The Self (Part 2 of Herman, Science, and Research)

My last post (“Herman, Science, and Research”) was about what I take to be the emerging modern view of the human mind.  This view, as I pointed out, does not preclude reaching (little “t”, largely probabilistic) truth, if and when we don’t just trust ourselves alone and, therefore, compare notes, use good tools, respect evidence, and network with people with diverse viewpoints.  Formalized this process is science, but it is the foundation of any human life that wants to do as little harm and much good as possible, given our limitations as human beings.

Some philosophers and psychologists argue this view of the mind implies that the idea each of us humans has that we have an “inner self” is wrong.  This idea of such a self is an illusion based on our strong feeling that we are a self, even though, in actuality, what we do, think, and feel is the outcome of multiple, parallel processes most of which we have no conscious access to and for which the interpreter (one module of the brain) makes up a good story in order to allow us to feel a sense of agency and control.

I would argue this is only a partially correct view.  It is true that we humans very often do not really know WHY we have acted, thought, or felt as we have, though we tell ourselves a convincing story about the matter.  But this does not mean that we humans do not often know WHAT we did, thought, or felt.  I may not know why am angry, but I know I am, and so do those around me.  Climate deniers may not really know why (differently in different people) they don’t believe in human-caused climate change, but they do know THAT they do not believe it.

The fact that we sometimes (not always) clearly know what we believe and feel and how we have acted is a personal datum that we can bring to the table for collective intelligence.  I can discuss with myself and others the fact that I am a person of certain characteristics and background who has lived in and across such and such contexts and in some of these contexts—like this one now—I feel angry or don’t believe what many others believe.  Each of us brings a potentially powerful piece of the puzzle to the table, if and when we seek together to understand the patterns of human experience in the world across complex similarities and differences.  I do not privilege my data and I know I need yours so that together we can experiment with our lives in ways that respect the world and others.

When this discussion about personal data is formalized it is the basis of much literature and film.  In fact, art is often science practiced with human data (what we as different sorts of people think, feel, and do in specific contexts, so we can compare notes).  When it is not formalized it is the basis of how we can compare notes, question our own motives, get better at respecting the world and each other, and come to marvel in the complexity, wonder, and fragility of life and the world.  It is the best we can do—not perfect—but better than going it alone and trusting in ourselves as the ultimate source of truth.  Our minds are biologically made to make us need the world and others as anchors for collective intelligence.  It seems to me this biological imperative is also a moral one, though that is a topic for another day.


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