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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, June 20, 2011

Joshua Knobe on the "true self"

This is a fascinating article over in the NYT. First, a H/T to Ophelia Benson. I want to say more about the article, but for the moment I just want to bookmark it and maybe encourage some preliminary discussion. Personally, I doubt that there is such a thing as the "true self" in the sense meant. There are only questions about what we most want when we really think about it. That may suggest that I favour the philosophers' answer discussed by Knobe, but I don't think it's quite that simple. There may also be some merit in the other answer that he discusses. But these answers are not answers about a "true self", implying that there is something false about other aspects of us: they are answers about what we really most want - and even a lot of reflection can leave us confused or deceived about that.


Brian said...

I recommend reading Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad on the subject, but one mustn't stop before chapter 8. I'd rather not discuss the content further, as it is extremely vulnerable to spoilers.

Russell Blackford said...

To the destructive element submit yourself.

DEEN said...

I find the choice of example interesting: is a gay Christian true to himself when following his sexual desire, or when following his religion? It's an interesting question.

But if you bring this case up as an example, I think you really need to consider the social pressures such a person would be under. Joshua Knobe doesn't do that here at all, though. If he had, you'd quickly discover the enormous social pressures that are put on the people in these communities to conform to Christian teaching, while there is very little (if any) pressure to become gay. Wouldn't it then be the default assumption that his gay tendencies come from within, and the anti-gay tendencies come from without?

Never mind that I don't think the anti-gay position counts as a deeply thought out intellectual position to begin with. Nor do most people's religious beliefs, as far as I'm concerned.

Tony Newell said...

I’ve long wondered if this notion of “true self,” which in my experience seems especially appealing to a certain breed of the irreligious (but certainly not exclusive to them),isn’t anything more than a substitute for the concept of the soul. There seem to be many a folk who despise the irrationality of the soul mechanism—I suppose because of the religious associations it entails—yet absolutely lap up the idea that there is some kind of pure, quintessential self trapped inside their personal shells of conflict and imperfection. They appear to regard strife, confusion, and vexing ambivalence as something too imperfect for themselves, and, therefore, something that should be exempted from their genuine identities.

Certainly, we can do without the false choice and accept that Pierpont’s true self is, in fact, homosexual, self-loathing, and confused. And, certainly, those who’ve gone so far as to reject the irrationality of religious abstractions that provide for the perfect and eternal soul can also bring themselves to reject this unnecessarily complex and wistful take on identity.

David M said...

I've been meaning to get back to that article. I've only read the excerpts Ophelia put up.

I certainly think there's something to what he's saying, at least the stuff about what the folk percieve. Will read the article this morning.

David M said...

"I’ve . . . just finished reading the NYT article about the “true self,” and it’s struck me that there’s something going on in the thinking of some that seems to lead to the easy conflation of religious identity with other more intrinsic traits. (Ghah, so many problematic terms, so little time!)

I question the comparison of homosexuality and religion in Knobe’s article. My gut feeling, and I don’t think I’m totally off base here, as far as data goes either, is that sexual preference is very much not a choice in the same sense as religion. The waters are muddied by the lived experience of religion for many, if you’re born into a religion, surrounded by a religion, and by believers, then I understand the idea that it’s going to be very much part of your identity, and not easy to let go of, but religion is still a set of ideas, and dogma and beliefs. I know there’s data suggesting that we may be hard wired for, if not God belief, then at least applying agency to freakin everything, but I don’t know that it’s fair to suggest that that’s in the same league as the biological facts about sexual preference.

Am I missing something obvious here? It seems uncontroversial to me that sexual preference, like gender and race is clearly a different thing to religious belief. There is certainly some grey area, and some overlapping on the spectrum, but still."

Shamelessly quoting myself from B&W to save typing it all again.

Tony Newell said...

Russell, many thanks for the kind acknowledgment.