Sunday, December 31, 2023

A Fruitful Exploration of the Core

Maybe there are seeds of potential deep within ourselves, but maybe there's nothing there but a collection of signals. Regardless the outcome, we need to dig in to see what we can find. 

In several classes I took last term, the idea of a core self that's fluid came through discussions of the postmodernist view of the self. But I'm not convinced we're still living the pomo life, and I'm not sure we want to be. 

Taking liberally from Charles Taylor, and others, it appears that we once had some communal ideals, then flipped from seeking answers from God to proving them with science, then realized some pretty major problems with glorifying any kind of authority and renounced all of them, but now, drawing on the types of films being made and the stories told, it feels like we're readjusting back to a place with more solid values and truths. I hope so, anyway.

In the pre-modern time, when God was truth and miracles could happen, there was no need for individual identities. We were all divine through our very creation. Modernism reacted against random beliefs with a scientific method that began to be embraced to find the real truths out there. Suddenly individual identity became interesting. What even are we? In 1641 Descartes deduced we have proof that we exist whenever we consider our own existence because something must be there to be thinking about what we are, and we call that something "I". That was a big deal. Then in 1690 Locke went further to consider a person as,
"nothing but a participation of the same continued life, by constantly fleeting particles of matter, in succession vitally united to the same organized body . . . inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it. . . . Consciousness being interrupted always by forgetfulness, there being no moment of our lives wherein we have the whole train of all our past actions before our eyes in one view." 

In 1739, Hume also discussed the elusiveness of the self beyond perceptions:

"If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same through the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. . . .  When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception. . . . nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement."

We're a string of thoughts that we fit together with a story, but already it's clear we'll never really get to the bottom of it. Our identity is the narrative we create from the memories we store, so any changes in our retrieved memories affect this narrative, which affects our identity. A TEDTalk from 2010 came to the same conclusion: Our identity is all our neurons and the signals between them, which is constantly changing as neurons grow new branches and lose old ones, synapses are created and eliminated, and neurons grow larger and smaller as they are affected by our experiences. Because we can reconstitute memories and this affects neural pathways by reinforcing or abandoning them, we can change our identity by changing our stories of ourselves. 

The hope of science is that it would solve all the riddles of the universe, but it still couldn't reach a fixed core of the self. Worse than that failure, was that scientism removed symbolic elements of the world, the sense of the ethereal or ineffable. We lost a sense of transcendence of a self beyond electrical signals that encode memories.

Postmodernism reacted against the idea of objective knowledge and overarching systems to center on the self. Importantly it brought a questioning of all systems including recognizing that history is written by the dominant class. A plurality of views and voices became possible, which was exciting. But it all went a little too far, or maybe a little sideways, flattening the moral options as if they all carry the same weight. The goal of holding ideas up to the light to check for cracks morphed into a possibility of all choices being right, and people delighted in the power and freedom of multiple alternatives. All narratives are suspect and need deconstructing, but we can't leave them lying about all deconstructed all over the place! They need to be built back up into something that works. 

There became no clear method for people to discern right and wrong, and I think that's why we were able to come so far only to end up living in a time with so many important values flipped on their heads. If everything is subjective, and we each need to acknowledge that we are a mere product of our culture, then that seems to cause a schism of selves. How do we get a handle of where we are within all the many environmental influences? 

Chomsky explained the problem like this:
"Even if subjective ethics isn't what postmodernists had in mind, the effect of their writing is clear. It allows people to take a radical stance without being associated with reality - no responsibility. People are beginning to believe that truth is naïve and 'old fashioned' as if there's an objectivity to history. It's convenient to have no history or reality because it allows people to ignore real struggles and dichotomies between rich and poor as if that's just one perspective. It insulates people from actual activism, which is why it's so readily accepted in universities."
Charles Taylor worries less about despotic control than a fragmentation of citizenry: "a people increasingly less capable of forming a common purpose and carrying it out." We are less bound to one another and need to rediscover and retrieve value systems even if they're constantly questioned and scrutinized. Value systems can be employed while being questioned rather than having nothing to guide us. 

Back to 1777, David Hume recognized that morals and values can't be scientifically determined with certainty, but we can still have ethic in common:
"He must here, therefore, depart from his private and particular situation, and must choose a point of view, common to him with others; he must move some universal principle of the human frame, and touch a string to which all mankind have an accord and symphony. . . . While the human heart is compounded of the same elements as at present, it will never be wholly indifferent to public good, nor entirely unaffected with the tendency of characters and manners. And though this affection of humanity may not generally be esteemed so strong as vanity or ambition, yet, being common to all men, it can alone be the foundation of moral."
We all know, don't we, that harming children is an atrocity. We have that in common. There are some universal values that we share and can find provided we're willing to depart from our individual lives and take the perspective of humanity. It's possible

As far as I understand it all, we started with the idea that we know universal ideals, which allowed us to have meaning in life through an understanding of the world and ourselves, but then we gained confidence (over-confidence) with our knowledge (first with God, then with science), but lost meaning as we renounced responsibility for our lives by giving all the glory and blame to God and/or science. Meaning in life and a sense of personal responsibility and self is all inextricably tied to responsibility or taking ownership of our lives. 

Furthermore, the overabundance of choices has cultivated a sense of freedom that is divorced from an authentic freedom that is tied to responsibility. Simone de Beauvoir explains this well in suggesting that we largely try to recapture the freedom of childhood which evades responsibility. We want nothing more than to have a few rules to follow from an external authority without having to think for ourselves. An adult freedom is one that accepts responsibilities that go with it.:
"Conscious of being unable to be anything, man then decides to be nothing. . . . men who wish to rid themselves of the anxiety of their freedom by denying the world and themselves." 
Refusing to be concerned with others, living a carefree life, severs freedom from responsibility and protects us from anxiety.

I'm not sure if postmodernism was wrong or if we just misinterpreted the goals of it, but either way we need a new path through this mess. Meta-modernism reacted against the extreme relativism of the pomo attitude which fostered being true to yourself to a point of narcissism. Meta-modernism has been around for a while as a term, coined almost 50 years ago, and later discussed by Norwegian prof, Timotheus Vermeulen, over a decade ago. He said of his students, living in, 
"a world in all sorts of geopolitical, economic, ecological turmoil . . . where jobs are scarce, and where melting icebergs are no longer a projection but a reality. Today's students have learned all about postmodernism, they understand its critical value, but they find it difficult to relate to it. . . . They suddenly seem anachronistic in the contorted face of capitalism 4.0. . . . The metamodern generation oscillates between a postmodern doubt and a modern desire for sense, for meaning, for direction. Grand narratives are as necessary as they are problematic, hope is not simply something to distrust, love not necessarily something to be ridiculed."
We've tried to live with any value being as good as any other, but found it lacking. We want some answers. There might not be any concrete certainty, but there are definitely better choices to make - and worse. It's vital to scrutinize ideas for veracity, but many of my generation have gone to town with criticisms without discovering and elevating a better way from all the garbage. 

The danger of not making clear choices in asserting values is that some noisy groups will assert their own as the best, and many who crave certainty will follow their lead, joining the group that seems to know the right ideas with the greatest confidence, often with enticing slogans, or trance-inducing chants. 

What's this got to do with identity and the self? 

Despite just being electrical signals firing or a string of memories loosely tied together which is inevitably affected by our environment, we have to believe we have a self, whatever it may be. On the outside, our self is a list of things we might put on a résumé held together by a body that we're constantly working on to reach an aesthetic ideal. But without a belief in the potential for universal values, I worry that many have lost sight of developing inner character to an ideal. We can look to our character by looking back at the decisions we've made with the courage to see our own weaknesses and fallibility. It's not enough to think about what we think is important, but how we actually behave to back that up. And then, individually and collectively, spur ourselves on to do a better because we have really buggered things up! 

Charles Taylor considers authenticity as a highest ideal:
"Authenticity requires individual discovery as well as an openness to the horizons of significance . . . a self-definition in dialogue towards a moral ideal . . . dialogue binds us to others."
We develop cultural values through ongoing discussions around our own efforts to develop personal values. We can get a sense of our current values by looking at recent legislation. While some new laws aim to reduce suffering of the vulnerable, many are around reducing bodily rights to women or furthering the potential for exploitation of others. Many laws all over are changing to permit atrocities. 

From the pre-modernist time to now, we were encouraged to serve religiously, then to discover scientifically, then to grasp for all we deserve commercially, and now we need to recover a hierarchy of secular values that encompass more than ourselves. The problem with this retrieval of values is that we run into internal conflict and anguish - if we're willing to acknowledge it - as we recognize how much exploitation we have become accustomed to in virtually every aspect of our lives. When we encounter cognitive dissonance as we recognize an internal inconsistency between how we think of ourselves and how we actually live, we have the choice of changing it or using defence mechanisms to protect ourselves from it. We've taken the latter route for long enough to destroy our planet in the process.

Encompassing other peoples and creatures and ecosystems in the values that we choose means changing how we live and how much we expect to take for ourselves. It means recognizing the limits of those childhood type of freedoms. The existentialists have been criticized for being the catalyst that took us into a time of centering values in the self, but Sartre makes it clear that freedom is the autonomy of choice within the realm of responsibility. The confrontation of choice means, not that anything goes, but that we have to start with the subjective experience: 
"The first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men. . . . Of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chose. . . . We are left alone, without excuse." 
In order to live in a peaceful plurality without the authority of the church and recognizing the limitations of science to provide us with morality, we need ongoing rational discourse to find a path that provokes compassion over destruction. I believe that's a universal desire that's become inaccessible to many because we've been swimming in unfettered capitalist ideology for far too long. We can see this in the lack of concern for protecting one another from Covid, from climate change, and from violent conflict. But we can regain our humanity again through finding our own authentic selves.

Cross posted at 3 Quarks Daily. 

ETA: this chart, just so I can remember where I put it!

No comments: