CCK08: Reflection for Week 5: Part 4

The Virtual Self: Further notes from Franciso Varela’s Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom and Cognition

In George Siemens’ Articulate presentation “Groups and Networks,” multiple references to “the self” are made without any formal definition of the term to which Siemens is referring. Below are excerpts from the presentation with transcriptions of some of the commentary accompanying each slide included in italics.

Basis of collective intelligence is “the self” (slide 7)

As we begin to integrate our ideas and concepts with others and we extend themselves into some sort of a group activity, there is an important protection of self that needs to occur where we retain our identity or where we retain our contributions.

The self is not created through socialization. (slide 12)

It is shaped and expressed through socialization (slide 13)

The self is not something that is created through socialization. Instead, it is something that is shaped and expressed through the act of socialization, through the act of negotiation, through dialoguing with, and sharing in conversations with other people.

Connectives: autonomy of self (mosaic) (slide 14)

Individuals then, in some type of a connective relationship to each other retain a high autonomy of self. Rather than blending, they exist in a mosaic. Namely, they retain their identity, even though they contribute to the larger whole.

Collectives: subsumption of self (melting pot) (slide 15)

In contrast, a collective is a subsumption of self. An example that is often used is the notion of a melting pot, where our individuality is absorbed as we contribute or become part of the larger whole.

 The previously listed tenets adhere to a notion of selfhood in which\ the autonomy of the self is highly valued. Selfhood may also be understood, however, in terms of assuming a position of groundlessness, or homelessness, out of which spontaneous action arises in terms of one’s moment to moment co-creation of the world. From within this constantly changing frame of reference, uncertainty guides action and response, and one’s decisions are made in relation to the specific contexts in which one finds oneself.

 The core proposition of Franciso Varela’s Ethical Know-How is:

Ethical know-how is the progressive, firsthand acquaintance with the virtuality of the self…If we do not practice transformation, we will never attain the highest degree of ethical expertise (63)…The analytic stance of ethics…proposes that we suspend the temptation to be identified with the other and, instead, undertake a journey of learning to see ourselves and others as inescapably transitory and fragmented (65).

 The nature of the identity of the cognitive self…is one of emergence through a distributed process. The emergent properties of an interneural network are enormously rich and merit further discussion at this point. What I wish to underscore here is the relatively recent (and stunning!) conclusion that lots of simple agents having simple properties may be brought toether, even in a haphazard way, to give rise to what appears to be an observer as a purposeful and integrated whole, without the need for central supervision…. A selfless (or virtual) self [is] a coherent global pattern that emerges from the activity of simple local components, which seems to be centrally located, but is nowhere to be found, and yet is essential as a level of interaction for the behavior of the whole (52-53)

 Applied to the brain, this new model explains why we find networks and subnetworks interacting promiscuously without any real hierarchy of the sort typical of computer algorithms. To put this differently, in the brain there is no principled distinction between software and hardware or, more precisely, between symbols and nonsymbols… The cognitive self it its own implementation: its history and its action are of one piece (54).

 This continual redefinition of what to do is not at all like a plan selected from a repertoire of potential alternatives; it is enormously dependent on contingency and improvisation, and is more flexible that any plan can be (55).

 Distinction between “environment” and “world”

Here we must sharply differentiate between “environment” and “world,” for the cognitive subject is “in” both, but not in the same way. On the one hand, a body interacts with its environment in a straightforward way. These interactions are of the nature of macrophysical encounters—sensory transduction, mechanical performance, and so on—nothing surprising about them. However, this coupling is possible only if the encounters are embraced from the perspective of the system itself. This embrace requires the elaboration of a surplus signification based on this perspective; it is the origin of the cognitive agent’s world. Whatever is encountered in the environment must be valued or not and interacted with or not. This basic assessment of surplus signification cannot be divorced from the way in which the coupling event encounters give rise to intentions (I am tempted to say “desires”), and intentions are unique to living cognition (55-56).

Cognitive intelligence…resides only in its embodiment. It is as if one could separate cognitive problems into two types: those wihch can be solved through abstraction and those which cannot. Those of the second type typically involve perceptual and motor skills of agents in unspecified environments. When cognitive intelligence is approached from this self-situated perspective, it quickly becomes obvious that there is no place where perception could deliver a representation of the world in the traditional sense. The world shows up through the enactment of the perceptuo-motor regularities. As Brooks puts it:

Just as there is no central representation there is no central system. Each activity layer connects perception to action directly. It is only the observer of the creature who imputes a central representation or central control. The creature itself has none: it is a collection of competing behaviors. Out of  the local chaos of their interactions there emerges, in the eye of the observer, a coherent pattern of behavior (60).

What we call “I” can be analyzed as arising out of our recursive linguistic abilities and their unique capacity for self-description and narration. As long-standing evidence from neuropsychology shows, language is another modular capacity cohabiting with everything else we are cognitively. Our sense of a personal “I” can be construed as an ongoing interpretive narrative of some aspects of the parallel activities in our daily life, whence the constant shifts in forms of attention typical of our microidentities. Whence also is the relative fragility of its narrative construction (61).

Varela remarks that ethical conduct arises and deepens through the cultivation of a “more open-ended and nonegocentric compassion (71). Similarly,

 It should not be surprising at this point that one of the main characteristics of spontaneous compassion, which is not a characteristic of volitional action based on habitual patterns, is that it follows no rules [my italics]. It is not derived from an axiomatic ethical system or even from pragmatic moral injunctions. Its highest aspiration is to be responsive to the needs of the particular situation [my italics]…Urealized practitioners, or course, cannot dispense with rules and moral injunctions (71).

 How can such an attitude of all-encompassing, decentered, responsive, compassionate concern be fostered and embodied in our culture? It obviously cannot be created merely through norms and rationalistic injunctions. It must be developed and embodied through disciplines that facilitate the letting-go of ego-centred habits and enable compassion to become spontaneous and self-sustaining. It is not that there is no need for normative rules in the relative world—clearly such rules are a necessity in any society. It is that unless such rules are informed by the wisdom that enables them to be dissolved in the demands of responsivity to the particularity and immediacy of lived situations, the rules will become sterile, scholastic hindrances to compassionate action rather than conduits for manifestation (73-74).

Varela’s comments regarding responsivity align themselves very nicely with Siemens’ characterization of decision-making as central to Connectivism: 

Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate impacting the decision (bullet #12).




2 Responses to “CCK08: Reflection for Week 5: Part 4”

  1. Catherine Fitzpatrick Says:

    No. The The autonomy is simply not valued enough here. It is not merely that “a high degree of autonomy is retained” — absolute autonomy is always possible. There is a claim that *only* socialization enables self-expression. While it is true that you might wish someone else to see or share your expression, it’s not an absolute requirement.

    It is really unfortunate in these discussions that more isn’t said about *collaboration* as the antithesis of collectivization or “the melting pot” (which is an inaccurate and politicized term to bring into this discussion anyway, given the associations with American and Canadian domestic policies and “melting pot versus mosaic”.)

    Collaboration means that wholly autonomous and not diminished individuals with full-fledged rights and dignity work together. The make judgements together to cooperate — but they don’t diminish their self-hood or free will. They are freely united, not merged.

    The problem with this sort of Connectivist or even Constructivist statement, “Our sense of a personal “I” can be construed as an ongoing interpretive narrative of some aspects of the parallel activities in our daily life” — is that in fact it discounts many stable and permanent features of the self, aspects that don’t change, instinctive, genetic, automatic, that do not change even with self-reflection. You can never get rid of your accent.

    Compassion is best when rooted in a sense of self-interest, or it isn’t compelling and isn’t heeded.

    There’s nothing wrong with having norms or ethics based on stable rules or axioms. This demand for extreme responsiveness and a shifting, constructed self and abolition of the center merely means that ethics are constantly dissolving and shifting and there is no more “right and wrong” — and the claim that there isn’t is a ruse used by the influential and powerful to do what they want.

    The idea that there is “information tomorrow” that can always undo what is “right and wrong” is a Connectivist fiction and a diabolical one. Murder is wrong today and tomorrow, despite the news you might receive.

  2. Adrian Hill Says:

    Hi Catherine,

    I don’t agree that ” absolute autonomy” is always possible. A self, even if it is a fluid aggregrate of qualities that merely gives the impression of solidity, will always exist in relation to its environment, without which it would not exist. To flatten the distinction even further, I believe that what we refer to as the self exists in a dynamic state of coevolution with its evironment; one impacts the other, just as the other impacts the self.

    I don’t think that a person’s getting rid of his/her accent is a strong example supporting your assertion that there exist “instinctive, genetic, automatic” aspects of the self. When you refer to the self, to what are you referring? Though the capacity for humans to communicate using language may be developmentally predetermined, accents may vary significantly over the lifetime of one person, depending on his/her influences.

    According to Varela’s description of a “higher compassion”, there is a means by which individuals can learn to meet the needs of individuals in any given situation through a spontaneous, fully realized understanding of what decisions are required at any given time. This ability suggests that referring to precedents that have been established in the past is a distraction from what is transpiring in the present.

    Varela states, “It is not that there is no need for normative rules in the relative world—clearly such rules are a necessity in any society.” However, if one is not actively engaged in reflecting on the decisions that one is making, then the rules are being followed for their own sake.

    What is being suggested is that rather than treating ethics from the perspective of a set of universal laws that are applicable to every given situation, one is encouraged to consider ethical decisions not in the abstract, but in terms of one’s own particular context. If I am considering committing murder, ethically speaking, I ought to ask myself, “Will I be a better person by conducting this action? Will it cause harm, either to myself or others?”

    There are ways right now in which I could improve upon my current conduct by putting others before myself, and I would not suffer unnecessarily by doing so. So why am I not doing these things?

    The “realized practitioner” would be doing so.

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