Sunday, 23 May 2010

Who is the Dreamer of Dreams?

Warning: Long, philosophical post musing on the nature of the self. If this does not appeal to you, don't bother reading it.

Last night I tried writing a sonnet concerning the mysteriousness of the self. I didn't get anywhere on it.

The nature of the self (as a concept more than my own self) has been nagging at me lately. I intend to explore ideas concerning it in my Master's at UBC, if my thesis is approved. So as I've been reading this past year (and watching movies and so forth) I have been keeping an eye open for any ideas or philosophies or information regarding the nature of identity and the self. I am an amateur philosopher, and so this isn't unlike me.

One thing I've noticed, especially following my forays into postmodernism, is that our ideas about what the self is are confused, contradictory, and incomplete. I'm sure someone will want to point me to psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience, but last I checked they couldn't explain consciousness and, besides, I suspect that cultural and non-material forces contribute as much as mechanical ones do. So that avenue provides only partial answers, as far as I'm concerned.

Anthropology is of little help; at least, the different cultures we can study say very different things. Confucianism sees people as nodes in relationship webs; Hinduism sees people as fragments of the divine covered and sullied by karma, attachment to this world; Buddhism sees people as non-entities whose attachments reincarnate until the people finally detach themselves. The followers of Songlines in Australia see themselves as unreal until they re-enact the behaviours of their culture heroes; Native Americans (or at least some of them) see themselves as organs of the organism that is their tribe; Pythagorians saw themselves as expressions of perfect mathematical laws. In the far reaches of any culture's mysticism you start to see similarities with other mysticisms, but at this point also we (or at least I) lose any understanding of what's going on. The insights and narratives each culture expresses might be useful clues to build our own ideas upon, but I certainly don't take any at face value.

So I don't think the problem is that we haven't been working on this issue. The problem is that there are too many solutions and no way of discerning which is correct. Or, alternately, there hasn't been sufficient attempt to synthesize the assorted solutions. Or we've been working at it in the wrong way. Or something.
Postmodernism's destructive tendencies become useful in dismantling whatever clunky precepts we had before, and some postmodernists have perhaps surprisingly offered alternatives. At the moment these alternatives seem fairly reasonable, but I must add a caveat to them. I am, after all, a Christian, and therefore an essentialist. (Or perhaps I am an essentialist and therefore a Christian?)

There are, as far as I can see, two models of the self supported by postmodernism. We can think of them as the "mask theory" and the "component theory."

1. Mask Theory

The mask theory states that we are composed of masks. In different situations we wear different masks, which is another way of saying that we play different roles. Usually we wear these different masks, or play these different roles, when around different people. A submissive intern might be an aggressive conflict-monger on the soccer field. We can be a goof at times, and at times respectable. We can be a father or a son, a mother or a wife. Different people, in different situations, have different expectations of us, and we try to live up to those expectations. This is why we (or many people) feel anxious if friends or acquaintances from different contexts meet and interact with us simultaneously: we don't know which mask to wear.

The final point in this idea is that there is either nothing beneath the mask, or nothing we can ever experience.. including the wearer. If there is a true, authentic self, it is hidden. So says this theory.

We can trace this idea back to Confuciansim and to social psychology. In fact, I think it was from social psychology that this idea was born.

2. Component Theory
I've never heard this called the Component Theory before, but I think it's an apt name. It's been refered to as the Artichoke View of the Self before, if the culinary arts help you process things. This idea holds that people are composed of different bits: desires, emotions, fears, physical sensations, memories, gaps in memories, dreams, aptitudes, beliefs, neuroses, and so forth. You can imagine these either as functions of different parts of the brain, or you can imagine these as nebulous non-material entities. Whatever. Put these all together and you get a person, a self. But none of these alone makes up the self, and you can replace all of the parts over time, like the atoms and cells in your body are replaced. There is no single lasting thing that holds it all together. There is no core. There is no dreamer; there are only dreams.

(That's why it's called the Artichoke View of the Self. If you pull off all of the surface pieces of the artichoke, there's nothing left. Except that artichokes have hearts, which seems to undermine the whole image. It's also sometimes called the Onion View of the Self, I think.)

Descartes famously said, "Cogito ergo sum," meaning, "I think, therefore I am." In experiencing thoughts, he reasoned there must be a thing that thinks. The Buddhists disagreed. (Perhaps their language allowed them to do so; Descartes was using Latin verbs, which come with subjects built in, so the process thinking requires a thinker. I know nothing about Sanskrit, so I can't say whether their language is freer to have a verb without a subect?) In experiencing thoughts, they sought that which generated these thoughts. All they found were memories and sense impressions. They found no thing, no self, which experienced them. They therefore deduced that sense impressions arise and give birth to memories and desires; memories and desires, interacting, give birth to thoughts and emotions. This is all we are, a bundle of components which come and go, without permanency.

Did you know that the word "individual" means "that which is indivisable"? In this view, the word "individual" refer to a person or self is erroneous.

As I've revealed already, this line of thinking can be traced back to Buddhism and to the cognitive and neurological sciences.


I think these ideas are intriguing and revealing, but incomplete. I do wholeheartedly agree that we do wear masks and that not doing so is unhealthy. I also wholeheartedly agree that we are built of components: thoughts, drives, desires, fears, boundries, memories, abilities, language. But I cannot accept that this is all we are. I also can't convince you to believe me, and that's not my aim.

As it stands, then, this is my conception of the self:

There is a core self, buried deep within us somewhere. I would call it a soul. You may prefer thinking of it as a shard of Sophia or a little Buddha or an Atman or a life essence or neurological predispositions (or basic programming, if you're a Cylon). In doesn't matter. I'm talking about the indivisable element unique to each of us. (Or not unique, if you prefer.)

Around this are these self-components: thought, fears, feelings, drives, neuroses, and so on. The core self is buried beneath these.

The components shift in re-arrange in patterns. Most often they react to the situation, surfacing or burying depending on the social role the person is playing. Those components fitting to a father or son or lover rise in the times the person is called to play that role. (And, of course, some components come up when it's unfitting, too, and we feel the need to control these. This feeling may also be a self-component.) These are the masks we discussed previously; the components arrange to become masks.
But the core self is capable of exerting some influence over the whole system. Sure, the self-components are unruly and often rebel against that influence (which I think we can conveniently call willpower). This is self-control. Exerting it improperly will screw up the patterns of the system and may lead to distress; exerting it properly will allow the system to play at roles better and, even more importantly, defy those roles if morality calls for it.

And of course it may become necessary to purge certain components. That cannot be easy, and you may need to turn to outside help (medication, therapy, the Holy Spirit).

There are numerous ramifications of this theory, and I'm not done working through them yet. In particular I'm thinking about people with DID, about ethics, about dying to oneself to become a little Christ (seems to me like purging the "bad" components), about playing roles to avoid stagnation. It seems to me important to develop an idea of what the self is in order to practice self-control properly.


But I don't want you to walk away with the impression that I am certain about this theory. I'm not at all. I suspect it's wrong, actually. It's just the best I have so far. Which means that I'd like you, if you've read this far, to tell me where you think problems may lie. Either you may have personal experiences which invalidate this, or you may have read psychological or theological treatises which dismantle it, or you may be a keen logician capable of seeing some sort of contradiction. Lay it on me. This is provisional; this is what I have so far.


Jon Wong said...

2 things.

I didn't mention this to you when we talked about Post-Modernism but the mask theory is the reason why I can't STAND it when people, without asking, assume that it's ok for them to bring a friend or significant other to a social gathering. Obviously, this is fine in some contexts, but in some cases, it just messes up the whole social dynamic, especially if I'm doing the planning and someone says this: "I hope you don't mind but I invited..."

FUCK NO! Because what am I supposed to say to that?

Second thing. Your component/artichoke theory made me think of a conversation I once had at camp where someone asked, if you broke off, say, a piece of the Titanic, could you even say that it's a piece of the Titanic? I mean, if you replaced it with another piece of equal shape and size, then the replacement piece becomes part of the Titanic, right? And if you called the piece you broke off "a piece of the Titanic," then it would theoretically be possible for you to build 2 ships that have equal claim to be "The Titanic" if you slowly replaced each piece with another piece and used the original to construct a new ship.

Brad Phillis said...

Have you read John Perry's "A Dialogue On Personal Identity and Immortality?" I think, in light of this musing, that you might enjoy it. It's more concerned with questions of the mind-body problem than it is with the ways that we define the self, but would still be worth your time if you've never read it.

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