You Are Not A Network

by Tim Sommers

In an interesting recent article on Aeon, “You are a Network” (based on her 2019 book, “The Network Self”), Kathleen Wallace argues that anthropological, narrative, feminist, and communitarian views of the self have all converged on the idea that you are a network.

But you’re not.

At least part of what she has in mind is that the self is a process not a substance, that it’s essentially relational, and that it can be extended in various ways – for example, what we count as our cognition can be extended beyond the boundaries of our own mind and body. It’s a neat idea, but I don’t think it’s true.

The argument that “you are a process” is orthogonal to the question of what sort of thing or process you are. For example, physicalists (philosophers committed to what used to be called “the slogan”: “everything that is real is physical”) prototypically also describe the self as a process. It’s a brain process. So, I don’t think the substance/process bit is the real issue.

So, I want to talk about whether you and I are essentially relational and whether our cognition can be extended or networked. With all due respect to the view, my aim is deflationary. There are relational properties, but you cannot essentially be your relational properties. And that idea that we can extend our cognition is basically just a metaphor. Let’s start there.

Suppose in the near future doctors can replace parts of your brain with something like computer chips to extend your cognitive functionings. Suppose, for example, that after surgery you are much better at Scrabble. If you are sufficiently similar in other ways after the surgery to who you were before, just better at Scrabble, I think we might say that your cognition is extended by the chips. Now, suppose that you could instead just carry a device around with you that looks up good Scrabble words. Have you extended your cognition with such a device? You don’t have to suppose. They exist, of course. They’re called smart phones. You almost certainly have one. But does it extend your cognition? Does your thinking now involve internal mental processes plus things like plugging in every so often and pushing buttons?

Let’s go old school. Suppose you are starting to have trouble remembering things. You carry a pen and note book and you write things down. Do the pen and the notebook extend, or become an extension of, your cognition? Many defenders of extended cognition give exactly this example. And they say, yes, carrying a notebook extends cognition. Here’s what’s wrong with that. Suppose instead of a notebook you just go everywhere with your partner and they remember things for you. Have you extended your cognition? Does that mean that their cognition is now partly an extension of your cognition? They know more than you – whether you are together or not – and they tell you what they know when you are together. But there’s no mathematical increase in the total amount of information. You are not extending your cognition, they are remembering thinks for, and instead, of you.

In the case with which we started (chips in the brain), we really don’t know much about what’s going on and, therefore, we are tempted to accept the idea that we are extending our cognition – and that this is a metaphysically novel process. It helps that the extension is literally inside your head along with the rest of your cognitive machinery. But in all the prosaic cases the idea that you are extending your cognition is, at best, a metaphor. There’s nothing interesting going on, at least not in terms of who you are essentially, when you start writing things down to remember them. My office is filled with post-it notes. I wish they extended my cognition. But I stick them up and forget to ever look at them again. Also, for some reason, I couldn’t remember what post-it notes were called just now when I was typing that, so I googled it. Apparently, “sticky notes” is the generic label and “post-it” is a brand. I guess that’s extending my cognition in some sense. I learned something. But I hesitate to think that this undermines traditional views of the self by turning me into an expanding cognitive network. It certainly doesn’t live up to the excitement generated by the claim that, as a network, I can extend my cognition beyond the boundaries of my self.

What about the idea that the self is relational? If you can, go to the article and check out Figure 1. It shows a decentered network of relations or relational properties. (I don’t want to distort the view by adjusting the labels to make them grammatically parallel so forgive the awkward language that follows.) Wallace uses the diagram to describe the hypothetical “Lindsey” who is – genetic, driver, NYC resident, digestive, sibling, university employee, neurological, and thirteen other labeled things. I think that Wallace means to say that Lindsey is this network. I would say, by contrast, that whatever Lindsey is it’s at the center of this disparate network, she’s not the network itself. I mean, digestive? Being a “driver”? If we can’t distinguish between such clearly inessential features and more central features, I think we should say that there is No-Self (as Buddha, Hume, and Parfitt did), not that you are everything that is true of you – including relational propositions. It’s also confusing because sometimes Wallace seems to be talking about actual relationships you have with another and at other times she just seems to be talking about the relational properties that you have.

So, let’s narrow the target and simplify by just talking about relational properties that you have. Relational properties of yours are properties that depend essentially on your relation with or to something other than yourself. The distance that you are presently from the Eifel tower, is a relational property. So, is your having a certain person as your mother. One problem is that there are a lot of relational properties. Probably, an infinite number depending on how you individuate them. It seems like they can’t all be part of who you are.

And what if every person (and building) on Earth is destroyed except for you. That will do away with a lot of your relational properties. But it seems to me that you would still be you. Sure, there’s a colloquial sense in which you would be a totally different person for having survived such a catastrophe. But your essential self, now in vastly different circumstances, would still exist. You’d no longer be a certain distance from the Eiffel Tower, of course (though you would still be a certain distance from where it used to be). Would you still be a driver? Maybe, if your car still runs and you drive it. On the other hand, there’s no DMV. Does just driving make you a driver or do you have to be a licensed driver?

Even in this scenario, you’d still have, or would have had, the same mother, of course. So, let’s get metaphysical. Instead of envisioning an apocalypse, ask yourself are there possible worlds where you still exist, but you have a different mother? If there are possible worlds, there would seem to be ones like this. Too metaphysical? How about this. If you never knew who your mother was, would you be a different person if she was Ann (who you know nothing about and have never met) as opposed to Chris (who you also know nothing about and have never met as well)? The way in which who you are has been influence by your particular mother, in other words, has nothing to do with having an abstract relational proposition that is true of you; i.e., “she is your mother”.

As Wallace acknowledges, the traditional philosophical project is to identity the essential, non-relational properties of the self. So, it’s almost tautological that you can’t be your relational properties. But she is not clear how she sees her relation to that project. Maybe, she rejects it and wants to something new. She does begin by asking, “Is my identity determined by my DNA or am I product of how I’m raised?” Which is a great question and more like the question of who my particular mother is, but it’s not the philosophical question of who I am metaphysically. If she wants the network view to be a competitor to views she specifically mentions like animalism (you are essentially a biological organism) or the psychological continuity view (you are a linked chain of memories or quasi-memories, propensities, etc.), then she’s going to have to find a way, at a minimum, to sort essential relational properties from inessential ones. The network of Figure 1 is just too random, I think. Different nodes are not just different things, they are radically different kinds of things.

At one point, Wallace describes animalist and the psychological continuity views of the self as “container” views. She sees them as “positing the body as a container of psychological functions or the bounded location of bodily functions.” But for better or worse, doesn’t the body in fact mark the outer boundary of the self? You could lose quite a lot of your body (maybe, everything but your brain (and some of that too)) and still be you. But your self is not something that extends beyond or transcends your body. I suppose that the network view is supposed to take the self out of the container and set it free. It seems to me though, that any plausible version of the network view will end up either being just a larger container or the self will get escape altogether.

I suggested that earlier. That there’s something about the network self might push us towards No-Self. What did I mean? Well, is the self expanding as a network or is it dispersing? It seems to me that being networked to any great extent is indistinguishable from not existing at all, at least as any one thing. If I am not a singular member of my social network, but instead the whole network – then who am I? Hume said, “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other…” and never upon a substantive self that has these perceptions. Now I think, if I look outside of the container that I thought was myself and see myself as a disparate network of relations expanding out in every direction, should I see that as  affirming my self as a network – or as just another way of giving up on the idea that the self is anything at all in particular?

(Thanks to Stacey Holland for editing (as always!) and also for clarifying the partner as cognitive extension bit. I am still not sure I captured her thoughts on the matter, but she’ll forgive me for that.)