Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

26 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Nature of the Self: Experimental Philosopher Joshua Knobe on How We Know Who We Are

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A mind-bending new understanding of our basic existential anchor.

“The fate of the world depends on the Selves of human beings,” pioneering educator Annemarie Roeper wrote in her meditation on how poorly we understand the self. Indeed, while philosophers may argue that the self is a toxic illusion and psychologists may insist that it’s forever changing, we tend to float through life anchored by a firm conviction that the self is our sole constant companion. But when psychologist David DeSteno asks “Can the present you trust the future you?” in his fantastic exploration of the psychology of trust, the question leaves us — at least, leaves me — suddenly paralyzed with the realization that the future self is in many ways fundamentally different from the present self. Our emotions and beliefs and ideals are constantly evolving — Anaïs Nin put it perfectly: “I am a series of moods and sensations. I play a thousand roles… My real self is unknown.” — and even biologically, most cells in the our bodies are completely renewed every seven years. How, then, do we know how “we” are? How do we hold the “self” with any sense of firmness?

Over the past decade, the emerging field of experimental philosophy — a discipline that pursues inquiries about the human condition traditionally from the realm of philosophy with the empirical methods of psychology — has tackled this paradox, along with its many fringe concerns spanning morality, happiness, love, and how to live. In this fascinating video from the 2013 HeadCon seminar shot by TED Talks film director Jason Wishnow, Yale University professor and experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe, editor of the anthology Experimental Philosophy (public library), takes us through some mind-bending, soul-deconstructing thought experiments that push our notions of the self to the limit and past it, into a new understanding of our basic existential anchor.

Though the full talk is remarkable in its entirety and is well worth the watch, here is what I find to be Knobe’s most poignant pause-giver:

One specific thing [has] really been exploding in the past couple of years and this is experimental philosophy work on the notion of the self. This is work on questions about what is the self, how does the self extend over time, is there a kind of essence of the self, how do we know what falls inside or outside the self?…

Philosophers have called [this] the “question of personal identity.” It’s a question in philosophy that goes back, at least, to the time of John Locke. It’s one that philosophers are still talking about up until the present day. You can get a sense for the question pretty easily just by thinking about a certain kind of initial question, and it’s this:

Imagine how the world is going to be a year from now. A year from now there are going to be all these people in this world, and one of those people is going to have a very special property. That person is going to be you. So, with any luck a year from now, there’ll be someone out there who’s you. But what is it about that person that makes that person you?

At this moment you have a certain kind of body, you have a certain kind of goals, and beliefs, and values, you have certain emotions. In the future there are going to be all these other people that are going to have certain bodies, they’re going to have certain goals, certain beliefs, certain emotions. Some of them are going to be, to varying degrees, similar and, to varying degrees, different from yours; and one of those people is going to be you. So, what makes that person you?

[…]

Imagine what things are going to be like in 30 years. In 30 years, there’s going to be a person around who you might normally think of as you — but that person is actually going to be really, really different from you in a lot of ways. Chances are, a lot of the values you have, a lot of the emotions, a lot of the beliefs, a lot of the goals are not going to be shared by that person. So, in some sense you might think that person is you, but is that person really you? That person is like you in certain respects, but … you might think that person is kind of not me anymore.

Once you start to reflect on that, you might start to have a really different feeling about that person — the person you’re going to turn into. You might even start to feel a little bit competitive with that person. Suppose you start saving money right now. You are losing money and he or she is the one gaining the money. The money is being taken away from the person who has the values, the emotions, and the goals that you really care about and going to this other person.

Be sure to watch the full talk — you’ll be glad you did — and dive deeper into this fascinating fledgling field with Knobe’s second volume of Experimental Philosophy, featuring fourteen of the most influential recent essays and articles at this illuminating intersection of philosophy and psychology.

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26 FEBRUARY, 2014

Mark Twain on Masturbation

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“If you must gamble away your life sexually, don’t play a Lone Hand too much.”

In 1879, 44-year-old Mark Twain — irreverent adviser of little girls, pointed critic of the press, recipient of some outrageous requests from his fans — took the podium at a men’s club in Paris and delivered a lecture titled “Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism,” onanism being masturbation, after the Bible’s Onan, who spilled his semen on the ground and was slain by God for this sinful transgression. The lecture was eventually adapted into On Masturbation (public library) and illustrated with charming Victorian-style engravings, but to fully understand just how scandalous Twain’s message was at the time, we ought to return to those Biblical admonitions.

In the Middle Ages, at the height of its rabid crusade to punish desire, the Catholic Church deemed masturbation a mortal sin deserving of eternal damnation. By Twain’s day, as medicine was beginning to split off from religious doctrine, doctors no longer claimed that God would slay those guilty of onanism, but did vehemently portend the harmful effects of self-pleasuring — or “self-abuse,” as it was referred to at the time. Admonishing that the perilous practice would even effect early death, they used medical warnings as a vehicle for the same old moral judgments stemming from religion. Victorian newspapers would regularly feature ads for male chastity belts, “scientific” pills to dampen desire, and even metal clamps designed to contain any unwanted “excitement.” Those, ironically, were marketed at treatments for rather than mechanisms of “self-abuse.”

'What Will the Boy Become?' Illustration from an early 20th-century manual of 'social hygiene.'

A medical text from 1903 exemplifies the spirit of the era:

Teach your boy that when he handles or excites the sexual organs, all parts of the body suffer. This is why it is called “self-abuse.” The sin is terrible, and is, in fact, worse than lying or stealing. For, although these are wicked and will ruin the soul, self-abuse will ruin both soul and body. This loathsome habit lays the foundation for consumption, paralysis, and heart disease. It makes many boys lose their minds; others, when grown, commit suicide.

Twain, who reserved some of his sharpest critique for religion, thus unleashed his satire on both the cultural judgment of a practice so common yet so condemned, and on the sheepish religiosity that underpinned those judgments. His lecture pokes fun at those social attitudes by mashing up, more than a century before the Internet’s satirical mashups, famous words by cultural luminaries with thoughts on the subject of masturbation. Twain beings:

All great writers upon health and morals, both ancient and modern, have struggled with this stately subject ; this shows its dignity and importance. Some of these writers have taken one side, some the other.

Homer, in the second book of the Iliad, says with fine enthusiasm, “Give me masturbation or give me death!”

Caesar, in his Commentaries, says, “To the lonely it is company; to the forsaken it is a friend; to the aged and impotent it is a benefactor; they that be penniless are yet rich, in that they still have this majestic diversion.”

[…]

Robinson Crusoe says, “I cannot describe what I owe to this gentle art.”

Queen Elizabeth said, “It is the bulwark of virginity.”

Cetewayo, the Zulu hero, remarked that, “A jerk in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

The immortal Franklin has said, “Masturbation is the mother of invention.” He also said, “Masturbation is the best policy.”

Michelangelo and all the other Old Masters — Old Masters, I will remark, is an abbreviation, a contraction — have used similar language. Michelangelo said to Pope Julius II, “Self-negation is noble, self-culture is beneficent, self-possession is manly, but to the truly great and inspiring soul they are poor and tame compared to self-abuse.”

After running through a similar list of imaginary quotations from history’s masturbation-opponents, Twain plants a particularly well-aimed jab at religion by enlisting its arch-nemesis, evolution:

Mr. Darwin was grieved to feel obliged to give up his theory that the monkey was the connecting link between man and the lower animals. I think he was too hasty.

The monkey is the only animal, except man, that practices this science; hence he is our brother; there is a bond of sympathy and relationship between us. Give this ingenious animal an audience of the proper kind, and he will straightway put aside his other affairs and take a whet; and you will see by the contortions and his ecstatic expression that he takes an intelligent and human interest in his performance.

Twain proceeds to highlight the absurdity of condemning masturbation by offering a set of humorous diagnostic criteria for spotting those guilty of onanism and once again pokes fun at the purported effects of the practice:

The signs of excessive indulgence in this destructive pastime are easily detectable. They are these: A disposition to eat, to drink, to smoke, to meet together convivially, to laugh, to joke, and tell indelicate stories — and mainly, a yearning to paint pictures.

The results of the habit are: Loss of memory, loss of virility, loss of cheerfulness, loss of hopefulness, loss of character, and loss of progeny.

Twain concludes:

Of all the various kinds of sexual intercourse, this has the least to recommend it. As an amusement it is too fleeting; as an occupation it is too wearing; as a public exhibition there is no money in it. It is unsuited to the drawing room, and in the most cultured society it has long since been banished from the social board…

So, in concluding, I say: If you must gamble away your life sexually, don’t play a Lone Hand too much.

When you feel a revolutionary uprising in your system, get your Vendome Column down some other way — don’t jerk it down.

On Masturbation is a quick and delightful read in its entirety, and is available digitally for a rather guilt-free 99 cents. Complement it with Twain on religion and human egotism and his illustrated advice to little girls.

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25 FEBRUARY, 2014

Life Is Like Blue Jelly: Margaret Mead Discovers the Meaning of Existence in a Dream

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Revelations from the laboratory of the unconscious.

The meaning of life has been contemplated by just about every thinking, feeling, breathing human being, and memorably so by a number of cultural icons, including Carl Sagan, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, David Foster Wallace, Richard Feynman, and other luminaries. But one of the most unusual and poignant meditations on the eternal question comes, obliquely yet with crystalline precision, from legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead.

In a 1926 letter found in To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us Mead’s love letters to her lifelong soulmate, Ruth Benedict, and her prescient thoughts on human sexuality — Mead recounts a particularly pause-giving dream. More than a mere record on the unconscious, it unfolds into a powerful metaphor for the meaning of life — for the beauty of not-knowing, for the soul-nourishment of wonder, and for the question of “enough” that Vonnegut once contemplated.

Mead writes:

Last night I had the strangest dream. I was in a laboratory with Dr. Boas and he was talking to me and a group of other people about religion, insisting that life must have a meaning, that man couldn’t live without that. Then he made a mass of jelly-like stuff of the most beautiful blue I had ever seen — and he seemed to be asking us all what to do with it. I remember thinking it was very beautiful but wondering helplessly what it was for. People came and went making absurd suggestions. Somehow Dr. Boas tried to carry them out — but always the people went away angry, or disappointed — and finally after we’d been up all night they had all disappeared and there were just the two of us. He looked at me and said, appealingly “Touch it.” I took some of the astonishingly blue beauty in my hand, and felt with a great thrill that it was living matter. I said “Why it’s life — and that’s enough” — and he looked so pleased that I had found the answer — and said yes “It’s life and that is wonder enough.”

Complement with famous scientists on the art of wonder.

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