First, the bad news: “You are not who you think you are.” That’s the title of Tim Dean’s piece about how your biology deludes you into thinking that your self is a fixed entity that is in charge of your choices and actions. In reality, he says, most of those choices and actions originate at a level beyond your conscious awareness, and what you take to be your self is actually an intricate process of mediation between all these inputs. It works well enough for certain purposes, but at a cost, because this illusory “self” is susceptible to forming very erroneous conclusions about what it’s doing and why. Dean doesn’t cite the following examples, but they are longtime favorites of mine, because they show just how easily we delude ourselves about the reasons for our actions:
The first comes from research by cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, studying people who suffer from a disconnect between their left and right brain hemispheres. Whereas the right hemisphere is capable of making decisions, it’s the left brain that interprets those decisions and provides a rationale for them, and usually that process feels seamless. But in one of Gazzaniga’s experiments, people with “split brains” were shown commands that only their left eyes could see, and thus that only their right brains could process. A command like “walk” would be flashed to a patient’s right brain, and he’d get up and start to walk. The researcher would ask, “Where are you going?” and the patient would invariably invent a reason, like: “I’m going to get a Coke.” In his book Minds, Brains, and Science, philosopher John Searle decribes how hypnosis can produce similar results from people with normal brains. In a hypnotized state, subjects are told to do something like crawl on the floor or open a window when they hear a cue word. They are brought out of hypnosis, the cue word is spoken, and immediately they do what they’ve been instructed to do. When asked what they are doing and why, they, too, concoct reasons, like, “I want to check out this rug” or “I just wanted some fresh air.” In both the split-brain and hypnosis cases, the subjects fully believe their explanations, even though they are pure post-hoc contrivances.[gn_pullquote align=”right”]“Evolution,” Dean says, “is famous for caring a whole lot less about truth than it does about survival and reproduction.”[/gn_pullquote]
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Our perceptions and beliefs reflect this sort of inventive self-deception in all sorts of ways. Why are we constructed this way, so rife with error? Because, Dean says, it works just well enough for the purposes we are constructed for. “Evolution,” he says, “is famous for caring a whole lot less about truth than it does about survival and reproduction.” If it keeps us fed, safe from threats, cooperative with neighbors, randy enough to procreate and reasonably attentive to our offspring, it’s all good as far as our genes are concerned. Whether we see the world as it actually is, or whether we understand the truth of our own behavior, is of no consequence as long as we’re winning our game.
Next, more bad news (I said this would be constructive, not easy): F.S. Michaels asks “Do you really know yourself?”—which, if you’re paying attention, you already know the answer to. But she expands the field to look at our social conditioning, which leads us astray at least as much as our biology. All cultures, she points out, hold ideas about the nature of reality that define the norms of human behavior. These shared assumptions “shape our experience of the world by defining what counts as reality and making that reality look self-evident and largely non-negotiable, locking us into a perception of the world that’s hard to counter.” The problem, Michaels says, is that when we want to live in a way that doesn’t match our culture’s dominant assumptions, it’s hard to even know what that would look like. Because those cultural assumptions are so all-encompassing, they obscure any impulses that don’t readily fit them. So it’s not only “hard to discover our real desires and characteristics,” she says. “It’s hard to be creative in terms of our own lives.” Therefore, “the first step to realizing the philosophers’ maxim ‘know thyself’ is to recognize the context in which we live.”
Patrick Stokes picks up where Michaels leaves off in “Finding and Losing Yourself.” He argues that “finding yourself” is an oxymoron, because your present self is always entangled with a future, imagined self. The self cannot be a fixed object of discovery, because it’s also an object of invention. “Selfhood is both where you are and where you’re trying to get to,” he says, which means that it’s a project—and it’s a project that can be abdicated. “You become a self by taking ownership and responsibility for yourself,” he says, paraphrasing Kierkegaard. “You acknowledge and accept the concrete, finite human animal you find yourself to be, while projecting yourself towards the self you want to become.”[gn_pullquote align=”right”]At least if we know we’re lost, we’re no longer lost in the delusion that we’re not lost.[/gn_pullquote]
So, summing it all up: we can’t trust our take on reality because our biological and social conditioning warp both our perceptions of the world and our sense of self, and in order to get any kind of traction on our delusion we must recognize that it exists. We have to admit to ourselves that we really don’t understand ourselves or the world very well, that our unconscious assumptions blind us not just to what’s really going on, but to possibilities we’re presently unable to imagine. In other words, we have to know where we are to see what the alternatives might be—even if that means acknowledging that we are lost. Because at least if we know we’re lost, we’re no longer lost in the delusion that we’re not lost. Jose Ortega y Gasset put it best: “He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.”
I know. This does not sound like a very encouraging prescription. Next to the promise of religious or ideological certainty, or even the vague promise of the American Dream, it sounds like thin gruel. But as long as we take our assumptions as truths, and our inherited values as givens, we are locked in a very small box. It’s as if we’re given this huge blank canvas, with the small outline of a figure in the middle—our “self,” our life—and we set to painting that little figure. We paint it with our likes and preferences, with our tastes and hobbies, with the ideas and beliefs and activities that have been pre-approved by our culture. Meanwhile, this vast swath of open space beckons—and we don’t even see it. We don’t notice the open space where we might actually become a human worth being—a “self” that is worth esteeming, because it aspires to transcend its apparent limits. “What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal,” Nietzsche wrote in one of his finer moments. He is “a rope over an abyss.”[gn_pullquote align=”right”]Does it blow your mind that the most complex thing we know of in the universe—the conscious brain of a human being—can be created by two horny teenagers who can’t even do pre-algebra?[/gn_pullquote]
It’s scary to be a rope over an abyss, but the thing is, we’re a rope over an abyss whether we realize it or not. We’re dropped into a life we didn’t choose, we’re here for a few turns of the sun, and then we die, not quite sure what just happened. In the meantime, we have some inchoate idea about who we are and what we’re doing here, and it is almost certainly false. Does this blow your mind? Does it blow your mind that you’re here at all, an animated concoction of elements born in stars, just a few hundred generations removed from cavemen, part of a species that is now turning rocks and goo into iphones and airplanes? Does it blow your mind that the most complex thing we know of in the universe—the conscious brain of a human being—can be created by two horny teenagers who can’t even do pre-algebra? And that that same conscious brain can, under the right conditions, discover something as unlikely and profound as the fact that the entire universe was once packed into a space smaller than the dot in this question mark?
I don’t know about you, but I feel vertigo just writing that, and it’s the best I’ve felt all day. Because for a few brief moments, I woke up from the dream that I am the very important center of a small and containable universe, that my projects and aspirations are crucial, that my desires must be fulfilled for the world to be right, and that my days will stretch on forever. Next to that gigantic lie, being a rope over an abyss feels like…freedom.
New Philosopher’s “self” issue: http://www.newphilosopher.com/magazines/issue-5-self/
John Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science: http://www.amazon.com/Minds-Brains-Science-Reith-Lectures/dp/0674576330/
Michael Gazzaniga, The Social Brain: http://www.amazon.com/Social-Brain-Discovering-Networks-Mind/dp/0465078508/