Though the nature of consciousness is still very much an open question, it seems clear that the notion of self is a central feature. In other words, our consciousness is at least partly defined by our awareness of ourselves. And if we are aware of ourselves, it’s reasonable to suppose that we can know ourselves. But a question arises. How exactly do we go about getting to know ourselves?
I suppose we do it like we go about getting to know others. In fact, it probably happens in that order. I would bet that infants know their parents before they recognize that they are people, too. So how do we get to know others? We watch what they do and listen to what they say. Over time, we get a feel for their history, for how their mind works, with whether they mean what they say, and with what they care about. It’s pretty much the same with getting to know ourselves. But, in that endeavor, we have access to a fortuitous additional bit of information.
We have the benefit of knowing our thoughts. So, we know what we think, which means we really know what matters to us. Coupled with the knowledge of our actions, we have all that we need to know ourselves very well. Or do we?
Knowing what crosses our minds only gives us a truer glimpse into how our motivations translate into actions. To be sure, that understanding is key to knowing ourselves. But we still don’t know what we really need to know, which is why what crosses our minds crosses our minds. For this, we cannot rely solely upon introspection. We need science, specifically evolutionary psychology.
The science of evolutionary psychology deals with the human mind by exploring its origins from an evolutionary standpoint. At the heart of it is the notion that the human mind was designed by natural selection to facilitate the survival of humans on earth anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 years ago. Understanding what life was like back then, so they say, tells us a great deal about why our minds work the way they do. With the help of evolutionary psychology, we can now understand why we think many of the thoughts we think.
We now know that social status for our cave-dwelling ancestors was of paramount importance. We know that being a part of the in-group was essential to survival. With those kinds of requirements, and the easy separation of those who could get along and those who could not, natural selection easily and permanently installed in the human mind the tendencies to pursue status and interpersonal acceptability. This has serious implications on our quest to know ourselves.
We have to wonder how much of what we think is somehow driven by our genetic need to fit in and be recognized as worthy among our peers. We have to wonder how it is we go about figuring out what groups to fit into. After all, in our modern world, there are lots to choose from. And we also have to wonder how it is we go about picking the people we admire and the people we despise. If the evolutionary psychologists are right, then, from a mental perspective, we are far more at the mercy of genes that any of us would like to believe. But this is not a bad news story.
Quite the opposite. The beautiful thing about being conscious is that we are not only aware of ourselves and our thoughts, we have the power to change what we think about. Given what we know about our caveman origins, it is clear to me that there’s work to be done. We have to rationally consider what matters to us, and, just as importantly, who matters. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not a trivial matter. It takes a lot of courage to look inward with the intent to accept what we find. But once we do, we have a baseline from which to evaluate our thoughts.
If I rationally conclude that being a nice and genuine person is of the highest ethical value, then, in evaluating my contemporaries, I have no choice but to put a consideration of that above a consideration of something less ethically important, such as what someone does for a living. Then, when status-oriented thoughts, such as, “Ooh, he’s a television star.” cross my mind, I know that I must put them aside and ask, “Yes, but is he a nice person? Does he seem genuine or fake?” Believe it or not, these kinds of personal thought control exercises are actually quite easy, especially when you can count on the legitimacy of the rationale behind them. In fact, everyone is skilled at doing this. The problem is that too many people push out the right thoughts as they simultaneously nurture the wrong ones.
For them, just as for all of us, the solution is simply to learn to tell the difference between the thoughts that matter and the thoughts that are remnants of our ancient heritage, of a time that has long since passed. So, to the question in the title of this, Who Am I?
I am a modern human with the mind of a caveman. I am aware of the needs of my ancestors with regards to the social group, and I am aware that many of those needs no longer exist. I have assessed what it means to live the good life, and I have rationally set a course to obtain it. In doing so, I have committed to extricate my mind of the thoughts that weigh it down. I have committed my mind to truth and all its consequences. I have learned to spot wayward anachronistic emotions and to compensate for them. I cannot say that I have arrived. But I can say that I am not lost.