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How We Know Ourselves: a. Limits

The Socratic maxim, gnothi seauton, “know thyself,” was originally intended to emphasize its importance, over time wasted on things like mythology. Understanding ourselves, knowing who we are, including acknowledging our limitations, is also likely to help us evaluate others, anticipate their behavior, and understand their foibles. It also means not only having a pretty good idea of how others see us, our reputations, but that those perceptions sometimes need to be revised. Since the very formation of a “self” to know is in no small part directly due to the responses of a “generalized other” to us, this should be no surprise. Nevertheless, given that much of our reputation is due to stories told about us, and that the very roots of having our own story may be in the stories told to us by significant others about ourselves, it is likely to be the case that their source in mythologies, personal and otherwise, might be worth our attention.

It is a commonplace of signal detection that there are two kinds of errors, a “false alarm” when one falsely reports something that is not there (as opposed to a “correct rejection”), and a “miss” when something that is actually present is not reported (as opposed to a “hit”). These Type I and Type II errors, with probabilities of α and β respectively, help us get an initial handle on varieties of self-knowledge, and its failures. But if you believe something about yourself that is not true of you, you aren’t simply wrong, as you may also have been deceived, either by others or by yourself. Similarly, if you don’t believe something that is actually true of you, you are misinformed, but again, due both to simple ignorance and also to deception by self or other.

There is also a second layer of self-consciousness. You may accurately “know” something about yourself, be aware of it and able to include it in your self-representation, the story you tell yourself (whether or not it matches what you tell others). Or you may not be aware of it, like things that you are bodily able to do, or even have done, but aren’t aware of them (including any number of habits which you didn’t always have, but have now forgotten that you do). There also may be things that you don’t know, or are wrong about, but believe that you accurately know. For years I believed that I had broken my brother’s collar bone, but I no longer think so. And there are, to be sure, many things which you do not know about yourself, both those that you are quite aware you do not know, whether or not you admit this to anyone else, and those of which you are entirely ignorant, about which you do not know you don’t know. I never imagined that “graciousness” was any part of my endowment, and never would have thought of it until a conference participant once said: “Everybody says how gracious you are.” I actually had to ask her to clarify, as I had no idea what she was talking about.

All of this also assumes that whatever we are--the self we and others see ourselves as being--isn’t constantly in the process of being formed, of changing, and that what we end up both being and seeing ourselves as being is as much a set of events being performed through time as it is some entity with varying degrees of stability through time. Some social psychologists have called this a “conversation of gestures.” This means that you perform some gesture with your intent as its origin, to be taken a certain way. Then there is how your audience actually receives it. (And these interactants make the same assumptions about their own gestures.) Finally, there is how you understand their evaluation. But who you select to interact with what circumstances affects the result. And you can break off or alter the resulting relationships, or seek a readier audience. Then there is the question of how well you read the actual responses of others, and with what interpretive blinders. And how you eventually take their responses, which all suggests that whatever performances you attempt, they are as much a drama whose main purpose is to convince yourself, what Anthony Greenwald has called the “totalitarian ego.” Any conversation with an adolescent negotiating their presence on social media can make this obvious, up to and including the conventions of authenticity under which such negotiating may occur.

We’re nowhere near figuring this all out, and this is not remotely an attempt to be at all systematic or complete. What I will focus on is not so much what we admit to not knowing, nor what is recognizably unavailable on the ocean of ignorance of which we are unaware (but of which the more we know, the more we seem to be aware of that which we are not). What I will focus on, mainly because I think I know a little about it is, first, the serious limits to “introspection” as a route to knowledge. That will be most of the remainder of “How We Know Ourselves: a” (or “alpha” -- how the Greek numbering system worked). A subsequent blog will address the kind of knowing we do through or with our bodies (much of which we have little or no conscious awareness), upon which all knowing may ultimately depend. Finally we will turn to the problematic arena of self-deception. This arena, as I see it, is primary to understanding the odd “mythic reality” that our very sense of ourselves is likely to be formed by a range of enaction primarily intended to fool others by fooling ourselves first. As a necessary and inevitable consequence, this logic entails that we will always have severe limits to knowing the truth about ourselves very well... beyond, perhaps, understanding how illusory that self-knowledge may be.

The swan song of my academic career was in co-organizing a conference on “How Can We Know?” for the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, the summer before I retired. My own scholarly contribution was to participate in a dialogue on “Knowing Ourselves” with Warren Brown, a research neuropsychologist who is a professor of psychology and director of the Lee Travis Research Institute at the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California. He was one of the editors and contributors to Whatever Happened to the Soul? Published in 1998, this was one of the important influences early in my 25-year sojourn in Science-and-Religion, particularly Nancey Murphy’s “Nonreductive Physicalism,” and Warren’s "Cognitive Contributions to the Soul.” The common perspective of the contributors was that “statements made about the physical nature of human beings made from the perspective of biology or neuroscience were about exactly the same entity as statements made about the spiritual nature of persons from the point of view of theology or religious traditions.” Indeed they actively disavowed the opinion that the spiritual essence or soul were anything apart. Working out the religious implications of this position would remain one of Warren’s preoccupations through his 2012 book with Brad Strawn on The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Church, as well as his contribution to the IRAS conference. The conference focused on a series of mediated dialogues on position papers posted before the conference, revised after the conference, and published in the September 2017 issue of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science.

Modernity presents us with an epistemological crisis, a crisis in how we know ourselves. This is traceable at least to the genius of Shakespeare, at the turn of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the scientific revolution, in exploring, beginning with Hamlet, the drama of characters lacking self-understanding, their own motives opaque to them. Nevertheless, our philosophical and scientific understanding often took for granted that introspection, looking inward to one’s own thinking, was both privileged, each of us having an access to ourselves unavailable to others, and incorrigible, something about which, while we might lie to others, we cannot be wrong about ourselves. Rene Descartes took this as a cornerstone of his philosophic method, and it was a presupposition of the “scientific” psychology at the turn of the 20th century. Part of Sigmund Freud’s contribution to that century was in bringing the epistemological crisis to a head in his clinical demonstrations that introspection was neither privileged nor incorrigible.

In our own era there are few who reach adulthood without having the experience of a friend or intimate partner knowing what you are thinking as well or even better than you, or worse, being able to tell you that you are full of it, or discovering this for yourself over time. “I thought I was in love with Bob, but I was really just infatuated.” “I thought my pursuit of a doctorate was just a happenstance, until my friend told me I was like Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick, and I realized he was right.” We really do not and perhaps cannot know ourselves from the inside. If our ego defenses form the boundaries of who we are, and are really just a catalogue of self-deceptive tactics for hiding, shaping, or disowning our experience, then the very formation of the ego is based on a complex set of distortions of the truth. If our conscious self-representations are constructed from these, then our conscious account of our experience is not likely to be the best guide to who we are. Part of the scientific revolution in particular, and of critical thinking more generally is a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” in which we take care to evaluate the logic and evidence of truth claims, including our own. “Are you sure? Does that really follow? What evidence do you have for that?” As Oliver Cromwell once put it: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you might be mistaken.” I have a t-shirt with a slogan more appropriate to our own “post-truth” era: “Anything that can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” The epistemological revolution of the 20th century is that this same hermeneutic of suspicion must be applied to our very self-understanding.

It also so happens that a lengthy research tradition in psychology, beginning with a thorough review of the literature by Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson in 1977 found that our verbal reports on mental processes are often “telling more than we can know.” They conclude that we may have no direct access to higher-order mental processes of evaluation, judgment, problem solving, or the initiation of behavior. We are conscious only of the results of these processes. Asked about how we perceive or remember, we are clearly stumped, though we have all sorts of beliefs about why we behave as we do or why we have the preferences we do. Research subjects regularly deny the influence of factors affecting their behavior for which there is experimental evidence. As examples, participants who have previously heard “ocean” and “moon” paired are more likely to report “Tide” as the name of a detergent, the rightmost object in a random ordering of consumer products is favored by about a 4:1 ratio, and participants provided with a randomly chosen response give different estimates of what is “average” behavior. Subjects denied being influenced in each case. Nisbett and Wilson suggest that while people do sometimes tell more than they can know, subjects have no “privileged access.” Naive observers match participants’ reports, the source of which are a priori beliefs based on cultural rules, folk psychology, empirical covariation, and simple connotation. These judgments are not always wrong, but they do not come from or provide introspective access. Autobiographical knowledge, of prior idiosyncrasies or present attention, can grant more accuracy than that of an outside observer, but do not entail introspective access to mental processes. As Nisbett and Wilson put it, “It is frightening to believe that one has no more certain knowledge of the workings of one’s own mind than would an outsider with intimate knowledge of one’s history and the stimuli present at the time the cognitive processes occurred.”

Twenty-five years after Nisbett and Wilson’s seminal work, Timothy Wilson’s (2002) Strangers to Ourselves cites a plethora of accumulated evidence for the limitations and outright errors to which our introspection is prone. Nevertheless, the same research tradition has provided evidence for pervasive and quite sophisticated mental processes with which we evaluate our situations, set goals, and initiate action while we are consciously entertaining something else entirely. There is the cocktail party effect, wherein we can focus our attention on one conversation and block out everything else, but still find that interesting outside content (like the mention of one's name) will come to our attention. We learn many things with little conscious attention, including our native language, or how to get around a house in the dark. Such adaptive unconscious processes also determine very rapid emotional responses, which may initiate bodily responses prior to awareness, or give us the intuitions that we dismiss which turned out to be right all along. Wilson cites research evidence that too much introspection can cause confusion or even produce errors in judgment. In one of my favorite studies, couples involved in relationships were asked to either think about their relationship for half an hour, or think about something else, and it was the latter group who more accurately predicted the future of their relationship. For learning how you feel or what you are like, it makes more sense to pay attention to your actual behavior and to other people’s overt responses. Change may only come from a new self-narrative molding your adaptive unconscious by acting consistently with it. You become brave by acting like you are. Obviously, there is a role for self-deception in this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. We become brave not only by pretending we are, but by believing it ourselves, a kind of “proleptic” grasping of a story rarely done alone.

In whatever case, it seems we need to drop the idea that contemplative introspection is what gets us to an inner, private self. I think that how we construct and internalize a narrative for ourselves is far more interesting. If the acts we put on to fool others work primarily by fooling ourselves, it makes it very difficult to uncover a “true self.” If the true self really is just the body and its history, then what the stories we tell ourselves can do is take us away from, apart from, or even put usin opposition to, our bodies. So maybe the “true self” is not to be found in some secret, inner sanctum, but just the biography of a body. Wittgenstein said “the human body is the best picture of the human soul.” Hoc est corpus meum. We can go back to when homo sapiens lost its hair and became naked to see how we learned to construct a private self, forming self-boundaries by hiding things. We hide our bodies, but we also hide or internalize the pretend play of childhood that becomes operationalized in our minds. I remember when my elder son began this process, when he decided he didn’t want his parents to see the scenarios he was laying out with his toys; eventually he began to simply imagine them. Once accomplished, we can check ourselves against imagined counterfactuals before acting on them. We also get good at hiding things, from which any “private” self must come. How do you know the words for your own “private” emotions? You likely know them in part from when they weren’t yet hidden, but obvious from your face as a child. Only then could you learn to hide them, to turn away, to inhibit your facial expression, to act differently, to put on your poker face, wear your makeup, put on your armor. Think about your personae, and the masks you wear, when you finally lay your tired body down, feel the muscles in your face relax and realize that, even in the comfort of your own home, with intimates who know you all too well, you were still holding your face a particular way.