In the fantastic I ♥ Huckabees, we watch Jude Law’s character devolve from a self assured cocky jerk (putting it mildly) into a man in the grips of a nervous breakdown and identity crisis, all while the words “how am I not myself” repeat endlessly in his head. Is it possible for you to behave in such a way that “you’re not being yourself”? Is the question meaningless or an incredibly piercing and thought provoking thought experiment? As usual, I think a bit of both.
In a recent article, Joshua Knobe discussed two alternate notions of what we normally think of when thinking about a person’s “true self”. One is that the true self is the deeply ingrained non reflective desires of an individual. Our suppressed urges and impulses, or our unacknowledged emotions. Being true to yourself on this account would be embracing these facets of your character, of your being. The other notion is that your true self is made up from your deeply held commitments and values. Being true to yourself might involve all sorts of behaviors that go against your desires, since doing so would be remaining true to your values, and this is who we all really are.
But I think what we’ve set up here to this point is a false dichotomy between the idea that your true self is your genetics and instincts and that your true self is your values and commitments. It’s the same old nature vs. nurture debate under a different guise. Instead of debating where our choices and behaviors comes from (genes or the environment), it’s debating which of those choices and behaviors are our “true selves”. How often must cognitive science debunk these false dichotomies before we start listening?
In a post on the Practical Ethics blog, while discussing Mark Pierpoint, an evangelical preacher who has battled homosexual urges his whole life, Alexandre Erler says, “Rather than saying that Pierpont’s true self is defined either by his religious commitments or by his homosexual desires, I think we ought to say that both of these things define who he really is. His identity is fundamentally conflicted: it involves features in sharp tension with each other, with significant effects on his life course.”
I think that Alexandre is right on with this. There is no one area of the brain we can point to and say “here is where your self is”. Your “self” is the result of the activity of your entire brain. And there is no reason to expect that the behavior from such a complex structure will contain no inconsistencies. To put certain behaviors on the “true self” side and others on the “false self” side makes no sense. What is the justification for the separation? There is also no reason to expect that areas of the brain responsible for (or at least correlated with) certain types of behavior will be active at all times. Your thoughts and behavior arise from whatever patterns of neuronal firing are currently active, and if certain areas of the brain are not currently active, it could very well affect the kinds of choices you make and behaviors you engage in. Does that make those behaviors any less true? Any less you? Is there a particular module of the brain that is more true than another module? Why would the Amygdala be any more true to yourself than the prefrontal cortex? Or vice versa?
This gets us to a much more fundamental point in this conversation, which in a sneaky way has already led us astray from the very beginning. Speaking about the notion of a “true self” implies there is a “false self”. When really what we should be asking is, what is a “self” in the first place? What are we talking about when we argue about the self? I recently wondered whether our historic notions of the soul often confuse present day conversations regarding the nature of human cognition and behavior. The same is true of the self. We seem to have this notion that there is some immaterial and immutable self, some sort of default state of being that exists outside our particular neurophysiology, which emotional or reflective states act on. But the self can’t exist outside our neurophysiology, it is defined by our neurophysiology. In a world where personality is defined by neurophysiology though, is there even still room for the self? In one of my very first posts I had some fun with a thought experiment about the possibility of uploading your consciousness to a different body. The thought experiment was really just a vessel to explore our everyday notions of what a self is, and I ended up arguing that your sense of self is just a feeling associated with a particular pattern of neuronal firing at any given time. You ARE that pattern, and as that pattern changes, so do you. There is no consistent self or you that remains stable over time.
What do I mean by this? There’s been a lot of data coming out of the cognitive sciences recently that points to the fact that our personality is often times not a consistent feature of our “selves” but is actually very situation specific. Think about the differences in your behavior when you’re calm versus when you are angry. When you’re relaxed versus when you are stressed. What about when you are surrounded by friends versus being surrounded by your family, or even compared to being surrounded by total strangers? What about when you’re in an intimate social gathering versus a large social gathering? Do you behave differently when you are drunk versus when you’re sober? You might argue that all these varied situations cause neurophysiological reactions that alter the way “you would normally behave”, that there is your “self” and then there is yourself under the influence of various conditions. But this is just going back to the completely unwarranted assumption that there is some sort of area of the brain that corresponds to “you” (or that there is an immutable and default you) and that your emotions and mental states act on you and cause you to make different choices. But there is no “you” and a separate “emotion”, there is just “you in a particular state of being”. We give labels to these different states to make sense of them, but the act of labeling them tends to make us think they are separate from us. This isn’t the case. Take away your sensory systems, your emotional systems, your reasoning systems and you aren’t left with an unspoiled default “you”, you’re left with nothing.
Have you ever said you would do one thing in a situation, and then when actually put in that situation you do something else? Which is being true to yourself? The choice you want to make or the choice you do make? Questions like these don’t even make sense in light of the kinds of considerations I’ve been suggesting. Standard notions of the self, let alone the true self, are problematic enough. So it seems to me that we can take one of two tracts here; either we deny the notion that there exists some sort of true self at all, or we come to the conclusion that you are ALWAYS being true to yourself. How could you be otherwise? How are you not yourself? To me, the question isn’t whether you are being true to yourself or not, but rather, what kinds of selves should we be? And what is our justification for saying so? If our neurophysiology can change through interactions with our environments, and if our behavior and thoughts arises from neuronal firing as a result of this neurophysiology, and this is what it means to be, or have, a self, then what we want is to figure out what types of people we want to be, and what kinds of choices we can make to help us become those types of people, both in our explicit thought patterns AND in our implicit desires and behaviors.
Knobe ran an interesting experiment where people were presented with situations where a person either seemingly denies an inner urge, or makes a behavioral change seemingly based on values. When asked whether the person in the situation was being true to themselves, Knoebe found that the most reliable indicator didn’t have to do with whether someone embraced or denied an urge, or acted on their values, but rather, whether the person reading the situation agreed with the behavior. We all make value judgments about other peoples’ actions and their choices, and we apparently impose these very same value judgments when evaluating whether someone is being true to themselves or not. Without knowing it, these experiment participants advocated something along the very lines I’ve been saying. They thought they were answering a question about what it means to be true to yourself, but what they really answered was a question about what it means to act rightly, about what kind of self we believe we should be, and knowingly or unknowingly equated that with the concept of a true self. Imagine if someone’s “true self” was, to be blunt, an asshole? What if someone’s true self is a rapist or murderer? Very few people would embrace this notion of the true self, and I think most people are at least intuitively aware of this difference between the self we are, and the self we want to be, the self we should strive to be. And if that’s how we want to use the phrase “true self”, i’m fine with that. But we should do so knowingly, with a full understanding of the real ontological nature of the concept we’re discussing.