I’ve seen several bloggers link, approvingly, to some of David Brooks’ recent columns on psychology and neuroscience, and I’ll join them. I think this conversation couldn’t be more fascinating, mostly because it’s a new one. This isn’t just a nice scientific tux to dress up old (“eternal”) ideas; some of these new notions about how the brain works (or, often, how it doesn’t work) are truly new.
And some of them are truly challenging. What if consciousness isn’t the pilot but rather the spin doctor, coming up with stories to explain your actions only after other, subtler faculties have already committed you to them? Consciousness as giant retcon.
What if there’s not one Robin—expressed in lots of interesting ways, of course—but instead a whole committee, always arguing over whether to actually write something or just post a snazzy image? As Paul Bloom puts it, by way of Brooks, maybe our many selves “are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control—bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.”
I always think of that claim—who made it? Harold Bloom?—that Shakespeare literally invented modern Western consciousness. The revolution that was Shakespeare’s characterization provided a template that was so seductive, so viral, that it ultimately—after influencing and infecting lots of other writers—became one of the very foundations of our common sense about consciousness, identity, will, and everything else. (I’m probably mangling Bloom’s idea. Oh well: It’s my mangled version that I find so compelling.)
That’s totally magical, but it’s also totally arbitrary. So maybe it’s time for another sea change (Shakespeare!) in the way we think about ourselves. It doesn’t take much to make a big difference; these are the axioms we build our lives around, so if you change one just a little bit, the ripple effects are massive.
In any case, I’m glad a big-time columnist is bringing these ideas to center stage. I do wish there was a forum that was slightly more technical; I don’t want to read the journals, or even anything close to them, really, but I would like to go beyond the too-clean op-ed metaphors that Brooks is bound to by necessity.