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Posts tagged ‘philosophy of the self’

“Who’s There?” Is The Self A Convenient Fiction?

For a long time people thought that the self was unified and eternal. It’s easy to see why. We feel like we have an essence; we grow old, gain and lose friends, and change preferences but we are the same person from day one.

The idea of the unified self has had a rough few centuries however. During the English Enlightenment Hume and Locke challenged the platonic idea of human nature being derived from an essence; in the 19th century Freud declared that the ego “was not even the master of his own house;” and after decades of revealing empirical research neuroscience has yet to reveal anything that scientists would call unified. As clinical neuropsychologist Paul Broks says, “We have this deep intuition that there is a core… But neuroscience shows that there is no center in that brain where things do all come together.”

One of the most dramatic demonstrations of the illusion of the unified self comes from Michael Gazzaniga, who showed that each hemisphere of the brain exercises free will independently when surgeons cut the corpus callosum. Gazzaniga discovered this with a simple experiment. When he flashed the word “WALK” in the right hemisphere of split-brain patients they walked out of the room. But when he asked them why they walked out all responded with a trivial remark such as, “To go to the bathroom” or “To get a Coke.” Here’s where things got weird. When he flashed a chicken in patients’ left hemisphere (in the right visual field) and a wintry scene in their right hemisphere (in the left visual field), and asked them to select a picture that goes with what they saw, he found that their left hand correctly pointed to a snow shovel and their right hand correctly pointed to a chicken. However, when the patients were asked to explain why they pointed at the pictures they responded with something like, “That’s easy. The shovel is for cleaning up the chicken.”

Nietszche was right: “We are necessarily strangers to ourselves…we are not ‘men of knowledge’ with respect to ourselves.”

But you don’t have to have a severed corpus callosum or a deep understanding of Genealogy of Morals (which I don’t) to appreciate how modular ourselves are. Our everyday inner-monologues are telling enough. We weigh the pros and cons between fatty meats and nutritious vegetables even though we know which is healthier. When we have the chance to procrastinate we usually take it and rationalize it as a good decision. We cheat, lie, are lazy and eat Big Macs knowing full well how harmful doing these things are. When it comes to what we think about, what we like and what we do Walt Whitman captured our natural hypocrisies and inconsistencies with this famous and keenly insightful remark: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

That the unified self is largely an illusion is not necessarily a bad thing. The philosopher and cognitive scientist Dan Dennett suggests that it is a convenient fiction. I think he’s right. With it we are able to maintain stories and narratives that help us make sense of the world and our place in it. This is a popular conviction nowadays. As prominent evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker explains in one of his bestsellers, “each of us feels that there is a single “I” in control. But that is an illusion that the brain works hard to produce.” In fact, without the illusion of selfhood we all might suffer the same fate as Phineas Gage who was, as anyone who has taken an introductory to psychology course might remember, “no longer Gage” after a tragic railroad accident turned his ventromedial prefrontal cortex into a jumbled stew of disconnected neurons.

However, according to the British philosopher Julian Baggini in a recent TED lecture the illusion of the self might not be an illusion. The question Baggini asks is if a person should think of himself as a thing that has a bunch of different experiences or as a collection of experiences. This is an important distinction. Baggini explains that, “the fact that we are a very complex collection of things does not mean we are not real.” He invites the audience to consider the metaphor of a waterfall. In many ways a waterfall is like the illusion of the self: is it not permanent, it is always changing and it is different at every single instance. But this doesn’t mean that a waterfall is an illusion or that it is not real. What it means is that we have to understand it as a history, as having certain things that are the same and as a process.

Baggini is trying to save the self from neuroscience, which is admirable considering that neuroscience continues to show how convoluted our brains are. I am not sure if he is successful – argument by metaphor can only go so far, empirical data wins at the end of the day – but I like the idea that personal and neurological change and inconsistency doesn’t imply an illusion of identity. In this age of cognitive science it’s easy to subscribe to Whitman’s doctrine – that we are constituted by multitudes; it takes a brave intellect, on the other hand, to hang on to what Freud called our “naïve self-love.”

Shakespeare opened Hamlet with the huge and beautifully complex query, “Who’s There.” Four hundred years later Baggini has an answer, but many of us are still scratching our heads.

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Our Modular Selves: Science and the Philosophy of Self

One of the most enduring themes in western thought is the idea of The Self. Who am “I” and what does it mean “to be,” many philosophers have asked over the centuries. Thought provoking questions indeed, but most discussions of The Self make the mistake of assuming that it is something. The reality is that many modules that are constantly in conflict influence human beings. As prominent evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban explains, “the very constitution of the human mind makes us massively inconsistent.” We think that there is an “I” behind all of our cognition – a ghost in the machine – but this is largely a delusion.

Take our moral intuitions. Sometimes we are morally sound. In one experiment, researchers found that deliberately dropped envelopes were stamped and mailed one fifth of the time by complete strangers. Psychologist Jenifer Kunz found that when people receive a Christmas card from a family they do not know, they usually send one back in return. And in the famous Ultimatum experiment in which people are given $20 and the choice to either take all of it, split it $18/$2, or split it $10/$10, most split it evenly. Moreover, moral psychologists are demonstrating that babies as young as five to six months old have a “moral sense” towards people and objects outside of their kin.

On the other hand, consider Douglas Kenrick’s infamous study, which asked participants how often they thought about killing other people. Partnering with Virgil Sheets, Kenrick polled 760 Arizona State University students and found that “the majority of those smiling, well-adjusted, all-American students were willing to admit to having had homicidal fantasies. In fact 76 percent of the men reported such fantasies… [and] 62 percent of the so-called gentler sex had also contemplated murder at least once.” Furthermore, as Kenrick explains, “when David Buss and Josh Duntley later surveyed a sample of students at the University of Texas, they found similarly high percentages of men (79 percent) and women (58) percent admitting to homicidal fantasies.”

These findings aren’t surprising. Devil-angel, heaven-hell, and good cop-bad cop dichotomies have illustrated our inner conflicts for centuries. But isn’t it strange that these divisions occur inside of something we consider singular and unified? Of course, we are far from being singular or unified. As Jonathan Haidt says, “we assume that there is one person in each body, but in some ways we are each more like a committee whose members have been thrown together working at cross purposes” This should also seem obvious. Just think about weighing the short-term with the long-term: Should I eat Pizza now or go for a run? Should I keep drinking or go home to avoid the hangover? Should I continue working this job even though I don’t like it? Should I stay in this relationship even though it isn’t what it once was? To borrow an example from Kurzban, think of a few verbs to complete the sentence, I really like to ______ but afterwards I wish I hadn’t, and compare them to verbs that could complete the sentence, I don’t like to _______ but afterwards I’m glad I did. The first set of verbs sharply contrasts with the second set with the former illustrating the “impatient modules” and the latter the “patient modules.”

Why the inconsistencies? Put simply, we speak to ourselves, not ourself, and these inner dialogues depend on context and current states. For example, would you pay 30 dollars for a slice of pizza? Probably not. But what if you were starving on the African savannah and you happened to have 30 dollars? Or, to put it in more relatable terms, what if you were on one of those long-haul flights across the Pacific when after not eating for hours the person next to you pulls out a delicious slice of warm pizza and starts eating it. Suddenly, 30 dollars doesn’t seem so bad. Context and circumstance matter, duh. But what’s important is that the more specific our understanding of ourselves gets, the less general we can be in our explanations.

For example, let’s say you asked me if I liked coffee or beer. It depends. If it’s 9am I would say coffee and if it’s 9pm I would say beer. However, if I was cramming for a final exam, a 9pm coffee would sound very appealing. But let’s say I just got a bout of food poisoning and anything I put in my stomach was coming right back up. Now, both sound horrible. Ok, let’s say it’s Friday at 9pm and I don’t have to study for a test and I don’t have food poisoning but I am eating dinner with my girlfriend’s family and they look down upon alcohol. I would avoid beer like the plague. So I like beer as long as it’s 9pm, I don’t have a final exam to study for, I don’t have food poisoning and I’m not eating dinner with my girlfriend’s anti-alcohol family. I admit, I’m exaggerating. But there is an important point in drawing out these hypotheticals. And it is that, “the more we specify the context… the less we can generalize… [but] the less we specify… the more likely we are to miss something about how [we] decide.” This is one dilemma of economic theory in a nutshell: we say that humans are rational to understand how we decide as consumers but we know that this isn’t entirely true. However, we don’t sacrifice the entire theory just because it doesn’t apply universally.

Back to The Self.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume once again got it right long before the science by realizing Kurzban’s and Haidt’s points exactly. Hume held that The Self was more like a commonwealth, which upheld an identity not through some sort of essence or soul, as Plato would have said, but through different yet related elements. As Hume explained, “we are never intimately conscious of anything but a particular perception; man is a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement.”  This is not to deny the importance of the self. As Daniel Dennett argues, the idea of the self, though delusional, acts as a convenient fiction. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world and our place in it; many times this is a good thing even though it is scientifically wishy-washy. But let’s at least keep in mind that The Self isn’t actually a thing the next time we think about our identities from the armchair.

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