Plurality for Skeptics

Em Flynn, 2011

Plurality, or the subjective experience of many conscious selves residing in one brain, can be difficult for some folks to understand, especially if they’re unused to the concept, or are only familiar with the medical model, in which an original person (the “host” or “core”) develops other “personalities” to cope with a traumatic event.

Section I: Subjectivity and Plurality

How the hell can this possibly be true?

Our belief is that plurality is a cognitive phenomenon in which more than one conscious entity can arise within a single brain, and that this particular trait can be beneficial. We recognize that the existence of several different sentient entities can’t be proved by conventional experimentation—consciousness is difficult to measure using current empirical frameworks, and can be explained as an epiphenomenon—that is, a mental process that is a byproduct of a physical process—or a subjective experience that is recognized to not have a physical manifestation.

Externally, plurality can be observable by marked differences in the behavior of constituent entities. For us, we know that we exist through our own self-observations: for instance, I have different opinions, beliefs, and emotional responses from Kerry, Richard, Hess, and everyone else here. Internally, we perceive each other as sentient entities separate from each other, similarly to the way we perceive people in separate bodies, even though we occupy the same physical space.

Because we consider ourselves independent, sentient entities, we use the word “people” to refer to each other, rather than “alters,” “personalities,” or “ego states,” which are all terms that imply that we are not actually people, and are either the conscious or subconscious creations of an imagined “real person.”

Plurality is not incompatible with materialism: if plurality is interpreted as a subjective phenomenon that arises over time, you don’t need to invoke spiritual or religious explanations for it. I’m not opposed to others’ religious or spiritual explanations for their existence, but I’m a materialist. I know I exist in the philosophical sense: my “qualia” are different from others’ here, as Richard and Noël pointed out in their “Plurality and Complexity” article, and I’m able to think, observe myself and my actions, and have opinions, ideas, and interests. If I had a separate body—or if I presented without letting you know that I was a member of a plural system—there would be no doubt that I was a person, rather than an ersatz “identity” or “personality,” or worse, a contrived character belonging to a “real person.”

So, yeah, that’s how we explain our plurality: as a subjectively observable experience of having several conscious entities that originated within a single brain.

Section II: The Medical Model Is Not the Only One

Aren’t you appropriating a serious mental illness? And if you do have DID, you need to integrate and be whole! That’s the treatment, isn’t it?

In brief: No. Firstly, not all plurality is DID/MPD. Some plurality does have origins that conform with the standard DID/MPD model, but not all of it does. The creation of several conscious entities sharing a brain doesn’t have to be defined as having one specific origin simply because one particular form of it is widely known and recognized, if not understood. Part of the reason why it’s viewed as pathological is that the multiples presenting themselves for treatment, well, have problems, and those systems who live cooperatively will probably not discuss their multiplicity with any psych professionals, simply because it’s irrelevant to the psychiatric treatment they’re receiving. The fact that only one kind of multiplicity has been observed in psychology doesn’t mean that the other kind doesn’t exist; it simply means that it hasn’t been studied yet, as there hasn’t been the same pressing need. Additionally, monistic philosophy is often applied to identity, and since there’s already an assumption that multiplicity can’t occur without splitting or other mechanisms that involve a “real” original personality, the attention given DID/MPD wouldn’t be given to nondisordered multiplicity.

Secondly, you also presuppose that plurality even requires “treatment.” This applies to both trauma-origin and non-trauma-based systems, actually: many DID/MPD systems reject forced integration, and prefer to live cooperatively. Therapists themselves don’t have a consensus on how classic multiplicity is handled: some favor integration, while others recognize that it’s not possible for everyone, and prefer to encourage cooperation between system members. If a system is able to cooperate and coexist with each other peacefully—or if that’s the goal of the system—then the need for integration is less of a pressing need, and more something forced onto the system because they’ll be “normal.”

On the matter of being “whole”: I’m already whole as a person, and the act of smashing the rest of us into an idealized single person wouldn’t even work. We’re all separate, with fully developed personalities and interests. We’re individuals, and prefer to be treated as such.

The problem with “integration evangelism,” as many people here call the idea that all systems must integrate, is that there’s an assumption that everyone is born “normal,” and should be returned to “normal.” It’s similar to the fundamentalist Christian idea that gay people are “fallen heterosexuals,” and the cissexist idea that transgender people are altered members of their assigned gender, rather than members of their identified gender (or nongender, as the case may be). In this worldview, everyone belongs to a set of idealized “types” that are viewed as universal, and any variation from that type is either pathology or an attempt to be “different” to seek attention. Kerry wrote about this in “Normality and Deviance,” and I agree with them on this point. Interiority is less important than exterior appearances: you are a black box. You’re factory standard, and if you say you aren’t, you’re deluded, lying, or in need of “reparative therapy” to normalize you. The problem with these assumptions is that, well, they oversimplify concepts of selfhood, identity, and behavior, and completely ignore them in favor of a constructed “ideal identity” that everyone belongs to, even if the people themselves vehemently say that they don’t fit into this “ideal.”

Section III: Internal Identities

How can you be fourteen when the body is thirty-five? You’re claiming you’ve got video game characters in your head. Come on. You must be nuts.

Internal identities are a complicated matter. Here, they’re considered subconscious affinities or attachments to a particular identity that somehow fits for them. It’s certainly not a deliberate process, but we also don’t believe that it’s a spiritual connection. It’s like something comfortably sliding into a groove. “This is me.” It’s difficult to explain in empirical terms, but for some reason, it makes sense in people’s heads. Here, we view our internal identities as subjective, and make a distinction between those identities and histories and our external, front one. We do view them as “real,” but at the same time, we’re fully aware that they’re subjective.

On the matter of “fictives,” or members of systems who share identities with characters from fictional media, my hypothesis is that their identities are subconscious psychological connections to those characters. I don’t believe that the characters literally jumped from their “source” to someone else’s head; I think that it’s a matter of identity formation that ties someone’s consciousness to that source. Understandably, the idea that someone can identify with a fictional character in that sense can be difficult to believe or understand, but even if it is hard for you to understand, that still doesn’t mean that the person in question has totally lost grip with reality, especially if they recognize that the identity is subjective, and won’t be handled the same way out here as it would be within the person’s system. Others hold different beliefs: these are solely mine.

The matters of race have already been discussed by Kerry here and here.

(Edit, 21 Jan 13, to reflect Kerry’s current pronoun preference.)