COLUMN: Arc of the Cognizant ― Self, History, Meaning, and Where Humanity Goes From Here
“I cheat and I lie, I do what I have to do, to get by — But I know what is wrong and I know what is right — And I die for the truth, in my secret life.”
— Leonard Cohen, In my secret life
Interiority and Spirituality
The one place we all hold most private, most wholly belonging to our selves, is the inside of our minds, our hearts, our consciences.
Right from our beginning here I must advise readers that this notion of a self is now being substantially re-evaluated and doubted by scientists in cognitive neurological research who delve into the phenomenon of consciousness.
Susan Blackmore is a prominent voice for the view that our sense of self has no scientific validity. She is an easy figure to discover online; put her name in a search engine and she is listed ubiquitously for her opinions on consciousness, self, and memes. https://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/articles/there-is-no-stream-of-consciousness/
An esoteric writer, Mark Booth, of no scientific credentials, says human consciousness exists without brain, that mind precedes matter. http://www.markboothauthor.com/black-booth-quotes
Nevertheless and despite the doubt, I will go on with my intention of writing about the interiority of our self-identity and its meaning for human events.
“There’s a place, where I can go… And it’s my mind, and there’s no time, when I’m alone…” are lines from a Beatles song (1963) that left a deep impression on my thinking from an early age. “Inside,” my mind was my most secure possession, I could confidently assert.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom’s master screams in rage, “I own you, body and soul!” Tom, dying, tells Simon Legree that Legree may own his body, but he can never own Tom’s soul. Again, this is a memory of learning I experienced long ago, and has stayed with me as a formative notion of my self and soul.
Greek philosophy premised a soul (psyche) dwelling in the body (soma); the mystic mathematician Pythagoras taught that the soul could migrate from body to body in the process of metempsychosis. Ancient Indian religion taught the doctrine of the wheel of death and rebirth of the soul (atman), and of karma.
Wherever one has picked up the notion that a personal interior belongs to one’s self alone, and within that space a spark of immortality might reside, I would doubt there is anyone in the Western civilization ― or any part of the world deeply penetrated by Western ways of thinking ― who does not hold this view of the interiority of the self.
Western Religious teaching about Self
It has been argued that humans may not have had this sense in prehistoric and ancient times, but by the time of Jesus of Nazareth, it seems that the notion of an interior person was well developed among Greeks, Romans, and Israelites, founders of our intellectual ancestry.
“The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being.” (Genesis, c. II, v. 7) According to the foundation mythos of the Western civilization, in the Old Testament, a human being receives the breath of life from God, and it is this that makes the human a being. Interestingly, “being” appears as “soul” in some translations, but that choice of English word creates a problem, because it indicates the presence of a Greek idea, soul, in an ancient Hebrew context where it does not belong. The English word being is the better choice.
Christian dogma, developed long after the ancient Israelite text of Genesis was written, asserts that our soul is given by God – that God put a soul in humans when Adam was created a “living being” (but our own actions might cause us to lose it to Satan.) Christianity after Jesus was immersed in Greek thinking.
God named himself for the first time in history, in the Israelite civilization, with a verb: “(I) AM,” God said to Moses. Being-ness and selfhood were wedded. God had earlier created humans “in our image, in our likeness.” (Genesis, 1, 26)
Professor Julian Jaynes hypothesized that humans did not know God was outside, and Self inside, until the last millennium BCE; before that, humans thought with a “bi-cameral” mind, and thought was experienced as God within. The Jaynes Hypothesis has no standing among neuroscientific researchers now. There simply is no evidence for the sudden transformation of human cognition that Jaynes argued for.
Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” His existence, he declared, was in no doubt because he knew his thoughts and his thought was his own. His era was a time in the West when a paradigm shift in our view of human life and the human world was underway, the so-called Scientific Revolution and the Western Enlightenment. God was on the way to becoming irrelevant in the thought of the elite minds and powers of the West, and soon to be pronounced dead by several philosophers, most famous of whom was Nietzsche.
The twentieth-century West brought the world “scientific psychology.” With the psychoanalytic research and theories of Sigmund Freud and the various genres of mind studies (psychology, neuroscience), we enter the familiar realm of talking about our “selves” and our “personalities” – a focus of endless fascination for the post-modern human. Anyone viewing typical content on social media knows this to be true.
The commonplace word for referring to the self in normal speech had been “I” for centuries; now people also began to refer to this as “my ego” after Freud used it in his models of the human mind. Egotism is not admired, but certainly one is expected to possess something called a “healthy ego.” Narcissism, extreme self-focus, has been labelled an epidemic of our age by some.
Each one of us, believing in the reality of a unique self, has a story about that self. The story is based on selective memories, and in general attempts to show how one’s life has some meaning and some purpose, some mystery and some sense.
Symbolism and selfhood
Most recently in the intellectual development of our Western tradition (which is now the global civilization), scientists who trace the evolution of the species homo sapiens have begun to debate something called “the great leap forward” or “the Cognitive Revolution” to explain our species’ rather rapid advances after about 70,000 years ago. It was only after that period that sapiens emerged as the only species in the genus homo (Neanderthals, Denosivans, and other species of human than ourselves all went extinct by about 30,000 years ago.)
Yuval Harari argues that some genetic mutation in sapiens brains made it possible for us to employ symbolism, which is necessary for language and the create of vast networks of “fictions” such as gods, nations, and corporations, and from this ability, we invent “intersubjective reality” about intangible things that have no actual reality beyond our belief in them.
If humans underwent some form of radical change in our brains’ ability to use symbol, it may be at this point in history that the concept of selfhood became possible for a human; the notion of our private interior evolved from then onward not as a genetic inheritance but as a meme.
[More about memes later. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/what-defines-a-meme-1904778/]
So, to re-cap my argument so far, human interior aptitudes, our method for understanding the single individual human, has evolved over time. We think “self” is a pretty obvious concept, an idea which is real as our body is real.
It may not be scientifically accurate to call the self a real thing. But so long as science has not solved the “hard problem of consciousness”, so-called by neuroscientists, then it is still possible that our sense of self is a reality and not a fiction. Again, I refer the interested reader to research “the hard problem” by going online and browsing among the thousands of references to this paradox.
I cited Harari, author of the bookSapiens, in the section above, because he is at present somewhat of a celebrity intellectual and ubiquitous in his appearances online, in talk shows, in Youtube videos, and in print media. I have assigned his book as a text in a history course I am teaching.
Harari is very confident in his thesis that humans rule the world because we can believe in unreal things, fictions, social constructs, myths. He is as much a social philosopher as a historian, I would say, and he has declared that humans always have an ideology that functions as religion does, even when we say we are not believers in any religion. Harari thinks he can describe the dominant modern global religion held unconsciously by secular people today.
He also predicts the new religion to come, dataism, in his book Homo Deus. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vC4FtajN_QY
There are three clear dogmas in this credo of modern Western secular religion, if you believe Harari. He proclaims that the dominant Western religion is “liberal humanism.” The tenets of this secular religion are:
(1) I am a unique individual, “individual” meaning not-divisible.
(2) I know myself as no one else can know me, and I can know no other as I know myself.
(3) The individual possesses “rights” – human rights – that are “inalienable.” Rights are, according to Harari, another fiction humans invent to erect an “intersubjective reality” that is not the same reality as physicists deal with.
As anyone who has grasped Harari’s own measure of values will know, Harari does not allow that these dogmas are in any sense “real” – they are simply made-up “stories we tell ourselves.” Most of his argumentation for this view is set forth in his sequel to Sapiens, his best-selling tome Homo Deus.
Harari makes himself known through so many media interview panels, on conference stages and at other public forums, to talk about his perspective on our coming crises of transformation into some other species, that his work as an historian is fast becoming a minor piece of his reputation.
[It is my own opinion that Harari has been moving quickly away from being an historian and is set on a path to be a philosopher of future human evolution, employing history to make his cases; he now appears much more interested in the future of our species than in its past ― which is why he is a global celebrity with “cult-like” status, according to online presentations. He is a global public intellectual, addressing his questions about human future developments to the elites of government, economy and science.]
How humans hold their personal, individual place in a vastly complicated, pluralist, and populated global civilization ― within the religion of liberal humanism or within older religious traditions such as biblical religion — is through story. Story is not theory, philosophy, or ideology, but contains elements of these within it, and the teller and the story are fused. The story makes the teller as much as the teller makes a story.
Story is a connected narrative into which one can inject the ego, telling “me” how my life makes sense and meaning in the larger human tale. I know of no author more lucid on the subject of “the stories we tell ourselves” than Charles Eisenstein, but there are many. Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly are others.
Harari says meaning has become more rare in the modern West within the religion of humanism, and we have made a bargain to give up perceiving any meaning in life. This is possible because materialist science has such power over the outer world.
“The modern world’s covenant exchanges meaning to get power.” This is a celebrated quote from Harari. We are gaining in power, and losing meaning in our lives.
Clearly, in the West, our science and the technologies and instruments our science makes possible, has indeed bestowed power upon humans unimaginable only 200 years ago. Medical breakthroughs, space travel, and nuclear weaponry are examples of our power over material that have made humans approach “godlike status” according to Harari.
But life is not full of meaning merely because we have power. The Story we have told ourselves is, that humanity has made progress by gaining control over Nature.
Charles Eisenstein, an author and thinker much less-known than Harari (undeservedly, in my opinion) has said many profound things about the Story we have told ourselves about being human. The Story of Separation and the Story of Power (or Control) are reasons humanity is in a crisis on many fronts at present. Harari and Eisenstein share a deep concern for our crisis, but that is where their similarity ends.
View Eisenstein on this topic in this Youtube clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mjoxh4c2Dj0
The Story in Eisenstein’s sense of the word uses History as part of its narrative — but History as a subject of study is not the same as The Story of the People.
What people of any culture believe is their Story of the People is not a story made up by accident. It has some facts about the people’s past. But it is not all the facts of that past. The Story has to be put together skilfully to make the People proud. A particular social role is assigned to those whose profession is to tell the Story of a people. The Celts had Druids, ancient Israel had scribes, in India it was Brahmins, in medieval Ireland it was ollamhs and sennachies, and among the Scandinavians it was skalds. Pagan gods were responsible to inspire the storytellers; for the Greeks, Clio was the Muse of History.
The Story is part history, part fantasy, part aspiration, part boast. It pictures an ideal people, with many symbols and images of their greatness and their purpose. It is a Story into which each member of society can fit themselves. It tells people how to understand life and how to live it.
Humans have not outgrown the need to have a Story of this nature, for such a story gives us meaning for our lives, and meaning is a necessity for humans.
Now, every modern citizen of a Western nation who has received an education from institutions like schools, or learned from the media, or has simply educated themselves by reading books and listening to lectures, has learned some history. What is history?
History as a word came into the English language from a Greek word, historia, rational inquiry; history does not mean “his story” as so many commonly would say. History may indeed contain stories, but it is not a “meta-narrative” (or the Big Story in the sense Eisenstein uses that term.) History is a profession in the modern West. Professors of history command some respect. Some are quite “ivory tower” and their writing is remote from popular interest, others are writers for the popular taste, like Barbara Tuchman and Yuval Harari.
What do historians tell us they do when they present history to the public? In accord with Western Enlightenment values, they say they are embarked on the great work of finding out truths about the past.
A great voice of the Enlightenment was the French philosophe and personal advisor to the great Prussian king Frederick II, Voltaire. “History is a pack of lies agreed upon,” according to Voltaire. He makes a good point. History as we learn it at the level of public education is a set of facts about which there is consensus. The community of scholars establishes historical facts, which facts are valuable to know, which facts add up to a meaning – but the powers of a society, its elites in culture and politics and economy, decide what the Story of the People shall be. A nation needs some kind of collectively-agreed pack of … well, not lies perhaps, but stories about how the nation came to be and will be.
Canada has a consensus history, known because it is taught in our public schools.
Dark Ages: a brief tangent
The past is always dark to the present, we cannot know it as we know this time when we are alive, and is like a foreign country we can visit but not know as the inhabitants of that country know their habitat.
Therefore, we will only know fractions of the past and throw light only on the aspects for which we have “evidence” and about which we are motivated to ask questions. Whom we make famous, whom we celebrate in the present with statues and by putting their names on public edifices and into our children’s schoolbooks, are decisions reached over decades, decisions historians help the elites to develop and propagate among the people.
Is Sir John A. Macdonald a historical figure worthy of celebration by Canadians? This is a hot-button issue suddenly because a minor elite, the unionized schoolteachers of Ontario, have resolved at a union conference to call for removal of Macdonald’s name on the schools of their province.
Why do the teachers demand this revision of Macdonald’s reputation? Because he was a racist against the aboriginal First Nations of Canada, as “proven” by the fact that he was prime minister when the first Indian Act was legislated. I think this is an example of truly poor reasoning and weak thinking.
That Canadian Indian Act was fully in harmony with its time and the culture of European civilization. Nineteenth century European scientists were convinced that they understood the march of human history and evolution, and were in general agreement that the advanced people of the West were the cutting edge of progress to which all other peoples must be led. Humanity was advancing; the native peoples of the lands seized and occupied and ruled by European empires were being brought forward by the colonial governments. Charles Darwin and his new scientific proofs for the origins of humanity gave Europe confidence that because of the West’s power over the globe, the people of the West were proven by history to be the most adapted, most fit, humans.
Rudyard Kipling put the idea of taking care of the primitive and retarded cultures of the world into a notorious poem, The White Man’s Burden. He famously called the subjects of colonial rule “half-starved, sullen children” who would not understand that the European empires and economies were taking over the natives’ land for the good of the natives.
This is the world, the culture, the scientific and political consensus, among the citizens of the democratic West, among whom Euro-Canadians proudly counted themselves. Why would anyone today expect the prime minister of Canada, the one Canadian politician whom (historians can agree) deserves to be called the first Father of Confederation, would think 21st-century thoughts about the rights of aboriginal people? The very notion reeks of the stupid assumption by the present that this moment is superior to the past.
No new historical facts have emerged about Macdonald, no new facts about some hideous human-rights abuses as defined by his own time have come to light in research by a 21st century historian. The answer to the Ontario teachers’ demand must be a resounding “No.”
I digressed a little in that last section, but it is important that we know how to situate ourselves in a community history, and one of our communities is the nation-state called Canada – which is one of those wonderful imagined realities Harari calls a fiction.
This autumn, I am again leading a history course with seniors as students, in the Learning in Retirement program at Selkirk. I have told the students that they are in a unique period of time for two reasons: they are at an age when they have lived through a fair bit of history, and have a personal history within that time. The other fact is that this time in history is uniquely ominous due to quite verifiable problems like climate change, nuclear weapons, and capitalist market fragility. We know it and we are made anxious or at least disquieted by what we know of our world, and we want to fit our story into the larger tale of human history. We still tell ourselves stories and make meaning and sense of life from that.
This is where Eisenstein and Harari are quite distinct, since the latter is addressing his deepest thoughts and speculations to people with power in politics, science, and the economy, while the former thinks more about masses of people and the stories people carry in their minds. Eisenstein wants to replace the old story of materialist Progress and Power with the new story of Interbeing. Harari wants to alert the powerful to immense change at hand due to AI rendering many people “useless” to the economy, to the quest for immortal lifespans, and to our supposed new religion of dataism. Bliss, divinity, and immortality, are the three driving forces of human desire that will determine our future, Harari asserts.
Conclusions: which kind of story are you inclined toward?
Harari clearly does not believe that the story Eisenstein criticizes as obsolete, the tale of control, is outmoded. Harari wants to prepare for the consequences of that ideology continuing to rule our intersubjective reality.
Eisenstein wants to transform human reality by going into our consciousness with a new story, Interbeing, which respects all other sentient life and understands we are all connected in a web of life.
In all these currents of our past, our present, and our future, each of us still has a notion of self. Eisenstein says we must transform that notion profoundly to allow a porous boundary between self and other selves, other life-forms.
Harari wants policy to be planned, to ensure science is not just the tool of the most wealthy and privileged, and that we might all benefit from its advances – but one does not get the idea he is an optimist about our chances of that.
I know my preference is for Eisenstein’s new story to transform humanity and change our behaviours so radically we can turn aside from the various brinks into the abyss that appear just now to crowd around the human prospect. He is clear, any project for change that assumes we must defeat “the Other and the opposed side” and “be in control of change” is only going to prolong our human predicaments until there is some form of collapse.
Harari wants the old systems established in history to be brought under the control of good people who will not misuse science. He sees that homo deus has a fearsome and terrible aspect as well as a benevolent one, but his solution is to talk to the elites and try to make them behave in ways that do not repeat the precedents of the past.
Where do you place your wager?