Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Time and Consciousness Module Final Paper, Artificial Self-Creation in the Science Fiction of Greg Egan, Jan 8, 2007

This is the fifth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

During the first semester of the MA in Science Fiction Studies program at the University of Liverpool, I wrote this final essay for the Time and Consciousness module directed by Professor Barry Dainton in the Department of Philosophy. As I recall, Sunshine, Christian, and I had some of our most heated debates in Professor Dainton’s seminar. It was during this time that I first appreciated the writing and ideas of Greg Egan, too.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Barry Dainton

Consciousness and Time Module

8 January 2007

‘Inducing lasting and profound changes in one’s personality by artificial means is not just foolhardy, it is wrong.’  Assess this claim.

Artificial Self-Creation in the Science Fiction of Greg Egan

Psychologically invested Science Fiction (SF) stories have gained prominence within the genre particularly since the beginning of the SF New Wave in the mid-1960s (Nicholls 865).  One SF theme concerns personality and self-creation through artificial means.  Two recent works by Greg Egan, Diaspora and “Axiomatic,” are of particular interest to the discussion surrounding the transformation of one’s personality, and therefore, self.  His stories encourage the reader to consider whether making permanent changes to one’s personality is reckless, or inspired.  Also, he presents a graying of borders that present an ambiguity between right and wrong.

In these two stories, Egan writes about invested persons with freedom of will who desire to change their outlook or change their will regarding a particular issue or dilemma.  I argue that his characters operate within a Nietzschean framework of the superman to effect personal transformation (moral imperative) or personal dissolution (moral wrong).  Within this argument, right and wrong is determined by following the moral imperative to transform one’s self so that it progresses towards the superman.  There are other considerations such as moral responsibility to self and others that will also be discussed later in the paper.  However, before we can explore this argument, the basis for changing personality needs to be qualified.

Changing one’s personality can take place in one of two ways.  The first is a slow, engaging process of self-creation through work.  This might involve reading, studying, or taking part in psychotherapy.  The second is an artificial process, mediated by technology such as drugs or nanotechnology, to change the mind and/or body in some way to make one’s personality better fit the way that one would like it to be.  Additionally, we all, in some way, change over time depending on our experiences through life.  For example, one may hold anarchist beliefs early in life and later, have conservative beliefs (or vice versa).  These deeply held belief systems have a lot to do with our personality because they form the “rose colored glasses” through which we see and interact with the world.  Drastically altering our personality and beliefs will have the effect of transforming or changing us into “someone else.”

A corollary to the ways in which one can effect transformation deals with the authenticity of the way in which the change is made.  Using American culture as an example, it is considered more authentic to make change through doing things (e.g., personal work and the talking cure) rather than taking an “inauthentic” route such as the use of medicine.  DeGrazia borrows the term “cosmetic psychopharmacology” to describe the use of taking medicines to effect a change in personality or performance when there is no real medical need (36).  However, he points out in regards to a patient taking medicines to achieve a personality transformation that she desires:

That it is “unnatural”–that it works directly on her biochemistry rather than indirectly, as therapy does–simply seems irrelevant:  the shortcut would still be authentic because Marina’s values and self-conception are the basis for the chosen means (38).

Therefore, authenticity is established by the desires of the individual who wants a change in their personality.

There are two philosophical systems regarding self that are applicable to one’s desires and will and the application of that will towards personal transformation.  The first is Harry G. Frankfurt’s concept of freedom of the will, and the second is Frederick Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch, or superman.  The former theory has to do with building a conceptual framework about what makes one a ‘person,’ and how the ‘person’ can change through exercise of free will.  The latter concerns a moral imperative to transform the self into something greater than it was before.

Frankfurt’s philosophical conception of a person is essential to discussing artificial transformation of the self.  There are four elements that Frankfurt describes as distinguishing a person from a non-person.  They are first-order desires, second-order desires, second-order volitions, and freedom of the will.

The two types of desires provide an elaboration of lower-order and higher-order desires.  First-order desires “are simply desires to do or not to do one thing or another” (Frankfurt 7).  Humans and other animals share these.  The “essential difference” between humans and other animals are second-order desires, which is a distinction, “found in the structure of a person’s will” (Frankfurt 6).  Second-order desires are those in which one wants to possess a particular desire, or one wants a particular desire to be one’s will (Frankfurt 10).  Therefore, first order desires are those of acting and reacting, whereas second-order desires are based on introspection and a nesting of desires.

From second-order desires, Frankfurt derives that which is “essential to being a person,” second-order volitions (10).  This uniquely human quality, to want a want to be one’s will, is the volition of one’s will.  Thus, it provides a necessary part of what allows a person to think and conceive regarding personal transformation.

The final element that Frankfurt describes that allows personal choice of transformation of the self to take place is “freedom of the will.”  Specifically, one has freedom of the will if, “he is free to will what he wants to will, or to have the will he wants” (Frankfurt 15).  Therefore, one’s awareness of one’s own will and the enacting of changing one’s will to match one’s wants is freedom of the will.

Freedom of the will is an essential element of the discussion about changing one’s personality.  First, a person must have some desire to want to change their personality.  This want to want to change is a second-order desire.  Second, there is the expression of freedom of the will by choosing to make an artificial modification to one’s personality.  By following this line of argument, one exercises their freedom of will by electing to a modification, because it reveals the fact that the person is in fact a ‘person’ with second-order volition as well as freedom of the will.

Continuing on his theory regarding the freedom of the will, Frankfurt questions moral responsibility in relation to having a free will.  He states that “For the assumption that a person is morally responsible for what he has done does not entail that the person was in a position to have whatever will he wanted…This assumption does entail that the person did what he did freely, or that he did it of his own free will” (Frankfurt 19).  Therefore, one does not have to have freedom of the will to be held morally responsible for his/her actions.[1]

Questions regarding freedom of the will and moral responsibility are addressed in the philosophy of Nietzsche and his ideas regarding personal transformation.  He engages the discussion surrounding personal will by developing his moral imperative of self-transformation.

Some argue that Nietzsche is “an ‘instinctualist,’ urging us to act ‘out of instinct’ instead of with reflection and deliberation,” but this isn’t the case at all (Solomon 196).  Solomon points out that Nietzsche, “surely urges us to act in accordance not only with our natures (that is, with our first-order desires born of that nature) but also with second-order, ‘higher’ goals and aspirations” (196).  Therefore, he is aware that we, as individual persons, have base, instinctual needs as well as desires and ambitions above mere instinct, which maps onto Frankfurt’s concept of self-necessitating first-order desires and second-order volitions.

The other essential element of Frankfurt’s theory that we can use to read Nietzsche is that, “we can interpret Nietzsche as holding that we are free and responsible (that is, we have what he refuses to call ‘free will’) insofar as we act not only in accordance with our desires, ‘instincts,’ and character, but also in accordance with our higher-order desires (also derived from our character, presumably)” (Solomon 196).  For Nietzsche, there is an imperative to act “in accordance with our higher-order desires,” because we are persons with free will.  Thus, Nietzsche would hold that it is necessary, when faced with an opportunity that brings one’s “higher-order desires” to fruition that the opportunity be utilized.

Nietzsche first touches on this idea of self-building when he writes, “Active, successful natures act, not according to the dictum ‘know thyself,’ but as if there hovered before them the commandment:  will a self and thou shalt become a self” (232).  “Will a self” is intimately linked to the necessity of following higher-order desires or in Frankfurt’s terms, second-order volitions.  Therefore, Nietzsche would agree that for someone to be a person, to be a self, one must hold a desire to become that person comprised of a particular set of characteristics and personality.

Developing his philosophy further, Nietzsche chooses the symbol of the Übermensch, or superman, as representing the ultimate end of personal transformation.[2]  He writes, “And Zarathustra spoke thus to the people:  I teach you the superman.  Man is something that should be overcome.  What have you done to overcome him?” (237).[3]  This character desires to “overcome” what it is to be human.  It is by second-order volition and freedom of will that humanity can rise above itself to become something greater:  the Übermensch.  Additionally, Nietzsche uses a metaphor of rope to situate humanity in relation to the superman when he writes, “Man is a rope, fastened between animal and superman–a rope over an abyss…What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal; what can be loved in man is that he is a going-across and a down-going” (239).  This reinforces the transformative element of man in moving toward attaining the goal of the superman.  Man is “going-across” the rope, but man is also “down-going” for eventual replacement by the superman.  He is arguing that man must strive toward becoming the superman, but eventually, the superman will supersede and replace humanity.  There is no right or wrong associated with this transition, only that this should be the goal toward which humanity strives.  Also, it is this element of the idea of the superman that strongly supports the argument for artificially changing one’s personality.  Thus, transformation of the self is moving across the rope toward the superman.

SF is a literary space where concepts such as the Übermensch and Frankfurt’s freedom of will and second-order volitions can be demonstrated in a “cognitively estranging” story-scape about artificially changing one’s personality in permanent and drastic ways.  Some questions that these texts raise include:  What are the ways that these changes can be effected?  Are these changes irresponsible?  Are they wrong?

There are two SF works by Greg Egan that strongly engage the issues raised by artificially changing one’s personality.  They are his novel Diaspora and short story, “Axiomatic.”  Diaspora deals with an accepted form of personality change for computer inhabiting sentient beings.  “Axiomatic” is about a man who chooses to alter his personality so that he loses any concern about the well being of others, which facilitates his ability to commit murder and fulfill his need for revenge.

Egan’s Diaspora touches on the issues of personality change through artificial means.  The protagonists in the novel are sentient beings that live within a computer construct known as a polis.  These beings, some based on the minds and memories of humans, have continued to evolve literally as deus ex machina.  They have developed a way of altering personality called an “outlook.”  Egan writes, “Each outlook offered a slightly different package of values and aesthetics, often built up from the ancestral reasons-to-be-cheerful that still lingered to some degree in most citizens’ minds” (Diaspora 50).  However, outlooks “[affect] neural structures,” which means that outlooks can have far reaching changes on the individual with some alterations becoming permanent and drastically effecting the citizen’s personality.

In the first encounter with outlooks, Yatima and Inoshiro employ a temporary outlook in order to more effectively experience an art display.  This is the least harmful example of cosmetically altering one’s personality within these three texts.  After Yatima applies the outlook that Inoshiro gives her, she noticeably realizes that it has effected a great change in her perception.  Egan narrates, “Yatima still felt distinctly modified; the equilibrium had shifted in the tug of war between all the symbols in vis [sic] mind, and the ordinary buzz of consciousness had a slightly different tone to it” (Diaspora 52).  Yatima goes on to say, “I’m still myself.  I think,” and Inoshiro replies, “pity” (Diaspora 52).  Yatima hesitates to activate the outlook, because she is fearful of altering her identity, whereas Inoshiro is a foolhardy individual who is eager to experiment and try new things.  Yatima is cautious and methodical, while Inoshiro rushes in and feels too much.  Their personality differences leads to Inoshiro eventually altering his personality permanently.

Later in the novel, Yatima and Inoshiro attempt to save the remaining humans on the planet by inviting them to be “downloaded” into the polis before a planet-wide gamma ray threat bombards the surface.  Their entreaties are met with derision and revulsion, which causes their mission to fail save for a few dying individuals who are incorporated without their permission.  Inoshiro takes the loss very hard, and he decides, alone, to take on “an old outlook” that “imposed a hermetically sealed package of beliefs about the nature of the self, and the futility of striving” (Diaspora 148).  This outlook differed from their artwork outlook, because “the outlook was universally self-affirming.  Once you ran it, you could not change your mind.  Once you ran it, you could not be talked out of it” (Diaspora 148).  It became a part of Inoshiro and it changed his personality into something very different than it was before.  Yatima comments to herself, “What you are now is not Inoshiro” (Diaspora 148).  To Yatima, Inoshiro had become a different person than her friend who had led her on wild adventures.  Despite Yatima’s protestations, Inoshiro acted with freedom of will, because he expressed his second-order volition to change his personality in such a way that he could cope with the horrors that he witnessed after the gamma ray burst killed many human “fleshers.”  However, as Egan emphatically narrates, “Inoshiro had made vis [sic] choice, destroying vis [sic] old self and creating a new one to follow the ancient meme’s dictates, and no one else had the right to question this, let alone the power to reverse it” (Diaspora 149).  This particular outlook is designed to lock the individual into this outlook/personality forever without the possibility for change.  Inoshiro is effectively reduced to something less than a full person, because he no longer has freedom of will.  The new outlook may allow him to have second-order desires, but he cannot act on anything other than those volitions built into the outlook in which he is locked forever.  Additionally, Inoshiro’s choice would not follow Nietzsche’s idea of transformation towards the superman.  If Inoshiro’s choice had allowed for the possibility for further change or a will to change, then it would satisfy Nietzsche’s moral imperative to work towards becoming more than human.[4]

Egan presents a Nietzschean superman-like character in his short story, “Axiomatic.”  It’s about a widower named Mark Carver who desires to exact revenge on the murderer of his wife, but he is unable to follow through with that revenge, because of his moral compass.  He believes that “revenge was for the morally retarded” and “taking human life was wrong” (“Axiomatic” 97).  His belief that “human consciousness had always seemed to me the most…sacred thing in the universe” is deeply embedded in his psyche in so far that “[he] could no more devalue it than believe that one plus one equaled zero” (“Axiomatic” 97).

Despite the protagonist’s initial morality, he maintains a second-order volition of wanting to have the will to kill the man responsible for his wife’s death.  However, he is held back from executing his plans, because he was “safe in the knowledge that no amount of hatred or grief or desperation would ever be enough to make me act against my nature” (“Axiomatic” 98).  His “nature” is his moral beliefs and his personality.  He realizes that without changing that “nature,” he will be unable to put his will into action.  Clearly, the protagonist has freedom of will according to Frankfurt, because he entertains second-order volitions despite his inability to achieve them within himself.  Therefore, he seeks an artificial means of effecting the change in his personality that would allow him to carry out the execution of his wife’s killer.

Toward that end, the protagonist purchases an “axiomatic implant” that would burrow into his brain and enact the change that he desires.  These implants “were derived from analysis of actual neural structures in real people’s brains, they weren’t based on the expression of the axioms in language.  The spirit, not the letter, of the law would prevail” (“Axiomatic” 98).  Thus, the implant rewires his own neural structures to mimic the neural structures in someone who had once felt the way that he desires to feel.

The implant that the protagonist purchases is intended to allow him to “[hold] the belief that human life was nothing special” (“Axiomatic” 100).  Changes within his brain would only cause him to have this belief for a period of three days, which is based on his choice.  Additionally, he points out that “the next three days would simply reveal how I reacted to that belief, and although the attitude would be hard-wired, the consequences were far from certain” (“Axiomatic” 100).  His free will would be preserved to choose his actions based on the “the attitude…hard-wired.”  Also, the protagonist is correct that “the consequences were far from certain” beyond the scope of his intended mission.

The effect of the axiomatic implant on the protagonist allows him to kill his wife’s murderer, but it also has unintended consequences for his outlook in general and in regard to his memories.  It does allow him to achieve his second-order volition by making his desired will be his own through artificial self-creation.  The protagonist attains transformation of the self, but the ramifications of that transformation are beyond what he initially considered.  Prior to killing his wife’s murderer, he realizes, “it was all so clear now…I understood the absurdity of everything I’d ever felt for Amy–my ‘love’, my ‘grief’.  It had all been a joke.  She was meat, she was nothing.  All the pain of the past five years evaporated; I was drunk with relief” (“Axiomatic” 104).  Just as the axiomatic implant’s operational vector was to make him believe that “life was nothing special,” it blanketed that belief to all forms of life, including those he once believed were most significant to him.  Therefore, it altered a universal axiom within in his mind, but the new belief, which fit his desired personality, also affected his perception of all life, including his former love.

Another element of this unintended consequence concerns the complexity of the change that has taken place in his mind.  The widower considers:

My one mistake was thinking that the insight I gained would simply vanish when the implant cut out.  It hasn’t.  It’s been clouded with doubts and reservations, its been undermined, to some degree, by my whole ridiculous panoply of beliefs and superstitions, but I can still recall the peace it gave me…and I want it back.  Not for three days; for the rest of my life (“Axiomatic” 105).

His “one mistake” indicates that despite his careful planning, his decision to use the axiomatic implant to transform his personality was a foolhardy decision.  Had he been more careful, he might have realized that the complexity involved in self-creation would have produced consequences antithetical or tangential to his desired will.  However, “[he] wants it back,” because “the insight” that he gained is befuddled with his prior moral outlook that was replaced while the implant was operational.  The result could be self-dissolution as described by Frankfurt:

If there is an unresolved conflict among someone’s second-order desires, then he is in danger of having no second-order volition; for unless this conflict is resolved, he has no preference concerning which of his first-order desires is to be his will.  This condition, if it is so severe that it prevents him from identifying himself in a sufficiently decisive way with any of his conflicting first-order desires, destroys him as a person.  For it either tends to paralyze his will and to keep him from acting at all, or it tends to remove him from his will so that his will operates without his participation (Frankfurt 15-16).

The axiomatic implant makes his second-order volition regarding the devaluation of human life a first-order desire, but that desire conflicts with his prior first-order desires regarding the sanctity of human life.  He must resolve the conflict before his personality self-destructs or he is disconnected from control over his will.  However, this in some sense is the case, because he chooses to make the axiom changes permanent only after he realizes the conflicts and the loss of “peace.”  But, the protagonist is engaging in self-creation as evidenced by the last lines of the story:  “Part of me, of course, still finds the prospect of what I am about to do totally repugnant.  No matter.  That won’t last” (“Axiomatic” 105).  The protagonist realizes that he will become the personality centered on his will to act and the act of killing his wife’s murderer.  It was his desire to assume that personality, but like a drug, it pervaded his mind in ways that he did not realize would take place, and as a consequence, brought him other attitudes and feelings that he found pleasurable.  His motivation based on his initial second-order volition is transformed through his new personality to permanently affect his new personality through a new second-order volition.  Therefore, Nietzsche would approve of his self-building through transformation to overcome his human limitations.  In fact, his devaluing of human life makes him inhuman, but does that take him further across the bridge to the side of the superman?

Following Nietzsche’s moral imperative to overcome:  changing one’s personality is not wrong so long as it’s a means, and not an end.  For example, Inoshiro’s foolhardy escapism removes him from any future personal transformation.  He drops out of the progression towards attaining the superman.  On the other hand, the protagonist in “Axiomatic” takes a step toward personal overcoming that does not preclude future transformation.  Nietzsche would commend him on his bold move to radically transform his personality into something “other,” but he would have probably called him a coward had he continued to waffle and not injected himself with the axiomatic implant.  Thus, these two character’s transformations through technologically mediated artificial means are foolhardy, but far from wrong if one assumes the Neitzschean imperative for personal transformation and overcoming.[5]

However, the morality of their actions may be the element that determines right and wrong of personal transformation.  In Diaspora, Inoshiro’s transformation into someone radically different than their original personality as well as lacking any personal drive can be described as suicide.  For Yatima, the “person” she once knew as Inoshiro is dead by his own actions.  Also, there is the figurative dissolution of self when he disappears rather than continue talking with Yatima.  For Inoshiro’s friends, his actions would be morally wrong, because he has not met his moral responsibility to self.  Also, his new “outlook” may remove his freedom of will, but according to Frankfurt, this does not remove Inoshiro from his moral responsibility for his actions to his self.  Additionally, the action of the widower in “Axiomatic” to get revenge on his wife’s murder doesn’t obviate him from responsibility of taking another person’s life.  The widower chooses to take the axiomatic implant that fundamentally alters his moral framework in order to affect his will to kill his wife’s murderer.  His change does not remove his freedom of will, but regardless if it did or not, he is still morally responsible for his actions.  Thus, fundamental transformations of self do not remove one’s moral responsibility for one’s actions despite following Nietzsche’s ideology of overcoming humanity through personal transformation.

Works Cited

DeGrazia, David.  “Prozac, Enhancement, and Self-Creation.”  Hastings Center Report 30.2 (2000):  34-40.

Egan, Greg.  “Axiomatic.”  Axiomatic.  London:  Millennium, 1995.  93-105.

—.  Diaspora.  London:  Gollancz, 2001.

Frankfurt, Harry G.  “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.”  The Journal of Philosophy 68.1 (1971):  5-20.

Kelly, James Patrick.  “Mr. Boy.”  Best of the Best Volume 2:  20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels.   Ed. Gardner Dozois.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2007.  Advance Copy.  261-317.

Kubrick, Stanley.  Dir.  A Clockwork Orange.  Perf. Malcolm McDowell and Patrick Magee.  Warner Brothers, 1971.

Nicholls, Peter.  “New Wave.”  The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  Eds. John Clute and Peter Nicholls.  New York:  St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.  A Nietzsche Reader.  Trans. R. J. Hollingdale.  London:  Penguin, 2003.

Solomon, Robert C.  Living with Nietzsche:  What the Great “Immoralist” Has to Teach Us.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003.

Swanwick, Michael.  “Griffin’s Egg.”  Best of the Best Volume 2:  20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels.   Ed. Gardner Dozois.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2007.  Advance Copy.  261-317.


[1] Moral responsibility is important for special cases such as suicide.  A person may choose to have their personality altered so that they can commit suicide when they would not do so without the modification.  This alteration does not obviate the person from their moral responsibility to the self.  There is more on this subject in the section on Diaspora.

[2] It should be noted that “superman” is an imperfect translation of Übermensch.  Literally, Über is translated as “trans-“ or “over.”  Therefore, the term Übermensch is literally translated as trans-man (i.e., someone transcending humanity and becoming something far greater than human) or overman (i.e., someone that is beyond or above what it is to be human).  I adopted the term “superman,” because it is the accepted usage in A Nietzsche Reader.

[3] Zarathustra is not the superman, but he is Nietzsche’s alter ego and proselytizer in his work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[4] The polis citizens have attained a posthuman existence that could be argued as being superman-like, because they have escaped the bounds of physicality.

[5] There are works by other authors that also engage this discussion.  Among them are Michael Swanwick’s “Griffin’s Egg,” which is about a group of people cut off from Earth on a moon base choosing to use nanotechnology to reengineer their minds to face the challenges of the future.  Another story is James Patrick Kelly’s “Mr. Boy.”  It’s about a twenty-five year old who is maintained as a twelve-year-old in both body and mind.  A popular film example is Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which is about a young criminal who is offered a choice to have his violent tendencies removed through an experimental medical procedure.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Liverpool, Recovered Writing, Science Fiction
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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