Honestly, I thought I was done with tearing down scaffolding with last week’s post. It isn’t really that much fun to undermine core beliefs of how you view the world and yourself, and admittedly it’s pretty boring to read about it for others. Ha, maybe I should describe it as a wrecking ball, as that is much more fun to watch and honestly, that’s kind of what it feels like too.
For the past week, I’ve been making a concerted effort to rid myself of some unwanted thought patterns that keep popping into my head – do a bit of rewiring that is. One pattern is a reaction to challenging situations, another is a time consuming habit of mine that I just simply… well, want to take a wrecking ball too.
And once the wrecking ball came out, I began to naturally question, am I defined by my thoughts? and if not by thoughts, then by what? In the end, I have part two of last week’s Modicum.
Rewiring the Brain
So first – the rewiring. To help me get some discipline, I picked up Jeffrey Schwartz’ classic book on rewiring “The Mind and the Brain” and its more self-help follow up “You Are Not Your Brain“. In these works, the author explores Hebb’s Law and the Turing Paradox and derives on a model for rewiring the brain via what he calls self-directed neuroplasticity.
In it, the author rejects materialism and accepts the division of the mind and the brain. Furthermore, the mind can govern the brain and give it a few slaps when it is misbehaving – or even redirect it like a child that keeps making the same mistake over and over (like children that constantly interrupt, oh dear child of mine). Of course, he gives a four step process on how to rewire the brain.
In the book, Schwartz repeatedly says “you are not your thoughts; they do not define you”. This obviously aids in the purpose of the book, as it allows you to take thoughts as being external and thus, can be rejected. Typical “mindfulness” speak.
This is an easy pill to swallow – or so I thought – because I just spent last week listing all the ways that the Inner Voice (the front stage actor for thoughts) was really a side role, a farce, an actor and not a real thing, and a evolutionary leftover distraction for the mind. The idea I can’t trust the voice – nor be defined by it – seemed an easy step along the lines of dismissing thought.
But What is Left?
OK – so that’s the background. But what if you reject mind-body dualism (pretty obvious by evidence, no?)? If you insist that your thoughts are either external or simply non-representative of yourself, then … well, what is left that constitutes you?
If I am not my thoughts, then what am I?
Well, the obvious retort is that you are defined by your actions, and not your thoughts. Great self-help material there, but it doesn’t do so well for a scientific philosophy. Action cannot occur without something external that is acted upon or through. The perception of who you are – sure, but that self identity, surely it exists without action, beyond the sensory deprived hole of the Cogito?
The other obvious retort is to embrace dualism. The mind is separate and the dominoes fall for the soul, and grace, and God to come marching on to the stage. Yeah, that’s not going to happen for me.
And for the record, I do not distinguish between feelings and thoughts – although that Bayesian Estimator I call intuition can make a possible case for being separate. More on this in a moment.
Nothing else comes to me as to what can hold or embody identity if not our brain or our thoughts. So… check your premises time again.
Really, Our Thoughts DON’T Define Us?
So the premise is – I am not defined by my thoughts. But is that true? Isn’t thoughts the muscles and skeletal structure of my identity?
Well yeah.. my thoughts are the essence of my understanding of self with all its pride and ego. Heck, I am pursuing this very modicum of thought exercise simply because I want to strengthen that core definition of who I am.
If you remove thoughts as the basis for identity, then you have to look at what is left over after removing the Inner Voice. There should be a lot there – because I keep saying the Inner Voice is just a background thread consuming 2% of the brain utilization. But, it feels like I’m left with just that Bayesian Estimator.
But that is still overestimating identity. The programming of this Estimator is consistent across all humans, so really my identity is just the numerical weightings of probabilities inside the estimator – the knobs and levers on the outside of the machine. I only appear unique simply because there are so many variations in weightings possible – so many knobs and levers. Damn, that sounds pretty disheartening – even for someone who is fully embraced into the secular, biological, and arguably deterministic view of life and being. I thought at least the machine itself could be uniquely mine.
OK, but it’s got to be more than that. Can original ideas pop out of a Bayesian estimator? Surely, there is a role for thoughts, and not just instinctual weighing of probability estimates.
Surely, my pride can have just a little bit of thought? With that image of George Washington crossing the Delaware, I’m reminded that I’ve already gone down that road.
So… knobs and controls it is.
Back to Where I Started
And so, back to the top of the circle. I am back into the pickle of confronting thoughts that I reject that I struggle to control. All of the above dramatically lessens the ability to reject thoughts, as they are not external. They are bubbling side effects – either a part of me that can define me and I can still be bold and Henley like, or external to me, but I’ve been reduced to mere knobs as a result.
This circuitous thought won’t go away anymore than the negative thoughts to be rewired.
Ultimately, the key (and admittedly one endorsed by the author) is to not reject the thoughts, rather embrace them as valid – albeit faulty and uncontrollable. Then reassert other thoughts that you rationally embrace more strongly to overrule – or over dominate.
OK, compromise it is.
How dare I forget?
Do I contradict myself?Whitman
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
And so in Whitman, I cuddle back up into comfort. Sure, I am defined by my thoughts. Thoughts are messy things, and can go on for pages – like Whitman – describing all the ways and contradictions that they can contain. And so being, like Whitman, the self can be celebrated and embraced. Bring it all in, identity is bold and contains multitudes, even if farcical.
Apply ribbon and bow, and all is tidy again for day to day life.