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Transhumanist Therapy III: Dimensions of Personality and Culture

Among the most powerful traditions in the psychology of personality is the quest for a short list of concepts, whether distinct categories or dimensions of variation, describing human variety.  Some believe we already have the compass required to navigate this OCEAN: Openness to experience (fantasy, aesthetics, feelings), Conscientiousness (competence, order, dutifulness), Extraversion (warmth, gregariousness, assertiveness), Agreeableness (trust, straightforwardness, altruism), Neuroticism (anxiety, angry hostility, depression).  Or do people experience one or another of four FITS: Feeling, Intuition, Thinking, Sensation?  Or are our factions crammed at the beginning of the alphabet: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite.  Or was that raving madman right who classified us as Apollonian, Buddhist, Dionysian, Zarathustran?

At the risk of mixing metaphors, it can be said that the patron saint of Transhumanism is Friedrich Nietzsche.  Insane the last years of his brief life, dead now twice as long as he lived, his fame remarkably endures - nine million hits when googling “Friedrich Nietzsche” as a two-word phrase.  No superman, he was a rope across an abyss, who said of himself, “Der Mensch ist ein Seil, geknüpft zwischen Thier und Übermensch - ein Seil über einem Abgrunde.”  Did I misunderstand that sentence?  Or is it impossible to translate Nietzsche even into German, let alone English?  Ah, here’s the correct metaphor:  Jesus died for our sins, crucified on a cross, while Nietzsche died for our dreams, falling into an abyss. 

Early in his dreaming, influenced by Richard Wagner’s music as well as Classical civilization, Nietzsche wrote The Birth of Tragedy, where, as I noted in a 2010 article in Journal of Evolution and Technology, he postulates:

...the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy, which Nietzsche derives from his reading of ancient Greek history and culture. Named after the comparable but competing Greek gods, Apollo and Dionysus, these two archetypes represent opposite modes of response to human existence. The Apollonian is cool, rational, classical, and when it does not speak in grammatical sentences expresses itself through the visual arts. The Dionysian is hot, lustful, romantic, and when it does not roar with animal noises expresses itself through music and dance. From Schopenhauer, Nietzsche also took the idea that Apollonianism was the principium individuationis – the principle of individuation – which marked solitary philosophers who sought to understand the world through private contemplation or the exercise of their individual intellects. In contrast, Dionysianism is a form of extreme collective intoxication experienced in emotional group rituals and drunken festivals…


Nietzsche conflated two distinguishable dichotomies here, cold versus hot and individual versus collective. When she applied Nietzsche’s concepts to anthropology in her book Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict (1934) was not convinced these dualities were connected in the same way he thought, and she suggested Dionysians could be individualistic. Consider one of the science-fiction expressions of the cold-hot dimension: logical Vulcans versus passionate Klingons in Star Trek. Both are collectivist. Although Klingons are expected to compete with each other for status, they do within their rather hidebound society.

Setting temperature of the temperament aside, consider the individualist versus collectivist dimension. Nietzsche actually hints at a third orientation toward life, the Buddhist, marked both by denial of individual will and the longing for nothingness. However, just as the Buddhist abjures personal feelings, he detaches himself from social sentiments. The Apollonian emphasizes the self and deemphasizes the collective. The Dionysian emphasizes the collective and deemphasizes the self. The Buddhist deemphasizes both self and society. Logically, there must be a fourth type, which emphasizes both.

Is the fourth and logically necessary type the Zarathustran, emphasizing both the individual and the collective?  Why, that sounds like IEET, Transhumanist and ethical!  But Nietzsche’s famous work, Also Sprach Zarathustra, ends with him just as alienated as he began, and Superman became a comic book character.  With modifications, Nietzsche’s Dionysian modality became Extraversion, while the Apollonian became Introversion, and from Carl Gustav Jung’s work until today, the Extraversion-Introversion dimension has been one of the most stable concepts in psychology.  It also features in pseudo-psychology, notably in the discredited but widely used Myers-Briggs, largely based on Jung’s FITS. Wikipedia says: “The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is used by 89 of the Fortune 100 companies. Although very popular in businesses around the world, the MBTI has been criticized by some academics as having methodological weaknesses, poor statistical validity and low reliability.” What could be more insane than making hiring and management decisions about employees on the basis of a questionnaire that was developed by people lacking proper scientific training and that is often used to assign people to category “types” when typological thinking has no standing in current psychology or cognitive science? 

This seems like a step toward the dystopian future described by Veronica Roth in her novel Divergence, recently made into a popular sci-fi film, described thus by Wikipedia: “In a post-apocalyptic Chicago, survivors were divided into five factions based on their dispositions: Abnegation, for the selfless; Amity, for the peaceful; Candor, for the honest; Dauntless, for the brave; and Erudite, for the intellectual.”  Members of a sixth, Divergence, are apt to be killed, because the common quality of their category is the failure to fit into any category.

However, Myers-Briggs has affinities with the famous Big Five personality dimensions, which exist in multiple similar forms including the OCEAN mentioned above and Lewis R. Goldberg’s version which I used in recent online research.  My book Personality Capture and Emulation introduced Goldberg’s Big Five with two items from the twenty used to measure each dimension, one scored positive, and one negative:

Extraversion:
+ Make friends easily
– Am a very private person
Agreeableness:
+ Sympathize with others’ feelings
– Am indifferent to the feelings of others
Conscientiousness:
+ Love order and regularity
– Find it difficult to get down to work
Emotional Stability (opposite of Neuroticism):
+ Am relaxed most of the time
– Get stressed out easily
Imagination (comparable to Openness to experience):
+ Love to think up new ways of doing things
– Have difficulty understanding abstract ideas

The most obvious criticism of the Big Five is that many other measures have proven statistically reliable, and that is the reason for the word big in the name.  Supposedly, these five are the dimensions that most significantly measure variations across all people, while other measures are more specialized, either narrower in meaning or applying only to some people.  These measures do have scientific value and are somewhat sophisticated, for example being dimensions of variation rather than assigning people to separate categories even if their differences are small as can happen in Myers-Briggs.  My book reports results of administering Goldberg’s 100-item questionnaire to fully 3,267 people, a very large number by the traditional standards of personality psychology.  I used the standard statistical method to analyze the data, factor analysis, which naturally condenses the variations into a small number of dimensions.  When I told my computer to produce five factors, I got the standard five.  But when I told it to produce as many factors as met the statistical criterion of having eigenvalues greater than 1, it produced 15 factors, each of which seemed meaningful.  This raises the question of whether the effort by psychologists in the twentieth century to identify a small number of dimensions of personality may have been misguided.

Another serious but not devastating criticism is that the Big Five may reflect habits of human language, shaped by the practicalities of human interaction, rather than being (for example) consequences of differences in brain structure or otherwise being objective.  Notice how EAC are all about three aspects of how we judge a person with whom we interact, using ordinary language.  Extroverts interact with us intensely.  Agreeable people are pleasant to talk with.  Conscientious people can be relied upon.  The fourth dimension concerns stability, but as it is often measured may reflect anxiety or depression on the part of the person filling out a self-description questionnaire.  Imagination or Openness has been the most controversial of the five, because it was often confused with Intelligence, and the personality psychologists did not want to measure skills and abilities, and many of them may have been uncomfortable with the overt elitism associated with IQ tests.  This suggests that the Big Five are really an analysis of human language categories, constrained by the ethical or political ideologies of academics, in the artificial context of administering questionnaires in a low stress situation.  It also seems possible that the exact items were selected over the years to minimize gender differences in the results, and it is hard to assign many intense real world conflicts to a dimension.

Is violence just high Extraversion mixed with low Agreeableness?  Or is violence the angry hostility that may result from combining Neuroticism with Extraversion, while depression combines Neuroticism with Introversion?  Maybe.  Low Conscientiousness seems to be laziness rather than violence.  Neuroticism seems to be excessive weakness rather than strength that may express itself through violence, if one happens to admire warrior values.  Honesty-Dishonesty seems to combine aspects of some dimensions, but one could just as well conclude that serious real-world actions by people are not really covered by the Big Five.  Is there a totally different approach that is based on much more intense concepts?  Yes, and it existed for thousands of years in polytheistic religions.

This takes us back to Nietzsche.  By invoking the names of Apollo and Dionysus, he directly cited ancient Greek paganism as his intellectual source.  The gods in Wagner’s operas were idealizations of the deities from ancient Norse or Germanic religions.  The English-language Wikipedia page for Der Ring des Nibelungen lists these:

Wotan, King of the Gods, god of light, air, and wind
Fricka, Wotan’s wife, goddess of marriage
Freia, Fricka’s sister, goddess of love, youth, and beauty
Donner, Fricka’s brother, god of thunder
Froh, Fricka’s brother, god of spring and happiness
Erda, goddess of wisdom, fate, and Earth
Loge, demigod of fire
The Norns, the weavers of fate, daughters of Erda

My favorite was always Loge, represented musically by a chromatic leitmotif very close to a futuristic 12-tone row.  He was Wagner’s version of Loki the trickster god, who implies that honesty and indeed ethics in general are not really virtues, but signs of intellectual weakness.  If gods in polytheistic systems represent archetypes, is there a modern mystical tradition that offers a personality system comparable to the Big Five but much more intense in its implications for human actions.  Yes, there are several, and the one I studied closely was the Process.

At its height, the Process identified four gods: Lucifer, Jehovah, Christ, and Satan.  Human personalities were of four types, based on pairs of gods: Luciferian-Christian, Luciferian-Satanic, Jehovian-Christian, and Jehovian-Satanic.  Lucifer represented enjoyment, permissiveness, harmony, success, and satisfaction.  Jehovah represented duty, discipline, struggle, sacrifice, and self-denial.  Christ was the unifier of the gods, while Satan was the separator.  Thus Lucifer and Jehovah were at war with each other, and Christ and Satan were also at war.  The chief principle of human interaction in this psychological theology was the Universal Law: “As you give, so shall you receive.”  Because Satan separates everyone, Satan is separated into higher and lower aspects.  Satan’s lower aspect represented lust, abandon, violence, excess, and indulgence.  Satan’s higher aspect represented detachment, mysticism, otherworldliness, magic, and asceticism.

Now I certainly do not mean to imply that the five god patterns (counting Satan’s aspects as two) are as scientific as the Big Five personality dimensions.  But they are certainly more intense, and for Transhumanists intensity can at times be a virtue.  Put the other way, the Big Five are bland to the point of irrelevance in a world already suffering conflict and destined for greater conflict if political systems cannot be reformed to make them more representative and more effective.  The Process concepts were not merely abstractions, but actually governed much of the group’s activity.  For example, the two founders represented two of the deities in a marriage, the Union of the male god Lucifer (Robert de Grimston) and the female goddess Jehovah (Mary Ann MacLean).  The symbol of that union was the copulation of an Alpha with an Omega, standard Greek letter representations of the full scope of God, shown in the figure attached here, which is a photograph of the emblem on the tabard worn by Sacrifists in the main Sabbath Assembly ritual.

Figure: The Alpha-Omega union of opposites

The elite leaders of the Process really did conceptualize the gods as archetypes, not as person-like deities, although the less sophisticated followers worshiped them as powerful supernatural beings.  I certainly do not mean to imply that Transhumanists should take this particular deviant personality theory seriously, but I do suggest that it highlights some of the weaknesses of the Big Five.  What use would we have for any of these theories?

Suppose you took a personality test and your results indicated you were weak in a particular dimension that you personally valued.  Would you be interested in a therapy or training routine that could strengthen that trait in you?  Or, if you felt all of these theoretical systems were too constraining, but saw merit in their individual concepts, would you want higher-level personality development technologies that would give you the freedom to change your personality at any moment, to gain greater power over whatever circumstances you faced?  For example, meditation techniques might teach introversion, and athletic competition might teach extraversion, which if combined could let you choose from moment to moment where you wanted to stand on the Introversion-Extraversion dimension.  Thus, personality theories may provide Transhumanists with maps to help them choose among multiple paths toward personal enhancement.

Next installment: The Current Crisis in Psychiatry

William Sims Bainbridge Ph.D. is an IEET Senior fellow, and a prolific and influential sociologist of religion, science and popular culture. Dr. Bainbridge serves as co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the NSF.



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