Self as metaphor and placebo

Table of Contents

The extent of intent

Consider the will.

How large is the domain of its ownership?

First extension: The will has power over the body. In fact, being able to follow a movement command is the essential condition for a body having a will. Moving is not willing, but moving that follows a plan is. The standard and well-know test for the presence of a will in a body is giving it a body-motion command. Body is the first home of will. However, the power of intentional awareness over the vast machinery of the body is minuscule—limbs, jaw, head, facial muscles, diaphragm, tongue, imagination, speech, and will. And that’s about all.

Second extension: The power of will over the body can be extended slightly, as we see in the metabolic self-mastery of yogis. This is really just an extension of the first power.

Third extension: The will has power over other people (including the self that the will is so close to). The will of one person can infiltrate and control the thoughts and biology of others. Humans are language controllable and even agency penetrable.

The two types of suggestion

Language can compel and determine a person in two general ways:

Compulsion following choice. I hear a command, consider it, and then promise to follow it at the appointed time. When a command is consciously followed, the command is confronted—i.e., it occurs at a distance as an object. Moreover, the idea of following the command is likewise considered as an object. I simulate myself doing it, and I evaluate the simulation from a distance. Then, after these considerations, I add the command to my to-do list as my intention. When I say I will do something, it means I have chosen the plan after having considered it.

Doing X consciously means having already weighed doing X against the background of my preexisting promises and proclivities. To follow a command consciously requires the possibility of recollecting the (original) encounter with the command as one full of reflection and consideration. It means coming at the command as a richly promise-laden self that existed prior to the encounter. It means coming at it knowing that one is already compelled by many other commands. The context that enables consideration must be other and prior to the object.

Compulsion following implanted suggestion. A command can be given that causes agency but which was never vetted by that agency. I can be compelled by dictums that I have never occurred to me as plans (much less mine).

The fact that compulsion of type (2) exists suggests that the “I” that voices the command is in principle separable from the “I” that carries it out. The body can be programmed by another will and indwelling will will still take credit as the agent of the action. The local will can be given commands, ordered to forget them, and then carry them out. The local will can recall witnessing events that never happened, but were only suggested to it. The local will can cause molecular-level effects, such as seen with placebo drugs, surgery, shamanic healing and ritual. Belief by self can yield effects in areas of not-self.

The real difference between (1) and (2) is the self’s self-consciousness of itself being other than the suggestion when the command is given.

Astrology, magnetism, gravity, and electricity

Is there a universe-pervading aether? Once Europeans learned that the moon governed the tides, the astrologically minded must have surely wondered:

What about the liquids in our bodies? And if the moon, why not planets and even distant stars?

Before neurology, the only complex intelligible system correlated to human experience was astrology—one among many massively complex medieval intellectual masturbation fests. Before Francis Bacon, “science” meant reordering or reconnecting truths inherited from Aristotelian and Biblical metaphysics and mythology. Research was permutation and remapping. Openness to empirical discovery with beginner’s mind was unknown.

In the medieval context, if astrology failed to predict, it was not because it was wrong—it was because it wasn’t complicated enough. Like a child playing scientist, there were lots of rules and tables, lots of orderly details, lots of system to learn—but no truth testing. It was as if the “truth” was, in part, the beauty and pleasure of the system-building.

As the mechanical philosophy made gains in empirical discovery, astrology sought the legitimacy of a mechanical explanation. Given the aether theory, the discovery of gravity, and the known lunar action on the tides, a mechanical theory of astrological influence at last became possible.

Then the self was vital, all-pervading, and felt the gravitational force.

Gravity, magnetism, and electricity were all candidates for mixing with pervasion and vitality. The metaphorical metaphysics of the self changed along the way as it clothed itself in the latest para-physical speculations.

In the end, with Freud’s hydraulic model, the fluid metaphor still exists, though in a purely mechanical function. As biological energy, drive, desire, libido—the vital fluid of Paracelsus and Mesmer lives on in Freud’s hydraulic model of the self.

The day placebos changed

The 17th and 18th centuries was a revival of interest in placebo-enhanced therapeutic interaction based on the manipulation of occult but physical forces. It was the kind of interaction you find at work in shamanic healing and Catholic confession, where the belief of one person influenced the perception and even the willing of another. Suggestion by one person can influence the feeling, imagining, believing, desiring, speaking, and physical acting of another—even their very intention and “agency.”

What made it new this time was a certain development in the health marketplace and a development in physics. In the marketplace, magnets were being used to heal physical ailments. In physics, an aether was posited to explain the propagation of gravity and light. The time was ripe for the occult lineage dealing with a different aether—an all-pervading vital fluid or field—to gain popular placeboic traction. The puzzle of how one person’s belief can affect the identity, volition, and even biology of another was revitalized by a metaphorical employment the universalism of gravity demonstrated by Newton in 1687.

Beings such as self or soul that are implicit or ubiquitous are not easily evoked by name. But the marketplace produces hyper-meaningful identities (brands) that are strongly foregrounded and provocatively articulated. Manias for gravity, magnetism, electricity, the aether, and successful placebo medicine (with magnets) converged in the advent of Mesmerism in the 18th century. It was a renaissance for self-mastery and placebo therapy.

What's interesting is that an accidental surge in two unrelated fields prompted the development of hypnosis that led to the invention of the unconscious and the self that rides it. This is the story of the Western self-story that developed from its role as a placebo. This is the story of the Western self in its role as placebo, a history of the emergence of the suggestible self, the placebo self.

Self in the mirror of physics

Can physics adequately serve as a repository of self-metaphor?

For anthropic mechanists like Hobbes, the self was a machine, and consciousness the playing-out of the brain’s molecular clockwork. But Hobbes’ comfort with the automaton model was exceptional. Of all the self-metaphors that can be borrowed from physics, corpuscular matter has historically been the least favorite with European folk psychologists.

Leibniz captured the distaste vividly. Consciousness, he wrote in 1714, is

inexplicable on mechanical principles, i.e. by shapes and movements. If we imagine a machine whose structure makes it think, sense, and be conscious, we can conceive of it being enlarged in such a way that we can go inside it like a mill. Suppose we do: visiting its insides, we will never find anything but parts pushing each other—never anything that could explain a conscious state.

Like today’s New Agers and theists, most early moderns preferred mysterious forces like gravity and magnetism—and the hypothetical entities that were offered to explain them—over clockwork physics. It seems there is a popular distaste for the purely mechanical robot, one whose life is a calculus of gears, levers, and other simple and easily understood mechanisms—of masses hitting, pushing, and pulling other masses.

What is the basis of this prejudice? The popular hatred for anthropic mechanism may rest on a deeper principle:

Epistemic principle of dignity by transcendence
If consciousness understands a mechanism, it also transcends it, and thereby disqualifies that mechanism from being a sufficient cause of consciousness. (Cf. the Gödel-Lucas argument. For a summary, see here; for the original paper, go here; for an overview of the argument, see here.)

Consciousness cannot stomach being the result of idealized point motion because this is so easily understood. What consciousness understands must be beneath it.

The known cannot cause the mysterious.

Throughout history, we have turned to the mysterious and poorly understood features of physics in order to understand subjectivity, self, and consciousness. We are looking for the non-objective in the object.

In the popular imagination, historically, it was nearly everything except the particulate or corpuscular conception of matter that inspired these speculative proto-psychologists. Specifically, they liked fields and fluids—gravity, magnetism, aether, and electricity. These became the favored metaphors for consciousness because they differed from particulate matter and the mechanical force of impact.

If gravity, magnetism, aether, and electricity excited the Romantic imagination and encouraged speculation about the nature of consciousness, we must ask: What is it about these forces did people find so attractive? The traits seem to be:

  1. Invisible—Like consciousness. Everything except baryonic matter fits the bill.
  2. All-pervading—Like consciousness. EXAMPLE: Gravity, aether; also, magnetic force; electric fluid. Consciousness is field-like. It transcends and contains—as, for example, in acts of vision. How could the thing producing synoptic visual consciousness be the result of particular gear-like impacts? Even of many such impacts? How can the gears-and-springs brain produce that?
  3. Vitalistic—Living, teleological, purposive, divine. EXAMPLE: Galvani discovers bio-electricity. Something primitive, simple, and plausibly prior to (and so causative of) life.

These physical phenomena are mysterious—ciphers that solicit filling by hope. But they are mysterious only by contrast to ordinary mechanics of local impact. Anything outside collision of masses, in fact, was mysterious. Bodies imparting force on each other on impact. The force we best understand is the one that we grok ourselves through the weighty and most-real sense of proprioception—the impact of massive force against our bodies.

It was the discovery of (what appeared to be) non-mechanical or even trans-mechanical phenomena in physics that excited hope in the possibility of directly affecting the life-force or spirit. There is excitement (and even salvation, as T. K. Seung argues) in the notion that the soul is permeable or otherwise contacting the full expanse of space.

Like theology, psychology is mythology, debugged

Putting the puzzle of the suggestible unconscious in these terms took 150 years of debugging. The strange unforced forces of logical consistency and rational systematizing turned mythology into quasi-rational theology. They also turned the vital cosmic fluid of Paracelsus and Mesmer into the Freudian unconscious.

We will find that the model of self changed in tandem with the changing face of mystery in physics, that the placebo self was dialectically defined by inspiring mysteries from contemporaneous physics.