The Neuroscience of Privacy: From Self to Neuroself, Part 2


Continued from Part 1

Who could have resisted it?

From the womb of its infinite regress the self gave birth to four worldly powers.  Any mortal worth his salt would have sold his soul for them.  And so we did, and every one of us – even those who on the sly kept faith with God.  We drank the elixer of self-ownership, pushed God and King aside, became finally our own saviors.  With these four powers we built the modern world.

Its first power was to make us immaterial.  To have the owner own the owner – that clever regression eliminated physics from the game.  For infinite regression does not exist in nature: even matter works its way down to quarks or string, then stops.  But mathematics – which come from the realm of pure ideas – contains infinities, and the self cleverly availed itself of one.  In so doing it left the world of empiricism and became a rational Idea.  Matter became irrelevant, and we were all Platonic then.

The person was, in one fell swoop, no longer flesh and substance.  Yet neither was he religious spirit.  Our immaterial self allowed us to leave the Church, yet stay immortal.  It was the fundamental move by which we gained the secular age.

There were, of course, some drawbacks.  Some of us laugh ruefully today when the Supreme Court rules – as it has since 1819 – that corporations are persons.  It is absurd, we say; British Petroleum is not a man.  Ah, but it is a self.   For the downside of the infinite regress was its upside: that disembodied, selves were pure points of ownership.  But corporations too are this.  And so are selves.  And hence the law.  The court has merely with its most recent judgment reflected back to us our own haunting metaphysic.  The self is not a body, but an idea. 

The self’s second power was that of subjective privacy.  Here the difference between humans and corporations was maintained.  For the immaterial human self is made of a special sort of immaterial: consciousness.  An infinite regress of consciousness – an experience that only experiences itself –  this is a special case of mind.  From it nothing can escape.  And so the self did something shocking to the universal consciousness.  It converted it into a collection of black holes.  Any perception or intention experienced in a mind was, by virtue of belonging to a self, locked inside itself.  As light cannot emerge from a black hole, consciousness could not emerge out of a self.   Further, any perception gleaned from the outside world – every fleeting sensation that slips over the self’s horizon into awareness – became exclusively its own.

In a perfect analogy to a real black hole, modern philosophy of consciousness believes that subjective experience cannot escape out of the self.  It is completely private.

By this privacy the self gained an absolute border that separated it from the wider world.  If you were inside, you were the subjectivity that defined you.  If you were outside, the self was inscrutable.  Indeed, it became an unsolved philosophical problem: how can we know that there is really any consciousness in there?  The Turing Test is the closest we have come to solving this – and this is hardly close.

Privacy made us the opposite of a collective.  We became digital: a collection of pure and absolutely bounded points.  The analog world was gone; we became spheres of privacy.  The human being was no longer part of a tapestry; he became privacy as process. The self rendered the individual just that: a lonely, isolated mind.

This privacy has now infected everything.  We are wracked with confusion over how to verify the consciousness of others.  Because privacy gives selves the sole power to make claims about their inner world.  If a patient of mine says he is in pain, then goddammit, he is in pain!  It does not matter if my gut says he is milking it, or craving opiates. Subjectivity makes him the only arbiter of truth.

Simultaneously, privacy created character.  A self owned not merely what it experienced in the present, but all it had ever done in the past.  Thus the repentant murderer – calm, cooperative, crying in the courtroom – is still owns his own past acts.  They are, we say, inside his black hole and can’t come out.  Privacy allowed our pasts to haunt us in a way not seen in eras previous, in which far more leeway was granted, for where did our history belong, if not to us?

For its third and fourth powers, the infinite regress gave us our two most important political powers: Freedom and Equality.  For most of human history it had been understood that freedom and equality were in dynamic equilibrium, with increases in one leading to decreases in the other.  The self severed this connection, maximizing each, and thereby giving rise to the endless wrangling of right and left.

If the self is master of all it contains – which, through privacy, it is – then it is free.  It answers to no one; its intentions and actions must by process of elimination be its own: it must thwart determinism – which, our science says, claims the rest of all the universe.  It must have free will. Moreover, if every self is master of its realm, and none are slaves, then a hierarchy of selves is impossible. No self is more free, or less, than any other; equality becomes their only option.

Private, immaterial, equal, and free.  These four powers were harnessed to create the modern western world.  Our democracy, capitalism, political parties, free press, due process, church-state separation, system of contracts, open competition and free markets – all of these follow as conclusions from the premise of the self that owns itself.

Everybody got this.  Everyone still understands.  The self is the atom and the engine of democracy.  This is why whenever you find revolution you will find selves behind it, not the proletariat or some other group.  For only selves catch wind of usurpation and, with full moral authority, rebut: no, that property is private.

My me is only mine.

Continue to Part 3

3 thoughts on “The Neuroscience of Privacy: From Self to Neuroself, Part 2

  1. Dr. Peter,

    Greatly enjoying your poetic send-up of the metaphysical hoax of the Self and it’s rule over the Western world! It is a bit like reading Hunter S. Thompson if he had been a psychiatrist. The cult of the self has moved beyond the age of narcissism, as so well described by Christopher Lasch, into the age of psychopathy as the obsessive struggle to be a “powerful” self with high social status versus a lowly, unimportant self has become so polarized that functional psychopathy is an increasingly attractive path to take.

  2. Ha! That’s awesome! Is it just me, or are there catiern albums that hit the spot when mowing the lawn? I think back to the summer of 1994, listening to Joe Satriani’s The Extremist for an entire summer spent mowing lawns. I never cared for the album much unless the roar of the Ariens was to be heard through the muffle of my headphones. The past few summers The Black Crowes’ By Your Side has been my album of choice. We should start a blog that reviews lawn-mowing music, Jeremy.

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About Peter Freed, M.D.

I am a psychiatrist (psychopharmacology and psychotherapy) specializing in the so-called "personality disorders," particularly narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. I was a Fellow and then an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia from 2004- 2011. I am currently in private practice in NYC.