Where does individuality come from?

Again let me come back to the three categories of explanations of human behavior: anti-causalism, adaptationism and social constructionism. In view of what they have to say about human behavior, I think it’s interesting to consider what they have to say about individuality.

What makes an individual different from everyone else? Mentally, things like your personality, your emotional reactions, your values and beliefs, are what set you apart from other people. Most of the time, that’s what we’re talking about, not physical differences; we don’t call ourselves individuated because we have different heights, or even if people in other cultures have different heights. We differentiate individuals, and cultures, by the ways they deal with material reality.

On the social constructionist view, there is no contradiction there. We are all born with different personalities, and this interacts with our parenting and education to make us the person we become. Our emotional reactions, our values and beliefs, arise from the ways we are raised to see the world. Rebellion against one’s culture arises when one’s personality clashes too much against one’s cultural background (in the same general way as gender rebellion arises in children).

So, in my view, the role of social institutions is to suppress individuality whenever it generates conflict between the individual and the goals of those institutions. In general, personality traits which lead to such conflict (e.g. rejection of authority figures or rules, empathy, freethinking) are classified as freakish or anti-social. Competition and hierarchies necessarily lead to conformity, which is the suppression of individuality we go through to take social roles (e.g. boss/worker, parent/child, teacher/student, man/woman).

Now, I don’t want to claim that all suppression of individuality is necessarily bad. For instance, we may very well want a sane society to suppress sociopathy as much as possible, although this is not always what happens in our societies; low-functioning sociopaths almost inevitably end up in jail, but high-functioning sociopaths usually end up with higher status, especially in domains like business and politics where high aggressiveness, natural verbal skills, and low impulse control are rewarded.

Because the goals of our social institutions are usually plainly evil (and at best vastly wasteful of human lives and material resources), the suppression of individuality will usually be bad as well. Constructs like gender, race and money exist in order to facilitate the exploitation and dehumanization of human beings.

This is why Anarchism, even in its most collectivist, has always had a strong individualist tendency, trying to put decision-making in the hands of the individuals affected instead of elaborate structures; one of the most painful and universal lessons of history is that structures with any sort of power, even those founded with the best of intentions, always fail and become monstrous unless their power is extremely carefully balanced (and no, “checks and balances” is not what I’m talking about here).

So that’s an overview of the constructionist view. What about the two other views, how do they deal with individuality? This is where we start running into problems.

Let’s start with the contra-causal view. If we start from the premise that human behavior is the result of a contra-causal substance (soul-stuff) or process (a randomized process or quantum hokey-pokey being the most popular alternatives), then there can be no cause and effect relationship between our personality (as stored in our brain) and our decisions. And if that’s the case, then our individuality simply cannot affect our decisions, and therefore is purely theoretical.

Suppose you have, locked in your brain somewhere, a desire for chocobrax ice cream, but such a flavor does not exist and will never exist. Therefore that desire cannot be a difference between you and someone else, since it will never be expressed and you’d never even know about it. Well, the same thing is true here, but applied to our entire personality: no matter what desires or traits we have, they can never cause change in an acausal process, therefore they cannot create any differences.

But our personalities, desires, emotions, do create differences between individuals. So the contra-causal view must be false; however decision-making works, it doesn’t operate outside of the laws of physics. When we get drunk, or get brain damage, our decision-making is affected. On the view that we are acausal decision takers, the causal impact of drunkenness or brain damage makes no sense whatsoever.

Furthermore, if our decision-making self is made of undifferentiated (that is to say, non-material and therefore property-less), acausal “stuff” or process, and that this “stuff” or process is not amendable to causality, then how can there be any individuality between human beings at all? There would be no reason for such difference to exist. We should all have exactly (in the soul or quantum cases) or roughly (in the randomness case) the same behavior regardless of ambient culture, existing institutions, education and schooling, and so on. But this is obviously not the case.

The adaptationist view is not much better. Central to adaptationism is the position that our actions are genetically inherited reactions which seek survival advantage. Everything we do is based on brain mechanisms which evolved to be selfish (“the selfish genes”).

If that’s the case, then individuality is an illusion. After all, we are all humans and therefore have roughly (not counting the handful of mutations that occur in all individuals, and mental disorders) the same brain mechanisms. If that’s the case, then individual motivations (such as personality or emotions) are merely modulated expressions of the one universal motivation, the structures in our brain.

Because there is only one prime mover and only one logic that counts in the explanations of evolutionary psychologists, they do not need a theory of individual motivation and they do not need to appeal to the details of individual life histories- both of which are deemed irrelevant to the ultimate explanations favored by evolutionary psychologists…

Evolutionary psychologists are incapable of explaining at least three aspects of the differential response of individuals to a particular situation- for instance, the presumed infidelity of one’s sexual partner or spouse. First, evolutionary psychologists are not able to explain why individuals deviate in the expression of a particular cultural norm… Second, they cannot explain why there are so many possible responses to the same act- extramarital sexuality of one’s spouse… And third, evolutionary psychology can not explain the manifest inappropriateness of the response in some cases- i.e. the apparent discrepancy between cause and effect.

Susan McKinnon, Neo-Liberal Genetics

Adaptationists have an ad hoc reaction to any personality trait or emotion: any contradictory set of actions can be explained away by the existence of different, and equally unproven, brain strategies. People who act selfishly are trying to maximize their reproductive advantage by lowering that of others, while people who act altruistically are trying to maximize their reproductive advantage through mutual benefit.

From the constructionist perspective, individuality is something we wrestle away bit by bit from the society that surrounds us. It is a long and arduous process of claiming and reclaiming, and although we need other people to support us in this process, we have to reject the ambient indoctrination.

Now, from the adaptationist standpoint, what is the explanation for this process? What sort of survival or reproductive advantage does any individual get from actively seeking out individuality? None, as far as I can see. In fact, its limiting effect on one’s pool of potential mates (since being “abnormal” will inevitably turn some people away from you) seems rather counter to that.

And from the contra-causal standpoint, it just makes no sense. There’s no reason for an acausal process to react to any condition, because that would turn it into an effect. No individual would ever react to any social condition. The fact that this is an absolutely insane premise is the result of anti-causalism being an absolutely insane proposition.

4 thoughts on “Where does individuality come from?

  1. Brad Reddekopp July 30, 2014 at 23:46 Reply

    If no two people are alike physically, then it seems reasonable to think that no two people are alike personality-wise. After all, the brain is physical. Even identical twins are not exactly the same in personality or even physically, even though they have the same DNA. Though their facial expressions and little hand gestures, etc., are often the same and they’ll like the same things and often have the same preferences, they’re still very different from one another.

    (My personal experience is one of the things informing my views here. My mother has an identical twin. The two of them are shockingly similar in appearance and mannerisms but easily distinguishable one from the other, for those who know them.)

    Because they each experience a slightly different environment in the womb, identical twins have different fingerprints despite having the same DNA. If their fingers develop slightly differently from one another, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to think that their brains, too, would be different. Even moreso those of us who gestated in separate wombs, don’t you think?

  2. Brad Reddekopp July 30, 2014 at 23:47 Reply

    It doesn’t let me edit. :-(

    • Francois Tremblay July 30, 2014 at 23:48 Reply

      That’s weird, I wonder why that is.

      But yes, I agree with what you said. We all have different personalities. I don’t think we can understand individuality without that as a premise.

  3. John Doe February 14, 2016 at 05:43 Reply

    After reading through your articles on individualism and conformity, I want to give out one example of me breaking away from the pack.

    I have recently just divorced myself of anime. I know that this sounds incredibly stupid right off the bat, but hear me out for a sec. Anime for me has devolved into a utter craphole of saccharine genericness. This rose up in me after watching one particular show called “Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt.” I’ve written a twelve page essay on why I adore this show to death because it essentially broke all of rules of modern anime by being random and satirical.

    The story is about two angels that were kicked out of heaven for being naughty, shall we say, and they need to literally buy their way back by killing ghosts. Actually, I’m going to be a hundred percent honest. The main characters are out and proud bitches who do what they want, when they want, and how they want without giving a rat’s butt about anybody’s unwarranted opinion. The staples for the show are its unique and non-traditional character designs that take after “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “The Powerpuff Girls,” hyperactive animation, and raunchy humor.

    Critics and haters alike tore it apart for not appealing to any mainstream sense of taste. They also labeled it as just another anime instead of an honest to God cartoon. You would have to see it for yourself to get a better understanding of what I am talking about.

    I proudly stand by it because it inspired me to get naked, forget about right and wrong, and be all I can be. It taught me to give a lesser crap about what others think and go my own way. It also taught me that there are barriers that desperately need to be broken down.

    The creator of the show, Hiroyuki Imaishi, is known for taking after western animation more than eastern.

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