I was puzzled by a recent post in PsychCentral. I read it and reread it. I waited a few days to see what comments people would write. I looked at some of the other posts referenced by the author. Finally, I arrived at the same conclusion I had when I first read the post — this is pure nonsense. Beginning from its provocative title You Are Not Your Thoughts: A Personal Philosophy Of Mind, to the implied “seal of approval” by the use of a selected Martha Nussbaum quote, I found myself arguing with almost every point that was raised.
“You are not your thoughts” – Really? Then what am I if I am not my thoughts? A rock? A tree? I am my thoughts (isn’t that obvious?) and without them, I am not human. [note 1] I can change those thoughts which, the author — Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar — acknowledges, is the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy and which she succinctly summarizes as follows:
In a (very small) nutshell, CBT asks you to question your thoughts, and the beliefs that underpin them. It asks you to have another look at the way you’ve got things set up in your mind. To see if the conclusions that it’s so easy to jump to in the heat of the moment are actually even real or right. To renovate the interior of your inner-most home. And it has a few user-friendly formulas to do it with. [Emphasis in the original]
But Gawne-Kelnar has a problem with CBT. It can devolve into condescending happy talk. While holding out the promise of personal change through the process of changing your thoughts (see Am I My Own Placebo Effect?), at the same time it passes judgment about those thoughts: this one is good; that one is bad. To some degree there’s nothing controversial here. This type of self-imposed talking cure has become a staple of the Westernized psyche. But now things become more problematic, more confused. Gawne-Kelnar wants to separate our thoughts from our sense of who we are, from our “identity.” She quotes Martha Nussbaum:
…shortly after [birth] we encounter external forces that corrupt and confuse us. These influences take hold of us: and yet they are not really us. They are not “our very own feelings,” but something from the world outside; and they enslave us as time goes on. [Emphasis in the original]
This quote is rife with assumptions that border on the nonsensical. To say that after we are born we “encounter external forces that corrupt and confuse us,” implies that without those external forces, a child will develop a sense of self, a sense of her own feelings that are pure. Really? And how does this miracle child acquire language? How does this miracle child acquire the mental capacity to understand, to describe, to express her very own feelings? [note 2] Nussbaum (at least in this quote) and, by implication, Gawne-Kelnar, are assuming that humans are born with some essence, some sense of self, that precedes socialization. While current research has pointed in the direction of infants “understanding” much more than we have realized, we also find that they cannot express those “understandings” without language which can only be acquired through those corrupting external forces. Bottom line: there is no self that preexists the effects of the external forces because it is those external forces that provides the human being with the conceptual language necessary to have the concept of self. By appealing to some mythical “self” that is separate from us and our thoughts, or that exists prior to birth and the corrupting influence of socialization, is to resurrect old philosophical problems of mind-body dualism. That may work well within the realm of new-age mysticism but not within the current state of science and psychology. You are your thoughts, even if you don’t think so.
- If I am not my thoughts then doesn’t that mean I am in a vegetative state, that I am an empty vessel, a simulacra of a human being? Even to enter some Zen-like nirvana implies that I have some thoughts that are putting me in a calming, meditative “non-thought” state but I am still my thoughts even if my thoughts are not foremost in my mind at that very moment.↩
- There are faint echoes here of Ayn Rand’s grand delusion known as Objectivism. For an eye-opening look at Rand’s absurd philosophy, see this set of videos.↩