bleib003: April 2012 Archives

We tend to think of causation as a phenomenon that occurs in one direction. "A" causes "B". The cueball strikes the eightball at a certain angle and velocity, and we can precisely map the eightball's subsequent motion using mathematical formulas. The universe is rational and deterministic: laws govern reality as it plays out in an orderly and predictable cascade of events.

That's why the concept of "nature via nurture" is so memorable, and so striking. It forces us to alter certain cherished paradigms, to shift our "natural" views of cause and effect. "Nature via nurture" describes the mechanism by which genes shape the development of the self. It refers to the principle that our natural inclinations and talents tend to influence our environment, which in turn influences our inclinations and talents. It also describes a system within which causation is bi-directional: "A" causes "B" while "B" simultaneously causes "A".

I used to worry that there was a person inside of us, defined by our genes, that we were meant to become. I worried that personal development could be hijacked by environmental circumstances, generating a false, misshapen self--that is, a self tragically at odds with our genetic destiny. Of course these views were naively teleological, and a touch grotesque. Still, I couldn't help but harbor a certain anxiety that I had been betrayed by my upbringing, which operated as a kind of alien imposition on the self. The principle of "nature via nurture" functions as a nice corrective for these fears. It states, in short, that we shape the environment that shapes us; that whatever circumstances contribute to our development already bear the mark of the self's influence.

Trait Troubles

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Trait theorists conceptualize the self as a series of attributes. Individuals receive a set of scores based on the degree to which they possess the attribute in question: conscientiousness level 22, neuroticism level 15, etc. But can the self be reduced to a series of dimensions? There is an argument to be made that it cannot. The self as a collection of attributes is inert, passive, still. But, after all, consciousness is dynamic and protean; it can conceive of attributes and then decide to embody/imitate them.

But perhaps there are limits to the self's mutability. Individual differences exist that can be extrapolated from the self's movements and behaviors, even if they don't strictly bind the "I" like a rigid protocol or list of ingredients. Attributes can be inferred.

The question is, what do our "attributes" actually describe. Do they refer to a pattern of behaviors? Or do they point to qualities of consciousness, qualities of subjectivity? Does it feel different to inhabit a neurotic mind than it does to occupy a non-neurotic mind (o.k. the answer to that one is easy)? If we were to express an individual's instantaneous consciousness as a picture, would the picture look different if we increased his or her extraversion score by a couple of points?

Of course, the answer is that our attributes have both an external and an internal component. Still, I think we each have an idea of there being a "self" that's held in reserve, a self that's free of descriptors: the self as force, or will. The thought that even this self can be hemmed in and pinned down by a set of "attributes", I think, is somehow difficult to fathom.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries written by bleib003 in April 2012.

bleib003: February 2012 is the previous archive.

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