The innocent self

I loved Joe Carlsmith’s blog post on "the innocent gene". It’s a post about perspective shifts. One of them occurs when, as Dawkins suggested, we shift from thinking about organisms as agents, and start to think of them as vehicles for their “selfish” genes. From the selfish gene perspective, a lion is armour which the genes use to propagate themselves. In making this shift, we implicitly transfer agency from the lion to the genes: we conclude that the genes “want” the lion to hunt down antelope. That’s predictively useful, but Joe observes that in doing so we often implicitly assign moral agency to the genes - as if we should judge them for the outcomes they give rise to, like we judge humans. The word “selfish”, with its loaded connotations, is a good example of this moral transfer.

So Joe offers a third perspective: that of the innocent gene. From this perspective, genes have the property of building up lions around them - but not because that’s something they “want”, just because that’s how the world interacts with them. In a particularly evocative passage, Joe explains:

I remembered that the genes are passive, innocent patterns, rather than agents — that they had no desire to survive, or knowledge of the snarls and claws that had accumulated around them. The lion was still armor; but armor for something that doesn’t want defending. The sleeping beauties inside it did not ask for a lion. Yet over evolutionary time, a lion has grown up around them regardless — a giant, ferocious eddy, swirling around something that snagged.

That’s made me think about an analogous perspective shift in the way we view ourselves and others. One view - the most standard one - sees people primarily as agents deliberately pursuing their goals and ends. That’s not a bad approximation in many contexts, but when you look more closely at the emotions behind people’s behaviour, it starts to break down. We often have contradictory drives, tugging us in different directions. We can think of our behaviour as being shaped by these needs, in an analogous way to how the lion’s behaviour is shaped by its genes. But then, as with the lion, you can make the second shift - to seeing those needs not as “selfish”, but rather as innocent entities that happen to have built up ways to influence behaviour.

I can’t remember if, when I started writing this blog post last year, I already knew about the Internal Family Systems framework, but now that I do it feels like it fits very well to the shift I just described. The way this shift happens in IFS is by distinguishing between “protectors” and “exiles”. Protective parts are those which drive our self-interested behaviour - not for their own sake, though, but instead based on the needs of the exiles. Exiled parts are the “innocent” ones, typically portrayed as children, who just want to be taken care of. Protectors are the armour that’s accumulated around those exiles - for example, the instinct to defensively reject criticism, driven by feeling like an imposter; or the instinct to be overly clingy, driven by fear of rejection. This perspective shift doesn’t change most of the predictions you’d make about people’s behaviour: armour or agent, a lion will still eat you, and someone who’s angry will still lash out. But it reminds us that there can be something very innocent underneath - something which didn't intend the negative consequences that grew up around it. And, if the IFS framework is correct, something which craves only the love and compassion that everyone should rightfully receive.

A part of me thinks that that this perspective represents the ultimate in naive optimism. We’re honed by natural selection, we’re built to kill to survive. To think that those strivings (with their hurtful effects on others) are all just different outgrowths of an underlying need for compassion sounds crazy. Perhaps it's true nevertheless - perhaps that's just how minds work. But for now, my best guess is that we shouldn't think of IFS as identifying a unique "ground truth". Instead, it's one of many frames through which we can productively engage with our minds. In some contexts - in a harsher world - this compassionate frame might be actively harmful. Perhaps it used to be more productive to think of your mind as a hierarchy, in which order and discipline are sternly imposed from the top down. Yet in the 21st century, in the developed world, who needs to be harsh or hard-hearted, except in response to their own unhappiness or insecurity? In general, hurt people hurt people. If so, then Scott Alexander was more right than he knew when he wrote: “Evil… was hollow, more brittle than glass, lighter than a feather, thinner than a hair, tinier than a dust speck, so tiny it barely even existed at all. Evil was the world’s dumbest joke, the flimsiest illusion.”

And if that’s so, then it’s on us to bring down the curtain on it.


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