December 2, 2020

Emergence of Personhood: Lessons from Self and Identity by Roy F. Baumeister

The Emergence of Personhood: Lessons from Self and Identity by Roy F. Baumeister

After reviewing “Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience” by Malcolm Jeeves (first post here), I noticed he was editor of a book that explored the emergence of personhood.  In this book fourteen distinguished scholars — including humanist, atheist, and theist voices — address the question as they explore how and when human personhood emerged. I am reading through it now, and won’t blog the entire book, but as certain essays pique my interest; I’ll share them here.

Roy F. Baumeister

The third essay is Emergence of Personhood: Lessons from Self and Identity by Roy F. Baumeister. Roy F. Baumeister is currently the Eppes Eminent Professor of Psychology and head of the social psychology graduate program at Florida State University.  Baumeister’s research spans multiple topics, including self and identity, self-regulation, interpersonal rejection and the need to belong, sexuality and gender, aggression, self-esteem, meaning, and self-presentation. He has received research grants from the National Institutes of Health and from the Templeton Foundation. He has nearly 400 publications, and his 20 books include Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, The Cultural Animal, and Meanings of Life.

Baumeister points out that it is tempting to think the self is located somewhere in the brain.  That has drawn a lot of attention from what he calls “assorted brain laboratories” who have failed to settle on any one place.  That has led some researchers to conclude the self is an illusion.  Baumeister believes the self is real, but is not localized in a particular brain site or process.  The brain may be the central controlling unit of the human body, but the brain itself does not have a central controlling unit.  Instead, it seems organized on the basis of multiple sites and systems that operate in parallel and interact in mysterious and complicated ways not yet well understood.

The brain apparently does not need a “self”—or indeed any kind of central controlling unit.  Baumeister notes that this is highly revealing.  The brain doesn’t need the self for its workings, but when the body has to deal with other persons, suddenly selves become important, if not indispensable.  He suggests that research into the “self” will prove to be elusive as long as it is focused on single beings in isolation i.e. your typical research situation.  He says:

More broadly, it is instructive to consider how little a solitary creature would need any kind of self.  A solitary being would not have much use for a name, address, job title, or other designation.  Ownership would have no meaning nor utility for it.  It would have no reputation to build or protect.  Moral responsibility, and hence moral agency, would be minimal.  Self-knowledge would be sketchy at best, insofar as much self-knowledge comes by way of interacting with other people.  Moreover, a solitary being would not have language, so its knowledge of self could not be articulated in symbolic form…

The implication of this line of argument is that selves are needed more for social life than for the interior functioning of the brain and psyche.  To understand the self, therefore, we must look outside the person and the brain—at the social environment.  In a sense, a human infant is not born with anything but the most rudimentary self.  It acquires the self by means of socialization and by becoming part of a social group.

Measured in terms of nature’s harsh criteria for success of survival and reproduction, culture has been a remarkably successful strategy.  Most mammals on this planet have seen their population decline or remain stagnant while humans have gone from a few small groups 200,000 years ago to a projected 9 billion for the middle of this century.  Unlike other animals, humans have tripled their average life expectancy.  You might want to argue that humans have accomplished these things at the expense of the other animals, but, that is what competition is.

One might expect that such a successful strategy as culture would be used by many species, but it has not.  Most other species use culture only slightly, or not at all.  Take cooking for example.  Cooking is beneficial as it improves the quality and caloric intake of food.  Digesting raw food is energy intensive.  Cooking food reduces the amount of energy lost in digestion, and is healthier as it kills pathogens in the process.  Yet humans are the only species that cook their food.  Cooking requires the accumulation of information from multiple sources, and other animals do not share information like that.  A single human starting from scratch would not get very far in developing cooking; but by aggregating the results of many individuals experiments with cooking, human cultures have been able to create healthy and satisfying ways of preparing foods that are without any parallel at all in the rest of nature.  Cooking is therefore a microcosm of the development of culture.  The broader point is that the unique features of human personhood likely reflect the evolution of traits suitable to maintain culture. So Baumeister’s working hypothesis is that most of the distinctive human traits are either adaptations for culture or the side effects of those adaptations.

He says: Therefore, the human self is not present at birth nor even programmed to emerge in development.  Rather, it comes into being in interaction with the social environment.  Each baby is born as a full-fledged animal, but it only becomes a person by acquiring an identity from society.  Subjectivity is not a property in the mind but is only recognized (and indeed only becomes meaningfully real) in distinction to others.

So the human mind and body are designed for communication.  The vocal apparatus and hearing apparatus are unique to humans, with the result that only humans can talk.  The grammatically competent brain is another distinctly human trait; other animals who can learn words mostly cannot string them together, using grammar and syntax to create different meanings, as almost all humans do starting in early childhood.  Did the upright posture of Australopithecus free the hands for communication by gesture?  Once humans began sharing information, the availability of increasing amounts of information would have created an environment that selected for brains that could process and store it.  Thus, what set the evolution of humanity on its distinctive pathway was communication.  Communication led to the rise in intelligence.

Consciousness can be regarded as an adaptation for communication.  Most theories of consciousness struggle with the question of what benefit there is from having thoughts in the mind be conscious.  After all unconscious thoughts can cause behavior, so why would nature go to the trouble of making them conscious?  But consciousness serves communication.  All talking is conscious and people need consciousness to understand other people’s speech beyond single words.  Baumeister concludes that since almost all thoughts can be expressed in almost all languages, the profound implication is that there is one single universe of ideas.  He says:

I have proposed that one viable theory of free will is the incorporation of meaning into the causation of action.  Insofar as meaning is not inherently a physical reality—rather, it is something that physical beings represent and process—then its intrusion into the causal chain represents freedom from purely naturalistic, physical causation.  Put more simply, basing action on meaning entails rising above purely physical causality and thus achieves a kind of freedom from purely physical causality.

Baumeister admits the controversial nature of his hypothesis but says that the gist is that human personhood is a blend of biology and meaning.  Moreover, meaning is not, in the final analysis, a physical fact.  He has come to think that meaning resides at least partly in the universe of concepts that form the basis for all languages.  Human beings are physical animals who reached a level of sophistication that enabled them to use the universes of concepts to inform and improve their interactions.  He concludes:

Human beings are animals who have evolved to the point where they can incorporate consideration of immaterial, nonphysical realities, such as morality and complex rationality, into the causation of their acts.  Such causal processes qualify as freedom insofar as the process of physical events is partly determined by nonphysical realities.  The human person is thus a profound blend of nature and culture, or of physical and biological facts with immaterial, meaningful realities.

If what Baumeister is saying is plausible, then God, through a process that ostensibly seems to be cruel, competitive, and wasteful actually results in meaning, cooperation, and unity.  Even if you don’t believe there is a God who purposed anything, it still seems obvious that, for the human project, we truly are all in this together.  We arose as a species through cooperative culture, and we will continue to survive and thrive by the same.  The rugged individualist who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps is a false narrative, and Ayn Rand is a false prophet; while the true prophet says, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24)   Or how about:

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

C’mon, Imonkers, let’s all join virtual hands and sing:

Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya
Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya
Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya
Oh Lord, kumbaya

Now, don’t you feel better, I know I do ????

All-righty, then… anyways… Baumeister’s essay did remind me of 1 Corinthians 12…

Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive…

The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance. (MSG)

Sounds like a good next step in our evolution.


  1. Klasie Kraalogies says

    I tend to agree with Baumeister: The “self” is an emergent entity arising from a multiplicity of systems. Our ability to communicate complex ideas accelerated our development tremendously. While we know that we are, in fact, data (DNA), we are also data in our humanity (ideas, culture). And data comes into fruition when shared. It dies when isolated.

    We can amend Descartes and say “We communicate, therefore we are”.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Information Theory! 🙂

      IT is **everywhere** in the modern world.

      I am a bit surprised someone would describe this kind of thinking as “controversial”.

      Perhaps it is just my sphere, but this seems the dominant, accepted, almost assumed, world view.

      1. Something like humans stood up, that was good for running [aside: ask anyone who works on robotics about the wonders of the human spine – the thing is an marvel for energy recycling]. Humans can out-run almost any other creature on earth. Not by speed, but distance, a group of humans can handily run down a horse. Humanishes could run, and run, and run, and run. A horse can run fast, for maybe a mile, on the outside two miles, then it has to stop, or it will literally die. Humans can run marathons.
      2. Running and running and running made a creature with a fairly unique property: the ability to sustain l-o-n-g term a high metabolic load. That super-power also provides abundant protein; yum, horses! By happenstance it also freed up the hands, as well as advantaging stereoscopic vision [which is what allows us to see in a way that makes reading/symbology easy].
      3. A big Cadillac brain, guzzling up 20W of power 24/7, has the possibility of emerging in a creature able to run so hot.
      4. Among such dangerous big-brained creatures language has OBVIOUS survival advantages [cooperation/negotiation vs. being murdered, etc…]. Doubly, if not triply so, once someone invents weapon.
      5. “me” is a construct of biology and language in a kind of feedback-loop. Information Theory asserts that ‘language’ is a realish thing, or what it is pointing at is realish.

      If I were to poll, at least technology professionals, I am confident this would be the dominant narrative. It feels obvious from here.

  2. Kumbaya?

    • Mike the Geologist says

      Kum ba yah (“Come by Here” in Gullah) is a spiritual song first recorded in the 1920s. It became a standard campfire song in Scouting and summer camps and enjoyed broader popularity during the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

      From the Urban Dictionary: The Kumbaya Law: In any conversation where some of the participants hold an opinion to the left of other participants, someone with the more conservative position will compare said person’s opinion to the naivete of “sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya”.

      • well, this week we see over 70% of our nation singing together for the good of the DACA kids and only 12% are hollering ‘no way’ for DACA amnesty . . . .

        I’d say that is almost a ‘Kumbaya moment’ and it’s about time in this country. The 12% have lost the day and the heart of the nation is with those kids, not with the fearful screeds of the alt-right on this issue . . . .

        FINALLY, some hope surfaces and that it happens for the sake of innocent kids just adds to the joy of it. So, YEAH . . . . . ‘come by here, Lord’ and we will help OUR young people as a nation, and not throw them away like so refuse

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I first came across Kum Ba Yah as a Boy Scout campfire song in the Sixties.

      Sometime between the Sixties and the Seventies it got adopted by various activists as a Feel-Good Anthem and BADLY overused. (Kind of the Seventies version of Drum Circles and/or Symbolic Gestures.) And it was that Important Message preachy overuse that gave the song a bad reputation.

      These days with the Korean Missile Crisis, not only am I flashing like a Nam Vet on the Cuban Missile Crisis but the version of Kum Ba Yah I keep remembering is the one with the nuclear war lyrics I heard on a Christian AM station in the Eighties. (This may have been around the time The Day After was in the news, or fake news, whatever…) During an interlude, the song repeated its namesake chorus in the background while a voice-over made a long sermon-like solemn prayer about nuclear war; the only line I remember at this late date was “LORD, deliver us from that awful Day where the living shall envy the dead!”

      These days I don’t have a good opinion of Kum Ba Yah.

  3. I’m struck suddenly by how much this discussion is simply unthinkable outside a scientific framework. Even here the scientists have their say and then and only then do we glean whatever wisdom we can find in the scriptures. Now don’t misunderstand – this I not a criticism, but simply an acknowledgement of what is in fact the case. I’m not a fundamentalist; I can freely concede that the writings collected together and known as the Bible are the “best guesses” of peoples living in ancient cultures separated from us by more than just time, but a way of thinking that if we’re honest, we will admit we no longer share and cannot achieve except perhaps through our aesthetic experience, i.e., “art”. Alas, I have no deeper wisdom here and perhaps I am merely stating the obvious, but I when I read this post I was suddenly struck by this realization. Odd.

    • ANE people thought vastly differently than medieval Europeans, and we think vastly differently than either. Are we more “right” because we have a better grasp of how stuff works mechanistically?

      • The short answer would be “yes” but verily there really is no short answer. I think the ANEasterner and the medieval have a lot more in common with each other than either do with us. Their “argument” would be quibbling over details but between us and them stands a fundamental conceptual sea change in thinking. So much so that many of the frames of reference we intuit automatically would be incomprehensible to them. And much worse for us we constantly misunderstand these ancient writings simply because we don’t think the way they thought.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Hrmm… I feel it is more that the Scriptures don’t even address this issue.

      • Precisely. So are we prepared to admit that the Bible simply has nothing to say about our most fundamental nature and development as human beings?

        • Mike the Geologist says

          As far as evolutionary development from our animal ancestors and neurobiology, no the Bible writers did not know the material technical details we have now. But are you saying they had no shrewd insight into our character and relations? That seems a little extreme to me. Granted tribal sensibilities and warrior-god concepts are outmoded to us, but what about sublime insights like 1 Corinthians 13? And the radical idea that God conquered by becoming a man and submitting to the cross; that insight STILL escapes most moderns, I submit.

          • ” But are you saying…”

            No I was just asking a question that naturally seems (at least to me) to flow from Adam’s point. The domain in which we allow scripture to speak authoritatively seems to be getting smaller and smaller. As I said in my original post mostly just making an observation.

  4. Burro [Mule] says

    What strikes me is that what can be said about humans in isolation can also be said about God. The Blessed Trinity as the source of All That Is preserves both from the dissipating chaos of the Many and from the awful non-existence of the One.

    The Universe created and upheld by the most Blessed Trinity is the Universe where we belong, where neither difference nor similarity are ultimate, or perhaps better, where both are ultimate.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      I think this also confirms Chaplain Mike’s emphasis that the “image of God” is a vocation to be His priestly representatives to the world through creation care and, most importantly, neighbor care.

  5. “More broadly, it is instructive to consider how little a solitary creature would need any kind of self. A solitary being would not have much use for a name, address, job title, or other designation. Ownership would have no meaning nor utility for it. It would have no reputation to build or protect. Moral responsibility, and hence moral agency, would be minimal. Self-knowledge would be sketchy at best, insofar as much self-knowledge comes by way of interacting with other people. Moreover, a solitary being would not have language, so its knowledge of self could not be articulated in symbolic form…”

    Take that paragraph and apply it to God himself and you have the revolutionary Jungian idea that humans were created in the likeness and image of God so that He could look into that mirror and see himself. Without an “other” He had a blind spot. The book, Answer to Job is the full elaboration of that speculation. If that is the case then our meaning on this little spinning orb is of the most extraordinary consequence. The more we evolve and the more awake we become the brighter the light of God.

    • Chris,

      as Mule wrote above, I think this is much more an argument *not* for solitary being who is divine, but a Trinity who exists in relationality. The Trinity did not need to create us to have something to look at in the mirror; the Trinitarian Persons already had that, if you will. There was “sameness” and there was “other” already there. It makes more sense to me that creation came about purely from love, without any “need” God had. To me, that is even more wondrous. My priest once said to me, “God loves you; therefore, you exist.”


      • Perhaps the bride of Christ being bought with the blood of, in essence, the Trinity is indicative of something more than us messing up and being ransomed. Why has God paid such a gruesome cost? There are more than a couple of mind boggling questions that get answered in a sort of a ‘Aha’ way when you look at things from this point of view. I know it’s more than unorthodox but I bring it up occasionally because it has a foothold in me that is borne of long years of contemplation. Me and this thought go back to 1981 or so but it’s never a regular topic of conversation. I couldn’t help myself when I read that quote though. It was seamless. I bring up the bride of Christ because it fits into the concept of a Quaternio as opposed to a Trinity (remember Trinity is not a scriptural term if quaternio sounds a bit foreign). The thought is that the fourth member has always been in place in the eternal dimension and that is why we are at this very moment seated in heavenly places with Christ though it would appear that nothing could be further from the truth. Four square has always been the objective. Jesus prayed a few times out loud so that the disciples would hear him about us being in him and him being in the father and us being in the father and all of us being one in the spirit. We are a very large part of this equation as we came from God and are going back to God. The fatal flaw for us as we approach Theosis is hubris. We must find a way to do what Jesus did which is to empty ourselves and become fully one, fully ourselves by losing ourselves. Gods whole plan is for humanity to become the fourth element and thereby fulfill the Godhead. Why such a price has to be paid for that is a mystery that exists in other dimensions but we are none other than the evolutionary fulfillment of the Godhead. Or not :-). I’m not fighting this out with anyone but it will take a little more persuasion before I drop it. There is something there but I may need another twenty or so years to sort through it or come to realize I was wrong.