Monday, April 11, 2011

Making Sense of How We View Ourselves and Others

Here I will conclude my posts on the philosophy of Michael Polanyi. I am very interested in the meaning we construct from our existence and how this impacts our understanding of and value we place on others. I am fairly pragmatic, so I am quite interested in how our world view impacts the way we treat ourselves and others. I not only want to know if it is true, but how it works. At work, I ask questions about world view and its effects on a daily basis in counseling sessions. For example, clients who come to see me who have extensive abuse histories often tell me they view life as quite harsh and have a limited capacity to trust and develop reciprocal relationships with others. They may treat others as objects to be used and seek to gratify themselves to the detriment of others. After all, they have experienced life as a dog-eat-dog world. Other clients react against abuse histories and make a point of seeking justice for themselves and others around them in an effort to rectify an unjust world. It is clear that humans are uniquely gifted at meaning making. It makes all the difference in how we live our lives. As Victor Frankl has told us, making meaning in the face of suffering allows us to survive and even thrive when we might otherwise give up in despair.

Polanyi fought the meaning made of our world and personhood within the reductionistic and nihilistic framework of 20th century western philosophy. He developed his philosophy during the World War II era while watching his world collapse under tyranny, war, and annihilation. In regard to reality and personhood, Polanyi wrote:

What is most tangible has the least meaning, and it is perverse then to identify the tangible with the real. For to regard a meaningless substratum as the ultimate reality of all things must lead to the conclusion that all things are meaningless. We can avoid this conclusion only if we acknowledge instead that the deepest reality is possessed by higher things that are least tangible...It is this sort of mechanical reductionism that is the heart of the matter...It is this that is the origin of the whole system of scientific obscurantism under which we are suffering today. This is the cause of our corruption of the conception of man, reducing him either to an insentient automaton or to a bundle of appetites. This is why science denies us the possibility of acknowledging personal responsibility. This is why science can be invoked so easily in support of totalitarian violence, why science has become the greatest source of dangerous fallacies today.

About Polanyi, Drusilla Scott wrote:

We all in some degree start from our conclusions, as Polanyi said he did. Bertrand Russell started from the conclusion that the rules and methods of the laboratory rule out persons, and was stoically prepared to be ruled out in theory, though in fact he went on illegitimately being there...Polanyi starts from the other end, from knowing persons and never doubting their entire reality, finding them decidedly more real than atoms. He looked full in the Gorgon face of this 'Science' whose rules of knowledge turn man to matter, and found it to be a false mask, for the real face of science is discovery, and discoveries are made by persons, not by rules. And the reality that persons know is, like persons, recognised as real because it can be known but never fully known; it draws and leads us by having always more to reveal, unforeseeable but in character.

History and personal experience inform us that it is not in the best interest of humanity to live out of a purely reductionistic, mechanistic worldview. When we don't view ourselves and others as having intrinsic worth, we use, objectify, and annihilate. In the field of psychology, we adamently assert to our clients that they are worthy, they are special, they are deserving of respect, and we express these values as self-evident. These values probably have root in the humanistic theories which replaced the mechanistic behaviorism from earlier in the 20th century. We've found that the mental health of clients doesn't fare well in the face of nihilistic philosophy. Maybe that in itself is an indication that it is fatally flawed. But what of humanistic philosophy that is not grounded in anything deeper than itself? Are there any fatal flaws there? What about the narcisism that appears to pervade our culture? Is it intellectually honest to value all life equally 'just because'? Is there really instrinsic worth? Where does it come from? Is this an indication that there is something transcendent which gives worth and meaning? Or is this unnecessary? Does the fact that our emotional wellbeing seems dependent on experiencing a sense of value and worth reflect a truth about our inherent value? What do you think?


  1. Lots of good philosophical questions. When i was still in my fundamentalist mindset, i was perplexed at how bioethicist arrives at ethical theries without a concrete source for guidance (ie bible). Now i really appreciate their work. My mentor attended a liberal mainline church, interestingly enough (most philosophers are not christian), although we never discussed religion (i wish we had though!)

  2. Hi,

    Your last question about "Does the fact that our emotional wellbeing seems dependent on experiencing a sense of value and worth reflect a truth about our inherent value? " is interesting.

    Christianity teaches us that we do have value to God; right? I wonder if (if we are going to go there) that sense of worth- comes from being a part of a community- Which is inherently part of the faith as we know it, right? We know from various studies that people who are involved in a faith community of some kind live longer and are healthier, etc etc...

    Is it an "evolutionary" trigger, that in the hunting and gathering phase of our existence you were more likely to survive as a part of a community? Thus we developed this understanding that sticking together is better than being separate?

    I don't know- it's interesting. On some level I believe that human life is precious, and the life of a person is more important than the life of a squirrel, say. (human exceptionalism, i think it's called).

    I also feel this need to try to connect with a community- which is why i go to church; even though someone in the Bible study this week made a comment about "professors who think they are smart" ... i held my tongue but for those reading i am married to one.... argg- I find that I seek out connections with people in a lot of different ways; and feel the need to do that more as i am at home more than i have ever been.

    And I do think that this need had some influence on my decision to become a Christian- the idea that you are spiritually connected to other believers and to God is pretty powerful.

  3. LikeAChild,
    Been thinking of you. Hope all is going well. I use to wonder why someone would be interested in ethics if they didn't follow the Bible.

    There is no doubt, in terms of human development, that our sense of worth comes first and foremost from how our primary caregivers treat us. Very tied to community. Which is why bullying can be so very destructive. part of what keeps me attending church is my connection to the community. Of course, at its worst it is what drives people away. Regarding human exceptionalism, without Christian belief, do you see a reason to maintain that position? It certainly promotes the survival of our species, so pragmatically it makes a great deal of sense. However, not everyone buys into it, which ultimately seems self-destructive. I wouldn't want someone like that trying to decide whether to save my son or my pet dog if they were both trapped in a burning building. on the other hand, human arrogance has certainly led to the detruction of much non-human life on this planet, which is bad for us all. So, I understand some pushback.

  4. Hi,

    I think if we go from a purely pragmatic sense, human exceptionalism may still make sense from the standpoint that we are, for better or worse, the dominant species. If we remove Christian thought, then we are the species which were basically smart enough to figure out how to make ourselves dominant, and how to keep ourselves that way. While it's true that human arrogance has led to a lot of destruction; we actually do have the capability not to be arrogant, and as things plug along we realize that though we have tried to remove ourselves from the natural world we are still inherently tied to it. The fact that we can learn and realize things I think gives us a weightier responsibility and perhaps would be one reason for exceptionalism....

  5. 1) What about the narcissism that appears to pervade our culture? I see narcissism inside and outside of religious constructs. So I can't really believe that narcissism is due to a lack of belief in a deity. I guess narcissistic is the best way I can describe the patriarchal structures within religion. The same for slavery and genocide. At some levels I think maybe some religions foster narcissism. All of this obviously having to do with interpretation. But it exists just the same.

    2)Is it intellectually honest to value all life equally 'just because'? I don't think so. Not because all life isn't equally valuable, but because we're tribal. We do have a sense of community. Using your example of your son or your pet dog being trapped in a burning building, I don't know of a human being who would value the dog over the child. That goes for non-theists as well as theists.

    3)Is there really intrinsic worth? I believe there is. We value our families and our friends. We value our communities. Again, theists and non-theists alike place value on relationships and other living things. I think I probably know of more non-theists who put a value on preserving life and the planet more than a lot of Christians I know.

    4)Where does it come from? It's hard to say, but I'd tend to think it comes from the contribution of the thing valued to the community.

    5) Is this an indication that there is something transcendent which gives worth and meaning? Or is this unnecessary? This is a hard one for me to answer. I had always thought that it was an indication of something, or better yet, someone transcendent. I thought that someone was God, but the more I interact with those outside of any type of faith the more I wonder about the necessity of such a being giving worth or meaning. For example, I'm pretty sure my father was outside of any type of faith. Yet he was one of the most giving, loyal, caring, give you the shirt off his back, honest, hardworking, ethical people I've ever known. Where did that come from?

    6)Does the fact that our emotional wellbeing seems dependent on experiencing a sense of value and worth reflect a truth about our inherent value? Maybe it does. I believe we are inherently valuable because we are. There is something in us that makes us long to be valued by others. Honestly speaking, I think the value we have is the value others place on us, what we can contribute. When we encounter someone who has no desire to contribute in any meaningful way we encounter someone who has little or no self-worth. If everyone else died out tomorrow and I was the only person left on the face of the earth, alone, I wouldn't feel I had much value because I'd have no one to offer my value to.

    I hope I didn't hijack your comment section. All those questions were deep and meaningful. They've helped me to bring what I'm thinking out into a more concrete terms.

    When I think about it, even your pet dog wants to be loved and valued. What does that say about a need for something transcendent?

  6. IsToo,
    So, you'd say it's fair to argue for exceptionalism based on human self awareness. We're a qualitatively different type of being as a result. Fair enough. (Until robots develop self awareness. For a cartoon treatment of this topic, see AstroBoy. I was teary eyed over the destruction of a robot! So were the boys.)

    You certainly didn't hijack the comments. I'm just glad a few of you are still around to post comments! :) I agree that our feelings of worth are very tied to relationship with others. As I read your comments, I seemed to see two different conflicting beliefs: 1. we are inherently valuable and 2. our value depends on our contribution to others. It seems if we were inherently valuable, it would be tied to nothing, and you would be just as valuable regardless of whether you were the last person on earth or if you were lying on your bed in a coma, unable to contribute to others at all.

    Regarding pet dogs, it's true that they like attention, affection, affiliation with others. That's an interesting point. However, are they actually capable of experiencing self worth and self esteem?.Do they have the requisite self awareness? For that matter, I wouldn't say that even human infants possess these qualities. Does our need for self worth come merely from having the ability to form the question "What am I worth?" I think we crossed over from philosophy to cognitive and developmental psychology. :)

  7. DoOrDoNot,

    I think we crossed over from philosophy to cognitive and developmental psychology. :)

    And so we did. :-)

    I don't think they're conflicting thoughts, I think they're two sides of the same coin. I believe we have an inherent value to ourselves which gives us a drive to contribute to a society or community. Without said community we begin to feel worthless. Look at the depression and feelings of worthlessness many of us have felt as a result of losing our community. We've always contributed to our faith communities. Suddenly we feel we don't have much to contribute. Yet we inherently determined to find a community to contribute to. I think I'm rambling now. I'll stop while I'm behind.

  8. It seems if we were inherently valuable, it would be tied to nothing, and you would be just as valuable regardless of whether you were the last person on earth or if you were lying on your bed in a coma, unable to contribute to others at all.

    I see your question here. This value is the value others place on us, not the value we place on ourselves. And in that sense we seem to have some inherent value 'just because we are'. Though in honesty if I were in a coma with no chance of recovery, I would just as soon be allowed to die. Even then, I think that the hardship of a decision of that magnitude is the hope that the person will recover and at least to some degree make a contribution to our lives. Rambling again. :)