Some Thoughts on the Self

Photo by Andre Mouton on Unsplash

This post and the next two posts will make up a mini-series. They are on distinct, but related, topics and, I think, will be more valuable (if they have any value) if read together.

A couple of weeks ago, I ran across this headline: Brain scientists confirm your ‘personal identity’ survives throughout lifetime. I’m a sucker for science with philosophical implications, especially neurology, so I clicked on it. It was pretty standard stuff. Researchers showed subjects pictures of themselves, people they knew, and strangers from different stages of life and scanned their brains while they looked at the pictures. They found that there is a way that the brain deals with images of the person themselves that is different from other brain processes. “The result strongly suggest our impression of our ‘I’ is updated throughout our lives, giving stability to o[u]r identity.”

It’s interesting in a, “Well, duh!” kind of way. Anyone who has lived with a sense of self already knows that the self is processed differently than everything else. And anyone who has ever put a mirror in front of a baby knows that there’s something special going on when they recognize themselves. But, if scientists manage to isolate the mechanism, perhaps they can develop treatments for disorders that interfere with self-recognition.

Of all of the “BIG” philosophical questions (free will, meaning of life, substance, etc.) I’ve always found questions of the self most vexing. Ever since I read Hume, I can’t get it straight. Britannica had the most concise description of Hume’s views that I could find,

Bundle theory, Theory advanced by David Hume to the effect that the mind is merely a bundle of perceptions without deeper unity or cohesion, related only by resemblance, succession, and causation. Hume’s well-argued denial of a substantial or unified self precipitated a philosophical crisis from which Immanuel Kant sought to rescue Western philosophy.

Bundle theory | philosophy | Britannica

Hume is basically saying that there is no thing (entity, substance, unity, whatever you want to call it) that is the self. It’s similar to the Buddhist concept of anatta, but I first ran across it in Hume. Self is merely a label we place on a bundle of thoughts, perceptions, experiences, and feelings. Like Kant, and many others who have followed Hume, I think that the bundle theory feels wrong. But, I cannot tell where it goes wrong, and no one else that I have read has been able to show me.

When I think about myself, I feel like there’s a thing that I’m thinking about. It’s not just a bundle of thoughts, perceptions, experiences, and feelings. It is the thing doing the thinking, perceiving, experiencing, and feeling. But, I can’t do any better than that. That’s basically functionalism (which is the best alternative to the Bundle Theory that I’ve come across). I can’t even begin to describe what that thinking, perceiving, experiencing, feeling thing is. In fact, it seems to change a lot.

Sometimes I (my self) am the narrator of my story. Sometimes I’m the main character. Sometimes my self is like the pilot of a ship (my body). Sometimes I am identical with my body. Sometimes my body (or at least parts of it) feels separate from the real me. Sometimes inanimate objects outside of my body feel like they are a part of my self. And I don’t think I’m alone in these feelings. It might seem absurd to claim that your body isn’t your self or a book is part of your self. But there are times when your body doesn’t work like you want it to, and it really feels like an unruly possession rather than your self. If you’ve ever had something stolen from you, you (your self) feel violated.

Functionalism says that the self is the thing that does all that (and more). I don’t find that satisfying. Imagine if we gave a wholly functional definition of the heart. We know that the heart is that thing that pumps blood around the body. We know that blood does, in fact, get pumped around the body. But when we look for the heart, we can’t find anything. We don’t see a muscle in our chests or any other thing. Would we say that we know what a heart is? So, how can we say we know what the self is if all we know is that something thinks, perceives, experiences, and feels, but we can’t point to it?

I’ve tried to argue that the self is the thing that all of the feelings of self have in common. It is whatever is in common between our stories, our wills, our bodies, our possessions, and everything else that makes us us. But, like Hume pointed out, there’s nothing there. At least I can’t see it.

Lately, I’ve been starting to wonder if the problem is that the self is utterly unique. (I know some readers just cringed. I know unique means one of a kind. But, I’m a big believer in degrees of uniqueness. Literally everything that was, is, and will be is unique. If you don’t allow for degrees, it’s a pointless word.) What if, when we experience the self, we are experiencing something, but it is something so completely unlike anything else we have ever experienced that we are unequipped to talk about it or describe it? We all know that things like color cannot be described, they can only be identified by pointing to things that are that color. Red is red. It’s strawberries and tomatoes. What if the self is color-like, except without anything else similar enough for us to point to? The best we can do is feeble analogies (the self is a pilot) that leave us as confused as ever.

I know this isn’t a really satisfying answer either. It does explain our feeling that the self is something and it explains why we can’t point to it. But it doesn’t really tell us what the self is. The study in the article didn’t help. Maybe the answer is just beyond what people are capable of knowing. I hope not. I’d love a satisfying answer some day. But that’s where I am right now.

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