Joshua Knobe, a pioneer in the field of “experimental philosophy” at Yale, has contributed a  fascinating piece  to the New York Times’ online philosophy forum on the intuitions of ordinary folk about what constitutes the “true self”. Mr Knobe takes up the illustrative example of Mark Pierpont, a once-prominent figure in the evangelical Christian movement to “cure” homosexuality who (surprise!) felt himself strongly attracted to men. So, who’s the “real” Mark Pierpont? Mr Knobe writes:

One person might look at his predicament and say: “Deep down, he has always wanted to be with another man, but he somehow picked up from society the idea that this desire was immoral or forbidden. If he could only escape the shackles of his religious beliefs, he would be able to fully express the person he really is.”

But then another person could look at exactly the same case and arrive at the very opposite conclusion: “Fundamentally, Pierpont is a Christian who is struggling to pursue a Christian life, but these desires he has make it difficult for him to live by his own values. If he ever gives in to them and chooses to sleep with another man, he will be betraying what was is most essential to the person he really is.”

A standard philosophical position on this issue, that the true self is revealed by rational reflection on our defining values, implies that Mr Pierpoint cannot capitulate to his man-lust without betraying his true self. This seems wrong to many of us, who are, as Mr Knobe points out, “drawn to the very opposite view. The true self…lies precisely in our suppressed urges and unacknowledged emotions, while our ability to reflect is just a hindrance that gets in the way of this true self’s expression.” The real Mark Pierpont is the gay Mark Pierpont. You go girl! But do we feel the same way about drug addicts, or pederasts?

Continue Reading on