I was contemplating the mysteries of life while lying in a hammock in the relaxing Indiana backyard of my wife Caryn’s family home when an answer I’d been seeking suddenly came to me.
As you know if you’ve been reading these Philosophy Weekend posts, I’ve been trying to put together a couple of puzzle pieces. First, a question I’ve asked repeatedly: what is the relationship of desire to our sense of self? Second, the most central question we’ve been debating since the inception of this blog series: to what extent does a group self, or a shared self, or a collective self, exist in everyday human life, and what does it mean to speak of a group self or collective self?
What suddenly occurred to me, as I lay on this hammock during the cooling early twilight hours of a stunningly hot summer day that kept us all indoors until the sun went down, is that these two separate puzzle pieces fit together. In fact, they fit together so well that I must have subconsciously understood the connection all along, even though I didn’t realize it consciously.
What I now see is a formula (or, if you prefer, an argument) that answers my second question by answering the first. Here, in the simplest words I can manage, is the formula. Please note that I do not claim to have an absolute proof for either of the two premises numbered 1. and 2. below. It is up to each reader to weigh whether or not each premise is possible, plausible and compelling. I do believe that the two premises together form a ladder to a surprising conclusion (3.). So, here goes:
1. Desire is essential to our sense of self. Rene Descartes told us “I think, therefore I am”, and this basic truth remains unquestionable. But it isn’t specific enough, and later philosophers have refined Descartes’s perception. When we are thinking, these philosophers tell us, we are thinking with our wills. Philosophers, writers and psychologists from Pascal to Kant to Schopenhauer to Dostoevsky to Nietzsche to James to Freud have all emphasized the willfulness of basic consciousness. We think with our hearts as much as with our brains; it is when we desire that we feel most alive. It is difficult to imagine existing as conscious beings without desire, and when we do imagine existing without desire we also tend to imagine existing without a sense of self (as in the Buddhist religion, which teaches of living both without desire and without self). Desire (or will), therefore, appears to be an essential ingredient in the construction of the human sense of self.
2. Desire is often a group phenomenon. Watch the crowd at any football game, and you’ll immediately see evidence for a fact that nearly everyone already agrees with: we feel desire in groups. Watch the crowd sway and swoon at a political rally or at a great jam-band rock concert, for instance, or watch a church spontaneously hush itself during a wedding or a funeral, or just watch any group of friends or lovers interact, and you’ll see that desire is something we most often don’t feel alone. Our favorite moments are our shared moments, and these moments could not possibly exist except as shared moments.
3. The “groupish” nature of desire explains our sensation of a “group self”. To the extent that desire creates our sense of self, and that our desires are phenomologically tied to groups rather than individuals, we can easily recognize a source of our natural sense of a group self. We can thus conclude — an important and highly original conclusion, with implications to philosophy, psychology, political science and religion — that the group self does occur naturally in human life.
So, there is it, my backyard satori. What do you think? Is this bigger news than the Higgs-Boson? Does it at least make more sense? I hope that some of you who have commented on earlier blog posts about egoism and the social nature of the self (this is also, of course, a major topic addressed in my book Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters)) will let me know what you think of this formula. I think I’m on to something, but I need your feedback to find out if I’m right or wrong.