Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Self, Identity and Free Will

Self and Identity have great relevance when we think of ourselves in terms of our political and social identities and their implications. We consciously or unconsciously, adapt to our given identity at various stages of self-development. Self-development can be conceptualized in a variety of ways depending upon which developmental psychologist you refer to i.e. from pre-conventional to conventional to post-conventional (Lawrence Kohlberg), or from egocentric to ethnocentric to world-centric (Jane Loevinger), or from mythic to rational to pluralistic (Gene Gebser) etc. Identity or perhaps more accurately, our current stage of development, influences us in our everyday life choices--choices that can range from mundane to momentous, from love to hate, from peace to war. For instance, religious, national and ethnic identities have been and continue to be major factors behind choices which lead to conflict and violence. But our choices may seem to us as if they were based on reason and “free will” rather than some unconscious or rationalized aspect of our identity. Since identity we are born into is a chance of birth, and every choice we make has a predominant unconscious dimension to it, how can we be sure that our choices are rational and optimal? Murathan Mungan, contemporary Turkish poet asserts that "all types of identities--ethnic, national, religious, sexual--or whatever else, can become your prison after a while. The identity that you stand up for can enslave you and close you to the rest of the world." Do you agree?

8 comments:

Nomi said...

The idea of self development can be further elaborated and integrated. As we look at infants at birth, they have not yet been socialized into the culture’s ethics and conventions. This is called the preconventional stage. It is also called egocentric, in that the infant’s awareness is largely self-absorbed. But as young children begin to learn their culture’s rules and norms, they grow into the conventional stage of morals. This stage is also called ethnocentric, in that it centers on the child’s particular group, tribe, clan, or nation, and it therefore tends to exclude care and concern for those not of one’s group. But at the next major stage of moral development, the postconventional stage, the individual’s identity expands once again, this time to include a care and concern for all peoples, regardless of race, color, sex, or creed, which is why this stage is also called worldcentric. Thus, moral development tends to move from “me” (pre-conventional, egocentric) to “us” (conventional, ethnocentric) to “all of us” (post-conventional, worldcentric).

Anonymous said...

Groups have a self and identity too based on where they are in certain areas of development.
The "mythic" level of development can be observed in prehistoric tribes. What applies to stages of development in individuals may also apply to stages of development in groups. There are so many different personality theories which describe the notion of self but I wonder if groups can be described in the same way?

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think that you are enslaved by identities that you do not even know that you have or even counsciously identify with. People pigeon-hole you with an identity by you age, appearance or ethnic group without even trying to see if your actions and thoughts fit into this label.

Anonymous said...

You are so right. Perception is reality, for the most part. But if perception is based on an "undiscovered ethnic unconscious" it is bound to be biased. Some perceptions, especially in the political arena, are charged with strong emotions. Cognitive science, relevant to self and identity, suggests that arousal and expereince of emotion are determined by cognitive appraisal of a situation or a person. Appraisal refers to a rapid preconscious cognitive process in which the situation or a person are evaluated in terms of the stereotypes or their "surface features," which are governed by the relation of the situation/person to personal unconscious beliefs or expectations. Appraisal, in turn, determines the nature and intensity of the emotion in that situation.

It also reminds me of Mark Twain's observation that "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

The reason parochial propaganda is so successful across nations is that one is enslaved by one's identity so unconsciously that it requires great honesty, patience, self-awareness and insight to undo its negative influences especially when it comes to politics of war and peace. Hermann Goering said something quite true in this regard: "Naturally the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

Einstein was right: "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."

And Dalai Lama said it all: "I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. Each of us must learn to work not just for oneself, one's own family or nation, but for the benefit of all humankind. Universal responsibility is the key to human survival. It is the best foundation for world peace."

Anonymous said...

Modern science is showing that the kind of self one possesses has a lot to do with physical and chemical aspects of one's brain. The nature of genes and quantities of neurotransmitters at work determine the kind of self one carries around.

Nomi said...

Although inherited tendencies contribute immensely to the nature of self, they are not set in stone. We all know that people change if environmental factors become strong. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, in his book "Changing Minds" suggests seven levers of change: 1. Reason 2. Research 3. Resonance 4. Representational Rediscriptions 5. Resources and Rewards 6. Real World Events 7. Resistances.

But usually "self" does not change overnight. It happens in gradual stages provided one is open to new learning and experiences. I guess one cannot move from egocentric to worldcentric (cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally) with the sheer force of "free will." In Gardner's terms, some "representational redescriptions" may effect such a change. But what one chooses to read and learn is a question worth pondering about. Does one read only those books which one knows in advance will offer no unwelcome thoughts? The same applies to watching and listening. One can select all of one's sources of stimuli and input, books and friends, carefully (and perhaps unconsciously) such that an alien upsetting suggestion will simply never be heard or read or experienced. One's identity is a major factor in this regard. Otherwise why would there be so much uniformity within cultures/sub-cultures? But human literary and philosophical heritage is not without thoughts of great worldcentric thinkers, who were true citizens of the world. The works of Bertrand Russell and Baruch Spinoza, Albert Schweitzer and Albert Einstein, Teilhard de Chardin and Meister Eckhart, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, Martin Buber and Erich Fromm, Simon de Beauvoir and Maya Angelou, Mahatma Gandhi and Jiddu Krishnamurti, Ibn-e-Arabi and Jalauddin Rumi, among many others, are treasures of worldcentric humanistic thinking.

Anonymous said...

"I guess one cannot move from egocentric to worldcentric (cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally) with the sheer force of "free will." In Gardner's terms, some "representational redescriptions" may effect such a change."

I think "representational redescriptions" alone cannot effect desired change. They are neccessary but not sufficient. There is need for positive reinforcements if certain ideas have to become belief. Once they become part of one's belief system, they can influence behavior. Since different cultures or sub-cultures through all sorts of texts, institutions and dissemination processes, choose to reinforce specific beliefs depending upon their particular politics, history, custom, tradition, religion etc., it is responsibility of every individual to learn to think critically and humanistically, and know the difference between truth and propaganda. An unexamined life is not worth living indeed.

Anonymous said...

When you simply notice something, you are aligned with your real Self, or Essence. This Self is sometimes called Awareness. You are the awareness that is aware of, or notices, everything, including thoughts. You are not your thoughts or the thinker; your thoughts and the sense that you are the thinker is the egoic, or false, self.