Tuesday, September 7, 2010

the self as sin

The self is one of the great paradoxes of human evolution. Like the fire stolen by Prometheus, it made us powerful but exacted a cost. In The Curse of the Self, the social psychologist Mark Leary points out that many other animals can think, but none, so far as we know, spend much time thinking about themselves. Only a few other primates (and perhaps dolphins) can even learn that the image in a mirror belongs to them. Only a creature with language ability has the mental apparatus to focus attention on the self, to think about the self's invisible attributes and long term goals, to create a narrative about that self, and then to react emotionally to thoughts about that narrative. Leary suggests that this ability to create a self gave our ancestors many useful skills, such as long-term planning, conscious decision making and self-control, and the ability to see other people's perspectives. Because these skills are all important for enabling human beings to work closely together on large projects, the development of the self may have been crucial to the development of human ultrasociality. But by giving each one of us an inner world, a world full of simulations, social comparisons, and reputational concerns, the self also gave each one of us a personal tormenter. We all now live amid a whirlpool of inner chatter, much of which is negative (threats loom larger than opportunities), and most of which is useless. It is important to note that the self is not exactly the rider—much of the self is unconscious and automatic—but because the self emerges from conscious verbal thinking and storytelling, it can be constructed only by the rider.

Leary's analysis shows why the self is a problem for all major religions: The self is the main obstacle to spiritual advancement, in three ways. First, the constant stream of trivial concerns and egocentric thoughts keeps people locked in the material and profane world, unable to perceive sacredness and divinity This is why Eastern religions rely heavily on meditation, an effective means of quieting the chatter of the self. Second, spiritual transformation is essentially the transformation of the self, weakening it, pruning it back—in some sense, killing it—and often the self objects. Give up my possessions and the prestige they bring? No way! Love my enemies, after what they did to me? Forget about it. And third, following a spiritual path is invariably hard work, requiring years of meditation, prayer, self-control, and sometimes self-denial. The self does not like to be denied, and it is adept at finding reasons to bend the rules or cheat. Many religions teach that egoistic attachments to pleasure and reputation are constant temptations to leave the path of virtue. In a sense, the self is Satan, or, at least, Satan's portal. For all these reasons, the self is a problem for the ethic of divinity. The big greedy self is like a brick holding down the soul.

- Johnathan Haidt

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