Saturday, August 2, 2008

The mystery of ourselves, or, who is the storyteller?

Virginia Woolf, 1902

This morning I had get up and spend some time at work. On my drive home I was indulging in one my favorite pastimes, listening to NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, with Scott Simon. Apart from hearing a segment on Brigham Young's nineteenth wife, I heard a story that made me wonder, not just in the sense of being curious, that too, but in the same way as the encounter that becomes an event causes me wonder, which is to face the Mystery. The story, called Virginia Woolf, At the Intersection of Science and Art, is about a chapter in a book by Jonah Lehrer. The book is Proust Was a Neuroscientist, the chapter is "Virginia Woolf: The Emergent Self" (an excerpt of which you can read here).

Questions surrounding personal identity, like, are we the same person through time? If so, how is that accomplished, especially given that every seven years or so our bodies are comprised of completely different matter, are the stuff of contemporary philosophical metaphysics that spill over into epistemology, which investigates the possibility and ways in which human beings know, seeking to articulate, to give an accurate account of human knowledge, what counts as knowledge, etc. In analytical schools of philosophy the working definition of knowledge is a justified, true, belief.

The thing that becomes immediately evident from such an account is that one can believe anything and truth, even about facts, due to the advancement that results from human inquiry and the different angles from which things can be viewed, is too daunting. So, the thinking goes, we focus on justifying beliefs on the basis of facts and our experience of reality. In other words, to give a coherent account of our experience, which accounts lead to something like inter-subjectivity instead of ham-fisted objective truth in the realist sense. Now, do not get hung up on this account, it is far too simplistic to mint any philosophical coinage, but it can serve as an acceptable point-of-departure. It is also important to note that by rejecting what I call a ham-fisted realist account of truth, I am not showing my hand as an idealist á la Bishop Berkeley. It means I don't find correspondence theory descriptive enough and opt for a phenomenological approach to questions of truth and the world, à la Maurice Merleau-Ponty, et. al. I mentioned epistemology recently in regard to leading Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga's epistemological method of warrant in my post The on-going need for natural theology.

Back to the piece by Robert Krulwich, which is well-done and in which he masterfully intersperses commentary, dramatic readings from Woolf's novel, Mrs. Dalloway, with remarks by Lehrer himself. The central question, which Krulwich asks, is "How can my mind be such chaos and still produce a coherent me?" Lehrer answers, " That's the mystery," only to go on to say, "There is no single cell in the brain that is you," that, on investigation into the brain, "There is no there, there". What is mistaken about this fascinating story is that is assumes that personhood, our identity can be located in the brain. This kind of reductionism, despite the best efforts by scientists and philosophers over several decades now, yield no satisfying results. It is kind of like trying to scientifically determine why the Big Bang occurred. While this is not a direct analogy, the questions are of the same species. The important point is that science is not equipped to answer what are properly metaphysical questions. Of course, there is no problem trying because the more we learn the better off we are and the better we are able to understand ourselves. It also helps pose better scientific and better philosophical questions, the latter assist the former in the advancement of medicine.

My hearing this story follows closely on the heels of yesterday's reading of John Waters' piece, in which he correctly states: "We know in the deepest part of our hearts that we cannot be redeemed by science or ideology". This is only true because the mystery of the human person cannot be reduced to a scientific discovery or an ideological position. Nonetheless, the late modern world in which we live relentlessly tries, often in tandem (i.e., science and ideology working together) to accomplish such a reduction. This happens to the point that many so-called scientific and political theorists act as though it were true. Hence, the default position of Western society, as the Holy Father has observed, especially in his public dialogues, while still a cardinal, with the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, has changed from living and thinking as if God exists to the opposite position. The supposed objectivity of living as if God does not exist is not objective, or neutral because, as Pascal sought to show, there can be no neutrality on this question.

It is the question of truth that Pope Benedict took up in his lecture, which he was to give at Rome's La Sapienza University, in which he observes:

"The danger for the western world – to speak only of this – is that today, precisely because of the greatness of his knowledge and power, man will fail to face up to the question of the truth."

René Descartes
To live as if God does not exist is the triumph of Descartes' method of doubt, which, it is alleged, laid the groundwork for modern science. This cannot be true due to the fact that people engaged in science do so with the implicit faith that their experiments will yield information, that is, facts about reality. According to the classic scientific method, which is as much an over simplification as my analytical account of knowledge, a hypothesis is generated and then tested. The results of the test (i.e., the experiment) either confirm the hypothesis, disprove the hypothesis, or are inconclusive. If successful, the results can be critiqued through peer review and replicated by others who follow the method of the experiment exactly. What also gives lie to the alleged objectivity of such a view is that there are no such things as neutral facts. True, a fact is a fact. For example, under the circumstances that normally adhere in the earth's atmosphere, in your living room, say, when you release an object, like a book containing Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy, it will fall to the floor one hundred out of one hundred times, unless your living room is somehow transformed into a zero-gravity chamber. This is a fact. What to make of that fact, especially how it flows from and leads to other facts? We call the weaving together of facts in order form a coherent picture of reality, which picture we use to draw conclusions, interpretation. Interpretation is never neutral. It cannot be neutral because most often assumptions must be made, that is, premises, the truthfulness of which have not been proven, must be introduced. Also, in most instances, certain gaps in knowledge, the facts about which are not known, have to be filled. This is certainly true in both elementary symbolic logic and in modal logic.

One certain way that we realize our identity is expressed well by Lehrer, which view he has arrived by studying the writings of authors who focus, like Proust and Woolf, almost solipsistically on the interior consciousness of their characters, is "that the mind works a bit like a novelist . . . we're constantly telling a narrative about ourself to ourself". Since there is no precise location in the brain that can be identified as the novelist, the question, the one that Krulwich asks, becomes "who's the storyteller?". To which Lehrer, again replies, "That's the mystery".

This is where this touches, not just on spirituality, but on theology, the object of which (who turns out to be a subject) is ultimate reality. So, is our narrative true, does it give a coherent account of the facts? What count as facts? How does my account of my experience of reality jive, or not, with that of others? Does my encounter, that is, an event that leads me to wonder count as a fact about my life? Well, it has decisively changed my life. It has helped me be more honest about my past as well as my present engagement with reality. Finally, it is a part of my narrative, which, by means of this encounter, becomes part of God's story, the story of the world, of its redemption and sanctification.


  1. I have enough trouble keeping up with reading your blog entries. How do you write so many serious blog entires so often!

  2. I will be slowing down soon. I am always reading, listening, thinking, and engaging. If I am not blogging, I am taking notes and musing. So, it isn't all that much more time-consuming.

    I am not really sure what I expect of readers. Sadly, I haven't given that a lot of thought. I suppose I just invite people to read and take from it what they will and that it will deepen their thinking.


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