In Humans as Superorganisms: How Microbes, Viruses, Imprinted Genes, and Other Selfish Entities Shape Our Behavior, Peter Kramer and Paola Bressan present evidence that we are “not unitary individuals,” but rather “collections of human and nonhuman elements that…in an incessant struggle, jointly define who we are.” The research they highlight challenges those of us who want to “let people be themselves” to explain precisely what we mean by “themselves.” If people are not unitary individuals, then what could “themselves” refer to?
The notion that we are not unitary individuals is not new. Quantum physicists have pointed out that every atom of our bodies is entangled with the entire universe, biologists have pointed out that less than 2% of those atoms remain in us for over a year, and psychologists have pointed out that the mechanisms of our cognition typically extend beyond our brains to include scratchpads, musical instruments, calculators, and the Internet. Kramer and Bressan add merely that our values and preferences—what we call our “soul”—are just as entangled with our environment as are our other aspects.
In my opinion, the most compelling branch of their argument is the one relating to microbes. Only about 10% of the various types of cells our bodies require to flourish are human. The rest are microbes. Although most of the microbe studies cited by Kramer and Bressan were conducted on mice, it seems clear that the decisions humans make—how we vote, whom we marry, whether we commit a crime—depend upon which microbes dominate our internal ecosystem at the time. Thus, we can lose our identity—the person our friends know us to be may cease to inhabit our bodies—not just through a lobotomy, but also through some combination of antibiotics and probiotics which irreversibly tip the balance of power among the microbes within us.
Such microbes might be called parasites of our bodies, but they cannot be parasites of our selves, for they are an essential part of who we are. Kramer and Bressan would argue that our rights belong to our entire internal ecosystem, including those microbes. Laws to protect you must therefore take the form of laws to protect an ecosystem, not necessarily protecting particular microbes, but protecting balance among them. This sets the stage for shocking reform of our legal system and conception of human rights.
The hypothesis that we are not unitary individuals also seems to entail that our identities/souls can copy into other bodies. That could happen through transfer of microbes, like spread of a disease, or by imposing environments (e.g. diets or medications) which favor certain kinds of microbes over others. Just as culture can persist for many generations—maybe even forever—thus might our souls.
This article responds to the research highlighted by Kramer and Bressan by showing how unitary individuality can exist functionally, if not materially. Models of evaluative interdependence (e.g. GRIN) mark-out persisting unitary souls much as the periodic table we memorized in chemistry class marks-out persisting unitary elements. Chemistry focuses on elements rather than particular atoms—it is about the software, rather than the hardware of matter—and the research highlighted by Kramer and Bressan likewise justifies focusing psychology away from the material brains/consciousnesses and toward functional souls.
What is Freedom?
The microbe issue highlights the difference between your soul (i.e. what sets your values and preferences) verses your consciousness. Suppose a doctor were to replace the values and preferences that manifest in your body with her own values and preferences by gradually shifting the frequencies of different kinds of microbes in your body. Unlike murder, this procedure would leave no tell-tale corpse—instead, it would leave a person who claims to be you and who will testify in court that the procedure cured him/her of a mental handicap. That person would have your memories and your consciousness, but it would not have your soul—it would have the soul of the doctor.
Your consciousness and body are the container for your soul. That container would persist through the doctor’s process of replacing its contents with a sort of clone of herself, but your soul (your values) would not persist—at least not in that particular container. If you would consider such a process a violation of your freedom—as I assume you would—then you identify with your soul rather than with your consciousness.
Given that you would not identify with the consciousness that would remain in your body, it would be absurd to allow that consciousness to retain rights to vote in elections. To allow that would produce a government which awards power to whomever can afford to turn the most people into clones of him/herself. Such a government would be more aristocratic than democratic. Winning hearts through biological warfare is not the same as winning them through arguments and inspirational speeches. The former path to power violates freedom, so true democracy must assign voting rights to souls rather than to bodies or consciousnesses—that is admittedly a flaw in democracy as practiced today.
Note that perfecting democracy would require more than merely outlawing medical manipulation of other’s values. We must also account for accidental replacement of values—especially in bulk, such as with the development of a popular medicine that turns-out to have unforeseen consequences, or the outbreak of a naturally evolved virus that produces the same outcome. The difficulty here, of course, is that many modern voters may already have been victims of such events, and therefore we might not deserve the voting rights we currently exercise. How could one sort this out?
At the center of this mess is the problem of determining where in the gradual shift of relative microbe frequencies identity loss has actually occurred. Are there “tipping points” between relatively stable persistent configurations, or do souls exist across a continuum, coming into existence for but a brief moment before being replaced by another?
This is where I may disagree with Kramer and Bressan. I see a universe that has tipping points at many levels. At the subatomic level, there is a tipping point when a bottom quark becomes an up quark. At the atomic level, there is a tipping point when a hydrogen atom becomes a helium atom. At the cellular level, there is a tipping point when a stem cell becomes a neuron. At the ecosystem level, there is a tipping point when a predator becomes a manager. All of these tipping points divide the universe into unitary functional types (e.g. quark-types, elements, and cell-types). Evidence that the underlying material mixes and flows in non-unitary ways does not undermine such concepts.
Let’s take elements as an example. It is plausible that no two atoms of a given element are exactly alike. Each atom is constantly changing, and may never again be exactly the same as it was at a given point in time. However, each atom tends to keep returning to something close to an average of what it was in the past, and this average is shared by all other atoms of that element. One might think of that average configuration as the atom’s home or normal state, even if the atom spends most of its time venturing away from it.
For an atom to transition into another element means for it to pass a tipping point and get a new home. At the moment of transition, the atom will be far from its new home state, but we nonetheless classify each atom in the entire universe as being of one of the 118 known elements. We have great faith that the atom will approach one of these remarkably few home states because that’s what other atoms have done in the past.
Analogously, to copy the doctor’s soul into your body means to transition the home state of your body and consciousness to match the home state of her body and consciousness. Again, we are talking about home state (expectations about the future) rather than about actual state. The supposed clone of the doctor would actually be unique—it would have its own memories and circumstances—but would have become far more likely to agree with the doctor where evaluative diversity previously would have produced disagreement. The two bodies would both be the doctor in the sense that two atoms can both be helium, two cells can both be neurons, or two organisms can both be predators.
Putting this another way, the number of souls among a population of consciousnesses is like the number of elements in a population of atoms. The periodic table aims to list all the elements from which an entire planet of atoms might be built, and one might similarly strive to construct a table of all the souls from which an entire society of consciousnesses might be built. The GRIN model lists only four souls, which is certainly more than the two implied by the simple conservative-liberal dichotomy, but is probably just a beginning for this scientific project, as additional souls may be discovered or fabricated.
The Battle for Souls
Where does the functional conception of identity leave freedom? Violating another’s freedom is not the only way to reach agreement with that person. People of different souls can reach agreement on particular issues without losing their souls, so long as neither passes the tipping point. If there were no tipping points, however, then freedom would constantly be violated—in other words, freedom wouldn’t exist. Thus, the functional conception of identity is what makes rigorous conception of freedom possible.
This brings us to offer a rigorous definition of what it means to “let people be themselves”: It means creating an environment which minimizes the number of transitions to different souls in the general population over the long-term. Other terms for this aspect of an environment include “stability” and perhaps “peace,” even though a consciousness which retains a single soul may nonetheless be very dynamic.
An analogy may help clarify: Imagine a Venus flytrap plant. It grows on a particular plot of land, but change in the climate of that plot of land may cause it to be replaced with grass. In this analogy, the plot of land represents a consciousness , and the set of all Venus flytraps (or all predators) represents one soul, while the set of all grasses (or plants that absorb nitrogen from the soil) represents another soul. Kramer and Bressan have made a compelling case that consciousnesses, like plots of land, are not individual units; at a level typically beyond notice, the plots are composed of various particles, fluids, and creatures which churn like a river (but slower). Nonetheless, the plot has a character, and a tipping point is crossed when it shifts from Venus flytraps to grass. “Letting people be themselves” means minimizing climate change so that Venus flytraps and grass flourish in their current plots.
It is important to note that letting people be themselves does not necessarily mean promoting match between souls and genes. The fact that many people tend to converge by age 50 upon values which match their genetic predispositions might be evidence that souls persist underneath mood swings and maturation, or it could be evidence that transitions occur so readily that consciousnesses are bound to return to the souls matching their genetic predispositions eventually (and genes provide the only stable patterns upon which to converge).
It is possible that some people have transitioned to souls different from those they had birth. To make them change back might not be letting them be themselves. Furthermore, it is possible to genetically engineer a population that would be unstable if everyone lived-out their genes, so the minimum number of transitions might be larger than zero. Therefore, rather than measure our success at letting people be themselves in terms of alignment with genes, we need to count actual transitions.
The fight for freedom or the battle for souls has often been associated with military and religious enterprises, but the current evidence suggests that the battle is one for which scientists also have essential contributions to make. Measuring success in this fight will require counting transitions, and that will, in turn, require discovering the table of souls. This scientific process of mapping evaluative diversity may deserve high military and religious priority.
This mapping process is a study of interdependence. For example, we know that an atom is hydrogen because of the way it interacts with other elements. Likewise, a neuron does not function as a neuron nor a predator as a predator except in the context of interactions with other cells and organisms. The neuron cell-type is a stable configuration only if the environment includes muscle and bone cell-types, and predator is a stable configuration only if the environment includes plant and microbe. The continuity of the sequence of elements we have discovered thus far suggests that elements likewise co-evolve. They arise, not through independent invention, but through diversification of the system as a whole.
Neurons exist because it is advantageous for populations of cells (called “bodies”) to specialize into different cell-types. Likewise, the GRIN model explains the origins of evaluative diversity in terms of the advantages evaluative diversity brings to a society. The least-mature societies might be all of one (very flexible) soul—that soul would be the hydrogen of the table—but additional souls would become viable as the society matures.
There seems to be a popular misconception that God creates one soul for each human body. According to the creation story I was first taught, God created only two human souls—the second because it is not good to be alone—and all other souls came from diversification of that society. It is possible that the first two souls split into further specializations even before there were additional bodies to manifest them—perhaps elder Adam’s values and priorities were very different from those of young Adam. Modern science certainly suggests that more than two souls exist by now, but probably relatively few roam through the seven billion consciousnesses on our planet, much as about 118 elements roams through the far larger population of atoms.
Our doctrine needs to adjust to account for the research highlighted by Kramer and Bressan. They conclude, “It is time to change the very concept we have of ourselves and to realize that one human individual is neither just human nor just one individual.” We have embraced division of material being from functional being in physics, chemistry, and biology, but somehow denied this division in psychology until now. This is not science attacking religion and democracy. It is science helping religion and democracy re-calibrate, showing us that identity, freedom, interdependence, and the soul are not as simple as previously assumed.
Kramer and Bressan warn that even the evaluative nature of a body is in constant flux. The same is true of atoms, cells, and species. However, the fact that a hydrogen atom is in constant flux does not mean hydrogen cannot be relied upon to bond with oxygen to form water. Kramer and Bressan are probably right that our consciousnesses experience mood swings that come upon us like bacterial infections, but we may function as unitary souls just as much as an atom functions like a unitary element.
The appropriate response to Kramer and Bressan is not to lose faith in each other’s reliability and treat each other as wisps of smoke. Rather, the appropriate response is to identify the aspect of ourselves that can be relied upon: our souls. We might not be able to rely on a soul to persist in a particular body, but, because souls are functionally interdependent, we can rely upon them to persist or re-evolve in society. In fact, because souls are interdependent, we need diversity of souls to persist in our society. Thus, understanding people as souls, rather than as bodies, it makes a lot of sense to let people be themselves.