The Immanent Self: Epigenetics, Modern Liberalism and Spinoza


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

(The following is a summary of a talk presented at the Center for East Asian and Comparative Philosophy on January 11, 2016. Copies of the full-length (draft) paper and the accompanying PowerPoint presentation are available here)

Per the guiding model of my project:

Epigenetic Model 2.0

I propose that the emerging science of epigenetics invokes an openness and an interconnectedness which are at odds with the ontological commitments of conventional Western politics and ethics. As I discuss in more detail elsewhere, the scientific assumptions of genetics mirror these basic ontological commitments of conventional Western politics and ethics. In this way, the scientific challenges presented by epigenetics actually mirror even more fundamental political and ethical challenges via their implications for the modern liberal concept of self.

The self as an atomistic and autonomous individual is the organizing principle of contemporary modern liberal society, as the locus of action and the focus of accountability in politics, in economics, in law, etc. However, even though this concept of the autonomous self seems self-evident and natural to us today, it is actually the contingent product of centuries of cultural and intellectual history which developed along a very specific trajectory.

In other words, different cultures, and even the same cultures at different times, have held different conceptions of what is a person, and therefore what are the appropriately ethical behaviors for this ‘person’ so defined. This cross-cultural and intra-cultural variability is one indicator that conceptions of personhood or selfhood are not ontologically objective (i.e., mind-independent) facts, but are rather the contingent products of specific historical and social processes.

Although there is this prevailing overall concept of the self in modern liberalism, there are a number of seemingly distinct accounts of how this self is constituted. However, for all their supposed differences, each of these accounts share certain fundamental contradictions as a result of their common origin in the modern liberal ontology.  As such, even before the introduction of the challenges from epigenetics, there are longstanding fissures in the concept of self at the center of modern liberalism. I describe these fatal flaws, and propose a new concept of the self which both resolves these contradictions and is able to incorporate the unique challenges of epigenetics.

The Cartesian dualistic self

One of the most obvious and enduring descriptions of the self in modern liberalism is associated with the substance dualism of Rene Descartes, who proposed a material body and an immaterial mind or soul as the seat of the self. In its more contemporary versions, this is the view of a physical body and a mind that is distinct from this body (i.e., not subject to the same causal influences).

The major benefit of this account of the mind and self is that it seems to capture very well the lived experience of what it is to be a person, in that it feels like we are a separate ‘something’ housed in a body. The main problem which has haunted this conception of the self from the very beginning, though, is the inability to explain the causal influence of an immaterial mind over a material substance. As a result, this dualistic conception has been almost universally discounted—at least in academia and the sciences, as it is still the prevailing ‘folk’ conception of the self. Subsequent theories of the mind and the self have thus been attempts to explain the connection between the physical and the mental without resorting to the invocation of a disembodied mind.

However, for all the effort taken to avoid this discredited Cartesian interactionism, practically all of the resulting theories of the self still implicitly invoke a mind-body interactionism of some kind which presupposes a non-physical mind as distinct from a physical body. The implicitness of this assumption masks its presence and therefore its effects, and ultimately subverts the validity of these theories. Also, that this mind-body dualism keeps reappearing, even implicitly, in these supposedly opposed theories of the self suggests it is a necessary part of the modern liberal ontology. As such, the political and ethical implications of this fundamental separation of the self from its environments are profound, and are unlikely to change as long as this insulated and isolated concept of self prevails.

The physical and psychological approaches to the self

Because the self cannot be the conjunction of an immaterial mind and a physical body, a reasonable assumption is that it must be one or the other. Thus, most subsequent theories have identified the self as either the body of an individual person, or as the psychology which distinguishes one person from another.

Bodily continuity

In theories of the identity of the self as the continuity of the body, an individual person is identified as the persistence of his or her physical being. This makes intuitive sense, because what are we if not our bodies? As such, different theorists posit that the self is either the body, or  the brain, or just enough of the right parts of the brain.

However, for all the seeming obviousness of such an approach, there are a number of irresolvable issues from identifying the body or the brain as the self. One particularly powerful critique is the Ship of Theseus problem, or that if all the parts of Theseus’ wooden ship are replaced over time, at what point does the ship become a different ship? Likewise, if all the physical parts of the body are replaced or are changed fundamentally over time, what is the objective standard to explain how a person qua body/brain at one time is not someone else x years later? In the end, it seems, any answers to this question are ultimately arbitrary, linguistic, and conventional: A person is just what we collectively agree a person is.

Even more damaging, though, is that theories of bodily continuity ultimately still posit a physical body and some other thing that, while it may not be the self, is ‘in’ the body somewhere directing its actions. As such, these theories which exclusively emphasize the body as the self actually still mask an implicit Cartesian dualism which they do not resolve[1].

Psychological continuity

The only other alternative, then, seems to be that ultimately we are only our psychology (i.e., that if our psychology were transported into another body, we would consider ourselves as now occupying that other body). While this approach may also feel intuitively right, it is also premised upon a fatal Cartesian dualism that there is a mind that is distinct from the body, as well as other fatal contradictions.

There are two main versions of this approach. The narrow version is that the identity of a person as the continuation of his or her psychology must be causally connected to the continuation of the brain. The ‘wide’ version is that the continuation of the psychology of an individual from any cause is sufficient for the continuation of that person (i.e. how psychological continuity is preserved is not important, which also means the medium through which this continuity is maintained is not important).

There are many problems with both of these versions of the self as a psychological continuity, but positing the self as either some kind of disembodied homunculus directing the body from within the brain somewhere or as pure psychology devalues the rest of the physical body and its interactions with its environment as not ultimately constitutive of the self, which is Cartesian dualism again.

The Biological Approach

What is thus needed to resolve the contradictions of the conventional concept of self and to absorb the complications introduced by epigenetics is a truly non-dualistic account of the self that is able to physically ground the self and connect it with its environment.

In regards to the latter, one such account is the Biological Approach of Olson from his 1999 book The Human Animal: Personal Identity Without Psychology in which Olson defines the persistence of the self as a matter of biological continuity:

If x is an animal at t and y exists at t*, x = y if and only if the vital functions that y has at t* are causally continuous in the appropriate way with those that x has at t. (135)

The Biological Approach, according to Olson is “not the view that you and I are identical with our bodies, or that we persist if and only if our bodies persist.” The critical difference, as Olson says, is that any claims about ‘my body’ are necessarily false because “there is no such thing as my body” as a material object other than myself (136).

Instead, Olson describes his Biological Approach as similar to John Locke’s account of the difference between a living organism and a mere aggregate of living tissue by means of the concept of “a life,” which Olson describes as “the career, the sum of everything it does and all that happens to it throughout its existence” (136).

What the Biological Approach contributes to an epigenetics-compatible theory of the self is this view that we are our bodies—not that our bodies contain us or that we are something in addition to our bodies. This approach also explicitly incorporates the biological interaction of the individual with its environment as an important aspect of selfhood via an emphasis on the causal continuity of the vital functions of the organism, both of which are extremely relevant in the context of epigenetics. What epigenetics adds to this approach, though, is to push the origins of this causal continuity of the self-as-biological-organism to even before conception, as connected to the environments and experiences of parents and grandparents and so on.

However, Olson also adds that an important aspect of his Biological Approach is the view “that you and I are human animals, and that no sort of psychological continuity is either necessary or sufficient for a human animal to persist through time” (124), which is counter-intuitive to how it feels to be a true and full human self.

This denial of the lived experience of being a self is not necessary as long as it is unified appropriately with the body. The epigenetics-compatible concept of self I propose incorporates both the biological openness of Olson’s Biological Approach and the psychological continuity which seems so necessary for personhood.

The four-dimensional self

One innovation in theories of self and personhood that resolves many of the contradictions described before, and which is particularly appropriate for the discussion of an epigenetic self, is David Lewis’ concept of persons as the composite of interrelated “person-stages,” or the sequential instances of a person which are causally connected to previous instances[2]. In this view, persons persist “by having different temporal parts, or stages, at different times, though no one part of it is wholly present at more than one time”[3]. This is the four-dimensional concept of persons as occupying the three spatial dimensions plus the dimension of time as compared to the conventional three dimensional concept of person which exists only in the three dimensions of space at any one time.

The result is Lewis’ conception of persons as the maximal set of causally connected person-stages. In other words, we are a person-stage at a specific point in time, but we are only a proper person as the full collection of our person-stages up to the present point in time.


Standard 3-D Person

4-D Person

Lewis compares the persistence of a person through time to the way a road persists through space in which “part of it is here and part of it is there, and no part of it is wholly present at two different places”[4]. Just as a road only exists fully in its entirety, and not at any one of its places, so persons only exist as their spatio-temporal entirety.

Compared to a person as an atomistic ‘particle’ which jumps discontinuously through time, a person as the maximal set of continuous stages is the accumulation of the causes and effects specific to that person. This conception of causal continuity resolves many of the problems with conventional concepts of the self (such as how can the four-year old you be the same person as the forty-year old you), and in ways which make it a particularly appropriate concept of self for epigenetics.

However, there are a number of substantial differences between the 4-D account of the self from Lewis and the 4-D account I propose in this paper. In particular, for Lewis this causally continuous self is nothing other than a “continuing succession of mental states”[5]. This exclusive psychological emphasis again presupposes a substantial separation between the mental and the physical, or that there is a mental ‘me’ that is distinct from my physical body, which again is an ultimately invalid Cartesian dualism. Further, as this self is constituted solely by the continuity of internal states, the 4-D self as proposed by Lewis, while perhaps more grounded than conventional conceptions of the self, is also still highly atomistic and individualistic, and thus still derivative of the traditional modern liberal ontology.

Epigenetics and the fourth dimension

Thus, for all of the conventional problems this four-dimensional concept of the self resolves, it still ultimately suffers from the same fatal flaws as the other versions of the modern liberal self. However, when this concept of the self is combined with epigenetics, it begins to transform into a concept of self that overcomes these same flaws.

In particular, while Lewis and others limit the causal dependence between person-stages exclusively to the mental, when this causal continuity is extended to the biological this concept of self can now include the interaction between our environments and the ongoing regulation and expression of our genes described by the emerging science of epigenetics. In other words, with this four-dimensional approach grounded in the biological it appears we finally have a concept of self that is capable of incorporating the empirical challenges emerging from the science of epigenetics.

Epigenetics, immanence, and four-dimensional persons

In contrast to the atomistic self of the traditional modern liberal ontology, though, the 4-D epigenetic self I propose here as an open and highly interconnected ongoing process is more in line with an entire alternate tradition in Western philosophy—what John Sellars calls the “tradition of immanence” which runs from the Stoics through Spinoza to Nietzsche, to Whitehead, and to Deleuze[6]. This alternate tradition of immanence presents a number of drastic challenges to the traditional ontology, similar to the differences between genetics and epigenetics suggested at the beginning of this paper.

This tradition of immanence is distinct from the prevailing modern liberal tradition for its emphasis on what is called “process ontology”, or that “processes or activities, rather than things, are the most basic entities”[7]. Also, as described by Nicholas Rescher, while the metaphysics of modern liberalism “sees processes as the manifestations of dispositions which themselves must be rooted in the stable properties of things,” or that stability and change emanate from within things according to their pre-established natures, process metaphysics “takes the line that the categorical properties of things are simply stable clusters of process-engendering dispositions,” such that stability and change and the essences of things are ultimately realized only in interaction[8].

Spinoza and the four-dimensional self

As such, the 4-D self I propose provides at least one important piece of the puzzle by recognizing the fundamental ongoing interconnectedness of the body with its environments as an important aspect of the self. What is still missing, though, even within this epigenetic-friendly account of the self, is an adequate explanation of the relationship between the body and the mind which does not fall prey to a fatal Cartesian dualism.

To my knowledge, the 17th century philosopher Benedict Spinoza, particularly in his master work Ethics, provides the only such theory—with the added benefit of his theory of the self also being quite compatible with epigenetics.

This concluding paragraph is not the place to begin an analysis of Spinoza’s theory of the mind and the self, but a good start in this regard is to mention that two of the central tenets of Spinoza’s philosophy are that the mind and the body are one and the same (Ethics Book 2, Proposition 7), and that humans (and really all things) are continuous physical processes fundamentally integrated with and responsive to the natural world around them. As such, Spinoza’s concept of self captures both of the requirements for a non-contradictory and empirically valid concept of self described before. A more complete discussion of the resulting concept of self will have to wait, but one thing that is particularly exciting about this approach is that Spinoza has already elaborated many of the ethical and political implications from conceiving of persons in this way, and thus may have provided an important—if not yet well-known—headstart in discussing the ethical and political implications of epigenetics.

I am curious to hear what you think. Leave your comments below and I will respond.

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[1] Olson, E. (1999). The Human Animal: Personal Identity Without Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Lewis, D. (1983). Philosophical papers, volume I. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Lewis, D. K. (1986). On the plurality of worlds. Oxford: Blackwell.

[4] Lewis, 1986.

[5] Lewis, 1983.

[6] Sellars, J. (2006). An Ethics of the Event: Deleuze’s Stoicism. Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities11(3), 157-171.

[7] Di Poppa, F. (2010). Spinoza and process ontology. The Southern Journal of Philosophy 48(3), 272-294.

[8] Rescher, N. (2000). Process philosophy: A survey of basic issues. University of Pittsburgh Press.