what we do vs who we are vs where we are at

December 28, 2020
I've been reading Robert Wright's "Why Buddhism Is True". Once again I find there are a lot of profound Buddhist concepts I find pretty intuitive, that they jibe well with the sense of "unrealizable yet present and important Objective Truth" that is my inheritance from my religious upbringing.

The book spends a lot of time on the illusory nature of "essences" and how humans are too quick to mix up how they feel about something or someone and what that thing or person actually is. The most extreme failure of that is Capgras Syndrome, where a mental glitch causes someone to fail to recognize a loved one and claim that they've been replaced by an imposter because the other person isn't triggering the emotional response used for identification

I've long been interested in the conflict of "surfaces vs essences". I have always emphasized the former; look to how things interact, which can be observed and verified, not to your guess about their interior states. Or as I've put it: "People and computers should be judged by what they do, not by what (you think) they are."

But there are limits to my view. To make predictions about future behaviors, to judge the safety of interactions with others, we have to make these models. (Hell, maybe the point of consciousness is to model the world and our place in it, so that we can play what-ifs out in our head.) As Professor Quirrell in the delightful fanfiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality puts it:
The import of an act lies not in what that act *resembles on the surface*, Mr. Potter, but in the states of mind which make that act more or less probable.
Harry Potter (this one raised by a couple of Oxford Professors instead of the Dursleys) realizes this is recapitulating the "Bayesian definition of evidence".

That line has challenged my thinking for a while, but Wright introduced me to a concept to fight back a bit - the existence of Fundamental Attribution Error - as humans we are highly predisposed to overemphasize the character of someone and deemphasize the circumstance and context of the situation. (Unless of course it's someone we like doing something bad, or someone we dislike doing something good - then it's just a matter of circumstance or coincidence!)

Of course knowledge of FAE can lead to cynicism, making all good and bad behavior a matter of situation and opportunity...like Chris Rock put it "Men are as faithful as their options" I'm not quite there - I do think people have something of a personal code they will more or less stick to, but if you keep turning the crank on this line of thinking, you get to questions of free will in a deterministic universe and if ideas like the Tabula Rasa (blank slate) are true. Like (heh) the video game character Andrew Ryan put it... "We all make choices, but in the end, our choices make us".

FOLLOWUP: Listening to an episode of "No Stupid Questions", they mention "Locus of Control" - a spectrum ranging from internal (i.e. you have control over events) to external (things are controlled by other forces/circumstances). In general they think it's happier/healthier to have an internal one. But it's funny, that's the same kind of space as Fundamental Attribution issues, but for our own selves. I think a balanced view is called for (even though I guess there's some evidence that a internal-locus "power of positive thinking" is very pragmatic - if not fully rooted in reality!)