Josh Knobe: Experimental Philosophy and the Notion of the Self (HeadCon '13 Part VIII)

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Joshua Knobe: Experimental Philosophy and the Notion of the Self 

What is the field of experimental philosophy? Experimental philosophy is a relatively new field—one that just cropped up around the past ten years or so, and it's an interdisciplinary field, uniting ideas from philosophy and psychology. In particular, what experimental philosophers tend to do is to go after questions that are traditionally associated with philosophy but to go after them using the methods that have been traditionally associated with psychology. 

Joshua Knobe is an Experimental Philosopher; Associate Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science, Yale University.

I'm going to be talking today about some recent work in the field of experimental philosophy. But before I talk about what this actual recent work has discovered I want to say something briefly about what this field is.

What is the field of experimental philosophy? Experimental philosophy is a relatively new field—one that just cropped up around the past ten years or so, and it's an interdisciplinary field, uniting ideas from philosophy and psychology. In particular, what experimental philosophers tend to do is to go after questions that are traditionally associated with philosophy but to go after them using the methods that have been traditionally associated with psychology.

If you want to get a vague sense of what this field is like, you might consider the analogy of neuroeconomics. If you open up a typical paper on neuroeconomics, you see this experimental methodology and statistical analyses that would be very much at home in just any other kind of paper in cognitive neuroscience. But this work is infused with this tradition of theories and concepts from this much older tradition of economics.

In much the same way, if you open up a typical paper in experimental philosophy you see these experimental methods and statistical analyses that look kind of the same as any others that you find in psychology. But this work that people are doing is being informed in certain ways by these theories, by questions, by concepts in this much older tradition of philosophy.

Over the past few years there've been all sorts of work in experimental philosophy on all sorts  of different questions—the concept of knowledge, on consciousness, on morality.

But here I'm going to be talking about one specific thing that's really been exploding in the past couple of years and this is experimental philosophy work on the notion of the self. This is work on questions about what is the self? How does the self extend over time? Is there a kind of essence of the self? How do we know what falls inside or outside the self? I'm going to be talking about two examples of this type of work.

The first is about this question that philosophers have called the "question of personal identity." It's a question in philosophy that goes back, at least, to the time of John Locke. It's one that philosophers are still talking about up until the present day. You can get a sense for the question pretty easily just by thinking about a certain kind of initial question, and it's this:  

Imagine how the world is going to be a year from now. A year from now there are going to be all these people in this world, and one of those people is going to have a very special property. That person is going to be you. So, with any luck a year from now, there'll be someone out there who's you. But what is it about that person that makes that person you?

At this moment you have a certain kind of body, you have a certain kinds of goals, and beliefs, and values, you have certain emotions. In the future there are going to be all these other people that are going to have certain bodies, they're going to have certain goals, certain beliefs, certain emotions. Some of them are going to be, to varying degrees, similar and, to varying degrees, different from yours; and one of those people is going to be you. So, what makes that person you?

Philosophers have discussed this in great detail and the way they usually discuss it is at a very abstract level and often with recourse to seemingly absurd, insane science fictional thought experiments. But although this work might seem initially to be so abstract that it could never have any bearing on how human beings actually think about any question, I think that this work in philosophy has actually led to some really interesting insights.

We're going to consider just one crazy thought experiment from the philosopher Derek Parfit, and this is the way it goes:  Imagine that Derek Parfit is being gradually transformed molecule by molecule into Greta Garbo. At the beginning of this whole process there's Derek Parfit, then at the end of the whole process it's really clear that Derek Parfit no longer exists. Derek Parfit is gone. Now there's Greta Garbo. Now, the key question is this:  At what point along this transformation did the change take place? When did Derek cease to exist and when did Greta come to exist? If you just have to reflect on this question for a while, immediately it becomes clea that ther couldn't be some single point -- there couldn't be a single second, say -- in which Derek stops existing and Greta starts existing. What you're seeing is some kind of gradual process where, as this person becomes more and more and more different from the Derek that we know now, it becomes less and less right to say that he's Derek at all and more and more right to say that he is gone and a completely other person has come into existence.

A year from now there are going to be all these people in this world, and one of those people is going to have a very special property. That person is going to be you. So, with any luck a year from now, there'll be someone out there who's you. But what is it about that person that makes that person you?

So far we're talking about this seemingly crazy level of a weird science fiction experiment. But now try to think, in light of everything I've just said, about your own life. Imagine what things are going to be like in 30 years. In 30 years there's going to be a person around who you might normally think of as you, but that person is actually going to be really, really different from you in a lot of ways. Chances are a lot of the values you have, a lot of the emotions, a lot of the beliefs, a lot of the goals are not going to be shared by that person. So, in some sense you might think that person is you, but is that person really you? That person is like you in certain respects, but just like Derek on his gradual transformation into Greta, you might think that person is kind of not me anymore.

Once you start to reflect on that, you might start to have a really different feeling about that person—the person you're going to turn into. You might even start to feel a little bit competitive with that person. Suppose you start saving money right now. You are losing money and he or she is the one gaining the money. The money is being taken away from the person who has the values, the emotions, and the goals that you really care about and going to this other person.

Experimental philosophers began thinking about this kind of problem and thought that maybe this kind of work—work coming out of this very abstract tradition of philosophical reflection—can actually shed a certain light on how people think about their own future selves. There's been a whole bunch of different experimental studies on this but I'm just going to give one example. It's a study by Bartels, Kvaran, and Nichols. It came out recently. In their study, participants were randomly assigned to get one of two different pieces of information about the self.


Participants in one condition were told:  "Scientists have studied the self in great detail and what they've determined is that the self is really surprisingly stable over time. Even far into the future you're going to be, on a really deep level, fundamentally similar to the person you are today. Of course, certain superficial things might change here and there, but the person you're going to be in the future is going to be shockingly similar to the person you are right now."

Participants in the other condition were given the opposite kind of information, they were told:  "Scientists have studied the self and what they discovered is this really surprising thing, that the self changes radically. Just a few months from now, many aspects of who you are now and the way that you think of yourself are going to be different. By 30 years from now, you're going to be completely different, utterly different from the kind of person you are now."

Then participants were told, after they had gotten this information and answered a few questions about it, "Guess what? We're giving you a special bonus for participating in this experiment. We're giving you some extra money for participating in this experiment, a special bonus, and now you have a choice. You can take any percentage of it for yourself or you can give any percentage away to this charity, Save the Children. So, you can take the money 100 percent for yourself, 100 percent for them, or any percentage of it you can give away to them."

But now here comes the trick. Participants in the study were given random assignments to a time at which they or Save the Children would get the money. So, participants in one condition were told:  "In one week either you're going to get the money or Save the Children's going to get the money. So how much do you want to give to either of them?" Participants in the other condition were told:  "In one year either you're going to get the money or Save the Children's going to get the money, so how much do you want to give in each case?" What you see here is something really interesting. In the condition where participants were told that either they or Save the Children were going to get the money in one week, the manipulation about the information of the self had almost no effect. It doesn't matter whether you're told that the self changes radically or the self is remarkably continuous.,Either way they gave roughly the same percentage away to this charity.

By contrast, in the condition where they were told that they're going to be receiving the money in one year, the information about the self ended up having a quite substantial and significant effect. So, when participants were told that they in a year were going to be radically different from the person that they are today, they were willing to give away a larger percentage of the money to charity.

What we see here in this experiment is that people's judgments about how much the self is changing is having an impact on how much of a difference they see between themselves and other people. In the condition where they're told that their self is remarkably stable, they think of themselves as being fundamentally different from other people—this person in the future has a special kind of connection to me that no one else could have. By contrast, in the condition in which participants were told that the self is going to be very, very different in the future, participants thought, "You know, I guess that person who exists in the future, is more similar to me than other people around. He has a little bit of a special connection to me, but every other human being also has a certain connection to me. The sense in which that person is really specially connected to me in a way that no one else can be has been diminished." So, what we see in this first example is how this very abstract notion coming out of this tradition in philosophy stemming from John Locke can actually be applied to understanding human behavior and to manipulate it to the degree at which people show generosity to others. That concludes our first example. Now, let's consider one more example.

The second example is very different philosophical question and the question is:  Is there something like a core of the self, anessence of the self, the true self, who you are deep down? One thing you might think is: there's all sorts of stuff going on within our minds. We have all sorts of beliefs, goals, values, and emotions, but not all of this is equal. Some of these things represent our true self—the person that we truly are deep down inside – but of course, you might alsohave all sorts of other beliefs that you must manage to pick up in one way or another. Maybe you picked it up from some clever advertiser or something on TV, from the way your parents were, but those things aren't representing your true self. Rather, if you could get rid of those things, if you could get rid of these parts of your psychology, you'd be able to more truly reveal the person that you were all along.

For thousands of years philosophers have been interested in this question:  What is the true self? In particular, they've been interested in the question:  Of all the parts of you, which ones are the true self and which ones are this kind of superficial layer—the part of you that isn't really your core? If you go back to the ancient Greek philosophers, for example, to Plato and Aristotle, you find this view that our capacity for reasoning, for reflection, that is our true self. So, the view that these people developed is if you really reflect on certain matters clearly and deliberately and you think on reflection, "This is fundamentally what I should do," then that answer—the belief that you come to on reflection—that is your true self. Of course, you might not do it. You might not actually do the thing that you arrive at on reflection, but when you don't do it, you're just failing to act on your own true self. You're not doing that thing that reflects the person that you yourself really are deep down inside.

Other thinkers in later centuries ended up having almost the opposite of that view. Many people thought exactly the opposite of this first view; that your true self is the thing that comes in your sudden impulses, your hidden urges, these flashes of emotion. It's not that your true self is going to be revealed when you think carefully and calmly about something. The opposite is true: to the extent that you're carefully and calmly thinking about something., that just obscures your true self. Your true self is that thing that comes out when you're overcome with emotion, when you're completely drunk, it's in those moments that really your true self is going to come out.

Experimental philosophers have been interested in this question as well, but the question that experimental philosophers have been interested in is maybe slightly different. Experimental philosophers aren't trying to ask the question, "Do human beings really have a true self and, if so, what is it?" Rather, the question has been, "Do people think of themselves and other people in terms of a true self and, if so, how do they decide which part of the self counts as this true self?"

In just the past couple of years there's been a surge of work in this area, including some really fantastic experiments by the philosopher Chandra Sripada. But here I'm going to talk about one particular study that I think really gets at that initial philosophical question. This is a study that was recently conducted. The lead author is George Newman, and then in addition there are two co-authors, Paul Bloom and myself. We were interested in this question about the true self and we assigned participants randomly to one of two conditions. So, participants in one condition received the following story:  Imagine a person named Mark. Mark is a secular humanist and he travels around the world teaching people that there's nothing morally wrong about being gay and, in fact, he coaches people on techniques they can use to avoid being prejudiced against gay people, to overcome their tendencies to stereotype or be prejudiced against gay people. But Mark has a problem. Mark's problem is that he himself ends up having certain feelings of disgust toward gay people and he openly acknowledges this, just sees it as part of his own personal struggle.

In the story I've just told you there's a kind of conflict between Mark's mind; it's a conflict between System 1 and System 2; it's a conflict between his more automatic emotional self and another part of him—his more reflective beliefs; and in particular, his more reflective beliefs are telling him there's nothing wrong with being gay. But on a more automatic visceral level he's having this emotion that he himself would reject. So, now the question is, considering these two parts of himself, which is the true self? Let's just try running the experiment right now. So, consider the belief he has, the belief that it's not morally wrong to be gay. We want to know, is this really part of his true self or is this just some other thing within himself such that if he could get rid of it, he'd be able to more fully reflect his true self? How many people think that belief is part of his true self?

DENNETT: We can pick one or the other?

KNOBE: Okay, there's an emotion and a belief and the emotion and the belief are in conflict. The question is about the belief. Is his reflective belief part of his true self? How many people say yes? And how many people say no?

KURZBAN: So, if we reject the ontology of the notion of a true self?

KNOBE: If there's no true self, then it cannot be part of the true self.

CHRISTAKIS: What if we think that both are part of the true self?

KNOBE: Both. Then the answer is yes. Should I try the vote again?


KNOBE: Okay, how many people think it's part of his true self? How many people think not? So, participants answered this question and then after answering this question about the true self, they were given a very simple individual difference measure. The individual difference measure is just one item, and the one item is:  Would you describe yourself as a liberal or a conservative? So, now we can look at answers to this question among liberals and among conservatives and what we find is this:  Among liberals, the overwhelming majority say exactly the same thing that you say. They say, "That belief is part of his true self. It's the voice of his true self speaking to him, telling him, don't be prejudiced against gay people." As for conservatives, they say, "At the very core of himself, speaking to him is this voice of his emotion of disgust telling him this is morally wrong. Then he just picked up this thing from our present politically correct culture. It's kind of leading him in the wrong direction. If only he could rid himself of that, then his true self would be able to be revealed."

But, of course, there's also another condition. In the other condition participants get a story about someone who's conflicted but just in the opposite direction. So, here's the new story:  Mark is an evangelical Christian. He travels around the world preaching to people his message—the message that homosexuality is a sin -- and he teaches people, coaches them in techniques that they can use to avoid committing that sin, having the self-control not to sleep with other people of the same sex. However, Mark has a problem. His problem is that he himself is gay. So, he himself has a desire to sleep with other men, and he overtly acknowledges this to people and describes it as part of his own personal struggle. So, then participants were asked the exact same question. You have this desire and this belief. Now consider the belief. This is a belief that homosexuality is morally wrong, that he should not do the exact thing that he viscerally wants to do. Is that part of his true self? How many people say yes? And how many people say no?

Once again, participants were asked whether they were liberal or conservative and now we see the whole thing flipping. So, in this latter condition the liberals tend to say, "His emotion, the seething urges he has, that is his true self speaking to him, telling him about this other form of life he could have where he could fall in love with another man, but that's been papered over by this thing on top of that that's getting in the way -- his Christian belief that he should not sleep with other people." By contrast, the conservatives say, "At the very core of himself is this belief, this moral belief in this Christian vision that he should not sleep with other men. But, unfortunately, he's just acquired from other people or from society this desire. If only he could rid himself of that, then he'd be able to more fully reflect the person he really is deep inside—this Christian person."

We seem to be seeing coming out of this data this surprising result. It's not that people think on the whole that reason is the true self and it's not that people think on the whole that emotion is the true self. They think that the true self is whichever part of you is morally good. So, when other people are looking at you, they think that certain parts of you are good, certain parts of you are bad. Depending on who you are, it might be that they think your reasoning is good and your emotion is bad or they might think your emotion is good and your reasoning is bad. Whichever one they think is good, they seem to be seeing that as the essence of your self and this other thing as something around that—something just covering it over such that if you could only get rid of that, the person you really are deep down inside will be revealed.

In this first study I just mentioned, the question people are asking is directly about the self, but a lot of the recent work on this topic has proceeded in a different way. By looking at these issues more indirectly, by asking people questions that, on the surface, are about something else and then arguing that this question about the true self can actually shed some light on that, can help us understand how people are thinking about these other issues. So you ask questions about what it means to be truly happy, what it means to be in love, under what conditions someone's blamed for what they do. And now the thought is that people's judgments about what is the essence of the self can actually explain people's answers to those kinds of questions.

What's happening increasingly is that the line between what people are calling philosophy and what people are calling psychology is just increasingly blurred.

Just as one example of this sort of phenomenon, I wanted to mention a study by David Pizarro. Pizarro looked through people's intuitions about agents who act impulsively and do something either morally good or morally bad. In one condition participants are told to imagine a person who is overcome by this rage and because of his rage at this person in the car in front of him, he just smashes the person's windows in. Now, in the other condition participants are told about someone who's overcome by feelings of compassion and because she's so overcome by these feelings, she ends up helping a homeless man by giving that homeless man her own jacket.

Now the question in each case is how to evaluate this person morally. Here you see the striking asymmetry. When people are so overcome by emotion that they do something morally bad, people tend to see that as an excuse. They take away the blame that you would normally give that person. So the person who smashes someone's windows in because he's enraged is going to be given less blame than someone who smashed the other person's windows in after a cool, calm, careful reflection. Now, by contrast, in the other case, you don't see that effect at all. In the case where someone's doing something morally good because she's overcome by compassion, she doesn't get any less praise than if she did the morally good thing after a cool, calm, careful reflection. Why is that?

What Pizarro and colleagues showed is that that effect is mediated by judgments about the true self. Consider the impulse to do something bad and the impulse to do something good. When you have a sudden impulse to do something bad, people think that's not your true self. Your true self is this more reflective part.  To the extent that you yield to that temptation, then you're not reflecting the person that you yourself really are deep down inside and so you're not fully to blame for it. In the condition, by contrast, where you're overcome by compassion and you can't help but do something good, people think that that compassion you feel is your true self. And so, as a result what you're doing is a reflection of your true self and you deserve full praise for it.

What we see in the study by Pizarro and also in the earlier study by Bartels and colleagues is something that we're finding much more generally in this field of experimental philosophy.

Experimental philosophy is a movement that was started by people who were really deeply steeped in this kind of philosophical tradition. These are people who had spent years and years thinking about Aristotle, logic, the problem of free will, and they wanted to do some experimental studies that could help them get a deeper insight into those kinds of questions. And you could've imagined what would happen in that case is that as you went deeper and deeper into those questions experimentally, you'd be moving into more and more technical territory that was farther and farther away from anything that non-philosophers could understand.

What has actually happened is exactly the opposite. As we develop deeper and deeper insights into these philosophical questions, what we're finding is that we're coming closer and closer to the rest of the sciences of the mind. What's happening increasingly is that the line between what people are calling philosophy and what people are calling psychology is just increasingly blurred.

GREENE: Really interesting. I want to ask about the deep true self-experiment and I see two possibilities here. So, one is that what people judge to be the true self is affected by normative considerations, right? And the other is that it's the heart of the matter. I mean, you can imagine a store that sells mattresses and they say, "Well, if you buy a mattress we'll give 10 percent of the revenue to charity" and mattress sales go up. You wouldn't conclude that people buy mattresses in order to help the poor or something like that. Obviously there's something closer to the core of the problem than that. But is it the whole story? One way you can get at this, and maybe you've already done this, is have cases where it's relatively well-matched. So you have Josh, the philosopher, and you feel like that's your true calling, that's what you always wanted to do, but this life that you live as a dancer is what you did to please your parents. Or you could reverse it where you have it so that being a philosopher or being a dancer are a priori rated is about equally good or equally bad. If you look at things that are neutral, is there a tendency to think of the brute desire versus the more reflective desire, one is more the self than the other, or does it depend on context? I'm curious if you've thought about that or if you already have the answer.

KNOBE: Excellent question. What we see in these data are two separate effects. So, one is the effect that I just mentioned, which is just whatever you think is good, you think that's the true self. The other is the anti-Aristotle effect. In a case in which you have an emotion going against reflection, there's a general tendency to think the emotion is the true self and the reflection is not the true self. Now, putting those two effects together, I think we can have a pretty good explanation of why people initially thought that reflection was the true self. The reason is not that there's something within us having the intuition that whatever is coming from reflection is the true self. It's just that, generally, in cases in which your emotions and your reflection are pulling in opposite directions, other people are going to think that the thing you choose on reflection is the more morally good thing.

If we sampled all cases, in general, there would be a tendency that the thing that people are doing on the basis of reflection is more often going to be seen as their true self than the thing they do on the basis of emotion. But if we can control for morality, then people think System 1 is the true self. So, in the study I just told you about, for example, even though there's an effective political view, there's also just a main effect of just wanting to say that the emotion is the true self.

SANTOS:  I have one comment and one question. So the fast comment is I don't think we should shortchange experimental philosophy by comparing it to neuroeconomics. In my experience, experimental philosophers are typically both good at the experimental side and philosophy side and I'm not sure the same is true for both sides of neuroeconomics. But the question is, in the Bartels study you can imagine two reasons you get the effect that you do. One is that when you tell me, "Oh, my future self is so similar to myself in the future," it helps me in perspective take better care of my future self.  And I'm like, "Oh, my future self is totally going to want rewards, I'll take the rewards." The other effect is that when you tell me, "Look, your future self is going to be totally different than similar to any random person," then that makes me in perspective take better care of any random person and, therefore, I'm happy to give the money to the charity than to any random person. So do we know which is doing the work? Is it thinking of your future self as more similar or is it thinking of your future self as basically the anyman and, therefore, you give the money to charity?

KNOBE: This is a really interesting hypothesis, which I hadn't thought of. The idea is that to the extent that you think of your future self as dissimilar, it's not just that it decreases your interest in your future self, it's actually increasing your interest in other people. So, the answer as to whether that second thing is true, I don't know. But there is evidence that the first thing is true. So, if you don't make it a choice between your future self and other people obut rather, between your present self and your future self, then the more you think that your future self is different, the more you're going to be in the technical sense, impatient. You're going to exhibit more temporal discounting. But the fact that that first thing is true doesn't mean the second thing is not true. It could be that as you start to think about your future self as being somehow very dissimilar from your present self, you start to feel a greater communion with other people. You think, "Other people are more like me. They're people I should really care about."

KAHNEMAN: Have you seen the experiments where people have so much money they will save and this is affected by seeing their face morph into the face of an old man? So people contribute more when they have seen the morphing and they have seen what they'll look like as an old person.

KNOBE: One thing that's really striking about this other kind of study that both of you are bringing up is there's a tendency, when you hear that first result, to associate this idea of continuity with a certain kind of value judgment—that is, to say, 'Clearly we think of temporal discounting to the extent that people do it as bad, and we think patience is good. So, to the extent that people are thinking of themselves as continuous, that's more good. To the extent that they're seeing themselves as discontinuous, that's bad.' But once you think about this choice that you're making, not just between your present self and your future self, but between your future self and other people, then the idea that there's some specific value judgment associated with this continuity becomes suspect.

MULLAINATHAN: It's interesting in your example about durability of the self that you've chosen long-range durability. And the kind of problems that I've often looked at and I think a lot of people have looked at, it's much less long-range durability than very short-range durability:  "Will I go to the gym tomorrow?" I mean, "Yeah, I'm going to the gym tomorrow morning." But tomorrow morning, some other dude's there and for whatever reason, that dude is not interested in going to the gym. So, it feels like this conflict actually happens at quite high frequencies, and I know people have talked about that, but is that simply a special case of the long-range durability that you're talking about? Is that fundamentally different? Do you see what I'm getting at? Here we might've called the self-control, but is the problem of self-control, the problem of dual selves, hyperbolic discounting. Is that something very different?

KNOBE: That's a really interesting question. So, when people think that the conception of the self affects this issue of temporal discounting, how much we care about our future self, the way that they're often thinking about it is this idea that in a year you're going to be really different from the way you are now. You really will have deeply different goals. And then you might think that person isn't really me in some sense. The idea that the next morning you'll already be different from the person that you are now, and that you could start to feel jealous of your next morning's self—that's not the first thing you think of. But it'd be interesting to try to extend this kind of prior research into judgment of that type. Maybe we'll even thinking, "I don't know, on Sunday I'm going to be a little bit different from how I am now. Maybe I should choose something that makes me get the goodies and not the Sunday self." 

CHRISTAKIS:  I just recently for various reasons have been really angry at my 20-year old self, because I made all these decisions in my twenties that are still binding me today. Well, who the hell was that asshole that did all that stuff 30 years ago? And I can imagine the set of experiments where you ask people retrospectively what they think of their 20, or 30, or 40-year old selves, depending on their age.

KNOBE: In a really interesting way this ties in with the topic that Rob Kurzban was bringing up earlier. Rob was talking about this problem in our field, which is that people adopt a certain view and then they stick to that view despite increasing amounts of evidence that that view is false. But maybe now in light of this we have a simple manipulation. In some sense that person five years ago ...

DENNETT: Was a different person.

KNOBE: But you shouldn't really feel ashamed of that person ...

DENNETT: I was brought up short a few years ago when I was talking with a philosopher and I mentioned that I really didn't want to go on living when I became a foolish old dotard and was an embarrassment and all that; time for somebody to push me off a cliff. And she said, "Wait a minute. If you had a brother who was embarrassing to you would you feel you had the right to push him off the cliff?" "No." She said, "Well, what makes you think you now have the right to make arrangements about that that future self who wants to sit there watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. " And I must say that did give me pause.

CHRISTAKIS: Just like the Odysseus ...

KURZBAN: Josh, so I do want to push this a little but not that anything turns on this in terms of the psychological or the experimental philosophy. This notion of a true self. So there are those of us, and I thought that Dan Dennett was among those from some passages in some of his earlier work about one of the worst ideas that bedeviled psychology about this notion. So, do you think there is such a thing as a true self? If you do think that, what would the ontology of that be? Let me just end with that. So as a modular person, I believe the mind has lots of different bits and pieces. It's just weird to think that you ought to privilege some bit of it over another.

And just as an aside, I don't know if you've seen people who wrestle with the results of IAT work, where they have this split, which is almost exactly the homosexual case that you're talking about, right? So, if you look at my reaction times, I don't like black people, if you look at what I say, I say, "I love everybody equally," right? And then if you look at the psychologists who wrestle with this, they explicitly, "We're not saying that this implicit guy, that's you, and this explicit guy, that's just a veneer." They're saying, "There are just two different representations in there and we don't have any reason to privilege them." So what are your ontological commitments and do those ontological commitments matter for what you're about?

KNOBE: The question is a really good one. The question is, given that there's no good psychological theories that involve an actual true self, why do people think that there's a true self? These kinds of theories that we're developing about human cognition can explain why, in the absence of any evidence for this kind of strange phenomenon, we would believe in it. So, what is the thing that's making us believe in it? Right now, we're working on this question, we don't know the answer to it, but one thought that we have is that the belief in something like a true self is the application to the self of a more general capacity we have to think of something like essence. So we have the idea of essence and compare our idea of essence to many different things. And then when we apply it to the idea of the self, we get this notion, the notion of the true self. And what we're seeing in the case of judgment of the true self is this kind of byproduct of our general way of thinking about things as having essences.

If we thought about other kinds of cases in which we might apply this notion of essence, we seem to apply this notion of essence using similar kinds of techniques but we wouldn't ever think in these other cases that the essence of something is actually, literally, a part of that thing. So, suppose you were thinking about a band, say, The Rolling Stones. You might have a certain notion that there's something like the essence of the Stones—what the Stones are really about. Then you might have this idea, you know, all the music that they've been doing since the late seventies is just a betrayal. So, the last 30 years of the Stones is just a betrayal of this thing, the essence of the Stones, like, what the Stones really mean—that's what came out in "Exile on Main Street."

But when we think about it, we're not thinking that the essence of the Stones is something like a certain part of the Stones. Say that the Rolling Stones were in front of us, it's not like we could point to a certain part of the band and say, that is its essence. The essence is this normative notion that if you saw their complete works, you could pick out this thing that's what makes them of value.

Now, with human beings we also apply this notion of essence and it seems like the criteria we use to figure out what is your essence are the same criteria we'd use to figure out what's the essence of the band. We look at all the different things you do, then we try to think, what is the most value in all of things that you do? And we think that is your essence. But then when we try to interpret what it is that we've come up with when we do this, we don't think of it in that way that we would naturally think of the essence of a band, or the essence of the United States, or the essence of social psychology. Instead, what we think is that there's actually some thing in you, like the true self module; it's sending signals to other parts that are being overridden. And it's maybe that that gets us into trouble. When we think of this notion of essences, it's almost something like a psychological theory.



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