decision-making. While it’s a stretch to imagine either country undertaking fundamental reforms in the near term, it’s not quite so hard to imagine them doing so in the context of a loose partnership. As for our global future, what could be more auspicious than the two current superpowers working in tandem to invent governance tailored to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century?


The Rowan TreeMy novel, The Rowan Tree, attempts to imagine a future of U.S.-China relations based on dignitarian principles. If you want to read the novel for free, it is being posted chapter-by-chapter on The Rowan Tree web site.