In a recent series of articles, New Scientist magazine explored what their lead article called “The Great Illusion of the Self.”
The article gave more space to why we don’t know much of anything about our selves than to what we do know, or think that we know, for “While it seems irrefutable that we must exist in some sense, things get a lot more puzzling once we try to get a better grip of what having a self actually amounts to.”
According to the article, we are sure of three things about our selves. We are continuous. We are unified. And we are agents.
“All of these beliefs appear to be blindingly obvious and as certain as can be” ; yet “as we look at them more closely, they become less and less self-evident.”
Are we really “continuous” beings if we are happy optimists one day but sad pessimists the next? After all, “during the time that our self exists, it undergoes substantial changes in beliefs, abilities, desires and moods.” If we do persist from day to day, what is that persistence like? New Scientist introduces two very different metaphors for the self: a string of pearls and a rope.
If the self is an unchanging entity that persists through all of the changing experiences it encounters, it is like the string that holds together and defines all of the pearls hanging from it. If the self is instead a conglomeration of separate but intermingled mental events, then it is more like a rope composed of many smaller segments of activity. It seems clear that we can’t have it both ways.
It seems then as if we are left with the unattractive choice between a continuous self so far removed from everything constituting us that its absence would scarcely be noticeable, and a self that actually consists of components of our mental life, but contains no constant part we could identify with. The empirical evidence we have so far points towards the rope view, but it is by no means settled.
Our second belief about the self is that it is the unifier, the entity that organizes and understands a single, external reality. Yet experiment after experiment, illusion after illusion, makes it very clear that the “pictures” our brains construct are incomplete and under many circumstances unreliable.
Perhaps there is something wrong with the notion of a self perceiving a unified stream of sensory information. Perhaps there are just various neurological processes taking place in the brain and various mental processes taking place in our mind, without some central agency where it all comes together at a particular moment, the perceptual “now.”
And our third fundamental belief, that we are deliberate agents, fares little better, for “cognitive science has shown in numerous cases that our mind can conjure, post hoc, an intention for an action that was not brought about by us.”
So, many of our core beliefs about ourselves do not withstand scrutiny. This presents a tremendous challenge for our everyday view of ourselves, as it suggests that in a very fundamental sense we are not real. Instead, our self is comparable to an illusion – but without anybody there that experiences the illusion.
Speculation about the nature, even the reality, of the self is not just idle philosophizing. In an important way, it goes to the core of our thinking about subjects as diverse as criminal justice and quantum mechanics, so continuing to struggle with the issues questions about the self raise will remain one of the most enduring, and critical, tasks our rational “selves” undertake.