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  • Writer's pictureCrone

There's a river down there

From the bridge, you can hear the stream burbling, but the trees block the view. Peer through, and you see the glitter of water rushing over stones.


And beneath what we perceive to be our selves, our lives, there is some kind of neuro-identity that shapes what and how we perceive.


I have been thinking of this for my practice essay.


This is the section where I have been trying to articulate what I mean....


***


My sense of self does not feel as if it encompasses all of what I am. I fluctuate between feeling that it is one of a multitude of selves; one facet or aspect of something very much more complex; something created by neural processes when attention is turned inward; or simply the ‘flavour’ or ‘tonus’ of my body’s consciousness at that moment. What it is not is a narrative or part of a narrative. It is too transient, too contingent, too fragmented.


Nor is my life a narrative. Things happen. I learned as a result of experience – or didn’t. I know more things than before – but I didn’t decide what I remember. I didn’t decide what shaped me most. There’s no hero’s journey. There’s just me doing the best I can with what I have in this moment.


When I have been in therapy, it has been tempting to create a story about, for example, what my parents did and didn’t do; what I overcame and what I need to overcome; what I learned about myself from various traumas and so on. But it feels like a fabrication. I can’t buy into a story even as a route to some target of self-acceptance and contentment.


There is not enough self to accept. Or perhaps I accept it as it is: contingent, transient and non-narrative.


This experience inevitably impacts other aspects of cognition.

Many accounts suggest that what is presented to consciousness evolved in the unconscious, is influenced by unrecognised cues, a half or totally forgotten past, the neurochemistry of the brain, genes, environment and so on (T. D. Wilson 2002; Sapolsky 2017). For example, psychological experiments suggest that the smell of fresh bread increases the chances of a person helping a stranger (Badhwar 2014). If asked why they offered assistance, the subject is unlikely to acknowledge the role of the aroma but will instead respond with reasons such as ‘it’s the right thing to do’. Such reasons often feel accurate and complete (Mercier and Sperber 2017).


However, my phenomenological experience is different. My reasons feel weak: as though they can never exhaust the causes for my actions, decisions or emotions[1]. I can develop a narrative that plays an explanatory role, but it feels like a confabulation. I now believe that I experience the contingency of cognition, and to accept that as a brute fact[2]. I accept that others too will be influenced by factors outside conscious awareness, leaving me as uncertain about their reasons as I am about my own. Thus, I tend not to judge others harshly when they act badly, if also being somewhat sceptical when they behave especially well.


The feeling that my reasons are not evaluated as powerful or convincing, leads me to doubt the fundamental meaningfulness of some others might consider as prevailing truths. While I have been consistently left-wing and concerned about non-human animals, most of my interests, beliefs and commitments feel tentative, as though I could easily come to regard them as nugatory. Any sense of ‘authenticity’ is lacking; even my ‘subjectivity’ has this sense of ‘having been constructed’. It could all be otherwise, given the slightest change (more coffee, turning right rather than left). And that foundationlessness is experienced as my reality. It is easy for me to deny the existence of libertarian free will; easy to discount faith in any supernatural being; hard for me to feel that any rule is always true or that happiness is all-important. Consciousness, in a stripped down sense, such as ‘the feeling of being alive’ as Anil Seth puts it, seems to me to be the only constant and thus all that can intrinsically matter to me – but I am agnostic as to whether even experiencing is necessary. Perhaps life alone is sufficient for moral salience. All else may just be contingent.


As a fellow borderline has told me that she too feels only ‘loose’ ownership of her thoughts and emotions, I have come to wonder of whether the borderline’s difficulties in mentalizing (having ‘an awareness of mental states in oneself and in other people, particularly in explaining their actions’ (Fonagy et al. 2019)) could be related to this meta-cognitive hypersensitivity, an experience that lacks a shared tool for social interpretation.


Were this experience to be considered philosophically, one might be drawn to the similarities between what I am calling meta-cognitive hypersensitivity and the perspective of the ‘ironist’ as categorised by Richard Rorty:


All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes. They are the words in which we tell, sometimes prospectively and sometimes retrospectively, the story of our lives. I shall call these words a person's "final vocabulary."


[…]


I shall define an "ironist" as someone who fulfills three conditions: (i) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself. Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal metavocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one's way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old.


In similar vein, one could argue that the views, about the ‘I’ as a construct, for example, that poststructural and queer/feminist writers seem to have reasoned their way to, is simply what some borderlines actually experience. We might intuitively sense such arguments as convincing because they map onto our cognitive style.

[1] One exception: when hypomanic and encapsulated by desires, ‘I want’ feels entirely adequate. [2] How this impacts responsibility, agency and autonomy is beyond the scope of this paper.


***


I don't know if this makes sense... but I hear these ideas burbling under the canopy of philosophical theorising.

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