Harry Potter and the Nature of the Self

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Yup, this is what we’re doing today. I finally got to see Deathly Hallows Part 2, and it got me thinking about neuroscience like frickin’ everything always does, and I came home and wrote an essay about the nature of consciousness in the Harry Potter universe.

And we’re going to talk about it, because it’s the holidays and can we please just pull it together and act like a normal family for the length of one blog post? Thank you. I really mean it. Besides, I guarantee you that this stuff is gonna bug you too once I’ve brought it up.

So in the movie, there’s this concept of Harry and Voldemort sharing minds; mental resources – each of them can occasionally see what the other one sees; sometimes even remember what the other one remembers.

That idea is not explored to anywhere near a respectable modicum of its full extent.

First of all, are these guys the only two wizards in history who this has happened to? Yeah, I’m sure the mythology already has an answer for this – one that I will devote hours to researching just as soon as that grant money comes through. Ahem. Anyway, the odds are overwhelming that at least some other wizards have been joined in mental pairs previously – I mean, these are guys who can store their subjective memories in pools of water to be re-experienced at will; you can’t tell me nobody’s ever experimented; bathed in another person’s memories; tried to become someone else, or be two people at once. Someone, at some point, must’ve pulled it off. Probably more than one someone.

OK, so there’ve been a few pairs of wizards who shared each others’ minds. Cool. Well, if two works fine, why not three? Hell, why not twelve, or a thousand? With enough know-how and the right set of minds to work with, the wizarding world could whip us up a Magic Consciousness Singularity by next Tuesday.

But there’s the rub: Who all should be included in this great meeting of the minds? Can centaurs and house-elves join? What about, say, dragons, or deer, or birds? Where exactly is the cutoff, where the contents of one mind are no longer useful or comprehensible to another? As a matter of fact, given the – ah – not-infrequent occurrence of miscommunication in our own societies, I’d say it’s pretty remarkable that this kind of mental communion is even possible between two individuals of the same species.

Which brings us to an intriguing wrinkle in the endless debate about qualia – those mental qualities like the “redness” of red, or the “painfulness” of pain, which are only describable in terms of other subjective experiences. Up until now, of course, it’s been impossible to prove whether Harry’s qualia for, say, redness are exactly the same as Voldemort’s – or to explain just how the concept of “exactly the same” would even apply in this particular scenario. But now Harry can magically see through Voldemort’s eyes; feel Voldemort’s feelings – he can experience Voldemort’s qualia for himself.

Ah, but can he, really? I mean, wouldn’t Harry still be experiencing Voldemort’s qualia through his own qualia? Like I said, this is a pretty intriguing wrinkle.

The more fundamental question, though, is this: What  does this all tell us about the concept of the Self in Wizard Metaphysics? (It’s capitalized because it’s magical.) Do Harry and Voldemort together constitute a single person? A single self? Is there a difference between those two concepts? Should there be?

I don’t ask these questions idly – in fact, here’s a much more pointed query: What do we rely on when we ask ourselves who we are? A: Memories, of course; and our thoughts and feelings about those memories. Now, if some of Harry’s thoughts and feelings and memories are of things he experienced while “in” Voldemort’s mind (whatever that means) then don’t some of Voldemort’s thoughts and feelings and memories comprise a portion of Harry’s? You can see where we run into problems.

Just one last question, and then I promise I’ll let this drop. When you read about Harry’s and Voldemort’s thoughts and feelings and memories, and you experience them for yourself, what does that say about what your Self is made of?

I’ll be back next week to talk about neurons and stuff.

3 thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Nature of the Self

  1. This concept of shared thoughts/feelings/memories also applies to the collective experience we have when we watch movies and TV. It’s especially “real” and part of our experience when we have several of our senses involved and can focus on little else during such entertainment, like in an IMAX or 3D movie. Our entertainment experiences are addictive partially because they take us out of ourselves and allow us to imagine being in the story as one of the characters, or at least as a close “friend” observing the characters.

    The down side of this passive experience process is that we and our brains can get so caught up in the entertaining lives of characters that we may have a whole lot less time for our own personal experiences. Our sense of “self” gets formed by what we spend our time doing and observing.

    In regards to Harry experiencing Voldemort’s qualia– I think during the seeing/feeling Voldemort’s experience, Harry is essentially totally Voldemort, not Harry experiencing Voldemort’s qualia through his own. This is why the experience is so terrifying for Harry, but only in retrospect. He has no control over the evil thoughts/feelings that take over his “self”. Part of the terror for Harry is that these Voldemort experiences become part of Harry’s memories and part of his concept of “self”. Even if he hates the memory in retrospect, he can’t totally get rid of it; it remains part of who he is.

  2. You make some excellent points, Jennifer. I think it’s often difficult to separate our sense of self from the characters and people with whom we identify most – and if the history of mythology is any guide, I’d say it’s been that way for as long as we’ve been sharing stories.

    In regard to qualia, here’s an interesting thought experiment for you: assume for the moment that Shapiro et al. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15893525) were right that the Himba people see more shades of green than the rest of us can. Now, if I “share minds” with a Himba person, do I see all the shades of green that person does, or am I limited by my own qualia? I’m very interested to hear your answer.

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