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Flowchart Depicting the Self's Problematic Future

Self-awareness makes life more worthwhile, but it can also be surprisingly destructive. Can we afford to indulge today’s luxurious sense of self? (Image: Thomas Cotterill)

The concept of self has become fundamental to our thinking about the human psyche. Drawn from the work of Carl Jung, I use the word constantly in my posts as I discuss writing, creativity, self-realization, will, genius, solitude, spirituality, and philosophy. I see the self as a core cluster of emotionally-important ideas that define who and what we are. It is the origin of will and a compass by which to steer through life. Others, including Jung himself, define it more broadly. My definition is tight because I believe that vague concepts can do nothing for you. As the creativity researchers have shown: concretization is power. When reading what follows, keep in mind this broad flexibility in the use of the word “self.”

The cultivation of various aspects of self has become immensely popular. We have self-discovery, self-realization, self-esteem, self-confidence, self-worth, self-improvement, and so on. Clearly, some of these concepts deal with consciousness while other focus on the unconscious. Yet they all use the word “self.” Central to all of these concepts is the sense of self itself. There are numerous theories about how that sense emerged, what (if anything) it does, and why we even need it. For the religious, the sense of self is the human soul, the thing that survives physical death and sets us apart from the animals.

English psychologist and professor Nicholas Humphrey has written some fascinating books about the evolution of human consciousness and intelligence. Like some others, he uses the word self to mean consciousness or conscious awareness. (Are you confused yet?) He is a great believer in rationality. In his book, Soul Searching (also published as Leaps of Faith), he criticizes inward-looking seekers claiming they are trying to replace sound logic and staunch realism with a rebirth of irrationality and woolly mysticism. His target is mostly the belief in the paranormal, the desire for life after death, and the idea that “all is one,” but Jung’s ideas would fall into his category of irrationality. He is essentially saying there is nothing inside except consciousness and memory. We make the rest of it up.

Okay, here is where it gets interesting. In a more recent book, Seeing Red, Humphrey is extolling the virtues of the notion of Self (yes, with a big “S”) and linking it to the idea of having a soul! The issue here is human duality, the idea that there is consciousness plus something “else.” This in turn is part of the old mind-body debate. Humphrey gets around what appears to be an about-face by deploying the caveat that the whole thing is undoubtedly an illusion. That is to say, we are once again making it up, albeit, not deliberately.

Humphrey takes a Darwinian approach to his proposed Self. He claims that having a sense of Self, complete with seemingly “otherworldly” properties, is adaptive in that the Self makes life matter so much that we, as individuals, struggle harder to preserve our lives, to survive, in other words. This enhanced struggle to survive on the part of individuals benefits the species as a whole. Presumably, Humphrey is referring to the distant past when human life was more precarious. In “Natural Selection Works on Societies,” I have argued that individual humans are no longer subject to evolutionary pressures, which now apply at the societal level.

Most of us would agree with the desirability of having a sense of Self. As Humphrey says, it feels good to be self-aware. The experience truly is the essence of our lives. However, I believe the enjoyable aspects of the Self have a darker side that is not adaptive. A key facet of human behaviour is the desire to maximize our pleasures. Birthrates are plummeting in many parts of the world, especially in the West. This rich sense of Self has led, with the advent of fertility control, to a selfish (Selfish) elimination of children in order to free up financial and time resources with which to maximize the individual’s enjoyment of his or her Self.

Denmark, with one of the lowest birthrates in the world, is especially hard-hit by the lack of children. Surveys asking why people have no children draw answers such as, “doesn’t fit my lifestyle,” “too expensive,” and “haven’t got the time.” The future of the country depends on children and all Danes can think about is themselves in the here and now.

Look at current lifestyles with their obvious emphasis on entertainment. The enjoyment of the Self (enjoying ourselves) has become the primary goal of the individual. The future has become irrelevant because we ourSelves will not be present to enjoy ourSelves. The advent of socialism and all the benefits and entitlements it provides means society has become another way of getting more enjoyment out of life for the present generation of individuals. We plunder the national treasury. We mortgage the future to buy ourselves a luxurious social safety net today. Life is good – for now. Society no longer functions, as it once did, as the protector and guarantor of the future. Without the traditional societal protection, there will be no future.

Humphrey’s so-called adaptive sense of Self is precisely what is doing us in.