What is the self? Do we have one? Do we need one? If you refer to “yourself,” are you referring to your body? Does the self last our whole life? Let’s talk things over with BQTA contributor Rick Lenon, M.D.
RL: I’ve been thinking about the “Self” for a number of years. Let’s start with this: the self is real, and everybody has one, installed by Darwin. I think that means that we all have the same one, as much as our sense of “mineness” insists to the contrary. My own sense of myself ranges from my best understanding of myself as a whole human being at one end, to what it feels like to be the recipient of conscious experience, moment to moment, at the opposite extreme.
GNS: OK. But more needs to be said about what the self is. Sometimes you talk as if the self is not real.
RL: I never intended to imply there was no such thing as a Self. Only that it can’t be what we think it is. Galen Strawson likes to say that we know what consciousness is, because we all have it. No way of knowing what it is, better than that. Easy to realize the difference between being conscious and not… as in deep anesthesia. What you think about it, try to understand, is another matter. Make sense to argue about what it is, but not whether it is.
GNS: The Self is even tougher to figure out, if that’s possible.
RL: In his book Selves (OUP 2009), Strawson refers to the whole human being as the “thick self.” That thick self is continuously changing. His “thin self” is the witness to consciousness, moment by moment. Strawson does not see that thin self as constant over time. He does not believe that there is a core self that remains the same over time, that witnesses all the changes, but is itself unchanging. Strawson does not believe that I’ve always been me. In fact, I think he has to be right about that. The only thing about humans that doesn’t change is the Social Security number.
GNS: You’re broaching the problem of personal identity.
RL: Most people feel like there is such a core self; that it was me in 5th grade, and it’s still me now. That regardless of what I learn or forget, the self doesn’t change. That core “me” that’s witness to it all.
GNS: Well, aren’t you the same person—in the sense of numerically identical— you were in the 5th grade? The problem is to understand what it is that makes you that same person, given all the changes you have undergone.
RL: The one thing that my core self always has is my conscious experience. I’m still there if there is no input from the world; even if all memory is gone. But if I am truly unconscious, that core self is absent for the duration. A tautology really; I can’t be conscious of myself if I’m not conscious.
I think that people feel like there is such a constant core self because we’re hard-wired to feel that; not to believe it, but to feel it.
GNS: Are you saying you are not the same person you were when you were in the 5th grade?
RL: Strawson isolates the thin self as the witness to conscious experience, moment to moment. A “moment,” in his discussion, is somewhere between 0.2 and 5 seconds, as I recall. And self-with-history doesn’t fit into 0.2 seconds.
Love to ask Strawson about “mineness”; that’s the way conscious experience always seems to have the quality of being mine. That seems right, but I’m not sure that’s always true before I ask the question; pre-reflectively, as it were (love that word). Not sure to what degree “mineness” has an owner.
The fact that we feel like there is a constant Core Self in there is more interesting that the fact that nothing about us is actually constant.
GNS: There is a useful distinction to keep in mind here between type and token. There are two senses of “same”. Let’s say you and I have copies of a brand new book. Our books are indistinguishable copies. Same type. But your book is in your backpack and mine is at home. Different tokens of the same type. As things age, they change. Let’s say your book stays in your pack for several years and gets scuffed up. Now your copy is distinguishable from a new copy. But it’s still the same token book you put in your pack years ago, even though it’s not the same as it was when it was new.
People change more than books. You are the same token you were in the 5th grade, even though you are not the same in the type sense. You have changed and now you are a not the same type of person. The point is simple and general. If you paint your blue house white, the type changes—white house rather than blue. But the token does not change— still your house. Painting your house does not alter its numerical identity.
Simon Blackburn gives these examples:
How many words occur in the works of Shakespeare? The question may be asking how many types of word, or in other words how large Shakespeare’s vocabulary is, in which case the answer will be several thousand, or it may be asking how many tokens of those types, or words as they would be counted by a printer, in which case the answer will be many more. A car manufacturer may produce half a dozen cars in a year (types, here equivalent to models) but many thousand cars (instances, tokens).
RL: You are comparing the self to houses and cars. Are you going to treat the mind as an object and its contents like mental objects?
GNS: Undue reification?
RL: Among other problems.
GNS: Well, there are famous puzzles at the edges of the type-token distinction. In the ship of Theseus, the planks are gradually replaced over the years as needed to make repairs. So the ship changes in the type sense, but remains the same ship in the token sense. But what happens when all the planks in the ship are replaced? Is the ship with all its planks replaced still token identical to the original ship? What if someone gathers all the old planks and puts them back together? The ship built out of the old planks barely floats, but has a good claim to being token identical to the original ship. That would disqualify the ship made from the replaced planks from being “the same” in either sense.
Humans are like the ship of Theseus. Every seven years, according to conventional wisdom, every atom in our bodies gets replaced. So we are no longer the same in the type sense, but we remain the same in the token sense. Is Strawson really denying that you are same token you were five seconds ago?
When school children asked Nancy Reagan, “what should we say when kids ask, do you agree with Strawson’s account of the self”, Mrs. Reagan gave her iconic reply: “Just say no.”
RL: Alright, extending your ship of Theseus example to humans, suppose we gather all those atoms floating around which were once part of your body, and reassemble them to make a body type-identical to the one you have now. That body would have a better claim to be you than you do, since it consists of the original atoms which made up your body, rather the replacements. You would have to surrender your personal identity to the reassembly.
GNS: How does one surrender their personal identity? Some of these duplication problems were taken up in the BQTA series “Star Trek Transporter” https://better-questions-than-answers.blog/2017/08/22/star-trek-transporter-part-1/
In any event, the problem is to figure out what being the numerically identical token person over time amounts to. Don’t we sometimes think of the self as the controller of our bodies? If we don’t control our bodies, who or what does?
RL: Control always seems to imply a controller, and we want to think it’s the conscious self.
GNS: If the self is not the conscious self, what is it? You imply that the conscious self cannot be a controller, despite what we want to think.
RL: Problem is, we think of it as a homunculus, and it’s not.
GNS: What’s a homunculus and why can’t the self be that? Apparently, the homunculus is not real and not installed by Darwin. Maybe it’s “the ghost in the machine” Gilbert Ryle argued we all believe in (The Concept of Mind 1949).
RL: It feels like there is a “me” in there that experiences consciousness, as if it were seeing through the eyes, hearing through the ears. And that raises the nesting Russian dolls problem. If a self inside us is needed to explain how we have experiences of the outside world, there needs to be another self inside the first to explain how the first self has experiences. And so on.
The conscious self cannot be in control, because everything it’s conscious of has to come into existence before we can be conscious of it. Even if you are aware of factors leading up to a decision, those factors had to be constructed before they could be presented to you. The choices of which factors will be presented have to be made before you can see them. Some of the reasons those choices were made might be consciously available (after the fact), and many won’t be.
Ideas and thoughts are as real as stones. It’s just that you can’t see the mental stuff before it comes into existence.
GNS: You’re describing Libet’s epiphenomenalism. The mental is constructed by neural activity, which must happen first because the cause must precede the effect.
RL: I’m seeing self and consciousness both as hardwired, and consciousness as having value above all else, then if you have consciousness without self, the self doesn’t matter as much.
GNS: So self and consciousness are two different things?
RL: Consciousness matters to us more than anything else, and nothing matters to us without it. The philosopher’s zombie is a case in point. But for Darwin, and for my omniscient alien, consciousness is only a means to an end, which is existence itself.
GNS: Zombies, in the philosophical literature, look and act just like us, but have no consciousness.
RL: Darwin would have no objection to the philosopher’s zombie, if it were better at staying around. Why Darwin was so taken by the function of consciousness is a most interesting question. Just because we don’t understand it is no reason to conclude that he was wrong.
GNS: Why should we be conscious at all if the zombie version of us could function just as well? Zombies would have the same adaptive advantages and disadvantages as us, because they act just like us in all situations.
The zombie’s body is moved around by bio-chemical mechanisms installed by Darwin, just like us. Benjamin Libet’s experiments in neurobiology suggested that conscious pops up too late in the process to affect the movement of our bodies. That seems to make us zombies plus a witness. That Witness would be the Self. Maybe.
Next time, let’s take up zombies in more detail.