It is facinating trying to figure out whether there is such a thing as the self, and how modern philosophers and scientists, by probing the brain and analysing behaviour the self as we know it may need to be revised. This argument more than any clarifies the deficiencies of science and modern thinking, and where reductionism falters.
Although the arguements against the Self seem pretty strong, where it falls short and possibly collapses is the insistence by thinkers like Daniel Dennett who says “each normal individual of this species makes a self, out of its brain it spins a web of words and deeds and like other creatures it doesn’t have to know what it’s doing, it just does it. Out tails are spun and for the most part we don’t spin them” he further explains by comparing it to the centre of gravity using the analogy of “But a center of gravity is not an atom or a subatomic particle or any other physical item in the world. It has no mass; it has no color; it has no physical properties at all, except for spatio-temporal location.”
I actually believed the self might be an illusion until I read Dennett’s arguement which contrary to its intentions proved to me without a doubt that there is such a thing, just like other things. His arguement defeats itself by denying the existence of anything that is made up of many things. To use another analogy, I can say that Dennits book does not exist, because all it is are papers with ink written bound together “it spins words” etc. etc.
He talks about the self not being an atom or subatomic particle or any other physical item in the world. While someone may deny for this same reason the existence of stories, waves, history, philosophy etc. because they are not physical things as a materialist would say. My response would be to to ask what what he means by physical things. Nothing physical exists because everything is made out of something else. What he calls “physical” is made of molecules, and they don’t exist because molecules are made out of atoms. Atoms don’t exist because they are made out of protons, neutrons and electrons, and those don’t exist because they are made out of quarks, and other fundamental particles and so on.
The “Self” just like any other word, is just a word that tries to define something. We communicate experiences and events by using words and language. Dennett may need to eliminate language, word by word, before he gets to what he perceives as reality, which would make me wonder what are we talking about in the first place.
Maybe he needs to clarify what “thing” is, and what is meant by “exists” before I waste more time moving my fingers on a keyboard to create something that doesn’t exist refuting another that doesn’t exist, called an argument.
Information is the only thing that exists!
That’s a very interesting thought. I like the idea that Dennett denies too much, since he does seem to deny lots of things, and is fine with it. He may be picking what he wants to attack, not realising his attacks injure the things he wants to protect too.
Let me offer a pro-Dennett response. There certainly are physical things with parts, and what we call the self may be one of them. However, the self is conceived as a simple partless thing, especially in the Cartesian concept of it, which Dennett frequently attacks. For example, the self is supposed to be one and the same thing at each time in its existence, having the soul-like substance – like status of surviving physical changes. The child is the woman is the elder president, etc. (Picking random examples of life stages a person might undergo).
This is what Parfit calls the Simple view of the self. The Complex view is a self with physical parts. Given a self with physical parts, there is no such simple self. Given a self which is not identical to itself at different times, there is no simple self. If you’re Cartesian about the self, then this means there is no self.
That’s how I’d respond from a Dennett-ian angle to your point, I think.
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It is very interesting how language can sometimes obscure meaning. When our understanding changes sometimes another word is created and sometimes the definition of the same word changes.
Michel Foucault said every word may have a different meaning every time it is used, even by the same person. I think this is thought provoking.
In Dennet’s case, and possibly all materialist, the definition of thing as a physical thing may need to be revised, as it now seems there may not be anything physical at the smallest scales, just forces.
Thanks for your insight Sean. You gave me a thought you might recognise in my next blog.
Love it. So did you think self didn’t exist before you read his arguments. I find thta interesting.
I wonder if self is like a spiders web, in that they are all unique but in essence the same thing. Can we look at each other as different webs all made of the same material. I think the concept of human beings simply creating selves automatically is interesting. It would mean that we’re all the same self, just a little different here and there. Which would imply a lot about the concept of individualism and uniquness.
Love the post. Sorry I’ve been so absent.
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Hey Comfy, I like the new look. I’ve been absent for a while now too.
You are spot on. I’ve been struggling to define the self, but certainly not just going to say it doesn’t exist. I have read a few books about split brain patients and multiple personality disorders, and think there is more to understand than meets the eye.
It seems like it’s a collective process. The connectivity makes the self. It would be extremely interesting to know, if in the future, we connect our thoughts and feelings via the net, without language, would we feel we are one. I’m beginning to think so.
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Very interesting exchange of ideas! Could you please expand on the last one – connecting thoughts and feelings via the internet?
You seem to be implying the creation (would it develop organically or by design?) of some sort of neural network – a global telepathic connection? – with the internet acting as the medium (the mechanics of that also leads to an interesting train of thought). Am I way off?
The ‘we feel we are one’ part also puzzles me. Would the ‘oneness’ be imparted on the whole species or just the ones connected (to wi-fi 🙂 ). Would it be desirable? Frankly, the dissolution of the self scares me a bit. Is there a return from that?
Then again, a feeling of ‘oneness’ has been reported/experienced by Buddhas and lucky ayahuasca enthusiasts. But the idea that technology will allow us to telepathically (this is what ‘without language’ infers, right?) relay our thoughts and feelings is very interesting.
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Language has been the most effective way to communicate, but you can never truly communicate an experience, so the best you can do is hope for others to somehow relate to you and understand via their own experience.
If we were to communicate via brain signals directly (similar to one part of the brain transmitting electrical signals to another, which is what happens) we may end up experiencing what others are.
It will almost be like your own experience, and in fact what I’m saying is it might be and therefore the self might not end where the body ends.
It’s all electrical signals so I don’t see why it can’t be done, and yes, I wouldn’t want anything permanent, but this is just a thought experiment.
That is what I thought you meant.
I’ve read recently that they are now creating an AI capable of reading thoughts (basically just reading previously coded brain patterns) so this thought experiment is not that way off.
What you are describing is something that I believe many have pondered, daydreamed about or wished to experience, including myself. Being John Malcovich is a result of such ideas. But I believe that this merge between beings, or at least minds is (at our current evolutionary state) only desirable between two individuals, otherwise it would be overwhelming. What would then stop us from becoming the Borg collective?
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Interesting you mentioned the Bord collective. It’s the perfect example. Ofcourse the queen kind of ruined the idea, and forced assimilation and the permanency is certainly a put off.
But aren’t we already assimilated with the current Internet. Social networks, Information, and connectivity at our fingertips. It’s already hard not to be connected in the modern world, and I wonder if someone can live a normal life without a phone now adays.
Ofcourse, it’s not an level playing field. There are those who own all the data about you, and algorithms that decipher your personality etc. etc.
I’m straying off here, but the concept of the self I believe is related to connectivity at the experience level. What they call Qualia.