The idea that the self (an ego or a disembodied consciousness) is somehow a completely autonomous being turns out to be rooted in christian theology. Michael Steinberg makes the case that in pre-christian times and even to some extent during the earlier centuries of christianity, the self was almost entirely a construct of social discourse. In those more ancient human times the self was thought of as something negotiated within the community, or in other words, a person's identlity as such was defined entirely within the context of the whole tribe. (Of course this still happens today, but in addition to that negotiated self we tend to envision ourselves as separate entities or as self-contained units who are entirely autonomous - and imaginary to a great extent.)
Steinberg insists that even in the ancient religions the divine was never some kind of absolute, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good superbeing, but rather that the identity and the power of each of the gods was also socially derived (within the context of the divine community). In the Greek religion for example all of the gods are both good and bad and each one has certain powers and certain interests, and in the same way that the self was known to be a socially constructed entity, the relation of humans to gods was similarly a negotiated scenario. For instance, a person might have a special attachment to Apollo and might pray to him for some kind of service, of course if Apollo failed to deliver, then the person might turn to Aphrodite or to Zeus or whichever god seemed most apt to fulfill the desire.
However with the success of the supergod religions (christianity and islam) the relation of the self to the god has also become autonomous, direct, and absolute. In this sense the different cultural beliefs tend to define the sorts of selves that we will create. The idea that we are each free, autonomous, independent minds reflects the christian theism from which it has emerged. We tend to see ourselves in the same sort of configurations that we see our gods. And at the present time, in the service of the capitalist culture that is taking over the whole world it is crucial that the christianized idea of the self be maintained because it perfectly fits the consumer/commodity/market economy.
It is because we are fully convinced that the self is indeed a radically independent being that makes a belief in the Olympian religion seem utterly ludicrous to us today. It is essential that a certain kind of self (mind, ego, consciousness) be believed in to accomodate a belief in a certain kind of god. Take away that christian god and replace it with a capitalist ideology and it will work wonderfully—for a while, but the fulfillment of commodity purchases and product ownership eventually becomes as delusional as the christian theology it wishes to replace.
So how do those who reject capitalism and reject christianity (or theism) see themselves? For Steinberg, it is obvious that each of us is an intelligent, conscious body, and because we-bodies can use a language we can each negotiate what the self is through our dialogues and our actions with the other intelligent bodies with whom we share our language. We can also construct our selves through a dialogue with our own bodies in our own language. So, in a sense, (and I tend to agree) we need to reintegrate our selves with the ways that our ancestors once viewed their own human predicament (without the need for a realm of the supernatural to reflect our own shortcomings), but also realizing that these bodies speak in other languages that we have almost entirely ignored at our own peril.
Don’t you think the language changes as the priorities change?
It seems a bit of a distraction to try too hard to image what life was like for our ancestors, but I do find the point about the tribal self and the Christian self to be helpful. The Christian self is the civilized self - would you agree? It is a self that transcends face-to-face relationships, a self that can read and write and make deals with strangers. It is reflected in a god which rules not just a tribe but a world, and then a universe.
I don’t think we need to consider going back to any ancient self-language which we can only really speculate about. From earlier discussions under the CanZen brand I’m guessing what you want is for people to be more in tune with their senses. That certainly has been a major part of my own journey away from emotional confusion. Yet I think it’s possible that the way I experience sensory information may be quite different from my ancestors in Europe who were cold and hungry often enough to never forget it. I can sit here and admire the breeze in the maple tree out my window without dread of how soon those leaves will drop off in a cold rain. I welcome the idea of cold rain! I imagine I will be in here with my thermostat set to an exact and comfortable temperature. I predict that I will have the health and leisure required to enjoy watching the maple leaves turn color, that when the cold fog arrives I won’t experience it as an adversary but as a harbinger of our excellent Rogue Valley apples and pears. I can also expect to have a modest amount of money available and for the clerk at the Ashland Food Co-op to welcome me and the cash.
All of this provides material for the constructed self, the self which exists in relationship with a physical and social world. My attention turns to another aspect of self, which in the understanding of Christianity (and Buddhism, for that matter) is a soul or consciousness which survives physical death.
My interest is not in the validity or invalidity of the statement ‘survives physical death’ but in the experience which arises in the absence of the constructed self. That death, which comes and goes all the time in little flashes, and speaks a wordless language not dependent upon either thought or physical sensations. Who experiences that?
It’s a bit difficult to compress an essay of 25 pages (that fits contextually into a much larger book) into three neat paragraphs, since we seem to be on somewhat similar journeys Pat, you did grasp the crucial concepts. I was struck by the contrasting ways in which the ancient religions compare with the supergod religions and how this social discourse frames the nature of the selves they help to create. I find the images of the christian god playing very strongly into how we envision our selves to be.
Take for example this idea that we have minds. I have lately (over the last dozen years) found this to be a very troublesome concept, yet people have no difficulty referring to their minds and using the noun as if it actually points to something with an almost physical existence (like the “thinking thing” from Descartes). For someone to claim “I don’t have a mind!” is considered to be unreasonable and verging on the psychotic. (As I said before the word ‘mind’ for me is a verb that actually means “to pay attention to” and aside from that action, the word doesn’t refer to anything else.) I once told a colleague that my feeling was that believing in the existence of a mind is the first step to believing in the existence of a god (or perhaps historically it happens the other way around according to Steinberg?).
Interesting to think that once we have fully accepted that we have minds (these mental substances that have perculated down from the idea of a god), what happens when we suddenly realize that there is no god? What happens to our discourse? What happens to how we use certain words? What happens to our language? And, what happens (as you say in that last paragraph), “in the experience which arises in the absence of the constructed self?” When god was still there to embrace our disembodied minds we could find some kind of comfort “knowing” that we were going into another realm and would be welcomed there by other similar beings. But when god is dead and the constructed self is completely bracketed off, what is it that one experiences? (The death or the dying of the mind, perhaps?)
Of course, for people like me, (people who have lost their minds) there is no real problem in attempting to experience the fully deconstructed self. I already know that I am a conscious body and that within this body-life I have a certain repertoire of potential experiences. If I close off access to all the constructs of me (son, writer, gardener, 51 yrs. old, gay, etc.) and I ignore completely all of my senses, I still have language to defend my existence even though at that point i’m just hearing quiet little, “me, me, me’s” echoing through this sensually and intellectually “frozen” body..
It seems to me that the real problem arises when the vast majority still believe in the existence of their minds, but no longer believe in the existence of god. That really is the existential fear that people like Nietzche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Camus, had to confront, even though only the first and the latter two were atheists.
If the self doesn’t actually exist, if it is entirely a social construct, who are you trying to convince that it is so? The fact that you have to write a long essay trying to prove it implies you believe there are a number of individuals out there, each his own self, who will read your essay, individually evaluate it, and come to some conclusion about it. Some individuals will agree, and some, like me, will see the conclusion you make as inherently self-contradictory.
Hi Guest - yes, societies are constructed by numbers of individuals, no problem with that idea. CanZen wrote ‘I am a conscious body’. We would probably all agree that our society is a collection of conscious bodies.
Beyond that, I’d say we’re discussing people’s self-image. If you were to complete the sentence ‘I am a person who….’ you would be describing your self-image. We can put a lot of effort into defending a socially constructed self-image without even being aware that we’re getting all worked up over a phantom. Does that make sense to you?
We’re also discussing what you might call an ‘atheism of self’. Just as we’d agree that the universe was not designed by an intelligent individual, we might also agree that the ‘intelligent individual’ behind our personal actions could be more empty than we imagine.
What is this ‘intelligent individual’ behind the writing of these words? We could describe it as a collection of processes, right? It’s not a simple object, like a piece of paper. Yet in some mysterious way, it does feel like a simple object, to itself.
Looking at this is not just a word game because our behaviour is very much linked to our self-image, our identity, our sense of ourselves. As these assumptions about the self are brought into conscious awareness, doubts arise, just as a critical examination of a religious belief can lead to doubts.
CanZen makes a very good point about what I could call ‘half-way emptiness’ where we realize that there is no person ‘God’ but still believe in a person ‘me’. We’ve traded an immortal ‘soul’ for a mortal ‘mind’ - and created a lot of anxiety in this unnecessary trade.
So I ask you, guest, what is the essential nature of the ‘particular self’ which you refer to?
This question does lead into a hall of mirrors initially, but those mirrors can turn into windows.
The only thing I am saying Guest is that the self is not a mind. The self is not some entity that we might imagine ourselves to be. The self is, however, an intelligent, conscious body. And the reason I write this is so that other conscious bodies might read it and find something interesting in what I am saying.
Look Guest, I know that the idea of a mind is a difficult thing to lose, and if you equate the self entirely with the “thing” called a mind, then of course it is an illusion. Yet as intelligent bodies who know how to use a language we are very capable of minding in many various ways. We can mind our senses, we can mind our emotions, we can mind language, we can mind (pay attention to) the way other people are minding, but in spite of all this embodied, conscious activity there is no other thing that we can refer to as our minds. The self is certainly something real, but it is not a mind. If you look at yourself as you actually do exist, you will know a conscious being that can do a lot of amazing intellectual tricks . . . sometimes we just happen to fool ourselves with our own cognitive tricks.
“Mind,” as it’s thought to be in Western culture (noun form), is a fiction. Such a word can be retooled and put to work in a variety of ways, but in my estimation at least, it has little or no proper place in serious discussions of cognitive or moral-ethical domains.
Here is a distinction that I have found helpful when thinking about these issues:
There is a difference between a subject of experience verses an enduring self. The enduing self is thought of as an entity that persists through times. It is the subject of memories and the origin of desire and intention.
A subject of experience is simply that which experiences (or has experiences). It may or may not persist through time.
David Hume (and Buddha) denied that there are enduring selves, but I think both would agree that there are subjects of experience.
To say that there are subjects of experience is just to say that experiences happen to subjects. But it is not to say that there are selves that persist through time. This is rather difficult to get your mind around, but I think this distinction can help deal the the above comments from Guest.
Another aspect of this is the distinction that is made is some meditative and exoteric teachings between ego and essence. Ego being a mechanical entity that is temporary, what waltercat is calling the subject of experience. Essence is the enduring identity. One analogy that goes back to Plato is that of a chariot: the body is the chariot itself, the emotions are the horses, the driver is the intellect, and the essential self is the consciousness that tells the driver where to go.
[quote author=“burt”]One analogy that goes back to Plato is that of a chariot: the body is the chariot itself, the emotions are the horses, the driver is the intellect, and the essential self is the consciousness that tells the driver where to go.
Or maybe the muscles are the horses, the brain is the driver, and consciousness is the wind blowing through the driver’s hair.
Oh, those 2500-year-old analogies! Always good for a few laughs. Burt’s chariot lurches, nearly keeling over, as it strikes a pothole represented by contact with the real world. The pothole that Burt is bouncing off is nearly bottomless, but the chariot’s wheels, represented by Burt’s feet, remain safely suspended above it. :D
Burt’s general attitude is that the chariot itself occupies only a very small portion of the road at any particular time. If you keep your eyes closed so tight, the potholes are the only thing that tell you you’re going anywhere, rather than just standing around in the wind.
Overweening consciousness of (or confidence in) the significance of consciousness is a self-reinforcing delusion, and is the impoverished cousin of theism. Skepticism regarding the nature of causality is counterproductive to cognition that organizes the world by causality.
Given what is being said about the self, and subjects of experience here, a philosopher who spends any time in a grocery store obtaining food is a traitor to his profession.
[quote author=“CanZen”]I guess that if one stands in the wind long enough he can fall under the illusion that he is actually moving. Frankly, this magical motion thing doesn’t seem to work for me?
Well, with blow hards like salt creek about, it is pretty windy. If you happen to be in Tucson the second week in April you might enjoy the Tucson 8: Toward a Science of Consciousness conference. I’ll be there and will provide you with an outline of a completely scientific theory of the self (far too long to go into here (or I’m too lazy) over a beer).
FIrst of all burt, the implication in the official title of the conference “Toward a Science of Consciousness” is that consciousness does not have a science as such. This is perhaps a show of the underlying problem . . . is this one of those occasions where metaphysical assumptions about certain phenomena (mind) continue to drive research in many of the wrong directions? Maybe by Tucson 12 or 15, these people will see that they haven’t gotten very far from 1994?
I was impressed by the reputation of some of the speakers at the 2006 conference Temple Grandin, Douglas Hofstadter, and John Searle to name a few. However, I would be very interested in your, “outline of a completely scientific theory of the self” that you appear to have in your possession. Perhaps you can email it - check your messages here?
[quote author=“homunculus”]“Mind,” as it’s thought to be in Western culture (noun form), is a fiction. Such a word can be retooled and put to work in a variety of ways, but in my estimation at least, it has little or no proper place in serious discussions of cognitive or moral-ethical domains.
And exactly what is all this argument about “cognitive or moral-ethical domains” aimed at, if not my mind?
All of these arguments are pretty self-contradictory. You are trying to appeal to my mind in order to persuade me that I don’t have one. If true, this would be pretty futile and pointless, wouldn’t it?
BTW, I am the “Guest” that posted earlier. I’ve been having some trouble with my account with this forum.
I didn’t think it was all that difficult to grasp that these arguments are NOT aimed at your mind, but they are aimed at you. You are an intelligent, living body who uses language, and if you use this language to imagine that you have that extra thing called a mind, then of course our plea is going to look self-contradictory to you. I guess you haven’t noticed the self-contradictory attitude in your own statement
“You are trying to appeal to my mind in order to persuade me”
Notice how you (the intelligent, conscious being that you are) appear to possess this other thing called a mind . . . what the hell is that? Why would I wish to appeal to this apparent ghost that you imagine you have some kind of ownership over in order to convince you? If your ability to use a language is this thing you call mind, perhaps that’s just you (as body subject) minding your linguistic capability - minding is an action that you, as intelligent body, perform. It is SELF-contradictory (the self against language use . . . contra - diction) what you are arguing.