Assembling ourselves II


Theres a game I play with my two daughters, which doesn't have a name, but involves one or two or all three of us competing in who can tell the most preposterous lie. A session might start soon after watching a "Lord Of The Rings" video, for instance and go something like this:

"You know those Lord of the Rings films? You might have seen them mentioned in the news? Well, I made those. Wrote, produced, directed. I starred in them too. All the major parts are actually me. It's a triumph of make up and special effects. I did that too. And all the sets and costumes."

"Oh really? Well, I was having lunch with Peter Jackson just the day before yesterday, and he had quite a different story about who made them."

"Well of course he would. Pete and I had a wee chat some time ago about what he should say to you if you ever asked. How's Fran and the kids by the way? I haven't seen them in weeks...."

I guess for a lawyer, an actress and a clergyman, these sessions should not be regarded so much as games but as professional development. The aim of the exercise is for the liar to maintain consistency and congruence in the story, and for the skeptics to destroy them. The liar always wins. This is because the first of the elements of a good lie, consistency, is reasonably easy to maintain if your imagination is big enough. Maintaining congruence is just a matter of rationalising your story against whatever evidence is presented to counter it and again, this is simply a matter of imagination and verbal dexterity - qualities that none of the participants are short of.

Consistency and congruence are the hallmarks not just of a good lie but of all forms of narrative, including the narrative required to maintain a robust sense of self.

Consistency relates to the internal structure of a story: it must hold together, have pattern and direction and not have parts of itself which are mutually contradictory. We make the fiction of our self consistent by employing the usual mental tricks: reshaping or even complete fabrication of memories, and by careful selection, polishing, forgetting, augmenting, diminishing or recasting of our thoughts, feelings and experiences. Our ability to form a consistent sense of self depends on our ability to impose a narrative pattern on the experiences of our lives.

Congruency is the extent to which our story fits with the "real" world. We must remember that we never actually encounter the real world, but rather a ghostly image of it constructed by our minds working on the data conveyed to it by our senses. Our senses are very imperfect and our minds - the bit doing the filtering, judging and assembling of data - are a part of our self: ie the very thing that is being constructed. This is why "we see the world not as it is but as we are." Nevertheless, despite the fact that we are not actually in touch with it, there is a reality there somewhere, of which we are part and with which we interact; a reality which gives rise to our sense phenomena, and the senses for receiving them and the mind for interpreting them. Our sense of self, although it can only ever approximate this reality, must never actually contradict it, if our self is to be robust enough to enable us to live successfully with reality and with other consciousnesses. I guess madness is a term applied to those senses of self which, while they are perfectly consistent, are not congruent.

Congruence is maintained through the feedback we receive. There are two sources of feedback. One is our ongoing experience of reality, whatever that might be, mediated to us at long distance through the remote control of our senses.
[ note: There is an issue that this reality may itself be a construction of our consciousness, but I won't get into that, or the interesting implications of that here. At least, not today. I mean by 'ongoing experience of reality' the commonly agreed sense of what is real- the communal fiction - which enables people to exist together. ]
The other source of feedback is people. People react to us and say things to us. The reactions of people are perhaps the key factors in forming our sense of self. We see ourselves primarily as we are reflected back in the interactions we have with those around us. This is what I meant yesterday when saying that our sense of self is socially formed. The implications of this are huge, and I will speak more of them later.

Comments

Anonymous said…
The intriguing thing is that the most outrageous lie of all is what we think of as reality - but the lie has been going on for so long and been so well groomed that few people even question it anymore. The King is dead - Long Live The King.
daniel said…
Kelvin, have you read or studied the six consciousness from the Abhidharma?
It deals with much of this, including how perception happens in a way that is largely consistent with modern science.

Asanga's Chittamatra (Mind Only) school further extends this to eight, expanding the mind consciousness into three to explain for formation of realtiy from mind.
VenDr said…
I know the basics of this Daniel but it would be exaggerating to say I have studied it. Francisco Varela gives a very good outline in The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience although he works from the "other side" that is he is a cognitive scientist, who looks at the Buddhist paradigm as a structure consistent with what he has disciovered in the laboratory.
Janice said…
Kelvin, your girls are lovely - but who, O Guru, is that handsome devil in the middle? :-)
VenDr said…
A close relative. Someone I sometimes think I hardly know at all.
Janice said…
Really? He looks a lot like James Bond to me! If the following is true, methinks you know him better than you think!

"the other source of feedback is people. People react to us and say things to us. The reactions of people are perhaps the key factors in forming our sense of self. We see ourselves primarily as we are reflected back in the interactions we have with those around us."
Anonymous said…
Again, Bonhoeffer says some penetrating things on this in 'Life Together', how an unchosen (by us but not by God) community acts in shaping us. Looking at the news (and myself), I wonder how many pastoral tragedies would have been averted by true openness to each other and to God and wise accountability to each other, so that inflated egos could be deflated or double lives called more into line.
Purity of heart is to will one thing, said the sage of Old Zealand; and is not a saint someone who truly cares not a whit what anyone but God thinks of him or her? I am so far from that! But I would add to the 'social construction of selfhood' (which is certainly true) God's own making and (remaking) of us.
What lovely girls! Evidently take after their ... mother!
VenDr said…
Thank you so much for your pointer to Bonhoeffer. There is a sense that all this stuff is new to me - I have known it for some time, of course, but not KNOWN it and one of the pressing issues for me right now is finding the connections with the Gospel. I can find any amount of secular stuff on the social construct of reality, and this is basic bread and butter to a Buddhist, but it's not readily visible in much Christian thought. There is nothing new under the sun and I knew there must be someone who has been there, done that, but I never thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Thank you.

Yes my beautiful girls get their looks and their height and their slim figures from their beautiful mother. My son too for that matter. But as I frequently tell them, I have other treasures to bequeath them: migraine, gout, bad knees .... ahhh so much to look forward to!
Anonymous said…
Only kiddin' 'bout the girls, Kelvin! My own daughter gets her lovely face and outstanding musical talent from her mother, while from me - well, let's not talk about the state of her room.
The reference to Bonhoeffer is really an exhortation to myself - I read some of this stuff many years ago and now I need to go back to it myself. I sometimes think only the Orthodox and Pentecostalists understand Easter and only the Lutherans understand the Cross!
VenDr said…
I thought I had Life Together lying around somewhere, but no. It's the sort of thing that turns up in parish fairs but I can't wait until November, and it's not to be found in any of Dunedin's second hand book shops (I looked) But I found it still in print and ordered it.