Monday, May 14, 2007

Half-pie Atomism?

Is methodological individualism a stable position? It's atomistic in the sense that the value of society as a whole is reducible to the value of the individual lives it contains. But it is an incomplete kind of atomism, if we are holists about the value of a person's life, insisting that this value is not further reducible to the momentary time-slices of the life. Such "half-pie atomism" is under pressure from both fronts: if an atomistic approach is best, why privilege temporally extended persons over their momentary time-slices? Conversely, if the whole is more than the sum of its parts, why stop short of full-blown collectivism? These are the twin challenges that an individualist must answer.

Despite my individualism, I actually think that fully-blown (time-slice) atomism is the place to start. However, from this perspective in the here-and-now, I realise that I care about more than just my present stage. The present stage, on its own, lacks meaning. It is only by situating my present stage within the narrative arc of a whole life that it becomes comprehensible. Likewise for each other momentary stage. So I am willing to make momentary sacrifices in order to construct a whole life that has a certain coherence and value that outstrips the mere sum of its parts. Or so I conceive of life: it's the whole thing, rather than each moment, that I find myself concerned about on reflection.

But if we go this far, why stop there? Given Parfit-style reductionism about personal identity, I don't think there's any really deep metaphysical unity between my temporal parts. (At each momentary stage, I choose to "identify" with the larger, temporally-extended whole, but this a "rationally constructed" sort of unity, rather than anything that comes built into the world itself.) On a metaphysical level, I think there is a strong formal analogy between 'my present stage' vs. 'myself' (temporally extended) and 'myself' vs. 'humanity' (inter-personally extended). Should this lead us to identify more with the latter, as a collective that in some sense transcends us all?

My initial argument is easily reapplied:
Starting from this individual perspective of mine, I realise that I care about more than just my own life. This life, on its own, lacks meaning. It is only by situating my life within the narrative arc of a whole society (/civilization) that it becomes comprehensible. Likewise for each other individual. So we are willing to make personal sacrifices in order to construct a whole society that has a certain coherence and value that outstrips the mere sum of its parts. Or so we conceive of civilization: it's the whole thing, rather than each individual, that we find ourselves concerned about on reflection.

This clears plenty of room for what I call "super-human" values -- i.e. accomplishments of humanity, such as constructing the Great Pyramids, or exploring deep space, regardless of their impact on individual welfare. It could also legitimize the (otherwise irrational) practice of caring about a socially salient mass event more than the analogous aggregate of widely distributed events. (For example, compare 9/11 to car crashes. The threat of terrorism seems to have far greater social significance for Americans, out of all proportion to the mere aggregate-individual impact.)

But there are some important disanalogies, of course. Most importantly, perhaps, there is a greater rational unity among the stages of a life than among the individuals of a society. My momentary stages are bound together by psychological continuity -- a sameness of character, values, goals, etc. There is far more diversity and conflict among the individuals in our society. Arguably, we just don't have enough in common to construct a rationally unified entity from society, as we can for an individual life. What typically happens, of course, is that the "mainstream" or majority group claim to constitute the whole society, and so freely trample over dissenting minorities. But tyranny is not community, and majority will is not the same thing as the general will.

Still, perhaps we may be led to a form of communitarianism on a smaller scale, whereby a broad political liberalism enables people to enter (and exit) niche "communities" of choice. After all, some of the deepest satisfaction we can find in life is from contributing to projects that are larger than ourselves, and that we consider to have enduring worth. These may go beyond "weak" communities of convenience and mutually-beneficial cooperation, to the kind of so-called "strong" community that is valued by its members over and above their individual interests in it. In such a case, the methodology of rational expansion forces us to consider the strong community a locus of value in its own right.

That is, just as a unified person may be rationally constructed from appropriately related temporal parts, so too a unified community might be rationally constructed from appropriately related individuals. In either case, the value accruing to the whole may transcend the sum of its parts: something may be good for a person without being good for any particular momentary stage, or good for a community without being good for any particular individual. (But note that in either case the holistic goods will presumably be valued by the atoms, even if they are not, strictly speaking, valuable for the isolated entity alone.)

Sound plausible? (Yikes, I'm turning into a communitarian...!)


  1. Im with the collectivism argument for a similar reason. I can see the atomistic argument too of course which gave me troubles going to sleep.


  2. Since you put such an emphasis on narrative, and individuals are situated in life-narratives not only temporally but also socially, you're inevitably going to start pulling in values analogous to communitarian values. What you seem to be pulling back from, and that a communitarian would gladly embrace, though, is the idea of an overarching generally shared narrative (rather than a web of interconnecting individual narratives). So perhaps the view you're really inclined toward is a view in which there isn't one 'collectivism' but a lot of little collectivisms, i.e., a lot of individual life-narratives that are rich with that individual's own narrative connections with the larger human community. In other words, there isn't a larger collective life-narrative (so no collectivism in the proper sense) but there are a lot of individual perspectives constructing narratives that involve broad social and 'super-human' values.

  3. Yeah, that's a helpful way of putting it!

  4. very important, and it is in fact the main seat of disagreement between myself and Nick Bostrom and Eliezer Yudkowski, which, given my respect for them, especially Bostrom as philosophers, is an uncomfortable position. Minor quibbles with your position, and to a high degree it's also my position, include the fact that a time slice can't do *anything*, and is also somewhat physically unrealistic as a concept, given how brains and physics actually work. Now if only I had a compelling reason for thinking (as opposed to the current situation of simply being constitutionally compelled to think) that the other time slices and people were associated with qualia too (I think that a compelling solution to this issue is probably not possible until much more of a philosophical foundation has been laid).

  5. "The present stage, on its own, lacks meaning." Why think so? How about the present stage *together with the one immediately preceding it* (or, if you don't believe in temporal atoms, *the temporal segment starting one second ago and ending now*); does *it* have meaning? (I presume that meaning = value; I wonder why you prefer the former term.) When, in the process of aggregating a greater and greater quantity of momentary stages, does value (meaning) emerge?

    In some cases holism--G. E. Moore's Principle of Organic Unities--seems quite obviously out of place. Suppose there is just one other society of living beings, on the other side of the universe, forever out of communication with us. The value of the universe then seems to be the simple sum of their value and our value. Does the fact that we are, at least indirectly, in communication with each other make a fundamental difference? Again, why think so?


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