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Minds, Memes, and Multiples
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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 3.1 (1996) 21-28

Abstract: Multiple Personality Disorder is sometimes interpreted as evidence for a radically pluralistic theory of the human mind, judged to be at odds with an older, monistic theory. Older philosophy, on the contrary, suggests that the mind is both plural (in its sub-systems or personalities) and unitary (in that there is only one light over all those lesser parts). Talk of gods and demons has been a way of arranging elements of human mind and motivation. The one light, or center, is something which requires mental discipline to discover rather than being immediately obvious. This indeed is what even Descartes (sometimes blamed for introducing the notion of a simple, transparent self) really intended. Discovering or uncovering the Self is a psychotherapeutic as well as a philosophical imperative.
Keywords: consciousness, gods, Multiple Personality Disorder, passivity, thought alienation.

Multiple Personality

The phenomena popularly identified as evidence of "multiple personality disorder" are strangely attractive. The stories suggest that those who provide, who are, the evidence for this disorder are usually in acute distress, but those who wish to believe in it find the idea almost exhilarating. Most of us would rather wish to think that we had undeveloped possibilities, that it would be exciting to be a married academic today, a celibate bus-driver tomorrow and a teenage hooligan on Sundays. The impulse to put aside our duties, or our habits, can be a powerful one, and only the sober thought that we would not, after all, succeed in keeping our lives separate keeps us single. The notion that there are people who take the risk, that our bodies could house a multitude, is one we would wish to believe. At the same time, we wish to remember that such divisions bring their own problems, and as easily suspect that those who apparently succeed in dividing themselves up must have suffered serious trauma in the past, and be plagued by missed appointments and self-hatred in the present. Some of us believe that "multiple personality" reveals a truth about us all, that none of us is actually the simple, heroic self that we pretend: "the self" is only an occasionally concordant swarm of impulses, easily divided. Others of us suspect that it is a wish to avoid responsibility, and guilt, that causes some of us to pretend not to be the selves that actually we are (see Rycroft 1987).

On earlier occasions (notably Clark 1991b), I have myself expressed some doubt about reports of Multiple Personality Disorder, and suggested that they should be seen as fictions or dramatic representations (whether by the patient or the reporter) which should not be judged as "true" or "false," but rather as "interesting" or "pernicious." Stephen Braude, in a recent excellent book, seems at first to side with the true believers: it is absurd, he suggests, not to believe the many reports of fugue, discordance and fully developed multiples (Braude 1991; see also Wilkes 1984, Brennan 1990). Maybe a few such reports are over-credulous: it would not be surprising that the occasional clever criminal successfully pretended not to know what an alien other did with his body. But there are, he says, too many independent records to disbelieve, and not only the distant stories of Miss Beauchamp (Prince 1908) or Eve (Thigpen & Cleckley 1954, 1957). Since the 1970s the number of reported cases has been rising again. It may be that some, many, or all the cases are artifacts, in the sense that the doctor's expectations helped to produce or develop the varied personalities: "when a client walks into the therapist's office and sits down, the expectation framework of the therapist immediately comes into play" (Crabtree 1985, 211; see also Hawthorn 1983). But the evidence is also compatible with the thought that psychotherapeutic fashion now allows the therapist to notice, rather than invent, the phenomena. Multiples often wish to conceal their condition, it is said, and only observers alerted to the possibility will notice them. Conscious or half-conscious role-playing, which would perhaps be less philosophically interesting, cannot explain more than a few of the cruder cases.

In short, I find myself persuaded by...


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