Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Scott Adams' "Two Heads": A Review

Catbert Pictures, Images and Photos
My uncle Buck was a big fan of Scott Adams' work. I think he had a Catbert toy for every room in his house, and as far as I know, he bought each Dilbert collection as soon as it was released. Because of my uncle's affection for S.A.'s work, I read Dilbert most days, and some of his other writing as well. Mr. Adams is fairly prolific, so I do not read anywhere near all of his writing.

Even if I had the time to read all of his various writings, I don't think I would. While he does write some excellent pieces, such as "How to Tax the Rich" (Wall Street Journal), he also writes items that make me cringe.

His blog article "Two Heads" is the piece that inspired this review. As a cognitive scientist, I take issue with his air of expertise that he uses to circulate misinformation.

Adams begins "Two Heads" with the rhetorical question, "Are conjoined twins one person or two?" He immediately answers, "That's easy. They have two minds, so they are two people. A person is defined by his or her brain." But it's not easy. I would go so far as to say the question is not framed specifically enough to give a proper answer, and I would assert that in general, conjoined twins are somewhere between one and two people, e.g. 1.8 people. A person is more than a brain.

Krang Pictures, Images and Photos
Adams finishes his first paragraph, "You are your brain." I could not disagree much more strongly. You are your body in your environment. Changes in any part of your body or environment are changes in you. Try to completely disconnect any decision, idea, or thought from your body or environment; I bet you cannot. You need your body and environment to be you. The idea that "your limbs, hair, lungs, heart, and all the rest of your parts can be transplanted, conjoined, or in some cases deleted, yet you remain the same person" is simply a reiteration of the ship of Theseus problem. In fact, we are living exemplars of the ship of Theseus. We constantly change parts at the cellular level, to the extent that none of our physicality is the same as that of our infant selves.

In his second paragraph, Adams asks us to "consider regular identical twins. Their brains have the same DNA, yet they are considered two people because their brains operate independently. I think we'd all agree that having the same DNA doesn't make twins one person." I don't think we'd all agree about that. I have heard people claim that twins, identical or otherwise, share a single soul. Apart from the presumption here, though, I suggest that non-conjoined identical twins are closer to 2 people than 1, but farther from 2 people than 2 fraternal twins, who are themselves farther from 2 people than a pair of non-twin siblings, all of whom are farther from 2 people than a pair of unrelated strangers.

Skipping ahead a little, Adams asks us to consider It "that what we think of as one person is always two, even if the two halves of the brain are communicating." I'm with him here more than before, but his logical problem remains. When counting people he is insisting on using whole numbers, which can work for rough aggregate purposes, but in discussions of unique personhood, whole numbers are insufficient. The extent to which a pair of people share a body or an environment reduces the individuality between them. As identical twins grow up and spend more time apart, they become more like 2 people than they were before. Identical twins separated at birth who never meet again are almost 2 unique people, but they share much of their body make-up, so they are still partially the same person. Likewise, college roommates become partially the same person by sharing such a large portion of their environment, especially if they have a lot of classes together and hang out outside of their apartment or dorm. Whenever two people come into contact, they share some of their individuality with each other, and, with respect to one another, each becomes less of a unique individual person.

As you read this article, you get some of my ideas, and, as such, you and I become partially the same person. Scott Adams and I are partially the same person because I've read some of this writing. I read his "Two Heads" article, took in the ideas, and, although I reject most of the ideas in the article, they are an inseparable part of me. These ideas are now a part of you. You're free to reject or accept them, in whole or in part, but you can't un-read them. The longer you go without thinking about the ideas, and the more other ideas you think about, the less of a part of you these ideas will be. But, in at least one way, you and I are the same person.