Monday, June 25, 2012

Observations on The Ego Trick, Part Four

This is part four of many installments in my process/review of Julian Baggini's The Ego Trick: What Does It Mean to Be You? There is as much personal reflection in this as there is review of the book, and there are also philosophical reflections on the material.

Part one and Part two and Part three are at these links.

I was reading Julian Baggini's The Ego Trick during transit days on my European adventure. At first I thought maybe I was musing more philosophical due to being tired on the plane trip over, but it has continued since I've been here, so maybe it's the continent.

I've been jotting some random thoughts as I read the book, and here is the fourth installment. Although I am back to my normal life, I plan to continue this process as much as I am able, so if this is at all interesting to you, please stay tuned.

* * * * * * *

As I mentioned in the previous section, I am in the midst of a nine hour flight from London to Dallas as I return home after ten days in Europe. I began this . . . what, meditation? . . . on the flight over to Budapest, where my journey began. At that point, I was physically and emotionally exhausted - and my sense of cohesion was beginning to diminish.

I spend a good portion of each day when I am home helping other people NOT come completely undone, not become fragmented. The irony is that this work leaves the clinician feeling shattered some days - in the absence of good self-care.

Following three years of school and a new job as a trauma therapist, I had reached that point. As I began this trip I felt myself coming undone.

For most of eleven days, I have not thought about my clients or worried about work, or money, or the dogs, or any of the multitude of daily concerns. I did miss Jami, my girlfriend, and wish she could have shared this adventure with me. Other than missing her, I really needed to get away from my life.

And then there is always the return.

As I am in liminal space, no longer in central Europe and not yet home - betwixt and between - I perceive myself differently than before I left Tucson. I don't know how to quantify it. I've seen people, cities, and countries all new to me, not to mention new foods and drinks. Each day was different, new, and not in my control. Many of those things that are uncomfortable to me in the self I usually inhabit, so then who is this self who felt at home in strange places, who purposely got lost by himself one night in Prague, who sought out foods and drinks completely new to him? Which one is the "real" Bill?

Maybe the Bill that now wants to live in Budapest or Prague is who I would be without the life I have created . . . and the life that has created me?

Maybe my brief time in Europe was an initiation of sorts - an opening to other possibilities, other needs in my life. At this moment, I no longer feel content with who I have been, the Bill I have settled for most days. I want more than just my small life in Tucson, but I want Jami and the pups to be a part of it. That much I know - when you find the Beloved, do not let her go. 

* * * * * * *

Love . . . . Where does this emotion fit into the nature of the self? Is there one self only, one I-position, who loves Jami?

It's easier to know there are times, when specific I-positions or ego states hijack the brain that I do not feel this love - I feel anger, or frustration, or rejected - but I know at some level, or some part of me knows, that those moments are temporary state experiences in my body-brain that do not reflect the gestalt of my selves.

Who or what is the part of me that knows such I-positions are temporary?

This is where some people get into confusion in proposing there must be some higher self, or Witness, or even soul that stays calmly in the center of things, immovable and immaterial. Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems therapy calls it the Self, likening it to Atman, buddha-nature, soul, Christ-consciousness' and so on.

When Schwartz experiences this part in himself or his clients, it presents with a collection of traits that he calls the eight Cs of Self: compassion, clarity, courage, confidence, curiosity, calmness, centered, and creative. He believes that this part, which exists in all of his clients, no matter how dysfunctional they are (and he includes pedophiles and schizophrenics), is our natural state when we are free from the effects of "manager" parts, "exiled" parts, and the "firefighters" who leap into action (often in the form of some addictive or other self-destructive behavior). I have experienced this "state" myself, as well as having seen it in clients. But what to make of it if we do not hold a dualistic worldview or believe in an isolated, autonomous soul or self?

I don't know. 

What I do know is that when I surrender myself to love of another, either passionate love of Jami or Platonic love of a friend or client, those eight Cs are there and my usual sense of self is not fully present - I feel expansive, without boundaries between myself and the other, embedded in the fabric of the cosmos.

The feeling of love - of woman or man, of nature, of country, of god(s) - has prompted many poets to celebrate the soul, for only the soul can, it is believed, love so fully and so purely. Fortunately, Baggini dismisses easily with notions of the soul and their primary contemporary proponent, Richard Swineburne.

Excluding the notion of a soul, or an immortal essence, I am not sure what to make of this experience of self-transcendence, how to conceptualize it without falling into dualism - maybe Baggini will address this in the book.


I have little to say about chapter six of The Ego Trick - in this chapter Baggini looks at the nature of the social and cultural self, another topic of which I am fond. But rather than trying to clean up and correct Baggini, I will refer the interested reader to Kenneth Gergen, Rom Harre, Ciaran Benson, Jerome Bruner, Charles Taylor, Lev Vygotsky, and George Lackoff, authors who will provide a good start.


Finally, we begin to get to the point of the book - just what is this ego trick?

Very succinctly, we are unified, material constructions, a formulation that he admits is vague at best, despite the preceding chapters (or maybe because of). He proposes to explicate this statement through three postulates:

1. The unity of self is psychological - but the unity of experience does not require or prove the existence of something having that experience. There is no unified self, no place in the brain where it all coheres into a singular identity - quite the opposite.

The unity we experience, which allows us legitimately to talk of "I," is a result of the Ego Trick - the remarkable way in which a complicated bundle of mental events, made possible by the brain, creates a singular self, without there being a singular thing underlying it.
2. We are no more than, but more than just, matter - we are made of nothing other than matter, but we need more than a materialist vocabulary to describe our nature. We cannot describe human beings purely in the language of biological science, but there is nothing non-biological about us.

This perspective, according to Baggini, is called non-reductive physicalism, but it requires three additional truths: (1) thoughts, emotions, and feelings are real; (2) whatever thoughts and emotions there are, they are not conventionally physical (you can't see feelings under a microscope); and (3) there is no stuff in the universe other than the stuff of physics. All of which leads to the conclusion that "mental events emerge from physical ones, without being strictly identical with them."

Baggini offers a cool phrase here: "'I' is a verb dressed as a noun."

In the remainder of this section, he looks at the historical rejection of the body in favor of rational reason - ratiocentrism. In Western culture, mind and reason have been identified with the masculine, while body and emotion have been identified with the feminine. This resulted, since the Canon of philosophy is ALL male, in the rejection of the body and its messiness as distinctly feminine and therefore non-rational.

How silly to think we can divorce mind from body or reason from emotions. Antonio Damasio has launched the best empirical critique of this perspective.

3. Identity is not what matters - because identity is not the correct term, although he has been using it himself thus far. “Identity”’ comes in two main forms: quantitative and qualitative.

Two or more things are qualitatively identical when interchanging them would make no difference. For instance, if you have two qualitatively identical bowling balls, it makes no difference which one you pick up when you attempt a strike.

Quantitative identity is governed by a strict logic, summed up in what has become known as Leibniz’s law. In essence this says that if x and y are the same object, then what is true of x at any given time is also true of y at that same time. This is why two merely qualitatively identical bowling balls are not the same ball. If it is true of the first that it is on top of the second, then it cannot also true of the second that it is on top of the first. If, however, I am told that ball x has the same size, weight, colour, composition and location as ball y, at the same time, then I know ball x is ball y.
The point of this distinction is that we must think clearly about our past and future selves, and to do this we must choose whether we are concerned with being essentially the same person over time, perhaps in terms of character or personality (qualitative), or if we are concerned with being a physical self that persists through time (quantitative).

If we remember the discussion about Iris Murdoch’s dementia, she is quantitatively the same person, her physical body remains consistent through time, but her personality is gone, as are the shared memories and familiar character traits. Is this the same person? Objectively, from a materialist perspective, she is still Iris Murdoch. However, subjectively, the self or identity – that unique collection of traits and talents that made her Iris and no one else – is no longer present.

Baggini addresses this issue, and identifies two distinct questions [numbers added]:

(1) There is a logical question about the identity of objects and (2) the existential question about what matters to us about our survival and the survival of those we care about.
If we are concerned about the physical identity, then animalism – “the idea we started Chapter One with, that our identity is a matter of being a particular biological animal” – might be the correct answer, but the question might be wrong. It’s possible that the only way we can be clear about the logical identity of persons over time is to define ourselves as biological animals.

So then, being in the same body (for the purposes of this discussion) through the passage of time, how do I relate to past, present, and future versions of me? The body ages some, but the experiential subjectivity of being “Bill” changes considerably over time. The existential issue remains unresolved with this definition.

Baggini refers to Paul Ricouer as a philosopher who understands the philosophical knot we face, “a philosopher who seems to appreciate the unsuitability of applying logical identity to persons.” He references Ricouer’s book, Oneself as Another, and identifies a couple of places where Ricouer supports his argument.

His central idea is captured in the phrase ‘selfhood is not sameness’. Ricoeur uses the Latin terms idem and ipse to distinguish between sameness and selfhood. Sameness, idem, is unique and recurrent: one thing continuing to exist as exactly the same thing over time. In other words, idem is what we have called quantitative identity. But selves do not have this sameness over time. It is in their nature to change, never exactly the same from one day to the next. The trouble is that we tend to use the word ‘identity’ in relation to persons, unclear as to whether we mean sameness (idem) or selfhood (ipse). What we need to be clear about is that persons retain a sense of selfhood over time, but this is not a precise sameness.
Ricouer offers this explanation for his choice in these terms:
The second philosophical intention, implicitly present in the title in the word "self," is to distinguish two major meanings of "identity"…, depending on whether one understands by "identical" the equivalent of the Latin ipse or idem. ... Identity in the sense of idem unfolds an entire hierarchy of significations.... In this hierarchy, permanence in time constitutes the highest order, to which will be opposed that which differs, in the sense of changing or variable. Our thesis throughout will be that identity in the sense of ipse implies no assertion concerning some unchanging core of the personality. … The equivocalness of identity concerns our title through the partial synonymy, in French at least, between "same" (meme) and "identical." In its diverse uses, "same" (meme) is used in the context of comparison; its contraries are "other," "contrary," "distinct," "diverse," "unequal," "inverse." The weight of this comparative use of the term "same" seems so great to me that I shall henceforth take sameness as synonymous with idem-identity and shall oppose to it selfhood (ipseity), understood as ipse-identity. (p. 3)
A crucial point here is that Ricouer in making this distinction views the idem-identity as the “other” in his title. Oneself as Another – there is some word play in the title. One’s self as an other – he elaborates:
Oneself as Another suggests from the outset that the selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other, that instead one passes into the other, as we might say in Hegelian terms. To "as" I should like to attach a strong meaning, not only that of a comparison (oneself similar to another) but indeed that of an implication (oneself inasmuch as being other).
Ricouer says above that his thesis in the book is that identity (in the sense of ipse-identity) does not make any assertions about an “unchanging core of the personality.” Baggini seems to agree with that conclusion.
The idea that we are creatures without a definite identity over time is the third and least-noticed aspect of the Ego Trick. The unity of sense of self it creates is so compelling that it becomes natural to think of ourselves as beings with clear boundaries in time and space, whose existence over time is all-or-nothing. This is false. We are fluid, ever-changing, amorphous selves.
In practical terms, we do remain similar enough from day to day, month to month, year to year that we can maintain a sense of consistency through time, but we need only consider our infancy and toddler years, or our future as elderly adults perhaps losing our faculties, to know this is only a comfortable illusion.

And that is the question that remains – if the ego trick is true [First, the unity of the self is psychological. Second, we are no more than, but more than just, matter. And third, our identity is not what matters.], then isn’t this whole idea of a self an illusion?

6.17.2012 and 6.24.2012

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