Is the Self Real?

20 February 2020

Is there such a thing as a self, something that makes you who you are? Or is the self just a convenient fiction? Would the world be a better place if we all stopped believing in selves? These are some of the questions we're asking in this week's show.


Eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume certainly believed the self was just an illusion. “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself,” he said, “I always stumble on some particular perception or other... I can never catch myself.” There’s also a wonderful Buddhist story that runs along similar lines. A chariot, says Nagasena, is just wheels, axles, and a seat—there’s no additional thing called a chariot. So too, an individual is just her feelings, perceptions, desires, and beliefs: there’s no “self” over and above those parts.


Paul Ricoeur had a lovely answer to Hume: when you say “I always stumble,” dear David, who is this “I” you’re referring to? What is this thing in you that always sees something and never catches something else? If you were a different being each time you noticed something, how could you put all the noticings together into a never and an always? (Fans of Immanuel Kant will recognize shades of his “unity of apperception” here.)


As for Nagasena, well, chariots don’t have memories of childhood. But human beings do. As John Locke pointed out, each of us remembers our past, and we remember it in a special way: someone else can find out things about the time my sibling broke my arm, but they’ll never be able to feel it the way I do when I remember it. And the reason for that is because I’m the same person. There’s something that has persisted throughout all these years: me.


Chariots also don’t have personalities. And people generally do. In fact, it’s remarkable how well we are able to predict how our friends and family will react in many situations. (“Your mother is going to flip!”) We know just who will help us move house, and just who, as the saying goes, will help us move a body. We know who will give us brutally honest feedback, and we know who will spare our feelings. Of course, some of that is due to people putting on an act in society, but surely some of it has to do with temperament, with the character that people have fashioned out of their gifts and inclinations and aversions and ideals.


It’s true that some of these inclinations, aversions, and ideals change over time, and some are foisted on us by society. But the very fact that we can talk like that—“foisted on us by society“—suggests that we make a distinction between the authentic and the inauthentic, what’s merely convention and what’s really me. Don’t we want to perform actions that are authentic—actions, that is, that are true to ourselves? And how could we do that if we didn’t believe in a self to be true to?


When it comes to decisions about the future, it’s not just a question of authenticity: it’s also a question of fulfillment. Would it be smart of me to quit my job as a teacher and go join the Golden State Warriors? My Magic 8-Ball says “ask again later,” but I really don’t think I need a second opinion. I know things would go badly for me at the Warriors. I know that because I know myself (at least that much). I can know myself because there is a self to know.


This is also, ideally, how we choose who to spend our life with. We need to know something about the other person’s personality (her self), and we also need to know something about our own personality (our self). Nothing is for certain in this world, but radical self-ignorance is probably not a good recipe for success.


So human beings are not, in the end, much like chariots. And to be honest, I’m not even sure the chariot is such a great example for Nagasena’s point. Is a chariot really just a collection of wheels, axles, and seats? Imagine those same wheels, axles, and seats scattered on the floor. Would they get you from A to B? A chariot isn’t just a set of parts: it’s an organization of those parts. And parts, when organized, sometimes form a new object. You can do things with a chariot that you can’t do with a bunch of seats, wheels, and axles lying on the floor. The organized object produces real effects in the world. So why not call it a new thing?


One final question: regardless of whether the self is real, is it a good thing to believe that it is? Again, I can see arguments on either side. Believing in the reality of a self might well help people to embark on long-range plans that give them hope and excitement and fulfillment and pride; some of those people might end up making important discoveries and inventions to bring to the world; and they might feel encouraged to keep their promises and take responsibility for their past misdeeds.


On the other hand, following Nagasena might make people feel freer to start out on new paths, less obsessed with fame and reputation, more compassionate, more connected with everyone and everything around them, and more generous because (literally) more selfless. Maybe it’s a good thing to believe in the self even if it doesn’t really exist. Or maybe it’s a good thing to doubt it even if it does!


Comments (8)

Zettmeister's picture


Thursday, February 20, 2020 -- 3:43 PM

I see the human imagination

I see the human imagination as a natural version of a virtual reality machine. In the physical world there is no such thing as the present or the future, only the past, and the endless stream of causality in our particular expanding universe that got us there. The brain has evolved to interpret the sensory information it receives in a manner that increases the potential for survival and the opportunities to pass on its genetic inheritance. Nothing more nothing less. These interactions with the environment and other life including our fellow humans has given rise, overtime, to this capacity for self awareness or full theory of mind that is unique to this planet.

The imagination is the sum of our recall of past experience (electro-chemical impressions along our neural pathways) that give rise to a sense of not only what but when those events occurred. The state of mind that prevailed (I.E. fight or flight, pursuit of potential mates etc...) at the time for each event would determine if the same was significant to 'remember' or not. The brain is a ruthless clearing house for events that do not render some memorable impression. otherwise it must retain scarce resources for the focus required to act in its on best interests at all times.

Our actions and behaviours enable others to interpret our intentions thus the hallmark of our species. From there as social animals we are constantly (millisecond to millisecond) making trade offs with our individual security for the security of the group. Hence the second hallmark of our species, the ability to collaborate and cooperate on a sophisticated level transforming the natural world with our technology. Which leads us to the third hall mark of our species,...language.

Getting back to 'self' (full theory of mind) by interpretation of intent we are in a position to assign blame and responsibility, and thus the notion or sense that we are agents of free will. This sense, of course, is essential to our survival as individuals and groups. In fact the idea of free will is so intuitive that we don't even give it a thought except in discussions like this. Alas this is also an illusion along with the present and the future. All manufactured by our imagination or virtual reality machine to further our potential for survival. In the real world the brain is acting in the only way it can (self interest) We have no ability to cause something to happen by just 'thinking' about it. In the real world (the endless stream of causality) we can not 'choose' otherwise.

Finally as humans with a sense of 'self' we are capable of hope, or that the future might occur in a manner to the advantage of ourselves and those closest to us.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, February 22, 2020 -- 12:21 PM

The Zettmeister, (or perhaps,

The Zettmeister, (or perhaps, Zeitmeister?) states it well, and in keeping, briefly, with much of the research and speculation from neuroscience and philosophy over the last twenty or more years. I too have done my own speculating when it comes to self-ness; consciousness; awareness; mindness, mindfulness and mind fullness. I have not been obsessed with all of this, but have my own humble view, which may be too simplistic for some, yet comfortably so for others: All of these terms are, more-or-less, synonymous with one another. How they are considered, individually, depends upon which professional from which school of thought is doing the viewing, and whether her view is being talked about and in what way at a given time. The theories or postulates are as useful as the participants make them, and they may come and go with little more than a whimper. I have herein remarked before about efforts to explain consciousness. Those who have tried have received mixed reviews, for the most part, and, generally, dropped the subject after one foray. Those who have talked about the topic, without emphasizing the "C" word have fared better (think: Thomas Nagel's The View From Nowhere)

Make no mistake though. If you wish to discuss The Self, or, Selfness, you are talking about (or at least, around) consciousness---whether that term is currently en vogue, or not. If there ever comes the time (and I think it will come) when consciousness is better-understood and somehow quantifiable, the pioneers who remain among us (if there are any left), will take their places---perhaps even saying: well, we told you so! In a particular theology I once studied briefly, the watchwords were: God is unknowable. I think this is still true, even truer than in its origin. But, I also now think that such things as consciousness are NOT unknowable, anymore than the relativity of space and time or human physiology were unknowable. But, I COULD be wrong...obviously... A bit of verse from the pen of HGN:
Some say I'm standing still. I don't mind, I mind my business. "You've got to stand for something or you'll fall or anything."
I can stand for that. Even when I stand alone. 'cause I'm still standing.

MJA's picture


Sunday, February 23, 2020 -- 8:41 AM

I think the infinite Universe

I think the infinite Universe is the chariot and I am just or equally a part of it. And surely I am such an infinitely small part of the chariot that I or myself is indivisible from the rest. And it is equally certain that infinity is indivisible and immeasurable, then I or myself are infinitely immeasurable too. Am I a piece of the chariot or the chariot, I or the Universe, selfish or whole, One is just immeasurably me. ='s picture


Sunday, February 23, 2020 -- 12:06 PM

A Harvard professor wrote a

A Harvard professor wrote a thick book about the origins of the self. He found three: :1) the Christian conception that each of us has a unique soul that is immortal; 2) the necessity of forming legal contracts, expressed in the personal signature that bound one to an obligation; 3) the sense of personal continuity, through memory.

We are not born with an identity. Initially it is given to us by our parents who NAME us, and our sense of self develops around our possession of a unique name. A good place to observe the birth of a personal identity is in the opening pages of Joyce's A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, where the young child's grandfather tells him a story, and identifies the child as the boy in the story: "HE was Baby Tuckoo." This is the boy's first realization the he is a person separate from those around him: he now has a story, and a "self" is born.

Other comments above report instances in which one loses a sense of self and merges with some larger consciousness. This can be a rewarding experience, in that it gives one a different perspective and a more cosmic consciousness, in which we are no longer the center of our universe, which will die when we die. One merges with larger and longer-lasting ways of being, in which one's own personal existence ceases to be all-important. Of course the mundane details of life will soon return, as one operates a vehicle or shops for dinner. In society we are held responsible for our actions, and we are required to have an identity, a "self," of a thoroughly mundane nature.

There needs to be a way of acknowledging a reality to socially imposed categories or norms. We are not born with a "self," though even newborns exhibit traits of personality that can last for their lifetimes. Rather it is first given to us, from our family, and then developed by us as we grow older and both shape ourselves and are shaped by our experiences.

The "self" is not a fact of nature; rather it is a product of our interaction with the society in which we live, a social fact that we are required to possess and to maintain. Yet social facts are just as REAL as natural facts; by ignoring or denying their reality we tie ourselves up into hopeless knots, wondering how such a thing as a name or a personality can have status in a world of things.

"Philosophy Talk" habitually takes a kind of stance of naive realism, in which whatever is not physical and tangible is treated as a kind of illusion or mystification. It's perhaps a necessary starting-point for a philosophical discussion, but often it seems that the naivete persists throughout the whole discussion, and leads to an inconclusiveness that can be discouraging to listeners considering the problem being addressed for the first time. One likely reaction is to think that philosophers really don't do anything very important, and that philosophy is rather a frivolous pastime. Too bad.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, February 25, 2020 -- 11:51 AM

In fewer than twenty-five

In fewer than twenty-five words:

MJA's picture


Sunday, March 1, 2020 -- 10:23 PM

Mr. Crosman,

Mr. Crosman,
I concur with your assessment of the naivete of "Philosophy Talk" but see it more as a symptom or weakness of Western Philosophy as a whole. It was the shoulders of Greeks that we stand on that has given us this view of science, measure, and division. A lofty view that has taken us away from what truly matters, the truth below our feet.

It is grand to build castles of knowledge high in the sky, but without a solid foundation of wisdom, the self will always be in doubt.

Philosophy 101

And now that we are having a conversation about as you add to your post, bettering the philosophy blog, has any one else wondered why the people who put this blog together and write their essays rarely respond or talk? I would die for a conversation with Socrates in the Lyceum on truth, but alas philosophy has become mute and with that somewhat as you say, frivolous. "Too bad" to.


Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, March 8, 2020 -- 5:40 PM

Hmm... I disagree with most

Hmm... I disagree with most of this... but to each their own.

There is no self in the Western sense, certainly not the sense discussed in this show or blog. But each person is unique in time and space.

Crosman doesn't go far enough and is a bit off course to posit the roots of self in the family or a name. Certainly, we are social creatures. From there you and Crosman are a bit off the science as is... just saying.

MJA - I'm happy PT bloggers and staff don't post too much. It can be a bit stultifying to newbies. I'm happy with the posters who persevere.

Best to you and Robert.

DRaB's picture


Sunday, October 16, 2022 -- 8:31 AM

Great conversation, and since

Great conversation, and since you replayed this show this month I’m belatedly commenting. From a Buddhist perspective, it seems important not to conflate personality, inclinations, talents, memories, and other characteristics of a particular person with that person’s self. Self is not these characteristics; self is the process of identification with them and the sense that there is a solid, enduring entity to which they adhere.

It’s been fascinating in recent years to hear people overtly discuss the experience of having successfully eradicated their sense of self. Talking about that as a personal achievement has been considered taboo in monastic Buddhism and therefore among the earlier batch of Western practitioners who brought back their experiences from Asian pilgrimages. But that is changing, and there is now if not a wealth of such narratives then at least the beginnings of a wealth. Daniel Ingram is one of the most vocal and articulate of the folks who confess to having achieved a Buddhist version of awakening. (And, incidentally, he’d be a great P.T. guest on a few different topics.) He says that transformations of personality might be a little oversold in spiritual traditions, but that it is certainly true that, when you stop identifying with your body's and your mind’s experiences as the centerpiece of the world, you feel an immense relief. Having to sustain that relentless process of the construction of the self uses up all sorts of cognitive, emotional, and physical resources. Stopping the process frees up the resources for other purposes, and a person becomes more energetic, clear-seeing, and emotionally stable.

The self is an illusion in that sense: it is certainly a real structure of mind, but it is not a necessary structure (at least after early-life learning about the working boundaries of the body and brain), and practical life, relationships, jobs, interests, etc. can all go on without it, and in fact seem to go on much better without it. The self-less version of a person naturally leans more toward compassion and empathy, but that doesn’t mean that the person can’t perceive distinctions or a certain primary interconnection among the elements bounded by their skin, just that those elements are decentered, aren’t seen as a reified pineal locus of identity, and don’t behave according to a hard and fast distinction between the inner “I” and the other “they”.

A lot of the arguments against the Buddhist view of no-self make this reductionist mistake of insisting that any kind of continuity of self-like attributes is proof that self is real and persists. In Buddhism it’s the experience and result that matter, and (so they tell me) life without a self makes a person happier, more loving, and more functional. Sounds good to me. Though Daniel Ingram does concede that sociopathy isn’t necessarily incompatible with spiritual awakening, and so, for instance, it’s a mistake to see guru scandals as evidence that those gurus’ spiritual achievements are fraudulent. In fact, self-lessness and awakening could at least in some cases make a sociopath a more effective and equanimous sociopath. (Hmm, that’d be an interesting show topic: the degree to which philosophical or spiritual insight does or doesn’t lead to what we consider socially good outcomes.) But even that unhappy persistence of a human trait is not an argument that self exists or persists, only that some qualities and tendencies do.

Thanks for endless toothsome stuff.

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