What if you awoke one day and were no longer yourself? Floating without memory in a swamp of stimuli, you’d be disengaged from the meaning of your actions and the coherence of your identity. Context and purpose having evaporated into a misty abyss, you might ask: What is going on? Writer’s block? A nightmare? A little too much THC on October 17th (National Cannabis Legalization Day)? In fact, you may have simply discounted the reality of your mind because empirically there was less concrete evidence for it than for the external stimuli of the physical world. Or perhaps, if you’re a tuned-in creative thinker (as we all are at AU, right?!) you’re engaging in a thought experiment destined to rethink that which you’d previously thought of as been there, answered that. Who would we be and what sort of answers to big questions would we arrive at if we donned a different epistemological hat?
David Hume was a groundbreaking philosopher who, in the 1700s, envisioned us as essentially a bundle of perceptions glued together by the fantasy of a coherent self. Hume stated that “we mistake the series of related but different perceptions that make up the mind from a single unvarying perception: hence the illusion of a permanent self” (MacNabb 82). Form a neuroscience perspective, where only measurable fact counts as evidence, and it’s true that the mind is not as empirically traceable as are our synaptic responses to specific stimuli. And hey, the notion of an illusory self may provide solace for us because our success or failure as distance students need not impart cosmic significance to the universe as a whole, let alone vital value to our ongoing existences as individuals.
However, this soothing sense of the meaninglessness of life may reduce us to a level of stupefied apathy akin to, not to mince words, a total dillweed. The word dill is from the Norwegian word dilla: to soothe and intellectual pacification is precisely what can happen if we become too comfortable with our epistemological assumptions (McCormick). Likewise, the urban dictionary defines dillweed as someone “who cannot realize the obvious and is oblivious to reality” (Hunt). Minds may not be measurable as such, yet they certainly exist. Even if they aren’t measurable in the ways we experience them, they certainly have reality at a consequential level. W.I. Thomas famously stated, “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas). As students, it behooves us to consider our bigger life map and world outlook as we embark or proceed through our academic lives—when we believe we have a mission we’re bound to thrive with greater energy and passion. We are all here at AU for a reason, after all. Hopefully it’s one chosen of our own volition, but certainly it’s one we feel to be worth pursuing.
Likewise, if we downplay perspectives outside of our discipline (or outside of education altogether) we do a disservice to the very real beliefs and education of our peers, friends and family. Hume noted that “education…sets up habit of association. Most of our beliefs result from education and endure in the face of experience to the contrary, so firmly does repetition infix ideas in our mind.” (Hume in MacNabb 81). The outcome necessarily is a “direct and total opposition betwixt our reason and our senses.” (Hume in MacNabb 83). When we are used to an outcome to which our predilections have become habituated, we may come to see the world through an ideological lens even when evidence mounts that we are, for instance, wearing rose coloured glasses. Not good for applying our education practically! We don’t want to become hidebound or elitist just because we’ve studied a lot of material in a given topic area. For instance, if, like Hume, we’re used to thinking of our minds as metaphysical claptrap then we’ll focus on external stimuli as the locus of meaning in our lives; if we see our mental world as a vast sea with its own symbolism and language then we’ll become more reflective and perhaps attain a more enlightened and efficacious sense of self.
It’s easy to discount an other to our chosen discipline and its epistemology. George Orwell, when he wasn’t lampooning conformist social environments in his novels, was a crack journalist specializing in spotting the idiocies of daily thought. He stated in 1946 that:
“The Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent. Each of them tacitly claims that ‘the truth’ has already been revealed, and that the heretic, if he is not simply a fool, us secretly aware of ‘the truth’ and merely resists if out of selfish motives.” (162)”
Substitute stereotypes of neuroscientists and psychoanalysts and we arrive at a classic 21st Century dichotomy: the former reduces the latter to a genital-obsessed dream chaser with only a tenuous grip on the scientific rigour required to draw conclusions, and the latter reduces the former to a deterministic dweeb who would prefer to think of humans as robots prone to forgetting the limitations of their programming. From a Humean point of view this is the famous is/ought paradox: we tend to confuse what ought to be with what actually is. Our beliefs lend well to projection and thus we easily come to find what we expect to see. Orwell added that if we allow the dogmas of our beliefs to enter our lexicon then not only our language and minds will suffer; we’ll become stilted and stultified by what we’ve allowed to pacify our creative faculties. He saw independent thinking as a duty:
“You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you, even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent.” (152).
Next week, we’ll hold onto our independent identities while diving deeper into the twilight waters below the epistemological assumptions favoured by our academic disciplines.