Monday, April 4, 2011

Defending the Tram

In re David Brooks new book, The Social Animal, the issue is not really about the conscious or the unconscious mind, and which predominates, but ultimately about the presence or the absence of a genuine agent who may be held responsible.

One reviewer (Will Wilkinson in Forbes) quotes Brooks summarizing the thrust of his book. It is “the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connection over individual choice, character over IQ, … and the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self.” These are supposed to be (and no doubt they are), the revolutionary discoveries of modern psychology and brain science.

I note here the incoherence of this characterization, so prevalent everywhere these days. If we have multiple selves, who has the emotions? How do we define the character (singular) of multiple selves (plural). I know, I know. We also speak about public opinion, as if it were something tangible, the national interest, as if there was a concrete something actually capable of having an interest. But now we find it projected backwards into the individual who, on close inspection, turns out to be a crowd.

If someone hired me to defend this characterization on rational grounds, I’d want to be paid in advance—because my chief argument would be, “Well, I don’t mean that precisely, but you know what I mean.” I would, in other words, appeal to a presumed understanding in my public that modern science denies the actual presence of a soul, an individual, an agency because science can’t decant it, hold the glass beaker up to the light, and then, pointing, say: “There it is! Can you see it? It’s swirling in there.”

The presumption here is that belief in an actual conscious person capable of genuine choice is a “traditional” belief, meaning old, pre-scientific. Also obsolete, hoary, dated, primitive. Therefore the discovery that we are a more or less cohering, continuous, but ever-changing phenomenon—but inhabited by a multiplicity of selves generated by the phenomenon—is “revolutionary.” But if we really are this phenomenon, then there isn’t really anyone there to notice that a discovery has been made. The “revolutionary” modern theory may be rendered as a street-car line in which the real objects are the power lines and the car that runs on rails. The passengers who come and go, our multiple selves, are not really what it’s all about. The revolutionary theory is about as easy to defend as this description of a streetcar line.

(If youre inclined to read more on a single soul or many (my take, that is), I suggest this post on Borderzone. And here a post, also on BZ, on the actual interactions between understanding and intellect. Understanding is a feeling, isnt it? A feeling is an emotion. Are there different kinds? Do they mean the same thing?)


  1. I am in a hurry, and I shall look further into this, but it sounds suspiciously like a reasoned justification for our time of madness.

    I like your metaphor of the tramway. The exclusion of the passengers renders a tram just a happenstance in the universe with no goal or motive or telos.
    If, for example, the trams were to average three fatalities per day, the only things we could complain about is faulty design; we'll do it better next time and get that average down to 1 death per day.

    Very rich ideas here.....

  2. I love this line in the post particularly:

    "But now we find it projected backwards into the individual who, on close inspection, turns out to be a crowd."