X-Message-Number: 603
Subject: Grist for the mill
Date: Sun, 12 Jan 92 11:04:22 PST


by Arel Lucas (draft for comment)

"My mother hung me on a hook once!  O . . . !"  Johnny Dangerously

      There's a running gag in the movie *Johnny Dangerously*.  The 
villain, one of Johnny's henchmen inherited from a previous gang leader, 
keeps being bested by the hero, and threatening by formula, "[Someone did 
that to me] once!  Once!" The last word is shortened letter by letter at 
each defeat until, after he has been hung on a coat hook on the back of a 
door, the door is flung open and spoils his threat, index finger still 

      The running set of arguments on identity and the question of 
survival of that identity through biostasis, appearing in the pages of 
the *Venturist*, *Immortalist*, *Cryonics* and *Extropy*, reminded me of 
that gag.  I guess I'm going to have to attempt to step into this river 
of controversy once (Once!) as much as I've been avoiding doing so.  

      Identity.  Since I read the first couple, I've only skimmed the 
first few sentences of articles on this subject before putting the whole 
issue aside.  I've disagreed, but haven't wanted to take the time or 
energy away from job, family and other projects to state my views.  
Finally, having run into somebody who was enough put off by the cluster 
of viewpoints represented in these pages on this subject that he was 
deterred from signing up for cryonics, I find myself pushed off the bank 
and into the river.  Ugh, the water's cold and muddy!  Well, here goes. 

      My remark to my friend was that evidently nobody who has written on 
the subject of identity in these publications has ever been a Buddhist.  
I have, and a taste of that "religion" (more like a psychology) helped 
consolidate my views on identity.  All the viewpoints here seem to assume 
an ongoing "I" like a soul, an unchanging identity which, if changed 
beyond some possibly arguable point, is no longer itself.  My life 
experience does not support that belief, nor does my reading of Buddhist 
psychology.  To me the Diamond Sutra supports a poem I once wrote in 
which I peel an onion, at first frightened that there would be Something 
at the center of it.  I peel off layer after layer, at last coming to a 
void, a space, a Nothing in the center of the onion--with great relief. 

      If identity were destiny, as the writers all seem to say, then I 
would be very depressed.  In my life I've tried out possibilities, pushed 
what seemed to be my limits, blanked thought, opinion, and prejudice and 
just Experienced, then looked at the repercussions of that.  Bertolt 
Brecht directed his own plays with each actor taking the part of every 
other actor, in turn; each had to experience each other's viewpoint, 
hopefully creating compassion, sympathy, understanding, a moving, 
changing identity.  "I" am a convenient hook for a cloud of 
possibilities, probabilities, experiences, memories and habits.  "I" 
access memory banks on which "I" usually base my actions--but from which, 
IF "I" do not feel my "self" and my memory banks to be one entity or to 
be ineluctably attached, I can dissociate myself long enough to act 
without prejudice, to experience without past.  

      Not that I wish to lose my past, or refrain from carrying the 
probability cloud I call "myself" forward into the future.  There have 
been times in the past when suicide has seemed a real choice, something 
to be considered.  Usually I can't get beyond the silliness of it, but 
what has stopped me at other times has been the fact that I did not feel 
that "I" should cut short the possibilities represented by my life.  I am 
irritated by the popular view that "You can do anything," since it 
doesn't recognize limitations, but nevertheless I find myself constantly 
surprised by what I actually do (which I take to be existentialism sans 
all that silliness about murdering somebody to prove how existential one 
is- -existentialism as pure selfishness where no self exists [!] and 
without the compassion to make life worthwhile). 

      Of all the attributes of the hook that ordinarily holds identity 
together with behavior, habit is both the most fruitful and the most 
dangerous, representing programming of the brain (the integrator, home 
and Ozian Wizard of identity).  Fruitful because it allows the conscious 
"Self" to focus on priority issues (being equally conscious of all 
actions at all times leads to "The caterpillar lay distracted in the 
ditch/Considering how to walk"); dangerous because it can be extremely 
hard to become aware of, much less consciously change habits.  The 
neocortex mediates experience through the limbic system (this mediation 
is massively interrupted by a frontal lobotomy, hence the weird, 
seemingly emotionless behavior of lobotomized people).  Such mediation is 
purely habit, since the limbic system is too old (evolutionarily 
speaking) to be "conscious" (a term for a system which has redundant 
modules which can be used to monitor "itself").  The programming of these 
habits begins in infancy (see the work of Lorenz and Leary), and 
continues through puberty.  Hormonal pathways, which of course influence 
this programming, start to be blazed even earlier, in the womb, either by 
genetic factors or by the mother's chemistry, or by interactions of 
genetic factors and environment. 

      Our rather primitive psychology has found some occasionally quite 
effective ways of allowing habitual pathways to spring to conscious 
awareness by teaching and/or using observation (based on or consisting of 
Buddhist and Hindu meditative techniques), "acting out" (Gestalt 
therapy), or evocation (transactional therapies).  Since we are only 
beginning to understand the workings of the brain (Minsky, Axelrod, 
Gazzaniga, Hofstadter, E. O. Wilson, Nisbett and Ross, et al.), it would 
be extremely premature to say that we should release all our violent 
criminals on the basis that they can become someone different from the 
murderers, muggers and assaultive personalities who committed the crimes 
of which they were convicted.  This is not only because we do not 
understand the pathways of emotion and action to which people become 
attached, but also because we do not yet have reliable ways of changing 
those pathways, of reprogramming the brain without brainwashing. 

      Brainwashing works (see Leary and R. A. Wilson), but tends to lose 
most of the old pathways in a torrent of new programming, an emotional 
"swept-away" experience which includes religious conversion, 
politicization, childbirth, the impact of engrossing technology 
(computers, Nintendo, automobiles, music), and falling in love.  It's too 
overwhelming to be precise, a risky business not to be undertaken lightly 
(although such experiences are not usually planned nor understood, 
happening haphazardly and therefore dangerously, like LSD in the punch 
bowl).  The old pathways are recoverable, and may reassert themselves 
effortlessly, depending on their compatibility with the censorship memes 
of the new scheme (for memes/schemes, see work of Dawkins, Hofstadter and 
Henson/Lucas as well as *Journal of Ideas*).  It seems to me that given 
an understanding of the makeup of the brain (as a modular network using 
massive parallelism, limited mostly by its memory processing and its 
paucity of buffers), it will be possible in the future to actually 
rehabilitate not only convicted criminals--but also the rest of us. 

      If we can understand how experience is mediated, how 
memory/habit/sensation/emotion intersect to produce behavior, and how the 
traffic through that intersection can be tweaked to produce more adaptive 
behavior, then behavior becomes truly changeable, lives fully 
salvageable.  The only problem remaining then is consent.  Now if 
identity is destiny, if one is linked irretrievably to one's personality 
(as presently configured) throughout one's existence, here and hereafter, 
rehabilitation cannot happen.  One can behave differently, but not *be* 
different--without compromising identity.  On the other hand, if identity 
consists of a cloud of possibilities, a discrete but modifiable set of 
modular networks housed by brain tissue, linked by electrochemical 
pathways (grown and developed through frequency and intensity of use) to 
experience-storage areas and an ancient chemical warehouse of emotion, 
could not each member of that cloud be evoked like a portion of a 
pathologic multiple personality, and *asked* if a module should be 
changed, a pathway erased or replaced?  It appears that the speech module 
of the brain and its output buffer can be accessed by any portion of the 
personality cloud, and ample literature exists to indicate that meetings 
have been held in psychiatrists' offices of a large number of people who 
inhabit a single brain. 

      I do not believe that identity is destiny any more than biology is 
destiny. The possibilities inherent in my brain are not limitless, but 
they do exceed my ability to manifest them during a 20th-century 
lifetime.  For this reason, and because I wish to preserve my memory 
banks--even if not for "my" own use--I have chosen to sign up for 
biostasis.  This skims the deeply complex meaning of my common statement 
that I have signed up because I don't want my daughter to believe that I 
committed suicide (by refusing to take advantage of biostasis 

      So there you have it, a wet and muddy commentary in a very personal 
vein by someone claiming not to have an identity.  The Zen Buddhists are 
right:  you can't even step in the same river *once*!

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