Friday, December 27, 2013

Steve Taylor — Does Your Self Exist?

Why is this important, one may ask? Economics and political science presuppose issues that form the subject matter of social and political philosophy, which is a subset of ethics. Ethics is a branch of philosophy informed by ontology/metaphysics and epistemology. Different fundamental assumptions lead to different ideologies as cognitive constructs of world views. This further involves psychology and biological science as inputs to action theory as an aspect of ethics.

Differences in theories of human nature lead to different ideologies as cognitive constructs and world views based on them  Stevenson investigates twelve and this list is not exhaustive. The dominant contemporary Anglo-American view is based on Hume's empiricism, which holds that the phenomenal self is constructed and that no substantial self can be located through empirical observation. This view has been compared with the no-self (Pali anatta and Sanskrit anatma) position of Buddhism, however, the Humean and Buddhist conceptions of human nature are completely different in fundamental assumptions and import for living.

The empirical view of self lead to behaviorism in psychology and its stimulus-response model. "Rationality" based on individual actors pursuing utility maximization, with utility defined as material satisfaction, is an implication of this model. Socially and politically, it implies a market society that is driven by consumption ("shopping") and in which wants are not distinguished from needs. The purpose of the representative agent is to consume all that can be produced profitably, and nothing else is produced.

Aristotle rejected this assumption and model based on it millennia ago in Nichomachean Ethics, Book One, where he considers the various theory of human nature with respect to the overall purpose of life as the dominant motivating factor. Aristotle would have been thinking of Epicurus and perhaps Democritus, but hedonism has a much older and more persistent history.

Bentham's hedonism as a conception of human nature underlies his utilitarianism. Along with Hume's empiricism that denies the existence of a substantial self, Bentham's utilitarianism is the philosophical antecedent of rationality as utility maximization, which is paralleled in psychology as Skinner's stimulus-response model of behavior. Bentham proposed the possibility of a calculus of utility, and neoclassical economic models assume such a calculus through the operation of self-interest in free markets.
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. — Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 2
As every individual, therefore, endeavors as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. — Smith, Book 4, Chapter 2
On the other hand, most of Eastern and Western intellectual history has rejected the empiricist reductionism and materialistic hedonism as inadequate to account for the complexity of human nature, holding that it overemphasized the embodied aspect of human nature, disregarding aspects of human nature that make humans distinctly human.

In today's terms Aristotle would say that humans are optimizing agents rather than maximizing ones. Abraham Maslow analyzes this in terms of a hierarchy of needs, from the most basic survival needs to the pursuit of self-actualization. Human don't attempt to maximize a lower need before embarking on a higher one. They approach needs as a constellation of needs to be optimized, although more basic needs may require postponement of less basic needs owing to conditions.

Psychology Today?
Does Your Self Exist?
Steve Taylor PhD | Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK

One problem with the conventional assumptions is that they are simplistic, being based on a simplistic theory of human nature that leads to an inadequate picture of life purpose. Another issue is being based on an egocentric view of human nature and human action, it leads to behavior that mistakes the trivial as important and the important as trivial. Living a good life in a good society is not considered to impact economics. Some would consider such notions quaint.

The following quote from Meher Baba's Discourses presents the perennial view. The term "soul" is used in the sense of what one is — consciousness — rather than something that one "has" in addition to mind and body. Consciousness manifests in the world through embodied mind and is not reducible to phenomenal mind or physical body. As Taylor's article suggests, consciousness can be known in itself.
Ego arises to fulfill need
The ego emerges as an explicit and unfailing accompaniment to all the happenings of mental life in order to fulfill a certain need. The part played by the ego in human life may be compared to the function of ballast in a ship. The ballast in a ship keeps it from oscillating too much. Without it the ship is likely to be too light and unsteady and is in danger of being over- turned by the lawless winds and waves.

Thus mental energy would be caught up endlessly in the multitudinous mazes of dual experience and would all be wasted and dissipated if there were no provisional nucleus. The ego takes stock of all acquired experience and binds together the active tendencies born of the relatively independent and loose instincts inherited from animal consciousness. The formation of the ego serves the purpose of giving a certain amount of stability to conscious processes and also secures a working equilibrium, which makes for a planned and organized life.
Necessary evil

It would be a mistake, therefore, to imagine that the arising of the ego is without any purpose. Though it arises only to vanish in the end, it does temporarily fulfill a need that could not have been ignored in the long journey of the soul. The ego is not meant to be a permanent handicap, since it can be transcended and outgrown through spiritual endeavor. But the phase of ego formation must nevertheless be looked upon as a necessary evil, which has to come into existence for the time being.
Ego creates divisions and separation

The ego thus marks and fulfills a certain necessity in the further progress of consciousness. However, since the ego takes shelter in the false idea of being the body, it is a source of much illusion, which vitiates experience. It is of the essence of the ego that it should feel separate from the rest of life by contrasting itself with other forms of life. Thus, though inwardly trying to complete and integrate individual experience, the ego also creates an artificial division between external and internal life in the very attempt to feel and secure its own existence. This division in the totality of life cannot but have its reverberations in the inner individual life over which the ego presides as a guiding genius.
Ego becomes source of conflicts
While always striving to establish unity and integration in experience, the ego can never realize this objective. Though it establishes a certain kind of balance, this balance is only provisional and temporary. The incompleteness of its attainments is evident from the internal conflict that is never absent as long as experience is being faced from the point of view of the ego. From moment to moment the mind of man is passing through a series of conflicts. The minds of great and distinguished persons as well as the minds of common people are seen to be harassed by conflicting desires and tendencies. Sometimes the conflict the mind is faced with is so acute that the person concerned yields to the pressures, and there is either a partial or total derangement of the mind. There is really no vital difference between the normal and the so-called abnormal individual. Both have to face the same problems; but the one can more or less successfully solve his problems, and the other cannot solve them.

False valuation
The ego attempts to solve its inner conflicts through false valuations and wrong choices. It is characteristic of the ego that it takes all that is unimportant as important and all that is important as unimportant. Thus, although power, fame, wealth, ability, and other worldly attainments and accomplishments are really unimportant, the ego takes delight in these possessions and clings to them as "mine." On the other hand, true spirituality is all-important for the soul, but the ego looks upon it as unimportant.

For example, if a person experiences some bodily or mental discomfort while doing work of spiritual importance, the ego steps in to secure the unimportant bodily or mental comfort, even at the cost of giving up the really important spiritual work. Bodily and mental comfort, as well as other worldly attainments and accomplishments, are often necessary; but they are not therefore important. There is a world of difference between necessity and importance. Many things come to the ego as being necessary, but they are not in themselves important. Spirituality, which comes to the ego as being unnecessary, is really important for the soul. The ego thus represents a deep and fundamental principle of ignorance, which is exhibited in always preferring the unimportant to the important.
Conflicts solved through true valuations
The mind rarely functions harmoniously because it is mostly guided and governed by forces in the subconscious. Few persons take the trouble to attain mastery over these hidden forces that direct the course of mental life. The elimination of conflict is possible only through conscious control over the forces in the subconscious. This control can be permanently attained only through the repeated exercise of true valuation in all the cases of conflict presented to the mind.
Need for intelligent and firm choices

If the mind is to be freed from conflict, it must always make the right choice and must unfailingly prefer the truly important to the unimportant. The choice has to be both intelligent and firm in all cases of conflict-important as well as unimportant. It has to be intelligent because only through the pursuit of true and permanent values is it possible to attain a poise that is not detrimental to the dynamic and creative flow of mental life. An unintelligent choice, if it is firm, may temporarily overcome conflict; but it is bound in the long run to curtail the scope of life or to hamper the fulfillment of the whole personality.
Moreover, the conflict will surely reappear in some other form if it has not been intelligently solved. An intelligent solution, on the other hand, requires an insight into true values, which have to be disentangled from false values. The problem of the conflict of desires thus turns out to be the problem of conflicting values, and the solution of mental conflict therefore requires a deep search for the real meaning of life. It is only through wisdom that the mind can be freed from conflict.
Fidelity to right choice
Having once known what the right choice is, the next step is to stick to it firmly. Although the competing tendencies in the mind may be quieted by choosing one particular course in preference to other alternatives, they still continue to act as obstacles in making the choice fully effective and operative. At times there is a danger of a decision being subverted through the intensification of those competing forces in the subconscious. To avoid defeat, the mind must stick tenaciously to the right values it has perceived. Thus the solution of mental conflict requires not only perception of right values but also an unswerving fidelity to them.
—  Meher Baba Discourses (7th rev. ed, pp. 161-164) 


Dan Kervick said...

The empirical view of self lead to behaviorism in psychology and its stimulus-response model. "Rationality" based on individual actors pursuing utility maximization, with utility defined as material satisfaction, is an implication of this model. Socially and politically, it implies a market society that is driven by consumption ("shopping") and in which wants are not distinguished from needs.

If this is supposed to follow from the Humean view of the self then it is a travesty of Hume's actual views. For one thing, Hume was neither a behaviorist nor any kind of proto-beghaviorist.

Also, it seems very dubious to me to describe the Humean view of self as the dominant one in America. Although it is hard to describe any one particular metaphysical view of the self as the dominant American view, Americans tend to have extremely individualistic views of human nature and existence, and seem to regard the self instinctively as something with an inviolable and solid core.

Tom Hickey said...

it seems very dubious to me to describe the Humean view of self as the dominant one in America

Hume's view of the self is somewhat controversial — bundle theory v no-self. Regardless, his view is contra a metaphysical self or "soul" as the basis for personal identity. this is counter-intuitive for most people. I think that the bundle theory of the phenomenal self probably is the dominant "Humean" one. The no-self theory is a lot more sophisticated and even if Hume knew of the Buddhist position and was influenced by it, it is unlikely in my view that he experienced the basis of it himself.

So is think that the dominant view underlying conventional economics, as well as a lot of scientists is something like a bundle theory of a phenomenal self. This implies that there is a disconnect between the predominant view of the world held by the public, which believes in real experience of a real self, and the "experts." But this is not a clear disconnect either. The public is often of two minds, as polls often reveal, with majority opinion favoring incompatible positions.

George Lakoff has written quite a bit on this from the cognitive point of view as it relates to politics. I don't think that either the common sense or phenomenal self views are correct although capture an aspect of the whole. Lakoff's view is another aspect.

In perennial wisdom, the concept of self has many facets, whereas the reality of self has none. but that doesn't mean that it is vacuous either, just as the Buddhist view of emptiness is not empty. That's a metaphor for something that cannot be described. "Ocean" is another metaphor from a different POV. "Greater than the greatest, smaller than the smallest" (anor aniyan mahato mahiyan (Katha Upanisad 1.2.20) is another.

Hume, of course, was not writing psychology in the modern sense, and behaviorism is a 20th century empiricist view contra "mentalism." It was based on observation of behavior, especially lab study of animal behavior, whence it's nickname, "rat psychology" and developed into operant conditioning.

I think that the connection with the assumption of rational ("necessary"} pursuit of max u where utility is a behavioral satisfier is an extension by assumption of the behaviorist model of rats and cheese, except that humans, possessing perfect knowledge, always know which tunnel to run down to get the cheese, guided by price in this view.

Tom Hickey said...


According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the roots of behaviorism are traceable through Logical Positivism to British empiricism of Locke and Hume. So we could say that positivism is the father of modern scienticism, and Hume it's grandfather.

Hume's fork is the basis of Comte's positivism and subsequent Logical Positivism, and thence of conventional scientific methodology. Hume's worldview is phenomenal, and the phenomenal — what we experience — is the real. He equated causation with correlation )"constant conjunction" ") and reality with sense experience. For Hume, so-called reality (metaphysical substance) underlying phenomena is a belief, not knowledge, even though this seems counter-intuitive to those holding common sense realism, which is just about everyone.

Hume held that we are ignorant of so-called real causes other than observation of constant correlation and also so-called real substance underlying sense data. In his view we believe in the real existence of God, self, and world owing to a strong natural proclivity to do so, attributing it to either non-existent intellectual intuition of substance and essences or a metaphysical use of causality. But when thinkers attempt to justify those views, the justification fails, if one accepts Hume's fork.

I agree that most people hold to a "traditional" view of God, self and world, and they would not agree with the Humean view of is-ought that rules out apprehension or justification of true value as real and makes norms relative. That's actually a plus in arguing against the dominant economic model as providing a satisfactory social and political view based on its assumptions. It is based on a theory of human nature and purpose that is not consistent with the overwhelming sentiment.

Nor does it follow philosophically either. The approach based on an extreme view of Hume's fork has been attacked from a variety of angles. For example, from a Wittgensteinian POV, it's about criteria.

However, Hume was not a Humean in the sense that this came to be understood either. Hume's theory of human nature was not relative and arbitrary as his fork would be taken to imply. He thought that human nature, like logical, was structured cognitively in the nature of the mind in the sense that we did not have choice over our natural tendencies that he called "beliefs." I argued in a student paper that Hume's "belief" was not much different from others' "intuition" when closely analyzed. Wittgenstein would say that it's trying to say something that cannot be said.

There are some issues that cannot be resolved owing to lack of agreed upon criteria. However, very few would hold that therefore normative issues, for example, should be ignored and the empirical preferred, either alone or predominantly.

Tom Hickey said...

We live in a pluralistic society and a world in which many cultures are meeting. The pressing need is for a provisional worldview. including basic assumptions about "the enduring questions," that enables us to come together as a species with a common nature and heritage to work out a shared destiny that benefits all.

In my view assumptions of conventional economics leading to the development of the market state as the optimal solution is the wrong direction to be looking. There are many hidden or unstated assumptions, many philosophical and based on bad philosophy, on one hand, and other the other many so-called scientific assumptions that are in conflict with other sciences. Then there are the many questions about the modeling approach adopted and its suitability to the task.

One of the enduring questions has to do with the nature of the self. which impacts the significance and purpose of life, as well as "the good for man," e.g., the good life and the good society. It is important to address these question openly in a way that some basic agreement can be gained based on humanistic principles that are in accord with rigorous methodology.

There is already a lot of thinking on this, but little of it has either entered the economic debate or economic policy formulation from the side of conventional economics. In contrast, The "human side" has made an impact on management science even if not as much on practice.

Dan Kervick said...

Well Hume is the grandfather of a large number of modern developments. Pragmatists, logical empiricists, phenomenologists, monetarists, various stripes of analytic metaphysicians and many others have claimed Humean ancestry for some of their views. His thinking was very fecund and various and leads in many directions.

But Hume was very, very far from treating the mind as a behaviorist black box. His psychological method, like that of William James, was in large part introspective. His view was that human beings are believing and passion-driven animals, given by nature to form certain types of beliefs and experience various kinds of direct and indirect passions in response to identifiable conditions that can be studied by observation - not unlike the Buddhist view that the patterns of conditioned arising among the mental aggregates can be understood through mindful observation of experience. Where he would have disagreed with Buddhists, if he were aware of their views, is that one can achieve a "blowing out" (nibbana)of the fire of samsara or everyday life. Hume thought the belief-forming responses could only be suspended temporarily, by sustained philosophical reflection, and that they returned to their normal operating condition as soon as we relax and return to our "common life". Part of the reason for this is that Hume believed we are social animals, psychologically designed for a life in human society, and re-engagement with that society activates our customary ways of thinking and feeling.

One aspect of the Buddhist no-self teaching is that anatta is not difficult to grasp intellectually, but that even after we have grasped it, further meditational development is needed to undermine the "conceit of the self" - the feeling that we have a solid self, a feeling that persists even after we have stopped believing that we have a solid self. Hume believed that we are all subject to a systematic illusion that we possess, or are, selves that are unified and simple. Book One, Part Four, Section Seven of the Treatise of Human Nature is an attempt to diagnose the psychological roots and causes of this illusion. But I interpret Hume as holding that the illusion is systematic and ineluctable, so even though we are capable of understanding that it is an illusion, and can understand the causes of the illusion, we cannot uproot the illusion and get rid of it. It returns to us whenever we are engaged in common life.

Tom Hickey said...

But I interpret Hume as holding that the illusion is systematic and ineluctable, so even though we are capable of understanding that it is an illusion, and can understand the causes of the illusion, we cannot uproot the illusion and get rid of it. It returns to us whenever we are engaged in common life.

I agree with that view, and I also think that Hume thought this compulsion a good thing. In his view, we cannot explain our inmost conviction that compels us to believe the future will resemble the past on the basis of metaphysical causality. Nor can we account for the moral sentiment theologically or metaphysically. It is part of the given and these compulsions are pragmatic even though unexplainable.

The Buddhist view of no-self doesn't imply this, however. The dominant values of Buddhism are wisdom (Skt. prajna, P. panna) and compassion or loving-kindness (maitri, metta), which are grounded realization of universality as non-difference. Conceptually, Buddhist logic is negation of difference, which is similar to the way of negation in other wisdom traditions. This was well-known in the Western mystical tradition, e.g, the Cloud of Unknowing (Anonymous, 14th c.). Hume's work suggests he would not subscribe to this, even if he knew of it.

Kant converted Hume's internal internal compulsion to a transcendental argument that in some ways anticipated modern cognitive science. Today, we might also explain such species-wide tendencies scientifically as evolutionary outcomes that favor species survival.

Even if one accepts an extreme positivist view of Hume's fork, the fact is that in spite of what conventional economists generally assume, just about everyone thinks and behaves as if there are real selves interacting in a real world in which there are real values. People evaluate others' character on this basis, conservatives even more than liberals.

While involuntary unemployment may be a feature of the neoclassical model that dominates the mainstream economic view and while from the micro viewpoint, firms rationally prefer lower wages and less bargaining power, the American public is overwhelmingly in favor of extending long term unemployment benefits, even though I would assume that most of them have heard of the conservative argument against this. Most people just don't buy into the view that the problem is the unemployed preferring leisure, being lazy, or being unwilling to reduce their wage offer.

The GOP House is very much on the wrong side of this one politically. And I suspect that even if the economic argument were true, the public would see this as chiefly a moral issue rather than one that should be decided "scientifically" based on efficiency.

The concept of self is important morally. Most people think that human life is significant at least as a generalization about their own life because the self — their own self, which they identify with their existence — is important, regardless of whether they connect this conceptually with body, mind, or soul.

But if an extreme phenomenalist view dominates, such that there is no real self to have intrinsic value, then what is trumps what could be or what ought to be. The winners are those who have accumulated the most through individual effort and merit. This is the implication of the neoclassical assumptions and model. I don't think that anywhere near a majority of people agree with that view. They may not have the correct analysis but it doesn't ring true, and in many cases, it doesn't pass the smell test either.

The challenge for progressives is to seat the quest for the good life in the good society is a naturalistic and humanistic POV capable of broad appeal, and developing a political economy based on it. Public opinion is already broadly on the side of this kind of view in contrast to the assumptions of conventional economics.

jrbarch said...

None doubt that they exist (if they do then the mind is dysfunctional).

Our existence is not hidden under a rock somewhere. Our existence is within us.

When you ‘know’ something, you know it with your whole being- it’s because an aspect of our being is Intelligence. You know when you know.

Thoughts that pass through the mind are just thoughts – they are not knowing (they might reflect knowing).

Most people call the ‘I’ that exists in the mind themselves; it’s just a thought. The purpose of the ‘I’ is to evolve the human persona as a fit vehicle for your existence; You.

Mind is not the tool to go inside. The heart is the tool; feeling is the rope that will pull you inside, and up, to your existence. Help has always been available.

I agree with MB: that is the ancient thread, woven though the human race. However, the life of the persona is obviously, as important.

When the heart feels peace, then you are getting warm! I think Mr Hume loved his mind and shivered a lot? :-)

Every moment of every day, we face the fork in the road …. That’s the tricky bit!

Does your Self Exist? ROFLMAO!!!!!

The Rombach Report said...

This exchange reminds me of a scene from Woody Allen's Annie Hall.... "I once got caught cheating on a Metaphysics exam for looking into the soul of the boy sitting next to me."

jrbarch said...

“ …. looking into the soul of the boy sitting next to me”.

This is one of the problems Ed. We trivialise and explain away our existence. The mind is satisfied but the heart is not. Throughout human history you will find people who will say: ‘what you are looking for is within. Your existence is real. You are real. And yet you have never, ever, met your existence – face to face. Let me introduce you to the possibility, of you - being introduced - to you’! And if this is possible, then and only then, will you begin to contemplate what it actually means; what potential might it hold’.

Always, the story has been – a human being is a door. You have to learn how to be still – very still. The mind quiet! The point of entry to the world within is the heart. Most needed a teacher. So make this journey – and if you find nothing within, then you will be well qualified to declare an empty well in the soul of the poor boy, sitting to your side.

In the mind there is doubt. At the root of doubt is fear! So much is driven by fear in the world. Hence a little joke to relieve internal tension? :-) Why else trivialise your existence?

If I do not know, I should say 'I do not know' or 'I do not believe' or ‘I believe’ - honour directly and simply, both my integrity and current experience. And recognise I would like to know (beyond belief and theory, should that be the case). Thirst is the beginning of this journey, and if you recognise your thirst then you are oriented, like a compass. MB was just describing green grass and blue sky when he mentioned ‘importance’. Can you imagine the focus of such a human being? The strength they must draw upon, to stand with dignity in this world.

But what has knowing to do with belief? And why should the experience of others be the same for all? Human history is incredibly diverse. All beliefs are just that - even our most f(l)avoured ones. Krishna advised Arjuna to slay them all (personified by his relatives in the story - the ones we hold dearest, the ones who raised us and nurtured us) - because they blind and bind, call upon our loyalty. Kali, joyously, dances on their heads.

Narcissus gazed into the pool and fell in love with his reflection; all that he considered to be Self. But few know Echo as the little voice that calls perennially from the human heart. This world is our mirror and what we have created our reflection – we do not like everything we see. There is a voice, within humanity, crying out for Peace. That is our sovereign reality. Mind is not the solution maker: - it is the doubter and problem maker, pathologically obsessed with fixing its own undoing. Without a controlling Intelligence, mind follows the whims of the ‘I’, wondering and wandering, scheming, unconscious, without a guiding Light.

We create a Government to rule all of the ‘I’s, (Lord of the Rings huh!) and pray that it will guide us and keep us and not prey upon us: but really we should be loyal to our Self and embrace governance by the heart. Then we would understand what creative adaptive group Intelligence is!

What is theory; what is belief? Mind lives on vapour, the heart on substance. Mind is curious, the heart wants to know. Is there a Self? There is only one way I know of to find out. When some of the Dali Lama’s monks found out some Western scientists wanted to wire up their brains, they burst into laughter.