PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys
PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys

Real Others

On the Limits of the Self and Philosophies of Grandiosity | Part I

Real Others

Growing up without healthy personal boundaries that both develop and delimit the will gives rise to various emotional, psychological, physical, and social maladaptations such as inappropriate acting out, victimhood, overreaction, magical thinking, codependency and enabling, and in severe cases, narcissism and addictive disorders, among others.

Regrettably, there are several popular philosophies that encourage the obfuscation and deconstruction of personal boundaries, e.g., the so-called law of attraction, New Thought “treatment” methods, and the ho’oponopono forgiveness technique of Huna, all of which are rooted in some form of the metaphysical premise that the practitioner can alter material conditions by changing his or her consciousness. This idea is misleading precisely because it contains a seed of truth that opportunists can exploit to take advantage of those who for one reason or another are susceptible to the plethora of films, books, lectures, and other instructional offerings that claim to hold the key to magical manipulation of the world.

The seed of truth lies in the undeniable correspondence between personal consciousness and personal reality and within limits, the self-fulfilling nature of belief. In its conspicuous forms, this correspondence is easy enough to observe, and there is nothing particularly metaphysical about it. Someone who goes out into the world looking for a fight no doubt will find one, or one will find him. Round peg, round hole. Somewhat more mysteriously, this seems to operate at least sometimes along nonlocal trajectories, showing up as surprising fulfillments, happy coincidences, and synchronicities. While such extraordinary events do occur, none of them does so predictably; consequently none can be reduced to a method or technique, what to speak of a “law,” and this is where the seed of truth gets buried in the soil of untruth, for these popular philosophies all “package” this element of correspondence in techniques that deny the boundaries that delimit healthy selfhood, and so lead to confusion, failure, and disappointment if not far worse.

Both New Thought “treatment” and Huna’s ho’oponopono are founded on the startling assumption that the world, including other people, is an outpicturing of the beliefs of the practitioner. To treat another, therefore, one need only treat oneself, for when one has resolved the mistaken belief in his or her own consciousness that presumably is being expressed in the “patient,” the patient’s condition will spontaneously resolve, thus making the “demonstration.” This, at least, is the theory. That said, I have spoken to numerous New Thought ministers, all of whom have reported that among hundreds of their congregants who practice this sort of treatment regularly, about three percent see results. Three percent. Here is a number so low, it clearly supports the conclusion that what is occurring in these exceptional cases is a happy coincidence rather than the invoking of a universal principle. Of course, when the technique doesn’t work, its practitioner can always rationalize that the required faith was missing, that some further troublemaking belief was operating in the shadows, or that in some other way the practitioner failed to effect the required inner shift. No amount of evidence that the assumption underlying the technique simply is false is allowed to count against this sort of “faith,” because the justification is always available that the necessary inner condition must have been lacking, a tour de force of circular reasoning. Worse, these approaches often are presented as “scientific,” by which is meant that they are empirically verifiable and repeatable, neither being the case. Karl Popper’s fine work, which identifies falsifiability as a criterion of legitimately scientific hypotheses, cautions us that any proposition that would not allow itself to be falsified under any possible conditions is not scientific at all but pseudoscientific. The refusal to admit of any possible falsification is in fact a hallmark of dogmatic, fundamentalist, and militant thinking of every stripe. Yet many writers and speakers have made a living, if not a fortune, off the willingness of the credulous to swallow ludicrous, pretentious, unfalsifiable claims.

The view that the world, including other people, is a construct of one’s personal consciousness has a name in philosophy: solipsism. As a philosophical position, solipsism, which alleges that only the self exists—that “I alone am real” and that the world is my personal dream, is not only self-contradictory; it’s also dangerous. It is, in short, the philosophy of the megalomaniac. When we hear a U.S. presidential candidate declaring, “I alone can fix it,” we are in the unsettling company of the solipsist. Ho’oponopono’s contention that the practitioner is “totally responsible” for everything he or she experiences in the world is another solipsistic assertion. One can see how quickly a seed of truth can be cultivated into a convincing, highly marketable, and potentially dangerous system of lies.

Furthermore, the consciousness-reality problem is in fact far more complex, as evidenced by the profoundly influential work of Immanuel Kant in his response to the David Hume, the Scottish skeptic who in his seminal treatise An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding calls into question whether causality is indeed a law of the physical universe or merely a belief inferred from numerous observations to date. In other words, we have observed that B follows A consistently and without exception, and on this basis and this basis alone, we assume that there is a law operating, namely causality. But, as Hume points out, we have no empirical experience or evidence of such a law. We know that B has always followed A so far, but there is no contradiction implied by suggesting that B might fail to follow A, or that A might without precedent suddenly be followed by C or D or E instead. The ascribing of necessity and the status of a “law” to certain observed interactions, Hume concludes, is unjustified. What others call “causal law,” Hume maintains is merely “custom.” Kant was so struck by this, that he said Hume’s work awoke him from his “dogmatic slumber.” The result was a brilliant reframing of the question in what became Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In that groundbreaking work, Kant takes on the question of how it might be possible for certain observable processes in the world to operate with necessity, rather than merely appearing necessary due to customary and empirically unsupportable assumptions. In the language of modern philosophy, Kant was seeking to establish the “synthetic a priori.” He did this by turning the tables on Hume through the argument that the objective world we experience operates with necessity because certain structures of our consciousness inform and order and even render the world as such, and it is within the framework of these structures—Kant called them “categories of the understanding”—that necessity enters the picture. Without the objective organization of the world within the framework of necessity, Kant replies to Hume, one could not even raise the question.

It may not be immediately clear how Kant’s work has solipsistic implications, but his idea that the observing consciousness renders the world has led to the troubling notion that all we really experience is our own sense data, and this has in some ways drawn the so-called objectivity of the world into question in a kind of backfiring of Kant’s philosophical intention. Things as they are, in themselves, Kant called the “thing-in-itself,” which is by definition unknowable—in fact, the thing-in-itself ultimately can’t even be thought of as a “thing” at all. Unknowably, in a kind of pretemporal encounter, the structures of consciousness (Kant’s categories of the understanding) intersect with the pre-formed world (thing-in-itself), bringing forth the world of ordered experience that we know. But the synthetic a priori comes at a price. Kant saved necessity as an objective principle inherent in the world, but only by positing “the world” as something that is being somehow constructed by the observing consciousness, and in this the whole classical concept of “objectivity” as “out-thereness” is left a bit shaky, and solipsism advances. If all one experiences is one’s own sense data, then the whole world is “in one’s head,” an unavoidable conclusion that’s more than a little creepy. Clearly, the internalizing of the outer world introduces problems of its own. If, for example, what I call “the world” is in my head, then what I call “my head,” as an object in that world, also must be in my head. This line of reasoning thus ends in an infinite regress, suggesting that the original question that brought us to all this was off, and that we have strayed down the wrong philosophical road into a bad neighborhood.

None of this seems to vex those who peddle the philosophies of grandiosity. Let me illustrate the point with an excerpt from the book, Zero Limits, written by Joe Vitale, who was featured in the highly controversial film, “The Secret,” and Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len, regarded as one of the leading proponents and experts in the practice of ho’oponopono. Vitale describes a phone conversation with Dr. Len, who had worked as a therapist at Hawaii State Hospital, an institution for the criminally insane. Some of the inmates at the hospital were so dangerous, they had to be kept chained, and the staff regularly quit or failed to show up for work. The narrative that follows describes how Dr. Len “treated” these patient without ever actually seeing any of them. Writes Vitale:

Dr. Len told me that he never saw patients. He agreed to have an office and to review their files. While he looked at those files, he would work on himself. As he worked on himself, patients began to heal.

Vitale, quoting Dr. Len, reports that the patients improved to the point that absenteeism and turnover among the staff disappeared. With the increased availability of staff, conditions continued to improve. Eventually, the ward was closed. Writes Vitale:

This is where I had to ask the million dollar question: “What were you doing within yourself that caused those people to change?”

“I was simply healing the part of me that created them,” he said.

I didn’t understand.

Dr. Len explained that total responsibility for your life means that everything in your life—simply because it is in your life—is your responsibility. In a literal sense the entire world is your creation.

Whew. This is tough to swallow. Being responsible for what I say or do is one thing. Being responsible for what everyone in my life says or does is quite another. Yet, the truth is this: if you take complete responsibility for your life, then everything you see, hear, taste, touch, or in any way experience is your responsibility because it is in your life.

This means that terrorist activity, the president, the economy—anything you experience and don’t like—is up for you to heal. They don’t exist, in a manner of speaking, except as projections from inside you. The problem isn’t with them, it’s with you, and to change them, you have to change you.

I know this is tough to grasp, let alone accept or actually live. Blame is far easier than total responsibility, but as I spoke with Dr. Len, I began to realize that healing for him and in ho’oponopono means loving yourself. If you want to improve your life, you have to heal your life. If you want to cure anyone–even a mentally ill criminal–you do it by healing you.

“Tough to swallow” is an understatement. Perhaps Vitale’s instincts were trying to tell him something. Solipsism certainly is tough to swallow for any psyche with a healthy sense of where it ends and others begin. Vitale’s narrative leaves us guessing what other factors might have come into play, unacknowledged, that could account for the alleged improvements in the patients’ mental health. And notice the philosophical sleight-of-hand: “Blame is far easier than total responsibility.” As though these were the only options. As though acknowledging the responsibility others bear for their actions and holding them accountable amounts to blame. As though the criterion for determining whether or not to embrace a belief is the level of difficulty. At every turn, Vitale’s truth-bending logic is so opaque, it comes across as disingenuous, like the patter of a card sharp or the ancient Sophists, who would construct any argument and prove any point for a fee. Million dollar question indeed.

Now: If one rejects the underlying solipsistic assumption, one may find value in grandiose philosophies. Ho’oponopono, for example, working with four short and highlly charged phrases—”I’m sorry,” “please forgive me,” “thank you,” and “I love you”—may provide some emotional release and healing in areas where one feels the need to be forgiven. New Thought “treatment” without the solipsistic element might move us to examine the preconceptions we’re bringing to a situation or relationship that could stand improvement, and one might reasonably expect that with the relevant self-improvement, the situation or relationship would improve accordingly. Even the so-called law of attraction can be useful if one takes it no further than the insightful idea that our consciousness informs our experience through the self-fulfilling power of belief, and is careful not to mistake this for the ability to “attract” or create specific conditions at will, an ability we do not have outside the pretensions of magical thinking.

In the Course, which I wrote for the Field Project, I introduce the idea of “radical responsibility,” which suggests that we approach our worldly experience as corresponding to our intentions, defined as that with which we identify and that which we take to be real—even when that experience seems to be resulting from the will and choices of others. Such a claim sounds solipsistic but isn’t, for two reasons. First, the Course makes no attempt to reduce “deliberate intending” to a law-of-attraction technique. Indeed, it states as plainly as can be stated that “the aim of practice is alignment, not manifestation.” Second, and consistent with the first point, radical responsibility is presented in the language of self-work, i.e., of taking on the curriculum of beliefs we may not know we harbor in the interests of living more consciously and working to improve our beliefs and so the influence they exert on the world, locally and nonlocally. The usefulness of this practice lies in its ability to help the student enter a state of alignment or friendly self-agreement, free of contradiction. Thus and importantly, the whole model is explicitly about self-work, not about manipulating outer conditions. No exaggeration of the will or deconstruction of personal boundaries enters into it. There is no claim made anywhere in the Course that through altering our consciousness, we can effect specifically desired conditions or change other people, and therefore, no solipsism. The influence of alignment on the phenomenal world is subtle and indirect, and although the correspondence between inner and outer can be remarkable, it is not presented as a technique one can use in any premeditated way to manipulate reality. While on the face of it, radical responsibility might sound similar to ho’oponono, it’s more like the statement by Herman Hesse, “Only that which is part of us bothers us.” Often, we suffer because we don’t see how we’re participating in a situation that seems convincingly to be “out there.” We don’t see our part in it. Radical responsibility, like Hesse’s statement, calls us back from immersion in the world to self-examination and self-knowledge. Within the Field Project model, others remain real in their otherness, and while it is true that our view of others may be filtered by our beliefs, assumptions, expectations, and so on, it also is true that we would be responsible for those filters, and not in any case “totally responsible” as Huna, New Thought, and the law of attraction would have us believe to our detriment. Indeed, the central philosophical challenge of developing a thoughtful “consciousness-as-cause” curriculum was to throw out the solipsistic assumptions of the New Age law-of-attraction model and cultivate the seed of truth—that our beliefs have an impact on our experience in the world—in a way that would elevate the conversation to a new level and introduce an element of maturity in directing the practitioner away from magical thinking and “manifestation” in favor of self-work. This was crucial, because any solipsistic model, however otherwise beautiful it may be, poisons the well through encouraging exaggeration of the will across essential boundaries of identity. Of this, no good can come.

I have said that solipsism is self-contradictory. This is due to the fact that it denies that there is any “objective” truth (in asserting that all truth is the truth of the solipsist’s subjectivity) while maintaining that its central premise, “I alone am real,” is true objectively. In other words, solipsism denies what it asserts. No philosophical position that denies that there is any such thing as objective truth can purport to be objectively true without collapsing into nonsense. The most solipsism could say is that its position is subjectively true, since it holds that only its immediate subjectivity is real—but then, it ceases to be a philosophical position at all. The same problem shows up in any philosophical model founded on solipsistic assumptions. Ho’oponopono, as we have noted, states that the practitioner is “totally responsible” for his or her experience in the world, including the actions and choices of others. Presumably this is inferred from the fact that the only experience the practitioner can have is his own. But this is what makes it solipsistic. There is a chasm between “I am experiencing the actions of others,” and “I am totally responsible for the actions of others.” The first is true but trivial; the second is solipsistic—it denies others their otherness, appropriates responsibility it could not have in any non-delusional world, and then claims to change conditions in the otherness it denies. Despite the appeal of the method’s simplicity and potential usefulness when liberated from its solipsistic underpinnings, it remains deeply counterintuitive and off-putting. Because it grows in the soil of solipsistic exaggeration of the will, it simply does not ring true.

We owe it to ourselves to be careful about what we believe. Claims that sound too good to be true usually are just that. Despite the inescapability of the subjective amphitheater, the world and others exist in their own right, apart from our consciousness. The failure to respect this otherness has cleared the way for all manner of evil wrought by the dictates of a deformed will. Because others are real in their otherness, they remain autonomous and responsible for their choices and actions. We may benefit from soul-searching and self-correction in any situation where we are playing a part in co-creating the problem, but beyond this, we are wise to steer clear of those who espouse solipsistic principles, who offer us counterfeit power by encouraging us to view the world and other people as nothing more than constructs of our personal consciousness, for they disregard essential boundaries of the self, exaggerate the will, and while promising the key to heaven, unlock the gates of hell