What is the Self?

IT’S one of those questions that has intrigued philosophers for centuries. Once you have stripped away things like your name, address and occupation etc what is left? Is there a core essence that is unmistakably the Self? Or, as some Buddhists say, is the Self an illusion we have to cure ourselves of? As Stephen Batchelor writes in Buddhism Without Beliefs: “There is no essential me that exists apart from this unique configuration of biological and cultural processes.” When Batchelor searches for his Self in meditation ‘I find it is like trying to catch my own shadow’ rather like Gilbert Ryles’ ‘ghost in the machine’, which he uses in The Concept of Mind to ridicule Descartes. Nevertheless, Batchelor also concedes that even if the Self is not something ‘neither is it nothing…It is simply ungraspable, unfindable’.

The ghost in the machine

Notions of the Self certainly drift into themes revolving uneasily around dualism of the material and the immaterial – and when the Self is associated with the latter it sounds something like a soul. Not so for materialist Galen Strawson in The Subject of Experience. For him the Self is a ‘conscious subject of experience’, which most certainly does not involve ‘some sort of belief in the immaterial soul, or in life after death’. He adds: “Philosophical materialists who believe, as I do, that we are wholly physical beings, and that the theory of evolution by natural selection is true, and that animal consciousness of the sort with which we are familiar evolved by purely physical natural processes on a planet where no such consciousness previously existed, have this sense of the mental as strongly as anyone else.” But for him the mental self is ‘a thing or entity, in some robust sense’. What is interesting about Strawson is that not only is he a materialist in a field that is dominated by immaterialists, he also argues that ‘one can have a full sense of the single mental self at any given time without thinking of the self as something that has long-term continuity’, a view that certainly flies in the face of mainstream thought in which continuity of something, whether it be body or mental, is often thought to be vital. Strawson can even accommodate Buddhist thought. “I believe the Buddhists have the truth when they deny the existence of a persisting mental self, in the human case, and nearly all of those who want there to be a self want it to be a persisting self.” At the same time he believes the famous metaphor of the ‘stream of consciousness’, first proposed by William James in The Principles of Psychology, is false. In contrast Strawson argues that the ‘phenomenal form of our consciousness is that of a gappy series of eruptions of consciousness as if from a substrate of non-consciousness’.

What does it mean to have a word with yourself?

For Strawson, who uses his own experiences of meditation to inform his argument, selves exist as ‘subjects of experience that are single mental things’ and he does agree with James when he writes that ‘the same brain may sub-serve many conscious selves’ in what Strawson likens to a string of pearls. It has to be said, as Strawson acknowledges, that this view of the Self may not be sufficient for many people who want there to be a Self. It is also frighteningly fragile: “If, finally, someone says that any sense of the self as a thing may dissolve in the self-awareness of meditation, I will agree, and reply that in that case self-experience, of the kind that is at present of concern will also have dissolved (this being, perhaps, after all the aim of meditation).” It could be argued, however, that it is difficult to reconcile this fragility with Strawson’s claim that the Self or, as he prefers to put it, the ‘subject of experience’, is a ‘physical object’ and that even if it ‘may be short-lived…it is nonetheless real, and it is as much a physical object as any piano’. The obvious objection to make is that pianos are not so easily dissolved.

But having made the case for the transience of the Self, Strawson then argues that one’s sense of permanence or transience may, after all, be psychological with some Diachronic people having a strong sense of Self over time while Episodics – like Strawson himself – do not. At the same time, however, he floats the idea that we might exist on a spectrum between the Diachronic and Episodic.

Are you Episodic of Diachronic?

There is much more in this book to make one ponder and puzzle, including an argument against the common claim that we are nothing but a narrative of ourselves that we create for and of ourselves. For Strawson ‘we live beyond any tales that we happen to enact’ and he believes that story-telling in this sense can lead to an ‘inauthentic view of ourselves’. The correct position is one of ‘discovery, not creation or constitution’, although one might wonder whether there is much to discover if the subject of experience can be dissolved so easily like a will of the wisp. And it’s interesting also that although Strawson is not convinced by the narrative view of the Self he never tackles the problem of infinite regression of the story-telling view. After all, if there is a narrative there must be a narrator…and so on.

But it is the shifting nature of the subject of experience which is at once a robust physical object and a fragile entity that makes one feel most queasy. It is a bit like Schrodinger’s cat that is both alive and dead until it is observed. Under Strawson the Self becomes both subject and object and seems to disappear in a puff of its own logic as Douglas Adams says somewhere in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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