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Who is the “Self” May 3, 2009

Posted by dmb677 in Uncategorized.
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The self is an illusion.

At least in the sense that it can act independently from the rest of the universe. This idea of an independent “self”  implies a spirit or soul that is driving the body. When I imagine this perspective, I think of that character in the movie “Men in Black” where they open his head up and they find a tiny alien pulling levers and pushing buttons and controlling the person. This little alien is the man behind the scenes, it is the “self”, it is the one making the decisions and the body is just machinery – some machines operate better than other machines and so don’t have to deal with annoying passion like anger, irrationality, and sexual drive, but in the end it is still the little alien making the decisions and driving the machine. Obviously this is inaccurate,  nobody has ever been able to find this metaphysical “self”, and even if they did, who then is controlling that self?

This perspective of mind separate than body is called Cartesian Dualism, and is probably the most natural way of thinking about the mind. This is because we do feel like we are in complete control of what we are doing. We feel as though we are acting independent of anything and anybody else. This illusion leads to a very funny language. We have words like “free will”, “spirit” and “independant” which immediately have all kinds of deep connotation conjuring up deep emotions and biases about what the self is. I think they just complicate the argument though, because thinly veiled behind each of those words is the assumption of this metaphysical self living somewhere deep in the brain pulling levers and controlling what the body is doing. 

Language is a funny thing. It is the tool we use to reason. Each word is a symbol that has deep feelings and beliefs attached to it. But they don’t necesarily correspond with reality. For example, I use the word “my car” to represent the real physical car in my driveway. Using that word I can imagine its interiour what it feels like to drive it, and so on. However that car might in the real world have been stolen and actually is somewhere far from my driveway right now. My mind doesn’t know this (at least not yet) and it is comfortable associating that word with the a car safe and sound sitting on my driveway. The idea of “self” is similiar, I use that world to summarize all the things I think about myself, my hopes, my dreams, my greatest ambitions, my sorrows, and everything else I consider part of me.  Yet that doesn’t mean that my idea of “self” corresponds to how my brain and body operate in reality.

The same hold true with “free will.” Without thinking about it too deeply we associate “free will” with this idea of “self”, and this idea of the “self” making decisions independant of anything else emerges. This is entirely an illusion, propped up by the shortcomings in our language.

People want there to be “free will” because it makes them feel empowered to ignore their more visceral impulses and choose what they consider the more noble choices. But just because you didn’t eat that cheeseburger that was staring you down, doesn’t mean that you have magical “free will” that you used to overcome your gluttonous desires. It just means that the decision making process you used was more sophisticated. You can reason and realize that the cheesburger will make you fatter, and you don’t want to be fatter. 

All this is complicated by our language, we use words like “you chose” and “your decision” when really more accurate, but probably more detailed than needed, would be a sentence about which nuerons were firing when the decision was made. There is also the problem that some of us have such a deep negative connotation with reduction theory. We think at times that because something can be reduced and explained that lowers the importance and beauty of that process. People say well if the self doesn’t exist then we are just zombies or a collection of chemicals. I think the answer to that is so what? It is just different words used to describe the same thing. I could also say how beautifully complex people are, the sum of a millions of years of evolution, and inside my head lives the words of a thousand poems that I have read. Both descriptions equally valid.

So when people say, if you deny the “self” you deny “liberty”, “responsibility”, “pain”, “love”, “hate” or whatever other complex emotion. My response is that all I deny is the simplicity behind those ideas. They can be deconstructed just like everything else and you will find they are illusions too built up on complex emergeant properties. At the same time I think they are useful ideas though, otherwise we would have to constantly refer to their endless contributing factors. This would be far too complex to think about. In other words, all these things are convenient shorthand for what is really happening. But what we shouldn’t do is forget that we drew up these neat boundaries around these ideas only for simplicity’s sake, and so we must be careful about the conclusions we reach when we use these ideas.

The “self” doesn’t exist at least not in the way that we normally think of it, more accurately the “self” is a complex process emerging from the complexity of the natural universe. Nothing we do wasn’t preceded by countless different causes and also everything we do will be followed by countless different affects.  To me this is more  beautiful and amazing than thinking that there is a magic man somewhere pulling all the strings.



1. wgreen - May 3, 2009

Do you exist?

2. dmb677 - May 4, 2009

Ha Ha, of course so, but maybe just not in quasi supernatural sense of the word.

3. wgreen - May 4, 2009

I think one problem with your analyisis is that you think that your reductionistic explanation is more “real” than the holistic one. Just because you may be able to reduce “love” to neurons firing, does not make it any less real to me. In fact, and in a very important sense, love is more real than firing neurons. After all, I have never felt a neuron fire, nor seen one, but I have felt love, and seen it.

I think it is arguable that consciousness and conscious perception is more “real” than (technically speaking) theoretical constructs like neurons and atoms. The reality of an atom can be, and has been, debated. The reality of love cannot legitimately be debated.

You have some understanding of emergent systems and yet you seem to deny that they can give rise to new things, things that operate differently than the system that gave them birth, things that operate on a higher level. In one sense, an ant colony can be explained in terms of random interactions and pheromones, but in another sense, it cannot. I suppose in one sense it is a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.

In man, something new has arisen that can do things that the whole universe cannot–think, love, feel.

4. dmb677 - May 4, 2009

I guess I agree with your comment…kind of.

With an emergent process, the level of complexity in the interactions increases to the point where it is easier to analyze the process as a whole instead of its components. But the caveat here is that no magic took place – you could deconstruct an emergent process, it would just be very terribly difficult to do so.

So yes the “self” exists in the sense that it is an emergent process arising out of the complexity of all the interactions of all the inputs that went into the “self” creating process.

And in this sense there is an emergent process that makes up the dynamics of the city I live in, Salt Lake City. So you could argue that there is “self” or “soul” of Salt Lake City, and you can go on and state there is a “soul” of the USA, and their is a “soul” of the entire universe too. To some degree that is more poetic, than it is literal, but I think it is a pleasant thought.

So there are probably many different ways to look at, and depending on the perspective the “self” comes in and out of focus. But the thing to recognize is nothing exists independently of anything else, everything is fundamentally interrelated and it is out of the complexity of those interrelations that life is emerging.

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