Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
This is a sort of meandering overview of my view of humans, brains, souls, desires, and the meaning of life, written in 2005. I haven’t drastically changed my mind since then, but I have cut out a few bits that didn’t seem relevant and stuck to the point a bit better.
Some people think of themselves as just a body with a brain. Some people think of themselves as a soul: they could continue to exist even after the body and mind die. Some of these people think they had other lives, in a completely different mind and body. If you’re just a body and brain, there can’t be an afterlife or anything because the body and brain rot to nothing, they don’t go anywhere, they just die. And if you’re a soul that used to have a different mind and body, you don’t have much of a personality of your own; if you’re the common factor between these two different people, you’re a bit wishy-washy.
| These are extra bits – you don’t need to read them to get the gist of what I think, unless you do, in which case do.
There are other weird things about the soul idea: labotomies, brain damage and hemisphere separation are all physical things that can happen to the brain, and which change the person in incredibly fundamental ways.
Hemisphere separation is this freaky thing that’s happened in brain damage cases where the link between the left and right parts of the brain has been severed, but both have gone on to function independently. The left hemisphere controls the right arm and the left eye, and similarly for the right hemisphere, and they got a person with this to do all kinds of crazy tests.
In one, they showed the person a pencil on the right edge of their vision and asked them to write what they saw. The left part of the brain saw the pencil and made the right hand write ‘PENCIL’, but by the time it got to P and the vertical line of the E, the other half of the brain (which could see what was being written because it controlled that half of the vision) thought it was going to write ‘PIPE’ and – because it too was trying to answer the person’s question, but hadn’t seen anything – tried to draw a pipe (that half isn’t very good at writing). The other hand scribbled out its drawing and wrote ‘PENCIL’ beneath it.
Is there just one soul at work here? You and I are distinct, and on that basis I assume we can’t share a single soul; at least, if there’s only one soul between us, it cannot be what I am and what you are, because we’re two different things. So since the two hemispheres are now distinct from one another – one can know something the other doesn’t, one can think something without the other knowing it – they can’t still be one soul, because they’re two different thinking entities.
If there are two souls at work after hemisphere separation – if we’ve split the soul – then why call it a soul? Why not change the word to ‘brain’ or at least ‘mind’, if the soul is going to be dependent on what physically happens to the brain?
Even if you want to keep calling it a soul, there can’t be an afterlife or anything: if splitting the brain into two thinking entities turns your soul into two souls, destroying the brain completely must surely turn your soul into no souls at all.
We now know too much about the relationship between the brain and the psychological behaviour of a person to uphold a reasonable philosophy about souls. Either a soul has nothing to do with who you are – in which case who cares? – or it shadows what happens to the brain, in which case there’s no reason to suppose it’s a separate entity. Keep calling the mind a ‘soul’ if you like, but it’s going to get confusing when you’re talking to people who think of them as totally separate things.
| A human body and brain is physically a lot like an animal body and brain. I mean, a cat and a dog have more in common, but our make-up is more like theirs than it is a privet bush, for example. They also act alike; again, not as much as they do each other, but a lot relative to the established point of comparison, the privet bush. We fight for survival, eat, drink and mate. We go about them in very different ways to animals, but our objectives are exactly the same: survive, reproduce successfully.
The meaning of life has a lot to do with what you are: if you were a soul, the meaning of your life could have something to do with a non-physical realm, some spiritual purpose or meaning. If you’re just a body and brain, the meaning of your life is to have kids and make sure they do okay.
A big part of making sure your kids do okay is making sure they’re strong and attractive. Some parts of that can be done before conception, so we instinctively feel pretty strongly about hooking up with the mate with the best genes we can get. Virtually the only thing we feel more strongly about is protecting the kids after birth, and both those things are called love.
If we’re an animal and not a soul, the meaning of our lives is to find the best possible mate and ensure our childrens’ survival. Which in non-animal terms is more commonly phrased as “follow your heart’s desire, settle down and do right by your family”.
|Your heart’s desire is your genes’ desire, and the more powerful, immediate and inarticulatable the feeling, the more it has to do with your genes’ feelings about the look of someone else’s genes. All feelings and emotions tell you that you want or don’t want something, and what you instinctively want is always what’s best for your genes, or the species.
It’s a rather undignified idea, but there’s absolutely no doubt about it, and it’s so universally manifested that it’s impossible to understand humans in even the most rudimentary way until you accept this.
Most people’s answer to this is not to understand humans in even the most rudimentary way.
This is why things go so wrong. But this isn’t even to say passionate desire and stuff are superficial – appearences matter enormously to the welfare of your future children; not only do the offspring of you and an attractive partner have a better chance of being healthy and robust, but they also conveniently have a much better chance of being attractive themselves, making grandchildren more likely and more healthy. But both the physical and the metaphorical ‘heart’ are parts of a human that have no fundamental differences from those of an animal.
You might say the difference is the mental stuff, obviously, what they’re like personality-wise. That stuff’s important. But if someone with the same personality as your partner had showed up in your life, but was the wrong gender, would you have fallen in love with them?
| So when people think what separates us from animals is our capacity to love, or to care so much about our offspring, they’re exactly wrong. That’s what we have in common. If people think it’s God, or souls, that would be true if such things were coherent concepts, but as I say, I can’t see a tenable belief set that gives those any practical meaning.
Some people think we are, essentially, animals. Say what you like about that view, it’s philosophically full-proof. I think they’re right, to a large extent, and it’s not a bad thing really. Animals are okay. They sometimes get the things they want, and they seem to enjoy that. Other times they just eat rotten fruit or catnip until they pass out, and that’s fun too.
I don’t think we’re fundamentally different from animals. But that eating rotten fruit and catnip is where we’ve really gone to town. We’ve looked at the Skinner box our genes have put us in – achieve biological imperative, get a rush of endorphins – and figured out how to bypass it. We’ve found the endorphin stash, and we don’t have to press the lever to get it anymore. We can trigger pleasure with entertainment, to a far greater extent than animals typically do.
That doesn’t make us better than animals, it may even be a defect. We still follow biological imperatives because they trigger stronger desires than most entertainment does at the moment – there’s no videogame we want more than the person we have a crush on, and it’ll be a scary day when there is. For now it just gives us some breathing room, the ability to take time off from chasing what our genes want without going mad with boredom or frustration.
Most of us are able to recognise and compartmentalise strong emotions like hunger, lust, or anger, and decide whether to act on them. We don’t rape everyone we fancy, and we don’t hit everyone we hate. It’s a sliding scale, and animals are on it too, we’re just a lot further from that untamed baseline. And the interesting point on that scale is: when can you entirely ignore your biological imperatives to do things like reproduce?
|We don’t rape everyone we fancy, and we don’t hit everyone we hate. But we do let the drives behind those emotions influence us to a depressing extent, usually without realising it. We pay more attention to attractive people, and perceive the things they do as more interesting and worthwhile than if they were done by someone else. We let our desire to protect our children distort our view of others and their intentions. We let the intensity of love obfuscate its causes, and prevent us from analysing its significance. And some people let attraction override fidelity.
Our unwillingness to see any of these things in evolutionary terms, to believe that we operate on the same logic as an animal, is what’s preventing us from recognising them and stopping them when they’re destructive.
| I think I am an animal with the ability to step back, recognise that I am an animal, and stop acting like one if it’s not going to be fun. A piloted animal. So the meaning of my life is just the fun part. Whether obeying animal instincts or shortcutting them with entertainment is the best route to it, the pleasure that used to be a bribe is now the ultimate goal.
It’s a pretty simple conclusion, and one lots of people come to by a shorter route. The only advantage of looking at it this way is to be clearer about why you feel and want the things you feel and want, and to be smarter in calculating whether they’ll ultimately lead to more happiness or less.
Grill: Holy shit! You've updated your site! And you're posting stuff about philosophy. When I'm off deadline I'll have a proper read, but you're spot on with the neuroscience stuff - the separation of the corpus callosum can lead to all sorts of weird shit; it's notable that damage to a certain area of the perceptual apparatus can lead to Blindsight - where a person has no conscious ability to see (they are clinically blind) but can still answer questions about what's in front of them, even if they do it (to them) intuitively. There's so many cool types of brain damage out there. :)
Tom Francis: Heh. Dan Gril wins the Emmy for Least Appropriate Use Of A Smiley with his new sentence: "There's so many cool types of brain damage out there. :)" Dan couldn't be here tonight, but he would like to thank his spine for being so supportive.
gril’s inarticulate, directionless little brother: well i very much enjoyed this page a lot. i always find out about what the 'active' philosphers' (as oppose to passive ones like me, who only do it when we've run out of batteries on our walkmen) views are, i get that 'that's exactly what i was trying to say!' feeling, so the more pop philosophy i can read the better, since i'm no good at studying it. so thanks!
Dave McLeod: Thanks for writing all this. The enry on Darwin has inspired me for my Personal Statement for Uni, Wittgenstein aided me on my route to understanding Global Scepticism, and last ut not least, I've managed to spin out a 50 minute (so far, the class ran out of time, but we look to continue) discussion on your own personal section on the soul (Philosophy of Mind module for A2 fits neatly). there go my worries about doing Philosophy as a degree, even if I'm now slightly sick about the Kant module. Cheers
Jason L: I think you've dissed Pratchett at some point, Tom, but The Science of Discworld has several excellently written, succinct sections on our monkey brains' tendency to turn 'process' into 'thing'. They're good enough that I've taken to paraphrasing them in arguments and political thought, and recommending the book independently of Pratchett's other stuff. I reran into this category of James and it suddenly occurs that those parts of SoD are relevant additions to a lot of the articles on this page.
Daisy: Just happened on your site and read a few lines - interesting! But in my opinion you're not altogether right about attractive people. I'm very well aware of the priviledges of being relatively attractive-looking, and through my life have continued to feel amazed and thankful (job interviews and so on -- everything tends to go better if people think you look good), even though I also think it's totally unfair and that human beings are very shallow creatures. Now I'm getting older (in my thirties) the looks start to fade but I'm not unhappy about it - still thankful I've had a good life up to now and have been so lucky with so much. Not religious by the way!
Produce P: without love, passion, lust and romance what exactly are we. of course you try to avoid and ignore these thiungs because like every other normal person, they hurt!!! if it doesn't go well we try and rationalise and be logical but in the end it
Produce P: oops... posted half-done...
J-Man: Just re-reading this as well as the comments.. I looked Essays in Love up, turns out it's a film now..
J-Man: This is still my favourite philosophical essay.
HyperKUltra: I stopped reading about, oh, after it said that the rest wasn't neccessary.
Korolev: Nice site redesign.