‘Two souls, alas, in my breast’

Goran asked:

Hi, I wonder if the constant inner monologue I have in my self-conscious mind suggests that there is only one part of myself. When I ask myself if I should grab a beer in the fridge, and I hear one voice saying “yes, nice, you deserve it” and another “no, go to the gym and work on your belly instead”, and then there is a will inside me that decides to either close the fridge and go to gym, or open the beer, are these voices and this will just one single unit of myself, or are there two or even three parts of my self-conscious self? One reason I am asking is that I wonder if Plato’s tripartite soul may be at work here: the appetitive (have a beer), the rational (go to gym) and the spirited (will to decide either). Or is this just amateurish hairsplitting?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

That’s a good question, Göran; and the fact that you quote Plato highlights the historical fact that it has always bothered thinkers. But let me start on a ‘down-putting’ note, so that we can keep to level ground for a few moments. The symptoms you describe would also be familiar to handlers of animals, who know that dogs, horses, dolphins, apes etc. can have their moment of whimsy. So it’s not unique to mankind. I’m sure you also know the riddle of ‘Buridan’s Ass’, whose logic falters on the very spontaneity that characterises animal behaviour.

Spontaneity is indeed the key. It breaks the bicameral symmetry.

Whereas the idea that more than one voice impels us from time to time to take divergent paths cannot be taken literally. In a general sense, we can get away with emphasising the “two souls in my breast” of which Goethe spoke, i.e. that we exhibit a propensity for binary choices, which is confirmed every time we get confused by having more than two choices to consider. But unless you suffer from split personality, this is merely our self-reflectivity making it possible for us to toss an argument back and forth as if there were two selves tugging at our inner self (the latter therefore a third silent partner??).

But now consider that we humans are bundles of constantly conflicting emotions. Our psychology is more complex than that of animals, due to our self-reflecting intelligence. There is in us, as Schopenhauer revealed long before Freud, a ‘will’ striving against reason, and this will makes itself heard in all situations where our animal estate has cause for complaint. This is not perhaps the simple decision between a beer and a stint at the gym, although it can explain why your choice depends on circumstances like the weather, the degree of tiredness, laziness and innumerable other factors. In a word, the will frequently exerts itself against our better judgement, and especially often against our bad judgement. I guess I need not remind you that erotic desires are so powerful that a chance of fulfilling them can override the strongest moral reasoning against!

But I cannot go further with this topic, which is after all inexhaustible. Instead, let me suggest something a little off the beaten track in regard to two (or more) voices urging you to pursue or refrain from a course of action. We tend to think of an “I” as an all-controlling conscious faculty. This is more than dubious. It seems rather more likely that consciousness is a kind of mental bubble with only a tiny input into the brain in average, quotidian circumstances, though it may from time to time be upgraded in situations of emergency or heavy-going choice scenarios. Mostly however, the brain makes its own decisions, based on the ceaseless data flow from the whole organism. Our mistake re ‘being in charge’ is forgivable to the extent that neurophysiological education is not practised very widely. But let me say in a rough and ready way: by the time you make your 100th decision on any random day, your neuronal ensemble is likely to have made 100 million of which you know nothing. This is not even considering the many things we do by rote; e.g. you never have to stop and think, shall I go down the stairs with my right or left foot first?

Maybe it turns out one day, that conscious awareness is a cunningly contrived epiphenomenon to enable long-term plans and more general decisions about how we wish to live in our social environment. It wouldn’t surprise David Hume, who wrote over 200 years ago (quoting ad libitum): Whenever I introspect, I come upon thoughts, desires, feelings, plans, worries etc., but I never alight upon a self. There you have the result of his ‘duologue’; and I feel sure that if you were to examine your own, the result would be pretty much the same.

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