Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Myth of the Enduring Personality - Part IV

Traits of Temperament & Character

At this point it may be argued that persistence or 'relaible' is the wrong sort of thing to constitute a fixed trait. We might divide the trait realm in to traits of character and traits of temprament. This is an argument favoured by Helen Fisher in 'This Will Make You Smarter'

"Personality is composed of two fundamentally different types of traits: those of ‘character;’ and those of ‘temperament.’ Your character traits stem from your experiences. Your childhood games; your family’s interests and values; how people in your community express love and hate; what relatives and friends regard as courteous or perilous; how those around you worship; what they sing; when they laugh; how they make a living and relax: innumerable cultural forces build your unique set of character traits. The balance of your personality is your temperament, all the biologically based tendencies that contribute to your consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving. As Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, put it, ‘I am, plus my circumstances.’ Temperament is the ‘I am,’ the foundation of who you are". (Fisher, 2013)

Here we see that Fisher divides the trait domain in to two components which consist of temperament and character. She claims that temperament is the foundation of who you are. Then, we also have traits developed by experience, that is our character. In this sense, she is trying to say there is some fixed essence to us, but also a malleable component much like Eyesenck. Given that in our previous example, my persistence was learned, we could pass this off as a trait of experience, if we could really call it a trait at all. A trait theorist may reject my persistence is a trait of temperament, and try to run another argument in favour of traits which might run like this.

John is an introvert who clearly has a shy trait since he has a social anxiety disorder of some kind. It is evident that we observe consistent and regular withdrawal behaviours when he is surrounded by strangers, and he has always been like this. This points to an enduring mechanism that causes this behaviour, therefore, traits do exist.

Constructing an argument in this way, we have delineated between experience and some fixed essence of an individual. That is to say, persistence is the kind of thing derived from our experience, but there is some particular immutable hard wired aspect to our personality which is the biological foundation of what we refer to as ourselves.

However, this might not be a tenable claim to make if we consider the following. If we take John and put him in a different situation i.e. with two friends he knows well, it might be reasonable to suggest this shy trait would disappear. This means that the appearance of the trait is contingent on a specific context, namely when confronted with strangers. In this instance, it would appear that a specific stimulus is required in order to trigger this disposition. Here, an explanation might look like this.

Stimulus – Perceptual recognition - Neurotransmitters released - Behavioural response

This may well be observable in a series of events and it is reasonable to draw this conclusion, however, we need not hold to the claim this is a fixed enduring disposition. It is recognised by psychologists that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can affect changes to people who suffer with social anxiety disorder. 

Essentially, if we take someone like John we could put him through a series of therapy sessions and over time he could well become cured of his social anxiety. On this account it seems that these dispositions are not enduring at all, they are actually malleable and a product of his dysfunctional thinking. In this sense, we can question the assumption that there are hard wired biological aspects to our personality.

Proponents of trait theory try to appeal to certain aspects of personality being malleable, and others which are not. It is clear here that in order to account for this, a trait theorist points to both an experiential component, and a fixed biological component. However, by appealing to these dual mechanisms, trait theorists are both having their cake and eating it. How can we justifiably claim that on the one hand there are experiential traits that are malleable and fixed biological traits that are also malleable? In order to assert a solid foundation for this “I am”, it would be necessary to put this shyness trait in to a biological category. How could one possibly be shy and this not be part of their temperament?

Right here we run in to a clear contradiction in terms. This division in to traits of temperament and character appears to be underspecified at best and at worst incoherent. It is recognised that people can go through major changes to their behaviour, especially when we consider the transition from a child to an adult. It might be pertinent to assign an aggressive temperament to a child, but how then do we explain this transition to a calm and relaxed adult using the idea of fixed traits? Clearly, the distinction between temperament and character cannot be maintained since we need to appeal to malleability of temperament, and it seems this division is clearly a product of reification. That is, we have mistakenly granted this conceptual division concrete existence, when it does not exist. It would be incumbent on a trait theorist to specify this difference coherently, and it appears that this difficulty is insurmountable.

The other option available here is to bite the bullet and say there are no fixed traits. That even our temperament is malleable, as we are beings that change over time. In this sense, Trait theory could incorporate John's cure and allow that this foundation of who we are can shift over time.

However, the difficulties for trait theory begin to become apparent once we expose the assumptions needed for this idea to work... 
Part V here...

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Introspection in to Consciousness

Hi folks, another excerpt from an interview where Sam Harris plugging his new book. His support for introspection as a valid scientific methodology, is something that Stevphen, Nick, Ciaran, and myself, among many others, have been banging on about for ages.

To see one of the figureheads of the New atheist movement speak in these terms is unprecedented.

Whilst there is common agreement with other philosophers, the last sentence is particularly telling. If you do not want to read the short article, he argues that consciousness studies should include introspection as a valid scientific methodology. This is something I had numerous arguments about on Truth Strike, not only regarding its validity, but also as a methodology in its own right.

To see someone of his stature call for this kind of mainstream enquiry is great news. I also feel proud that we have been pioneers in the sense that we upheld the scientific method throughout our enquiries, and rejected much of the metaphysical spiritual conceptions that were not grounded in experience. Hopefully this is the beginning of the sea change we have been fighting for since the days of Ruthless Truths inception.

Original article here

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and prominent “new atheist,” who along with others like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens helped put criticism of religion at the forefront of public debate in recent years. In two previous books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris argued that theistic religion has no place in a world of science. In his latest book, “Waking Up,” his thought takes a new direction. While still rejecting theism, Harris nonetheless makes a case for the value of “spirituality,” which he bases on his experiences in meditation. I interviewed him recently about the book and some of the arguments he makes in it.

Gary Gutting: A common basis for atheism is naturalism — the view that only science can give a reliable account of what’s in the world. But in “Waking Up” you say that consciousness resists scientific description, which seems to imply that it’s a reality beyond the grasp of science. Have you moved away from an atheistic view?

Sam Harris: I don’t actually argue that consciousness is “a reality” beyond the grasp of science. I just think that it is conceptually irreducible — that is, I don’t think we can fully understand it in terms of unconscious information processing. Consciousness is “subjective”— not in the pejorative sense of being unscientific, biased or merely personal, but in the sense that it is intrinsically first-person, experiential and qualitative.

The only thing in this universe that suggests the reality of consciousness is consciousness itself. Many philosophers have made this argument in one way or another — Thomas Nagel, John Searle, David Chalmers. And while I don’t agree with everything they say about consciousness, I agree with them on this point. The primary approach to understanding consciousness in neuroscience entails correlating changes in its contents with changes in the brain. But no matter how reliable these correlations become, they won’t allow us to drop the first-person side of the equation. The experiential character of consciousness is part of the very reality we are studying. Consequently, I think science needs to be extended to include a disciplined approach to introspection. (My Highlight, Ghost x)

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Myth of the Enduring Personality - Part III

Part I of the series here

The Self Delusion of Personality

The traits that we use in everyday conversation appear in the form of a predicate in grammatical terms. That is, they form the part of the clause that describes the subject. So for example, we could say “John is shy” and the 'is shy' portion is our predicate. This is how we tend to describe people in an objective capacity. However, this does become problematic when we try and apply it across the board.

A trait that I liked to apply to myself was my strong level of persistence. Since Eyesenck does not use the word persistent, I find the closest matching trait from his chart which is reliable. I do not get easily dissuaded and I have an unwavering ability to push forward towards my goals even in difficult circumstances. This is perhaps my strongest trait and something I considered to make me who I am. 

This description is rather inaccurate though because I was not always so persistent. In fact, I used to be a quitter and found it difficult to see things through when I was younger. I sometimes used to look at things that had a degree of difficulty and did not even bother entertaining giving it a go, quickly dismissing them as too difficult. When I did try, I often ran out of momentum and my interest waned quickly.

In later life I developed an interest in many difficult things such as producing music, writing philosophy, and martial arts. These are not things you can just give a quick go and become a master at. These are things that require a serious degree of commitment and also many failures through trial and error. By applying myself to certain endeavours, I found I got a great deal of satisfaction from them and I was willing to persist at them for this reason. 

When completing my degree I did not find the same level of satisfaction in doing the work, but I did focus on the end result, which I believed would give me a great deal of satisfaction. Even though there were times when studying drove me to despair, especially when I was sat in the house whilst it was 30° outside during the summer, I managed to stick it out right through till the end. In this sense, when we perceive that it is something of value then persistence becomes something that naturally flows from this.

When we look at it in this sense it seems I actually learned to become persistent rather than having it as a natural trait. However, if someone in a job interview asked me “What is your strongest trait”?
I would reply “My persistence”. It is plain then I have led myself into self deceit and there is no enduring quality about me that is persistent.

It is just simply the fact that I persist at doing things that I deem to be of value.

I would not demand to continue a picnic when the weather turned inclement, and clearly my persistence trait would disappear on such an occasion. Personally, I find more value in sticking at difficult tasks, and I do not find things that come with little effort very rewarding. However, this does not mean it is some enduring quality that I possess more so than anybody else.

We are all willing to persist at something that we believe is of value to us, and to say this is a personality trait, would be conflating it with our preferences. Our preferences are real but we were trying to point to enduring 'traits' in order to predict our behaviour. Our preferences, as we know, change over time and sometimes quite drastically too. 

For instance, you probably didn't like the taste of alcohol or olives when you were younger, and I seriously doubt that you are interested in playing with action figures or Dolls any more. Anyhow, I digress here and this is a subject worthy of future exploration in its own right.

The main point is this.

Do you see how easy it is to concoct an identity story?

By overcoming adversity at University and persisting with my endeavours through all the difficult parts, I have constructed an enduring quality about myself that is grounded in fiction. In the past I could have used this as a device to delude myself about my triumph over adversity, or to try and coerce or manipulate the way people might think about me.

The reality is sometimes I persist at things and other times I don't.

That is about as far as any chain of reasoning can be established here, and all we are left with is a miserable tautology, when we expected to find some enduring quality of my 'personality'. The thing that determines whether or not I do persist is simply whether I deem it to be of value. Very simply, we are looking to contingencies of circumstance that determine whether or not we perform particular behaviours.

That is, the context we find ourselves in is the factor which determines our behaviour.

To point to some enduring quality that 'makes me the person who I am' clearly seems to point to the mistakes we made in the first part of this essay. This is where we referred to 'categorisation' as being an incoherent means of assigning traits to people, since there is a dimensional quality to their behaviours. Furthermore, we can invent new categories to rationalise our stories, and the above is an instance where I have conjured up a personality trait out of thin air.

It seems that we all find it too easy to make the error of rigidly categorising ourselves and to compound this problem, some of our categorisations may not be positive traits like persistence. Have you ever categorised yourself as a loser, unlovable, clumsy?

Well guess what.

You are using the very same mechanism of delusion to conceptualise yourself. When we take a look at the imposing fortress of such categorisations, we need only revise our view point, and realise it was folly all along.

This argument might not hold with some folk though, and we might say this is the wrong sort of thing to call a trait, and challenge this argument by splitting traits in to two types....

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