Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The 'internal self' is a fiction. So what?

What might be the practical implications of the view of the self put forward in some of my recent posts, notably "Nietzsche on the 'self'"? Here are a few thoughts.

If one realizes that one has been treating as something real the internal 'self' or 'I' which is in fact a fiction, then one's view of who one is will change in subtle - but possibly significant - ways.

It may provide a way of dealing with death. The body dies, but arguably it is the 'internal self' we are more concerned with. And if it is only an illusion, what is there to mourn (apart from the loss of the body)?

There will be implications also for the moral sense, as the old idea of the freely willing agent - the traditional notion of the conscience - might be called into question. This is too large an issue to address here, but, briefly, my view is that we certainly have a sense of being able to choose from a large array of imagined possible actions - and in a sense we do freely choose. The problem that philosophers have addressed is to define precisely how free choice is to be understood so that it does not depend on an 'internal', immaterial self. I suspect, however, that, as the notion of the internal self is superseded in everyday thinking, the philosophical problem of human freedom will no longer seem to be a problem.

One other implication of the new view of the self is that the atomistic individualism which lies behind much political thinking comes to seem quite unrealistic and false. For there is no spiritual core to define the individual. Rather the individual is a product of society. Language is social and is a key element in an individual's identity; likewise other cultural elements and social relations of all kinds. A new-born baby only gradually becomes a human individual as it interacts with and internalizes elements of its social, cultural and linguistic environment.

It is a truism that we are social beings - but the Christian-Platonic notion of the soul and then its secular equivalent led Europeans for hundreds of years to underplay the social dimension. And current notions of political freedom, human rights and equality could be seen to derive from this discredited tradition.

Believing in a social self does not entail a collectivist social ideal, however, and certainly not an egalitarian one. Collectivism is not incompatible with the view that the 'internal self' does not exist, but then nor is the traditional conservative ideal of an organic society based on multiple institutions and complex hierarchical relationships.


  1. A clarification: when I talk about human rights etc. being based on a discredited notion, I don't mean to say that what people want to achieve by promoting what they call 'human rights' isn't a worthy goal - it's just that I think that protecting the vulnerable etc. will be better achieved without relying on dubious Western metaphysical notions.

  2. Many theorists these days seem disposed to accept the death of the concept of self, as recounted by Nietzsche and others, as old news. I am not so easily convinced. Coming to this position as a religious skeptic, I do not find a need for accepting Descartes’ ghost in the machine. And yet, the Cartesian cogito provides an interesting (and, I hold, a powerful) refutation of Nietzsche on the self.

    If I remember correctly, Nietzsche made a point about the grammatical structure of our language. He argued that it was fallacious to generalize the subject-verb arrangement across other concepts—especially, the concept of self. Since a sentence needs a subject, philosophers before Nietzsche had mistakenly assumed that actions require an agent.

    However much this view has gained traction in the past century, it seems (I confess) rather too much like the Emperor’s new clothes. Nietzsche did not confront one important insight of Descartes, namely, that the self itself is the one thing the existence of which we can be certain. The Cartesian method of doubt began with that insight, the one certain fact. While I do not follow Descartes to the rest of his conclusions, his beginning is irrefutable.

    I can find no simpler way of expressing this idea that to ask, if the self is an illusion, who is being fooled?

  3. I like a lot of this (and CONSVLTVS' comments) but one detail I think needs a better term. To call the self, or the "I," a fiction or illusion is to express (or project) a negative connotation, which subtly implies that "thinking of a Self is a mistake." I think the best term instead of "fiction" or "illusion" is construction. And, if we want to keep it scientific (as most days I do), the object doing the construction is physical: the brain. The paradigmatic statement then becomes "(the) self is a construction of the brain." Or, a bit looser: the self is a construction of an agent by the brain. If anyone wants to take that only a little further, this could also be added after brain: "as an experience." Defensible, I think. And it accounts for how "illusion" and "fiction" might seem to be true or reasonable statements) without implying that we are fairy tales of ourselves. I think the brain evolved especially to construct a so-called agent, and as it succeeded, humans became "self-aware," which simply means "able to refer to oneself." I'm going too far but I myself would add to that: as soon as this self-awareness occurred, exactly there occurred the human form of intelligence which produces and then examines thought/symbol/abstraction.

    Then I could also agree that "self" is constructed with the social/cultural help of others. Pre-human forebears. Ancestors. Kin. Friends. Strangers. Notice the historical layers -- see how much it changes the context to change the term? Suddenly a lot of seemingly discordant theories begin to have points in common?

    Maybe you don't. But ... I think resolution of these matters is likely in this direction. The brain must organize reality, and as part of its way of doing so, it organizes "us."

    Why does everything I read in here get me so exercised? LOL.

  4. And I like the revised graphics here. Very neat and clean.

  5. CONSVLTVS, thanks for dropping by. We are not going to solve this issue here and now obviously. I'm quite open to Descartes - I always felt an affinity for his thinking and writing style, and I would like in fact to salvage something from the cogito. Your last question is a good one. Clearly something or someone is - or isn't - being fooled and then there is the question of what this is and what to call it. You could plausibly call it a self - my concerns relate to a particular understanding of the self as a unified 'thing' distinct from the body/brain.

  6. GC - Yes the new format is apart from anything else easier to read, I think.

    Your stuff gets me exercised as well. I'm not fussed about terms: 'construction' is fine. In a way I was being a bit provocative using the other (emotive) words. But saying 'the self is a construction of an agent by the brain' assumes that the construction is an agent. Is it? This is the nub of the matter I think. The general gist of what you're saying here I think I accept. The agent question is a deep one, I fear.

  7. Dr. English, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I wholly agree with GTChristie that the brain creates (somehow, via metabolism) whatever we mean by self or awareness. Most of the existing terms are freighted, so I have gone out borrowing. For me, the vocabulary that has been most evocative derives from astronomy. The fundamental self is a naked awareness, our only certainty beyond tautologies like mathematics. It is an irreducible point that is infinitely dense with experience. It is, thus, a singularity. Orbiting around it are the various social selves, the satellites of the fundamental self. So much for metaphor. In any event, I've always suspected that our constructed selves, whether assembled socially or through internal processes to which we are blind, are no reason to disregard the fundamental self.

    Incidentally, this singularity of awareness is clearly not a soul, for it depends on metabolism for its clarity. The condition of the vessel in which it resides profoundly affects it. Think of drunkenness, low blood sugar, or most obviously sleep. There is every reason to believe, therefore, that when the vessel dies so will awareness.

    Finally, now that I think of it, sleep is perhaps another refutation of Nietzsche on the self. Denial of self is denial of awareness per se, and so if there is no self, how can we perceive a difference between waking and sleeping?

  8. CONSVLTVS that's one of the most intriguing comments I've read in quite awhile. Chock full of stuff to think about. The astronomy metaphor reminded me of William James' "blooming buzzing confusion," the many selves that Nietzsche spoke of, the Freudian "id-ego-superego" heirarchy, and generally any theory that notes multiple internal influences at work within a human "mind." Then you take the admirable step by not pushing the metaphor too far.

    But the most interesting statement here, which will now bloom and buzz me all day, is Denial of self is denial of awareness per se. As this local discussion (including the other posts and comments) has gone, the "mind" is less a "being" and more a process, so that "awareness of ourselves" is less a subject/object or subject/predicate relation and more an event (for some reason I want to say "event horizon" or "singularity threshold" or something like that). Denial of self is denial of awareness per se (analyzed to death) sees self-ness as awareness (which might be just one type of awareness we have). Cogitating on that: remember we are not aware of all internal brain processes (we don't hear "now engaging the hyppocampus, sir" or "activate flight-or-flee response now" as we respond to our surroundings). So "self" and "awareness" or "consciousness" must be a high-order process. And the eyeopener (or maybe canopener) in denial of self is denial of awareness per se is the suggestion that "self" and "awareness" might be established as equivalent (or identical) by argument/experiment so that there can be no denial of self-ness. "Self" is (an) awareness. And once shown, this insight can be used to evaluate many competing theories of mind.

    I have always thought the answers to some puzzles are like the elephant in the fable: we all have competing theories what it is, but there's an integrated view that sees not only what it is, but explains why all the competing theories seemed reasonable once upon at time.

    Brrr ... loose thinking!

    All this before my second cup of coffee. Good day to you, all. Enjoy.

    Not bad for a 100-word comment.

  9. Here I am a newcomer to your delightful conversation, and I already feel bad about monopolizing the bandwidth. The thing is, the last person I talked with about this stuff was cross about my politics (I’m conservative), so he wouldn’t pay attention to the argument. At the risk of becoming a bore, I’ll, well, try developing this idea a little more. You can always skip to the next comment!

    The equation of self with awareness is the point of the Cartesian insight. Cogito ergo sum, “I” think, therefore “I” am. Many, many philosophers, neuroscientists, and other academics have followed Nietzsche’s grammatical attack and eliminated the pronouns. (Of course, in the Latin formulation, there are no pronouns, but the verb forms have person and number). So, we wind up with something like, “[the process] thinking therefore [the process] being.” From here, it is a short step to a separate conversation about artificial intelligence, but my sense is that in attending to the grammar Nietzsche and the rest have chased the wrong quarry.

  10. [cont'd from prior comment] We have an enormous problem of definition, I suppose. There must be as many understandings of “self” as there are conversations about the word. I have not developed a description I’m happy with, but something like the earlier metaphor about a singularity of awareness is a start. Never mind the semi-automatic social subroutines that play out most of the day; never mind the glandular rage or fear or what have you that temporarily takes over the whole process; behind it all, in moments of calm, there is a kernel of awareness. In deconstructing the grammatical structure, Nietzsche and the rest ran off in another direction. The Buddhists—who, interestingly, sometimes say there is no self, only awareness—may have been on a better track, though, again, problems of definition abound. The self I mean is so fundamental, so obvious a part of experience that it cannot be reasoned away. If there is no self in the sense I mean, that of fundamental awareness, then there could not be any such thing as experience. We would exist as automatons, endlessly following programs and interacting on a level of algorithmic stimulus-response, but no one would be awake. No one would have experiences because no one would exist. Since I know that I have experiences, since I am aware, I know that I exist. There is a self, a singularity, a consciousness. I do not know what produces it, but I am confident it is real and unitary (so much is necessary) and almost certainly biological (insufficient evidence).

    I am not confident it is limited to human beings.

  11. [part 3 of longer comment] As for an experimental validation of this notion, it occurs to me that Nietzsche’s argument may as well be turned around. Rather than concluding there must be a self because of the structure of our grammar, perhaps we have the grammatical structure we do because the experience of the self is nearly universal. One test might be to see whether a grammatical subject is universal, or nearly so, among languages. It is among the languages I know something about, but they are all Indo-European. However, if it proves more than an aberration among the paroles du monde, we are a step closer to concluding that Nietzsche had the cause and effect backwards (I know, he had lots to say on that point, too—must save that for another time).

  12. I think we're onto something here. I've just spent the last hour typing into this little comment box and realized I'd better copy it out and turn it into something a bit more polished. Sheesh. When I started analyzing Nietzsche at length, I knew I had to stop & take a breath. Over at IEET/Jet, they're talking Nietzsche's influence on transhumanism, so ... now I need a nap. LOL.

    Great stuff, CONSVLTVS. I doubt Mark minds any of this extended exchange a bit, and I think it's great, although we've wandered off the original point somewhat ... it's all relevant.

    More later.

  13. At the risk of becoming a bore he says.

    You can always skip to the next comment he says.

    Then the next two comments are his. ROFL.

    I'm not bored. Is anyone bored? Not me.

  14. I'm not bored at all - I'm going to take my time reading all this more carefully. Will comment a bit later.

  15. Gentlemen, I must apologize for dumping all this on you. It's an exciting topic for me, and I'm much aware that my views are not in the academic main stream. I haven't made as clear a case as I'd like, so I'm going to try and fit these ideas into a post on my own blog. It's supposed to be about conservative political issues, so I'm not clear right now if I can do so. If you're interested in pursuing these ideas further, feel free to review whatever I can put together for the blog. It's RESPVBLICA: On the American Republic at In the meantime, on to Wittgenstein!

  16. Will certainly visit your blog, CONSVLTVS. I have done a bit more thinking on this mind/self issue prompted by reading both your views and those of GC. In a nutshell, I see that very basic awareness as something shared by all sentient life, and human self-awareness as needing the social dimension. Happy to continue later/elsewhere...