In “The Mind’s Biology,” Amy Ellis Nutt reports that some doctors are reaching past the symptoms of mental illness to identify and fix the brain circuits underlie the problems. One of those doctors is Hasan Asif. “Asif says that a person’s mental makeup is a kind of hierarchy, with personality on top, which is created by brain states that arise from circuits firing in a certain pattern below. With psychotherapy, you tweak the brain from the top down, dealing first with a patient’s personality and temperament. But with neurofeedback, combined with qEEG, he said, he tweaks his patients from the bottom up, identifying the brain areas involved and then retraining those circuits to fire differently, resulting in changed moods or mental outlooks.”
Daniel Silvermint’s “On How We Talk About Passing” won the 2015 second place prize awarded by 3 Quarks Daily for a philosophy blog post.
John Collins, the final judge for the contest, wrote of this post: “Silvermint’s piece, occasioned by last summer’s Rachel Dolezal incident, avoids the thorny issue of why, exactly, self-identification might be taken to be authoritative in the case of gender though not race, and asks us instead to hesitate and reconsider what we are doing when we rush to police the trespass of socially constructed categories that are tracked by highly unreliable markers. There is a valuable discussion here of the varieties of passing, though I found myself unsure as to whether to accept Silvermint’s suggestion that we apply the concept even to cases where there is neither misidentification nor intent. Can, for example, a white cisgender man, who, through privilege has had the luxury of never giving these matters a moment’s thought, really be said to be ‘passing’ as white and male? Silvermint comments that ‘a trans woman that passes isn’t a man pretending to be a woman – she is a woman’. I agree wholeheartedly with the main point there, but I’d be inclined to add that her being a woman means that she isn’t simply passing as a woman either. (Whether a trans person might be said to—or want to?—pass as cisgender is another matter.)”
The winning blog posts were selected from these nine finalists.
In “5 Thought Experiments That Will Melt Your Brain,” Evan Dashevsky says that because “some science is too big, dangerous, or weird to happen in the lab,” thought experiments “may be the most valuable experiments of all.” But notice that all five of his examples are from philosophers.
In “How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis,” Alison Gopnik explores fascinating links among Hume’s “bundle of perceptions” theory of self-identity, the European Enlightenment, Buddha, Tibetan monks, Siamese kings, Jesuit missionaries … and her own midlife crisis.
In “A Good Forgetting,” Marianne Janack considers whether we may be happier forgetting some things despite the close link between memory and personal identity. “Personal identity is tied to memory, but sometimes we find peace, clarity and a true sense of completeness in the lapses.” What if we stripped away the pain so that we kept the memory but without its emotional baggage?
Stan Persky’s book review of Barry Dainton’s Self: Philosophy in Transit is an extended, entertaining, and instructive grand tour of many ideas about the self, that remarkable ability humans have “to sleepily glance at the bathroom mirror in the morning, and not only recognize ourselves, but also reflectively note, ‘Hmm, I don’t like myself very much these days. I wonder what I can do to change who and/or what I am.’” Thought experiments like the “ultimate simulation simulation machine” and “teleportation” make an appearance along the way.
In “Cicero on Living a Stoic Life,” John Sellars explains Cicero’s view that there are four dimensions to who you are: common human nature, your own character traits, the circumstances in which you find yourself, and the career you choose. “So, how to live a Stoic life? The top priority remains a life in harmony with Nature/reason/virtue. Then there are the chance circumstances in which we find ourselves, out of our control and ultimately laid down by Nature too. But also central in Cicero’s account is the idea that we remain true to our own individual natures, to who we are. Thus self-knowledge becomes vital for a life in harmony with nature. Once we feel secure that we know who we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are, where we fit in the world, then the only decision to be made is how best to remain true to ourselves in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.” And all of this raises challenging questions about how much is up to you and how much just happens to you.
Seven philosophers discuss seven movies that address some of philosophy’s big questions: How can we do the right thing? What makes a life worth living? Can anything really be justified? Is there more to us than biology? Are the things that we imagine real? What is the enduring self? Is the quest for good a road to evil?
In “The Disremembered” Charles Leadbeater claims that “[p]hilosophy is not of much practical use with most illnesses but in the case of dementia it provides insights about selfhood and identity that can help us make sense of the condition and our own reactions to it.” There are two broad philosophical explanations of self-identity. There is the mind-based or memory-based explanation of Descartes and Locke. But when mind and memory fade, so does self-identity. But there is another philosophical tradition that can help: “philosophers in this tradition contend that who we are depends not simply on our self-reflective ability to marshal our memories but, crucially, on our relationships with other people and how we are embedded in the world around us.” In other words, beware of being a memory snob.
In an interview with Gary Gutting, Sam Harris explains that there is no self. “Consciousness exists (whatever its relationship to the physical world happens to be), and it is the experiential basis of both the examined and the unexamined life. If you turn consciousness upon itself in this moment, you will discover that your mind tends to wander into thought. If you look closely at thoughts themselves, you will notice that they continually arise and pass away. If you look for the thinker of these thoughts, you will not find one. And the sense that you have — ‘What the hell is Harris talking about? I’m the thinker!’— is just another thought, arising in consciousness.