Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Genesis of Identity

Below is an e-mail I sent to several of my closest friends in reaction to an article in "Scientific American" that profoundly rattled me. I have decided to post it here, along with the response it elicited from one of those friends.

Matthew Laszlo:

What do you all think of the implications of this article? I personally find them startling (in an unpleasant way) for several reasons:

1) The scientists here all blithely assert that there is an absolute correlation between IQ and intelligence, which was certainly not the impression that I had been left with. It seems to me like they are making this claim because without it, they will have no basis for any of their subsequent assertions.

2) At one point a scientist says that in the future, magnetic resonating scans of the brain will be able to tell as much about a high school student's intelligence in ten minutes as an SAT Test does in four hours. Does anyone else see ominous harbingers of a "Brave New World" in that prediction (which he seems to make with pride)?

3) In general, I am disturbed by the idea that intelligence is innately genetic or environmental. While I am hardly a spiritualist by nature, I do believe that there is something intangible and thus unquantifiable, which for lack of a better word I will call a "soul", that is responsible for the development of human thought, identity, personality, character, intelligence, etc. Certainly this "soul" interacts with biology and environment; that cannot be denied. But why is it that all of the scientists in this article fail to even address the possibility that there could be an intangible essence to the human mind that accompanies these other two factors? Certainly this is not a religious cop out; scientists ranging from Rene Descartes to Stephen Jay Gould have all said essentially the same thing, and neither of them could be accused of being religious fanatics. It has always been my opinion that the scientific method, and the body of knowledge acquired therein, is the only means of learning about the physical world, which at its most fundamental level is made up of matter and energy (and when we are talking about biology, of genes). That said, anything that is NOT physical (matter and energy, of which even genes are ultimately composed) would seemingly be impenetrable using the type of empirical methodology utilized by scientists. Assuming that my feeling here is correct (and it may very well not be), there would be one of two possible conclusions that could be logically deduced from this - either the world is nothing but matter and energy, or there is more to this world than matter and energy, and thus more than can be understood by science. I personally have always felt that the Cartesian axiom Cogito ergo sum is proof of the latter's truth. Any thoughts?

- Matt

PS: If you can, share this with any scientists you know. I would LOVE to get some well-informed feedback to add to my layman's thoughts!



The article's content struck me as disturbing as well. Interestingly,when I read phrases such as measuring intelligence, or genes that determine a higher or lower intelligence, the first words that came to mind were "superior intelligence," "eugenics," "master-race,""Nazism." These scientists will have to be careful with the kind of words they use when discussing the measurement of a child's intelligence, lest ordinary citizens find the language incendiary.
In 9th grade biology, I remember watching a documentary on the cloned sheep back in '97, and many people warning about the dangers of cloning a human being - the possibility of racist fanatics cloning their own master-race. My 10th grade biology teacher Mr. Raisher, a Jew with a keen sense of humor, reassured the class about the science of cloning, "Don't worry, they're checking for swastikas."

I am in agreement, and find the article quite unsettling.


Laszlo's Addendum:

The struggle between religion and science for the mind of man has persisted furiously and without pause for millenia, reaching the height of its intensity with the dawning of the modern enlightenment five hundred years ago and continuing unabated to this day. Broaching this subject puts me in an all-too-familiar bind - should I elaborate upon it with the depth that it deserves, and thus turn my blog into a veritable doctoral thesis, or should I hope that my own mind and heart will be satisfied with a brief disquisition?

Fortunately I am not going to have to make that decision on any lofty intellectual or ideological grounds; practically speaking, I have neither the time nor the energy (thanks to a lingering flu bug) to expound upon this all-important matter at great length. Suffice to say that my views can be summed up as follows:

1A) One of the foremost enemies of intelligent, logical thought is dogmatism. Defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as "a fixed... belief or set of beliefs that people are expected to accept without any doubts", dogmatism has throughout history hindered mankind's progressive intellectual development. Examples of dogmatism's pernicious effects can be seen in every time period and among all cultures, and in spheres of knowledge ranging from political ideology and philosophy to religious opinion and science. Those who possess dogmatic views generally do so because they are certain that these views are inviolable in their moral correctness and/or factual accuracy, and as such should never be challenged. This goes against the grain of what the founder of Western philosophy, Socartes, believed was the key to pursuing real truth: "I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing."

1B) The key to seeking truth is to follow a three-step process:
- No matter how much you know, there will always be more that you don't know.
- You should always attempt to learn as much as you can about that which you don't know, and challenge that which you think you do know, so that you can come as close as possible to perfecting your understanding of how the world works (science, history), your appreciation of what it means to be alive (philosophy, history, and the countless various arts), what you believe the meaning of life to be (philosophy, art, and religion), and what you want to do with your own brief time on this earth (you).
- No matter how much progress you make in fulfilling the objective of Step Two, there will still always be far more that you don't know then there will be that you do know.

1C) It is impossible to follow that three step process, and thus arrive at any meaningful conclusions about truth, unless you first accept that no point-of-view should ever go unchallenged. This does NOT mean, as some less rigorous scholars choose to interpret it, that everything we believe to be true is automatically false; indeed, very often a viewpoint when thoroughly challenged winds up emerging from the ordeal far stronger and more inviolable than it had been before it underwent that brutal procedure. What it means is that any opinion that goes without question, no matter how seemingly sound, can be wrong, and on that one wrong view can be built an entire edifice of ideas which are destined to either crumble from the inadequacy of their premises or become oppressive because they continue to stand in spite of the rot that lies at their foundations.

2) Everything that we know, at its core, has to be taken on faith. Our first knowledge of the world comes from the realization of our own existence - Cogito ergo sum, or, I think, therefore I am. This and this alone is what we know to be true, because it is logically impossible for anyone to disprove our own existence. We know we are, and that is that.

From there, the second realm of knowledge comes from what we detect in our immediate experiences through our physical senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch), our emotional senses (love, hate, joy, fear, etc.), our intellectual senses (deductive reasoning, artistic understanding, etc.), and the memories we develop/knowledge we learn as a result of the aforementioned physical, emotional, and intellectual senses. The information acquired from these senses appear inviolable, but how often have they been proven wrong? How often do our memories of the past wind up being grossly inaccurate, despite our certainty? Have there not been hundreds of tragic cases in which malfunctions of the organs or brain has caused people to see what isn't there, hear what isn't making sound, feel what has no physical form? Can't our emotions often lead us in one direction even when common sense and reality ultimately tells us that another is correct? Haven't perfectly executed logical reasoning methods led to assumptions about reality - the earth is flat, the earth is the center of the universe, the heart contains the mind, the bumps on your skull determine your personality - that have eventually proven flat wrong?

In short, apart from knowing for certain that you exist, there is nothing else that you can absolutely know is true without question. HOWEVER, it is impossible to function in this world, much less attain a modicum of happiness, without being able to take for granted that certain things are true. In part this is for the purpose of sheer survival - we touch fire and recoil in pain, and thus have to take for granted that this wasn't a fluke and that fire truly is dangerous. In part this is because life becomes unliveable if fail to trust even our most basic physical, emotional, and intellectual senses: How can appreciate the caress of a loved one if we don't even know for certain that there is an emotional being there, like ourselves, capable of feeling love and who loves us? How can we even feel confidence in expressing any opinion if the very fibers of those points-of-view are constantly open to being undermined? Indeed, how can we pursue truth about anything apart from our existence if every fact relating to something else is immediately open to question?

The way to bring about a reconciliation to this dilemma - i.e, to make it so that we can enjoy life and learn about the world while accepting the implications of the unreliability of our senses - is to take for granted that which our senses first teach us unless a logically sound reason is presented indicating that we should question it. Once a logically sound reason is presented that suggests we should question something we believed we knew as a result of our physical, emotional, and intellectual senses, we should then study that reason in depth until it either forces us to revise or replace the original opinion, or else winds up failing to hold water and thereby reinforces the original opinion.

From there we finally arrive at the third realm of knowledge - everything that we know not through our own direct experience as interpreted through the three kinds of senses, but which we are taught by external sources. Those sources range from our parents and other family members to friends and teachers, from clergymen and schoolteachers to the authors of the books we read (fiction as well as nonfiction) and the experts we see and hear on television. Even more so then the knowledge acquired through direct experience from the three senses, this is knowledge that must fundamentally be taken on faith - how do we know that the information which we receive from others is reliable when we ourselves have not had any direct exposure to it, and thus lack the personal means of attesting to its accuracy or lack thereof? Once again, the means of reconciling this dilemma lies in the calculated risk. Through some means or another, each person decides which external sources apart from their own immediate experiences they will choose to trust and which ones they will choose to hold in suspicion or outright disregard. While it would take me far too much time to explore in depth the mechanisms by which people decide which sources they deem reliable and which ones they do not, suffice to say it is a combination of social pressure, personal prejudices, the influences of other people during their formative childhood years, and genuine rational thought.

While non-social creatures would either lack this third means of acquiring knowledge or else would have a very limited exposure to it, human beings - because they are social - have a very highly developed sense of the third form of acquiring knowledge. As such, the conclusions each human being draws about how the world works (science, history), their appreciation of what it means to be alive (philosophy, history, and the countless various arts), what he/she believes the meaning of life to be (philosophy, art, and religion), and what he/she want to do with his/her own brief time on this earth are all an extraordinarily complex mixture of what he or she has learned from his/her second and third realms of experience and knowledge.

All of this is very fine in the abstract, but how does it pertain to the topic of the Scientific American article? As I see it, the ideas of that article are based on the premise that the human mind is ultimately the product of heredity (genes and biology) and environmental factors, but that there is no third element - a soul - involved in making a human being human. Instead, it operates on the assumption that the mind, and with it the accompanying personality, is entirely the product of heredity and environment. It believes this for many reasons. One is that the impact that heredity and environment have on the development of the intellect and personality is indisputable, which causes many of them to assume that these factors are one and the same with the entity they are attempting to understand, dismissing outright the possibility that they merely influence it. Another is that a "soul", if it does exist, by the very nature of the properties it is known to possess, would not be a physical entity (i.e, something composed, at its most fundamental level, of matter and energy), and since the methodologies used by scientists to understand the world depend on empirical deductive techniques honed for the observation of the physical world, it becomes impossible for many scientists to accept the possibility that anything other than the physical could actually exist. A simpler way of putting this would be to say that if you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail; in this same sense, because there is no explanation in the world of atoms and energy for why certain physical matter possesses sentience, the assumption is that this could only be because the causal connection between physical matter and sentience has not yet been discovered, rather than the other logically sound possibility (that one does not exist) being acknowledged. Finally, I think there is a prejudice that many scientists have against religions as a result of the centuries-long battle between them. To be fair, it is a battle that religious individuals have more often than not initiated, and the overwhelming majority of the atrocities committed (both against the mind and against human rights) have come from religion against science, and not the other way around, making the resentment felt by many scientists against religions more than understandable. That said, these same scientists are committing one of the same grave errors that their religious counterparts often make when dismissing ideas that have religious overtones to them out-of-hand; they allow their personal passions and prejudices to interfere with their objectivity in pursuing truth, and thus dismiss what logic suggests might be so (logic needn't suggest that something IS so for it to be worth exploring, only that it MIGHT be so) because of bias rather than reason.

My opinion is that human identity is an infinitely complicated mixture of heredity, environment, and the soul. The first two elements, though exponentially more complex than anything else yet studied or understood, are both finite and tangible (this because they are part of the physical world), and thus capable of being understood by science. The third element, the soul, is intangible and not part of the physical world, and thus capable of being neither detected nor understood by science except insofar as its features are discernable through advanced comprehension of heredity and environment. Because the soul is individual, I believe that no impersonal methodology, scientific or otherwise, can be proscribed onto another human being in order to tell him or her how to understand it. Each person can best decide that on his/her own - some through religion, some through philosophy, some through the arts, some through science, and most through a complex combination of all the above, one rendered infinite because it involves the human soul. And what does all of this say about God? In my opinion, when God made man in "his image", God was not referring to a corporeal form, but rather that of the mind and soul. That is God, and the closer we come to understanding our own souls and those of all other life forms, the closer we come to understanding God. I also believe that the relationship between the brain, the rest of the physical body, the environment, and the soul is like that of perpetually overlapping spirals, with each remaining independent of the other yet constantly intersecting and even merging with one another, and thus in deep labyrinthine ways influenced by one another. Finally, I have no idea what happens to our souls and identities when we leave this life, except that they are preserved (as by their nature they can never be erased, although disease that impair the means by which they are "transmitted", if you will, into the physical world, like Alzheimer's Disease, can distort their "reception").

That is my opinion; it is not one that I can prove via the scientific method precisely because, if it is true, it would be incapable of scientific verification. That said, this does NOT make my opinion inherently illogical. One of the great fallacies of our generation is the conflation of science with logic; what must be understood is that science is merely the application of logic to the physical world, but that the fact that the instrument has been used so superbly in one area of existence doesn't mean that the lessons it draws from that area can be extrapolated onto others. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, the best way to reconcile this is through NOMA, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria: There is a "a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution to...the supposed conflict between science and religion.", one where the magisterium of science is used to discover "the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry."

A final thought: You may have noticed the three dots that I put out after "a fixed" when quoting the Cambridge definition of dogmatism. There was, sadly, a very good reason for doing this; the individuals who wrote that entry felt the need to add "especially religious" after the term "a fixed", thereby muddling the otherwise perfectly clear explication they had provided. Considering that dogmatism is an abstract term, meant to apply to ANY set of views that are expected to be held without question, it was unnecessary for the Cambridge Dictionary's writers to single out religious views for opprobrium.

PS: I just read an article about identical twins and the often awesome similarities between those who were separated at birth. Presumably these similarities suggests that the personality is predominantly genetic, yet I have two problems with the reports that draw this conclusion:

1) Why do so many of them cite things as being similar in identical twins who were separated at birth that have nothing to do with their DNA? For example, one report touts how two female twins, though separated at birth, both gave birth to two boys and a girl. That is indeed a remarkable feat - yet isn't the gender of a child determined by the chromosomes of the sperm cell (which can be X or Y) produced by men, and not those of the egg cell produced by women? Another article talks about how two male identical twins wound up marrying two different women, each of whom had the same first name. Is that implying that there is something in our genes that makes us feel attraction to people with certain specific names (it would be a bit more plausible if they said that both men were attracted to women with the same hair color, body type, or personality traits, but really - the first name)? A third news piece breathlessly described how two identical twins separated from birth in Minnesota liked to drive a light-blue Chevrolet to Pas Grille beach in Florida - where is the specific gene, or even set of interacting genes, that served as a commercial plug for this beach resort to such an extent that it was in the DNA of both men to spend their money there every year? Indeed, how are there so many anecdotes about different pairs of identical twins separated at birth in the first place? I didn't know there were that many identical twins out there, to say nothing of those separated at birth, and to say nothing of those who after being separated at birth find each other, and to say nothing of those who after being separated at birth and finding each other decide to make their stories public record (the awkward construction of this sentence was intentional). I am not saying that all studies involving separated identical twins should be outright dismissed. My suspicion, however, from what I have read about identical twins separated at birth that ARE plausible, is that many personality attributes are shared amongst the two individuals - how their minds work, consequent professional interests, individual talents and even interests, etc. At the same time, there are great personality differences, not only when among those identical twins who are separated at birth, but even among those who stay together their entire lives. As Stephen Jay Gould points out when discussing concerns about cloning, "Eng and Chang, the original Siamese twins and the closest clones of all, developed distinct and divergent personalities. One became a morose alcoholic, the other remained a benign and cheerful man."

2) As Stephen Jay Gould points out, these studies also fail to acknowledge the many differences that these individuals have. Rather than conclude this article with my own words, I think it best to end it with those penned by the late great scientist in 1997:

A preference for either nature or nurture swings back and forth into fashion as political winds blow, and as scientific breakthroughs grant transient prominence to one or another feature in a spectrum of vital influences. For example, a combination of political and scientific factors favored an emphasis upon environment in the years just following World War II: an understanding that Hiterlian horrors had been rationalized by claptrap genetic theories about inferior races; the heyday of behaviorism in psychology. Today, genetic explanations are all the rage, fostered by a similar mixture of social and scientific influences: for example, the rightward shift of the political pendulum (and the cynical availability of "you can't change them, they're made that way" as a bogus argument for reducing government expenditures on social programs); an overextension to all behavioral variation of genuinely exciting results in identifying the genetic basis of specific diseases, both physical and mental.

Unfortunately, in the heat of immediate enthusiasm, we often mistake transient fashion for permanent enlightenment. Thus, many people assume that the current popularity of genetic determinism represents a final truth wrested from the clutches of benighted environmentalists of previous generations. But the lessons of history suggest that the worm will soon turn again. Since both nature and nurture can teach us so much - and since the fullness of our own behavior and mentality represents such a complex and unbreakable combination of these and other factors - a current emphasis on nature will no doubt yield to a future fascination with nurture as we move towards better understanding by lurching upward from one side to another in our quest to fulfill the Socratic injunction: know thyself.

I think the best way to conclude this piece is with the words of Elyse Schein, an identical twin who was indeed separated from her sister at birth (as part of an extraordinarily inhumane social experiment from a renowned child psychologist). When asked how her experience affected her perception of identity, she said:

I think we were both troubled by the thought that our identities might have been interchangeable. We each wondered, “If I had been raised by your parents and you had been raised by mine, would I be you and would you be me?” It took three and a half years of our getting to know each other to realize that that is not the case. Identity is not simply genetics plus environment.

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