I have been reading a sociology book of late, which is stretch for me as I have a low opinion of the field. (I used to claim that I had invented a perfect cure for insomnia: simply give the insomniac a sociology textbook and ask them to read it and 15 minutes later they would be asleep.) But I like to challenge my prejudices, so onward I read. There were a number of points made I found interesting, then the subject of “self” came up. What constitutes a self (myself, yourself, themselves, etc.) comes up in sociology (needed for definition of society) as well as psychology and philosophy.
What I find is that often people become entranced with the idea of “self” and carry it to extremes. People start with the fact that all of us can carry on a conversation in our heads that no one else can hear. This leads to the idea of having an “inner self” versus “our outer selves.” We “are” variously: parents, workers, volunteers, musicians, cooks, etc., each of which, to some, is a “self.” Writers often emphasize searching for our “real self” because there are so many of these “selves.” These people, I think, confuse “what I am doing now” as some kind of different persona. In actuality, in order to fit into any group you need to conform to the rules of said group. Showing up to a cooking class wearing a baseball catcher’s gear would definitely be considered weird as would showing up for baseball practice wearing a chef’s hat. each of these behaviors would lead to others judging you and possibly shunning you. In general, we all tend to “go along to get along” and adopt each subgroups norms for the time we participate in them. If our job requires “business attire,” we wear a suit. When we are invited to a party that recommends “cocktail attire” we do not show up in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and flip flops. Each of these activities is really not a separate entity we could label as a “self.” They are just something we are doing.
“Why the search for our “real” or “inner” self? It seems to me to be
a search for a nonexistent “soul” that out religious traditions insist exists.”
But the idea that we can talk to ourselves, think to ourselves, gives the impression that the outer projection of our personality is not our real self. On the contrary I think it is. If we are a “go along to get along” type, we readily conform to any group’s norms, no problem. If we are rebellious, we tend to be rebellious across the board. There is no mystery here, people tend to be quite consistent.
So why this persistent feeling of “layers upon layers” and “I contain multitudes” when we think of our mental lives? Why the search for our “real” or “inner” self? It seems to me to be a search for a nonexistent “soul” that out religious traditions insist exists. It has to be down there somewhere. The mindset that we have a soul presupposes the idea of an inner self and fuels such language and thinking.
Reality seems just the reverse. Consciousness is an emergent property of human brains. It really exists only on the “outside.” All of the different manifestations we present to the world outside of us are simply ways to “fit in” and not attract undue attention and to attract “due attention.” This is even exemplified by those who are otherly directed: the flamboyant extroverts. Even those who want to be “the baddest dude in town” are looking for attention of a particular sort. They avoid “undue” attention but revel in the ability to attract attention that repels the rest of us, their “due attention.”
So, each of us wants to be part of society or a subgroup of society, we want to be acknowledged as existing and having some standing in our community. Even the “born to be wild” outlaw bikers formed clubs (the Hell’s Angels, etc.). If I may reiterate a famous football coaches frustrated comment: “They are who we thought they were.” It should not be such a surprise.
Since consciousness is an emergent property it is on the outside. Dig down an inch or so and it becomes dark and unilluminating. The light is on the outside. We should be looking at how that outer skin of consciousness interacts with those around us rather than looking deep inside for a non-existent soul-self.
You can see who you are in a selfie … if you just look.