Answering the Vorlon question
Deep insights on being human found in a mostly-forgotten gem of 1990s science fiction television.
Awhile back I discovered a podcast by two fellas who are watching the 1990s science fiction extravaganza Babylon 5 for the first time. I’m not one for ‘reaction videos’ and such, but they’re perceptive watchers, and I admit that I’ve had a good time going back through the nostalgia-rich show with them.
Creator and main writer J. Michael Straczynski knew his history and literature and it shows through most every episode. Unlike most science fiction, which happens in a sterile materialistic universe where humans have enlightened themselves beyond silly superstitions, B5 gives religion and the greater worlds of spirit a fair hearing. The line between natural science and supernatural agency can blur to nothing at times.
There’s no serious spoilers here, in case you haven’t watched it. But I got reminded of one of the major philosophical threads knitting the pieces together.
In the show there’s a mysterious alien race of recluses called the Vorlons who communicate in cryptic Zen-like messages. During the series they become associated with the question “Who are you?”
The Vorlon question, centered on identity, contrasts with that of the major Bad Guys who ask instead “What do you want?”
That question of identity always confused me. Who are you? Why, that’s simple. I’m Matt.
But that’s just a name. There are millions of people with that name and they aren’t me.
The question prompts a search for something to answer it, like if I dig the right object out of my pockets, I’ll know who I am. Pants pockets are only a metaphor, but we’ll rifle through our memories and personalities in the same way, making a list. I am this. I am that. Soon you’ve gone through all the obvious answers and realized you’re listing superficial junk.
Go deeper, then. Maybe it’s a deeply-held conviction. You might find yourself using language like, “I can’t do that, because that’s not me”.
But then, is that really who you are, or is that another habit of thought and feeling you picked up from the world and people around you? What makes that commitment any more authentic?
And anyway, don’t we all know the limits of principle when faced with a cold pragmatic choice? You can keep your principles, or you can get the result. If principle can be sacrificed on the altar of expedience in the edge cases, well, doesn’t that tell us that principle is not the sturdy timber it appears?
Nothing is “you” because no essence endures behind the flow of sensations. That’s the conclusion David Hume reached, anyway. Nietzsche, too, in a different register. Buddhist theology and philosophy are well known for their doctrine of anatta, the not-self.
If you’re looking to answer the question “Who are you?” by pointing at a something, then there is no self.
Seems like the Bad Guys got it right. There is no self, only desire.
What do you want?
We’d be a bit hasty to accept that as the final answer. Why?
We can start with a provocation. The most unprincipled pragmatist is not what he appears.
He says he has no principles and his actions seem to bear it out.
But then — that’s an identity.
A healthy desire to do the expedient, practical thing can become a full-blown principle, value system, and defining character trait, no less.
There is no desire without identity.
The arrow points the other way, too. No identity without desire.
That’s a tricky idea. Let’s zoom in on it.
I’m currently on a slow re-read of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I am always struck by how far he is from us in his understanding of the human condition.
One of the crucial differences that I always underline for modern readers is how alien his ideas on virtue are. He meant nothing like the silly Victorian prudery that restricts “virtue” to an impossible puritanism centered on chastity.
Unlike our era, where endless “virtue signaling” highlights the many failures of words to match actions and sincere desires, Aristotle thought of the virtues as habits of thought and desire realized through action.
Where we find it ordinary to cut the inner psychological reality away from the public world of behavior, that wasn’t how Aristotle saw things. Virtue entails action.
Consider a person who we recognize as having the virtue of justice. A just person doesn’t simply say he cares about justice, or even act as justice requires like a good virtue signaler. He sincerely believes what he says, wants to do what justice demands, and tends to act in accord with justice.
Aristotle’s virtuous person has convictions which manifest in habits of wanting and acting.
Identity and desire come in a package.
There can be conflicts between your standards and your wants, of course their can. Aristotle was no idiot. Like any classical Greek would, he knew well the licentious and weak-willed personalities, describing them as various failure modes within the person. People are people, not perfect rule-followers (another truism we’d do well to remember in our computer-obsessed reality).
Today it’s customary, to the point we think it natural, to separate principle from desire and draw attention to their many points of conflict. Desire tends to win in our practical-minded civilization, from the self-interest at the heart of the the ruling political economy to the progressive politics of class, sex, and race.
But it wasn’t always so, and nothing is necessary about our odd ways of carving up psychic and social reality.
Philosopher Charles Taylor, who grabbed my attention some years ago, introduced an intriguing concept that unites personal identity with desire.
It goes like this.
I sure do want to eat that slice of cheesecake after dinner. But I’m on week five of a streak of sticking to my diet, and I want to keep that going more than I want to indulge my junk-food cravings.
The second-order desire, what I want to want, wins over the base appetite. My considered judgment makes an appearance as I evaluate what I want on the basis of other conditions. My desire for the cheesecake is less worthy than the desire to stick to my commitments.
Each of us human persons has the ability to stand in judgment over our own desires. Unlike animals, in humans these higher-order wants can and sometimes do win out over baseline feelings and biological drives.
This has all kinds of neat and technical consequences. I’ll leave you with one.
Taylor writes that these second-order desires come in two flavors. One, called the weak evaluation, is what happens when I stick to my diet in the face of temptation. My streak is important to me, but that commitment probably doesn’t define me as a person unless I’m an Instagram influencer. I could diet or not diet and it wouldn’t make any different to who I am as a person. The diet and the discipline to keep it are means to other ends.
But some second-order desires aren’t like that. We don’t want because they get us something else. We desire because we judge their objects valuable in themselves. These are desires that respond to matters of principle, standards, ideals, and objects that we judge intrinsically valuable. Such standards of worth make demands on us whether or not we believe in or desire them. We feel accountable to them independent of our feelings, emotions, and appetites.
Desires of this type are called strong evaluations, and they are essential to our sense of being ourselves. Desire and principle run together in response to our best judgment of what is worthy, excellent, noble, fine, and desirable.
Taylor tells us that the power to strongly evaluate our desires in light of what we judge most and least worthy is not only a uniquely human power, it is what defines us as human beings.
Identity and desire not only come as an undivided whole, they involve us in a field of irreducible value distinctions. What we are is what we value most.
Which brings us back to our earlier puzzle.
Who are you?
Depends on what you want.
What do you want?
Depends on who you are.
This isn’t a vicious paradox, reader. This snake appears to eat its own tail because of a flaw in presently-popular ways of carving up the psychological territory. We insist on separating beliefs and desires, cutting values away from facts, and leaving ourselves in a fog of confusion where questions of desire and value are all just like, your opinion, man.
Identity limits what we can desire. Desire points beyond our present being. Both are essential aspects of being human.
Who are you? To a large degree that can only be answered by who you are not.
Self is no thing because it is an activity, a verb rather than a noun, a continuous process of revelation and creation.
In real life none of us are irrational romantics living by feeling alone, or cold utilitarians acting on expected self-interest. The romantic judges what is worth wanting, while the pragmatist desires utilitarian ways of living and being.
Psychology and cognitive science have poisoned so much of our thinking because they don’t understand what they are studying. This artificial reality we’ve built for ourselves distorts our self-understanding in an accelerating feedback loop of images and appetites.
You could say we don’t know who we are or what we want. And the more we lose ourselves in our fake reality, the worse it gets.
There is a silver lining on this menacing cyclone.
It can only get you if you agree and allow it.
There’s no final story. Every self-discovery is a prompt for new self-creation.
It’s your self, so do something about it.
Thanks for reading.
p.s. If you found this valuable, interesting, funny, or it made you upset that you had to use your mind for something besides infinite scrolling, I ask that you do me a favor and share it with just one person.
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