Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Self

September 23rd, 2008

I had a thought while writing another entry. I imagined a drastic change inflicted on a person, such that the determinant is nearly entirely new. Picture Phineas Gage, picture Holocaust survivors, picture schizophrenics drugged into normalcy. These are changes wrought from the outside—and sharp changes, to make them clear examples—but we can picture more organic transformation.

The best example, for me and I suspect for many, is the difference between me and me ten or twenty years ago.

I don’t have much in common with him. Some threads are the same, but what he held sacred—love, God, a conviction that the world is a very cold and hopeless place—I jettisoned (sometimes I wonder if this was prudence or cowardice). When I find a piece of him, like a poem I wrote for Mrs. Taylor’s class, or a picture of me with glasses and braces, I don’t recognize it as me. The feeling’s the same as finding something similar by my grandfather; I think here is something related to me, and special because of that—but did I do it? No.

I read things from two weeks ago, and I think: “I remember writing that.” But the farther we go into past—five years, let’s say—the harder it is to identify with the author. I think, “Look how silly, or blind, or stupid he was.” If you criticize, I’ll heartily agree. And, what’s more, I won’t feel ashamed—because he isn’t me. I have pieces of him, yes, but no more than twins have pieces of one another, and I have genes from my father and mother. But twins are different, and I’m not my father, and I’m not my mother.

In the other entry, I was trying to remember a crush I had a long time ago, and I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t get into the same mindset—I didn’t know why I did what I did, what it was like to be the person who did what I did. He was so fragile, and so fervently and even sweetly in love. He went to the practice rooms in the bottom of Scales at midnight to moan sad songs. Who I was, him, he proved impenetrable to me, holding things secret from his future self, perhaps because he thought I’d judge him for it, which I would, and criticize him, which I also would.

What governs the pieces I deem me? What is the rule for which action I’ll say, “Yes, I did that, me!” and those which I’ll say, “I did that, but I was a different person.” It’s not pride—I’ll own up to plenty of embarrassing things, and eschew things that would do me proud. (When, for instance, my mom tells me the complexity of books I read at a very young age, I feel pride, but it’s the pride a parent would feel when his child does something proficient, ahead of his age.) Is it temporal proximity? But why should that be the metric?

I thought, “What if it’s voluntary? What if I select the things I want to be a part of myself? What if this happens at every moment, every second a culling of the things we will own up to, a choice made from the much larger selection of everything we might say is ours?”

So I tried it. I thought about actions I’d taken I no longer want to be my parts, and I—I didn’t let go—I abstracted, I stepped back, I looked at them the way I’d look at somebody else’s behavior: interesting, perhaps, but that’s all. And I just failed to collect those pieces.

It was, surprisingly, and I imagine deceptively, easy.

Still, a sudden sensation of novelty and relief pervades. And an almost painful sense of loss.

I’ll probably abandon this particular writing in the future.

Nozick’s theory of the self in Philosophical Explanations is similar.


Anonymous said...

I don't seem to have the same intuition regarding a lack of identification with my former self as you do. That was me. Yes, I've changed, perhaps drastically, but upon discovering traces of my former self, I'm always surprised by how stable the true core of my personality has remained over time.

However, I was recently musing on one or two of the contemporaneous strands of my personality/being that I'd prefer to disown, or at least to downplay. This line of thinking then led me to consider the creative and productive role of denial in the construction of the self.

In this non-temporal setting, as in your temporal model, the question of voluntariness is quite interesting; 99% or more of this culling of undesirable atoms of self-image is likely sub- or pre-conscious, but is it possible or worthwhile to train oneself to construct the self, say through analysis or hypnosis or other deliberate exercises of will?


Scott said...

Actually, I didn't mention it, but the biggest change resulted from starting on the anti-depressant drugs. Thus, the cutoff point between versions of me is, perhaps, starker than I let on, and the true core has been significantly tweaked, perhaps explaining our rival feelings.

But this strikes me as a difference in degree, which is why I extrapolated as freely as I did.

I agree with what you say--the majority of self-construction (if it so is) is subconscious, and I also suspect deliberate exercises of will could change the process (and how much of it is subconscious). Is that worthwhile? Depends on what you want.

(I talk as if I believe this, but deep down I'm one of those thoroughly old-fashioned substance dualists, a position more aligned with your intuition. I'm just playing devil's advocate with myself--or, more accurately, looking for an excuse to blather.)