Who are we?
Do we live by our values or our inner, often baser nature?
Dr. Joshua Knobe explores what forms personal identity in the lastest article of the recently resurrected New York Times philosophical column “The Stone,” entitled “In Search of the True Self.”
Knobe says that the philosophical tradition has held that a person’s identity comes out when the individual pauses to reflect on core inner values. In contrast, the general population is drawn to theories of Freud and evolutionary claims to animal origins, which state that “the true self . . . lies precisely in our suppressed urges and unacknowledged emotions, while our ability to reflect is just a hindrance that gets in the way of this true self’s expression. To find a moment when a person’s true self comes out . . . one needs to look at the times when people are so drunk or overcome by passion that they are unable to suppress what is deep within them.”
But Knobe says the human psyche is much more complex: “People’s ordinary understanding of the true self appears to involve a kind of value judgment, a judgment about what sorts of lives are really worth living.”
A study done on more than 200 people seemed to demonstrate that there was “a systematic connection between people’s own values and their judgments about the true self. Conservative participants were more inclined to say that the person’s true self had emerged on the conservative items, while liberals were more inclined to say that the person’s true self had emerged on the liberal items.”
From these results Knobe postulates that one’s perception of identity arises from a certain part of the brain.
But if our understanding of ourselves is based on a value judgment about a worthwhile life, our perception of the worthwhile life is subject to the society and culture in which we grow up. More specifically, our family, friends, and teachers directly shape our lives and model what worthwhile lives should be like. As children we are imitators, and our values are instilled in us by our parents and teachers. Some of these values may change as we mature and are exposed to different teachers and environments, but childhood experiences impact us forever.
Read Knobe’s article here.