Narratives of Self, Purpose, and Meaning [Part 1]: Fish Stories

A friend of mine is a Christian, business leader, author, and fisherman. He tells fish stories in each of those roles. At least it feels that way to me, so I take his stories “with a grain of salt.” A Roman luminary named Pliny the Elder[1] used that phrase in a poison antidote in 77 A.D., and he meant it literally. Today, it describes how we respond when it feels like someone’s story – like the fish –  just keeps getting bigger.

I don’t care about my friend’s fish, I care about him. When he tells a fish story, he’s sharing his personal narrative. “This is who I am,” he’s saying, “And this is how I believe life works.”

“Each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’, wrote the British neurologist Oliver Sacks, ‘this narrative is us’. Likewise the American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner: ‘Self is a perpetually rewritten story.’ And: ‘In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’ Or a fellow American psychologist, Dan P McAdams: ‘We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.’ And here’s the American moral philosopher J David Velleman: ‘We invent ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.’ And, for good measure, another American philosopher, Daniel Dennett: ‘we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best “faces” on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.’”[2]

“Each of us conducts our lives according to a set of assumptions about how things work: how our society functions, its relationship with the natural world, what’s valuable, and what’s possible. This is our worldview, which often remains unquestioned and unstated but is deeply felt and underlies many of the choices we make in our lives.”[3]

The Self

This kind of narrative assumes the self is an entity all its own, with a purpose also all its own, and that if you get both in hand, you’ll know the meaning of life – at least your own. Current neuro-psychology doesn’t see things that way.

“The idea of there being a single ‘self’, hidden in a place that only maturity and adulthood can illuminate and which, like archaeologists, we might dig and dust away the detritus to find, is to believe that there is some inner essence locked within us – and that unearthing it could be a key to working out how to live the rest of our lives. This comforting notion of coming of age, of unlocking a true ‘self’ endures, even though it is out of step with current thinking in psychology, which denies a singular identity.”[4]

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless.”[5]

For most people, that scientific outlook is too harsh:

“From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.”[6]

Self-Actualization

Cultivating a sense of identity, purpose, and meaning sounds good, but who’s got time? Maslow’s iconic “Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid recognizes that adult life puts the basics first.

“Abraham Maslow was the 20th-century American psychologist best-known for explaining motivation through his hierarchy of needs, which he represented in a pyramid. At the base, our physiological needs include food, water, warmth and rest. Moving up the ladder, Maslow mentions safety, love, and self-esteem and accomplishment. But after all those have been satisfied, the motivating factor at the top of the pyramid involves striving to achieve our full potential and satisfy creative goals. As one of the founders of humanistic psychology, Maslow proposed that the path to self-transcendence and, ultimately, greater compassion for all of humanity requires the ‘self-actualisation’ at the top of his pyramid – fulfilling your true potential, and becoming your authentic self.”[7]

Columbia psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman thinks we ought to get self-actualization off the back burner, for the sake of ourselves and our world.

“‘We live in times of increasing divides, selfish concerns, and individualistic pursuits of power,’ Kaufman wrote recently in a blog in Scientific American introducing his new research. He hopes that rediscovering the principles of self-actualisation might be just the tonic that the modern world is crying out for.”[8]

Kaufman’s research suggests that making room for self-awareness and growth helps to develop character traits that the world could use more of:

“Participants’ total scores… correlated with their scores on the main five personality traits (that is, with higher extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, openness and conscientiousness) and with the metatrait of ‘stability’, indicative of an ability to avoid impulses in the pursuit of one’s goals.

“Next, Kaufman turned to modern theories of wellbeing, such as self-determination theory, to see if people’s scores on his self-actualisation scale correlated with these contemporary measures. Sure enough, he found that people with more characteristics of self-actualisation also tended to score higher on curiosity, life-satisfaction, self-acceptance, personal growth and autonomy, among other factors.

“A criticism often levelled at Maslow’s notion of self-actualisation is that its pursuit encourages an egocentric focus on one’s own goals and needs. However, Maslow always contended that it is only through becoming our true, authentic selves that we can transcend the self and look outward with compassion to the rest of humanity. Kaufman explored this too, and found that higher scorers on his self-actualisation scale tended also to score higher on feelings of oneness with the world, but not on decreased self-salience, a sense of independence and bias toward information relevant to oneself. (These are the two main factors in a modern measure of self-transcendence developed by the psychologist David Yaden at the University of Pennsylvania.)

“The new test is sure to reinvigorate Maslow’s ideas, but if this is to help heal our divided world, then the characteristics required for self-actualisation, rather than being a permanent feature of our personalities, must be something we can develop deliberately. I put this point to Kaufman and he is optimistic. ‘I think there is significant room to develop these characteristics [by changing your habits],’ he told me. ‘A good way to start with that,’ he added, ‘is by first identifying where you stand on those characteristics and assessing your weakest links. Capitalise on your highest characteristics but also don’t forget to intentionally be mindful about what might be blocking your self-actualisation … Identify your patterns and make a concerted effort to change. I do think it’s possible with conscientiousness and willpower.’”[9]

But What if There’s No Self to Actualize?

If there’s no unified self, then there’s no beneficiary for all that “concerted effort to change” and “conscientiousness and willpower.”

“The idea of there being a single ‘self’, hidden in a place that only maturity and adulthood can illuminate and which, like archaeologists, we might dig and dust away the detritus to find, is to believe that there is some inner essence locked within us – and that unearthing it could be a key to working out how to live the rest of our lives. This comforting notion of coming of age, of unlocking a true ‘self’ endures, even though it is out of step with current thinking in psychology, which denies a singular identity.[10]

Again, it’s hard for most of us to live with that much existential angst[11]. We prefer instead to think there’s a unique self (soul) packed inside each of us, and to invest it with significance.

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless. From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.

“Instead, people latch onto what I call teleological thinking. Teleological thinking is when people perceive phenomena in terms of purpose. When applied to natural phenomena, this type of thinking is generally considered to be flawed because it imposes design where there is no evidence for it. To impose purpose and design where there is none is what researchers refer to as a teleological error.”[12]

Teleological thinking finds design and purpose in the material world[13] to counter the feeling that we’re at the mercy of random pointlessness. We prefer our reality to be by design, so that we have a chance to align ourselves with it – a form of personal empowerment psychologists call “agency.”

“Each of us has a story we tell about our own life, a way of structuring the past and fitting events into a coherent narrative. Real life is chaotic; life narratives give it meaning and structure.”[14]

The Coming of Age Narrative

Further, we look to a specific cultural rite of passage – when we “come of age” in late adolescence — as the time when we first discover and take responsibility for our unique self and its identity and purpose. From there, we carry that sense of who we are and where we fit into responsible adult life.

“The protagonist has the double task of self-integration and integration into society… Take, for instance, the fact that the culminating fight scene in most superhero stories occurs only after the hero has learned his social lesson – what love is, how to work together, or who he’s ‘meant to be’. Romantic stories climax with the ultimate, run-to-the-airport revelation. The family-versus-work story has the protagonist making a final decision to be with his loved ones, but only after almost losing everything. Besides, for their dramatic benefit, the pointedness and singular rush of these scenes stems from the characters’ desire to finally gain control of their self: to ‘grow up’ with one action or ultimate understanding.[15]

The Redemption Narrative

The coming of age story is a variant of the “redemption” narrative, in which we learn that suffering is purposeful: it shapes and transforms us, so we can take our place in society.

“For the past 15 years, Daniel McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois, has explored this story and its five life stages: (1) an early life sense of being somehow different or special, along with (2) a strong feeling of moral steadfastness and determination, ultimately (3) tested by terrible ordeals that are (4) redeemed by a transformation into positive experiences and (5) zeal to improve society.

“This sequence doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual events of the storyteller’s life, of course. It’s about how people interpret what happened – their spin, what they emphasise in the telling and what they discard.” [16]

Redemption narratives make us good citizens, and never mind if there’s some ego involved:

“In his most recent study, the outcome of years of intensive interviews with 157 adults, McAdams has found that those who adopt [redemption narratives] tend to be generative – that is, to be a certain kind of big-hearted, responsible, constructive adult.

“Generative people are deeply concerned about the future; they’re serious mentors, teachers and parents; they might be involved in public service. They think about their legacy, and want to fix the world’s problems.

“But generative people aren’t necessarily mild-mannered do-gooders. Believing that you have a mandate to fix social problems – and that you have the moral authority and the ability to do so – also requires a sense of self-importance, even a touch of arrogance.”[17]

The American Way

Coming of age and redemption stories have been culturally and neurologically sustained in Western and Middle Eastern civilizations since the Abrahamic scriptures wrote about the Garden of Eden 5500 years ago. Americans, as heirs of this ideological legacy, have perfected it.

“For Americans, the redemption narrative is one of the most common and compelling life stories. In the arc of this life story, adversity is not meaningless suffering to be avoided or endured; it is transformative, a necessary step along the road to personal growth and fulfilment.[18]

“The coming-of-age tale has become an peculiarly American phenomenon, since self-understanding in the United States is largely predicated on a self-making mythos. Where, in Britain, one might be asked about one’s parents, one’s schooling or one’s background, Americans seem less interested in a person’s past and more interested in his or her future. More cynical observers have claimed, perhaps rightly, that this is because Americans don’t have a clear history and culture; but the coming-of-age tale has also become important in the US because of a constant – maybe optimistic, maybe pig-headed – insistence that one can always remake oneself. The past is nothing; the future is “everything.

“This idea of inherent, Adam-and-Eve innocence, and the particularly American interest in it, is perhaps tantamount to a renunciation of history. Such denialism infuses both American stories and narratives of national identity, said Ihab Hassan, the late Arab-American literary theorist. In any case, the American tale of growing up concerns itself with creating a singular, enterprising self out of supposed nothingness: an embrace of the future and its supposedly infinite possibilities.”[19]

American capitalism relies on the redemption narrative as its signature story genre.

“From a more sociological perspective, the American self-creation myth is, inherently, a capitalist one. The French philosopher Michel Foucault theorised that meditating and journaling could help to bring a person inside herself by allowing her, at least temporarily, to escape the world and her relationship to it. But the sociologist Paul du Gay, writing on this subject in 1996, argued that few people treat the self as Foucault proposed. Most people, he said, craft outward-looking ‘enterprising selves’ by which they set out to acquire cultural capital in order to move upwards in the world, gain access to certain social circles, certain jobs, and so on. We decorate ourselves and cultivate interests that reflect our social aspirations. In this way, the self becomes the ultimate capitalist machine, a Pierre Bourdieu-esque nightmare that willingly exploits itself.

“Even the idea that there is a discreet transition from youth into adulthood, either via a life-altering ‘feeling’ or via the culmination of skill acquisition, means that selfhood is a task to be accomplished in the service of social gain, and in which notions of productivity and work can be applied to one’s identity. Many students, for instance, are encouraged to take ‘gap years’ to figure out ‘who they are’ and ‘what they want to do’. (‘Do’, of course, being a not-so-subtle synonym for ‘work’.) Maturation is necessarily related to finances, and the expectation of most young people is that they will become ‘independent’ by entering the workforce. In this way, the emphasis on coming of age reifies the moral importance of work.” [20]

As usual, Silicon Valley is ahead of the game, having already harnessed the power of the redemption story as its own cultural norm:

“In Silicon Valley these days, you haven’t really succeeded until you’ve failed, or at least come very close. Failing – or nearly failing – has become a badge of pride. It’s also a story to be told, a yarn to be unspooled.

“The stories tend to unfold the same way, with the same turning points and the same language: first, a brilliant idea and a plan to conquer the world. Next, hardships that test the mettle of the entrepreneur. Finally, the downfall – usually, because the money runs out. But following that is a coda or epilogue that restores optimism. In this denouement, the founder says that great things have or will come of the tribulations: deeper understanding, new resolve, a better grip on what matters.

“Unconsciously, entrepreneurs have adopted one of the most powerful stories in our culture: the life narrative of adversity and redemption.”[21]

Writing Your Own Story

There’s nothing like a good story to make you rethink your life. A bookseller friend’s slogan for his shop is “Life is a story. Tell a good one.”

“The careers of many great novelists and filmmakers are built on the assumption, conscious or not, that stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it.

“New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones – that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we act.

“Across time and across cultures, stories have proved their worth not just as works of art or entertaining asides, but as agents of personal transformation.”[22]

As a result, some people think we ought to take Michel Foucault’s advice and meditate (practice “mindfulness”) and journal our way to a better self-understanding. As for journaling:

“In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity. Writing in the 1950s, the psychologist Erik Erikson put it this way:

“To be adult means among other things to see one’s own life in continuous perspective, both in retrospect and in prospect … to selectively reconstruct his past in such a way that, step for step, it seems to have planned him, or better, he seems to have planned it.

“Intriguingly, there’s some evidence that prompting people to reflect on and tell their life stories – a process called ‘life review therapy’ – could be psychologically beneficial.”[23]

Consistent with Scott Barry Kaufman’s comments from earlier, the more you can put a coming of age or redemption story spin on your own narrative, the more likely journaling will improve your outlook.

“A relevant factor in this regard is the tone, complexity and mood of the stories that people tell themselves. For instance, it’s been shown that people who tell more positive stories, including referring to more instances of personal redemption, tend to enjoy higher self-esteem and greater ‘self-concept clarity’ (the confidence and lucidity in how you see yourself). Perhaps engaging in writing or talking about one’s past will have immediate benefits only for people whose stories are more positive.

“It remains unclear exactly why the life-chapter task had the self-esteem benefits that it did. It’s possible that the task led participants to consider how they had changed in positive ways. They might also have benefited from expressing and confronting their emotional reactions to these periods of their lives – this would certainly be consistent with the well-documented benefits of expressive writing and ‘affect labelling’ (the calming effect of putting our emotions into words).

“The researchers said: ‘Our findings suggest that the experience of systematically reviewing one’s life and identifying, describing and conceptually linking life chapters may serve to enhance the self, even in the absence of increased self-concept clarity and meaning.’”[24]

An American Life

My friend the storyteller is an exemplar of all the above. He’s an American, a Christian, and a capitalist. And when he starts his day by journaling, he believes he’s writing what he’s hearing from God. I was most of that, too for the couple decades he and I shared narratives and teleological outlook. I’ve since moved on:  at this writing, we’ve had no contact for over three years. I wondered if I could still call him a friend — whether that term still applies  after your stories diverge as entirely as ours . Yes you can and yes it does, I decided, although I honestly can’t say why.

Religion: Teleological Thinking Perfected

Personal narratives – especially actually writing your own story – aren’t for everyone. They require quiet, solitude, and reflection, plus doing that feels egotistical if you’re not used to it. Religion offers a more common teleological alternative, with its beliefs, rituals, and practices designed to put you in touch with an external, transcendent source of your identity, purpose, and meaning. “Don’t look inward, look up,” is its message.

We’ll look at that next time.

[1] . Wikipedia. Pliny the Elder was a naturalist, military leader, friend of the Emperor, and a victim of the Vesuvius eruption.

[2] I Am Not a Story: Some find it comforting to think of life as a story. Others find that absurd. So are you a Narrative or a non-Narrative? Aeon (Sept. 3, 2015)

[3] Lent, Jeremy, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (2017)

[4] The Coming-Of-Age Con: How can you go about finding ‘who you really are’ if the whole idea of the one true self is a big fabrication? Aeon (Sept. 8, 2017)

[5] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (2018)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Do You Have A Self-Actualised Personality? Maslow Revisited. Aeon (Mar. 5, 2019)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Coming-Of-Age Con op. cit.

[11] Urban Dictionary: existential angst..

[12] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (July 2, 2018)

[13] Wikipedia.

[14] Silicon Phoenix: A Gifted Child, An Adventure, A Dark Time, And Then … A Pivot? How Silicon Valley Rewrote America’s Redemption Narrative, Aeon Magazine (May 2, 2016)

[15] The Coming-Of-Age Con, op cit.

[16] Silicon Phoenix, op. cit.

[17] Silicon Phoenix, op. cit.

[18] Silicon Phoenix, op. cit.

[19] The Coming-Of-Age Con op. cit.

[20] Silicon Phoenix, op cit.

[21] Silicon Phoenix, op cit.

[22] The Power of Story, op. cit.

[23] To Boost Your Self-Esteem, Write About Chapters of Your Life. Aeon (Apr. 5, 2019)

[24] Ibid.

Reborn Losers: Christian Cosmology and Worldview Are a Setup to Failure

Christian cosmology and worldview are complicated, stressful, and impossible. Trying to comply with them is a set up to failure. That failure begins with the concept of who we are as human beings living in human bodies.

I was a Christian, now I’m not. Sometimes I find it useful to write about what I believed then and compare it to what I don’t believe now. I try to express it simply, avoid religious assumptions and overtones, resist the urge to cringe at what I used to think and exalt in what I think now. Instead, I try to lay aside judgment, notice what comes up, and wonder about it. That’s the ideal, anyway — sometimes it’s more difficult than others to remain dispassionate. Today was one of those.

I wrote about cosmology (how the universe is organized) and worldview (how life works on Earth). Reading it afterward, it seemed that the Christian beliefs, institutions, and culture that dominated my life — and have dominated Western thought for two millennia — are about equal parts quaint and fantasy. I didn’t see it that way when I was immersed in them, but my last several years of study– especially neuroscience, psychology, and history — have upended my former cosmology and worldview, and taken my self concept with them.

I previously understood “reality” and my place in it by reference to a Truth outside of me. Today, I’m aware that everything I experience – including what I believe or not – is processed within my biological being.[1] My new sense of self and reality are now physical, not spiritual.

That shift has brought new clarity, simplicity, decisiveness, energy, focus, hope, joy, freedom, gratitude, and lots of other new dynamics I really like. By contrast, what struck me most about my former beliefs was how complicated they were, how stressful to maintain, and ultimately how generally impossible. Clinging to them was a setup to failure – I especially like being free of that.

The Trouble Starts With A Soul

Approaching life here by reference to a Truth out there leads us to believe in things that exist outside of us– in people, in ideas, in entities, in institutions…. That kind of thinking derives naturally from another foundational belief: that each person has an independent existence — a soul living inside their body – that sorts through available belief options and chooses this one over that.

“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.

“This sense that we are individuals inside bodies is sometimes called the “ego theory,” although philosopher Gale Strawson captures it poetically in what he calls the ‘pearl view’ of the self. The pearl view is the common notion 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.’”[2]

My Christian worldview bought all that, and also held that the soul is our highest and best self, because it came from where Truth dwells. It also held that it’s hard on a soul to be in a human body. The doctrinal specifics vary – we deliberately chose to screw things up and our souls took the hit for it, our souls got damaged in transit or in installation, or there was a flaw in the source code that eventually moved them away from their ideal nature, etc. – but the end result is that the soul’s potential good influence is minimized or lost, leaving us in the throes of “sin” – falling short of the perfect divine plan for what our souls could have been if they hadn’t gotten fouled up. And since the soul’s waywardness is foundational, its problem isn’t just sin but “original sin” – the beginning of all our troubles. We don’t just struggle with garden-variety human nature, which is bad enough, but with “the flesh,” which is worse, in fact so dreadful that it puts our eternal destiny at jeopardy.

That’s where it all begins:  with a divine, timeless, perfect soul trapped in an imperfect human body. The result is a hapless human subject to all kinds of cosmic misfortune.

And it only gets worse from there.

The Cosmology and Worldview That Was (And Still Is)

It’s tricky to line up a flawed soul in a flawed body with an external perfect standard of Truth. As a result, we’re constantly screwing up our reality compared to Reality. Plus there’s the problem of perception and deception –-not seeing Reality clearly – and the problem of temptation – enticements plying on our fleshly nature that just aren’t going to end well. It’s hard to keep a clear head in the midst of those pressures, and for that we have experts – people we have to trust to know things about Reality that the rest of us don’t.

But sooner or later all fall down – experts along with everybody else. Birth is the soul’s doorway into its precarious life in the flesh, and death is the doorway out. It would be nice if the door had been designed to swing both ways so we could check in with Truth and get straightened out now and then, but it shuts firmly in both directions, and no peeking. Which means our attempts to live here by reference to what’s over there are always seriously handicapped.

Sometimes you hear about people who get a backstage pass to go there and come back, and then they write books about it and go on tour and tell us what’s it’s like. That makes them a special kind of expert, but their reports often are full of all sorts of universality, which makes them doctrinally suspect. Fortunately, there are superhuman beings– kind of like us, kind of not, but at least conscious like us, and able to communicate – to help us out. Sometimes they make the trip over here, sometimes they snatch someone from here and show them around over there and then send them back, sometimes they open up a clear channel to communicate with somebody over here, and sometimes — and this is the best – they can be born as one of us and not have a problem with losing their soul’s connection to Truth while they’re here. The point is, one way or another, when they really need to communicate with us, they figure out how.

The whole lot of them rank higher than we do: the human race is in charge of the Earth, but they’re in charge of us (and everything else). God out-ranks everyone, of course – He[3] created everything, including them and us, and although the whole thing sure looks like a mess to us it doesn’t look that way to Him – or to them either, I guess. God is the ultimate creator, communicator, executive, and enforcer, and He has more consciousness than all the rest of us combined.

“Across all cultures and all religions, universally, people consider God to be a conscious mind. God is aware. God consciously chooses to make things happen. In physical reality the tree fell, the storm bowled over a house, the man survived the car crash, the woman died prematurely, the earth orbits the sun, the cosmos exists. For many people these events, big and small, must have a consciousness and an intentionality behind them. God is that consciousness.”[4]

Of course, God is busy, which is why He has all these underlings. They’re arranged in a hierarchy – it just makes sense that they would be – and range from great big scary powerful cosmic superheroes who get to make great big scary visitations and announcements and cause all kinds of great big scary events, all the way down to petty bureaucrats, drones, and proles just doing their dull but necessary jobs (but even they outrank us in the grand cosmic scheme).

“When our anthropomorphism is applied to religious thought, it’s notably the mind, rather than the body, that’s universally applied to spirits and gods. In the diverse cultures of the world, gods come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they always share is a mind with the ability to think symbolically just like a human. This makes sense in light of the critical importance of theory of mind in the development of our social intelligence: if other people have minds like ours, wouldn’t that be true of other agents we perceive to act intentionally in the world?”[5]

These conscious beings from over there sometimes pick a human or a whole tribe of humans to mediate Truth to the rest of us. Those people get a special supernatural security clearance, and we give their key personnel special titles like prophet and priest.

So far so good, but even Truth – also known as Heaven – has its internal power struggles. There’s a war over there between good and evil, God and Satan, angels and demons, and other kinds of beings in the high places, and some of it spills over into reality on our side of the divide. We therefore need to be careful about which of our experts are authentic and which aren’t, who they’re really serving and who they aren’t. The stakes are high, and if we’re wrong we’re going to pay with a lot of pain and suffering, both in this life and forever when we go through death’s one-way door.

And just to make things more complicated, these other-worldly beings sometimes use human experts as their agents, and they can be undercover. Plus, to make things impossibly, incomprehensibly complicated for our by now totally overtaxed souls, God and the other good guys sometimes take a turn at being deceptive themselves. The Cosmic Screenwriter apparently thought of everything in a bid to make our predicament as over-the-top bad as possible. In fact, some of what’s going on behind the scenes, taken right out of the Bible, would make a modern fantasy series blush with inadequacy – for example the part about the war in high places[6]:

“Ask, for instance, the average American Christian – say, some genial Presbyterian who attends church regularly and owns a New International Version of the Bible – what gospel the Apostle Paul preached. The reply will fall along predictable lines: human beings, bearing the guilt of original sin and destined for eternal hell, cannot save themselves through good deeds, or make themselves acceptable to God; yet God, in his mercy, sent the eternal Son to offer himself up for our sins, and the righteousness of Christ has been graciously imputed or imparted to all who have faith…. Some details might vary, but not the basic story.

“Paul’s actual teachings, however, as taken directly from the Greek of his letters, emphasise neither original guilt nor imputed righteousness (he believed in neither), but rather the overthrow of bad angels…

“The essence of Paul’s theology is something far stranger, and unfolds on a far vaster scale. .. For Paul, the present world-age is rapidly passing, while another world-age differing from the former in every dimension – heavenly or terrestrial, spiritual or physical – is already dawning. The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph.

“For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, these Archons, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God.

“In descending to Hades and ascending again through the heavens, Christ has vanquished all the Powers below and above that separate us from the love of God, taking them captive in a kind of triumphal procession. All that now remains is the final consummation of the present age, when Christ will appear in his full glory as cosmic conqueror, having ‘subordinated’ (hypetaxen) all the cosmic powers to himself – literally, having properly ‘ordered’ them ‘under’ himself – and will then return this whole reclaimed empire to his Father. God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly.”

Okay then.

But despite all this vast, elaborate cosmic tangle, over there mostly keeps its own counsel about it all, while still not letting us off the hook. And, although it’s tempting, I won’t even get into all the subterfuge and confusion and (over here, at least) just plain stupidity about when the whole mess is going to resolve into that final day when “God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly.”

And On It Goes (And it went on way too long already, but I wanted to make a point.)

Western culture has been living with all that for over two millennia. A couple hundred years ago, in a time we call “The Great Enlightenment,” some thinkers started trying to convince us that enough is enough, maybe we ought to try out a different cosmology and worldview, based on rational thought and not just fantasy and belief. There’ve been some takers, but overall the Great Endarkenment has rolled on. I’m not as old as Yoda, but I’ve personally seen, heard, and lived all of it. A whole bunch people in the States still do, and not all of them live in Texas.

The cosmology and worldview I just reviewed are complicated, fanciful, stressful, and impose impossible demands on that impaired soul seeing it all through a glass darkly. No wonder belief systems – both secular and religious – devolve into take-it-or-leave-it fundamentalism, where questioning is punished by both God and man, and you can delegate your cosmic responsibilities to the demigods in charge. Fundamentalism dispatches our impossible obligations and blinds us to what the Bible itself says is the final outcome of all our believing: The Big Fail.

The Big Fail

We really should have seen it coming – the Bible lays out the ultimate terms of what it means to believe all of this in brutally unmistakable terms. At the end of a much-quoted and much-beloved recitation of faith heroes, the Epistle to the Hebrews provides this summary of what it means to be your highest and best self:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,”[7]

That’s how it ends: total failure — all promises broken, all expectations dashed, all frauds revealed … after it’s way too late for any remedy.

Can We Find a Better Way?

Yes, I am aware that there’s one last phrase in that passage:

“…since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”[8]

What precisely is that “something better”? I’m clueless, but all the obvious difficulties don’t stop at least one thinker[9] from trying to preserve the value of the soul as our highest and best self, even if modern neuroscience has finally ended its sufferings. The key, he says, is to reinvent the soul to make it relevant to modernity:

“What is the point of gaining the whole world if you lose your soul? Today, far fewer people are likely to catch the scriptural echoes of this question than would have been the case 50 years ago. But the question retains its urgency. We might not quite know what we mean by the soul any more, but intuitively we grasp what is meant by the loss in question – the kind of moral disorientation and collapse where what is true and good slips from sight, and we find we have wasted our lives on some specious gain that is ultimately worthless.

“It used to be thought that science and technology would gain us the world. But it now looks as though they are allowing us to destroy it. The fault lies not with scientific knowledge itself, which is among humanity’s finest achievements, but with our greed and short-sightedness in exploiting that knowledge. There’s a real danger we might end up with the worst of all possible scenarios – we’ve lost the world, and lost our souls as well.

“But what is the soul? The modern scientific impulse is to dispense with supposedly occult or ‘spooky’ notions such as souls and spirits, and to understand ourselves instead as wholly and completely part of the natural world, existing and operating through the same physical, chemical and biological processes that we find anywhere else in the environment.

“We need not deny the value of the scientific perspective. But there are many aspects of human experience that cannot adequately be captured in the impersonal, quantitatively based terminology of scientific enquiry. The concept of the soul might not be part of the language of science; but we immediately recognise and respond to what is meant in poetry, novels and ordinary speech, when the term ‘soul’ is used in that it alerts us to certain powerful and transformative experiences that give meaning to our lives.

“Such precious experiences depend on certain characteristic human sensibilities that we would not wish to lose at any price. In using the term ‘soul’ to refer to them, we don’t have to think of ourselves as ghostly immaterial substances. We can think of ‘soul’ as referring, instead, to a set of attributes of cognition, feeling and reflective awareness – that might depend on the biological processes that underpin them, and yet enable us to enter a world of meaning and value that transcends our biological nature.

“Entering this world requires distinctively human qualities of thought and rationality. But we’re not abstract intellects, detached from the physical world, contemplating it and manipulating it from a distance. To realise what makes us most fully human, we need to pay attention to the richness and depth of the emotional responses that connect us to the world. Bringing our emotional lives into harmony with our rationally chosen goals and projects is a vital part of the healing and integration of the human soul.”

Full Acceptance

It seems honorable that someone would attempt this kind of synthesis, but I personally don’t see anything worth salvaging. Instead, I think this might be a good time to acknowledge something that Christianity’s troublesome cosmology and worldview have dismissed all along: human nature. In that regard, I find the following thoughts from a writer I particularly admire[10] to be bracingly clarifying, and in that, hopeful

“Our collective and personal histories — the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and others — are used to avoid facing the incoherence and fragmentation of our lives. Chaos, chance and irrational urges, often locked in our unconscious, propel, inform and direct us. Our self is elusive. It is not fixed. It is subject to forces often beyond our control. To be human is to be captive to these forces, forces we cannot always name or understand. We mutate and change. We are not who we were. We are not who we will become. The familiarity of habit and ritual, as well as the narratives we invent to give structure and meaning to our life, helps hide this fragmentation. But human life is fluid and inconsistent. Those who place their faith in a purely rational existence begin from the premise that human beings can have fixed and determined selves governed by reason and knowledge. This is itself an act of faith.

“We can veto a response or check an impulse, reason can direct our actions, but we are just as often hostage to the pulls of the instinctual, the irrational, and the unconscious. We can rationalize our actions later, but this does not make them rational. The social and individual virtues we promote as universal values that must be attained by the rest of the human species are more often narrow, socially conditioned responses hardwired into us for our collective and personal survival and advancements. These values are rarely disinterested. They nearly always justify our right to dominance and power.

“We do not digest every sensation and piece of information we encounter. To do so would leave us paralyzed. The bandwidth of consciousness – our ability to transmit information measured in bits per second — is too narrow to register the enormous mass of external information we receive and act upon. .. We have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we use to function in life. Much of the information we receive and our subsequent responses do not take place on the level of conscientiousness. As the philosopher John Gray points out, irrational and subconscious forces, however unacknowledged, are as potent within us as in others. [citing Gray, Straw Dogs]

“To accept the intractable and irrational forces that drive us, to admit that these forces are as entrenched in us as in all human beings, is to relinquish the fantasy that the human species can have total, rational control over human destiny. It is to accept our limitations, to live within the confines of human nature. Ethical, moral, religious, and political systems that do not concede these stark assumptions have nothing to say to us.”

We are not going to “conquer our humanness” by continuing our fundamentalist allegiance to a complicated, stressful, and self-negating cosmology and worldview. How about if instead we try full acceptance of our conflicted and flawed humanity, where we find not grandiose visions but simple hope for our small todays?

[1] I also believe there is an independent reality that is more than my brain’s construction of it. Not everyone thinks so. Maybe more on that another time.

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

[3] We get that theoretically God, as a spiritual being, probably wouldn’t have a gender, but we’re generally more comfortable giving him the male pronouns.

[4] Graziano, Michael S. A., Consciousness and the Social Brain (2013)

[5] Lent, Jeremy, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, Jeremy Lent (2017)

[6] Hart, David Bentley, Everything You Know About The Gospel Of Paul Is Likely Wrong, Aeon (Jan. 8, 2018). David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion and a philosopher, writer and cultural commentator, who recently published a translation of The New Testament (2017).

[7] Hebrews 11: 35-39.

[8] Hebrews 11: 40.

[9] Cottingham, John, What is the soul if not a better version of ourselves? Aeon (Mar. 11, 2020). John Cottingham is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Reading, professor of philosophy of religion at the University of Roehampton, London, and an honorary fellow of St John’s College, Oxford University.

[10] Hedges, Chris, I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist (2008)

 

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [9]:  Reckoning With Mystery

pontius pilate

“What is truth?”
Pontius Pilate
John 18:38 (NIV)

On the science side of Cartesian dualism, truth must be falsifiable — we have to be able to prove it’s untrue. On the religious side, to falsify is to doubt, doubt becomes heresy, and heresy meets the bad end it deserves.

Neither side likes mystery, because both are trying to satisfy a more primal need:  to know, explain, and be right. It’s a survival skill:  we need to be right about a lot of things to stay alive, and there’s nothing more primal to a mortal being than staying alive. Mystery is nice if you’ve got the time, but at some point it won’t help you eat and avoid being eaten.

Science tackles mysteries with experiments and theories, religion with doctrine and ritual. Both try to nail their truth down to every “jot and tittle,” while mystery bides its time, aloof and unimpressed.

I once heard a street preacher offer his rationale for the existence of God. “Think about how big the universe is,” he said, “It’s too big for me to understand. There has to be a God behind it.” That’s God explained on a street corner:  “I don’t get it, so there has be a higher up who does. His name is God.” The preacher’s God has the expansive consciousness we lack, and if we don’t always understand, that’s part of the deal:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)

Compare that to a cognitive neuroscientist’s take on our ability to perceive reality, as explained in this video.

“Many scientists believe that natural selection brought our perception of reality into clearer and deeper focus, reasoning that growing more attuned to the outside world gave our ancestors an evolutionary edge. Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine, thinks that just the opposite is true. Because evolution selects for survival, not accuracy, he proposes that our conscious experience masks reality behind millennia of adaptions for ‘fitness payoffs’ – an argument supported by his work running evolutionary game-theory simulations. In this interview recorded at the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival from the Institute of Arts and Ideas in 2019, Hoffman explains why he believes that perception must necessarily hide reality for conscious agents to survive and reproduce. With that view serving as a springboard, the wide-ranging discussion also touches on Hoffman’s consciousness-centric framework for reality, and its potential implications for our everyday lives.”

The video is 40 minutes long, but a few minutes will suffice to make today/s point. Prof. Hoffman admits his theory is counterintuitive and bizarre, but promises he’s still working on it (moving it toward falsifiability). I personally favor scientific materialism’s explanation of consciousness, and I actually get the theory behind Prof. Hoffman’s ideas, but when I watch this I can’t help but think its’s amazing how far science and religion will go to define their versions of how things work. That’s why I quit trying to read philosophy:  all that meticulous logic trying to block all exits and close all loopholes, but sooner or later some mystery leaks out a seam, and when it does the whole thing seems overwrought and silly.

The street preacher thinks reality is out there, and we’re given enough brain to both get by and know when to quit trying and trust a higher intelligence that has it all figured out. The scientist starts in here, with the brain (“the meat that thinks”), then tries to describe how it creates a useful enough version of reality to help us get by in the external world.

The preacher likes the eternal human soul; the scientist goes for the bio-neuro-cultural construction we call the self. Positions established, each side takes and receives metaphysical potshots from the other. For example, when science clamors after the non-falsifiable multiverse theory of quantum physics, the intelligent designers gleefully point out that the so-called scientists are leapers of faith just like them:

“Unsurprisingly, the folks at the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think-tank for creationism and intelligent design, have been following the unfolding developments in theoretical physics with great interest. The Catholic evangelist Denyse O’Leary, writing for the Institute’s Evolution News blog in 2017, suggests that: ‘Advocates [of the multiverse] do not merely propose that we accept faulty evidence. They want us to abandon evidence as a key criterion for acceptance of their theory.’ The creationists are saying, with some justification: look, you accuse us of pseudoscience, but how is what you’re doing in the name of science any different? They seek to undermine the authority of science as the last word on the rational search for truth.

“And, no matter how much we might want to believe that God designed all life on Earth, we must accept that intelligent design makes no testable predictions of its own. It is simply a conceptual alternative to evolution as the cause of life’s incredible complexity. Intelligent design cannot be falsified, just as nobody can prove the existence or non-existence of a philosopher’s metaphysical God, or a God of religion that ‘moves in mysterious ways’. Intelligent design is not science: as a theory, it is simply overwhelmed by its metaphysical content.”

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

And so it goes. But what would be so wrong with letting mystery stay… well, um… mysterious?

We’ll look at that next time.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [5]: Looking For the Self in the Brain

My soul is lost, my friend
Tell me how do I begin again?
My city’s in ruins,
My city’s in ruins.

Bruce Springsteen

Neuroscience looks for the soul in the brain and can’t find it. What it finds instead are the elements of consciousness — sensory perception, language, cognition, memory,  etc. — in various neural networks and regions of the brain, and those diverse networks collaborating to generate a composite conscious experience. Meanwhile, the master network — the one that is equivalent to conventional notions of the soul or self — remains elusive.

Prof. Bruce Hood lays out the progression from conventional belief in a separate self to the current brain network theory:

“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.

“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.

“In challenging what is the self, what most people think is the self must first be considered. 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.

“This sense that we are individual inside bodies is sometimes called the ‘ego theory,’ although philosopher Gale Strawson captures it poetically in what he calls the ‘pearl view’ of the self. The pearl view is the common notion 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.’

“In contrast to this ego view, there is an alternative version of the self, based on the ‘bundle theory’ after the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume… He tried to describe his inner self and thought that there was no single entity, but rather bundles of sensations, perceptions and thoughts piled on top of each other. He concluded that the self emerged out of the bundling together of these experiences.

“If the self is the sum of our thoughts and actions, then the first inescapable fact is that these depend on brains. Thoughts and actions are not exclusively the brain because we are always thinking about and acting upon things in the world with our bodies, but the brain is primarily responsible for coordinating these activities. In effect, we are our brains or at least, the brain is the most critical body part when it comes to who we are.

“There is no center in the brain where the self is constructed. The brain has many distributed jobs. It processes incoming information from the external world into meaningful patterns that are interpreted and stored for future reference. It generates different levels and types of motivations that are the human drives, emotions, and feelings. It produces all sorts of behavior — some of them automatic while other are acquired thought skill, practice, and sheer effort.

“The sense of self that most of us experience is not to be found in any one area. Rather it emerges out of the orchestra of different brain processes.”

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

Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano uses an “attention schema theory” to describe this collaboration of neural networks. “The heart of the theory is that awareness is a schematized, descriptive model of attention,” he says, and expands as follows:

“In the present theory, the content of consciousness, the stuff in the conscious mind, is distributed over a large set of brain areas, areas that encode vision, emotion, language, action plans, and so on. The full set of information that is present in consciousness at any one time has been called the ‘global workspace.’ In the present theory, the global workspace spans many diverse areas of the brain. But the specific property of awareness, the essence of awareness added to the global workspace, is constructed by an expert system in a limited part of the brain…. The computed property of awareness can be bound to the larger whole… One could think of awareness as information.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. Michael S. A. Graziano (2013)

To those who hold fast to the common belief (as most people do) that the soul is something transcendent, noble, unique, special, poetic, and divine, referring to consciousness and the self as “global workspace” and calling awareness “information” lacks a little something. But is that any reason to reject the bundle theory as untrue?

Meanwhile, Prof. Graziano admits that “the attention schema theory does not even seek to answer the question of existential reality but instead tries to describe what is constructed by the brain.” And besides, is science really after truth anyway?

We’ll look at those questions next time.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [4]: The Brain vs. the Eternal Soul

brain - illuniated

The period of roughly 2010-2016 apparently was a breakthrough time for neuroscience and the study of consciousness. About then, a scientific consensus began to emerge that the conscious human mind was generated by the brain — or, as some put it, “the mind is what the brain does.”

In a 2016 article[1], University of Sussex professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience Anil K. Seth wrote that,

“In my own research, a new picture is taking shape in which conscious experience is seen as deeply grounded in how brains and bodies work together to maintain physiological integrity – to stay alive.”

Since then, other brain researchers have added a third essential component:  our environment, particularly our cultural setting and its institutionalized belief systems.

Brain, body, environment — that’s it, that’s what brain science has come up with. It went looking for the soul and didn’t find it. As physician and researcher Paul Singh also wrote in 2016[2]:

“The idea of a transcendent self is a myth; the truth is that the self is a constructed self.”

Not only that, but when a consciousness based purely in physicality replaces traditional belief in an eternal, transcendent soul temporarily at home in a physical human body, other companion notions about the self, consciousness, and free will also come tumbling down. Singh admitted this wasn’t going to be easy news to swallow:

“I will be the first one to admit that the debates about the nature of free will, consciousness, and the self are far from over. It is not, however, because we don’t know the answers, but because we are not at a stage of human evolution and progress yet for people to accept such radical ideas. Such truths are scary in the sense that they undermine our ordinary and commonsensical beliefs about human nature and seem to threaten values that we hold dearly — one of the most important of which is moral responsibility.”

Difficult, yes, but not impossible if you can suspend allegiance to the things you’re convinced of and convicted about, and instead give scientific knowledge a try. Singh makes his case with impassioned advocacy of science and the scientific method:

“I believe, however, that the truthfulness of a fact should be judged on its own merit rather than based on its social and emotional implications for the well-being of an individual or society. Truth should be acknowledged first and then solutions sought that will be implemented in light of the good and bad that truth has revealed, not the other way around. Truth is about truth and not about convenience or about making us feel good about ourselves.

“We should never believe a claim to be true simply because on one can prove it to be false. Theologians are experts at this kind of nonsense. Are delusional people making things up? Evidence shows that the human brain is universally delusional in many ways and therefore people who promote superstitions are not particularly more delusional that the rest of us. It is just that examples of religious delusions are rather classic examples of how the brain creates illusions and delusions. The use of logic and scientific skepticism is a skill that can be used to overcome the limitations of our own brains. This skill is like any other skill such as learning to play the piano. It involves training in metacognition as well as basic education in basic sciences.”

Frankly, that kind of rhetoric invariably come across as bombastic and opinionated and therefore easy for those convinced otherwise to dismiss. The well-worn neural pathways of our own brains are deeply rutted with their own notions of what is true, and not about to change to a new paradigm just because someone else is convinced it is the “Truth is about truth.”

On the other hand, in my personal experience, I’ve found that the precursor to scientific knowledge — “scientific skepticism” — is in fact a “a skill that can be used to overcome the limitations of our own brains.” I’ve been developing the skill gradually for years, without intentionally doing so. I was no scientist; I’d spent a lifetime in the humanities; my allegiance was with Romanticism, not the Enlightenment. I was not out to find or prove truth, or convince anybody of it. But I was looking for new thoughts, and years of reading and reflecting — like water carving sandstone — slowly brought my thinking to a new place.

The first time I read about the “materialist” version of consciousness I thought it was just plain odd, which made me highly skeptical. Ironically that skepticism eventually sharpened into a practice that brought me where I don’t find the materialist idea odd at all; in fact, it seems odd to think the way I used to. It now seems simple and obvious that everything we experience is processed within the confines of our largest organ — our skin — and that it has to be that way because, as a biological organism, there’s no other place where it can happen. Even if we think about an eternal, transcendent soul, we do so from our ephemeral, fleshly point of view. That’s all the equipment we’ve got.

Continued next time.

[1] The Real Problem:  It looks like scientists and philosophers might have made consciousness far more mysterious than it needs to be, Aeon Magazien (Nov. 2, 2016)

[2] The Great Illusion:  The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self.

“Fearfully and Wonderfully Made”

da vinci

We are starting this series on Consciousness and the Self by looking at some of the religious and secular foundations of the belief that humans are a dualist entity consisting of body and soul, and the associated belief that the two elements are best understood by different forms of inquiry — religion and the humanities for the soul, and science for the body. As we’ll see, current neuro-biological thinking defies these beliefs and threatens their ancient intellectual, cultural, and historical dominance.

This article[1] is typical in its conclusion that one of the things that makes human beings unique is our “higher consciousness.”

“[Home sapiens] sits on top of the food chain, has extended its habitats to the entire planet, and in recent centuries, experienced an explosion of technological, societal, and artistic advancements.

“The very fact that we as human beings can write and read articles like this one and contemplate the unique nature of our mental abilities is awe-inspiring.

“Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran said it best: ‘Here is this three-pound mass of jelly you can hold in the palm of your hand…it can contemplate the meaning of infinity, and it can contemplate itself contemplating the meaning of infinity.’

“Such self-reflective consciousness or ‘meta-wondering’ boosts our ability for self-transformation, both as individuals and as a species. It contributes to our abilities for self-monitoring, self-recognition and self-identification.”

The author of the following Biblical passage agrees, and affirms that his “soul knows it very well” — i.e., not only does he know he’s special, but he knows that he knows it:

For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.

Psalm 139: 13-16 (ESV)

Judging from worldwide religious practice, the “I” that is “fearfully and wonderfully made” is limited to the soul, not the body:  the former feels the love, while the latter is assaulted with unrelenting, vicious, sometimes horrific verbal and physical abuse. “Mortification of the flesh” indeed –as if the body needs help being mortal.

Science apparently concurs with this dismal assessment. The following is from the book blurb for Through a Glass Brightly:  Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, by evolutionary biologist and psychologist David P. Barash (2018):

“In Through a Glass Brightly, noted scientist David P. Barash explores the process by which science has, throughout time, cut humanity ‘down to size,’ and how humanity has responded. A good paradigm is a tough thing to lose, especially when its replacement leaves us feeling more vulnerable and less special. And yet, as science has progressed, we find ourselves–like it or not–bereft of many of our most cherished beliefs, confronting an array of paradigms lost.

“Barash models his argument around a set of “old” and “new” paradigms that define humanity’s place in the universe. This new set of paradigms [includes] provocative revelations [such as] whether human beings are well designed… Rather than seeing ourselves through a glass darkly, science enables us to perceive our strengths and weaknesses brightly and accurately at last, so that paradigms lost becomes wisdom gained. The result is a bracing, remarkably hopeful view of who we really are.”

Barash’s old and new paradigms about the body are as follows:

“Old paradigm:  The human body is a wonderfully well constructed thing, testimony to the wisdom of an intelligent designer.

“New paradigm:  Although there is much in our anatomy and physiology to admire, we are in fact jerry-rigged and imperfect, testimony to the limitations of a process that is nothing but natural and that in no way reflects supernatural wisdom or benevolence.”

Okay, so maybe the body has issues, but the old paradigm belief that human-level consciousness justifies lording it over the rest of creation is as old as the first chapter of the Bible:

And God blessed them. And God said to them,
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it
and have dominion over the fish of the sea
 and over the birds of the heavens
 and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Genesis 1:28  (ESV)

The Biblical mandate to “subdue” the earth explains a lot about how we approach the rest of creation — something people seem to be questioning more and more these days. Psychiatrist, essayist, and Oxford Fellow Neel Burton includes our superiority complex in his list of self-deceptions:

“Most people see themselves in a much more positive light than others do them, and possess an unduly rose-tinted perspective on their attributes, circumstances, and possibilities. Such positive illusions, as they are called, are of three broad kinds, an inflated sense of one’s qualities and abilities, an illusion of control over things that are mostly or entirely out of one’s control, and an unrealistic optimism about the future.” [2]

Humans as the apex of creation? More on that next time.

[1] What is it That Makes Humans Unique? Singularity Hub, Dec. 28, 2017.

[2] Hide and Seek:  The Psychology of Self-Deception (Acheron Press, 2012).

“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).