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Exploring the Fuzzy Notion of the “True Self”

“Resist what resists in you,” the god Krishna tells heroic Arjuna in Peter Brook’s epic theatrical version of The Mahabharata. “Become yourself!” This is, as the experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe remarks in this intriguing post at The Stone, “one of the distinctive ideals of modern life.” But Knobe asks a very important question: What is this self which was born this way, to which we must be true?

The first, and I suspect still most popular notion of a true self is religious. It is the self that fits a cosmic plan, not your own notions. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna’s dharma leads him to his right place in the workings of creation: It does not care how he feels about this place. Similarly, Aeneas’ destiny is to found Rome, and Fate is not interested in how very inconvenient that is for the hero’s love life. In Judaism, God’s prophets have wished for quiet office jobs and preferred to travel by boat rather than the innards of a whale, but God’s plan must be fulfilled. In Christianity, too, there were moments when Jesus much preferred to have a “true self” that didn’t have to die on the cross, but he recognized that his true self wasn’t to be formed according to his wishes.

In secular life today, this religious notion (become yourself!) has been unmoored from obligation and fatalism. The “true self” still comes clothed in sacred rhetoric—”I was born to do this”; “I guess it was Fate”; “I am as God made me”—but our culture depicts the discovery as a pleasure and a relief. That means we’ve kept religion’s language but turned its meaning inside out. Religion’s “true self” diminishes the consumer-self that seeks satisfaction and ease. (You want to be a happy merchant? Too bad, you have to give it all up and lead the faithful in war.) In contrast, the modern secular notion expands the self that wants to be at ease.

The older, metaphysical concept offered certainty. It might not feel right or be in accord with your desires, but you can be sure that a self is true if it aligns with the cosmic Plan. When we invert the idea of true self, though, we lose that assurance. When the map is, instead, your own changeable feelings, it’s much harder to know what you’re doing. Emotions, satisfactions and the encouragement of other people—these experiences are so fleeting and changeable that it’s hard to use them as a guide. Are we our true selves when we’re exuberantly expressing and exploring our sexuality? Sometimes we feel we are; at other times we don’t. How we feel about ourselves, then, isn’t a reliable way to find that “true self.”

This is the problem that Knobe takes up in his lucid and interesting post. What can a secular person mean by a “true self.” In Knobe’s profession, philosophy, the metaphysical map of religion has been replaced by a different standard. As he puts it, many philosophical traditions hold that “what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection.” Therefore, face to face with someone, “If you want to know who she truly is, you would have to look to the moments when she stops to reflect and think about her deepest values.”

Knobe has noticed that this philosopher’s definition of the true self makes no sense to the rest of us. (I have personally experienced this split between the professionals and us non-adepts—I once spent a long time with a philosopher, as we talked round each other precisely because he couldn’t see how we could have a meaningful conversation without positing a rational, conscious self. And I thought that we couldn’t have that conversation without positing an irrational, largely unconscious self. We were left in respectful mutual incomprehension: “You mean, you actually believe that?”)

Now, I’m obsessed with the non-coherence and non-rationality of the mind in action. I think most people doubt philosophy’s model for a different reason: the deep influence of religious language, even on non-religious people. For a long time people thought the true self was discovered, because it was part of a higher reality, beyond the power of a single mind to apprehend. We still believe in discovery, even if we don’t believe in the metaphysics. Even without God, we still want the self to be a mystery hidden and then revealed—a story with drama and passion. We don’t want it to be an algorithm, reasoned out from a set of axioms, like an exercise in geometry.

But this desire to discover ourselves collides with skepticism about both religion and reason. If you don’t look to God’s plan to show you your true self, and if you don’t believe you can reason your way to that knowledge, then what guides you? What tells you which version of you is the true one? According to the first results of Knobe’s research (done with George Newman and the ever-interesting Paul Bloom), the answer seems to be ideology.

The trio put some 200 people through a series of questions designed to favor either “liberal” or “conservative” notions of a good life. For example, a “conservative” premise was “Jim used to be homosexual. However, now Jim is married to a woman and no longer has sex with men.” The volunteers were asked to say how much they agreed with this: “At his very essence, there was always something deep within Jim, calling him to stop having sex with men, and then this true self emerged.” On the other hand, a liberal question described how “Ralph used to make a lot of money and prioritized his financial success above all else. However, now Ralph works in a job where he does not make a lot of money and benefits others.” People were asked how much they agreed with the statement: “At his very essence, there was always something deep within Ralph, calling him to stop prioritizing his financial success above all else, and then this true self emerged.”

Results? Knobe writes in the post: “Conservative participants were more inclined to say that the person’s true self had emerged on the conservative items, while liberals were more inclined to say that the person’s true self had emerged on the liberal items.”

So, where does this leave the true self? I think the simplest explanation is that there’s no such thing—that this notion is one of those stories we tell ourselves, which has good effects on our outlook without putting too much stress on our behavior. Millions of more or less educated people have a good grasp of probability, yet they still buy lottery tickets; they still think, wow, I am on a lucky streak today; they still think “God is smiling on our wedding” because it’s sunny, without really believing that God hates the weddings that take place in the rain. Similarly, we can feel that we’re being true to our selves when we quit a job we hate or marry a person we love, without worrying about the inconsistencies in our model. The “true self” isn’t, after all, a psychological theory. It’s one of the tales we tell ourselves to get through life, one of the ways the mind sings itself to sleep. What really matters for a science of mind isn’t that this thing exists, but rather that we believe it does. And that’s what Knobe is exploring.


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