"Ponderynge together yestardayes promise, and two-dayes doyng"
(Hall's Chronicle - 1548)


"Goronigl gwyr yr Ynys" (Lewis Glyn Cothi - 1450)

Friday, 5 March 2010

Personal Identity



Many people think of their lives as a story with a coherent and pervasive identity enduring throughout the narrative. Some also think that the story of the life they have currently got will endure beyond it. But to stay with the things we can be certain of, the sense of a story to one’s life tends to encourage the notion that there is a meaningful purpose, often perceived of as something that is lost and must be regained: “I once was lost but now am found” as the hymn has it, or “ I once was a child , but now I put away childish things” The sense of growing into one’s correct purpose.

These ideas suggest the fulfilment of one’s ‘true self’ either by growing up or turning aside from waywardness and taking the true path. Consider here the Scottish Border Ballad of True Thomas:

O see not ye yon narrow road,
          So thick beset wi thorns and briers?
          That is the path of righteousness,
          Tho after it but few enquires.
          ‘And see not ye that braid braid road,
          That lies across yon lillie leven?
          That is the path of wickedness,
          Tho some call it the road to heaven.
          ‘And see not ye that bonny road,
          Which winds about the fernie brae?
          That is the road to fair Elfland,
          Whe[re] you and I this night maun gae.

Here Thomas’s path is subverted and he is taken on a path he had not expected. This takes the ‘story’ in another direction from the usual one of the true righteous road and the false path onto which many stray. It also raises the question of what is ‘true’ identity. The notion of a unified self which is either in a state of grace or, more likely, has to find itself among the distractions of the world is pervasive in our culture. The third alternative indicated by the Queen of Elfland above is one way of questioning that. Another is to ask if we have just one true self or a multiplicity of them spread across time, space and even, some might say, different lives?

That we appear to have a continuity of conscious identity is undeniable, though clearly this changes through time (“I once was a child …”). But even within whatever vague and elastic period we call ‘the present’ we are likely to be living with contradictions of belief, identity and even behaviour. So to oppose the notion of a ‘true self’ it might be possible to say that not only am I not the same person that I was twenty years ago, but that the person I am now is a multiplicity rather than a singularity. Clearly such an approach might cause problems with personal integrity (should that ‘me’ feel responsible for what that other ‘me’ did?) Certainly, as far as the law is concerned, the official ‘me’ will be held to account for anything we do. But that is no more challenging than the idea that a public body must take responsibility for anything done in its name by one of its members or employees.

I should stress here that what I have in mind is not that sort of facile post-modernism which suggests that one can adopt superficial identities according to the velleities of fashion, whim or desire. Rather I mean to suggest that we are complex beings who have deep-rooted contradictions in our essential selves which, in fact, may constitute different selves within the same overall sense of selfhood. So when the Queen of Elfland offers us that choice of a way between the conflicting paths of our proposed true or false selves, that is not simply a third way but a liberation from such dualistic thinking about who we are.

5 comments:

Red Raven said...

I am currently engaged in reading a physics based book on the fabric of the cosmos (more info on my own blog). One of the hypothesis presented is the use of entropy.
Basically, the physics world has used the idea that low entropy (highly organized processes) always lead to high entropy (highly disorganized processes).
It has occurred to me that the human being exhibits similar processes. As a child and without the cultural or social frameworks in place, it could be suggested that this could possibly represent low entropy, the highly organized state, as the processes of living are not complicated too much by the thoughts or concerns of societal living. As we develop and we are exposed more to the environment, especially the perceived mental constraints placed upon us by our society at this moment in time, we become more highly entropic as the sheer volume of considerations weave into us.
Regardless of one's personal spiritual belief's, it occurs to me that this high entropy is a property, for whatever reason, that appears to be the mechanism for humanities creative (and of course, it's counter, the destructive) nature.
I'm not at all sure whether the "true" self can ever be just that (apart from if you have the "luxury" of a monastic existence). It is, as if part of the reason of life is for the individual to experience the act of creation through self regulated processes. It is the experience of "how" these processes becoming self regulated, that seems to be a common factor as to the method of people's arrival at their "true" self and part of this is the casting off or re-evaluation of thoughts, actions and methods. In a sense, this could be viewed as an attempt to revert back to that low entropic state experienced at an earlier time.

RR

Adam said...

makes a lot of sense to me, Greg... I like the introduction of the Ballad of True Thomas as a metaphor... there is a lot of debate in a field I am interested in (NLP) regarding whether the self should be regarded as having "parts" or as a single mind-body union... frankly, I can shift to whichever model I find most useful at the time, since both are simply linguistic descriptions of a far more complex reality, but the parts model is interesting because it raises the issue of *congruity* and it also raises the possibility that the defining boundary between self/not self is not necessarily the nice clean line people feel comfortable with... that we can redefine self in a number of differing ways and allow congruity/incongruity within self to extend to that which is normally regarded as transpersonal

Greg said...

Thanks both for yr comments.Yes I think the notion of a 'true self' or even 'true selves' is most under question from these considerations. The entropy theories would explain environmental effects on the view of the self RR, and if this is all 'self' is then they might explain the sense of multiple selves. But, presumably, any inherited self - of selves - that we carry with us would endure.

I think the notion of the self having parts is one I would favour Adam, though of course we experience it as a central entity. If (see above) 'self' is just our experience of what we are then I suppose the parts theory falls. But if there is a physical location[s] then it remains possible.

But my main thinking on the blog was to question the sense of our lives as a single story or journey to a 'true destiny' or to a destiny that is not our 'true' one but into which we have fallen.

Red Raven said...

"True Destiny" has an implied connection with a "goal" and if that's the case then we must all be here for a goal style objective (as per monotheistic religions). I'm not convinced that this is the case at all.
It strikes me that the experiences of one's life and how one deals with them represents, for whatever reason, one of the fundamental reasons for existence.
If you are of a theistic persuasion, then a certain amount of abdication of responsibilities to the whim of any perceived deity may represent a qualifying of one's experiences "Oh, only God(s)know for sure" type of attitude.
I can see in earlier times when the conditions of living where so much more difficult (in a physical sense)than today, that if any deity did want some form of action, the use of a goal would have represented one method by which to effect change. But our generation has more time with which to consider implications that earlier generations did not have the luxury or position with which to consider the full implications.
The problem with the goal style destiny is that it places the individual at the centre and I'm convinced that that position is one that can be afforded to everyone, although marketing and the such would have us believe otherwise.

RR

Red Raven said...

That should have read "cannot be afforded to everyone"

RR