Summary: Discusses religious and philosophical views of the self , the changing self, Demasio’s views on the continuity of the self and location of the self in the brain stem, death and the end of consciousness, debates on the role of the unconscious and Kahneman’s distinction between the experiencing and the remembering self.
Religious and Philosophical Views of the Self
Every single human being, indeed every single conscious being, views the world through the entity we refer to as the “self”.
Some philosophers assert that the only certain knowledge that we can possess is that which stems from our own self, from our own consciousness. This view is known as “solipsism”.
But in the everyday practical world, we operate on the basis that we can understand the views of others through communication. Indeed all human development is premised on the transfer of accumulated knowledge through communication. Ironically, even the spread of the idea of solipsism relies upon the communication of that idea from one person or self to another. And we certainly appear capable of comprehending at least something of how other animals interact with the world through studying their behaviour. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the fact that all communication, as well as the study of other animals, is mediated by each individual’s “self”. And religions, philosophers and scientists have taken different views on the nature of the self.
Traditionally, for Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus perhaps the most important aspect of “self” is the soul. This is because the soul is regarded as the aspect of self that survives the death of the body.
In their modern guise, religions might now distinguish between the soul, which is spiritual in nature, and the processes by which worldly knowledge is acquired, the later being viewed as a function of scientific method, sense perception and the use of reason. But this distinction was not always observed.
Neo-Platonism was a major influence in the development of medieval Christianity and for Plato the soul was the source of knowledge. He believed that the soul is eternal and existed both before and after the individual self’s birth and death, being constantly reincarnated. The acquisition of knowledge is a process of “recalling” memories from the soul through the use of reason.
It was St. Augustine who was mainly responsible for integrating Neo-Platonic ideas into Christianity. One of the most important manifestations of this integration was Augustine’s view that human beings possess a “rational soul”.
For Descartes the soul and the mind were one and the same and the fact that our minds, or self, could have ideas was the only sure proof of existence, resulting in his well known maxim “I think therefore I am”.
The Irish philosopher, and Bishop of Cloyne, George Berkeley (1685-1753) believed that the world consists of nothing but the ideas that we, or other beings, have. External objects have no reality independent of a conscious “self” that is able to perceive those objects. The existence of a self, or an observer, is an essential element of reality. And for Berkeley, it is only God’s persistent perception of all things that guarantees the existence of those things. Conversely the “need” for such a perceiver was also regarded by Berkeley as a proof of God’s existence.
Unlike Berkeley, John Locke believed in an external world that exists independent of the need for any “self” to observe it. He also believed that the self changed over the course of a person’s lifetime.
The Changing Self
For Locke it is our memory of things, including our experiences, that gives rise to individual identity. But because we cannot remember everything of ourselves we cannot possess the same “self” when we are old as we were when we were children.
This seems a curious idea because we are accustomed to viewing the body which we have as adults as the same body that we inhabited when we were children, even if it has grown in size and shows other signs of aging. But is it in fact the “same” body?
All matter, including ourselves, is made up of atoms. But the atoms are not constantly present. They vibrate back and forth.
Biologist Richard Dawkins tells us that not a single atom that was present in our bodies as children remains in our bodies as adults.
Dawkins says that we tend to think that it is only solid things that are “real”. But waves of water have just as much reality as a rock. And our “self” is more like a wave than a rock. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be us. But the physical nature of our bodies and minds is constantly changing.
Dawkins scientific position on the changing nature of the self is closer to the religious approach of Buddhism than it is to Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Hinduism.
According to Stephen Prothero, Chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University, Buddhism, like materialism, does not accept the existence of an immortal soul. Indeed it goes even further arguing that we do not even have a “self”, at least in the way that the self is commonly perceived. This position results from Buddhism’s recognition of the process of constant change that occurs in the world (including in ourselves) as well as its strong utilitarian streak.
Prothero explains Buddhism’s approach to change through a metaphor involving a chariot. At some point an object may have all of the physical features of “a chariot”. But over time the object may lose a wheel, then an axel, then a seat. At some point in time, it ceases to be the same chariot, or even to be a chariot at all.
For Buddhism this same process occurs with human beings- just like everything else, we change over a lifetime. We gain and lose different attributes through life including attributes of body, thought, memory, perceptions and emotions. Then, ultimately, we die. This constant change is the first limb of Buddhism’s rejection of the concept of self.
The second limb arises from Buddhism’s nature as a practical and utilitarian religion. Its overall aim is to attain release from suffering (“nirvana”). Minimizing suffering and pain is also an aim of utilitarianism (together with its aim of increasing happiness or pleasure).
In a universe in which change is the only constant, Buddhism holds that attachment to things must end up as a cause of suffering. This includes attachment to the notion of “self” as an individual ego. Egoism leads to suffering. So it follows that we should not think of our “self” as consisting of a self-dependent individual ego separate from other human beings or the universe.
In a similar way to how Dawkins suggests that our material nature is more like a wave than a rock, Buddhism suggests that we are really like a wave in the sea. The wave appears to us an individual wave. But after a time, the wave disappears and is reabsorbed into the larger body of water of which it was always really a part and without which it could not exist.
But for Buddhism (unlike for Dawkins who is an atheist) this concept has a spiritual dimension. We should not focus on the wave but on the larger “life force” that creates it. For some strands of Buddhism this ‘life force” is a worthy object of spiritual contemplation or mediation.
We might well accept that objectively our physical and mental states change though our lives. Nevertheless most of us probably view ourselves as the same person or human entity. Our laws will always recognise us as the same distinct individual. We will always have been born to the same parents. Our minds will always be contained within the same brain, even if its physical characteristics and abilities change over time. At least to this extent, our “self” has some continuity about it.
Continuity of the Self
For Portuguese neurologist Antonio Damasio we do indeed inhabit an entity that he refers to as the “singular body”. Damasio accepts that our bodies have different parts that grow at different rates. But he says that inside our bodies, things do not actually change very much at all. Our internal bio-chemistry is maintained in a very stable manner day after day. Indeed if it deviated too much disease, or death, would result.
Further Damasio says that there is a tight relationship, or interdependence, between the regulation of our body by our brain and the structure of the brain itself.
The brain contains a variety of islands, or cortices, which Damasio identifies as its “image making” regions. There are different cortices that process visual, auditory or tactile information. These regions relay information to another part of the brain, the association cortex, which makes records of what went on in the image making regions. These records are our memories. We are capable of relaying information from the association cortex back to the image making cortices in the brain. The same part of the brain that records the initial images is used for recalling information.
The “self” is located within a very specific part of the brain- the brain stem. The brain stem lies between our cerebral cortex and the spinal cord and houses the life regulating functions of the body.
The brain stem has very specific physiological functions. If the upper part of the brain stem is sufficiently damaged through events such as a stroke, a coma, or vegetative state, results. Images can still be physically formed in the cortices. But we are unaware of them because consciousness is lost. The “self”, or at least self perception, disappears.
When enough damage is done to the lower part of the brain stem there is complete paralysis. Yet the conscious mind is maintained. This is a horrible state for an individual to be caught in, despite the continued existence of self perception.
For Damasio, these different and very specific effects, which can result from damage to distinct parts of the brain stem, mean that the “self” exists in a very physical way and in a very specific location. Do enough damage to that physical part of the brain and the self, in the sense of consciousness, no longer exists.
Damasio says that the basic physiology of our brain stem is shared with other vertebrates. Accordingly they also possess consciousness and a “self”.
But the other vertebrates do not have a cerebral cortex which is as rich as ours and this is the important difference with the human brain. Our richer cerebral cortex results in our having a far stronger sense of self, or an “autobiographical self”, because it is built on a larger base of past memories.
Our cerebral cortex contains our lived past as well as our anticipated future. It gives us imagination, creativity and language. It results in the growth of human culture – religion, justice, commerce, the arts, sport, science and technology. And unlike the other animals, it is from culture that we derive behaviors that are not set by our biology, a phenomenon that Damasio calls “socio-cultural regulation”.
The idea that we are really like waves in a bigger body of water might reduce attachment to the ego and thereby reduce suffering for adherents to Buddhism. But while we are alive, modern science tells us that it is thanks to the nature of our brains that we have a strong sense of self.
Like other animals, after our brain ceases to function, as individuals, we lose consciousness forever. Whether or not we are reabsorbed into some larger life force after death, as individual “selves” we will know nothing of it. But as there is no consciousness, neither can there be any suffering in this state. So the Buddhist’s aim of nirvana, or release from suffering, is acheived anyway.
The Abrahamic religions, in contrast with Buddhism, value attachment to the self or individual ego. The idea of eternal loss of consciousness is too much to bear for these religions, even though there is no scientific evidence of suffering in the state of nothingness following death. Accordingly, for these religions the soul must live on. Happiness, or avoidance of suffering, is achieved not through lack of attachment to the “self” or notions of re-absorption into the universe. It is achieved through the soul (or a resurrected body in the Catholic and Islamic traditions) coming to reside in place where, there is not only an absence of suffering, but eternal individual and collective happiness, in a word, heaven.
But assuming the non-existence of an immortal soul, is it the case that mortal death will always mean the end of individual consciousness?
Death and the end of consciousness
The traditional reply of the atheist and materialist is “Yes”. But according to Ian Morris, the futurist Ray Kurzweil says that by about the year 2030 computers will be powerful enough to run programs that reproduce the 10,000 trillion electrical signals that flash every second among the 22 billion neurons in the human brain. They will also be able to store the 10 trillion recollections that a typical brain houses. By that date scanning technology will be able to map the human brain neuron by neuron, meaning that we will be able to upload actual human minds onto machines.
By about 2045 Kurzweil thinks computers will be able to house all of the minds in the world, merging carbon and silicone based intelligence, into a single global consciousness.
Kurzweil does not say, but hopefully some method will be available to sort out useful knowledge from the far more voluminous amounts of trivia that surely occupy large swathes of most of our minds!
Kurzweil’s ideas might appear as pure science fiction. And the mere storing of memory in digital form does not mean that computer based intelligence is threby capable of “experience”. Nevertheless, the premise as to how memory might be maintained in an alternative form is certainly materialistic, not spiritual, in nature. And the rapidity of human technological innovation can hardly be doubted.
And what if computer and animal intelligence can be merged? Will the animal be able to draw on computer based memories and will the computer based memory be able to draw upon animal experience? Already biotechnology has resulted in computers being built into animals so that their actions can be controlled by human beings. Monkeys have been wired to computers which can read the monkey’s brain waves, enabling the monkey to move an artificial arm which is not attached to its body. This occurs simply through the monkey having the thought, or brain wave, relaying that it wants the artificial arm to move.
Computer chips have already been made out of living organisms. Scientists have already managed to keep alive an eel’s brain alive in a solution independent of the eel’s body. Does the eel continue to experience eel thoughts? Does it have a “self”? What do these sorts of technological developments mean for future notions of “self”?
Damasio creates a compelling argument about the physiological location of the “self” within the brain stem. But this is not the same thing as establishing the dynamics of the personality structure of the self. This is the issue to which we now turn.
Debates about the unconscious
Sigmund Freud developed and popularised the idea of the unconscious. This is a part of the mind which Freud believed constituted the “real self” in terms of personality and behaviour. Yet part of the definition of the unconscious is that we are not usually aware of it.
For Freud the personality structure of the “self” is like an iceberg. The conscious mind is the small tip of the iceberg observable above the surface of the water. But the more influential part of the mind, the unconscious, lies like the bulky base of the iceberg, unseen, beneath the surface of the water.
The unconscious is the place in the mind where we bury painful memories or unacceptable thoughts. And while we may be unaware of what we have buried there, this part of our mind does not cease to affect us. For Freud the effect of the unconscious on our behaviour can often be negative, resulting in irrational fear, anxiety or neurosis.
Debate about the extent to which the “self” is composed of conscious and unconscious forces continues. An example is the debate between neuroscientist David Eaglemann and former professor of geriatric medicine Raymond Tallis.
Eaglemann, the author of ‘Incognito’ argues that the large majority of the brain’s activity consists of unconscious, automated processes that run under the hood of conscious awareness. The conscious part – the “self” that flickers to life when we wake up in the morning – is only a tiny bit of the brain’s operations. The human brain consists of several parts that compete to “steer the ship”. As a consequence, people are nuanced, complicated and contradictory.
Eaglemann sees individual brains and culture operating in a feedback loop, each influencing the other. Both genetically and culturally instructed drives actually end up embedded, in a physical way, in the circuitry of the individual brain. Moral attitudes toward cows, pigs, crosses and burkas can actually be “read” from the physiological responses of brains in different cultures.
Beyond culture, individual experiences also leave an imprint. These can also be studied in the individual brain with some benefit.
Eaglemann maintains that there is no contradiction in acknowledging influences both from the inside (genetic) and outside (the larger society) and the notion that the unconscious brain is in the “driver’s seat”.
Like Kant, who argued that the brain is like a machine which cannot comprehend all reality, Eaglemann argues that we only detect a small slice of the reality which is “out there”. Every organism tends to assume that the small slice of what it can perceive is the entirety of objective reality. But our senses are only enough to get by in our ecosystem. Visual illusions reveal that perceptions generated by the brain do not necessarily correlate with reality. Hallucinations, dreams and delusions illustrate the same point.
Yet while we are sealed off from much reality, Eaglemann argues that we can discover more of it by a process of careful experimentation. This is the endeavor of science.
Tallis agrees that much brain activity is automated and runs “under the hood of conscious awareness”. But he disputes that this means that the unconscious mind is in the “driver’s seat” insofar as this implies that we are largely unconscious of the reasons we do things.
Tallis argues that conscious activity, acted out in the public space and which we call “culture”, is at least as important as unconscious activity. Our moral attitude to anything depends upon many things we are conscious of. The “very conscious” argument about the law on wearing burkas in public is but one example.
Tallis says that if the claim that we only access a small slice of reality were true, we would be unlikely to know this. Like other animals we would have little inkling of the limitations of our own consciousness. He agrees that there are illusions, dreams, delusions and hallucinations. But we could not even recognise them for what they are unless the vast majority of our experiences were real. Conscious knowledge is a huge part of our mental life. Without it, we could not do the weekly shopping, let alone conduct a sophisticated debate about the role of the unconscious.
The experiencing self and the remembering self
Aspects of the personality structure of the conscious self have been explored by American psychologist Daniel Kahnemann. He suggests that we have two kinds of self- an “experiencing self” and a “remembering self”. The experiencing self lives in the present. It is like a “film” that roles in our mind during our everyday experiences.
But, as Locke pointed out long ago, we do not actively remember most of our experiences. The remembering self is the part of the self that recalls those which we believe to be our most important experiences. It is the part of the self that decides whether we are satisfied with our life’s achievements. It “keeps score” in our life- deciding on whether we are satisfied or not satisfied.
Kahneman says that we inevitably make mistakes when we try to measure happiness, well being or satisfaction, (and presumably their opposites) without taking the differences between the experiencing self and remembering self into account.
For the remembering self, money and goal achievement, as well as being satisfied with people we like, are usually very important.
For the experiencing self research suggests that feelings of happiness in the USA do vary with income. Below an income of $60,000 (which is large proportion of US citizens) people tend to be unhappy and, indeed, get unhappier the poorer they are. Yet interestingly, above $60,000 the happiness of the experiencing self is a flat line. The old saying that “money does not buy happiness” proves to be true in relation everyday, experiential, happiness. But a shortage of money seems to contribute to experiential misery, at least in the USA.
One might think that the finding that incomes in excess of $60,000 do not appear to make the experiencing self any happier, while earning under this amount makes everyday life more miserable, should result in widespread popular support for income redistribution policies.
But unfortunately this conclusion ignores the possiblity that it is the status obsessed “scorekeeper”, the remembering self, rather than the experiencing self, which fills out the ballot paper on election days.