Self-Experimentation

by on February 18, 2007 at 6:27 am in Philosophy | Permalink

John D. Freyer decided to sell everything he owns — yes everything — on ebay.  Stage two is to visit those objects in people’s homes around the country and record their tales.  Stage three is to publish this book

When Oh When will people appreciate how deep Seth Roberts’s self-experimentation concept runs?  Descartes started with the idea that we know only ourselves, Seth realizes that the self is often the last thing we know and discovering the self is the highest stage of science not to mention performance art.  The innovation of hermeneutics (as found say, in Paul Riceour) was to set the self apart from the social world and trace the implications of a dualistic and indeed interpretative social science.  Seth reestablishes methodological monism by turning the world-self distinction on its head, relocating the self in the world of science.  Add to that mix a working knowledge of experimental psychology, insights from neurodiversity (the meticulous recording of self, the focus on detail, plus the deeply autistic speak of the self in the third person as an external object to be observed; are they so wrong?), and sugared water, for a potent mix.

Virtually all of you — that’s right you — underinvest in self-experimentation at the relevant margin.  Status quo bias is one reason, plus we fear negative feedback about who we are and what we are doing.  Who wants to learn that his or her **x life (family blog!) could have been 63 percent better for the last fourteen years?   

Scientists should spend at least one-third of their time with self-experimentation.  Robin Hanson lectures us on bias, favoring one’s self excessively, failing to agree with smarter or better informed others, and intellectual hubris.  We need to correct for these flaws, just as we might wipe the dirt off the lens of our microscope.  Good luck.

A’la Heisenberg, measuring the self does not differ in degree from constructing the self.  Seth thus solves the age-old problem of avoiding the collapse of German Idealism into German Romanticism and then into complete subjectivity.  The construction of the self is brought squarely into the realm of science; this integrates the two sides of early Wittgenstein, namely the affinity for the mystical and the analytics which gave birth to logical positivism. 

Did I mention politics?  Wilhelm von Humboldt, a descendent of the Romantics and forerunner of Mill, portrayed self-experimentation as the essential outcome of freedom and the ultimate justification for a free society.  Plato saw the same in Book Eight of The Republic, where it is argued that the life of a philosopher (i.e., critical self-examination) can flourish only under democracy.  Dan Klein’s paper is called "Go Ahead and Let Him Try."

Of course it was Goethe who understood most of this, and even put it into verse, but that is another post altogether.  Nor are Jung and Nietzsche irrelevant.  Seth Roberts is my new ersatz Continental philosopher.

Here is my previous post on Seth, you can use Google for Alex’s posts too.  Here is Seth’s blog.

Addendum: Seth responds

Chi February 18, 2007 at 10:17 am

Scientists should spend 1/3 of their time on self-experimentation? Puhleeze. I became a scientist so I could get beyond the world of the flesh. Maybe we could harness the rest of the world to do this in their spare time, but hey, then we’d probably get Kevin Trudeau and 5 billion of my grandma, thinking bee’s wax will cure their arthritis.

I discount self-experimentation to the degree that I believe we are mostly built the same, and so can afford to have someone else impartial be aggregating data on our lives. If tabloids, magazines, and Newsweek didn’t try so hard to swamp these sorts of studies, I’m sure we’d all have a bit more wisdom to live on by now.

The Nice February 18, 2007 at 11:14 am

Only really shallow people know themselves.

logicnazi February 18, 2007 at 12:33 pm

Well if your goal is true knowledge or some such maybe you are right. However if your goal is happiness of a feeling of fulfillment it seems exactly the arguments you marshaled for why people don’t like to do it show that it may make them less happy.

Don’t get me wrong I would really love it if people did more self-experimentation, particularly in terms of their political views. It would make our society a much more enlightened reasonable place. However, the effect of one individual voter is small and the loss of certainty that strong unanalyzed political views provide is quite upsetting for many.

Gyan February 18, 2007 at 4:56 pm

A’la Heisenberg, measuring the self does not differ in degree from constructing the self. Seth thus solves the age-old problem of avoiding the collapse of German Idealism into German Romanticism and then into complete subjectivity.

Can you elaborate on this? Complete subjectivity derives from epistemological solipsism, which remains unimpeached.

Jeff Jones February 19, 2007 at 1:33 am

Tyler, I sympathize with your frustration of the current reign of Descartes’ and Kant’s duality.

Many of the great 20th and 19th century philsophers have attempted to dismantle it.

I had a professor who told me that, despite the efforts of recent philophers, duality still stands because our actions are guided by a dual conception of reality.

roberto February 19, 2007 at 1:57 am

as I typed my last post, I began to understand where Tyler is coming from.

you probably prefer Spinoza’s shallow monism over Descartes’ dualism.

Descartes’ dualism leads to abstract constraints imposed on the mind.

these artificial constraints impose impediments to self-discovery.

Jeff Brown February 19, 2007 at 11:45 am

I’d really like to think there’s something here, like a hundred dollar bill on the floor, but I don’t see it.

Michael Blowhard February 19, 2007 at 8:43 pm

On the Descartes-ian and post-Descartesian thing: Stephen Toulmin rocks.

On “the self”: Vedanta rocks.

dusti September 13, 2007 at 12:51 am

I think all this academic jive is blinding you to the hundred dollar bills strewn about on the floor of Seth’s work. I have repeatedly found that applying the scientific method to my personal behavioral patterns leads to growth and change. For example, spending less than 30 minutes per day blogging could possibly improve my s.. life by 63%.

chenfan October 27, 2008 at 5:50 am
herefast123 October 28, 2008 at 5:19 am
herefast123 October 30, 2008 at 9:09 am
richard June 15, 2009 at 3:30 am

at Mith:
Only people who ´think´ they already know themselves, ´seem´ shallow, exactly for that reason. Really shallow people do not exist. Our nature is far more complex than we can think of, still plenty left to discover for each of us.

at all:
Of course seth´s methods are not as trustworthy as classic experimental ones. In his original research paper, he suggested self-experimentation would be used to help generate new ideas for hypothesis, which ´real´ science can then test – not to replace the latter.

It´s a ´quick & dirty´ approach that could save huge amounts of time, money and effort pumped into current research, just by giving a direction, making it more likely that we will look for the answers on the right place.

Quite a loss if the academic elite proves too arrogant to recognize the additional value this can offer – respect though for the man who not only had this insight but also acted upon it, with results!

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