Category Archives: personhood

Para-persons

I’m posting over at A Philosopher’s Take now. Here’s an excerpt from my first post:

What we are likely to create, though, if we allow AIs all the benefits that emerging technologies can bring, are para-persons, things that have all the personhood qualities, or pass all the tests for personhood, that philosophers have set up (self-awareness, ethical cognition, other-awareness, self-respect, linguisticially expressible concerns etc.), but also have an ability that makes them not supra-persons, but something outside of personhood. That is, even if it had all the personhood qualities, it could also have an additional, defeating quality for personhood: the ability to change instantly and without effort. Our ethical systems are designed or adapted to apportion blame and praise to persons. But it’s not clear that they will work with the kind extremely malleable para-persons that strong AI or strong enhancement will produce. read the whole thing at A Philosopher’s Take

Experience Machines

Robert Nozick’s experience machine ask us if we would enter a machine that would give us “any experience [we] desired.” Essentially, a virtual reality machine that makes us think we’re writing a great novel, or touring the world as a classical pianist, or whatever. We would gain nothing from this; we don’t learn to write or play an instrument, it just feels like we do. Nozick claims that most people would not spend their life in the machine. Importantly, he also adds that while you’re in the machine, “you’ll think that it’s actually happening.” This means you won’t remember deciding to go into the machine, or any aspect of your life before the machine that would contradict the experience you’re having within it.

There are two objections to this that I haven’t seen discussed much (though it’s possible I’ve just missed them! If anyone knows of literature to the effect of the following objections, please let me know.) Actually, the first has been at least mentioned; I’m not familiar with anyone discussing the second:

  1. People are terrible predictors of their own behavior. The vast majority of people surveyed believe they would not, in a Milgram-experiment situation, give electric shocks to someone after that person had protested. But the Milgram experiment (and several variant replications) show that the vast majority of people would give the shocks. John Doris’ Lack of Character, whatever its other flaws, is a great compendium of these sorts of experiments, and they do show that in moral cases most people are not very good at predicting how they would choose if presented with a real-world, as opposed to survey, choice. It’s entirely possible that most people, if they lived in a world where experience machines were available, would plug in. Perhaps we should go further and claim that, if they lived in such a world, and there was no social stigma against going into the machine, they would plug in. And studies of conformity suggest that if they lived in such a world, and there was a social stigma against not plugging in, that most people would plug in. So I’m not sure that Nozick proves his point, since it does depend upon most people not plugging in to the machine.
  1. The less discussed problem is that the machine makes us forget the choice of going into the machine. Is part of the problem with the experience machine that we have to give up our memory to go into it? What if we changed the problem so that you could perfectly well remember that you had a life before and made a decision to go into the machine? Presumably, you might then not want to go in because you’d fear being troubled by memories of your former life. But that’s not a point against hedonism; rather, it’s a point for it, since the reason you wouldn’t go in is because it might cause mental distress. Or suppose you knew you were going in, but the machine would take care of any emotional distress. Would that be better?

What I’m trying to get at in the cases in 2 is that the machine produces a certain loss of self. If you forget your former life, it seems like, in some important sense, it isn’t you who is in the machine, just some sort of loose continuer of you. We think of ourselves as tied into our memories–Nichols and Strohminger’s research, most recently, has shown that the vast majority of people associate total memory loss with loss of identity; presumably partial memory loss would, at some point on the spectrum, also be taken as loss of identity. Would you still be you if I deleted the last seven years of your life? Or rewrote your memory so that you believed you arrived at where you are now by a series of decisions, over the course of your life, that you did not, in fact, make? In other words, if I radically altered your self-narrative, as the experience machine clearly must do in order to have you believing that you are a word-famous guitarist or billionaire software developer. I imagine that those sorts of alterations to memory would make people fairly uneasy, and at least draw into question to what extent it will actually be me having these experiences.

If we retained our memories, but the machine took care of our feelings so that we weren’t distressed by the loss of our former lives, or the memory of what we’d left behind, that, too, could count as loss of identity. Again, Nichols and Strohminger’s surveys found that people think that loss of moral character counts as loss of identity. Without debating whether they are right about this, the important thing is that people believe this, and feel it to be true. So if there’s a reluctance to go into the machine, it might have to do with this sense of identity loss: that it wouldn’t be me in there. If the machine alters how I feel about a moral decision, I have a very profound loss of moral character, here understanding “moral character” as the aspects of my personality that I think of as (1) reflective of values and (2) constituting who I am in relation to those values. Surely, on almost any theory of valuing, having emotional attitudes towards things is part of valuing.

 

Fission, Fusion, and Methuselah in the Real World, Part 2

(Continued from post below)

II Two Approaches to the Cases

There are then at least two different approaches, the linguistic and the affective:

The linguistic approach asks how are we (whoever “we” is) using words like “same person” now, and based on that, how will we use those words in odd cases.

The affective approach asks what sort of feelings of identity do we (again) have towards future and past persons who might be ourselves. Parfit’s Russian nobleman case is a great example of this where “identification” is used in the psychological sense.

In short, there is a young Russian socialist who later inherits land and becomes a wealthy aristocrat. The young socialist would not identify himself with his later form, and would count it as a form of non-continuity of identity, if that aristocrat betrayed the socialist values the young man holds. Recent (unpublished) research by Jesse Prinz  and Joshua Knobe found that most people surveyed had a similar intuition: they would consider themselves non-continuous with a future self that betrayed most or all of their deeply held moral beliefs. Obviously (or perhaps obviously to someone raised in a Western legal tradition) the Russian nobleman would still be responsible for crimes committed and debts incurred when he was the young socialist. But the fact that there is an internal lack of identification is important, in that a person is not just what the law says, but also how we identify our friends, family and selves. If we think someone has changed so drastically as to not be the same person, it’s not helpful to be told that some law or some philosopher has said that this person is the same person. He’s only the same person for some particular purpose, and while the criterion employed may work for identifying one’s creditor, they are clearly not the same as the criteria employed for the purpose of identifying one’s friends, or even oneself (understanding “self” here as that being we identify as.)

Similar points have been raised about emotional connectedness by Marilyn Friedman in Autonomy and the Split Level Self[1], Marya Schechtman in “Self Expression and Self Control,”[2] as well as Tim Henning in “Why Be Yourself”[3] where he argues that we have a particular obligation to desires that our “our own,” and that some desires that we nonetheless feel and experience are not “our own,” nor should be identified as properly our own. Of course the seminal work on self-identification with emotions and desires is Harry Frankfurt’s in The Importance of What We Care About, notably in the essays “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person” and “The Importance of What We Care About.”[4]

I think both the linguistic and affective approaches have value, but it’s important to distinguish them, because they’re asking slightly different questions. Most who do the linguistic analysis approach seem to think they’ll get at the truth about whether a person is two people prior to fission, or one person who ceases to exist in fusion, or etc. Again, I’m not convinced there’s an interesting answer here.

When Plutarch raised the case of Theseus boat, which, over the course of its voyages, had, bit by bit, all of its parts replaced, he seemed to be suggesting that we should be puzzled about whether this was the same boat or not (or at least note that the “philosophers” were puzzled, and since I assume my audience is philosophers, then “we.”) But we all know all the details, we all know when each part was replaced, and that at the end no parts are held in common between the initial and final boat. So what’s the question?

It’s whether we want to apply the term “same boat.” But this is, as Parfit would say, an empty question. We all agree on the particulars, so it’s a matter of convention, or perhaps some practical importance (for purpose of resale, or compliance with law in advertising, etc.) whether we say it’s the same boat or not.

If it’s merely a convention whether it’s the same boat, that convention is nonetheless subject to the forces that create conventions. Perhaps I cannot sell it as the same boat if it has no common parts. Perhaps I can sell it as a “brand new boat,” if all the parts were replaced within the last two months. Etc.

Now, with the thought experiment cases, when we do the linguistic approach, we reach the impasse that we are asking how we are to apply words in cases that are beyond the normal scope of the application of the words and thus, instead of being able to present the “right” use of the terms, sometimes we have to make proposals for ways to use the words. Obviously, words are usable beyond the limited set of ways they’ve been used in the past, but they’re not always going to be infinitely flexible in future circumstances. Heisenberg famously noted that the words “really” and “happens” reach their limits in attempting to talk about what’s “really happening” on the quantum level when no observation is being made[5].

So, how should we make our proposals? That is, given that we reach a linguistic limit, what basis should we use for proposing that we say “same person” or “not same person?” I’d hold that we can look at the thought experiment cases, and naturalize them, to get some idea of what’s important in each case, and then ask about why we would want to say “same person” and why we might not want to say “same person” and see if there are practical reasons for these.


[1] Friedman, Marilyn, “Autonomy and the Split Level Self,” Southern Journal of Philosophy, 24, pp 31, Spring  (1986)

[2] Schechtman, Marya, “Self Expression and Self Control” in The Self, ed by Galen Strawson, Blackwell, , pp 26-44 (2005)

[3] Henning, T, “Why Be Yourself: Kantian Respect and Frankfurtian Identification” Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 61 no 245,  October 2011

[4] Frankfurt, Harry, The Importance of What We Care About, Cambridge Univ. Press, NY , 1988

[5] Heisenberg, W., Physics and Philosophy, Prometheus Books, NY, pg 50, (1959)

Fission, Fusion and Methuselah in the Real World: Part 1

I’m going to blog the paper I’m currently writing. Here’s the first section; I’ll put up the next few sections over the next few days. Obviously, this is first draft material, but that’s what blogs are for!

I Do We Discover or Invent Answers to Fission, Fusion, and Methuselah Cases?

The literature on identity is littered with fission (and fusion) problems: How do we identify continuous identity in a case where one person splits into two? This can be a split brain case, as in Nagel[1], amoeba-like fission, as in Williams[2], and  Parfit[3] (1987) or Parfit’s teletransporter cases (Ibid, pp 200) or  Lewis’ unspecified fissioning[4], or one of the many variants of these found in Shoemaker[5],[6] , John Perry[7] or more recent work by Bakajian,[8] or many others.

Somewhat less work has been done on the “Methuselah problem,” that, is the question of whether someone who lives 900 years, and undergoes a standard rate of change in personality, memory, bodily components, etc., can be said to be the same person. However, Lewis (1976, pp 30), Parfit and others have also tackled this, and it forms an important part of the continuity literature.

I want to note two things about these problems: As presented, it seems likely that there is no solution to them, because our use of person developed without access to such problems, and thus there’s no particular reason to think it would have automatic and clear-cut use in these cases.

Second, I think there are real world correlates of these cases, and applying some of the work on the imaginary cases might open up possibilities for thinking about these cases differently, and productively.

On the first note, Parfit cites Quine as saying “I wonder whether the limits of the [science-fiction-case] method are properly heeded. To see what is ‘logically required’ for sameness of person under unprecedented circumstances is to suggest that words have some logical force beyond what our past needs have invested them with.” (in Parfit, p200) I think it was Hilary Putnam who made a similar claim with regard to whether we could say, at some point in the future, when robots start acting like humans, that the robots have consciousness: (if I recall correctly) he said it would simply be a decision, a convention of language that we would adopt.

That strikes me as wrong, as it seems like there’s a matter of fact about whether an entity is conscious or not.

But I’m not convinced that there is always a matter of fact about whether an entity is the same person as some prior entity. We can demand an answer, but one of the reasons that we have such disagreement on the puzzle cases is that we’re not discovering the truth about the matter, but rather putting forward proposals for policies. If Brown splits into two people, they’re either both Brown, or one of them is, or neither of them are, or each is to a diminished extent, etc.

I think this impasse is reached in part because all of the answers seem reasonable. In fact, the argument usually involves claiming that a rejected answer has consequences “we” would rather not accept (this is Lewis’ move, for example, and Bakajian’s and Williams’.) But that’s not necessarily an epistemic reason for rejecting a position. Lots of true things are things we’d rather were not true. Further, these rejections appeal usually to intuitions about how “we” use words (Lewis, Bakajian, Shoemaker) or what sort of entity “we” would feel an identification with (Williams, Nagel, Parfit.) I think the problem with this “we” is that, given how much disagreement on these cases there is, the extension of the “we” is fairly uncertain. Further, if X-Phi has been informative (and I think it has been!) it has been so in showing that what are often thought by philosophers to be generally accepted intuitions turn out to be not so widely accepted as was thought.

[1] Nagel, T,“Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness”, Synthese 22 (May):396-413 (1971)

[2] Williams, N“Bodily Continuity and Personal Identity” in Problems of the Self, Cambridge University Press, NY, p.24 (1973)

[3] Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons, Clarendon Press, Oxford, NY, (1987)

[4] Lewis, D : `Survival and Identity’ in A. Rorty (ed.) The Identities of Persons  Berkeley, University of California Press (1976)

[5] Shoemaker, S, “Brown Brownson Revisited,” The Monist 87 (4):573-593 (2004)

[6] Shoemaker, S, Self Knowledge and Self Identity, Cornel, p23 (1964,)

[7] Perry, J, “Can the Self Divide,” Journal of Philosophy, LXIX, 16, 463-588 (1972)

[8] Bajakian, Mark, “How to Count People,” Philosophical Studies  154:185–204 (2011)

Creative Metaphysics and How To Count People

In doing metaphysics, understood broadly as an inquiry into what some sort of thing is, there are at least two approaches. One is to say, “well, I have this intuition about the way things are, and so here’s an argument to support it.” A lot of continuity of identity theory works this way. We say, “ok, I’m the same person now that I was last week and last year. How is that so?” And then we look for criteria of sameness.

Another approach is to say, “well, I have this intuition about how things are. I wonder if there’s another way to look at things?” This latter approach is a way of adding perspectives. It’s also the heart of discovery. If, for example, Copernicus had just kept adding epicycles, he’d have a much less interesting result. And if Heisenberg had just fudged some numbers to make sure that things were determinate all the way down, we’d be in a far less interesting world. Each had to give up on a common intuition, instead of working to find an argument to support it.

But I think in philosophy, since we’re not going to solve our problems by encountering some object in the world, it’s not exactly like discovery. That is, while observation of the stars and planets has ultimately made it pretty clear that the earth and the planets orbit the sun, there’s no observation which will tell us for sure if I’m the same person now that I was when I was five, or if I’d be the same person after undergoing fission or fusion. We just have to make a judgment on how we should apply terms like “same person” in these instances.

The approach that reaffirms our intuitions could be called “affirmation metaphysics:” I want to say that the person I see before me now is the same person I met forty years ago. So I need a sense of continuity of identity which allows me to apply “same person” to an entity who may bear no physical and few psychological traits in common with the being I met forty years ago.

The second approach is either “discovery metaphysics,” where I discover something about the world that I didn’t previously expect (“look, the earth orbits the sun!” “look, people don’t actually have selves!” “look, the world is merely a collection of phenomenal appearances!”) or “creative metaphysics.” The difference is whether I’m claiming that I’ve discovered this fact, or that I’ve produced a new way of conceptualizing things. Doing the latter is one of the most important tasks of philosophy; if there’s another way of looking at things, and that way is at least, or nearly as, well supported as the standard way, then we have a possibility of critiquing the standard way. So when Nietzsche reconceptualizes standard Christian notions of good and evil as “slave morality” and “master morality,” he provides a perspective that allows for a critique of those categories. Whether he discovered the truth about Christian morality, or simply shifted perspective in a way that presented a viable alternate interpretation, he still provides for a new way of looking , and a way that is not inherently incorrect (assuming it’s internally consistent and consistent with empirical facts). This is the heart of Nietzschean and, to some extent, Leibnizian, perspectivism, that is, the idea that we gain greater purchase on truth by acquiring the most possible correct ways of looking at something (though the thing we look at is not entirely consistent across perspectives; Nietzsche includes the morality of secular Europe as part of the “slave morality” that he’s critiquing, and he sees that as consistent with Christian ethics, whereas an older way of looking would have divided Christian ethics from secular, 19th century European ethics.)

An example: in “How To Count People,”* Mark Bajakian tries to write against the one-person-per-body view, doing some creative metaphysics. Centrally, his claim is that people with two-hemisphere brains (i.e. humans, and anyone else who has a brain structure like us) can and should be counted as two people at all points in time if at some point in time the two hemispheres are split and (as in the many thought experiments on this topic) placed into separate bodies  if they are the sorts of half-brains that could be split in two and still survive as two individuals (i.e. the kind of half-brains found in the thought experiments of Nagel and Williams.) Similarly, if two people are fused into a single thinking thing, that single thinking thing is actually still two people who are thinking the exact same thought at the same time (not just qualitatively the same thought; quantitatively the same).

Ok, I’m not sure I buy that. First of all, I’m not sure there is an answer to the question of how many people there are in fusion/fission cases, because our use of “people” and the way we count them developed in a world with no such cases, and the terms and concepts don’t come pre-packaged with ways to deal with that. So when facing such a case, we pretty much have to be creative.

If Bajakian thinks he’s discovered the truth about this, I think he’s mistaken; I think he’s putting forward a proposal for how we should count people. He certainly has an argument for it, but ultimately what he’s proposing is a convention for person counting. He thinks that this convention will solve a lot of conceptual problems (we don’t have the problem that occurs when, in a fission case, we are forced to say that the pre-fission person doesn’t exist anymore because he can’t be identical with either of his post-fission descendants since they are not identical with each other). But it’s not without its own problems: under Bajakian’s proposal, we have to say that some person who is exactly like any other single person is in fact two people because ultimately this person will undergo fission.

But here’s the interesting thing about that problem: it’s only a problem because that’s not the way we’ve been doing it. That is, it’s simply goes against an existing convention. Philosophers might say that it violates an intuition “we” have been doing it, with the “we” fairly loosely defined. Maybe “we” means “most people on earth,” or “people who share our culture,” or some such. But we (whoever this “we” is) could certainly imagine people who don’t count people the way we do, and if we could imagine a highly functioning society that counts differently, it’s not clear that we can come up with a strong metaphysical (much less empirical) reason that they’re wrong.

So if there is a people (and I think there might be) who counts someone as one person up to a certain point in time, and another after that point (this might be the case in cultures that have rites-of-passage to adulthood, for example, so that a person has a connection to, but is seen as importantly a different person from, his or her pre-rite-of-passage self), can we say they are wrong? In other words, what might be gained from something like Bakajian’s proposal, or learning about another culture that counts differently, or even reading, say, a novel that describes such a people, is that we can learn that our own method of counting is at least in part conventional. It might be bounded by certain natural limitations, but it’s probably not as absolute and fixed as it would seem. And simply appealing to an intuition about how to count people might count as no more than appealing to a cultural prejudice or a traditional way of doing things.

Bajakian, Mark, “How to Count People,” Philosical Studies (2011) 154:185–204

Personhood, Person-Space, and Humans in Vegetative States

The philosophical notion of ‘person’ is not simply equivalent to ‘human being.’ Persons, for philosophers, are those entities that should have rights and responsibilities under the law–so, currently, this might exclusively be human beings, but it could some day include space aliens or self-conscious robots or perhaps genetically modified animals. I mention this up front for those unfamiliar with the philosophical use of the term, so there’s no confusion, and so it’s understood that I’m not suggesting we treat the severely brain-damaged in any but the most caring possible way.

Suppose you have a severely brain-damaged child who never develops language, motor control, etc. Basically, a child born in a vegetative state. There are questions about the person-status of such beings. It’s been pointed out that many animals are more intelligent, more conscious, etc., than such a child. This child meets almost none of the standard criteria for personhood

Marya Schechtman holds that such a child enters “person-space” and is treated as a person, and therefore acquires personhood, because we expect of human beings that they will develop into persons*. “Person-space,” is the institutional and practical space inhabited by humans. An animal might burrow into our house, but it isn’t in person-space, because we don’t clothe it, name it, give it a bed, care for it, and do all the things we do for infants.

However, if we bring a dog home, we might just name it, clothe it, give it a bed, etc. I’m currently a little unclear on why, in Schechtman’s account, such a dog isn’t a person, since it has entered person-space in being treated as a person and receiving the trappings of personhood. One answer she gives is that it is expected that a human child will acquire the characteristics of person; that is, reflective consciousness, language, etc, whereas there are no such expectations for a dog. However, I don’t imagine there are such expectations for the severely brain damaged child, so I find this a little unsatisfying, but I’m open to there being a good explanation of the difference that I haven’t understood or which is forthcoming in future writings.

But Schechtman makes a strong point: there are two parts to personhood: one is having a place in person-space, and the other is the internal set of capacities for personhood (consciousness, language, etc.) Obviously, no one would develop language and most of the other person-characteristics without person-space. Nor would there be person-space without entities that had these characteristics.

But why should the very brain-damaged human child be a person, whereas a chimp that is raised in a house, given clothes, a name, a bed, and maybe can even sign a few words is not granted personhood? The chimp seems to have both (a) entered person space and (b) be in possession of at least some, and certainly more, of the characteristics of a person than the vegetative child.

So a thought experiment: suppose that the severely brain-damaged child is tested at, say, age 9, and it is found out that this is not a human child. It looks like a human, but when tested genetically, it is found to be a non-human. We can imagine this is like Davidson’s “swamp man,” except this is a non-thinking creature, a sort of human-shaped plant or fungus with no mental function.

The fungus been accepted into person space without person-characteristics on the assumption that it’s a  human being, and human beings are expected to develop into persons. But this is a fungus; if we knew that, we might never have treated it as a person, given it a space in person-space, dressed it, etc.

Upon discovering this, I don’t know what the parents would do. Would they continue to love and care for the fungus-child? Would they suddenly reject it? I can certainly imagine that either might be the case, and that different people would respond differently to the same circumstance. I think what this indicates is that treating the severely brain-damaged child as a person is simply a convention (and perhaps a very good one!), and not a reflection of some intrinsic quality. If we simply decide that all redheads are non-persons, it’s obvious we’re making a mistake: their personhood will impinge upon us as they lobby for rights, engage in speech acts, organize socially, etc. Not so with the child in the vegetative state.

I think we can have all kinds of positive attitudes towards the child because it’s our child, because the parent has an attachment to offspring, because it looks like us, came from us, needs care, etc, and that none of this necessitates granting personhood to the non-conscious/vegetative infant. I’m not exactly sure what’s gained by saying that the severely brain-damaged child is a person whereas a chimp raised in a home is not. I think this may just reflect the fact that we, human beings, use “person” to mean “human being.” But the philosophical term “person” is obviously not meant to have the same admission criteria as “human being.” It may well be that the terms are co-extensive, but if their definitions aren’t distinct then the philosophical term isn’t doing much work.

One assessment I might add is the following: if there are two paths to personhood, as per Schechtman, one being admission into person-space (this is somewhat like, but much richer than, Dennett’s “stance” criterion), the other being that one possesses person-characteristics like reflective consciousness, empathy, language, second-order volitions, etc. (making this latter list has been the task of most philosophers of personhood, and I can leave it vague), then these might correspond to two aspects of the forensic concept of a person. Whatever criteria we use for personhood, once we’ve established that an entity is a person we grant that entity certain rights, and also certain responsibilities. It might be that entry into person-space is our basis for judging the rights (we cannot harm the severely brain-damaged child, the child must be fed and cared for, etc.) and having the person-capacities is the basis for responsibilities (we certainly aren’t going to hold the severely brain-damaged child culpable for any crime, for example). So we have a social component, person-space, which is rights-granting, and an individual component, person-capacities, which is responsibility-producing. In fact, if we think about our person-criteria in terms of capacities, these are mostly capacities that allow us to assess guilt or distribute praise or blame.

 

*Marya Schechtman, “Personhood and the Practical,” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, 31:271-283, 2010

Mitt Romney and the Difficulty of Seeing Pain

I was thinking about pain in part because of Mitt Romney saying that he can’t convince poor people to take responsibility for their lives. Because, I assume, he has no empathic access to what’s going on in being poor. He doesn’t understand the difficulties and struggles that make it ridiculous to tell someone that they should just stop being poor and earn enough money to pay income tax.

It can be nearly impossible to describe pain to someone, especially if they haven’t felt a strongly analogous pain. Someone I know once referred to this as the “blindness of the privilege of the healthy-bodied,” not unlike the blindness of the privilege of wealth that Romney asserts. A sort of “buck-up and take it” attitude makes sense to people who’ve never dragged pain around for weeks and months.

I think depression has a similar social status. The undepressed don’t understand why you don’t just get your shit together and stop moping.

It’s hard to explain to someone that, every day, you feel the kind of crushing pain that they experience when, say, they hit their thumb with a hammer. Imagine that extended in time, not diminishing, but becoming a part of the background of your life. But the thing is, such a pain can’t stay in the background. When sufficiently distracted we can all tolerate (or, really, fail to fully notice) even fairly severe pain. Distraction is great. But if the pain is strong enough, a slight break in the distraction brings it out of the background and into the foreground. The pain becomes a distraction from the distraction.

Imagine you’re 8  years old and you’re watching Star Wars for the first time (or some other movie that blew you away as a kid). Your little sister say, “look at this ladybug!” Maybe you’ll glance for a second, but she wants you to keep looking as it crawls around her hand. She is amazed by the ladybug. But how long can you really be drawn to the ladybug with explosions and swinging rescues and villains in weird masks dancing across the screen? You’re not going to be able to focus on the ladybug.

That ladybug is the distraction from pain. A good book, a heated debate on a topic you  care about, the presence of friends you love dearly. The pain is the amazing movie you see when you’re a kid. The slightest break in your attention to the distraction, and you’re back in the movie. And you’re going to miss some of what was going on in the distraction.

What did your friend just say? What cute thing did the ladybug do that your little sister is talking about? What happened in the last two pages of that book?

But even if we can convey the distraction, I don’t think we can always convey the pain to the painless. I think many will still be puzzled why we don’t just buck up.

Part of this is because pain is invisible. I’m pretty sure if you had a large, freshly sliced, open wound running the length of your torso, people would understand why you’re not paying attention, why you get distracted. But with the hidden pain, why don’t you just buck up?

And I want to say that our identities are tied up in our experiences. There’s our social identity, that is, what other people identify us as, and our personal identity (and other identities, obviously). That personal identity doesn’t include all our memories: there are those we reject (“that was so unlike me!”) and those we forget (I’m often amazed at the times when I see an old friend and relate an event we shared that meant so much to me and is completely lost to him or her) but also, beyond memory, there’s the texture of our everyday lives. The things we hold as important, what catches our attention as we walk down the street, and the background of our feelings. No two people take the same walk in the woods. And so there’s always a gap between who we think we are and who other people think we are. And the invisible aspects of our experience exaggerate that gap. Loss, loneliness, depression and pain are individuating experiences, and therefore, I think, are a huge part of the identity-making process that goes on within us. The fact that they’re inescapably private makes them powerful elements in making us separate from others.

And I think everyone has trouble taking seriously the hard-to-see struggles of others. Why doesn’t the depressed person just get out of bed? Why is the chronic pain sufferer so cranky? Why isn’t he getting stuff done instead of sitting there staring into space? Because that space is where the pain is, and it’s hypnotizing. It’s the most dazzling, noisy, amazing show on earth, and it takes a lot to turn one’s head away from it. Just because it’s the most unpleasant show doesn’t mean it isn’t completely captivating.