I had a dream last night in which I was explaining to somebody that after I’d spent a good deal of time working at a project I found it useful to do a few quick things to get my system going again. So this morning, Plaguetime 15 out of the way, I’ve amused myself by doing a quick bit of work on the idea that the existence of the Self is suspect, that there’s somehow an Illusion of Self. This constitutes a trailer for a Glob on Using Multiple-I’s as a Way of Personal Survival in a Time of Plague.
I haven’t read Bruce Hood’s The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity but, though it seems to be all the rage, I’m not sure I want to. I shall probably resist the temptation to order it from ABE Books. I found three pages of notes about his ideas which seem to me to be a bit confused..
He first defines an ‘illusion’ as ‘a subjective experience that is not what it seems. Illusions are experiences in the mind, but they are not out there in nature…’ They are ‘events generated by the brain…’
A subjective experience is surely always exactly what it seems to be – viz, a subjective experience! The crucial thing is that a subjective experience exists and would be just the same as it is even if it were not referred to by a set of words. You could very well say that there is a word ‘self’ therefore there must be a concrete referent but all words are simply attempts to pin down the somewhat fleeting nature of human existence but there’s a significant danger in doing that. There’s a word ‘unicorn’ but no such thing exists in the natural world. It does not follow that because there’s a word ‘self’ there must be an entity it represents.
The whole of our experience is an event generated by the brain.
An ‘illusion’ is simply something one is mistaken about: the movement I can observe across the wide river now in the mist looks like a bold horseman or woman; but on closer inspection it’s actually a big black bush blowing in the wind. I am mistaken – it is a visual illusion. My brain has generated the vision of ‘a bold horseman or woman’ across the river but it’s simply mistaken.
When we use the word ‘self’ it doesn’t represent an illusion – it is nothing other than what it is: it stands for an encapsulation of a complex subjective experience. I am not mistaken in the least about the experience I have; I may misinterpret it but I am not mistaken about its existence.
As Hood quite rightly says elsewhere: ‘…we are nothing more than an extremely complicated processing system that has evolved to create rich re-presentations of the world around us. We have no direct contact with reality because everything [but everything] we experience is an abstracted version of reality that has been through the processing machinery of our brains to produce experience…’ And, for convenience, we call it ‘self’ – we might just as well not bother to call it anything but it would be a bit long-winded to say that what we call ‘self’ is nothing other than ‘…an extremely complicated processing system that has evolved to create rich re-presentations of the world around us’ (etcetera) every time we would normally say ‘self’ but we might like to bear it in mind when we do pronounce the shorthand version, ‘self’.
Anyway Hood admits that there’s an experience of ‘self’ as ‘an autonomous individual with a coherent identity and sense of free will…’ But he persists in asserting that the experience is an illusion in the sense that ‘it does not exist independently of the person having the experience…’
That’s not an illusion – if you think that ‘self’ exists independently of the person having the experience it’s simply a mistake. That’s all of us! We may all have the experience of self but it’s not a separate entity like a kettle or a flight of pigeons. There’s no illusion: the experience of ‘selfhood’ is simply different from the experience of manipulating a kettle under a tap or the observation of a flight of pigeons in a blue sky.
Hood quotes William James’ distinction between the present moment ‘I’ (the subject of countless active verbs) and the ‘me’ (the representation of past, present & future, by a certain ‘something or other’ as Gurdjieff would have said…) Hood says both of these items are just ‘ever-changing narratives generated by our brain to provide a coherent framework to organize the output of all the factors that contribute to our thoughts and behaviours…’
A mere convenient invention, a trick of the mind, hallucinations of the brain which is in the habit of making out that they really exist. ‘They are not real but the brain treats them as if they were…’ which is true but they’re not an illusion – such narratives happen to be a fairly comprehensive experiential way of describing the activity of what we like to call ‘self’ – you know, ‘…an extremely complicated processing system that has evolved to create rich re-presentations of the world around us’ (etcetera)… ‘Self’ is a verb not a noun or thing – we ought to talk about ‘selfing’.
You could say that the whole of experience is an invention, kettles and flights of pigeons included. As it says at the end of The Kybalion, ‘The All is Mind – the Universe is Mental…’ But Hood continues to insist that, unlike the experience of the self, things like pomegranates and bottles of Madeira have an existence that’s independent of the brain.
‘Selfing’ is a flexible story we tell ourselves. The question is who constructs the story (or narrative)? Hood admits that ‘the experience of ‘I’ has to be ‘constructed from a multitude of unconscious mechanisms and processes. ‘Me’ is similarly constructed’ but more easily defined through a process of investigation of past & present experiences, though the process is subject to constant distortion. Subjectivity & desire play a big part. But all of this, including subjectivity & desire, is relevant to the construction of what we call ‘self’. So it is the case then that something like ‘…an extremely complicated processing system that has evolved to create rich re-presentations of the world around us’ (etcetera)… Let’s call it the ‘self’.
We could decide not to think too much about the Zen priest (1263-1323) Chung-feng’s exhortation ‘to be in possession of a mind that has been let go of’ – which is like Shao K’ang-chieh’s dictum ‘not to search for the lost mind or to tie it down in one place. Same with what’s called ‘self’.
Hood resorts to something Gilbert Ryle said: ‘…in searching for the self, one cannot simultaneously be the hunter and the hunted…’
The brain’s linguistic capability invents the word ‘self’ and the seeker exists as part of the brain. It’s a systemic process.You can call the Emergent Property from the system ‘self’ if you like but perhaps it’s more accurately simply a ‘consistency of experiencing’.
Hood rejects the notion of a ‘core self’ – we are, so it seems to him, just ‘a multitude of competing urges and impulses’ an idea which, he thinks, makes it ‘…easier to understand why we suddenly go off the rails… why we act, often unconsciously, in a way that is inconsistent with our self-image…’ He concludes by saying ‘we should be skeptical that each of us is the coherent, integrated entity we assume we are…’
Absolutely! But a much better way of explaining ‘why we suddenly go off the rails’ is to say that there is no such as unified I-ness (perhaps that’s Hood’s notion of ‘self’): there are multiple-I’s one of which might be called Behaving-as-everybody-expects-me-to-behave-I and another which might be called Going-off-the-rails-I. Then it’s no longer a mystery – it’s just that you’ve moved from one part of your self to another, from one ‘I’ to another, like stepping from a platform on to a train that moves off into any number of other ‘I’s.
The Core Self is a different kettle of fish; it’s waiting for you at the terminus. I call it Meta-I, a commanding ‘I’ that can stand outside the whole blessed rigmarole of Multiple-I’s and pluck them apart whenever necessary.
Hood talks about the way that New technology changes the way the brain works which will in turn affect the narrative of ‘selfhood’. Social Networking appears to expand things, to create more possibilities. Now that is just an illusion – the supreme illusion of our time. Meta-I can step in to alert one’s Resisting-the-influence-of-new-technology-I, Stamping-on-the-smart-phone-I and Centring-oneself-I and so on.
For nearly twenty years I’ve been getting people in discussion sessions to stand on bits of paper and ‘enter into the spirit’ of whatever is written thereon. We put our Multiple-I’s on bits of paper and become for the moment any ‘I’ we care to choose. We can also stand on names of places, people, music; the thing is that the bits of paper become physical anchors for bodily responses of some kind connected with anything at all in our experience. I know it works because I practise the process to keep myself ‘on the rails’. Part of the attraction of it as a training trick is that it is bizarre – all the evidence is that we remember bizarre things easily and well.
I write the name of a favourite place on a bit of paper; just thinking of the place gets me there, but standing on a bit of paper with the name written on it seems to ‘vivify’ (to use Gurdjieff’s word) whatever sensation I associate with the place — makes it even more real. It brings one of Antonio Damasio’s ‘Somatic Markers’ to life. Standing on a bit of paper helps to anchor an experience; the bit of paper serves as a marker for some internal disposition which can then be brought alive in the present. An ‘I’ written on a bit of paper becomes something that has a definite neuro-biological energy about it. You might feel a tingling sensation in feet and legs as what’s written on the bit of paper penetrates your being.
Thus you could have a bit of paper with ‘Behaving-as-everybody-expects-me-to-behave-I’ written on it and another with ‘Going-off-the-rails-I written on it’. You place the bits of paper on the floor two or three feet apart, stand on the first and get somebody to record all the ‘I’s that crop up when you see/hear/feel what it’s like there. Then you move to the other bit of paper and notice the difference. If you’re really daring you could move away completely to stand on another bit of paper with ‘Meta-I’ written on it to stand outside both and regard them from a new perspective. All sorts of things will occur to you but you’d need to do it for real – this is just an explanation of the process.
On another occasion, when you’ve got used to the system, in order to put up some resistance to falling under the spell of the illusory world of the New Technology you could stand on a bit of paper labelled Surfing-the-net-I and have somebody write down everything you say about the experience of being in that ‘I’. Then you could move to either or both in turn of two bits of paper with ‘Resisting-the-influence-of-new-technology-I’ and ‘Stamping-on-the-smart-phone-to-crush-it-I’ – find out what happens at each. A dose of Centring-oneself-I might be useful. Then move right away to stand up as Meta-I and look back at the whole process. There may be other ‘I’s you’d have to work on.
Hood seems to have a Being-addicted-to-engaging-in-interviews-I. During one interview he says, quite rightly:-
Whether it is the ‘I’ of consciousness or the ‘me’ of personal identity, both are summaries of the complex information that feeds into our consciousness. The self is an efficient way of having experience and interacting with the world. For example, imagine you ask me whether I would prefer vanilla or chocolate ice cream? I know I would like chocolate ice cream. Don’t ask me why, I just know. When I answer with chocolate, I have the seemingly obvious experience that my self made the decision. However, when you think about it, my decision covers a vast multitude of hidden processes, past experiences and cultural influences that would take too long to consider individually. Each one of them fed into that decision.
We understand that Hood has a Having-a-keen-taste-for-chocolate-ice-cream-I and that a number of his other ‘I’s will have contributed to the formation of this one: perhaps such ‘hidden processes’ (or I-tags) as Having-consumed-chocolate-ice-cream-long-ago-on-holiday-with-pleasure-I, Being-with-a-loved-one-eating-chocolate-ice-cream-I, Having-been-able-to-compare-chocolate-with-vanilla-ice-cream-I, Having-a-fearful-recollection-of-sheltering-from-a-raging-thunder-storm-with-a-vanilla-ice-cream-I…
Let’s see how all this relates to A Way of Personal Survival in a Time of Plague…