Handbook of epistemology/Emotions, will and attention
- 1 Brain modules and routine activities
- 2 Emotions
- 3 Decision making and the autonomy of the will
- 4 Problem solving
- 5 Innovation
- 6 A centralized administration without a central administrator
- 7 Attention
- 8 Beliefs
- 9 Silent ethical knowledge
- 10 The id, the ego and the superego
- 11 Unconscious desires
- 12 False consciousness and unconscious knowledge
- 13 Prisoners of schemas
- 14 The divided self
- 15 The unity of the living body and the self-protective will
- 16 The mastery of oneself
- 17 Power of the unconscious or of consciousness?
- 18 The mastery of emotions
Brain modules and routine activities
A brain module is a network of neurons specialized in certain tasks of information processing. It has entrance ways, where it receives information and orders, and exit routes, where it emits information and orders itself. It can be very localized (a small nucleus of neurons, a cortical micro-column ...) or quite extensive (a vast network distributed over several brain regions). It has its own skills and a partially autonomous mode of operation.
Cerebral activity as a whole is the result of the coordinated activity of all modules. They exchange information and orders and thus produce all the internal representations which prepare for action and all the signals which trigger it and control it.
A brain module can be conceived as an autopilot. The most subordinate pilots are the most peripheral, the neural networks which control the muscles and the rest of the body. These subordinate modules are controlled by other modules, and so on. A brain module always has a fairly limited competence. It has access to only a small part of the information available in the brain, and the repertoire of tasks it can perform is also very limited. But the higher-level modules, that is to say those who command at the highest level other modules, are able in principle to mobilize all the resources of the body and its brain. Such a module is a kind of leader in the brain, an autopilot that pilots the other autopilots.
A module can represent its own purposes, give information and orders to other modules, or receive them, and thus participate in the proper functioning of the organization. The spontaneous activity of the modules is sufficient to explain the routine behaviors that result from instincts or learning. The necessary resources are recruited automatically and perform their tasks as they are used to. There may be a leader who temporarily leads the march of the ensemble, or several, or none, because the modules can work separately and spontaneously coordinate their activities.
The concept of emotion is difficult to define and its use is often very imprecise. Should we distinguish moods and emotions, moods because they are durable, emotions because they are brief? Is tranquility an emotion or independence from emotions? Is jealousy an emotion or a more complex state that mixes emotions and will?
We can define emotions from some basic emotions (sadness, fear, anger, disgust, shame, joy, appeasement, pride, surprise ...) and include all the variations and combinations, or from some general characters:
- An emotion is triggered by the detection of specific conditions, fear by the detection of danger, sadness by the detection of misfortune, anger by the detection of the unacceptable ...
- This detection is followed very quickly by reflex reactions and physiological changes that enable the body to adapt to the novelty of its situation.
- Emotions determine motives, ie desires or aversions. They tell us the goals that deserve to be pursued, and what we must flee or avoid (Damasio 1994). They are therefore very important to the will, because they serve us to evaluate our projects, and for learning, because they point out what deserves to be memorized.
Because it is triggered by specific conditions and because it causes specific reactions, a particular emotion, such as fear, can be characterized by the activity of a brain module, or a system of modules that coordinate their activities. Input channels carry the signals that awaken, modify or suppress the emotion. Output channels carry the signals that provoke typical emotional reactions (LeDoux 1996). As an emotion can mobilize a large part of the body's resources, such an emotional system can be considered as a kind of leader in the brain. An emotion, especially if it is strong, can exert a sort of empire over all the bodily activity, interior and exterior.
Emotion and cognition are sometimes thought in opposition, but it is a mistake. Emotions produce and use internal representations that prepare for action, so they are part of cognition. They are valuable informants on the external and internal realities.
All basic emotions are originally good, because they help us to live. The brain circuits that cause emotions are like all organs. If they did not help us survive and reproduce, they would not have been retained by natural selection.
Decision making and the autonomy of the will
When we want, we consciously represent goals and ways to reach them before we act. Our behaviors and voluntary actions are known, at least in their initial intentions, before being executed. This is why we recognize them more readily as ours than reflex reactions or other involuntary behaviors.
The will requires the ability to decide on the goals that we pursue and the rules we obey. Behavior is voluntary when pursuing goals that we have decided. A rule that one obeys can be considered as a particular kind of goal. The goal is to obey the rule. It is reached as long as we obey.
For there to really be a will, the ability to represent the goals we are pursuing is not enough, we must above all have the ability to represent goals that we will not pursue. If the decision is simply to follow all the desires that arise, it is not a true will, because it misses the moment of indecision where the various options are represented and evaluated before being chosen or rejected. And the will often manifests itself in the ability to give up goals rather than the ability to achieve them.
As emotional systems evaluate the goals we decide upon, we can think of a model of the will that reduces it to a role of servant of emotions. Voluntary decision-making could simply involve submitting a project to emotional systems and then counting their evaluations. If the favorable opinions clearly outweigh the others then the decision is made. The will thus conceived would be heteronomous, it would only obey an external law, that of emotions.
The will is autonomous when it gives itself its own law. It is autonomous in its evaluations when it makes its decisions based on rules or evaluation criteria that it has itself decided.
The goals on which we decide ourselves may be suggested by the systems of perception and emotion independently of any voluntary control. In such cases the will only has to agree to projects that it has not elaborated. All that is asked of it is to give its signature. But we can also decide to develop projects on which we will decide later. The will is autonomous in its execution when it decides to elaborate the projects which it will submit to its evaluations.
An system autonomous in its evaluations and execution is able to pose and solve problems.
To pose a problem is to give oneself an end, a goal, an objective. We have solved the problem when we have reached the end we have set or when we know how to reach it. The desired end and possibly the initial situation are the conditions of the problem.
An end is determined with a detection system that can recognize whether the end is reached or not. An end is always a concept.
A decision to make is a problem. The goal is inside. It is simply to make the decision, adoption or rejection of the project. Such a decision problem is determined by the project under review and by evaluation criteria. The desired end is that these criteria are met. Once the evaluation criteria are well defined, a problem of decision is in principle easy to solve. Just detect if the criteria are met. In this particular case, there are only two possibilities to examine, adopt or reject, but if the number of possibilities to be examined is very large, or infinite, knowing how to detect if the desired end is reached or not is not enough to solve the problem, because we can not look at all the possibilities.
The solution of a problem consists in general in assembling means to reach the desired end. The possibilities of composing the means with each other make that the space of the possibilities of solution is in general unlimited. We can always invent new compositions.
The means are intermediate ends, since to reach an end, it is first necessary to give oneself the goal of uniting the means.
A problem is practical when the goal is to transform the observable reality. A problem is cognitive when the goal is to produce representations. The solution of a practical problem is obtained when one acts, while the solution of a cognitive problem is obtained when one imagines. Knowing how to solve cognitive problems is a fundamental skill, simply because we often have to imagine what we will do before we do it.
Asking and solving cognitive problems is a way of acting on oneself. We do not aim to transform the external reality but only to find inner representations.
When one must imagine or say what one will do before acting, one replaces a practical problem with a cognitive problem: finding a representation of the action or program of actions that solves the initial practical problem. Instead of acting one seeks only to imagine the action. The practical goal is replaced by a cognitive objective. One can then explore by the imagination the space of the possibilities of solution. We can solve many problems without leaving our chair. Of course, one needs to know how to anticipate in order to determine by imagination whether a sequence of actions is feasible and whether it achieves the goal. When the knowledge acquired beforehand is sufficient, the imagination alone, without the action, makes it possible to find solutions. Thanks to the imagination, the knowledge already acquired is a springboard to acquire more knowledge.
Brain modules are usually specialized in solving particular problems. They can solve the problems they are naturally devoted to, problems they face or are posed to them.
When their behavior is routine, agents do not need to look for solutions for long. They find them spontaneously because their brain modules know how to produce them, by instinct or habit. The agents are content to solve the problems they already know how to solve. But faced with a new situation, the usual reactions are not always adapted. The agent may have the domestic resources to react appropriately, but it does not know how to mobilize them, because it would have to invent a new mode of coordination between its brain modules. None of them have the means to recruit others, even though it would be sufficient for them to work together to achieve the desired ends. The agent would need an inner composer-conductor, able to find truly new solutions. The power of composing is value-creating because the value of coordinated resources can be greater than the sum of their values if they are separated.
Chance is enough to innovate. A program of actions chosen at random is in general very innovative, very different from what is prescribed by instinct or habit. But obviously chance alone is rarely enough to find real solutions. Knowledge and skills are usually needed to assess possible a priori possible solutions and to find among them those which deserve to be retained. Knowledge is very often a prerequisite for innovation.
How can a network of neurons acquire knowledge, retain it, and use it to find new solutions to new problems?
It is very easy to design networks of neurons with such faculties. They memorize knowledge by modifying the connections between neurons. They can be challenged by activating their entry routes. They produce solutions on their way out. And they are very capable of innovating (David E. Rumelhart, James L. McClelland & PDP Research Group 1986). The design of neural networks is a very powerful method for solving many problems.
A centralized administration without a central administrator
For the goals and rules we have voluntarily decided to mobilize our domestic resources, they must be kept in working memory. Some modules must be specialized in the recording of our decisions and the distribution of the orders that result. The stored decision is used to send orders to all the modules concerned by the execution of this decision, as long as the goal is not reached, or has not been waived. The modules that memorize our voluntary decisions are prime contractors. So we can call them executive modules. Other brain modules are usually subordinate to these executive modules.
Executive modules are not innovators. They simply record decisions made elsewhere and automatically distribute the orders that apply them. They are not homunculi, or little geniuses in the head, but only neuronal circuits capable of recording the decisions received on their input channels, and then giving the orders that apply them to their output channels. It's just about processing the information, not putting spirits in the machine.
Voluntary decisions are made from the activity of the resources of perception and imagination, emotion and action. Some modules make propositions, others give evaluations, and finally these assessments are synthesized so that a decision is made. All these modules follow a common internal order, which they all contribute to define. Our voluntary projects are proposed, developed and evaluated by all our domestic resources, and once adopted, they impose themselves on these same internal resources, which must obey the orders given to them. But there is no leader. Executive modules only record decisions made by the community. They too are only obeying the common order. It is a centralized administration without a central administrator.
The evaluation mechanisms at the origin of the decisions obey the executive modules and therefore the decisions taken previously, which makes the will autonomous in its evaluations. The resources of perception and imagination at the origin of evaluated propositions also obey the executive modules, which makes the will autonomous in its execution. This model of brain function, a centralized administration without a central administrator, thus makes it possible to explain the autonomy of the will.
This model invites us to look for analogies between the functioning of the brain and human societies. Everything we learn about a human society, how it is organized, how it is united and sometimes disunited, can teach us a lot about brains, how they work, and how they sometimes do not work, or not very well. Conversely, everything we understand about our inner workings or dysfunctions, can help us understand the societies in which we live.
By explaining the autonomy of the will, the model of a centralized administration without a central administrator explains why the ego is like a strange loop (Hofstadter 2007). I can decide the criteria for evaluating my decisions, because the will is autonomous in its evaluations. I can also decide which objects will be the subject of my next decisions, because the will is autonomous in its execution.
Our executive modules, responsible for the application of our voluntary decisions, are necessarily limited in number. Their memory resources are also limited. This is why the inner order of goals and rules that direct our behavior is of limited complexity. We can not do too much at once.
The executive modules are preceded by evaluation devices that permanently modify and renew the goals we set ourselves. These assessment capabilities are also limited. We can not take a multitude of decisions at the same time. Each proposal must be examined in turn.
Attention is the selection of representations subjected to an evaluation for the purpose of a voluntary decision.
We pay attention to what we perceive, imagine, feel and do in many ways, because the selected information can be used in many ways. Priority information in the evaluation process leading to the decision is given a higher degree of attention than if it plays a secondary role. To develop the theory of attention, it is necessary to study how the evaluation devices that precede the voluntary decision select and use their sources of information.
Imagination and voluntary control of attention allow the will to operate in closed circuit, because it can decide itself the information from which it makes new decisions. We can thus be focused on what we imagine and feel as cut off from the world. But such isolation is never complete. An unexpected event is enough to get us out of our meditation and capture our attention. Unexpected event information, evaluated for a voluntary decision, was selected by an unintended process (Lachaux 2011). The will is autonomous and can decide for itself what holds its attention, but not to the point of completely avoiding external influences.
Our decisions are not just about projects but also about beliefs. When perceptions leave room for doubt, we can decide whether to believe what we perceive. We can also doubt what we imagine and choose not to believe it.
A belief is a representation that we hold true after becoming aware of it.
To become a belief, a representation must hold the attention. After being evaluated and approved, it is taken over by the executive system, which stores it in working memory, informs the concerned subordinates and thus uses it to control perception, imagination and their evaluation.
As long as it is kept in working memory, a belief is active and can make an effect, through the executive system, on the whole brain functioning. We thus rediscover an element of the cognitive theory of consciousness of Baars (1988). As long as a representation does not hold the conscious attention, it remains attached to its place of production and can not affect the entire system. Its effect is necessarily limited and localized. But if one becomes aware of it, it can be used to influence all parts of the brain controlled by the executive system. When it is in working memory it is as written on a blackboard that can be read by brain modules, it becomes a knowledge usable by all the internal agents subordinate to the executive system.
After remaining active for a moment in working memory, beliefs are usually recorded and consolidated in long-term memory, where they remain as dormant, or latent, beliefs. They are awakened and become active again if we remember them.
Even dormant beliefs can have a great effect on our inner activity, because our remembrance depends on all our dormant beliefs. Even if it is not reactivated, a dormant belief can contribute to the activation of another belief, or on the contrary, prevent this remembrance.
A dormant belief can be reactivated without our knowledge of it if it does not hold our attention or if another belief prevents us from granting it.
Associations and silent inferences are enough for a reactivated belief to have an effect, even if we deny it our attention. It can activate other beliefs and arouse emotions without being supported by the executive system, simply by associations, but then it does not have access to the resources of the will and its effect remains surreptitious.
When we pay attention to a belief, we can mobilize all the resources of the will to modify, supplement or criticize it, and integrate it into the system of all our other beliefs. In particular we can use it to form and retain inferences, where it appears as a condition, or as a consequence. We can thus make use of consciousness to develop our faculties of interpretation, so to learn to perceive.
Silent ethical knowledge
Ethical knowledge consists of evaluating actions, behaviors and their ends.
To be intelligent, it is not enough to know how to achieve goals, above all we must know that they deserve to be pursued, or at least they are not to be feared. Ethics is therefore the most important knowledge.
As emotions are used to evaluate actions, they produce an ethical knowledge. As the will is autonomous in its evaluations, it can go beyond purely emotional ethical knowledge. Silent ethical knowledge is the know-how-to-evaluate that results from the emotions and the will.
An ethical knowledge can be defined as the knowledge of an ideal, because an evaluation system determines an ideal. Is ideal, or close to the ideal, which is positively valued, is contrary to the ideal which is negatively valued.
For an ideal to exist and be known, it is enough to think of it as an ideal, as a criterion for evaluating our actions. It exists as an ideal, simply because it is true that we have adopted it.
For an ethical knowledge to be true it is enough that what it evaluates positively really satisfies us and that what it evaluates negatively really displeases us. Thus conceived the ethical truth is relative, because what satisfies some does not necessarily satisfy the others. But the rest of this book will show that reason makes it possible to develop a universal ethical knowledge.
The id, the ego and the superego
We are an ego, or a self, when we are conscious and voluntary, when we are aware of what we perceive, what we imagine, what we feel and what we want. The model of centralized administration without a central administrator explains how the brain makes the self exist, because it explains the will and the attention.
The superego is the ideal of the self, what it believes it must be or what it would like to be. It is constructed by the self that gives itself evaluation criteria of itself. It therefore results from the autonomy of the will. As we have to adapt to the society in which we live, we build our superego by internalizing the values that society invites us to embrace.
The will gives itself evaluation criteria of itself, by deciding criteria of evaluation of its decisions. With such a loop we can say at the same time that the ego makes the superego and that the superego makes the ego.
The id is the inner machine, everything in us that is mechanical, or automatic, and involuntary. Activity of the id includes all the interior agitation, except the voluntary activity. Most of the id is unconscious, because we can not be aware of everything that happens in the brain and the rest of the body. But it is not completely unconscious. It can be compared to an ocean whose waves can be observed but not the depths. If we pay attention to our interior, to what we feel, perceive, imagine and desire, we can sometimes become aware of the automatisms that move us internally (Freud 1923).
All that is alive always manifests the desire to live, even when it is mechanical, or automatic. That is why we can also compare the id to a kind of inner animal, rather than a machine. But we must not endow it with a unified will. Only the ego has the means to give itself such a will, by building its superego.
If we compare the psychic organization to a human society, the ego is the state, the ideal of the ego is the ideal of the state as it is affirmed in the Constitution and in all the official declarations, the id is the civil society. Executive modules are all agents of the state that enable it to impose its decisions. Designer and evaluator modules are all citizens, whether public servants or not, who participate in the design and evaluation of decisions made on behalf of the state. Information that we are aware of because it holds our attention is information taken into account in the evaluation that leads to state decisions. Unconscious information is that which is ignored by the state in its evaluations. Beliefs are what the state officially declares to be true.
Like any analogy, this one has its limits. In particular, it is not very flattering for civil society, because the id is not always very honorable, and we can hope that the self can be more so. But if we use this analogy to devalue civil society and promote the state, we obviously do not make good use of it. To explain the cerebral bases of psychic organization, it is an excellent analogy, because it helps us to understand the organization of a very complex system. But like any theory, it can be interpreted wrongly.
Our emotions determine our desires. Is desirable all that our emotions push us to desire. Thus defined desire is not necessarily conscious. For a desire to become conscious, we must pay attention to our emotions and become aware of what drives them. Desires remain unconscious if we refuse to become aware of them (Freud 1915).
Our decisions determine our will. We want when we have made a decision that we have not forgotten. Thus defined the will always begins to be conscious. We are aware of what we want when we decide and when we remember our decisions. But a will that was first conscious may become unconscious when we forget what we wanted.
The executive system makes the will. The emotional system makes desires. Desires become conscious only if we pay attention to our emotions. They become voluntary only if we decide to approve them. But we may want what we do not desire, if we have decided so, and not want what we desire, knowing it or without knowing it.
Desires remain unconscious if we repress them (Freud 1915), that is to say that we refuse to become aware of them and therefore to satisfy them voluntarily. The repression of desires is a consequence of the autonomy of the will. We can control our attention and refuse to listen to our emotions when they arouse desires that would bother us if we became aware of them. This repression reveals a conflict between desire and will, between the id and the superego. The superego behaves like a censor who rejects in the unconscious the propositions of the id that disturb him. We can deny that we desire what we desire in order to believe ourselves to be what we think we ought to be.
Desire and will are closely related, both because desires form the will and because the will forms desires. We are driven to want what we desire but we are also driven to desire what we want. Our beliefs and our voluntary goals are part of the causes of our emotions. There is pleasure in reaching a goal, whatever it is, as soon as it is set, and sometimes a very great displeasure not to reach it. Relationships between emotions, desires and will can be very complex, sometimes harmonious and sometimes conflicting. There may be conflicts between emotions, between an emotion and a voluntary purpose, and between voluntary purposes.
The superego is usually conscious because we know what we want, but it can become partly unconscious (Freud 1923), because it can be in contradiction with itself, because we can give ourselves incompatible values. Part of the superego can be ousted and denied by another part. Even if repressed, it can continue to act behind the scenes, but it no longer has access to the resources of consciousness and willpower.
A somewhat false version of depth psychology teaches that the ego is caught in a conflict between the id and the superego which opposes the carnal desires to the noble spiritual aspirations. This is somewhat false because the id is not reduced to carnal desires, because the superego is not always very noble, and especially because the internal conflicts can be much more complex than this simple opposition, which does not is not necessarily a source of conflict.
The id includes everything that is automatic and involuntary, not just carnal desires. Since our beliefs have an effect even when they are dormant, they are part of the id, even the beliefs about our most noble aspirations. We are driven by ideas in a way that is not always voluntary. The superego and the ego are rooted in the id. They could not exist without it.
False consciousness and unconscious knowledge
Even when our observations clearly show the truth, we can often doubt it, because we may believe that the facts have been wrongly perceived or misinterpreted, or that an error has crept in somewhere, no one knows where. When we do not want to believe truths that are clearly observed, it is usually easy to do so. It really would be necessary for flagrant and irrefutable evidence to be put under our noses to force us to believe them. But often we do not have such proofs, we do not look for them, and those that we have leave room for doubt, even if they are very good. Hence, the autonomy of the will allows us to deny truths that we know yet (Freud 1915). Denial allows us in particular to repress our desires, because we can deny what we feel by refusing to listen to it.
Affirmation and negation are not just about verbal beliefs, formulated with words. We can perceive that a being has or does not have a quality even if we do not have a word to say it. Denial takes on a lot of importance when we develop talking knowledge, but it can exist even in the absence of thought formulated with words.
When knowledge is acquired by our perception systems, it comes with an intrinsic force, which depends on its mode of acquisition and which allows us to evaluate it. Is this a good observation, because we were well placed to observe, or only a dubious interpretation of misunderstood events? When we decide to believe or not to believe, we take into account this intrinsic strength of perception, but also what we want to believe. When we deny the truth, we do not make it lose its intrinsic strength, because it depends only on how the truth has been perceived. Denial, the refusal to recognize the truth, does not prevent the memorization of perceived knowledge and does not make it lose its intrinsic strength, it only prevents the consciousness from working with it. If we deny the truth, we can not use it to think.
If we finally accept to recognize a truth that we have always denied, we think that we have always known it.
False consciousness, which results from denial, maintains its illusions. It is not necessarily bad, since illusions can motivate us and make us undertake good projects that we would not have adopted without them, but it is still a problem, since illusions prevent us from adapting to the reality.
Prisoners of schemas
Schemas, conceptual frameworks, that is, systems of preconceptions, have the function of helping us to adapt to reality, but they can also do the opposite.
We perceive reality according to our desires and our projects. The schemas we use to understand it depend on what we want it to be or what we believe it should be. In particular, we perceive ourselves from schemas that determine what we believe we should be, a kind of ideal of the self, and we obviously attach a strong emotional charge to these beliefs. When the perceived reality is in conflict with our expectations, it does not always lead us to become aware of the inadequacy of our schemas and we are tempted to deny it.
Schemas are maladaptive not only when they prevent us from perceiving reality but also when they prevent us from becoming aware of the possibilities. We define our projects according to schemas that determine what we believe we can do and we can not do. Incapacity schemas can not usually be confronted with reality, because we do not try if we think we are incapable, we can not learn that we are truly capable. Incapacity schemas are like self-fulfilling prophecies. They are fulfilled because they were announced and would not have been fulfilled otherwise. Capacity schemas are also self-fulfilling prophecies, as soon as they are adapted, because we prove to ourselves that we are capable by trying, and we would not have tried if we had not thought ourselves capable.
Some schemas that determine personality, what it believes to be, what it wants to be and what it can do, have been deeply entrenched since childhood. They can lead an individual to repeat the same mistakes all his life. They are then called early maladaptive schemas (Young & Klosko 1993, 2003, Cottraux 2001).
Maladaptive schemas are omnipresent. Very generally human beings suffer and make suffer because of their maladaptive schemas. Such omnipresence is not surprising if we understand that it results from the autonomy of the will and the natural limits of our faculties of evaluation and anticipation. Our maladaptive schemas were first voluntarily accepted, because we are forced to make a thousand times more decisions than we can rationally take while being well informed. Very often we must evaluate and decide ignoring the consequences, and we do so with very crude or frankly false criteria. We are the lost ones, wandering in the darkness and suffering the unfortunate consequences of our past mistakes.
The autonomy of the will leads to the knowledge of good and evil, and to the ignorance that goes with it, because we are only creatures. It is at the origin of most of our misfortunes, like an original sin (Genesis 3). It is also the source of our greatest joys.
Good schemas bear fruits by helping us adapt to reality and make good decisions. Conversely, maladaptive schemas make people suffer and take bad decisions. We rarely know in advance what are the good and bad schemas, but experience is a fairly reliable guide. It confirms our good choices and incites us to recognize our mistakes. We are not condemned to a perpetual misguidance, to always make our decisions without knowing anything. Provided that we accept to recognize our mistakes, experience gives us the means to identify our maladaptive schemas and correct them to free us from their grip.
The divided self
An inconsistency is a contradiction. We believe one thing and its opposite. We hold for truth both an affirmation and its negation.
As with denial, inconsistencies are not only between verbal beliefs. Our perceptions and our memories of reality can be inconsistent even if we do not have words to say them.
The autonomy of the will naturally makes us inconsistent. Our ways of assessing to approve or deny depend on external and internal conditions, what we have perceived, how we feel, and what beliefs have been previously awakened. As these conditions change all the time, we change our minds very often.
The same individual often has to play very different roles, depending on the circumstances and the people he meets. We play a role in activating beliefs and desires, activating a schema that organizes our perception of reality and what we have to do.
If a belief system leads us to inconsistencies, it prevents us from adapting because it does not enable us to make the difference between good decisions and others. A minimum of consistency is vital for the development of intelligence.
The roles we play, and the schemas that make us able to play them, are not fixed once and for all. Whenever we play a role we can learn to play it better and enrich our schemas with new beliefs and new desires. But this perpetual renewal makes us take the risk of inconsistency. Whenever a schema is enriched with a new belief, we must make sure that it is compatible with the old ones. If this is not the case, it is necessary to resolve the contradiction, by renouncing a belief or by providing precisions.
Each role has its own beliefs and values, which are activated only when we play that role and which define a particular ideal, what we must do to play that role well. But we also adopt more general values that we apply to all our roles, which define our ideal of the self and give us a sense of identity. If we always changed our values as we change our shirts, we would not know who we are and we could not trust ourselves because we would never be the same. The ideal of the self, the superego, is determined with a basic schema, which integrates all the particular roles into a unified personality. It enables us to do a work of interior unification, by imposing a minimum of coherence between our beliefs and our decisions. The ideal of the self is constantly enriched and renewed, and can be modified, but it still has a permanent, stable and almost definitive character. To renounce a basic belief that defines the ideal of the self demands that we give up a fundamental word. It is like betraying oneself. It is a threat to our sense of identity and the self-confidence that accompanies it. That is why these basic beliefs are normally anchored very securely and we do not give them up easily.
The various roles may conflict with each other and with the ideal of the self. The will must constantly do a work of internal unification by reducing its inconsistencies. If it does not, it loses its ability to adapt to reality and protect itself (Laing 1959). One has to be in agreement with oneself to be in agreement with the world.
The superego does not always help us to appease internal conflicts and unify the personality. If it is not adapted to reality, its imperatives and good resolutions are of little effectiveness. The superego can be itself divided, if we adopt incompatible values, if reality forces us to play irreconcilable roles and if we do not resolve these internal contradictions. A divided superego can not be unifying, soothing and moderating, as a good authority, it can only aggravate internal conflicts.
We readily identify with our beliefs, at least those we hold most. I am what I believe. If one of our core beliefs is denied, we feel ourselves denied, as if someone were trying to plant a knife in our heart. This is why internal conflicts can be very violent. Each part of the self fights for its survival and fears being annihilated by the other parts, in the same way that we might be afraid of being annihilated by others, if they do not let us assert ourselves as we believe we should be.
Traumatic events make the work of internal unification very difficult. They transform us in a way that surprises us. We do not recognize ourselves anymore. Our reactions are no longer in keeping with our basic aspirations. Traumatic events can also undermine our ideals, make us doubt the beliefs we hold most, and so weaken the superego, which no longer helps us to do our work of internal unification. We do not know any more who we are or what we should become.
Psychic dissociations are the troubles of the executive system when it has partially or totally lost its ability to do its work of internal unification.
This definition is broader than that of dissociative disorders, too restrictive, retained in official classifications.
Schizophrenia brings together the most serious forms of psychic dissociations. Typically a schizophrenic hears inner voices that seem to come from elsewhere, as if angels, or demons, or aliens, or the CIA, or the police, could both read our thoughts and control them, and also control what we imagine, what we feel, and even what we want.
The unity of the living body and the self-protective will
In a living living body all parts vivify all others and are vivified by them (Aristotle, The parts of animals). This solidarity is essential. A foot can not really be a foot if it is separated from the body. To be a foot it must be alive, it must be part of the body. It is nurtured, cared for and protected by the rest of the body and in return it serves to walk. The same goes for all other parts of the body, including the brain structures that cause emotions and willpower.
Thanks to the imagination, we can extend the field of possibilities to infinity. We may want everything we imagine, but this power of the will is also its weakness, because the will can be a danger to itself, it can cause itself a lot of harm and even self-destruct.
When in good health, the will protects and builds itself. The individual makes decisions to protect and enhance his ability to make decisions. When we want, we do not just want to achieve this or that particular goal, we want first and foremost to maintain our ability to want and do what we want, and if possible increase such capacity. The will wants itself. The individual wants to protect, preserve and increas his freedom of exercise of his will. Among all of his objectives, there must always be a priority objective of maintaining the ability to pursue objectives. Otherwise the imagination is likely to lead to self-destruction. To survive and develop, the conscious will must be self-protective and self-constructing, it must be a guardian angel for itself and for the whole body. And of course it can further extend the scope of its protection and construction.
The self-destructive power of the will is only the reverse of its self-constructive power. A power is in itself neither good nor bad, everything depends on the ends it serves. One can be dismayed and despaired by the self-destructive power, but one can also see there a reason to hope, since it is only the result of the autonomy of the will. If the will is so powerful to destroy itself, it is precisely because it has a formidable power to build itself.
Our instincts are necessarily protective, because natural selection has retained what helps us to live and reproduce ourselves. The evolution of life forbids the appearance of self-destructive instincts or a drive toward death, because it retains only that which increases the capacity to live. The desire to live, to make the best of all the means available to increase one's power of living, is a consequence of evolution by natural selection. It is present in all living beings, without any exception, because they have inherited their instincts, and because natural selection retains only the instincts that carry this desire to live, because it does not allow self-destructive instincts to appear and evolve. A self-destructive tendency in a living being can only be a dysfunction of an essentially self-protective system.
The mastery of oneself
We control a reality when we are able to make informed decisions about what it becomes and to enforce them. The important point is that decisions are informed, that one chooses the best possible, or at least the satisfactory. If we do not know how to put the available potential at the service of good, we are not really a master.
To be in the mastery does not mean to control everything or to decide everything. Letting go is a form of mastery if it results from an informed decision. Deciding not to decide, to let go, laisser-faire, is sometimes the best decision to make.
One is master of oneself when one is able to make informed decisions about what one becomes and to apply them.
The agreement, or the congruence, between the ego and its experience (Rogers 1951), that is the adaptation of our conscious beliefs to external and internal realities, is a necessary condition of the mastery of oneself. To use to the best of our potential it is necessary to know it. We can not fully develop our potential if we have illusions about it.
The activity of the id is the largest part of our inner activity and it escapes the voluntary control. This suggests that we can not be masters of ourselves. Everything could be decided without our knowledge in the id. The will itself could only be the recording of the decisions of the id. And we could not decide what we become. But to attribute to the id the omnipotence and thus reduce the ego to nothing, or almost nothing, seems exaggerated. The will of the ego to be master of its destiny, its belief in its ability to decide what it will become, to transform and to build itself, seems to be not only an illusion. One can want to acquire new abilities, new ways of reacting and knowing, and even want to transform and build one's will.
As we are transformed by all our experiences, by all that we perceive or imagine, all our voluntary decisions at the origin of our experiences always have the effect of transforming us. This is how we acquire new habits. At first they require a voluntary effort, but they are then accomplished in an automatic manner.
One acts on oneself as soon as one acts because one directs one's attention. The direction of attention is the first lever with which one acts on oneself at every moment. It is one of the first skills to acquire to learn to control oneself.
Imagination, even without action, is enough to transform oneself, because it makes us discover our abilities. We start by imagining that we could try something, then we realize that it could work. To imagine that we are capable is often enough to make ourselves capable. When we solve a problem by the imagination, we are transformed by the discovery of a solution.
One can act on one's own perception and construct it, because our decisions influence the way we perceive reality. The schemas that organize our perceptions depend on what we want. We can choose new schemas, modify or reject old ones and change our ways of seeing the world and ourselves.
Our voluntary decisions are not limited to action on the present. They often concern a more or less distant or determined future. We decide in advance on the objectives we will pursue and the rules, commitments or constraints which we will respect. Everything happens as if we were writing in our heads the contracts and the specifications for which we voluntarily decide. Such writing occurs automatically. It is enough that we take our decisions so that they are memorized in a definitive way, or almost. They can then take effect even years or decades later, unless they are forgotten. Taking decisions in advance is like wanting to want, because we are now deciding to want what we want later. In determining his will one builds it. One transforms oneself by making decisions, the will is self-determining, it is transformed by its own decisions.
One builds oneself by deciding what one wants to be, thus giving oneself an ethical knowledge that defines the ideal of the self. The superego is the main tool with which the self can build itself.
The will has something magical: just want to lift a little finger so that it automatically rises. It is the same when the will wants itself, when it makes commitments on its future. It is enough to want to determine one's will so that it is automatically determined. But whether it is for action on its environment or on oneself, the magic of the will always has limits. The will alone is generally insufficient to move mountains. Nor can it make itself what it can not be.
We build ourselves permanently, every time we make decisions and we live their consequences. As with any construction, the builder must adapt his action to the available materials, if he wants a viable and reliable result. Reflection, self-knowledge, is therefore essential, vital, to build oneself.
Power of the unconscious or of consciousness?
« A third refutation will be inflicted on human megalomania by the psychological research of our day which proposes to show the self that he is only not master in his own house, that he is reduced to being satisfied with rare fragmentary information about what is happening, outside of his consciousness, in his psychic life. » (Freud 1915)
The model of a centralized administration without a central administrator explains the id, the ego and the superego, and thus confirms some of the Freudian hypotheses, but it does not allow to attribute to the unconscious a power superior to that of consciousness. On the contrary, it shows that consciousness is the greatest inner power, because it commands the executive system which dominates all brain activity. Outside the executive system, only the emotional systems have the means to exert an inner dominion, but they can not do it completely without our knowledge, because we always have a minimum of consciousness of what we feel. Consciousness is in a position to collect all the information of vital importance on the inner activity, because it is naturally its work. The model leaves no room for an unconscious that could develop its power independently of consciousness. Where would it find the resources to dominate the interior without access to the executive system and emotional systems?
One could invent another model, where the unconscious would be a new system, superior to both the conscious executive system and the emotional systems. But why would nature devote precious resources to building a system that would have the main effect of depriving the consciousness of its power? This seems to be forbidden by natural selection, or it would be necessary for this unconscious to help us live.
The model of centralized administration without a central administrator forbids the existence of an unconscious that is both more powerful and independent of consciousness, but it nevertheless explains why the unconscious can be very powerful. When consciousness takes refuge in false consciousness and clings to maladaptive schemas, it can become very weak and unable to do its work of internal unification, it loses control and lets itself be invaded by the inner turmoil of unconscious origin. The unconscious acquires power through consciousness, but consciousness does not know because it has taken refuge in denial. By taking advantage of the weakness and illusions of consciousness, the unconscious can access the resources of the executive system by suggesting beliefs and goals whose unconscious motivations are not recognized. The unconscious can become powerful, but only because consciousness has given it a share of its power.
A good superego, adapted to the reality, lucid, which imposes a minimum of coherence to the interior life and which behaves like a good authority, moderating and soothing, is in principle enough to tame the unconscious. We should not see the id as a haunt of very powerful demons, but rather as an animal full of desire to live, more or less wild, and who can be tamed. It happens that the unconscious appropriates the resources of a weak and false consciousness and pushes to self-destruction, but it can only do so if consciousness does not do its self-protection work properly.
False consciousness is false mastery of oneself and true weakness, but it is weak because it is false, not because it is consciousness. When it is not false, consciousness is naturally very powerful.
Psychoanalysis and sociology often denounce the illusions of consciousness. What we believe, what we want, and what we do has many causes that we are not usually aware of, and we readily deceive ourselves about the causes of our decisions. All this is true but it would be wrong to conclude that the mastery of oneself is necessarily an illusion. To conclude from the existence of causes of which we are not aware that self-mastery is always illusory is a fallacy. It is necessary that we are not aware of all the causes that determine what we are experiencing. We can not be aware of everything. But to be master of oneself it is not necessary to be aware of everything, knowing enough about oneself to make good decisions suffices, it is not the sea to drink.
We must denounce the illusions of false consciousness to strengthen consciousness not to weaken it.
Lack of self-mastery is always a weakness. We live much better when we strengthen our mastery. Such an improvement of life proves very simply through experience the power of consciousness and the existence of a minimum of self-mastery.
Lack of self-mastery when it is serious is a disease of the mind. All psychic disorders are forms of lack of self-mastery. And healing consists in finding the minimum of self-mastery that one needs to live without suffering too much. If the mastery of oneself was always illusory we could never heal.
The mastery of emotions
Homeostasis (Claude Bernard), ie the stabilization of the internal milieu, is vital for all living beings, because they must maintain internal conditions that allow them to live. A deviation from this internal equilibrium must be followed by reactions to return to equilibrium, otherwise the organism is struggling to survive or dies.
The system of emotions participates in the homeostasis of the whole body, but it is also endowed with a homeostasis of its own. Emotional stability is the ability to regain one's inner peace despite everything that moves us away from it. Strong emotions are deviations from tranquility and must be followed by a return to balance for life to be preserved.
The inner tranquility is not necessarily great happiness or serenity. When we have been struck by misfortune, we may still manage to keep a little tranquility, life goes on, but we are not necessarily very happy. Be that as it may, this tranquility is a kind of vital minimum. If we lose it and we do not know how to find it again, life becomes impossible, or very painful.
The system of emotions automatically triggers reactions intended to maintain the inner balance, but it is not purely autonomous, it can warn the conscience and incite it to react. Emotions work as warnings and evaluators. They inform the conscience of the present problems and they serve to evaluate the potential solutions. From this point of view, they do not oppose reason, on the contrary, they encourage us to think and reason in order to find solutions, and they orient us, like a compass, or like the Star of the North.
When an emotion is very strong, it becomes imperious. It mobilizes all the resources of consciousness and will, we can not but think about it, and all the other objectives are as if erased by one particular problem, which has aroused the emotion. From this point of view, an emotion blinds us because it prevents us from thinking about everything that does not concern it. It is like a selfish dictator who only wants to be obeyed, and who does not care about the rest.
Inner tranquility is not only a condition of survival, it is also a necessary condition for the development of the will. In the absence of tranquility, one is enslaved and blinded by one's emotions and can not take full advantage of the resources of the conscious will. Emotions are beneficial as long as they are regulated and stabilized, as long as they are only temporary deviations from a balance of tranquility, which one always manages to find.
To preserve good conditions of exercise, the will must support the system of emotions in its quest for tranquility, the conscience must solve the problems that have aroused the emotion and it must also play a moderating role, so that the emotion do not invade us and do not blind us. But vis-à-vis emotions the imagination is naturally amplifying. An emotion awakens representations that tend to strengthen it. Emotion and imagination excite each other and thus maintain a kind of inner conflagration that appropriates all the resources of consciousness and will. We must therefore learn to control our emotions and our imagination if we want the will normally develops its self-protective powers, if we want to know how to maintain our inner balance and find it after deviating from it.
Voluntary control of emotions, if misunderstood, is like an impossible mission. Emotions are often triggered outside any voluntary control. They take us. We do not choose them. They are like forces that surpass us and show us that we are not masters of ourselves. We can not decide not to feel an emotion that we feel.
Emotions are an inner life and strength that escape voluntary control, but they are not all-powerful. The will has naturally many ways to influence emotions (Beck 1975).
Emotions are often triggered before we become aware of their causes (James 1890), but not always. Sometimes they are triggered by what we perceive or imagine consciously. Voluntary control of perception and imagination thus indirectly influences emotions.
The fate of an emotion, after its release, is not written in advance. It depends on our voluntary decisions. We can choose to express or hold back emotion. We can approve or reprove it. We may or may not adopt the goals it suggests. Our evaluation criteria therefore have a great influence on how we live with our emotions and what we do with them. An emotion that we fully endorse is not experienced in the same way as an emotion that bothers us, and does not have the same effects.
Our schemas are the basis of our ways of perceiving, wanting and feeling. The same reality can be lived in despair, because one believes that one's life is totally destroyed, or as an opportunity to go further, because one believes that it is a failure rich of lessons. Even when we can not be masters of reality, we can still be masters of our ways of perceiving and reacting to it, because we can choose our schemas, modify them, improve them or reject them.
The will is dominated by emotions only if it allows itself to be dominated, if it renounces to exercise fully its autonomy. When the will normally exercises control, emotions are like a source of energy that can be channeled and used in many ways. We do not decide to have emotions, but we decide what we do with them, what they become, and how they transform us. We can therefore be masters of our emotions, provided that our decisions about them are enlightened.
Control of the will over emotions can lead to a form of false consciousness, emotional denial, and to the repression of desires. We can not not feel what we feel, but we can perceive it in different ways, refuse to pay attention to it and deny the observations it suggests. Emotions need to be listened to and interpreted. Like any reality, they are perceived from schemas. We do not understand our emotions and our desires and remain deaf to their teaching if our schemas are not adapted. We can build a false consciousness by denying the truths our emotions teach us. A work of emotional acceptance is necessary to renounce the illusions of this false consciousness (Greenberg).