Posts tagged ‘self’

The self is real – it just, like Walt Whitman, contains multitudes. That’s the case made by Serife Tekin in Aeon. She begins by rightly pointing out the current popularity of disbelief in the self. She traces antirealist thinking right back to Hume, who said he was never able to spot his self by introspection; all he ever came up with was a bundle of perceptions. Interestingly she picks out Dennett as a contemporary example of antirealism, but she could readily have pointed to several others who think the self is an illusion or misinterpretation, perhaps stemming from our cognitive limitations, or from the reflexivity that arises when we turn our mind on itself.

Tekin by contrast suggests the self is both real and open to proper scientific investigation. It’s just that it has many forms; it is multitudinous. Borrowing from Neisser, she suggests five main dimensions of the self…

…the ecological self, or the embodied self in the physical world, which perceives and interacts with the physical environment; the interpersonal self, or the self embedded in the social world, which constitutes and is constituted by intersubjective relationships with others; the temporally extended self, or the self in time, which is grounded in memories of the past and anticipation of the future; the private self which is exposed to experiences available only to the first person and not to others; and finally the conceptual self, which (accurately or falsely) represents the self to the self by drawing on the properties or characteristics of not only the person but also the social and cultural context to which she belongs.

I don’t think these five types are meant to exhaust the variety of the self, which actually comes in a huge variety of shifting shapes. Nor are we meant to think that there is no basic unity; the five work together to provide an overall coherence of agency, though not without retaining some inner tensions and contradictions (nothing too strange psychologically in the idea that we may entertain contradictory thoughts and feelings in certain contexts.

The fivefold structure pays off because Tekin can give a separate account of how each can be addressed scientifically. The ecological self is easily observable, for example; fir the interpersonal self we need to pay attention to social aspects, but no great problem there. The most difficult seems likely to be the private self; Tekin seems to think we can get to that simply by interviewing people about ‘what it is like’, which perhaps underrates the problems.

Overall, it’s a sensible and appealing position. The curious thing is how close it seems to the kind of position taken by Dennett, here quoted as an example of antirealism. In fact, Dennett’s ideas are more nuanced than some. He doesn’t believe in a continuous, coherent self like a soul, but he is content to liken the self to a centre of gravity; not a real physical entity as such but a useful and harmless construction. As the author of the ‘multiple drafts’ theory of consciousness, I think he might rather like Tekin’s multitudinousness; and her approach to the private self looks quite like his ‘heterophenomenology’ in which we give up trying to study ineffable inner experience, but happily give consideration to what people tell us about ineffable inner experience.

This raises the attractive possibility that sceptics and believers might end up constructing effectively identical models of the self, the only difference being that one side regards the model as an eliminative reduction while the other sees it as simply analysis. I find that a strangely cheering prospect.


Derek Parfit, who died recently, in two videos from an old TV series…

Parfit was known for his attempts in Reasons and Persons to gently dilute our sense of self using thought experiments about Star Trek style transporters and turning himself gradually into Greta Garbo. I think that by assuming the brain could in principle be scanned and 3D printed in a fairly simple way, these generally underestimated the fantastic intricacy of the brain and begged questions about the importance of its functional organisation and history; this in turn led Parfit to give too little attention to the possibility that perhaps we really are just one-off physical entities. But Parfit’s arguments have been influential, perhaps partly because in Parfit’s outlook they grounded an attractively empathetic and unselfish moral outlook, making him less worried about himself and more worried about others. They also harmonised well with Buddhist thought, and continue to have a strong appeal to some.

Myself I lean the other way; I think virtue comes from proper pride, and that nothing much can be expected from someone who considers themselves more or less a nonentity to begin with. To me a weaker sense of self could be expected to lead to moral indifference; but the evidence is not at all in my favour so far as Parfit and his followers are concerned.

In fact Parfit went on to mount a strong defence of the idea of objective moral truth in another notable book, On What Matters, where he tried to reconcile a range of ethical theories, including an attempt to bring Kant and consequentialism into agreement. To me this is a congenial project which Parfit approached in a sensible way, but it seems to represent an evolution of his views. Here he wanted to be  a friend to Utilitarianism, brokering a statesmanlike peace with its oldest enemy; in his earlier work he had offered a telling criticism in his ‘Repugnant Conclusion’

The Repugnant Conclusion: For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better, even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.

This is in effect a criticism of utilitarian arithmetic; trillions of just tolerable lives can produce a sum of happiness greater than a few much better ones, yet the idea we should prefer the former is repugnant. I’m not sure this conclusion is necessarily quite as repugnant as Parfit thought. Suppose we have a world where the trillions and the few are together, with the trillions living intolerable lives and just about to die; but the happy few could lift them to survival and a minimally acceptable life if they would descend to the same level; would the elite’s agreement to share really be repugnant?

Actually our feelings about all this are unavoidably contaminated by assumptions about the context. Utilitarianism is a highly abstract doctrine and we assume here that two one-off states of affairs can be compared; but in the real world our practical assessment of future consequences would dominate. We may, for example, feel that the bare survival option would in practice be unstable and eventually lead to everyone dying, while the ‘privileged few’ option has a better chance of building a long-term prosperous future.

Be that as it may, whichever way we read things this seems like a hit against consequentialism. The fact that Parfit still wanted that theory as part of his grand triple theory of ethical grand union probably tells us something about the mild and kindly nature of the man, something that no doubt has contributed to the popularity of his ideas.

disappearMy Aeon Ideas Viewpoint on ‘Is the Self an Illusion?’.

I do sort of get why people are so keen on the idea that the self is illusory, but what puzzles me slightly is the absence of any middling, commonsensical camp. When it comes to Free Will, we have the hard-nosed deniers on the one hand and the equally uncompromising people who think determinism debases human nature; but there are quite a lot of people in the middle offering various compatibilist arguments that seek to let us have more or less the traditional concept of freedom and rigorous scientific materialism at the same time. I’m one, really. There just doesn’t seem to be the same school of thought in respect of the self; people who recognise the problem but regard the mission as sorting it out rather than erasing the concept from our vocabulary.

What follows is a draft passage which might eventually form part of a longer piece: I’d appreciate any feedback. – Peter


scribeLet’s ask a stupid question that may not even be answerable. How many qualia are there? It is generally assumed, I think, that this is like asking how long  is a piece of string: that there is an indefinite multiplicity of qualia, that in fact, for every distinguishable sensation there is a matching distinct quale.

As we know, colour is always to the fore in these discussions, and the most common basic example of a quale is probably the colour quale we experience when we see a red rose. I think it is uncontroversial that all sensory experiences come with qualia (uncontroversial among those who believe in qualia at all, that is), although the basis for that appears to be purely empirical; I’m not aware of any arguments to show that all categories of sensory experience must necessarily come with qualia. It would be interesting and perhaps enlightening if some explorers of the phenomenal world reported that, say, the taste of pure water had no accompanying qualia – or that for some, slightly zombish people it had none, while for others it had the full complement of definite phenomenal qualities. To date that has not happened (and perhaps it can’t happen?); it seems to be universally agreed that if qualia exist at all, they accompany every sensory experience.

I think it is generally believed that feelings, phenomenal states with no direct relation to details of the external world, have qualia too. Pain qualia are often discussed, with feelings of hunger and pleasure getting occasional mentions; qualia of emotions are also mentioned without provoking controversy. It seems in fact that all experience is generally taken to have accompanying qualia, including dream or hallucinatory experience, and perhaps even certain memories.

In fact there seems to be an interesting, debatable borderline in memory. Vividly recalling a piece of music in real time seems, I would say, to have the same qualia as hearing it live through the ears (Or are the qualia of memories fainter? Do qualia, as a matter of fact, vary in intensity? Or is that idea a kind of contamination from the effable experiences that pair with each quale? It could be so, but then if there is no variation in intensity qualia must be sort of binary, fully on at all times – or fully off – and that doesn’t feel quite right either.) In general the same might be claimed for all those memories that involve some ‘replay’ of experience or feelings; the replay has qualia. Where nothing is held before our attention, on the other hand, there’s nothing. The act of merely summoning up a PIN number as we use it does not have its own qualia; there’s nothing it is like to recall a password, though there might be something it is like to search the memory for one, and something unpleasant it is like to panic when we fail.

There is certainly room for some phenomenological exploration around these areas, but that more or less exhausts the domain of qualia as I understand it to be generally recognised. I think, however, that it actually stretches a little further than that. There is, in my view, something it is like to be me, something properly ineffable and separable from all the particular sensations and feelings that being me entails. If this is indeed a quale (and of course since this is an ineffable matter I can only appeal to the reader’s own introspective research) then I think it’s in a category of its own. We might be tempted to assimilate it to the feelings, and say it’s the feeling of existing. Or perhaps we might think it’s simply the quale that goes with proprioception, the complex but essential sense that tells us where our body is at any moment. Those are respectable qualia no doubt, but I believe there’s a quale of being me that goes beyond them.

To that we can add a related and problematic entity which uniquely links the Hard and Easy problems, a phenomenal state we could call the executive quale, that of being in charge. We feel that consciousness is effective, that our conscious decisions have real heft in respect of our behaviour.

This, I think, is the very thing that many people are concerned to deny: the feeling of being causally effective; but to date I don’t think it has been regarded as a quale. For some people, who wish to deny both real agency and real subjectivity, the conjunction will seem logical and appealing – to others perhaps less so…

LorenzoConsciousness, as we’ve noted before, is a most interdisciplinary topic, and besides the neurologists, the philosophers, the AI people, the psychologists and so on, the novelists have also, in their rigourless way, delved deep into the matter. Ever since the James boys (William and Henry) started their twin-track investigation there has been an intermittent interchange between the arts and the sciences. Academics like Dan Lloyd have written novels, novelists like our friend Scott Bakker have turned their hand to serious theory.

Recently we seem to have had a new genre of invented brain science. We could include Ian McEwan’s fake paper on De Clerambault syndrome, appended to Enduring Love; recently Sebastian Faulks gave us Glockner’s Isthmus; now, in his new novel A Box of Birds Charles Fernyhough gives us the Lorenzo Circuit.

The Lorenzo Circuit is a supposed structure which pulls together items from various parts of the brain and uses them to constitute memories. It’s sort of assumed that the same function thereby provides consciousness and the sense of self. Since it seems unlikely that a distinct brain structure could have escaped notice this long, we must take it that the Lorenzo is a relatively subtle feature of the connectome, only identifiable through advanced scanning techniques. The Lycée, which despite its name seems to be an English university, has succeeded in mapping the circuit in detail, while Sansom, one of those large malevolent corporate entities that crop up in thrillers, has developed new electrode technology which allows safe and detailed long-term interference with neurons. It’s obvious to everyone that if brought together these two discoveries would provide a potent new technology; a cure for Alzheimer’s is what seems to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds, though I would have thought there were far wilder and more exciting possibilities. The story revolves around the narrator, Dr Yvonne Churcher, an academic at the Lycée, and two of her undergraduate students, Gareth and James.

Unfortunately I didn’t rate the book all that highly as a novel. The plot is put together out of slightly corny thrillerish elements and seems a bit loosely managed. I didn’t like the characters much either. Yvonne seems to be putty in the hands of her students, letting Gareth steal the Lycée’s crucial research without seeming to hold the betrayal of her trust against him at all, and being readily seduced by the negligent James, a nonsense-talking cult member who calls her ‘babe’ (ack!). I’ve seen Gareth described as a “brilliant” character in reviews elsewhere, but sadly not much brilliance seems to be on offer. In fact to be brutal he seemed to me quite a convincing depiction of the kind of student who sits at the back of lectures chuckling to himself for no obvious reason and ultimately requires pastoral intervention. Apart from nicking other people’s theories and data, his ideas seem to consist of a metaphor from Plato, which he interprets with dismal literalism.

This metaphor is the birds thing that provides the title and up to a point, the theme of the book. In the Theaetetus, Plato makes a point about how we can possess knowledge without having it actually in our consciousness by comparing it to owning an aviary of birds without having them actually in your hand. In Plato’s version there’s no doubt that there’s a man in the aviary who chooses the birds to catch; here I think the idea is more that he flocking and movement of the birds itself produces higher-level organisation analogous to conscious memory.

Yvonne is a pretty resolute sceptic about her own selfhood; she can’t see that she is anything beyond the chance neurochemical events which sweep through her brain. This might indeed explain her apparent passivity and the way she seems to drift through even the most alarming and hare-brained adventures, though if so it’s a salutary warning about the damaging potential of overdosing on materialism. Overall the book alludes to more issues than it really discusses, and gives us little side treats like a person whose existence turns out to be no more than a kind of narrative convention; perhaps it’s best approached as a potential thought provoker rather than the adumbration of a single settled theory; not necessarily a bad thing for a book to be.

Yvonne’s scepticism did cause me to realise that I was actually rather hazy on the subject; what is it that people who deny the self are actually denying, and are they all denying the same thing? There are actually quite a few options.

  • I think all self-sceptics want to deny the existence of the traditional immaterial soul, and for some that may really be about all. (To digress a bit, there are actually caverns below us at this point which have not been explored for thousands of years, if ever: if we were ancient Egyptians, with their complex ontology of multiple souls, we should have a large range of sceptical permutations available; denying the ba while affirming the khaibit, say. Our simpler culture, perhaps mercifully, does not offer us such a range of refinedly esoteric entities in which to disbelieve, but those of a philosophical temperament may be inclined to cast a regretful glance towards those profoundly obscure imaginary galleries.)
  • Some may want to deny any sense, or feeling, of self; like Hume they see only a bundle of sensations when they look inside themselves. I think there is arguably a quale of the self; but these people would not accept it.
  • Others, by contrast, would affirm that the sense of self is vivid, just not veridical. We think there’s a self, but there’s nothing actually there. There’s scope for an interesting discussion about what would have to be there in order to prove them wrong – or whether having the sense of self itself constitutes the self.
  • Some would say that there is indeed ‘something’ there; it just isn’t what we think it is. For example, there might indeed be a centre of experience, but an epiphenomenal one; a self who has no influence on events but is in reality just along for the ride.
  • Logically I suppose we could invert that to have a self that really did make the decisions, but was deluded about having any experiences. I don’t think that would be a popular option, though.
  • Some would make the self a purely social construct, a matter of legal and moral rights and privileges, a conception simply grafted on to an animal which in itself, or by itself, would lack it.
  • Some would deny only that the self provides a break in the natural chain of cause and effect. We are not really the origin of anything, they would say, and our impression of being a freely willing being is mistaken.
  • Some radical sceptics would deny that even the body has any particular selfhood; over time every part of it changes and to assert that I am the same self as the person of twenty years ago makes no sense.

As someone who, on the whole, prefers to look for a tenable account of the reality of the self, the richness of the sceptical repertoire makes me feel rather unimaginative.