The Dissident

Lover of philosophy, politics, and spirituality

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Illusion of Self

Finished at Starbucks in San Jose while listening to Sublime on Pandora. Drinking a blonde roast and wondering: “Do I have a self?” Here is a 2000 word articulation of my thoughts on “I” and “self”.
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The “I” is a constructed idea, a collection of fluid opinions, beliefs, ideals, projections, and emotions, rather than something fixed. Because there is so much fluidity in our opinions, beliefs, and ideals, the sense of ‘self’ is always evolving. So just as Heraclitus said, “you can never step into the same river twice,” the same holds true for the elusive ‘self’. The sense of ‘self’ is simply a persona that we reinforce throughout our lives – as if we have been cast as a character in a play.

Stop for a second, and ask yourself where your “self” or “I” is? Most people will point to their head or stomach area. Most everyone is aware of the inner voice in their mind (technically known as the homunculus, meaning, little man), who gives opinions, analyses, guides, etc. Is the inside voice your “I”? Each of us lives with a sense of a self. We feel like we have an independent and existent “I.” We all yearn for clarity to the questions “Who am I?” Who is the “I” who says, “I love ice cream,” or “I am mad at you.” It is curious and revealing that we constantly refer to ourselves, our “I,” and yet we really don’t really know the manner in which this “I” exists. Where am I? Can you point to your consciousness? Am “I” my physical body: my nose, my face, my leg, my brain? Does the ‘self’ survive even if I lose an arm or leg?

As a relatively new dad, I’ve been pondering this question. When will my son realize his “I”, his self, his identity? As a one-year old, he barely has control over his bowel movements. But somewhere along the path of childhood, he will start to develop a sense of self-identity and pride. My interest is this: what will constitute my son’s “I”, and is it real, or an illusion?

To answer this question, I’m reminded of Charles Cooley’s tongue-twisting claim about the self: ‘I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am’. In other words, my son’s “I” will be molded from what other’s think of him. Simply put, we discover who we are, and we come to value our self, based on what others think. Earning respect and social acceptance from others is probably one of the major preoccupations that we can have. The self is shaped by the reflected opinions of others around us. People shape themselves to fit other people’s perceptions, and these vary from one person to the next. Spouse, family, boss, colleagues, lover, adoring fans, and beggar in the street each hold a looking glass up to us every time we interact, and we present a different self. The illusion is that we think we alone are calling the shots. We think we know what our true authentic self is, and can literally put our finger on it.

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Realizing the delusions of our self is akin to the little dog Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the machinations of the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. Throughout the Land of Oz, the Wizard was dominant, all-powerful, and authoritative, and everyone deferred to him. This is like our ego, telling us what to do and convincing us that it alone is wise and knows all. Then, one day, we get fed up and tired of being sent on wild goose chases, and we discover that the big Wizard is only a rather small, insecure, and powerless old man shouting into a microphone. It is all ruse. The Wizard dominated for his own benefit; Dorothy never needed him to get her “home.” Our personal Wizard might be the internalized voice of our parents, or of society, or of our profession. The Wizard is not us, however, and we don’t actually need him in the driver’s seat. Invariably, getting “home” and overcoming our self-destructive tendencies require us only to be brave enough to pull back the curtain and reveal our own false sense of self.

My argument can be summed up in three points:

  1. The “I” is a constructed idea
  2. There is no independently existing, permanent, or inherent “I”
  3. We predispose ourselves to expect that we live out the “story” which we think defines us

First, the “I” is a constructed idea, a collection of opinions, projections, and emotions, rather than something absolute. The “I” is like a persona that we reinforce throughout our lives that seems so real – as if we have been cast as a character in a play.

We all manufacture an elusive “I” filled with character traits, virtues, and a back-story so that we can gain acceptance with others, fulfill a role in life, manage potential threats, and protect our fragile ego’s. We cultivate a “self” from the amalgamation of our experiences, memories, and extensions.  A man’s “I” is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his mind, but clothes and house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his accomplishments and status.

The “I” is our constructed story that forms and shapes our identity. We are the chief architects of our individual selves as we build up a sense of ‘self’, ‘identity’, and the pronominal ‘I’. During the different phases of our development we morph into the ‘smart one’ or ‘the athlete’ of the family; or the ‘shy girl’ or ‘the funny guy’ in high school. We are constantly sizing up people and experiences around us in order to adapt to the expectations and requirements of the outside world. We adapt by creating defenses and extensions so that our world becomes more manageable. We adapt by using denial, “That’s not really me!” and projection, “Oh, he thinks he knows everything.” We use are extensions to help us with our role and status in society. Thus, our extensions become our looks, our cars, our houses, and what appears on our Facebook feed. In essence, our extensions become our identities.

Second, there is no independently existing, permanent, or inherent “I.” We see this in our ever-evolving acting roles given the experiences we face and the situations we find ourselves in. I may say and feel, for example, that I am a father, husband, counselor, writer, son, impatient driver, mellow driver, good triathlete, funny guy, contemplative guy, coach, and so on. But I am none of these concretely, permanently, solidly, independently, or absolutely, even if I do believe I exist in all those ways at certain times and places.

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Sometimes I am a husband, but with my mom – I assume the role of son. I play the role of good driver when my wife and son are in the car, but I’m like Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights when I am in my car alone and I am late for an appointment. I’m professional and serious at work, but I’m goofy and crazy with my close friends. Am I a husband, good driver, and goofy constantly and absolutely? Not at all. I simply can’t nail down my identity or “me” because I play a plethora of roles in order to adapt to my environment. Moreover, if tomorrow I lose everything and find myself bankrupt and alone, I will assume a new role and character. Simply put, the self and “I” is not physical, but it’s symbolic. The “I” is an ever-changing symbolic narrative we mold as it undergoes perpetual construction, refining, and re-definition.

Why am I so focused on deconstructing the illusion of “I”? The reason is simple: I’m concerned with how we predispose ourselves to live out particular “stories” that we think define us. How you define yourself will color how you see the world and influence how you handle problems and suffering. Often when we have an experience, we generalize it to a personal trait. So, when going through various experiences, we typically reinforce an imprint of who we think we are. In a sense we could say we predispose ourselves to expect that we will live out the “story” that we think defines us, even when that story leads us into perpetual failure or self-destructive habits.

When we fail to recognize the illusion of the “I”, we end up fusing our identity with our emotions. We all, most likely would agree that we are not our beliefs, our experiences, or our roles. We know intellectually that we are not solely any of these limited things, but there’s the rub. Despite this understanding, we often behave and react otherwise. We “forget” in the heat of the moment. We live in a kind of consensual hallucination brought on by our emotions, which are experienced so fully and directly, it’s as if they take over our mind and we “fuse” our identity with them.

Just look how we talk about their emotions. We say, “I am hungry,” and “Boy, I’m tired,” or “I’m mad at my boss.” In the moment we become hunger, tired, and anger. All day long we are constantly identifying with our emotions, and we treat them as if they are the infallible barometer of our true self. The reality is this: when we fuse our emotions to our (constructed) identity we cause our own anxiety by projecting specific beliefs, perceptions, and values onto the situation.

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Currently, I am stressed because I have a rocky relationship with a co-worker. I have anxiety over the way that this co-worker treats me and false assumptions she has of me. But this anxiety is my own fault and my own doing. I am clinging to my sense of “I” that says, “I need to have a good reputation,” and “I deserve to be liked by everybody.” This is part of my identity and has been for as long as I can remember. This, however, begs the question: if I don’t get perceived by others that way, then am I the opposite? Am I thus, a person with a sketchy reputation who should not be trusted? It certainly feels that that’s the perception. Quite honestly, my identity feels threatened! My anxiety, then, is the direct result of this aversion and/or desire I have around a specific identity (e.g. reputable, well-liked), and my attachment to the outcome.

Do you see the emotional fusion? Anxiety is fused with the desire and attachment to an insatiable need to be liked and respected. Why? Because I have constructed an identity that says, “Wes is a reputable person who needs to be well-liked and respected.” That is the role, identity, and “I” that I have constructed.

Just because I believe the “I” is an illusion doesn’t been that we have to resign ourselves to a feeling of floating nothingness. It’s impossible to live 24/7 denying the “I”. The reason for this is because we all have experiences; and experiences are the catalyst for the formation of the “I.” Thus, we are destined to always construct a story of our “self,” as well as concretize an identity and story we wish to live out.  Given this inevitability, my suggestion is that we approach our personal “I” with open-mindedness and flexibility. I’d much rather adapt to a role in which “I” is known as, “Wes, the compassionate person,” rather than, “Wes, who is needy of attention.” The point I want to make is that you can take a step back and re-cast your role within the world, such that, your “I” is one that is mindfully aware of how to best integrate into the world and get along with others and yourself.

In reality, the “I” doesn’t actually refer to anything. You can have an elaborate story about “I,” and you can refer to that story and worry about how that story is going, but there is no-thing that all of that refers to. “I” is just a lot of memories patched together to make what we call a self-image, which is an accurate description of it – it’s an image. In the end, it turns out that “I” is just thoughts about “I.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Your Reality is the Placebo

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My thesis is meant to give you power over what your mind conjures up as “reality”. All too often, we hold beliefs that are detrimental to our well-being. However, through conditioning, resetting our expectations and finding new meaning, we can alter the narrative we find ourselves in; and bring more internal hope and peace. I’m not saying that you ought to make up or pretend that reality is different so that you will be happier. Rather, every (real) experience, (real) belief and (real) worldview can be re-interpreted and re-contextualized so as to bring out of the dark shadows: wisdom, joy and gratitude. My contention is that our reality is akin to a placebo pill: we put our power into a reality that conditions us, gives us an expectation of our future, and provides meaning.

Your Reality is the Placebo

Let’s just dive right into my argument … Your reality functions as a placebo effect that conditions you to accept a belief as worth pursuing, followed by an expectation that it will produce the same future results based on the heightened positive results experienced in the past, thus solidifying it as meaningful belief that is worth embodying as true.

We commonly think of a placebo as pill or injection used to trick people into believing something that isn’t true. Thus, we reduce it to simply a trick. What is often left out of the conversation is that when the patient takes the pill, if they truly believe in the supposed outcome, there can in fact be physiological and psychological changes that move the patient towards the presumed outcome. In other words, the patient creates a reality based on the belief that the pill will work. To minimize it as only a trick or delusion is to ignore the objective evidence that the placebo effect can work. Before moving on, allow me to explain in greater detail just how the placebo works.

The Elements of the Placebo

The placebo effect has three vital elements: conditioning, expectation and meaning. First, if a person keeps taking the same substance, his brain keeps firing the same circuits in the same way – in effect, memorizing what the substance does. The person can easily become conditioned to the effect of a pill or injection from associating it with a familiar internal change from past experience. Because of this kind of conditioning, when the person then takes the placebo, the same hardwired circuits will fire as when they took the drug. As associative memory elicits a subconscious program that makes a connection between the pill or injection and the hormonal change in the body, and then the program automatically signals the body to make the related chemicals found in the drug.

Second, expectation is formed around what we’re conditioned to believe will happen when we take the pill, and what we think that everyone around us (including our doctors) expects will happen when we do, thus affecting how our body responds to the pill.

plplLastly, the process of expectation elevates the meaning of the experience by which you consciously marry your thoughts and intentions with a heightened state of emotions, such as joy or gratitude. Once you embrace that new emotion and you get more excited, you’re bating your body in the neurochemistry that would be present if that future event were actually happening. It could be suggested that you’re giving your body a taste of future experiences. Your brain and body don’t know the difference between having an actual experience in your life and just thinking about the experience – neurochemically, it’s the same. So the brain and body begin to believe they’re actually in the new experience in the present moment. Quite simply, the conscious mind merges with the subconscious mind. Once the placebo patient accepts a thought as reality, and then emotionally believes and trusts in the end result, the next thing that happens is a change in their psychology and physiology.

Beliefs Are Placebos

My contention is that by connecting the placebo effect with the beliefs we hold, we can thus uncover the architecture of belief. We can define belief as trust and confidence in the acceptance that a statement or concept is true or exists. While belief consists of many trivial things (i.e. I’m typing on a laptop right now, and, I believe I am wearing a gray shirt, etc.), for the sake of brevity I will focus on the concepts that deal with life’s deepest existential questions such as: why should I not kill myself, and what is my highest aim on this planet? To answer these questions requires some kind of a belief-system that offers explanations or guidance.

gtgtgThe beliefs we hold, concerning one’s existential condition in the universe, follows the pattern of the placebo effect just mentioned: conditioning, expectation and meaning. The two examples I will simultaneously use to demonstrate this claim will be identified as (1) and (2), and explained as such:

(1) the religious belief of the justice of God provides hope in the midst of suffering

(2) the secular belief/goal in the pursuit of human flourishing provides gratitude in working together for a common good.

Both (1) and (2) conditions the person to the experiential effects in holding (1) and (2). The effects are varied but not limited to:

-Feeling of security in having a “why” deep life’s deepest concerns

-Feeling of hope and purpose with life

-Feeling of intentionality with life

-Positive feeling in having a plan/perspective to life’s challenges

It’s important to note that these feelings impact the neurochemistry of its adherents with hormonal changes that effect one’s physiology. As evidence of this claim, simply think of the emotions that rise when you think about how someone you care deeply for went out of their way to help you when you needed it most. The pleasant hit of dopamine in your brain is much different from the stress hormones of cortisol released when your flight/fight reflexes kick in. In essence, you get conditioned to accept that this is, well, good! The conditioning is further solidified in the environment when you surround yourself in a community of other fellow adherents, thus reinforcing that this belief is worthy of pursuing.

The expectation of (1) and (2) is grounded in the mental rehearsal in past experiences that creates the future reality that you will indeed receive the same dose of joy, security, hope, etc. Now (1) and (2) gain anticipatory feelings that look like, for example, (A) resting in God’s love will give me peace, and (B) a deep concern for the well-being of others will bring me happiness. Thus, expectation in now grounded in one’s psyche. The end result is that the conditioning and expectation gives the belief meaning. Now, the belief is concretized and justified as a noble pursuit.

kkmkmJust as the patient gives power to the external agent (the pill), you and I give power to beliefs. The power we give to the pill or belief will mold our reality. This is crucial when it comes to worldviews that we adopt to help guide us through life’s most perplexing existential questions. For example, hope and gratitude, at an existential stratum, are two psychological pillars of emotionality that – at a fundamental level – keep one from killing oneself. Hope gives the good, bad and the ugly a positive, optimistic or guiding context. Gratitude gives us the attitude and disposition for all of the good, bad and ugly.

Moreover, the psychological benefits of hope and gratitude prove to be the placebo that dampens the dread of death and tragedy, so much so, that religious people call it by another name: the justice of God. The justice of God is a conceptual placebo packed with propositions that has morphed throughout history to give man a “why?” to the most difficult questions. Therefore, the justice of God helps the religious person psychologically posture themselves before, during and after tragedy strikes, with the presupposition that whatever happens – no matter how bad – is part of God’s perfect and good plan.

Even secular man tackles the “why?” with other placebos that are, like the justice of God, rooted in hope and gratitude that are purely conceptual. For example, hope in leaving behind an altruistic legacy and hope in the progress of compassion and love. All of this with an attitude of gratitude that civilization has astonishingly blossomed from hominoids all the way to vast democracies where people cooperate and flourish. Herein lies the placebo of hope and gratitude, that function as the scaffolding and architecture of the reality we create. This is what gives belief power and meaning to life’s deepest existential questions.

In closing….

Your reality functions as a placebo effect that conditions you to accept a belief as worth pursuing, followed by an expectation that it will produce the same future results based on the heightened positive results experienced in the past, thus solidifying it as meaningful belief that is worth embodying as true.

A deeper point I wish to glean from my premises is that your reality is the placebo. Your reality is the placebo that shapes your attitudes and beliefs, thus altering your neural and physiological chemistry. The goal, however, is to realize that the placebo is not in the external pill, but in what your mind produces.

Just like a patient given a placebo pill who places their power in the external object (the pill) to bring about change, there is an internal placebo (e.g. beliefs/reality) that we give power to, that brings epigenetic changes. The internal placebo is the power we give to beliefs through conditioning, expectations and meaning. The power we give to beliefs change our physiological and psychological disposition.

 

My thesis is meant to give you power over what your mind conjures up as “reality”. All too often, we hold beliefs that are detrimental to our well-being. However, through conditioning, resetting our expectations and finding new meaning, we can alter the narrative we find ourselves in; and bring more internal hope and peace. I’m not saying that you ought to make up or pretend that reality is different so that you will be happier. Rather, every experience, belief and worldview can be re-interpreted and re-contextualized so as to bring out of the dark shadows: wisdom, joy and gratitude. My contention is that our reality is akin to a placebo pill: we put our power into a reality that conditions us, gives us an expectation of our future, and provides meaning.

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**Possible Rebuttals**

My essay is done, but…..

It’s here that I can imagine someone quoting some positive psychology of “The Secret” that basically says: dream it and it will come true. Again, my argument is not centered on dreaming up your reality, or, faking it till you make it. Rather, it’s recognizing that our lives function as a story, and we are the lead actor in our life-long drama. And the way that we interpret our life depends on the beliefs and worldviews we hold dear. We alone are the one’s who give power to those beliefs and worldviews, just like the patient who gives power to the placebo pill. Moreover, the beauty of the placebo reality is that it can really change our psyche and physiology, thus improving our well-being.

I can also hear the secular person saying, “but at least my naturalistic worldview is more real than the religionist worldview.” By this, I presume he is meaning that the naturalistic worldview is more ‘objectively real’ than most (or all) religions. This, however, is a reductionistic argument on the part of the secular person, for it presumes that what is real is that which can only be objectively demonstrated. My claim is that reality has innumerable layers that lay subterranean beneath that which can be only falsifiable or testable.

For instance, we can say that the numbers 9 and 11 are objectively real – timeless symbols that are part of a mathematical system. However, they are so much more than that. One layer deeper, and we form a calendar whereby 9 stands for September and 11 stands for the days in September. A layer deeper than that triggers emotions of sadness, for it symbolizes tragic loss. Moreover, a layer under that is a shift in perception of “ground zero” in New York, and terrorism in general, since it hit so close to home. On the other hand, I have a friend who’s birthday is on September 11, so for her, her reality of those numbers are not all sad. My point is that “reality” is a multi-varied metaphor that is not necessarily objective, rather, it is subjectively experienced.

 

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A Defense of Self-Transcendence

The reason I feel compelled to write about self-transcendence is because it is an extremely nebulous word that gets tossed around without proper explanation. Second, self-transcendence is deserving of attention because it is fundamental to the human quest for experiencing the meaning in life. Lastly, I feel obligated to defend self-transcendence against the skeptics attempt to reduce it to just brain states. To the contrary, self-transcendence involves real experiences that can illuminate life, meaning, purpose and significance.    

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Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos. (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, New York, 1971, p. 269.)     – Abraham Maslow

Recently, I was at the bedside of a patient as he breathed his last breath. As a hospice chaplain, this is a rather common experience. However, this experience was different than most cases because it served as a transcendent experience that changed me.

It was just he and I in the room. His breathing had become labored with the typical ‘death rattle’ in his breathing caused by fluid in his upper chest and throat. He was only 57 years old and had absolutely no one in his life to support him during his last minutes on earth. I sat with one hand on his shoulder, in a cold and sterile room while the final chapter of his life comes to an end. In that eerie and lonely moment, I saw myself in his place. The image in my mind was me as a 57-year-old actively dying man, all alone, in a dimly lit shabby county care facility. The feeling was haunting and chilling. I was haunted by the conception of dying alone in a cold and emotionally desolate environment. It was then that a door in my mind opened up, and thoughts of my wonderful wife, beautiful newborn son, and loving family permeated every fiber of my being. In that moment, I experienced transcendence that was more than a feeling; it changed me.

The experience united me with the axiom that every relationship is precious. Now, to say “every relationship is precious” doesn’t sound very deep or profound. However, sometimes it’s simple truths that hit us like a mack truck. Often, it’s the simple realizations that flip our world upside down and expose the self-centered illusions that entrap us. My transcendent moment brought me out of the mundane and into the experience of being alive. It woke me from my routinized slumber and brought to light something greater than my self-interested mindset. My transcendent moment was a revolution of my soul.

Defining Self-Transcendence

Self-transcendence is an altered state of awareness by which we transcend the mundane and banal routinized modes of life and connect with a greater sense of meaning. Self-transcendence takes you from your myopic, isolated, and individual conception and connects you with a deeper, more meaningful way of existing. For example, we may experience self-transcendence through meditation, music, religious activities, professional sports, nature, drugs, and political beliefs. Self-transcendence occurs when one is deeply stirred by Mozart or the Beatles; when one is united with the whole as you stand at the precipice of the Grand Canyon or you celebrate your team’s victory; it’s felt in contrite prayer or LSD; and through feeling love at the deepest visceral level or while eating the best Chilean sea bass you ever had. Self-transcendence is crucial for our well-being for the obvious reason that we each yearn for meaning, purpose, and connection. The opposite of self-transcendence would be all the routinized banalities of life. While my morning routine of showering, brushing my teeth and getting dressed is an experience, it most definitely is not a transcendent one. However, my nightly twenty-minute meditation is a personal example of self-transcendence by which my sense of ‘self’ slowly dissipates and I unite with what feels like an uncontaminated sense of peace.

Why the Need to Transcend?

Self-transcendence is one of the fundamental pursuits of being human. In the deep recesses of the soul is the yearning to be part of something bigger than the idiosyncratic isolated self. On one hand, we live life as individuals fulfilling our individualized goals and desires. On the other hand, we live in a highly socialized world and we see the benefits cooperating with people for a greater good. As Darwin noted, human beings came out on top because we learned how to cooperate in groups. In essence, man found the good in transcending the individual and embracing the unity of the whole. The stronger the affinity for the group, the stronger the group will be and the more likely the group will persist. Like bees and ants, we group together and circle around ideals and truths we hold to be sacred. Religion and politics are two palpable examples that illustrate how people transcend the ordinary routines of daily life and transcend to ideals and virtues that make life worth living and fighting for.

We can go to an even deeper substrate as to why there is a need to transcend. One of the most basic and elemental reasons why self-transcendence is sought and valued is because life is suffering. We are unwillingly thrown into a world rife with pain and suffering while having to solve the most complicated question ever advanced: how can I live a life that is significant, meaningful, and purposeful? The need to transcend the mundane is a ubiquitous pursuit given our close proximity with isolation, alienation, boredom, death and trauma that befalls every person. You are the lead actor in your personal drama of life, and we all want to be the hero in the play that is life; the heroic journey involves transcending the monotonous chaos of life, while reaching up for the deeply meaningful.

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Self-Transcendence as a House With Many Rooms

Self-transcendence can lead to rather ambiguous and esoteric ideas, so allow me to present a helpful metaphor to make it a bit more lucid. Think of the mind like a house with many rooms, most of which we’re very familiar with, but sometimes it’s as if a doorway appears almost out of nowhere, and it opens onto a staircase, we climb the staircase and experience a state of altered consciousness or awakening. The transcendent experience is the ‘ah-ha’ moment which illuminates our way of being. Another way to put it is that it unites us with the sacred.

As a hospice chaplain, I am often surrounded by self-transcendent experiences. Death has a way of catapulting people out of their comfortable little box and into a world of the unknown. Sometimes death opens the door leading us to the stairway of self-transcendence. Once, a daughter of a dying patient of mine described the last minutes of her father’s life. She said that the room was engulfed in peace and all went quiet except the birds chirping outside. Then, she felt as if her ‘self’ simply melted away and all she felt was a unity and love with her father that she had never experienced before. The image that she felt was the warm embrace of her father, and the calm realization that his time on earth was up. He passed minutes later. She would later would tell me how that experience awakened her to a more mindful realization of how meaningful family truly is. For her, the staircase led not to only intense feelings, but it re-oriented her life in such a way that she became a better person for it.

I should clarify that self-transcendence experiences are not necessarily always profound life-changing epiphanies. Often, when the door at the top of the staircase opens, we are awakened to a truth or ideal that causes only minor tectonic shifts in our perspective. When I listen to pianist Michele McLaughlin’s song “Dismissed,” I often experience self-transcendence that enlivens me to a kind of pure joy. It doesn’t, however, leave me in a stupefied ecstatic state that completely rocks my world with awe. Nevertheless, it is still a self-transcendence experience that lifts me from my run-of-the-mill life.

Self-Transcendence Connects Us With the Sacred

Self-transcendence helps us identify what is sacred for us. When something or someone becomes sacred it means that the significance of the thing/person/experience is elevated to a status deserving of reverence, honor, and is hallowed. In religious talk, it’s holy. Our ability to identify things/people/experiences as sacred is paramount for us because the sacred is precisely what makes life worth living. The sacredness we imbue upon, for example, family, love, capitalism, faith, relationships, a hobby and being Republican or Democrat, enlivens us with a greater purpose and meaning in life. A deeper way to think of it is that the transcendent experience re-directs or re-orients us to the sacred. It acts as a reminder, exposing to us what ought to be pursued.

It was the French sociologist Émile Durkheim that spoke of man being homo duplex (man as two). The sacred is part of what makes man homo duplex, which is to say that we occupy (at any time) one of two domains: the sacred or profane. A fundamental aspect to being in the world is that we move up and down a vertical line between the sacred and profane. The sacred and profane is not to be confused with the value judgements: good (sacred) and bad (profane). The sacred and profane are simply two modes of being. The sacred refers to those collective representations that are set apart from society, or that which transcends the humdrum of everyday life. The profane, on the other hand, is everything else, all those mundane things like our jobs, our bills, and our rush hour commute. Self-transcendence is the act of ascending the vertical line, leaving the customary and common for the luminous and lustrous.

Connecting With the Collective Consciousness

Self-transcendence connects us with the collective consciousness. Collective consciousness is when you forget your own individual desires and decide to integrate into the whole. ‘The whole’ is representative of the collective ideas, beliefs, and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society. Collective consciousness creates a solidarity of beliefs through mutual likeness. The totality of sentiments common to the average members of the society form a determinate system with a life of its own. Some examples of collective consciousness include the ideals that ‘love is better than hate’, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’, and ‘flourishing is [most often] better than pain’. Granted, not everyone embodies these beliefs, however, these axioms take us out of our individualistic world and propel us towards solidarity with the whole. History reveals the force of the collective consciousness with examples such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Berlin Wall coming down, and 9/11. We join with the collective consciousness when we transcend our boring and tedious lives, and our awareness is ruptured by mass devastation and trauma or random acts of kindness and when our team wins the Super Bowl.

A Rebuttal to Skeptics

Skeptics often roll their eyes at stories of transcendence because they are not real. By ‘not real’, I mean that self-transcendence does not point to something objectively real (i.e. empirically verifiable through scientific method). The claim is that self-transcendence is [just] a subjective experience, thus, not real. Moreover, the skeptic often claims that self-transcendence is just a feeling. Thus, self-transcendence is sterilized and diminished to the compressed notion ‘feeling high’.

The problem with the skeptic response to self-transcendence is twofold. First, it’s a reductio ad absurdum (reduce to absurdity) to conclude self-transcendence is just a subjective feeling; as if to infer that the subjective has nothing to do with reality. Pain, hunger, and anger are subjective states, but they are nevertheless real to the experiencer. When the religious person has a near death experience, it is real to them. Just as when the secular person falls in love, that euphoria is real to them. The religious and secular person both experience self-transcendent moments and, most importantly, they embody these subjective realities which cause by real physiological states in their body. It is absurd to dismiss or reduce self-transcendence simply because it cannot be empirically verified through demonstration.

Second, the skeptic is falling into an error of category. What I mean by this is that the realness of subjective experience is in a completely different category than realness in the objective world. There simply is not only one category of reality that all knowledge can fit nicely into. In short, the realness of the computer I am typing on is different than the realness of my hunger. One relies on sensory perception and the latter relies on a physiological reaction. Both are real, yet both are known and/or experienced differently, because they occupy different categories of realness. We need not fall into error by conflating the two.

I do, however, feel the skeptic’s frustration when people use their self-transcendence experience to make objective or absolute truth claims. Again, two different categories (or domains) that need not be conjoined.

Final Words

This is my attempt to define self-transcendence. It will nevertheless always be a nebulous term with numerous interpretations. My goal is to paint a clearer picture so that people can awaken to the reality that life has innumerable opportunities for experiences that are deeply meaningful. We each get one shot at life; that’s it. After being at the deathbeds of hundreds of hospice patients, no one has ever said that they wished they had spent more time in the office or bought more stuff. Satisfaction, contentment and courage come from the ability to transcend the mundane and reach for those moments that remind us the preciousness of being.

 

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Subverting Rationality (Part 2)

“The only thing(s) real is that which is meaningful”

The Limitations of Objective Rationalism

Objective rationalism is a way of knowing and reasoning using empirical methods to deal with reality as opposed to subjective means. Objective rationalism has its basis in striving for impartiality devoid of bias and prejudice. It identifies knowledge as coming from outside sense data as opposed to internal structures that we use to interpret the outside world. It is a useful tool when, for example, a detective is trying to solve a difficult homicide case or when research is conducted to cure a deadly disease. In these examples, biasness and personal (subjective) opinion can skew the results.

 My argument states that objective rationalism is (1) limited, (2) is not how we construct our world, and (3) collapses on itself. Because of the myopic nature of objective rationalism, my contention is that ways of knowing and reasoning reality can be accomplished through pursuing that which is meaningful. In other words: that which is most real is that which is most meaningful.

 Objective rationalism is a limited way of perceiving the world because it dismisses the meaning of experiences; it tells us only ‘what is’ and not ‘why it matters’. When we analyze something or someone from an objective viewpoint, we focus strictly on the sense data (touch, taste, feel, sight, smell) and that which is falsifiable. It’s this method that speaks to the ‘is-ness’ of the situation, and that’s about it. In many situations this is useful, and in fact needed, for instance, when a medical examiner is conducting an autopsy and brut facts is paramount.

Objectivity, however, is limited in that it cannot tell us why it matters. The medical examiner can determine how the person died, but not why their life mattered. This is excruciatingly important given human beings are meaning-making creatures who are driven and motivated by that which is purposeful and significant. Our lives are narratives of meaningful and significant events linked together to form our personal life story.

Imagine how difficult it would be to recount your personal autobiography through only objective lenses? In other words, in recounting your past, you stripped away any subjective assessments and only articulated that which was demonstrably real. Not only would this be an impossible task as you focus solely on the ‘is-ness’ of everything in your past, but it is also a sterile account that would put most listeners to sleep. This is simply not how we live life. When we recount our past or construct an idealized future, we do it with meaning as our guide.

Because objectivity is so limited, we can make the argument that that which is most real is most meaningful. First, each of us creates a narrative (a story) of our ‘self’ and that narrative is constructed against the backdrop of meaningful and significant events. Each of us sees our life as a play, as Shakespeare articulated, “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players, they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” We can’t help but view ourselves as the lead actor in our play, and more importantly, our script and plot strive to illuminate meaning. If you are skeptical of this point, simply think about this question: how would you like your life to be in ten years? I guarantee the way you answer that question will focus on that which is meaningful to you.

Second, meaning is what moves us forward to an idealized future. I touched upon this in my first point, so I won’t belabor this thought. So, here is another question to ask yourself: Why didn’t you commit suicide this morning? Once again, I can guarantee that your answer to that question will center on reasons that focus on meaning, purpose, and significance.

Third, our brains are wired to interpret the meaningful as real. Simply put, our brains are wired to react to things that have meaning before they construct the perceptions that you think of as objects. The reason for this is that the meaning of things is more real, in some sense, and more important than the viewing of things as objects. When you approach a cliff, you don’t see a cliff, you see a falling off place. It isn’t that it is an object ‘cliff’ to which you attribute the meaning of the ‘falling off place’ to. The ‘falling off place’ comes first, and the abstraction of the object ‘cliff’, if it happens at all, comes much later. Much later conceptually as well, given that babies can detect cliffs without knowing the concept of ‘cliff’.

All this to say: that which is most real is most meaningful. We instinctively construct our world through meaning – having done so for millennia – which is why our brain has predispositioned us to react to meaningful experiences before we have the chance to begin the process of objectively rationalization.

 Objective rationalism is not how we construct our world

 Knowledge does not begin in the ‘I’, and it does not begin in the object; it begins in the interactions. There is a reciprocal and simultaneous construction of the subject on the one hand, and the object on the other. We are not simply surrounded by things made of matter (objectively speaking), the things around us literally matter (subjectively speaking).

Our world is constructed through our daily experiences that unfold our perceptions; a type of perpetual un-concealing. Through this unfolding and un-concealing, we have interactions – some positive, some negative – that results in dis-covering the world around us. For example, the object ‘dog’ can be revealed to one person as a ‘friendly loveable canine’ and to another as ‘a vicious beast’. It is un-concealed as either ‘loveable’ or ‘vicious’ based on one’s interactions with it. This is why if someone is attacked at an early age, often all dogs will be regarded as a threat – because of the previous (dangerous) interaction between the subject and the object. It is through these interactions with objects, that our world emerges.

It’s not like you will learn everything from the world through your senses. And it’s not as if you only project onto the world as interpretation. It’s something in between and it’s a dynamic, like bootstrapping. Bootstrapping is the processes that occurs when, for example, your computer boots up. Your computer is first ‘off’, and when turned ‘on’, a bunch of simple processes occur, and from those processes more complex processes emerge, and then out of those some more complex processes emerge. Well that’s what happens to us with regards to reality – you bootstrap yourself. Each experience in life changes us, even in microscopic ways, towards new realities. This is akin to the lesson of Heraclitus that says no person can step into the same water twice. There is a constant flow to life that we are a part of, in which, we incessantly are emerging in an ever-changing way.

Why in the world is this important? Because as you act in the world, you generate information, and out of that information you make the structures inside of you and you make the world. Your reality is neither objective in that it is driven solely by sense perception. And your world is not simply whatever interpretation you project. Rather, your world emerges to you as it unfolds and unconceals itself to you; putting you in the position to interact and cope with the (positive or negative) physiological reactions to experience.

Objective rationalism collapses into itself

Objective rationalism collapses into itself because it assumes a God’s eye view of reality, when really, it’s just a slightly different angle at best. Let’s dig deeper. Objective rationalism purports to be able to uncover an objective reality. Its apparently value-free descriptions are assumed to deliver the truth about the object, onto which our feelings and desires are later painted. Yet this highly objective stance, this “view from nowhere” to use Thomas Nagel’s phrase, is itself value-laden. It is just one particular way of looking at things, a way which privileges detachment, a lack of commitment of the viewer to the object viewed. For some purposes this can be undeniably useful. But its use in such causes does not make it truer or more real or closer to the nature of things.

Simply put: what we come to know consists not of things, but of relationships, each apparently separate entity qualifying the others to which it is related. Objective rationalism collapses into itself because while it privileges detachment from objects, it utterly ignores our relationship with the object. It focuses on isolation while excluding connection. Let’s fact it, everything has a particular context and within that context, we imbue certain entities with meaning. It is our context and connection with the world that constructs our reality. A parasitic dependence on objective rationalism is what you have with robots, and simply collapses with humans because of our complex ability to abstract experiences and process phenomena in meaningful ways. Therefore, one person may reasonably conclude that, for example, capital punishment is just, while another can reasonably conclude it is unjust, and thus murder. Objective rationalism cannot adjudicate this dilemma because people have different experiences, affects and interactions of phenomena.

 

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Subverting Rationality (Part 1)

Written over 2 days after my philosophy group called Symposium, met to discuss myth and objective rationalism. This is a short 700 essay that attempts to buttress my claim that the only thing(s) real are that which is most meaningful, as opposed to that which is objectively demonstrable through empiricism.

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One of the most important foundational questions to our existence is this: How should we best construe the world if we are to determine how to act properly within it? The world in which we live can either be construed as a forum for meaningful action, or a place of objective things. The former finds its place in the arts or humanities, in ritual, drama, and literature and mythology. In this construal, meaning is shaped by our social interactions which produces a guide to action. The latter manner is a world of things and finds its formal expression in the methods and theories of science. In this construal science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually validated properties of things, and for efficient utilization of precisely determined things as tools.

These binary construal’s – one aimed at meaning and the other aimed at reality as it ‘is’ – ought to prompt us to ask another foundational question: How is it that complex and admirable ancient civilizations could have developed and flourished, initially, if they were predicated upon Pre-Enlightenment nonsense? I frame the question this way because modernity has a way of elevating today’s (post-experimental) objective rationalism over-and-above (pre-experimental) mythos of meaningful action. However, if a culture grows and survives, does it not indicate in some profound way that the ideas it is based upon are valid? It myths are mere superstitious proto-theories, why did they work? Why were they remembered?

We have made the great mistake that the “world of spirit” described by those who preceded us was the modern “world of matter,” primitively conceptualized. That is not true – at least in the simple manner we generally believe. The cosmos described by mythology was not the same place known to the practitioners of modern science – but that does not mean it was not real. We have not yet found God above, nor the devil below, because we do not yet understand where “above” and “below” might be found.

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Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is qualitatively different phenomena. Science might be considered “description of the world with regards to those aspects that are consensually apprehensible” or “specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end).” Myth can be more accurately regarded as “description of the world as it signifies (for action).” The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique for shared affective valance, their value, their motivational significance.

Much of the clash between mythos and objective rationalism is that the modern notion reduces ‘true’ and ‘real’ to that which can only be demonstrated empirically while completely stripping the affect of every encounter we experience. But let’s take the ancient Sumerians as an example. The “world” of the ancient Sumerians was not objective reality as we presently construe it. The Sumerians were concerned, above all, with how to act (were concerned with the value of things). Their descriptions of reality (to which we attribute the qualities of proto-science) in fact comprised their summary of the world as phenomenon – as place to act. They did not “know” this – not explicitly – any more then we do. But it was still true.

The ancient Sumerians faced the same challenge as we do today: How do we live with purposeful meaning? This is the fundamental drive for human beings. We wake up in the morning and begin moving towards some-thing, meaning. Meaning means implication for behavioral output. Therefore, there are three excruciatingly important questions that guide our being, and they are: (1) What is? (2) What should be? and (3) How should we therefore act?

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Objective rationalism is silent and utterly impotent to these questions. Not even analyzing brain states can tell us why any meaningful experiences even matter. To the contrary, we are all moved by a goal that resides in an imaginary state – in fantasy – as something (potentially) preferable to the present. We then tweak how we act within the world so as to one day obtain the idealized future we have in our head. What I am describing is a forum for action; it’s what every myth is based upon. No, it’s not ‘true’ or ‘real’ in the modern sense, but the affect on us is absolutely true, and real.

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Using Pragmatism to Reconcile Religion and Science

This was written over several days and finished up in a coffee shop with a blonde roast at my side, and Antonio Vivaldi classical sets in my ear. In this essay, I take ideas from William James, John Dewey, Paul Tillich, Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida and Marin Heidegger and synthesize them into a short treatise on the reconcilability of science and religion. Drawing from pragmatism, I hope to dissolve some of the talk of [T]ruth and focus on show how science and religion are tools that accomplish a particular purpose with the goal of meeting particular human needs. My contention is that you can be science-minded and religious while retaining a clear semblance of intellectual responsibility.

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Science and religion are often said to be irreconcilable. The principle argument for this claim is that it’s intellectually irresponsible to both believe in the existence of a benevolent omnipotent creator of the universe and to accept the results of modern science. I’m dubious of this notion of intellectual responsibility.

Let us consider an illustration that may put my argument into perspective. Imagine an evolutionary biologist who is also a religious believer. Let’s call this imaginary person, Professor Mastersen. Mastersen spends her time trying to find ways to bridge the gap between Darwin’s story of how the mammals and, in particular, human beings came into existence. Her work is done within and against the background of the usual story of the history of the physical universe; the first story told by Lucretius, and enlarged upon by Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. It’s a story about elementary particles batting about without purpose and coming together accidently to form stars, planets, protein molecules, and eventually everything else. God, however, does not get into the act.

On Sunday’s, Professor Mastersen goes off to Mass, recites the creed, takes communion and all the rest of it. She doesn’t think much about the relationship between her weekday and Sunday activities. She was raised a Catholic and she relishes the experience of communal worship. Ever since she realized her oldest son is gay, she’s had doubts about the church’s views on various issues, and she regards the present Pope as a little too preoccupied with sex. But she figures Popes come and go, and the next one might be better. Although she is married to an agnostic, her husband agreed that the children would be raised Catholic. When her kids were studying the Catechism, they would ask her the usual questions of just how God managed to create the world out of nothing, how God managed to be both fully God and fully man, and how the consecrated host on the alter manages to be the divine substance while retaining its previous appearance. She shrugs the questions off, for she has little interest in theology and she is quite content to toss in the phrase “mystery of faith” whenever it will do the most good.

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Many people like my fictional Professor Mastersen actually exist. There’s lots of people who view themselves as perfectly good and perfectly sincere believers in some standard version of Christianity or Judaism or Islam, nevertheless, accept unquestionably the propositions the Darwinian theory of biological evolution, which many other Christians think incompatible with the creeds of their respective faith. These people are the despair of both the swaggering atheistic scientific colleagues and the less liberal members of the clergy. Professor Mastersen is well aware and rather amused that her parish priest would like for to take the Pope’s pronouncements more seriously. She is also aware that her atheistic colleagues make jokes about her religious beliefs behind her back. She is equally indifferent about both.

The question I want to discuss is this: Is Professor Mastersen behaving in an intellectually irresponsible way? If so, it is because she makes no attempt to weave the beliefs relevant to her professional activities together with those that dictate her Sunday church going. Well, should she make such an attempt? And if so, why?

We can hold contradictions by making distinctions

One might retort that we all have a moral obligation to think logically. Well, I say it’s not, perhaps, so off logic that one shouldn’t hold contradictory beliefs. For it’s always possible, as St. Thomas remarked, we can dissolve a contradiction by making a distinction. It may seem for example, that I should not both accept the Copernican sun-centered theory, and still believe that the sun is moving steadily closer to the horizon. But, of course, I resolve the contradiction by distinguishing between the astrophysical and the common-sense descriptions of the sun’s motion. For most people, it is common-sense to think that the sun moves around us, simply because that’s the way it appears! At Mass, it may seem that I should not both believe that there is wet bread on my tongue and that I am partaking of the various substance of my God. But I can resolve that contradiction by distinguishing between the theological and the commonsense description (albeit theological description) of what’s going on. We make this kind of contradiction-distinction all the time.

When the courts decide hard cases, for example, they make distinctions that nobody has ever drawn up before in the hopes of avoiding the charge that they are treating like cases in unlike ways. This is done, for instance, in murder cases that make distinctions between premeditated and unplanned murder, as well as voluntary and involuntary murder. The courts make further distinction if the defendant is criminally insane. Thus, one can hold contradictory beliefs: one murderer ought to get life in prison because it was premeditated, while another murderer should be given leniency because he fell asleep at the wheel killing another motorist, involuntarily. The “logic” is not crystal clear. It’s never easy to say when such distinction-making is legitimate and when it’s not. The same judicial opinion is often described with equal conviction and honesty, as brilliant analysis and as disingenuous rationalization.

Two Different Vocabularies: one religious and the other scientific

When it comes to the purported clash between religion and science, however, it may seem difficult to wiggle one’s way out of the appearance of contradiction. For surely the universe was either planned by an intelligent being who’s concerned for our welfare and actions, or it’s a fortuitous assemblage of contingencies. It seems too simple to say that it can be described in one way on Sundays for religious purposes, and a different way on weekdays for all other purposes. The difference in describing the two ways of the universe are just too important to be shrugged off as distinction between alternative purposes. Furthermore, the differences between these two descriptions doesn’t seem analogous to the differences in the common-sense and the scientific descriptions of the motions of the sun and earth. For in the latter case we can escape contradiction by saying it is handy and harmless to have two different vocabularies, one for everyday purposes and another for scientific purposes. The relation between the statements made in these two vocabularies is not exactly contradictory but just a matter of speaking crudely and precisely.

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The crude way of speaking which tells us that the sun moves across the sky can be replaced with a more precise description of what’s going on, a description which saves and explains the appearances. But the scientist who is also a religious believer can hardly say that neither biology or the Catechism is a crude oversimplified but convenient way of speaking. For the scientific and religious vocabulary are equally refined and precise. Both purport to describe how we got here and where human beings come from – so one of them surely must be wrong. Anybody like Professor Mastersen, many people would say, must be schizophrenic or at least intellectually irresponsible.

Paul Tillich: science deals with the literal and religion deals with the symbolic

One particular way to defend people like Professor Mastersen against this charge of intellectually irresponsibility, is to distinguish between literal and symbolic truth. Paul Tillich, the great Protestant liberal theologian of the mid-century, said that the statements of science are to be taken literally true whereas the statements of religious faith are what he called “symbolic expressions of our ultimate concern,” that is, attempts to describe whatever it is that we love with all our heart, soul and mind. Tillich said we all have symbols of our ultimate concern, only some of which are personalized deities, the revolutionary power of the Proletariat is such a symbol for Marxists. Moreover, the incarnation is such a symbol for Christians and the poetic imagination was such a symbol for Coleridge. Just as Marxist allows for no empirical facts to spoil their image of the Proletariat, and just as the Positivists allow no one to interfere with physics and mathematics, so do Christians allow no empirical facts to dissuade their sure and certain hope of resurrection.

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Tillich’s point is that a debate between Marxists and Christians or between Marxists and Positivists is not like a debate between advocates of Ptolemy’s and Copernicus’ theories about the motion of the earth or like a debate between Darwinian’s and creationists. In the latter case, there is plenty in agreement about what phenomena need to be explained and room for debate about which explanations of those phenomena meets best familiar criteria. But in the case of the Marxist verses the Christian or the Buddhist verses the Hindu, it seems silly to try and get agreement on which phenomena need explanation or about criteria for satisfactory explanation. The whole idea about explaining phenomena seems out of place in reference to these disagreements. So liberal theologians like Tillich say, let’s think of religion and philosophy as dealing in symbols and science as dealing in facts. The same facts are compatible with the invocation of many different symbols.

I don’t think that Tillich was intellectually dishonest, but I also don’t think that his notion of symbols is particularly helpful. The cache value of the term ‘symbolic’ seems to be merely irrelevant to prediction and control (that is, the ‘literal’ is the stuff in science books that help us cure diseases, build bombs, etc. and the ‘symbolic’ stuff in non-scientific books is not useful for that purpose but is useful for some other purposes).

Science and religion are tools, rather than ways of getting to Truth

Tillich’s interpretation of theology as symbolic expression of Christian concern merely reiterates the claim that theology nowadays mustn’t compete with natural science in explaining how things have come to pass (how the human species got here for example). Nor is it to compete with science for making predictions, for those days are gone, once upon a time in the 17th century, the church made competing and predictive claims, but since then, they have given up on making those claims. This is why the church has become immune to empirical disconfirmation and why acquiring or losing belief in God is more like falling into or out of love than winning or losing an argument.

It seems more helpful to forget about the literal/symbolic distinction (of Tillich) and just to say that since the development of modern science, religious and scientific beliefs have become tools for doing different jobs. Scientific belief helps us predict and control events in space and time. This job, before the Enlightenment, was to be done by cosmogonic hypothesis pervade by priests and prophets, but it can now be done better. Religious belief gives us a way of thinking about our lives that puts them in an emotionally satisfying context. Religion oversteps its bounds when it picks a quarrel with science, as when the Christian clergy picked quarrels with Galileo and then with Darwin, and science oversteps its bounds when it tells us we have no right to believe in God, now that we have better explanations of the phenomena that God was previously used to explain.

This way of reconciling science and religion requires one to abandon the idea that there is one way the world really is, and that science and religion are competing to tell us what that way is. Abandoning that idea is easiest if one thinks of beliefs as tools for accomplishing a purpose rather than as attempts to represent the intrinsic nature of reality, the way things are in themselves. Instead of insisting there is such a way, one will hold that although there are alternative descriptions of things [descriptions useful for different purposes] none of these get us any closer to the way things really are than any other. On this view the sole virtue of any descriptive vocabulary is its utility. It can’t have a further virtue called “getting things right”.

Neither science or religion get us to the Truth

To assume there is an intrinsic nature of reality is to assume that there is a portal to an absolute [T]ruth, concrete essence, and knowledge that is grounded. This is akin to Plato’s perfect Forms floating high above in the heavens as pure representations of the things below. To believe in the intrinsic nature of reality is to think that [T]ruth is floating somewhere in the heavens and scientific proofs can uncover that [T]ruth or that holy scripture or Divine revelation can reveal [T]ruth. The idea that science helps us uncover truth is has useless as thinking that phlogiston theory uncovers the truth of combustion and rust. The idea that God helps us uncover truth is has useless as thinking the saw is the best tool for building a house. The idea that rational arguments help us uncover truth is has useless as Aristotle thinking ‘the facts’ show that the earth is at the center of the universe. Just as it is useless for the religionists to say morals come from a moral Lawgiver, it is useless for the secular person to argue that “the facts demand …,” “logic demands …,” or “reason demands …,” as if there is an external [T]ruth that fact, logic and reason point toward.

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A pragmatist’s view: we call a belief true when we conclude that no competing beliefs serve the same purpose equally well

This technique of reconciliation also requires one to say there’s no such thing as the search for truth, if that search is conceived as something distinct from the search for greater human happiness. For all we know about truth, from a William James and John Dewey pragmatist view, is that we call a belief true when we conclude that no competing beliefs serve the same purpose equally well. We want prediction and control, and scientific beliefs give us that. We also want our lives to have significance, we want to love something with all our heart, soul, and mind, and philosophical and religious belief gives us that. Different human needs give rise to different ways of describing ourselves and the world, thus different candidates for belief. These candidates are, so to speak, running for different offices so they need not get in each other’s way. They all deny that things have intrinsic nature as opposed to useful descriptions.

These ways of thinking about truth, belief and reality add up to the view of knowledge common to the American pragmatist, to Nietzsche, and common to such post-Nietzschean European philosophers as Heidegger and Derrida. All these thinkers give up on the idea of reality as-it-is-in-itself, and the idea that the search for Truth (capitalized “T”) is an attempt to represent the intrinsic nature of things.

The views these thinkers share is sometimes called social constructivism, but that’s misleading. These thinkers are not saying that what we use to think was discovered is actually our own invention, rather they are simply reiterating that we can make no sense of the suggestion that one description is closer to the way things really are, apart from any human needs, purposes or interests than some other description. The best we can do is discover that one description is more useful for the satisfaction of one or another human need but hardly for the satisfaction of all human needs.

These philosophers (Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida) all deny that truth is a matter of correspondence to the way things are independent of our needs, for, they argue, there is no way we could ever test for such correspondence. Any proposed test would have to compare the ways we talk about things with the way things are apart from being talked about- and we have no idea of what such comparison would look like. For example, if we want to talk about Western Democracy being the best form of government, we have no independent [T]rue form of Democracy by which to test it up against. For every democracy is tainted with something that can be perceived as undemocratic. So ‘democracy being the best government’ cannot correspond to something “out there”, by which, we can then conclude, “Ah Ha! This is true!”

Who do we demand evidence from?

Is evidence something which floats free of human projects or is the demand for evidence simply a demand for the satisfaction of one particular human need – the need for agreement and belief when engaged in cooperative social projects? William James thought it was the latter.

On James’s view he says: it’s reasonable to demand evidence from those of whom we are engaged in a common enterprise, for example, when we are dealing with judges who are trying to make our country’s laws hang together. But when we are engaged in private idiosyncratic projects, such as the search for meaning in religion, it’s not clear that we have an obligation to produce evidence. For James, to search for truth is to search for beliefs that work; for beliefs that get us want we want.

When Professor Mastersen searches for the best explanation for a puzzling biological fact she, of course, is bound to look for an explanation which will be supported by evidence available to her fellow scientists. But on James’s view this is not because she is seeking truth as opposed to happiness, rather she is seeking tools that will do a certain job that certain human beings have taken, namely putting together a comprehensive narrative of what spatio-temporal events were casually linked to which other spatio-temporal events, in particular how biological evolution works.

When she expresses her contempt of fundamentalist Catholics who reject Darwin, Professor Mastersen is expressing contempt for people who try to use old tools when new and better tools for doing the same job have already become available. When Professor Mastersen attends Mass, takes communion, and recites the creeds, she is not taking part in a cooperative quest for the best solution to a practical problem. She is no more answerable for demands for evidence than when she decided for whom to marry, or when she decided what graduate training to take up. She is seeking happiness in her own way, on her own time, for her own sake.

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We have no responsibility to truth; only a responsibility to other human beings

We have no responsibility to something called “truth.” To the contrary, our only responsibility is to other human beings. The question of whether there is evidence for a belief is a question of whether there exists a certain human community which takes certain relatively controversial propositions as providing good reasons for that belief. Where there is such a community, a community to which we want to belong, we have an obligation to our fellow human beings not to believe a proposition unless we can give some good reasons for doing so. Reasons of the sort the relevant community takes to be good ones. Where there is no such community we don’t. No one knows what would counts as non-question-begging evidence for the claims of the Catholic or Mormon Church to be the ‘one true church.’ But that should not matter to the Catholic or Mormon community. Biologists, on the other hand, know quite well what counts as evidence for Darwinism or creationism.

James, unfortunately, thought of the opposition between the responsibility to our fellow human beings and to ourselves in terms of a distinction between intellectual grounds and emotional needs. I think that that was a mistake. For that way of talking suggests a picture of two human distinct faculties with two distinct purposes, one for knowing and another for feeling. This picture has to be abandoned once one gives up, as James and others do, the idea that there’s a special human purpose called ‘knowing the truth’ interpreted as ‘getting in touch with the intrinsic nature of reality.’

It would have been better if James would have thrown out this faculty of psychology that draws a nice clean line between reason and emotion and substituted something like a picture of human minds as webs of belief and desire, so interwoven with one another that it’s not easy to tell if a choice has been made on particular purely intellectual grounds or emotional grounds.

Nor is it useful to divide areas of cultures or of life into those of which there is only objective knowledge and those of which there is only subjective opinion. These traditional epistemological distinctions are misleading ways of making a distinction between areas where we do have an obligation to other people to justify our beliefs to them and other areas in which we don’t have an obligation.

Religionists owe us no justification for their private internal beliefs

James intellect/passion distinction should be replaced with what needs justification and what doesn’t. A business proposal, for example, needs justification. However, a marriage proposal – in our romantic and democratic society – doesn’t. If someone asks you to marry them, you don’t demand, “justify your proposal.” But if someone asks you to invest in their company, it is on point to demand they justify why I ought to invest. This pragmatist ethic says, along with John Stewart Mill, our right to happiness is only limited by other people’s right to have their own pursuits of happiness interfered with. This right to happiness includes what James called “the right to believe.” More generally, it includes the right to faith, hope, and love. These three states of mind can also not be justified and typically should not have to be justified. Our only intellectual responsibilities are responsibilities to cooperate with others on common projects. Projects such as constructing a unified scientific theory or quantum physics, and not to interfere with their private projects of faith. For the latter, such as getting married or engaging with religion, the question of intellectual responsibility just doesn’t arise.

This may beg the question, when do people of faith assume responsibility for the justifications of their belief? Notice in the previous paragraph I spoke of common projects. Just as scientists, collaborating on common projects, need to justify their claims because it directly effects the public sphere, so do religious people when their claims go from personal to public. When we speak of legislating laws based precisely on religious suppositions, then justification is needed. But Professor Mastersen owes no one any justification as to why she attends Mass or takes communion.

Last Words

The initial question I set out to answer was this: is Professor Mastersen behaving in an intellectually irresponsible way? If so, it is because she makes no attempt to weave the beliefs relevant to her professional activities together with those that dictate her Sunday church going. Well, should she make such an attempt? And if so, why? My contention from the outset is that she is in fact not behaving in an intellectually irresponsible way. Moreover, religion and science are simply two different tools used for different purposes. Just as Professor Mastersen owes no one justifications of why she chose to be a scientist rather than a gardener, she owes no one an explanation has to how she derives meaning, purpose and significance from a belief in the divine.

 

 

 

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Concepts as Absolute Truth

 

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I was sitting in a Bible study last week and couldn’t help but notice how Christianity is built on a Mount Everest of human-constructed concepts. Within an hour, I heard such phrases as “God is love,” “God is just,” “It’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus,” and “God protects us.” What stands out with these concepts is that they are not beliefs that can be concretely known. Rather, they are statements of faith based on hope. I found myself smugly thinking, “none of these Christian concepts are even demonstrably real!” The implicit conclusion in my thinking is that Christian concepts are illusory, but I – on the other hand – possess concretely “real” beliefs. But this is not true at all.

A concept is an abstract notion, or general idea. Concepts are not regarded as facts, rather they are an amalgamation of ideas that form a basis or conclusion. Unlike an idea which is more akin to a mental inkling, a concept has gone through some fine-tuning with a start and end point. Everyone is guided by concepts in order to make sense of the world. Even the secular person abstracts concepts from this world and acts as if it’s concrete reality. Several secular examples include: (1) there is an inherent worth and dignity in every person, (2) we ought to pursue justice, equity and compassion in human relations, (3) a democratic process through collaboration and cooperation is more valuable than an authoritarian style, and (4) love is real. All four of these examples represent concepts that are abstracted out of “reality” and embraced as possessing some intrinsic real-ness. There are some heavy concepts laced into these four examples that secular people define and defend quite effortlessly. Words like ‘worth’, ‘dignity’, ‘justice’, ‘equity’, ‘cooperation’, and ‘love’ seem real and objective to the secular person, just as it seems for the Christian who utters with supreme confidence “God is love.”

Let’s stick with “love” for just a minute. For the secular person, even something as simple and common as love between two people may seem like an obvious concrete reality, but really, it has no sustenance. All love is, is a feeling abstracted out of a relationship that takes form and shape based upon how one defines “love.” One person may define love as being unconditional and/or a much deeper feeling than affection. Another person may define “love” as a feeling one experiences when they (finally) feel secure and not alone. There are innumerable ways to articulate love, however, we are at an impasse as to any type of precision that makes ‘love’ a concrete reality – it is simply a floating and fleeting concept.

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My point is whether it is love, justice, or human worth, these are concepts that we abstract from reality and give it a complexion that appears real and concrete. Just as Christians fight and kill for their abstract concepts (e.g. salvation), so do secular people for the sake of what they think is “right.” Ask ten secular people how to define “justice” and you’ll get eleven different responses. And ask ten Christians to define “image of God” and you will never get two answers that are the same.

Why is this important? It’s important because when we turn concepts into concrete objective reality, we fall victim to tunnel vision that only reveals our “truth,” which results in a type of tribalism that reinforces all-or-nothing and black/white thinking. The Christian falls prey to this when it comes to concepts such as heaven or hell, as well as the secular person when it comes to the concept of justice. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have concepts, because embracing concepts are inevitable. I’m simply encouraging us to not absolutize concepts, because in doing so we invariably retard our capacity to look to other viable possibilities.

Let’s face it, both Christian and secular people abstract from their world concepts that serve to help us make sense and articulate what appear true to us. Concepts, which are abstractions that we presume to mirror reality, are nevertheless our personal mental short-cuts that reflect our values and worldview. Thus, before we do an eye-roll at Christianity’s “delusions,” perhaps the secular person should reflect on their own concepts that are incubated in the same quicksand.

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How Are Values Formed?

Written over the course of two days, and finished in Starbucks in San Jose, CA with electronic dance music pounding in my head, and a grande blonde roast that tastes horrible because I’ve given up sugar. Enjoy the essay!

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Values

When I look back at my belief system while growing up in Dallas, Texas (1976-2001), they are much different than my current belief system that’s been enculturated in liberal Silicon Valley (2013-2018). I remember being taught and believing that inter-racial marriage was wrong, that being gay was immoral, and that any type of governmental distribution of wealth was wrong because hand-outs to those in need simply incentivized laziness. I distinctly remember as a junior in college, cutting and gluing a picture of a grotesque dead fetus to a sign that would later be used at a nearby pro-life rally. When I look back, I can’t believe the contrast in values from then to now.

How did the ‘me’ of 2001 have such contrasting values than the ‘me’ of 2018? Was ‘southern me’ just a red-neck with antiquated values while the ‘Silicon Valley me’ is enlightened?

When I contemplate the contrasting ‘me’s’ I can’t help but want to explore the question: how do we form our values? Are values given from the heavens (i.e. God), are the genetic, or are the dynamic and happen as we simply experience life. This begs a follow-up question: are values absolute or cultural?

I truly believe that values are formed based on our life experiences. With that, I do believe they are also bound by culture. I don’t, however, believe that values come from the heavens, rather, I believe that values are imposed on us as children from early on while forming the basis and justification of our morality and ethics. Values such as care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, sanctity/degradation, authority/subversion, and liberty/oppression are ingrained in us from early on, and while they are malleable, they inform our ethics and politics. Moreover, I believe that all values are ingrained with intentions to promote ‘the good’, however, because values are culture bound, what’s good for one culture may be (and often is) deemed an abomination by another. Herein lies the ultimate irresolvable dilemma.

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How are Values Formed?

Value formation is the confluence of our personal experiences and particular culture. Values are imposed on our family in childhood and reinforced through culture and life experiences. The value of, for example, kindness was imposed on me from my parents, and reinforced throughout early childhood. Then I applied that value on the school playground and experienced how it helped me create greater social bonds with my school mates. My personal experiences growing up reinforced the value of kindness as I experienced the adaptive effects of showing kindness and the maladaptive effects when choosing malice over kindness. All through my upbringing, both my personal experiences and cultural surroundings both reinforced the value of kindness.

Having been born and raised in Dallas, Texas, the values of rugged individualism, church, and God was ingrained in my psyche from birth. Each of those three values, as I grew older, eventually formed the foundation of my worldview and politics. In a sense, our values, imposed upon us early in childhood, become our eyes and heart through which we form judgments and decisions.

Our culture plays a huge role in our value formation. Culture gives us a community and shared reality so that we can cooperate in activities and customs that give meaning, purpose, and significance to our existence. Culture gives us prescriptions for appropriate conduct so that we can learn best how to get along with others. All you have to do is travel to another country to see how values ebb and flow with culture. You can travel to China and see how they elevate the group or family over the individual in contrast to most Americans; how South Americans elevate hospitality and care for their elderly unlike most Americans; and how Hawaiians elevate relaxation and balance unlike most urban metropolitan cities in the U.S. (I am obviously speaking in general terms rather than absolutely)

red neckIf you live in the hills of West Virginia and coal mining is your life, and it’s what feeds your family, then you are less likely to support environmental policy that does away with coal mining. If, like I was, you are brought up with the value that every life is sacred, then pro-life values become your spectacles in which you view the the sanctity of a fetus. Likewise, if you lived in Ohio through the 1990’s and you witnessed jobs supplanted overseas, then the Republican platform doesn’t look so bad. But if your personal experiences were lived in, say, San Francisco, California, then it will contrast greatly with West Virginians as liberal values of tolerance, preserving the earth, and globalization is elevated in importance.

It’s not that West Virginian’s, pro-lifers, and Ohioan’s are dumb or ‘deplorable’, they simply elevate certain values over others. Keep in mind, with the examples I provided, each value is seen as a noble virtue. Sanctity of life, even for an unborn fetus, is based on the pursuit of establishing what is noble and virtuous.  Coal miners and Ohioans value loyalty to one’s country, which involve the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Let’s be honest, I think most of us want our government to be loyal to hard working Americans, rather than betray us in order to profit from setting up jobs abroad.

My greater point is this: whether it’s West Virginia or San Francisco, these are virtuous goals that have their aim at virtuous ends. By and large, children in Red States are raised by parents who impose on them values that seek the good. I should know, I am a product of Texas and a stereotypical Texan ideology. Where things get muddy is when you have competing values that compete for supremacy. I mean, if all values seek the good, can we say that some are wrong?

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Right/Wrong or Better/Worse

When judging values, we should not speak in terms of right or wrong, rather we should look at competing values in terms of better and worse. When talking about values, thinking in terms of right and wrong will result in completely invalidating the other side of the discussion.

Your values are your baby, so to speak. You hold them dear, because they speak to your life experiences and cultural upbringing. When someone says that your values are wrong, the conversation is off to a bad start from the beginning. Invalidating someone’s values shifts the conversation to a defensive mode. Instead, you can validate someone’s values, and then become ‘Socratic’ by asking questions back-and-forth as you hash out which values actually advance progress, human rights, justice, etc. Common ground is good foundation to have, and this begins by understanding that the other side is truly trying to come from a place of virtue.

When talking about values, thinking in terms of better and worse will recognize the virtuous aims of both sides, while also recognizing that some values ought to be elevated over others. Moreover, better or worse dialogue frames the dialogue in a way that doesn’t get personal, rather, you can simply discuss the effects of values in the public sphere.  Given that values are noble and based on virtue, it’s their externalities that need to be discussed. By externalities, I mean the side effects, blow-back, and consequences of the value when it is fully cashed out in everyday life. For example, early missionaries would visit foreign tribes and not only try and convert them, but also provide food and supplies to help them flourish. From this standpoint, everything seems okay as the value of generosity and compassion is elevated. But some missionaries also brought over (unintentionally) diseases that devastated the villagers. So, we can assess the externalities or consequences and conclude that this was probably not the best idea given the negative side effects it brought upon innocent villagers. It’s not that the missionaries were wrong, per se, it’s just that there are better ways to advance the value of generosity and compassion without such devastating effects.

In addition to a better or worse thinking rather a right or wrong way, there is another clarifying point I’d like to make. There is a common tendency to confuse value judgements with moralistic judgements. Value judgements reflect our beliefs of how best life can be served. We make moralistic judgements of people and behaviors that fail to support our values judgments; for example, “Anyone who votes for Trump is off their rocker.” In this example, the claim is trying to classify and judge a huge swath of people on moralistic grounds, with a tacit jab that labels Trumpians crazy. This tactic is similar to the one used by our past Presidents used when calling the U.S.S.R.  an “evil empire.” The Germans also resorted to this by classifying the Jews with negative connotations like “cockroaches.”. Going back to the Trump claim, a more compassionate and enlightened way to articulate this sentiment would be, “I am worried about many of Trump’s policies; I value policies that unite the country and help the poor economically.” Now this is a value judgment that doesn’t classify or analyze on moral grounds every single Trump voter, rather, it gives voice to your values and needs.

Final Words

Values reflect what we find important to make life better. The formation of our values is cultivated and refined based on our life experiences and influenced by our cultural surroundings. When I was in Texas preparing myself for a pro-life rally in 2001, my actions were guided by values rooted in virtue. Granted, my values were much different than most people in blue states. However, my values later changed due to personal experiences with liberal thinkers who lived out a value system that spoke to my heart. Moreover, I was able to live in the U.K. where I was exposed to different values and thinking that called into question my worldview. What didn’t change me was an intellectual argument or some liberal calling me a ‘southern redneck’. What didn’t change me was someone telling me I’m wrong, or that I needed to be more educated. Rather, it was through compassionate discussions where we worked through, not right and wrong, but the question: what makes life better?

Who’s to say what my values will be in 2030? Or what they will be if I move to Mississippi? All I know now is that I am guided by a value system that is surrounded by a plethora of other value systems. My value system is not the “right one,” rather, it simply speaks life into how I live and make my decisions. And when I hear a competing value shouted by a person from a different culture than mine, I hope to take a deep breath, realize that he/she is simply expressing a deep need they have, and then perhaps I can share my values and needs without fostering judgement, evaluations of their character, or moralistic analysis. In the end, compassionate dialogue changes lives, not right/wrong judgement.

 

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Necessary Illusions: for the secular and religious

 

“With the truth, one cannot live. To be able to live, one needs illusions” – Otto Rank  

kjoiubNot too long ago, I visited a husband who had just put his wife on our hospice service. I was there to provide counseling and guidance given that she had just received a terminal diagnosis. What made this case unique was that the patient and husband are only 41 years-young, with four beautiful children. I remember sitting in the car in front of their house’ preparing myself for the hurricane of grief and despair that await. Despair, however, was not what I found. I was greeted by the husband, I’ll call him Mike, who gave me a big smile and welcomed me into the house. I met two of their children and the patient as well. She shuffled into the living room appearing so frail and weak like she could break in two at any moment. The mood in the room was not at all what I expected. While they were obviously concerned and saddened by the recent news of terminal brain cancer, the family nevertheless smiled, laughed, expressed gratitude for hospice and the physicians, and kept thanking me for taking the time to visit them. Towards the end, I couldn’t resist, I had to ask the husband, “How is it that you are able to appear so positive given your wife’s dire condition?” He looked at me with a smile and said, “We’re Christian, and our faith in the overall goodness of God’s plan is what keeps us optimistic, even though terminal cancer is now a part of our story.”

I remember leaving the house thinking I was in the Twilight Zone. Surely their faith was a house of cards that would tumble to the ground as reality set in. He must be in denial, and his faith is a crutch that will leave him utterly disillusioned and inconsolable when the reality of being widowed sets in. I stayed in touch through their time on hospice. I was waiting – and assuming – that the veneer of optimism and hope would shatter, thus exposing the futility of a hope in God’s plan which includes cancer, pain, and heartache.

When she died a month later, Mike didn’t shatter. I remember calling him not long after she passed, and he spent the entire call expressing gratitude and joy for the time he had with his wife, and for his church family that surrounded him with love and compassion as he adopted his new role as a widow. There was that hope and optimism again! Sure, there was sadness at the loss, but he stood strong in the midst of the pain believing that God is good and in control.

This story buttresses what I have been long suspected, but have denied. The illusions we believe can serve to help us adapt and cope with the chaos and uncertainty that life provides. Whether Mike truly believes that God is literally real and watching over him or not, is not the point. The point is whether or not his belief has adaptive features to help him cope with life. Some people might say Mike is delusional in his thinking. Often people consider faith in a higher power as a crutch in order to deal with reality. But the truth is, every human – religious or secular – devises illusory crutches in order to cope with a chaotic world. In fact, our mental health depends on the illusory crutches that infiltrate our minds.

My contentions is simple: we need illusions to cope with life. Furthermore, religious belief is beneficial to mental well-being. In this essay, I will focus on the adaptive measures and necessity of illusions in our lives.

We need illusions because reality is crippling

I once heard atheist apologist Matt Dillahunty say,  “I want to believe as many real and true things as possible and as few false things as possible” (paraphrase). While this sounds reasonable, he forgets the fact that reality is crippling. What’s real is that one day my body will be shoved into a crematorium and reduced to ashes. And one thousand years from now, nobody will remember anything about me. While it’s true that what I do matters to me now, from a bird’s eye view of the grand scale of history –  it is utterly futile. To cope with the fact that every day is one day closer to the end, I must lean on illusions in order to avoid despair and suicide. We all do.

imagesnmnmT.S. Eliot had it right when he said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” We cling to our illusions even if they contradict the obvious. Could it be, though, that reality is not an illusion but that our version of reality is an illusion? In other words, none of us are perceiving reality for what it is but rather for what we wish it to be. The problem with reality is that it’s like a dinner party in which each guest is confined to their own experiences, interpretations, biases, and presuppositions. Thus, one guest thinks everyone is boring, another that some are judging them harshly, and another thinks they are the most intelligent in the room. One simply cannot see things as they really are, we cannot be aware of reality, given that illusions act as mediators.

There is a difference between what something is and what we think it is. Actually what
we think, is utterly inconsequential to what is. Illusions do not exist in the world (out there) but in here. The inner world is fertile ground for illusions to take root which then get projected into the world, thus influencing the perception of others about reality. These distortions, in the realm of reality, have no purpose other than to help us cope with the uncertainties that life brings. But first, what is an illusion?

An illusion is a perception that represents what is perceived in reality. An illusion is a false mental image or conception which may be a misinterpretation of a real appearance or may be something imagined. It may be pleasing, harmless or even useful [Random House Dictionary, 1976, page 662]. Lying subterranean within us all, is the knowledge of our mortality. We do not want to live in reality. We are perfectly comfortable living in an illusion that we believe provides gains that outweigh the effort needed to eliminate them. Most importantly, these illusions keep one mentally healthy.

What are the attributes to a mentally healthy person

To begin with, the vast majority of religious belief serve to enhance one’s mental well-being. Most religious beliefs promote virtues which include reverence for the sacred, abstaining from the profane, an appreciation for strengthening social bonds through community. While religion does have a bloody history, the Enlightenment has helped us apply more reason to faith. My focus is not on the extremely small percentage that are radical dogmatist who seek to use religion as a battering ram. My focus is on the majority who use religious beliefs, albeit illusory, to cope with the uncertainty of life. Overall, modern religion possesses strategies to enhance one’s mental well-being.

dyuuyuIf we are going to discuss mental well-being, let’s discuss the attributes of a mentally healthy person. Most experts agree that the ability to be happy, or at least relatively contented, is one hallmark of mental health and well-being. The acclaimed psychologist Marie Jahoda identified several additional criteria that will help us understand what good mental health looks like. Jahoda notes that ideal mental health is the ability to hold positive attitudes towards oneself, rather than to feel distress or anguish over one’s inadequacies or short-comings. Second, the ability to grow, develop, and move towards one’s goals. Finally, the capacity to develop an autonomous self-regard that does not require the reassurance of other people for meaning and sustenance. We can couple Jahoda’s criteria with Sidney Jourard and Ted Landsman’s viewpoint:

[The healthy personality] is guided by intelligence and respect for life, so that personal needs are satisfied and so that the person will grow in awareness, competence and the capacity to love the self, the natural environment, and other people. (Jourard, S.M., & Landsman, M.E.P. (1980). Healthy Personality: An approach from the viewpoint of humanistic psychology (4th ed.). New York: Macmillan.)

Most religious belief does not impinge on personal growth, self-awareness, and respecting life. In fact, most religious belief strives to enhance all of the criteria listed above. Again, we can always point to religious extremists who subjugate, oppress, and incite anger; but this is not the norm. To the contrary, most religious strengthen social bonds and provide strategies for coping with the evils of the world through illusions of an afterlife, a personal loving God, and a view of the sacred.

The secular person may respond by listing all the evils of religion. Fair enough. My concern, however, involves whether or not the illusion has adaptive or maladaptive consequences for one’s mental health. Thus, if religious belief involves killing or oppression, we can put it up against Jahoda and Jourard’s research on the attributes of mental well-being and have a dialogue. Just as we can draw distinctions between good health and bad health, so we can with adaptive and maladaptive aspects of the beliefs or illusions we hold.

Illusions are ubiquitous

UCLA Psychology professor, Shelly Taylor, notes in her book Positive Illusions, “normal human thought and perception is marked not by accuracy but by positive self-enhancing illusions about the self, the world, and the future. These illusions are not merely characteristic of human thought; they appear to actually be adaptive, promoting rather than undermining good mental health.” We ought not think that the religious person is full of fanciful magical thinking, while the secular person is fully in-touch with ‘reality’. What research shows is that even the secular person embraces illusions that serve an adaptive feature to personal well-being.

uiuiIn my line of work in dealing with death and dying, the most common illusion [especially with secular people] occurs when death is experienced. I am perpetually baffled at how people convince themselves that they are alright, just after their spouse of 50 years had died. Obviously, the act of denial serves a self-preservation role: if I act like it didn’t happen, I won’t feel the pain. And, in a lot of cases this illusion can be adaptive, as it can prevent one from spiraling into despair, suicide or depression. But it’s a common illusion nevertheless. The protection of our self, ego, and identity is so important; and we will adopt whatever illusions we can to preserve our ego intact.

I believe this is a very important point in demonstrating the ubiquitousnous of illusions, so allow me to provide eight palpable examples of the illusions that both secular and religious people live by:

#1 We overestimate our abilities: We are introduced to self-deceptive methods early on in life. Young children do not differentiate very well between what they wish could be true and what they think is true, and thus they show wishful thinking in their estimations of their abilities [Stipek, D.J. (1984). Young children’s performance expectations: Logical analysis or wishful thinking? In I. Nicholls (Ed.), Advances in motivation and achievement (Vol. 3, pp. 33-56), Greenwich, CT: JAI Press].

#2 We carry illusions to protect our image. When asked to describe themselves, most people mention many positive qualities and few, if any, negative ones. Even when people acknowledge that they have faults, they tend to downplay those weaknesses as unimportant or dismiss them as inconsequential [Alicke, M.D. (1985). Global self-evaluation as determined by the desirability and uncontrollability of trait adjectives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 1129-1140].

#3 We carry illusions to bolster our self-conception. Most people see themselves as better than others and as above average on most of their qualities. When asked to describe themselves and other people, most people provide more positive descriptions of themselves than they do of friends. This tendency to see the self as better than others occurs across a wide variety of tasks and abilities [Brown, J.D. (1986). Evaluations of self and others: Self-enhancement biases in social judgements. Social Cognition, 4, 353-373].

#4 We carry illusions to enhance our ego. A consistent and ubiquitous research finding is that people take credit for good things that happen and deny responsibility for the bad things that happen [Bradley, G.W. (1978) Self-serving biases in the attribution process: A reexamination of the fact or fiction question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 36, 56-71]

#5 We use the illusion of logic and order in order to fend off dread. As Ernest Becker stated, “Through the imposition of logic and order on the world we spare ourselves the constant realization of the random terror of death.” As an example, we believe that people succeed through their own efforts, and this leads us to impute effort to those who are highly successful and laziness to those who are not. Even if evidence is all around us suggesting that events are less orderly and systematic as we think they are, rarely do we develop a full appreciation of this fact. The failure to recognize the role of random, unsystematic forces in many aspects of life may come, in part, from our need to see the world as a systematic and orderly place [Ryan, W. (1971). Blaming the victim. New York: Vintage Books].

#6 We carry with us the constant illusion of control. Psychologist Ellen Langer argues that most people succumb to an illusion of control, in which they believe they can affect events more than is actually the case. For instance: gambling. Gambling is a clear case in which the relative importance of personal control and chance are often confused. Sociologists Erving Goffman, who once took a job as a croupier in Las Vegas, noted that dealers who experienced runs of bad luck, leading the house to lose heavily, ran the risk of losing their jobs, even though the reason for the run of bad luck was ostensibly chance.

#7 We don’t [want to] appreciate chance because illusions give us a sense of control. When people were able to choose their own lottery card, as opposed to having it chosen for them, they were less likely to turn it in for a new lottery card that offered them a better chance of winning, simply because they felt it was not their card and they wanted to hold onto it. The longer a person held on to a lottery card and presumably had time to think about the likelihood of winning and he could do with the money, the less likely he was to turn the lottery card in for a ticket in a drawing with better odds. E.J. Langer was able to show that perfectly normal people engaged in a wide variety of superstitions and nonsensical behaviors in chance situations, when cues suggesting skill had been subtly introduced [Langer, E.J. & Roth, J. (1975) Head I win, tails it’s chance: The illusion of control as a function of the sequence of outcomes in a purely chance task. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 951-955].

#8 We are able to generate illusory self-serving models of thinking. Psychologist Ziva Kunda suggests that people actively construct theories of why positive and negative events occur; in so doing they draw on their own attributes in order to defend against the possibility that the negative events might befall then and to enhance the perceived likelihood that the positive events will happen to them. For example, upon learning that the divorce rate for first time marriages is 50 percent, most people predict that they will not be in the 50 percent, but rather will remain married to their spouse throughout their lifetime. They convince themselves that this is the case, Kunda has shown, by highlighting their stable attributes that might be associated with a stable marriage and downplaying the significance of or actively refuting information that might suggest vulnerability to divorce. Thus, for example, one might point to one’s parents’ fifty-year marriage, the close family life that existed in one’s early childhood and the fact that one’s high school relationships lasted a full four years as evidence to predict a stable marriage. The fact that one’s husband has already been divorced once – a factor that predicts a second divorce – mist be reinterpreted not only as not leading to divorce in one’s own case but as a protective factor (“He knows he does not want this marriage to fail like the last one, and so he’s working especially hard to keep our relationship string”). The ability to draw seemingly rational relationships between our own assets and good events and to argue away associations between our own attributes and negative events helps to maintain unrealistic optimism [Kunda, Z. (1987). Motivated inference: Self-serving generation and evaluation of causal theories. Journal of Social Psychology, 53, 636-647].

These examples illustrate that we are guided by a self-serving bias because we deeply care about the self that has been created. In order to protect our ego, self-conception and identity, we are held as prisoners to our own our self-schema. Self-schemas are enduring beliefs that people have about themselves. Descriptions such as intelligent, musical, overweight, funny – are examples of self-schemas. Self-schemas enable us to take in the information that fits our prior conceptions of what we are like and what interests us and simultaneously helps us cement those self-impressions. Self-schemas, then, reinforce our ego and sense of identity. To shatter one’s ego and self-schema is to leave one hopeless, disillusioned, and worthless. Illusions, however, help keep our ego and self-schema intact.

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Illusions on a Supernatural level

If illusions are ubiquitous, then why do religious people take it to a supernatural level? The tendency for humans to take their illusions to a supernatural level involves what psychologists call locus of control. Evolutionary psychologist Michael Shermer notes that “people who rate high on internal locus of control tend to believe that they make things happen and they are in control of their circumstances, whereas people who score high on external locus of control tend to think that circumstances are beyond their control and that things just happen to them.” (The Believing Brain, 77) Psychologists find that having a high internal locus of control leads you to become more confident in your own personal judgment, more skeptical of outside authorities and sources of information, and have a lower tendency to conform to external influences. In fact, people who consider themselves “skeptics” about the paranormal and supernatural tend to score high in internal locus of control, whereas self-reported “believers” in ESP, spiritualism, reincarnation, and mystical experiences in general tend to rate high in external locus of control.

The level of uncertainty in life can exacerbate the illusions that take over us. Bronislaw Malinowski’s famous studies of superstitions among the Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific demonstrates that as the level of uncertainty in the environment increases so, too, does the level of superstitious behavior. We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range. In Malinowski’s words,

“We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under control of rational methods and technological processes. Further, we find magic where the elements of danger is conspicuous.”

What Malinowski found with the Trobriand Islanders, is that the further they sailed into the deep seas away from land – where risk was higher – the more illusions and superstitious behavior there were. Many of us are no different. Whether it is a belief in God or the secular person believing in the self-serving idea that they are more stable or intelligent than most people, the illusions serve an adaptive feature that helps us cope and persevere.

meaningFinal Words

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” In the context of this essay, the abyss is the subterranean reality that resides in us all: we will one day cease to exist. Self-preservation is the disease that affects us all, and illusions are the medications we rely on. Illusions are the necessary distractions that turn our faces from the abyss, in order to avoid being engulfed in its darkness. The afterlife, God, Buddha, identity, and ego are the illusory constructions that make up the scaffolding of meaning and purpose in one’s life. Most of these illusory constructions serve an adaptive purpose. They help us cope with death, they incentivize the pursuit of virtues, and they strengthen social bonds. The illusions we believe can serve to help us adapt and cope with the chaos and uncertainty that life provides. Even the secular person needs illusions. After all, when you see through life’s illusions, there lies the danger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By

Moral Development Through Our Role as Actors

I have recently become tired of highly philosophical books that I have read that boil morality down to a calculus. In this essay, I attempt to use social and child development to articulate moral development and its usefulness and necessity. To do so, I’m using my background in psychology and especially a few handy resources such as “The Essential Child” and “The Art and Science of Personality Development”, to name a few.

act

We are all social actors on the stage of life, and our audience is everyone else. Morality is crucial to our performance because it will either bring applause or boos from our audience. And if there is one thing that is universal for all actors it’s this: we desperately care about what our audience thinks. No one wants to be the villain held in contempt by his community. To the contrary, we see ourselves in a theatrical performance as a protagonist who is beloved.

I am an actor whose morality is shaped by my audience. This morning, I held back from confronting a rude customer at Starbucks. Why is it that I restrained myself from, say, strangling the discourteous man who was taking out his anger on the barista? Well, because going off-script with aggression is not a scene that I want my audience to see. I’ve been a regular at this Starbucks for the last four years, and have perfected my role. I am ‘the professional’, friendly and well-dressed guy who sits in the corner and reads voraciously. If I were to impulsively strangle a rude customer, then the perception from my Starbucks audience would completely change my role. I would then become the well-dressed guy who may be a psychopath. Thus, I try to regulate my emotions so that I can stay in-character and on-script for a successful performance that is similar to the calm and cool Fox Mulder in The X Files, rather than Hannibal Lecter.

We don’t realize it, but we shape ourselves to fit other people’s perceptions, and these vary from one person and context to the next. We care about the perception of others because their perception is what helps us cultivate our acting role into, for example, loving spouse, loyal employee, trusting colleague, etc. As Charles Cooley long ago articulated through a tongue-twister, “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.” The point is that people shape their self-concepts based on their understanding of how others perceive them. We form our self-image as the reflections of the response and evaluations of others in our environment. As children we were treated in a variety of ways. If parents, relatives and other important people look at a child as honest and humble, they will tend to raise him with certain types of expectations. As a consequence, the child will eventually strive to uphold the morally good role of honest and humble person.

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We are all actors in the grand stage of life, and we desperately want our performance to mean something before the final curtain closes on our life. Our birth is our entry onto the theatrical stage, and we slowly morph and hone our role and script. Our everyday social life is no different than what happens on the theatrical stage. Simply put, social behavior as a series of performances through which actors play roles and enact scripts in order to manage the impressions of other characters in the social scene (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 42).

Our acting debut begins at birth, in which our audience is immediately captivated. From the standpoint of the social world into which they are thrown at birth, infants’ actions are interpreted in pretty much the same way that human beings interpret the social actions expressed by any other animate actor. We watch our babies the way we watch the characters in a movie. We observe every moment in order to make sense of what they are trying to express, especially eager to decode their emotions. Babies are social actors long before they realize they are social actors. They are social actors because that is what we, the social audience, observe them to be.

LET’S GO DEEPER

Let’s go deeper into the different aspects of moral development with respect to our role as social actors.

Writing the Script

The script for moral development begins with genes and environment. Genes and environments seem to work together on many different levels and in extraordinary ingenious ways. The relationship between genes and environments, therefore, is not much like a meeting of two independent forces (nature vs. nurture) but instead resembles something like a conspiracy. Nature shamelessly colludes with nurture. In the human case, genes and environments conspire to make a person, and to shape the traits that structure how that person moves through life as an actor on the social stage.

Northwestern University Professor, Dan McAdams, uses the example of a smiley baby to make the case. Let’s say a 4-month old infant is blessed with a genotype that predisposes him or her to positive emotionality and sociability. As a social actor, he or she smiles more than other babies do in response to social stimuli, and people (the audience) respond in kind. Smiling begets more positive interactions from other people, who themselves become major features of the developing infant’s “environment.” These environments feed-back to influence the development of the infant’s dispositional traits. A smiley baby will likely encounter more positive environments than a nonsmiley baby will encounter, by virtue of the fact that social actors evoke specific environments. Those evoked environments, in turn, may influence the development of the social actor’s traits (The Art and Science of Personality of Personality Development, 103).

kknmIn contrast to a smiley infant, an infant who hits other babies will evoke (hopefully) unfavorable reactions from the audience. To be clear, babies are born with preexisting tendencies, that are either reinforced or harnessed based on the response of the audience. You might say that the genes make the first move: the genotype expresses itself through behaviors that signal positive emotionality. Those behaviors then evoke responses that, as environmental influences, may subsequently exert an effect on the developing social actor. As the infant progresses into adolescence, he or she cultivates a rank-order of traits that evoke either favorable or unfavorable responses from the audience.

Setting the Stage

Setting the stage for social actors is one of the most crucial factors in moral development. In essence, the stage is the environment that one is born into. The stage includes socio-economic factors, education of parents, methods for disciplining/punishing, familial dynamics, and how authoritative yet nurturing the stage is for the developing social actor. In one longitudinal study, the researchers found that boys from low socioeconomic status who were raised in adverse family environments, and who exhibited low levels of fearfulness, empathy, and self-control as kindergartners, were especially likely to join deviant peer groups as teenagers (Archives of General Psychiatry, 63, 562-568). While the stage that parents set is important, it doesn’t guarantee that their tiny actor will hop on the yellow brick road of positive emotionality.

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Acting Style

If you were casting yourself in a Hollywood blockbuster, would you assume the role of an affable fun-loving protagonist or the angst-filled and aggressive antagonist that people avoid? We have to be honest: no reasonable minded human being would willingly choose the latter. A life driven by neuroticism and aggression is a miserable life. Furthermore, this is a life that will get you ostracized from all people. So, how do we assume a character that is more like Pollyanna as opposed to the Joker in the Dark Knight?

wdwAn acting style that is positive and extraverted will garner more favorable and encouraging reinforcement from the audience than one negative and introverted. To be clear, the actors style have to do with his or her temperament. The most notable features of temperament concern the actor’s performance of emotion – how the infant expresses and regulates the feelings that well up inside. Taking into consideration the difference in Pollyanna and the Joker, we have two broad emotional categories that include both positive and negative emotionality. Ask any parent and they will affirm that some babies feel good much of the time, and other babies don’t.

Why is positive emotionality in extravasation good? Extraversion’s prime evolutionary function is to attract and hold the attention of other social actors. For the particular kind of eusocial species that human beings have evolved to be, social actors show remarkable individual differences in their abilities to get along and get ahead in social groups. Social actors compete with each other to garner the limited resources that are available in the group.

Positive emotionality and extraversion is fostered in nurturing environments that is both authoritative and loving. Positive reinforcement when good actions are performed will help the actor understand how to garner praise from the audience. In contrast, punishment for bad actions will help the actor know that receiving boos is not a good thing. These experiences in early childhood help the young actor to solidify his or her leading role.

A friend of mine has a 12-year-old daughter who has morphed into the a virtuous role: peace-maker. She is a very positive and outgoing actor who knows how to read her audience well. My friend tells the story of when he overheard a dramatic event his daughter found herself in the middle of. Her three friends were arguing, and tensions were running high. Sensing that feelings were being hurt, his daughter manipulated the situation by causing a distraction. Her iPod was playing a popular song and she turned the music up. Within seconds, the group of girls were dancing, and the argument became a distant memory. In summary, his 12-year-old new knew the movie scene she was in was turning into a tragedy. She was aware that name-calling and slander evokes negative responses most audiences. Thus, her distraction altered the scene from a tragedy to something out of Nickelodeon. Interestingly enough, she is 20-years old now, and her ethics are still guided by fostering environments in which peace and compassion is fostered.

Going Off-Script

In 1981, Friday’s was featured on NBC as a new up-and-coming comedy. After initial low ratings, the producers decided to spice things up by bringing in a controversial comedian, Andy Kauffman. In his debut on the show, the producers along with Kauffman, conspired to have Kauffman go off-script and have a melt-down on live T.V. Unbeknownst to the rest of the cast and viewers at home, Kauffman enters the scene and immediately breaks off-script and tensions begin to flare on set. Eventually, a fight breaks out between Kauffman and Michael Richards, who is the only person in the scene who is aware that this is all staged. As you watch the other actors, you can see their frustration as Andy Kauffman emotionally disintegrates. Media and viewers alike showed their shock and discontent as Kauffman did the unthinkable by going off-script.

yuybiuhGoing off-script involves a type of neurotic cascade. Neuroticism has to do with the fear and anxiety a social actor has. The neurotic actor is one who is more reactive to signs if threat and negative emotion in the social world. They are exposed to more negative events which reinforces their tendency to appraise objectively neutral or even positive events in negative terms. They also experience mood spillover, whereby negative feelings in one area of life spill over into others. This leads to the sting of familiar problems. As they depict it, a day’s negative events can bring back into psychological play old issues and conflicts that were never resolved, which leads to more negative feelings, thoughts, and actions.

One can see the negative whirlpool that engulfs the neurotic actor. It’s definitely more of a Quentin Tarantino drama rather than a light-hearted comedy with a happy ending. You see, the neurotic actor is one who doesn’t receive the appropriate lessons while going through acting school. Or perhaps, his or her neurological make-up leans heavy towards fear and anxiety. Either way, the neurotic actor will display negative emotionality, poor social development, and difficulty managing impulses. The net result is a moral compass that struggles to point its needle toward the good and personal flourishment.

Staying on Script

As a whole, there is a grain and texture to all cultures that involves a script. The script is this: the more conscientious and agreeable you are, the better off you and everyone else will be. Staying on-script involves thinking about the other actors around you, learning how to interact with the roles that they have assumed. Moreover, staying on script means that you are working with the other actors to bring out the best for your audience.

[Self Regulate]

yviyughvStaying on script means that the social actor is able to regulate his or her performance on a daily basis. Self-regulation depends on the observation of the actor by an audience, be that audience in the real world or in the actor’s mind. Something or someone must keep watch. Actors watch other actions, which means they watch themselves as well. In social life, we each function simultaneously as actors and observers, as audiences for each other and for our own dramatic performances. In this reflective, observing sense, we regulate each other, and ourselves.

Over time, children learn which behaviors bring social approbation and which bring critique. As they seek to maximize reward and the feel-good experience of pride and minimize punishment and the feel-bad emotions of shame and guilt, children will gradually become something like the socialized and self-regulated actors that their ever-watchful audiences – parents, teachers, coaches, and superegos – want them to become.

[Effortful Control]

While self-regulation helps social actors fine-tune their role, this would be impossible without effortful control. Think of effortful control as the actor’s ability to stay in-character and follow the script. What is prompting you not run the person off the road who cuts you off, or pummel the barista who makes you the wrong drink? It’s effortful control. Effortful control is the active and voluntary capacity to withhold a dominant response in order to enact a subordinate response given situational demands. It consists of a collection of abilities and inclinations that centrally involve the executive control of attention and the inhibition of potentially distracting impulses.

[Conscience]

jhbkjhbijbSelf-regulation and effortful control may help us to understand how to stay on-script, but it doesn’t tell us why. In order to address this concern, we have to understand that every cognitively intact human being has a conscience. A conscience comes into fruition around 4-5 years of age and consists of two key components: rule-compatible conduct and moral emotions. Social actors exhibit an active conscience when they act in ways that are consistent with what the group norms suggest to be moral or good behavior. For young children, this typically boils down to doing what Mommy and Daddy say is the right thing to do, which often means putting on the brakes on what may seem to be the fun thing to do. Being able to subordinate impulses to longer-term aims in the family paves the way for rule compliance and the ability to cooperate with other authority figures and with peers on the broader social stages of the school and the playground.  Key moral emotions for the development of conscience include guilt and empathy.

Every society has rules for behavior and etiquette protocol that serve as heuristic tools to harness destructive behavior. As the child learns what these tools are, they invariably form social-moral emotions like embarrassment, shame, guilt, and pride. Guilt, for example, serves as a check against immoral behavior for many people. Research consistently shows that the proclivity to feel guilt is negatively associated with immoral behavior. For example, web based studies of adults from across the United States have shown that people who score high on measures of guilt-proneness make fewer unethical business decisions, commit fewer delinquent behaviors, and behave more honestly when making economic decisions (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21). Guilt is good for you (usually), and good for the group. Guilt is one of the most powerful mechanisms ever invented by natural selection to ensure group solidarity and the self-regulation of individual social actors.

The net result of the actor who stays on script is that they will have a more pleasant performance on the grand stage of life. The self-regulated actor possessing effortful control and a conscience with moral emotions will be a conscientious and agreeable actor. But what’s so good about the conscientious and agreeable actor?

[conscientious and agreeable]

The conscientious and agreeable actor will me be the most aware of a moral system that benefits his role in the play, as well as the other actors around him. Conscientiousness encompasses characteristics of personality that center on hard-working, self-disciplined, responsible, reliable, dutiful, well organized, and how persevering a social actor is. People low in conscientious have little regard for the serious standards of work and morality. While their impulsive spontaneity may seem like a breath of fresh air in the face of stale social conventions, their irresponsibility and utter inability to stand by others or for anything in the long run make them very poor risks in friendship and in love.

dyuuyuSocial actors high in agreeableness are really nice people. But they are more than nice. Agreeableness incorporates the expressive qualities of love and empathy, friendliness, cooperation, and care. Social actors at the high end of agreeable continuum are described as interpersonally warm, cooperative, accommodating, helpful and patient. They are also described as ethical, honest, and peace-loving. For high levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness, as expressed in the realms of love, work, and healthy and mortality. The two traits are different, and share some common outcomes. For example, conscientiousness and agreeableness are both associated with more secure attachment relationships, better marriages and lower divorce rates, and a stronger personal investment in family roles (Psychological Bulletin, 126).

Final Words

Let’s face it, it is very difficult even to conceive of a niche in the world of work where it does not prove advantageous to be self-disciplined, responsible, and achievement-oriented. In the terms made famous by Freud, conscientiousness and agreeableness are fundamentally about restraining the impulsive id and accentuating the rational ego, or put differently, about regulating the self so that good things get done and good relationships get formed.

meaningfulWe are all social actors on the stage of life, and our audience is everyone else. For me, I hope to continue to evolve my character in order to bring about more good in my performance than bad. I strive for good and wholesome morals because I want to please my audience, thereby pleasing myself. One day I will enter my closing act and final scene. I can only hope that my performance has brought joy, insight, and inspiration to my audience. But for now, the show must go on.