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I Am Just A Story I Tell Myself?

May 25, 2011

I attended a conference at the New York Academy of Science (co-presented by the Nour Foundation) entitled Who Am I?: Beyond ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’. It was interesting and enlightening, if not at all congruous to my own interpretation of self and its existence.

The panelists were:

  • Elie During, PhD, University of Paris – Currently an Associate Professor of Philosophy at his alma mater, Elie’s focus is ostensibly on “exploring the notion of spacetime at the juncture of metaphysics, science, and aesthetics, where the durations of mind and matter seem to intersect”. This sounds fascinating, however little of that was brought forth at the conference and his ideology seemed more focused on ethics and morality than the more esoteric sounding theme of his research.
  • David A. Jopling, DPhil, York University – David is an Associate Professor at York University and his research includes “the philosophy of psychology and psychiatry, early modern philosophy, and cognitive science”.
  • Frances Kamm, PhD – Frances is a professor of Philosophy and Public Policy at Harvard University. Her work focuses on the study of ethics and morality through impossible-to-replicate thought experiments intended to flesh out what appear to be absolute moral values.
  • Timothy D. Wilson, PhD, University of Michigan – Timothy is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. He  studies, among other things, the difficulties and pitfalls of introspection and has written on what he terms the adaptive unconscious – an aspect of ourselves which is involved in lightning fast judgment and higher-level decision making which is completely unknowable.

The general theme of the evening’s discussion was summed up by the panelists’ responses to an audience member’s question which made the proposition that seeking to know one’s self and to explore one’s inner world is one of the more interesting pursuits in life. The panelists (Frances and Timothy in particular) dismissed this outright. Frances exclaimed that knowing the cure for cancer is knowledge she preferred to have over knowledge of her self and the conversation closed with the agreement that if you are happy and content with your life, then there is nothing and no reason to engage in introspection and no real knowledge to be gained from self exploration.

This entire conversation came across as very Western, instrumentalist, and in many ways contrary to what it appears many people intuitively think and feel. What I found very interesting about the tone and direction of the dialogue was the, for lack of a better word, narrow-mindedness of the panelists. Perhaps this is a requirement or artifact of intense research in a very specific direction, but I think it is an unfortunate circumstance. The ethicists focused their view of self through an awareness of a hard and fast rightness or wrongness to each and every action and a tension between our actions and desires which creates a dialogue defining our self. The psychologists thought, somewhat similarly, that we go through life witnessing our actions and create a conscious story to give reason to those actions. That, coupled with the stories about ourselves which we see reflected in others, defines our self knowledge. Any real introspection is impossible. Our “self” is unknowable, we can only know the story we create.

Introspection, often referred to by the panelists as “navel gazing”, was generally thought to be either useless or only useful in considering something about oneself that you desire to change. Outside of that context there is nothing to consider. The concept of meditation to “quiet the chatter” in one’s mind was brought up once, directly, by Frances, who wanted to understand if there was any usefulness to this practice and why. This was brushed off by Timothy as purely something which quiets distracting thoughts thus allowing you to see the more important thought which solves the problem at hand, nothing more.

The seminar had echoes of Materialism in my ears. I had the impression from the panelists that they did not believe in the existence of a “deeper self” or even so much in the self as a free agent. It seems the general belief is that consciousness evolved on top of an already highly developed brain (e.g. Timothy’s adaptive unconscious which is responsible for our high level decision making) and our awareness of self is purely defined by this conscious observation of our actions or, for the ethicists, this conscious observation of the tension between our actions, desires, and morality. This begs the question, however, of who it is, exactly, that’s monitoring these actions which originate from a supposedly unknowable source. Not to mention what this “unknowable source” is! This was brought up briefly, devolved into a short discussion on infinite regress, and died off.

I think there were certain truths to a lot of what was discussed tonight. For example, the concept of a platonic morality external to ourselves (question, where is this located?) feels right. There do seem to be a general set of rights and wrongs that we can all hold ourselves accountable to and measure ourselves against. Does that measurement and accountability truly define our self in entirety, however? I think it does not. The fact that the dialogue of others affects our representation of our self is also entirely plausible. There was some discussion of the pitfalls of psychotherapy where the patient/client can be brought to incorporate the therapist’s beliefs about the person as being actual aspects of them. I do believe this can and does happen, however I also think it would be interesting to find some means of studying if the person sincerely believes these revelations; if they truly see them as part of their real selves. I think one would find them to be hollow if they are in fact false suggestions. I remain at odds, however, with the complete dismissal of introspection as a valuable path to pursue and of the true self as a non-existent entity, as a story, or as an inaccessible animal brain that consciousness magically observes and records.

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