“Before You Were Born I Knew You”

The_Summoner_-_Ellesmere_Chaucer-300x282The Summoner in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales,
Ellesmere MSS, circa 1400

Last time we looked at the common dualistic paradigm of consciousness, which is based on (a) the belief that humans are made in two parts — an ethereal self housed in a physical body — and (b) the corollary belief that religion and the humanities understand the self best, while science is the proper lens for the body.

Current neuroscience theorizes instead that consciousness arises from brain, body, and environment — all part of the physical, natural world, and therefore best understood by scientific inquiry.

We looked at the origins of the dualistic paradigm last time. This week, we’ll look at an example of how it works in the world of jobs and careers —  particularly the notion of being “called” to a “vocation.”

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the notion of “calling” entered the English language around Chaucer’s time, originating from Old Norse kalla — “to cry loudly, summon in a loud voice; name, call by name.” Being legally summoned wasn’t a happy thing in Chaucer’s day (it still isn’t), and summoners were generally wicked, corrupt, and otherwise worthy of Chaucer’s pillory in The Friar’s Tale.

“Calling” got an image upgrade a century and a half later, in the 1550’s, when the term acquired the connotation of “vocation, profession, trade, occupation.” Meanwhile, “vocation” took on the meaning of “spiritual calling,” from Old French vocacio, meaning “call, consecration; calling, profession,” and Latin vocationem — “a calling, a being called” to “one’s occupation or profession.”

“Calling” and “vocation” together support the common dream of being able to do the work we were born to do, and the related belief that this would make our work significant and us happy. The idea of vocational calling is distinctly Biblical:[1]

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Jeremiah 1:5 (ESV

Something in us — an evolutionary survival instinct, I would guess — wants to be known, especially by those in power. Vocational calling invokes power at the highest level:  never mind your parents’ hormones, you were a gleam in God’s eye; and never mind the genes you inherited, God coded vocational identity and purpose into your soul.

2600 years after Jeremiah, we’re still looking for the same kind of affirmation.

“Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at Yale School of Management and a leading scholar on meaning at work, told me that she senses a great deal of anxiety among her students and clients. ‘They think their calling is under a rock,’ she said, ‘and that if they turn over enough rocks, they will find it.’ If they do not find their one true calling, she went on to say, they feel like something is missing from their lives and that they will never find a job that will satisfy them. And yet only about one third to one half of people whom researchers have surveyed see their work as a calling. Does that mean the rest will not find meaning and purpose in their careers?”

The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith

If only one-third to one-half of us feel like we’re living our vocational calling, then why do we hang onto the dream? Maybe the problem is what Romantic Era poet William Wordsworth wrote about in his Ode:  Intimations of Immortality:

“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

“Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.”

I.e., maybe something tragic happens when an immortal self comes to live in a mortal body. This, too, is a common corollary belief to body/soul dualism — religion’s distrust of “the flesh” is standard issue.

Cognitive neuroscientist Christian Jarrett offers career advice to the afflicted:  you might be able to turn the job you already have into a calling if you invest enough in it, or failing that, you might find your source of energy and determination somewhere else than in your work. This Forbes article reaches a similar conclusion:

“Years ago, I read a very thought-provoking article by Michael Lewis … about the difference between a calling and a job. He had some powerful insights. What struck me most were two intriguing concepts:

‘There’s a direct relationship between risk and reward. A fantastically rewarding career usually requires you to take fantastic risks.’

‘A calling is an activity that you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it — often to the detriment of your life outside of it.’”

I.e., maybe career satisfaction isn’t heaven-sent; maybe instead it’s developed in the unglamorous daily grind of life in the flesh.

More on historical roots and related beliefs coming up.

[1] For more Biblical examples, see Isaiah 44:24:  Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: Galatians 1:15:  But when he who had set me apart before I was born; Psalm 139:13, 16:  13  For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb; your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall…

mirror mirror

“If you were to ask the average person in the street about their self, they would most likely describe the individual who inhabits their body. They believe they are more than just their bodies. Their bodies are something their selves control. When we look in the mirror, we regard the body as a vessel we occupy.

“The common notion [is] that our self is an essential entity at the core of our existence that holds steady throughout our life. The ego experiences life as a conscious, thinking person with a unique historical background that defines who he or she is. This is the ‘I’ that looks back in the bathroom mirror and reflects who is the ‘me.’”

The Self Illusion:  How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood[1] (2012)

The idea that we are a self riding through life in a body is deeply ingrained in western thinking. Descartes gets most of the credit for it, but its religious and philosophical roots are much more ancient. (The same is true of the eastern, Buddhist idea that there’s no such a thing as a self. We’ll talk origins another time.)

Descartes’ dualism has the curious effect of excusing us from thinking too closely about what we mean by it. It does this by locating the body in the physical, biological, natural world while placing the self in a transcendent realm that parallels the natural world but remains apart from it. The body, along with the rest of the natural world, is the proper subject of scientific inquiry, but the self and its ethereal realm remain inscrutable, the province of faith and metaphor, religion and the humanities. David P. Barash[2] captures the implications of this dichotomy in Through a Glass Brightly:  Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are (2018):

“Science differs from theology and the humanities in that it is made to be improved on and corrected over time… By contrast, few theologians, or fundamentalist religious believers of any stripe, are likely to look kindly on ‘revelations’ that suggest corrections to their sacred texts. In 1768, Baron d’Holbach, a major figure in the French Enlightenment, had great fun with this. In his satire Portable Theology (written under the pen name Abbe Bernier, to hide from the censors), d’Holbach defined Religious Doctrine as ‘what every good Christian must believe or else be burned, be it in this world or the next. The dogmas of the Christian religion are immutable decrees of God, who cannot change His mind except when the Church does.’

“By contrast, science not only is open to improvement and modifications but also is to a large extent defined by this openness. Whereas religious practitioners who deviate from their traditions are liable to be derogated — and sometimes killed — for this apostasy …, science thrives on correction and adjustment, aiming not to enshrine received wisdom and tradition but to move its insights closer to correspondence with reality as found in the natural world.”

Attempts to bridge the realms of body and soul end up in pseudo-science, eventually discredited and often silly. Consider for example the ether (or sometimes “aether”) — a term that since Plato and Aristotle has been applied to both the rarefied air only the gods can breathe and the stuff light moves through in inter-stellar space.[3]

You don’t need to be a poet or or prophet to think the self is inviolate. It’s just so obvious to most of us that there’s a self inside who watches and knows all about us — who in fact is us. We experience it as that never-silent internal voice — observing and commenting, often critiquing, sometimes shaming — that always seems to be accurate. We’ve been hearing it for as long as we can remember:  it’s embedded in our brain’s memory banks, all the way back to when we first started remembering things and using language to describe and record them.

We have always been aware that we are aware:
we don’t just observe, we observe ourselves observing.

Hence the belief that we are body and soul seems not worth challenging. Which is why, in keeping with this blog’s purpose, we’re going to do precisely that.

Cartesian dualism is foundational to self-awareness and to our cultural beliefs and institutions. It guides everything from religious faith to criminal culpability, health and wellbeing to mental illness. And so much more. As a result, taking a closer look will not only challenge our perceptions of what it real, it will shake reality itself. This inquiry won’t be easy. Again from The Self Illusion:

“Understanding that the self could be an illusion is really difficult… Our self seems so convincing, so real to us. But then again, many aspects of our experience are not what they seem.

“Psychologist Susan Blackmore makes the point that the word ‘illusion’ does not mean that it does not exist — rather an illusion is not what it seems. We all certainly experience some form of self, but what we experience is a powerful deception generated by our brains for our own benefit.”

That’s where we going. Hang tight.

[1] Bruce Hood is an experimental psychologist at the University of Bristol. He specializes in developmental cognitive neuroscience.

[2] David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington.

[3] For a useful primer, see The Eternal Quest for Aether, the Cosmic Stuff That Never Was, Popular Mechanics (Oct 19, 2018).