The Self

Thursday, February 21, 2013 -- 4:00 PM
John Perry

 What is a self? Here’s is a really simple answer.  I’m a self, namely, myself.  You are a self, namely, yourself.  A self is just a person, a living, breathing, thinking human being.  We use the particle ‘self’ to form reflexive pronouns, like “myself” and “yourself”, and these pronouns, refer to persons.  So there’s the simple theory of selves: selves are persons.

       But many philosophers would say that there is a difference between myself--- that’s just me, John Perry --- and my  Self.  This self as some sort of inner being or principle, essential to, but not identical with, the person as a whole.  It is that in me that thinks and feels.

         I think it’s useful to distinguish three concepts, that appear in the literature on selves, allowing the possibility that they may all stand for the same thing.  There is the self, the mind, and the soul.

         By “mind” we mean that part of me that has sensation and perception, beliefs and desires, and initiates action; some philosophers think it is no more than the brain or central nervous system.

        The mind is basically a common sense notion, that provides a subject for philosophers.  The soul, in contrast, is basically a religious or theological concept.  The soul is something that is supposed to bear the responsibility for sin, as well as for good act.  And, at least in Christianity, it is what is supposed to survive death, and continue to exist in heaven or hell, depending.

       The self is usually conceived in philosophy as that which we refer to with the word “I”, at least in its more serious uses.   It is that part or aspects of a person that accounts for personal identity through time;  in spite of all the ways I have changed since I was fifteen --- that last time I remember committing a significant sin --- I am the same self I was then, and I will be the same self tomorrow and next week and next year, if I live that long.

        There is an importantly different use in psychology of “identity” and “self”.  Basically one’s self, or one’s identity, is constituted by those attributes one identifies with most strongly; what one thinks of as most important about oneself.  I live in Palo Alto and I am a philosopher.  I can easily imagine moving to Mountain View or San Francisco.  Being a Palo Altan is not part of my identity.  But it is hard for me to think of myself as anything but a philosopher: it is part of my identity in the psychological sense.

       Suppose a traumatic event occurs, and I decide to give up philosophy, buy a vineyard, and devote myself to the mysteries of merlot instead of those of philosophy.  Psychologicaly, we might say my identity has changed, but not philosophically.  I am the same person, the same self, I have merely changed in basic ways.

         Now, using the terms in their philosophical sense, lots of thinkers have, identified the mind, the self, and the soul.  That, as I understand it, was Descartes' view. 

        He thought that there is this part or aspect of me, the thinking part.  This is what I refer to with “I”:  I think therefore I exist. I can imagine existing even if I have no body, which I can conceive to continue existing in heaven or hell. Who I am, and what I am, remains the same, through all the changes in my physical being. The molecules that constitute me may change, but not my mind-soul-self.  It is this mind-soul-self that God created “In his own image”. 

         I think its fair to say that this Cartesian mind-soul-self is the basic account of the self, to which philosophers over the past couple of hundred years have reacted.  I’ll mention a couple of highlights.

       Hume argued that Descartes was wrong; he could find no inner unchanging self, that remained the same; all he can find is a bundle of thought and sensation, in constant flux.

        Kant thought Hume had a point, but that we had to believe in some principle that held this flux together, even if we couldn’t find it in the empirical world.  This was his famous transcendental self, the unity that we don’t find in experience, but must posit to make sense of experience.

        Lots of contemporary philosophers believe the brain is the mind.  They don’t believe in Descartes' separate thinking substance.  They don’t believe in Heaven, Hell, or the soul.  What should such philosophers think about the self.  Should they deny that there are selves?  Can they get around Kant’s transcendental reasons for positing a self?

        Well, I am such a philosopher, and I think we should believe in the self, in just the way I indicated at the start: My self, is just myself, that is me, the live human being, sitting here before you.  You can go to my website, http://john.jperry.net, download the C.V., and click on articles with the word “self” in them to see defenses of this view.  Have I convinced anyone?  Not many.

 

 

 

Comments (13)


Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, February 21, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Hi Guys,

Hi Guys,
been waiting for you to do this topic given John's background. Too bad I didn't have more time to look into all your articles John. I did however become reasonably familiar with the personal identity debate and related thought experiments and came to the conclusion both the personhood and biological continuity camps are going in the wrong direction. We are neither ontologically speaking persons nor biological/animals; rather are a type of complex adaptive system. An argument against Transhumanism helped point this out.
Maybe you could use the below as a listener talking point. Not sure I can skype in during the show but I could try.
If we think that what fundamentally differentiates us from cognitively similar non person animals is a small set of cognitively sophisticated capacities then it isn't too hard to imagine that even more significantly advanced cognitive capacities could differentiate us in a similar way to the way that 'lower' animals differ from us ontologically if we use the personhood account. If we think the individual still exists as this uber mind then we cannot be persons as the person ontology ended when we became this uber mind. In the similar way a non person animal if 'uplifted' to personhood status cannot ontologically have been just a non person animal cogntively.
A related argument also means we or similar animals aren't biological beings even if we are uplifted cognitively . One could imagine that a human uplift is done in a complete synthetic cyborg like manner ending our biological status. If through autobiographical and memory chains we intuitively think this uber cyborg entity is the same individual it follows ontologically speaking it was never a biological or person based ontology.
Then what projects the individual ontology into the future? My conclusion was that what is maintained is a status as a type of sophisticated complex adaptive system through chains of organizational continuity. This allows movement up and down the cognitive continuum plus conversion back and forth between biological and synthetic modes.
Maybe that is too much to fit in as a listener message -& BTW I do deal with brain and hemisphere transfer- but I did hope to get Johns reaction to it.
Cheers
Simon

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, February 21, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Dear Dr. Perry:

Dear Dr. Perry:
I suspect this post is one of the more profound to appear on the Philosophy Talk blog. It is true, I believe, that the most facially simple ideas/concepts turn out to be the most complex. I read your narrative more than once-looking for a word that has appeared often in related discussions: consciousness. If you will allow me, I'll try to state some things, as I see them. You and I may be far apart on this topic, but, inasmuch as semantics themselves fluctuate in our modern world, I seriously doubt that we have intractable differences. Perhaps, we shall see. Consciousness, or self-awareness, exists on a continuum. It is doubtful that rocks have any notion of it, or any notion of anything else for that matter. Skipping along the evolutionary scale, it appears that higher mammals have some sense of awareness and it is almost certain that they feel pain; realize their need to eat and drink, and have some compulsion to survive and reproduce. These traits appear to affirm assertions made from the time of Darwin to Dawkins. Life, as it has been said, finds a way.
Selfness, is-ness or suchness, becomes most uniquely human as we move up the evolutionary scale. I could not count the times this has been stated before, but bear with me as I tell a story. Every self develops, as the individual grows, experiences and is influenced: a tradesman might have been an engineer; a doctor: an architect; a despot: a humanitarian---well, maybe that last alternate outcome is a stretch, but consider Ernesto Guevara, or: Hugo Chavez. Selfness is, ah, malleable and as a crazy ex-marine once told me: the Devil hates a coward. History both creates and destroys.
I'll submit to you one last notion, only because I think we are not so far apart in age: The selves we are today are fundamentally different from when we were fifteen years old. Did you think about becoming a philosopher when you were fifteen? I didn't. I just wrote bad poetry. And souls? They may be the foundation for the rest of it, but since we cannot MEASURE self, or consciousness, or souls, how are we to know? If David, Rene, or Emmanuel knew, they did not say---or did they?
If this was test, I hope I got better than a C. If not, oh well...
Cordially,
Neuman
(best to Laura)

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, February 22, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

My brother has a website. He

My brother has a website. He has been an inspiration to me ever since I realized that we think alike, yet so differently, on so many topics. He is mostly poet; I write things more closely aligned with philosophy---at least, I IMAGINE my thoughts and expressions to be such. On his homepage, LVP says regarding self:
"Can we conceive of what we are while BEING what we are?..." (emphasis added) The question might, at first, seem enigmatic, yet being, on a day-to-day basis, is complicated. Confusing. Utterly frustrating. Our "selves", while developmental, are also malleable, and, therefore influenced by ubiquitous happenstance.
You may look at my brother's website, if you wish. It is found at: http://www.larryvanpelt.ca/lvpblog/

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, February 23, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

The fact is we all experience

The fact is we all experience a subjective self, an experiencing self- this is an aspect of reality- no matter how elusive it is to measure or define.
The ghost in the machine connundrum simply reveals a difficulty, not a failure of the existence of this subjective reality.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, February 23, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Descartes and Kant say "I

Descartes and Kant say "I think", that "I" have a self. I scarcely hear anyone saying "I know that YOU have a self". Do we know that all other creatures have a "self"? Animals as well as people? How do we know all apparent humans have a real self?
My thought is, I never objectively know as a fact the "self" of any other creature or being. I think we all conclude we see other "selfs" by instinct that sees others act like us consistently, without the glitches that would reveal an Inner Robot.
WIll I recognize when a machine acquires a "self"? Maybe we can only answer that in the event that in the future we actually do see those wondrous machines?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, February 23, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Morris Berman, in Coming To

Morris Berman, in Coming To Our senses, makes the point: "The reason that the self is not amenable to scientific verification is that it does not exist as a discrete entity, but is in fact a process; it can never be a clinical object, never be localized in space or time."
Should this trouble us?
Isidor Chein tells an anecdote:
"The tale goes back when psychology courses at the City College of New York were taught under the aegis of the Department of Philosophy, and psychologists and philosophers shared a tiny, overcrowded office. One day, a student entered the office and approached the nearest person who, as luck would have it, happened to be Morris Raphael Cohen. When the latter looked up, the student said, "Sir, I have a problem."
"Professor Cohen, whose mode of address was as gruff as his heart was kind, barked, "Yes, what is it?"
"Said the student, "I sometimes get the feeling that I don't exist."
"""Who," snapped Professor Cohen, "sometimes gets the feeling that you don't exist?"
""Why, I ...," said the student; then, with a very sheepish expression, he turned around and walked out."
Chein also makes another interesting observation: "The subject, that is, the one who carries out the activity, in our behaviors is generally taken to be the self; the subject in the behavior of others, a person. In our experience of behavior, we are primarily selves and only inferentially persons, whereas others are primarily persons and only inferentially selves."
I think this is a topic best left to the speculations of the professional philosophers but even we laypeople have a stake in it insofar as we live in a society in which the possibility of an afterlife is taken seriously by many. I must admit to being a monist, but if I am wrong I can only hope I will be pleasantly surprised.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, February 24, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

All good fun, co-conspirators

All good fun, co-conspirators! Bully for all!

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, February 25, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

I found myself much like

I found myself much like Nature as is the Universe to be infinitely immeasurable.
And defining myself further, pointless.
For surely if One defines infinite and immeasurable then One becomes finite and measurable and that most certainly is not me.
The beautiful side to this is I find every One and every thing connected and the same thIS Way, even the Ones who don't see it yet. Even the Ones who continue to measure.
All is infinitely One
Boundless, immeasurable, absolute, just and free.
=
Just me

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, February 28, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Me and the Sea

Me and the Sea
One day I was fortunate enough to find myself walking down a road to the sea. The trees along the road were overgrown blocking any view or reflection of what was to come. Finally I stepped onto the beach and looked up and found the ocean so astounding it took my breath away. The water, the blue sky, the power of the waves, the sea breeze, the tanned sand, the birds, the beauty I beheld made my heart sing. The ocean view I saw that day was even more profound than beauty, it was the day I saw me.
Oneders, Oneders,
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 1, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

A CAMEO APPEARANCE

A CAMEO APPEARANCE
I like your simple theory: selves are people. Clean. Concise. Unburdened by the additive complexities we see everyday. The facts of uncertainty have always plagued my hopes, dreams and fears. But I agree, comfortably, with your assessment. So, if we are wrong---we are wrong in unison. I could name ten people who agree with what you have posited.
Each of those ten know ten more. And so on, and so on...
Carry on, John Perry---carry on.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 2, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

I'm not big on mechanisms, or

I'm not big on mechanisms, or the mechanistic theory of human existence. Rene Descartes said, by best accounts: "I think, THEREFORE, I am." There is a linguistic difference between the words THAT and THEREFORE. But, as illustrated in a comment on another post, 'that' is a matter for linguists such as Chomsky, Pinker and others to sort out. There is no little man (homunculus) sitting inside my head, driving my body, notions and actions. If we suppose THAT artificial intelligence will someday become functional; yea, useful, we ought to remember that it shall remain, uh, artificial. Mechanism was invented by mankind when he became a conscious being and, over time, trial and error, figured out how to configure and manipulate his world. I could not get Emmanuel Kant---his explanations were tedious and convoluted to me. But, I do not feel ashamed or deprived. I never figured out Juergen Habermas either. That we cannot ever get it all seems a given. And, we must either live with that---or go mad.
The word, that, appears in the foregoing comment, more often than the word, therefore. Clearly, then, it is a more useful word---more adaptable. The advantage of therefore is its' limited utility--which precludes to some extent corruptibility. If I say: I think I am, that assertion is a subjectivism. If I say: I think that I am, the statement remains within the realm of individual subjectivity. But, if I say: I think, therefore, I am, the remark includes a larger audience. Descartes knew this. Linguistically brilliant. And a way to remain memorable, centuries on.
Reality is within our grasp, but that depends. It depends on what we want; where we look and how we process (i.e., choose to receive) what we find. It is not rocket science, no---much harder. We'll get it---or die trying. Don't you think?

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, March 4, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Cogito ergo sum. Shouldn't

Cogito ergo sum. Shouldn't that be translated, "I am thinking therefore I am being?"
Just wondering.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 16, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

My background as a

My background as a psychologist tells me that consciousness is brain and our feeling of self is an epiphenomena of brain processing - the bringing together of senses, memory, etc. But we have certain anomalies that suggest that consciousness may be a product of something else. One of those is the psi phenomena, and before you groan there are hundreds of good scientific studies showing the ability of mind to function beyond the confines of the brain. Until recently we did not have a theoretical understanding of reality that allowed for the self to exist outside the brain and so we disregarded the possibility. Like the church fathers who refused to look through Galileo's telescope, we have turned our back on this data and what it implies for our understanding of reality and self. In step the physicists. Through quantum mechanics, the physicists are giving us evidence that awareness (the center of my self) may actually create reality not just function within it. See descriptions of the particle/wave phenomena and Schrodinger's cat metaphor. The problem is that we cannot solve this problem of self/mind at the level it occurs. If a self exists that is beyond our brain, that collapses the wave function of reality, we will not be able to study it at this level of reality. All we will have are fingers pointing at the moon. However if we allow science to function as it should, it will advance our description of mind/self even if we can't actually catch the animal itself. Like inferring black matter or other theoretical objects. We are even now describing the many ways in which mind acts to influence the world. See Dean Radin's work on global consciousness and impact of global events on random number generators. We are definitely paradoxes containing both the mundane brain functions of sight, hearing, memory, cognition, feeling etc etc. and much more. Fascinating.
Audrey Irvine

 

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