Friday, October 31, 2008


Discourse that has ethical significance, and therefore understanding between people, is bedevilled by impoverished, crude and simplistic notions – often referred to as ‘commonsense’. Among the most nefarious of these are impoverished notions of the self. Discourse in many fields works with a notion of the self which regards it as the trajectory of a qualityless, dimensionless point, a mere abstraction adopted for convenience in that it provides a focus for the perceptions of the machine made of meat that is the human being. The self, in this type of discourse, is simply the illusory focus of a host of mostly random events in the kilo and a half of grey matter we call the brain. The trajectory of that point is linear through time. It may be described by a parabola: the self emerges from the primordial humus of matter – one can imagine this as a sort of swamp – rises briefly into the air above the swamp by virtue of its complex organisation and then falls back with barely a plop: that is how the self is viewed by much of the scientific and philosophical communities. During that trajectory, experience impacts upon that qualityless, dimensionless point in a mostly random way which has no sense, no rhyme, no reason beyond the poor reasons provided by the individual’s powers of cogitation.
I would like to break free from this notion of the self and propose a conception of the self which is not tied to a linear trajectory, a nugatory and pointless trajectory which describes a parabola from one point on the surface of the swamp to another, from relatively disorganised matter through an organised state, to relatively disorganised matter. I would like to propose a model of the self which views it as fundamentally a process of expansion, a global expansion from a centre that depends upon the brain for the initial stages of this expansion but that very possibly separates itself from this dependence at some stage in its expansion. For another homely illustration, perhaps we can turn to a kind of myth: let us imagine that in the swamp there is a host of tiny creatures - the era is a very primitive one on our earth and there is no atmosphere which we can breathe, there is no oxygen. The tiny creatures in the swamp feel their life ballooning, feel themselves ballooning, and they balloon because they generate oxygen; and as they generate oxygen, they rise to the surface of the liquid and burst. And in bursting, they release a puff of oxygen and so create the breathable atmosphere in which life flourishes.
I would like to view our self as a bubble of awareness rising to the surface of the humus of matter to burst and in its bursting to create the new medium, the new dimensions of creation in which new dimensions of mental life can flourish.
Of course, in order to work with this sort of model, one has to abandon the notion of reality as essentially a collection of three-dimensional objects and posit a much richer reality. One has to be wedded to notions of purposiveness, not necessarily notions of teleology in any simplistic sense where the goal of the process is decided in advance and resembles the sorts of goal which we as humans would set ourselves. That is not necessary at all. The point about reality as we perceive it is that it is a meaningful and intelligent accumulation, it is an overlaying of levels of complexity, ‘complexification’ to use Teilhard’s ugly word. That drive towards complexity is in itself goal enough; and that ever-achieved, ever-to-be-achieved goal provides purpose enough. It is the prime source of evidence for the existence of a universal intelligence. We must regard the intelligent self in the same purposive light. If we regard the self as that which expands globally from the centre, according to its own inner principles – self-conscious life seems to be intrinsically linked to expanding consciousness – then another aspect of the impoverished notion of the self has to be dealt with and done away with. This is the notion that experience impacts upon the self in a random way, almost as the rain drums on an old tin roof. Experience hits us, in the current model of the self, much in that way. The roof has no defence against the rain; it just has to put up with it, endure it and willy-nilly be modified by it, apparently at random. I would like to propose that the model of the self which more closely fits reality is one in which the self is the true agent, active in choice, selective and directive of its own experience and of the effects this experience has upon it. This choice and this selection are similar to the choice and selection exercised by the creative artist, who only knows where he or she is going by actually going there.
The self is always a focus of choosing; and we do not have to construe that process of choosing as in any way associated with the so-called problem of free will. The very structure of the self is choice. If one contemplates the autobiographies or autobiographic reflections of great creative people, they have viewed their life as expansion from the centre. They have viewed their work as in many senses the development of a single thought. All the symphonies of Mozart were a single thought, sometimes present in his mind all at once. The literary works of Goethe were all aspects of a single confession, as he said; and surely that single confession must have constantly been there, so to speak, as a single thought. All great creative people have shown that their experience has been chosen by them as grist to the mill of the self, not just accumulated like the debris in some wind-blown corner. Their experience has not been simple random impacts from without; and their self has not been a qualityless, dimensionless point, but rather to a much greater degree, a source of gravitational attraction for types of experience to give form to a growing consciousness. The great creative artists are not so different from the ordinary, unexceptional individual in this. Experience is chosen by an elective, expanding self in the interests of an articulation of a single thought, inchoate to begin with, but acquiring greater clarity and elegance of expression as the chosen experience and the chosen language derived from that experience facilitated the expression. That this process sometimes goes wrong and leads nowhere in no sense refutes the view that the individual consciousness is the creation of a unique work.
We must suppose that the models of the self which are applicable to the most creative members of the human family are the most representative models, even though they may be derived from the rarest of individuals; but these rarest of individuals are the most human of human beings.
Now if we postulate this expansionary model of the self, we have to regard the form which is generated by the creative individual as, if you like, the efficient cause in the expansion. The form generated, in turn generates the self. It is a two-way process insofar as the self becomes aware of itself through externalising itself, recognises itself in the externalisations and re-internalises the externalisations in order further to modify them into further externalisations. The process is an uninterrupted cycle, a recycling of old insight into new. And that does not mean to say that the self is identical with and exhausted by this cycle of externalisation and internalisation. It is the combination of expanding self and impacting experience which gives rise to the formalism – the language, that is to say – of self-expression. The creative individual then can be seen as generative of the formalism and the formalism itself as, to that extent, generative of the creative individual. It is humanity that has generated languages of all kinds by means of its choosing of experience to expand consciousness.
This sort of model of the self seems to me to be much more helpful in the understanding, if you like in the metaphysical understanding of life, than any linear, timebound notion of the self. It is helpful because one can recognise that human beings are not the only creatures given to creative activity. Evolution is driven by the same choosing, the same creativity, on lower levels of consciousness. When evolution becomes the sum total of countless creative acts on the part of humble creatures, it becomes legitimate to refer to the history of life as ‘Creation’.

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