Discovering the Inner Other

[This is the second in a series: 1. The “Inner Other”; 2. Discovering the “Inner Other”; 3. Three ways to manage your “inner other”.]

In my last post, I spoke about the mystery of the “inner other” and the power it exercises over our interior life. And I asked, Where does this shadowy figure come from? We make him up ourselves, but how do we do it?

Usually the answer is fairly straightforward: the imaginary, interior interlocutor is a composite projection of our real, exterior interlocutors. He reflects the circle that makes up our lives, and he changes when we change from circle to circle. In fact, that is how I first became aware of him.

When I was young, my family and my friends were conservative and religious. This remained true when we transitioned from Protestantism to Catholicism, throughout my college years and all the way up to the completion of my masters degree. To the extent that I dealt more than superficially with people of a different persuasion, it was through reading.

When I began my doctoral program, however, I suddenly found myself in a completely new world: my professors and my fellow students were religiously liberal and sometimes not religious, they all focused on the same professional conferences and talked about the same books, and in general they had a coherent but entirely foreign set of priorities. What my social circle considered important and acceptable was suddenly different.

Part of this transition was helpful. I realized after a while that I had accepted certain arguments about Scripture not because they were strong arguments but because they had satisfied my interior interlocutor. When I imagined myself speaking argument X, in my imagination the results were great: Yes, of course, triumph! It was like making an argument against climate change in a room full of petroleum executives. So in certain respects my thought gained a new rigor from the transition to a new social group.

But not all the results were happy. In spite of my personal inclinations and background, I found that my own mental horizons swung slowly around to a closer match with that of the new group. I was aware of it at the time, and I could even feel the effects spike when I attended a conference: temporarily, the kinds of things likely to make for publication in such-and-such a journal seemed REALLY important while other things shrank. While I myself remained religiously conservative, my “inner other” was becoming a liberal biblical scholar.

I even noticed the effect when I tried to read the Bible devotionally. To read the Bible subjectively was anathema in the group, the worst thing one could do. But the objective meaning of Scripture was not what you might think: biblical scholar John Meier famously wrote that the objective meaning of a Scripture passage is what you would get if you locked a Catholic, a Jew, a Protestant, and an agnostic—all biblical scholars—in the basement of Harvard Divinity School and did not let them out until they reached a consensus. I felt that committee always judging me, even in my most private moments. The loose and comfortable feel of spiritual reading vanished.

During this period I also struggled with my Catholic faith. Because my own beliefs differed drastically from those of my “inner other,” my interior conversation turned into a never-ending debate: Oh yeah, prove this! Oh yeah, prove that! I felt that I was on trial every hour, and it was all the harder because the only evidence acceptable to this inner other was the kind of evidence that would have been acceptable to my professors and fellow students and all the people at the conferences. I found myself replaying and replaying and replaying arguments for the existence of God, parrying and thrusting, meeting objection after objection, running over the same ground again and again.

A number of things fell together for me around this time and saved me from mental exhaustion and possible loss of faith. My academic advisor was a true believer, a very important witness; I came to a new understanding of faith, as I have described in my blog series on faith; other things I will probably never write down. The relevant part for the present post is this: I realized that I had been trying to convince the “inner other” instead of trying to convince myself. When I honestly asked myself what persuaded me, Jeremy Holmes, I saw that the existence of God is actually easy to prove, stupidly obvious: the facts are apparent and the arguments clear. What is hard is not demonstrating the existence of God; what is hard is persuading an atheist. As soon I escaped the limitations my shadowy interlocutor imposed on the conversation, I found that I was not in anything like the trouble I had thought.

As I have gone on in life, I have observed the “inner other” phenomenon in myself time and time again. When I move to a new job and find new friends, suddenly I see the world against a new horizon; a new set of things seems to loom large and some things that seemed important before suddenly seem to shrink. When I withdrew from work this past year for my sabbatical, I found that I was able to reshape my horizon and realize that some things that seemed like big problems at work were neither big nor really my problem at all. When I am reading more of a particular set of authors, those authors shape my “inner other” for a while.

While my experience is pretty typical, not everyone reacts to a new social group the way that I do. I have met people who seem to be immune to transition because their “inner other” does not readily change, so that when they move on to a new social circle they retain the old interior conversation partner. The ongoing mismatch between their own priorities and those of their group create the impression that they are objective, above influence, free-thinking. But over time I have realized that their “inner other” is no less present, just more stubbornly persistent.

Similarly, I have known people of a less social disposition who form their “inner other” largely from books. They read constantly, and the “group” formed by the authors they read serves as a basis for the “inner other,” again creating the illusion that they are free of such influences because they don’t seem to measure their thought against the people actually around them.

In both cases, the impression of objectivity makes the situation more dangerous, because we tend to notice things when they move or change. When your “inner other” remains the same over time then you are less likely to notice “him” as something other than “you”.

So are we hopelessly and helplessly chained to the “inner other,” incapable of objective thought? By no means. In my next post, I’ll describe three approaches to making your “inner other” not an obstacle but an ally in the pursuit of truth.

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The Inner Other

[This is the first in a series: 1. The “Inner Other”; 2. Discovering the “Inner Other”; 3. Three ways to manage your “inner other”.]

It may sound paradoxical to speak of an “inner other.”  How can what is within be what is without?  How can “inner” be anything but “same”?  But in fact our rationality, because it is human, is social:  we only learn to reason after we learn to speak, and our reasoning is largely done in words, and yet we learn to speak in order to speak to others.  An orientation toward the other is built into human thought.

Hence the “other” right within us.  Because words are of their nature other-oriented, the interior conversation that constitutes our mental life is often—perhaps more often than not—carried out as though it were a dialogue with someone.  Although we might describe this interior conversation as “talking to ourselves,” usually we talk to a vague, imaginary interlocutor we have constructed, a shadowy “other” that acts as a kind of objective check on our subjective excesses.  It is easy to mistake this interlocutor for our own selves, but the otherness of this other turns out to be important.

When we speak to a real “other,” a flesh-and-blood person, the dynamic is clear.  If we argue, we bring up facts likely to be accepted or deemed important by the person with whom we are arguing.  If we just make conversation, we avoid certain topics if they are very offensive, and tend towards the topics our companion will find both interesting and sympathetic.  All the while, we may be aware that other facts are also real and other topics even more important, but we know that bringing them up to this individual would be useless.  We have more interiorly than we display exteriorly.

Something similar is true of our interior conversation.  The vague “other” with whom we converse most of the time, the inner other, limits conversation in the same way as a real person:  we only appeal to facts “he” is likely to accept and to arguments “he” is likely to deem important.  But now the result is amazing.  Because our interior conversation is our mental life, the “inner other” effectively determines the horizons of our mental life, deciding what facts and arguments we possess interiorly.  Speaking to a flesh-and-blood person, we reserve something of our interior life; speaking with the inner other is our interior life, most of the time.

Obviously, we need to discover who this inner other is.  Where does he come from, this powerful figure?  He is somehow our own creation, and yet he exercises tremendous control over us.  To understand ourselves we have to bring him forth from the shadows.  Who is he?  I’ll take up the problem in my next post.

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Interior Collapse

By now, my readers—if readers there be—must be wondering:  what do Reality Enhancement and the Filter have to do with the subtitle of this blog, “the story of a Catholic marriage”?

Everything, really.

Nowhere does RE come more into play then in our dealings with other people.  A facial expression, a gesture, a tone of voice—like the scattered gleams of light in a dark but familiar room, these minute cues are “enhanced” to offer a complete view of a spouse or friend’s moods and motives.  This interpretation, which we do not even realize is an interpretation, then acts as a theory to drive the Filter, further and further confirming our “understanding” of the situation.

The only way out is to realize that this person is a mystery, much less known to us than we assume.  Over time, with a spouse or very close friend, one gains enough experience to know that this frown does not really mean displeasure, or that grin is not meant to mock.  But rarely do we generalize this experience to say of those we don’t know as well:  This expression may not mean what I take it to mean; this person is more mysterious to me than my first reaction admits.

But before we can take the one way out, we have to want to get out.  And that brings us to our next means of self deception:  the Interior Collapse.

The inner man, taken broadly in contrast to the outer, visible-to-others man, includes many layers of higher and lower:  sensation is somewhat inner, but above that is memory and imagination, and above that is reason and understanding using the imagination as a tool, and even above that is the understanding not engaged with the imagination—one could probably divide the inner man even further, but the point here is simply that there are layers.  When we are young, however, we are only aware of the basic distinction between inner and outer:  the “I” that others see and the “I” known to me alone.  Scripture speaks this way of the “heart,” the whole inner man taken without differentiation.

Part of growing up is learning to distinguish the layers within ourselves.  Kids think that whatever they feel like is what they want; at some point, they desire something powerfully but do not will to do it, or find our will overcome by desire, and they realize that desire is not the same thing as will.  As young adults, they fall into a more subtle trap, confusing the emotion of sadness with not willing something any more; with luck, they commit to something so strongly that they fight through their emotions to persevere, and so realize that emotion is neither desire nor will.

Most people take the first step; many take the second; but the further step of distinguishing the imagination from reason is rare indeed.  The experiences that distinguish desire and emotion from will happen to most people because they are sufferings imposed on us from the outside, but the interior experiences that would separate picturing from thinking are not imposed—they have to be pursued.  Classical philosophy can do it, as can advanced theology; the dark night of the soul will turn the trick as well.

So the general failure to distinguish layers within the inner man, which I call Interior Collapse, is a kind of immaturity.  Unlike RE or the Filter, it does not seem to have a good side.  Failure to distinguish emotion from will means that when we are upset at someone, we can’t pull back and realize that we actually want to solve the problem constructively.  Failure to distinguish imagination from reason—well, that’s a whole ‘nuther post!

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The Reality Enhancement Factor

Once in a while, some random messenger from heaven gives to us the gift to see as we really see.  A strong expectation is overthrown, or a prediction turns out false, or a long-held view finally breaks down under objections, and for a moment the mind’s eye focuses enough to see—a blur.

Because that’s what we actually see most of the time.  Human persons—friends, family, enemies, whatever–are the most vivid realities around us, and yet every sage who ever was said that to know oneself is the work of a lifetime, so of course our actual understanding of other people—whose thoughts we don’t think, whose feelings we don’t feel—is an even slower project.  Despite a high school grasp of science, most of us interpret the world through physical theories half a century outdated, and even the scientists at the front of their fields grasp their own theories by way of metaphors—space bends, or is made up of strings, or other phrases that have no literal meaning—and fully expect their own ideas to be outdated eventually.  We go forward in life like backpackers in a fog-shrouded valley, working by the feel of the ground, dim impressions of trees overhead, and the general direction of the light.

To see the blur as blur all the time would not only drive us crazy but nearly immobilize us.  Focused on the blurriness of the blur, we would be afraid to act and would probably underestimate how much we really know:  it is too difficult to stay exactly balanced all the time, so if we did not overestimate what we know then we would underestimate it.  Mercifully, therefore, God has made us such that we fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

For example, if I enter a dark room in which in reality I see only a few stray gleams of light, my familiarity with the room combines with my imagination to generate a view of the walls and the furniture and so on as though I really saw it all.  If someone moves the furniture or puts the vacuum cleaner in the middle of the room, my familiarity with what should be in the room combines with my imagination to generate a clear view of a witch or a goblin—again, as though I really saw it!

The same thing happens in personal relations.  What we actually know of a person are a few outward actions and a few words, all of which admit of many interpretations.  But our imagination of what it would be like of we did and said those things combines with our general view of that person to generate a view of their motives and beliefs seemingly even clearer than our vision of the goblin in the dark room.

The same thing again happens in the most intellectual pursuits.  Any time I think about something that has very little being in itself, such as prime matter or electrons, I endow it with more being than it has:  prime matter surreptitiously becomes a bland, grey stuff; atoms and electrons become balls with smaller balls moving in circular orbits about them.  Being is light to the mind, and just as the imagination fills out the gaps in a dark room, so the mind fills out the gaps in being.

Taken all together, this Reality Enhancement Factor transforms the blur of our lives into a clear, sunlit meadow at noon.  It’s a blessing:  our creative guesses are in fact true enough often enough that they can be taken as at least one artist’s rendering of the truth, and in the meantime we don’t slip into the fallacy of skepticism.  But it’s also a curse:  if we truly believe our sight to be as clear as it feels most of the time, then we stubbornly cling to our unjust perceptions of a person, or we refuse honestly to consider plain evidence against our theories and dismiss as stupid or dishonest everyone who disagrees.  Recognizing the REF is crucial.  Humility without skepticism is a mark of the educated man.

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How bad imagination can kill final causality

For this post, the Dr. is in. Although family doings are better blog material than academic musings, nonetheless academic music is much of what happens inside my head. From that perspective, academic musing is in fact family doing–it’s about my life, just not about the part you would have caught with a camera.

At any rate, for many years I have passed on to others what I myself received from Francis Bacon, namely that modernity is built on a rejection of formal and final causality, matter and efficient causes being approved. Recently, as I meditated on ST 2-1.1.2, new light was granted me from Renee Descartes about what Bacon’s maxim means. It begins with the distinction between substance and accident.

In the modern imagination—only early theorists like Descartes really thought about it, so now it’s passed down by way of unexamined habits of imagination—a “substance” is an inert thing like a Mr. Potato Head doll, while all of its accidents are “qualities” attached to it, as the ears, eyes, and nose are attached to Mr. Potato Head. This means that everything active about a substance derives from accidental “qualities” rather than from the substance itself.

This makes sense, given the denial of substantial form. Because every inclination to action arises from form, matter without form would be inert; in the terms of Aristotle’s Physics, because nature is a principle of motion and of rest in the thing, to deny that substances have natures is to deny that they have any principle of motion in them. All inclinations to action would come from accidental forms, but these accidental forms would all be only incidental to the substance—attached like a Mr. Potato Head part—because the only essential connection between prime matter and accidental forms comes through a substantial form.

It follows that no substance has a natural motion, but all motion comes from something extraneous to the substance. Or to put it another way, even the motions arising from a substance’s own accidents are only incidental to the substance itself, something like violent motion. Or to put it still a third way, all motion is like the outcome of different causes interacting with one another—chance—because every motion arises from the incidental combination of accidents and their inert host.

This means that a non-intelligent substance acting for an end is entirely unintelligible. Of course, this is exactly what Bacon meant when he denied the existence of final causality, but I think I’ve made some forward progress: I have discovered a source in the imagination of modern resistance to nature acting for an end. Once a person imagines substance itself as inert—which is what matter without form would mean—then he will simply not understand what anyone is talking about when it comes to natural motion toward an end.

If we undo the error by embracing form, then the substance itself (a) has something fundamentally active about it and (b) gives rise to “properties” or accidents that are not incidental to the essence of the thing. So the substance itself gives rise to its motions and to the accidents by which it carries out those motions. In other words, the substance itself is fixed on moving toward a definite thing that is relevant to the substance—to its good. Now, a good which is the terminus of a non-random motion is an end. So movement following on a fixed inclination toward the good is action for an end.

Just as final causality vanishes when substance is imagined one way, so it intuitively reappears as soon as one grasps that being is a kind of act. As Aristotle remarked upon making the act/potency distinction, “Had they grasped this nature, all their difficulties would have been solved.”

P.S. In the second-to-last paragraph, the phrase “to its good” sparked a long and fruitful conversation with my brother-in-law. I hope he’ll write down the results for everyone to enjoy!

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