Lauren Slater's (2005) article "Who holds the clicker?," Susan Blackmore's excerpt "Strange Creatures" -- taken from her book The Meme Machine, and Alain De Botton's chapter "On Habit" from his book The Art of Travel are very different pieces that all challenge the idea of the self in human kind. Is there a self? Or are we all controlled by things outside of our control? While science may be able to find ways of changing or enhancing our bodies, and though there may be some truth in the idea that our genes don't allow us to have complete free will over our selves, we cannot deny that most humans believe that there is something inside each and every one of us that gives us a purpose on this earth. Whether manipulated by a remote control clicker or partially-governed by memes, the fact that we are able to challenge and that as humans we feel the need to challenge the idea that we have no souls seems to point to the fact that indeed we do.
In Lauren Slater's (2005) article "Who holds the clicker?," she examines brain implants and the hope of neuroscientists to treat mental illness with them. While this may sound like some kind of plot element in a science fiction movie, brain implants have successfully been implanted into psychiatric patients and the hope is that more and more people will be treated in the future. In her article, Slater likens the idea of these brain implants to pacemakers, which were introduced in the 1950s. Back then pacemakers were controversial, seen as a device that interfered with the soul, or perhaps even God's plan. However, pacemakers today are quite common and their usage is anything but controversial. Slater states that perhaps this will be the same thing with brain implants. The difference between pacemakers and this brain implant, however, is that someone is controlling -- manipulating, if you will -- the mechanism. There is a doctor -- or in the patient Mario Della Grotta's case -- two doctors who are holding the clicker. Basically stated, these doctors can control how happy Mario feels or how sad he feels and just about every other emotion in between. Hopefully they aim for a balance, somewhere in the middle, and somewhere where Mario won't feel plagued by his obsessive-compulsive tendencies, which is the reason for him seeking treatment (as he has exhausted every other route such as medication and behavioral therapy). But what does this mean for us, as human beings, when we can be controlled by what is -- for all intents and purposes -- a remote control? There is much controversy surrounding this enhancement of individuals. Some may see this as the way of the future or just another step in the road of our evolution; however, there are others who see brain implants as changing people into robots. When have we gone too far? And if someone is holding the clicker, what is to say that this person can't use the clicker to control one's mind for nefarious reasons? It is not out of reason to think that whoever is holding the clicker would use that power in order to control another individual's mind? The answer is no.
Susan Blackmore's (2003) chapter entitled "Strange Creatures," from her book The Meme Machine, discusses the meme idea that was first proposed by Richard Dawkins as the cultural analogue of genes in his book The Selfish Gene (Blackmore 2003). His view of human beings is that we are merely self-replicating robots. Memes are pretty much the same idea. The memes basically have their "hosts" (i.e. The human body) held captive. Blackmore is quite controversial in her belief that humans are wrong to think that they are special or "strange" creatures in this world, different and better than all others. She begins her chapter by asking what it is that would make humans so special? We think it's because we are "intelligent," but we can make computers able to play chess. Isn't that intelligence? Aren't animals intelligent? Or are they pure instinct? Why do we have to think that instinct isn't a part of intelligence? Then the human will go to the soul and argue that humans have a soul, another part of the self that is outside of the brain and that helps us make decisions and guides us wisely in our lives. But Blackmore says that all of this, this idea of the self as a soul, is merely an illusion. She claims that there isn't a part of our selves that holds certain beliefs. What she is saying is that there are not distinct areas of our selves. There is not a brain and then a soul. We are not biological, physical and emotional or spiritual people and all of these parts are represented inside of us. So she claims.
Blackmore's (2003) ideas are interesting, but they are also difficult to wrap one's head around. Is Blackmore saying that we are merely robots? If so, then what would be the problem with brain implants? It would just be a way to enhance humanity. If there is no self, then who really cares if someone is holding a clicker that controls us because, apparently, there are already genes inside of us that are controlling our bodies already.
Blackmore (2003) says that what it is that makes us different from other species is our ability to imitate and she gives the example of what happens with babies. "Have you ever sat and blinked, or waved, or 'goo gooed,' or even just smiled, at a baby? What happens? Very often they blink too, or wave or smile back at you. We do it so easily, even as an infant" (Blackmore 2003). Blackmore says that by imitating people we are passing something along to them; this can then be passed on from that person to another as well. Dawkins was the first to explain the evolution of memes and their propagation, which was achieved by jumping from brain to brain (2003). Blackmore says, "If Dawkins is right then human life is permeated through and through with memes and their consequences. Everything you have learned by imitation from someone else is a meme" (2003). Blackmore insists that everything can be explained with memes: "…the evolution of the enormous human brain, the origins of language, our tendency to talk and think too much, human altruism, and the evolution of the internet" (2003).
Memetics is basically deleting the self or taking it out of the equation at least, which is difficult for most individuals to take because, for human beings, the self is everything. If we do not have this distinct self inside ourselves, than who are we, and what is our purpose on earth?
In Alain De Botton's "On Habit" chapter from his book entitled The Art of Travel, De Botton seems to imply that the purpose on earth and the purpose of man is to know the dimensions of the self (and he does believe that there is one). We can liken De Botton's travelling as journeying through life in which the most important thing de Botton says is "receptivity" (De Botton 2004, p. 242). In order to be truly alive, a person has got to be receptive to where we are and the truth of ourselves. It doesn't matter how far and to how many places one travels if they cannot take notice of what they are seeing. De Botton says, in one of his most elegant passages:
There are some who have crossed deserts, floated on ice caps and cut their ways through jungles but whose souls we would search in vain for evidence of what they had witnessed. Dressed in pink-and-blue pyjamas, satisfied within the confines of his own bedroom, Xavier de Maistre was gently nudging us to try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen (De
Botton 2004, p. 249).
The "new man," according to De Botton doesn't pay attention to what is around him. He is, for all intents and purposed, a cyborg himself (even though he may lack brain implants). This is dangerous for humanity and the way in which we can see this in the context of travelling is that we are constantly in a state of anticipation. This is so common in travelling or building up to a vacation: we feel so much excitement to go, to leave on the wonderful holiday, only to return feeling like the build up to the vacation was better and more enjoyable than the vacation itself. De Botton's words make us wonder why we would even venture out on a holiday at all. What is the purpose? Is it because as a society we have learned to want to lust for exotic places? Perhaps so that we can forget our real lives? In reading "On Habit," one can have a delightful "vacation" just travelling around one's own bedroom as Xavier de Maistre…