The Biological Order:
- What do I, as a Christian, believe about Self-Identity, and are there limits?
- Orders of Meaning (Johnson, Foundations of Soul Care, 2007).
for all higher psychological functioning” (Johnson, p. 336).
The Psychosocial Order:
- Genetic determinants (i.e., height, eye color, male/female)
- Pre-natal development
- Neuronal maturation
- Neuronal structures
By psychosocial order, we are referring to the immaterial dynamic structures that originate in social interaction (Johnson, p. 337).
- It is these two strata that sociological and psychological research on human nature, identity, and self has exclusively focused.
- Logical positivism dismisses anything that cannot be measured or empirically validated through the Scientific Method. Therefore, the sciences of the self are limited to these two strata.
- The self becomes the ultimate reference point.
- Limits to Self-Identity As I See Them (these 1st two strata are informative)
- The Ontological Crisis—a crisis in my sense of being.
- If all that exists is the Biological and Psychosocial strata then there can be no claim of an actual self. Who you are and who I am are merely mental constructions formulated and organized through our neural networks as we engage in our social environments. When I, Jeremy Lelek, was born, I did not possess a self. I was simply a human with the potential to become a self. There was no inner “I” to discover or an inner “I” knowable by God, rather, who I am today is a complete cognitive construction. In other words, existence precedes essence. If this sounds far-fetched, consider the conclusions of the experts.
- Dr. Daphna Oyserman, Kristen Elmore, and George Smith of the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan wrote, “Self and identity theories converge in asserting that self and identity are mental constructs, that is, something represented in memory” (p.75)...They also assert that the assumption of a stable self is “belied by the malleability, context-sensitivity, and dynamic construction of the self as a mental construct. Identities are not fixed markers people assume them to be but are instead dynamically constructed in the moment” (p. 70).
Sheldon Stryker, Indiana University, Bloomington writes, Identities are self-cognitions tied to roles and, through roles, to positions in organized social relationships.
Steven Hitlin, University of Iowa writes, The self is a socially constructed product of symbolic actors interacting with social environments.
Bruce Hood, Professor of Developmental Psychology, the University of Bristol and former Research Fellow at Cambridge University writes, This core self, wandering down the path of development, enduring things that life throws at us is, however, the illusion. Like every other aspect of human development, the emergence of the self is epigenetic—an interaction of the genes in the environment (p. 114).
If self is an illusion, then this leaves us all in a very uncertain predicament. If, as the famed psychologist, William James has said, we have as many selves as the people with whom we interact, and if we are continually forced to reconstruct ourselves based on cultural or contextual situations, and if we are simply material beings driven by natural selection, then we exist in the reality that we are mere cogs in a machine genetically motivated by ultimate survival. We are destined to exist in an illusion as though it ultimately matters.
- The Existential Crisis—The Crisis of Stability and Meaning
- Self-Identity is innately egocentric and individualistic and tends to follow the individualization thesis which, according to Dr. Rob Whitley in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, “posits that people in post-modern societies are becoming increasingly detached and disembedded from traditional institutions, including extended family, religious congregations, trade unions, and local communities. These ‘mediating structures’ are posited to provide fellowship, identity, and meaning to life.
- While Dr. Whitley mentions some benefits to the post-modern ethos, such as new freedoms for formerly restricted groups, his article cites various experts in the fields of sociology, philosophy and psychology who articulate grave concerns regarding the collision of post-modernism and egocentrism. These concerns include:
- The emergence of the idea of the “empty self” “devoid of meaningful content and connections, a self that is filled up by consumerism and other activities specific to postmodernity.
- A diminished capacity to securely navigate risk and unpredictability leading to a sense of despair.
- Rise of substance abuse, personality disorders, and associated para-suicide in Western societies.
- Acts of self-harm as a means to fill the “empty self”
- Developing anorexia and bulimia as a means to forge a distinctive identity.
- Whitley concludes that in the West especially, “…individuals must engage in constant self-interrogation vis-à-vis day-to-day living to ensure that their current social roles and identities are commensurate with wider values and appropriate changing contexts” (p. 356).
It seems that one element of the new age in which people are seeking identity within the biological and psychosocial strata exclusively is that many of them are struggling to find a genuine sense of meaning and a secure sense of self. As I read through various articles citing similar concerns as mentioned above the words of the celebrated French existential philosopher, Jean Paul Sarte, came to mind: “No finite point has meaning without an infinite reference point.”
Or T.S. Eliot’s chilling poem, Hollow Men,
in which he penned:We are the hollow menWe are the stuffed menLeaning togetherHeadpiece filled with straw. Alas!Shape without form, shade without color,Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;…
- The 3rd Crisis brings us into Dr. Johnson’s Ethical Order—What are our values?
- The Psychological Crisis—What is my epistemology?
- If Self-Identity is simply a mental construct, then by what standard do I judge my constructs as being true or false, accurate or inaccurate? How do I know what I know? Is society my standard? Is self my standard? How do I know either of these are correct? This not only creates a problem for the individual person, but it creates tension for the fields of psychiatry, psychology, and sociology as well. For example, the ethics of psychology and counseling encourage what is called a value-neutral stance when working with others. Bringing one’s personal value judgments into the process of therapy would be unethical. Let’s consider the psychological struggle this creates for the individual as well as the practitioner seeking to help him/her.
- Body Dysmorphic Disorder: (DSM-5)
- Preoccupation with one or more perceived defects or flaws in physical appearance that are not observable by others.
- Typical Cognitive Constructs for individuals cited with this diagnosis:
- “I’m ugly.”
- “I’m ugly, therefore I’m unacceptable.”
- This person self-identifies as ugly and unacceptable. On what basis does she determine the accuracy of her statements?
- For the psychologist who might be treating this young lady, on what basis does she stand to ask the client to consider other possibilities? On what basis does the clinician stand to challenge this person’s accepted self-identity?
- What about the individual who self-identifies as “Trans-Gender” and is seeking sexual reassignment? A common cognitive construct cited in the literature for such individuals is:
- I am a female trapped inside a male body.
- This person who is genetically a male self-identifies as a woman. The same question may be posed as was posited previously: On what basis does this individual determine the accuracy of the statements being made.
- Likewise, for the psychologist who might be treating this young man, on what basis does the clinician stand to affirm that the client’s constructs are valid and accurate? On what basis does the psychologist stand to assess that one person’s self-identity is not accurate and the other person’s is absolutely accurate?
Left with the Biological and the Psychosocial spheres exclusively, these issues become very complicated if one is seeking to remain consistent. The individuals above have no clear epistemological base to judge their self-identifying constructs. If we say that the marker of accuracy for their particular beliefs is how each construct makes the person feel, then we are forced to rely on an aspect of our nature that is not always the most reliable—our emotions. The person who self-identifies as ugly and the person who self-identifies as transgender are both experiencing emotional disturbance as a result of their beliefs. My profession would encourage that I work to help the person who self-identifies as ugly to integrate a different construct (i.e., I’m pretty, I’m acceptable), however, my profession would also encourage me to help the person self-identifying as trans-gender to accept his or her belief, and if desired, pursue sexual reassignment in order to make the body and mental construct congruent. Basically, my profession encourages me to challenge the construct for which there is no empirical, quantitative support from which I could draw in order to challenge (i.e., I’m ugly), yet the construct for which there is quantitative, empirical evidence (i.e., genetics), my profession recommends embracing (i.e., I am a female trapped in a male body). Furthermore, if the defining variables are how one’s mental constructs disturb one’s emotional state, then what are we to do with the person diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder whose self-identity of “I’m superior” and “I’m invincible” creates no emotional disturbance at all, yet qualifies the individual as being disordered. Is this biased? Is it consistent? More importantly, how do we know?
Episode Resources: Foundations For Soul Care - Eric Johnson