Me, Myself and I

Julian Baggini has a new book out called “The Ego Trip” which looks very interesting. In it he attempts to find out what it means “to be you”, is there a self? What composes “a person”?

This kind of thing fascinates me.

He offers a preview of the book and it’s contents over at this week’s Guardian Science Podcast. In it he notes that the prevailing thought amongst most people seems to be that inside all of us is some kind of ‘constant’. This ‘thing’ remains with us our whole life and is responsible for making decisions. The “Master Control”. This is also known as ‘the ego’.

The philosopher Alan Watts had plenty to say on this matter. Indeed, the nature of ‘self’ and what is ‘I’ could be said to represent the very core of all his work. His take on what most of us consider the self – the ego – and a quick refutation of it, can be found in this bytesize animation:

Baggini contrasts this idea of a central, permanent self – a ‘pearl’ – with the ‘bundle’ concept – that what we ‘are’ is really a temporal collection of atoms, molecules, thoughts, memories and ideas. From a physical sense this is true. The majority of the atoms in our body are constantly being replaced. As Steve Grand puts it (a quote Richard Dawkins quotes from time to time)

“Consider yourself. I want you to imagine a scene from your childhood. Pick something evocative… Something you can remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you WEREN’T there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Every bit of you has been replaced many times over… The point is that you are like a cloud: something that persists over long periods, whilse simultaneously being in flux. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made.”

This revelation opens up a whole can of worms. You, as you are now, were not physically there at your 5th birthday. Yet something inside you insists you were. You remember being there. You can access memories of being there. Physically nothing constant has remained. So, can we say that the ‘self’ does not physically reside, anywhere?

The ‘bundle’ concept states that we are a temporal collection of different ideas, emotions, memories, opinions, all buzzing in the brain. These will come and go, but you get the sense that you are a constant. You were alive yesterday, you are alive today, and with luck, you will be alive tomorrow. But where is the ‘self’ in all this? If this is true, how can we find and define a ‘self’?

The Scottish philsopher David Hume took on this subject in his “A Treatise on Human Nature” and he opined:

I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.

In Buddhist philosophy there is no self. This is one of their core beliefs – the concept of Anatta or “not self” – that there is no persistent entity that we would recognize as a ‘self’. It does not deny that there is an empirical entity that is a person – but that there is no persistent thing that ‘experiences’ thoughts, emotions, etc. What we take to be the self is an illusion. Buddhism also alludes to “bundles” with the “skandhas” – that all reality consists of the temporary collection of various things. There are a lot of echoes here with both the physical nature of our bodies, and the idea that our ‘personality’ is a temporary arrangement of constantly changing elements in flux.

The Buddha however didn’t just stop at pronouncing this lack of a self, he claimed that this illusion was the chief cause of most of our problems as human beings. By clinging to a self that is not there we create a world of problems for ourselves – and if we could see this illusion for ourself we would be free.

(Watts did a great talk on this very topic – of the illusion of the self, its tensions, and how we may see its illusiory nature – called “Not What Should Be, But What Is”, reprinted in a book called “Myth and Religion”. It can be found in multiple parts here on YouTube. I recommend it for anyone interested in this idea)

In the Guardian podcast, Baggini also considers how we frame the question ‘what is the self?’. Do you mean our conscious awareness of now? The fact that we are aware of what we are doing here and now? Or do you mean the persisting ‘personality’ we feel we are from when we were born to now and beyond? Or is it a mix of both?

I’m very much looking forward to reading it. Most of my reading into this kind of thing to date has come from Eastern Philosophy books, so I’m intrigued to see similar ideas (such as ‘bundles’) coming out of modern scientific and Western philosophical fields. Hopefully I can revisit this in a more structured (read: less all over the place) way.