Philosophy of Mind – The Self
Hello. Today, I am going to discount Descartes’ and Hume’s theory of self, note the fallacy involved in physical continuity of self and then come to a natural conclusion. From merely looking at you, I know what you are all thinking. You think “ah, but Manraj, isn’t it a bit bold to look to discount Cartesian Dualism and yet, say that identity exists whilst the self is physically non continual?”
Well yes, yes it is, but I am a bold man.
And on that note, allow me to begin…
It would appear to be a probing philosophical question to ask if the concept of self that each of you have is any different from the body in which you inhabit. Is this inner voice that chats to you, day in day out, prescribing each and every action a non physical force which defines who you are, or is it your brain carrying out a number of cognitive functions in tandem with each other.
There is an issue here which must be tackled. Why are you the same person as five years ago or ten years ago? We are composed of mind and body, whether you think they are separate is irrelevant, at the moment – however, both have been subject to entire change throughout your life. Your body is in no way the same as several years ago, the old cells have died and been replaced by new cells (apology for the ropey biology), the hormones are different, the sexual organs are different. The brain is different too, your beliefs, your thought, knowledge, intelligence has varied throughout your life and is, in many ways, completely different from ten years ago.
So, who are we, and who were we ten years ago? We have physically and mentally changed – there is certainly an issue here which needs resolving.
As you all know, I could not begin to do a talk about philosophy of mind without mentioning Descartes. Descartes felt that there were very few things of which he could be certain but that "as a general rule that whatever I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true."
Descartes attempted to discount everything that he could from existing. This is the rejection of any ideas as certain, if they can be doubted. He imagined that there was no Earth, no sky, no body; he could succeed in these and therefore these are not certain. However, he could not doubt his own existence; after all, he is the one doing the doubting. It is impossible, by logic, to doubt that thought exists. Therefore, he is certain that thought exists and that he exists to think – therefore “I think therefore I am”, Descartes’ catchphrase.
He had a clear idea of himself as a thinking, non extended thing and his body as a non thinking, extended thing. The fact that he can clearly concieve the mind as different from the brain, Descartes argued that God could create it. Therefore, he concluded that the mind and the body could be viewed as separate – therefore Cartesian Dualism, dual meaning the two – mind and body.
Descartes viewed the brain as responsible for our mechanical functions, those that could be theoretically emulated by a machine. However, Descartes noted that our reason/rationality and our deeper thoughts compose our soul or mind.
What does this mean?
Quite simply put, we cannot be sure that we are here. As Master Chaung put it, are we the Emperor dreaming we are the butterfly, or the butterfly dreaming we are an Emperor – we just don’t know. Now, I’m not suggesting that you all attempt to form cocoons and then several days later, attempt to fly away, but I am suggesting that Descartes noted the doubt that perseveres throughout every aspect of life other than the fact that we are thinking.
The consequences of a belief in Cartesian Dualism can be worryingly paranormal. The doubting of the body as any more than a vessel or an illusion would entertain fans of “The Matrix”. If you cannot be certain that you have a body, so it follows that you cannot be certain of the physical world around you. If everything physical is to be doubted, we could all be living in a game. Indeed, if we are in a game and our thoughts are powered by battery, make no mistake that the thoughts are real, but when the battery runs out and our thoughts cease - going by the infamous saying, as would our existence.
A secondary consequence lies in religion. The mind, an immaterial substance would naturally be immortal, if something is immaterial than it could exist for ever, only temporarily residing in a mortal body. This is not dissimilar to the immortal soul idea suggested by the Abrahamic Religions, among others. The idea of an immortal soul would support notions of the afterlife, heaven and hell, etc…
Criticisms of Descartes
Cartesian Dualism arises because Descartes simply could not explain many mental phenomena in terms of the brain. Due to the limited amount of neuroscience in Descartes’ day, he was forced to sometimes ‘make up stuff’ to fill the gaps such as the Pineal Gland, a tear shaped gland in the brain which connected the mind and body – he’d literally made up the function based on his amateurish dissections. As all you neurologists know, the pineal gland is responsible for waking and sleep patterns and secretion of melatonin, quite different from Descartes proposed function. Indeed, such is the danger with clinging to Cartesian Dualism and similar theories in order to support beliefs of the afterlife. Descartes thought the body ran on a system of hydraulics – alas, his anatomy was poor and this affected a great deal of his judgements. Although one may accuse me of merely avoiding neuroscience in my decision making, I feel it is less dangerous than forming decisions through wrong observations.
As interesting as the consequences of Descartes are, they are formed of the false logic that the mind and the body are opposites or totally different in some kind. Ryle in The Concept of Mind used the phrase “Ghost in the Machine” to truly mock Descartes Dualism – in essence, Descartes was suggesting a ghostly occupant (the soul) residing in the mechanical work of the body. Descartes attributes certain things to the mind and others to the body, why can it not be both. The example used is one of a University – a student on tour to a University, has seen the sports arena, the library, the science labs may ask “but where is the University?” The student is not realising that library and University belong to the same category, just as the mind and body relate to the same category. Moreover, just as the labs, arena and library compose the University; the skin, blood and organs (most crucially but not entirely, the brain) make up the self.
A main modern argument in favour of dualism is the idea of ‘qualia’. Qualia are raw mental feels; raw in that they cannot be explained as a product of the brain. This will aim to tackle the above criticism as qualia are a type of thought which are not at all physical.
Daniel Dennett identified four properties commonly attributed to qualia which, simply put, note that they cannot be communicated, they do not change depending on a situation, they cannot be compared from person to person and they are connected to one’s consciousness.
Experience of the colour red, as an example of qualia, works through the criteria, systematically. It would be impossible to communicate the colour red to someone who has never experienced colour. Although analogies involving love or heat would be possible, they would serve to create a most incomplete definition. Similarly, a scientific definition of 700mm wavelength would merely describe the property of red and not the critically important mental experience of such a colour. Mary’s Room is a commonly used example to portray such an idea. Mary knows everything there is to know about the colour red without seeing it, having been brought up and born in an entirely black and white environment. Most people would agree that Mary still has something to gain from seeing the colour red and so this supports the idea of ‘qualia’, in this case, the feeling of having seen the colour red. If you believe that the mind and body are separate, as a dualist would, then there quite simply is a definite notion of self. The self, for you is the mind that manifests as the inner voice inside your head; that creates a specific, indefinable quality when you see a colour; that separates your mental capacity and consciousness from the brain that is given unfair credit for such.
I’d disagree with the idea of Qualia. Although it is difficult to discount such a complex idea, it is essential to note Dennett’s criticism of the idea, since he formed the above definition, known as alternative neurosurgery. After an operation, you awake to find that your qualia have been inverted. Grass seems red; the sky seems a glowing orange colour, and so on. Since qualia are ‘raw’ mental feels which are immediately recognisable, you’d be sure that they have indeed been inverted…wouldn’t you? How about your memories have been inverted; how would you know that your brain surgery has tampered with your memories and that the grass had always been red and that the sky has always been glowing orange. Qualia is an interesting topic, but I have spent time explaining it meticulously and yet, I feel that it is just far too vague in its nature for one to use it to support a view of self.
So, how about the idea that, not only are you not the same person you were ten years ago, but the idea of you as an individual is a mere illusion.
Many eastern schools of philosophical thought believe that the human being as an individual is an illusion in terms of separateness from other aspects of creation. Eastern thinking, which has often been associated with meditative schools of thought, posited that the mind believes that it is individual from the world (or a mere inhabitant) but is mistaken in such a thought. The explanation for this illusion of the mind is that the sense of active participation (doing stuff) is a mechanism for ensuring the continuation of one’s life. There is some credence in this theory, in that if you stopped thinking, you would think that you have ceased to exist. As Rene Descartes put it, “I think therefore I am” – Eastern philosophers concluded from such a notion (several centuries earlier) that the mind and notion of individual self exists to prevent you from not existing, a most troubling thought. Interestingly though, to attain oneness with creation and eliminate the illusion of self in Buddhism is the ultimate goal, known as nirvana.
David Hume made a substantial leap in philosophy of mind in discounting the idea of identity, altogether. Hume was an empiricist; he thinks that all knowledge can be derived from the five senses. He notes that because him cannot see, hear, smell, taste or heaven forbid, touch himself, as a unique identity, then the concept of him does not exist. Hume noted that objects do not exist in, and of, themselves, they are merely a bundle of their properties. Similarly, identities are only bundles of experiences. As a person, what makes you, you, is simply the fact that you have lived the life that you have and it is merely a coping mechanism to assume that it is anything more than that. The driver (the mind) doesn’t exist to drive the car (the body) but rather the driver exists to ensure the driver doesn’t crash.
However, just as with Cartesian Dualism, I don’t believe that there is no identity either; simply because you cannot experience identity through the senses, does not mean that you must deny the idea altogether. The fact that there are bundle of experiences doesn’t actually advance philosophical thought – we all know that we have a bundle of experiences stored as memories and so one may say that Hume has dodged the issue by stating the obvious.
Moreover, what makes the bundle of experiences a bundle rather than a collection of separate events; what collects them together?
Daniel Dennett believes that the self is merely a narrative character, a ‘convenient fiction’ to make things make sense; “the story you tell about who you really are”. This is an attractive viewpoint for people who wish to deny the existence of a non physical aspect of the human being. The inner consciousness that is regarded as the self works similarly to the narrative and serves little more than to narrate one’s actions, thought processes and to, as mentioned above, continue one’s existence. Dennett compares it to the ‘centre of gravity’ in a hoop; the centre of gravity in a hoop is, of course, thin air, an arbitrary point and yet necessary, lest the hoop float away.
There are no wrong answers in philosophy, but here is a right one, as we reach the conclusion. You are the same person that you were ten years ago because of the act of continual thinking. Your cells have changed, your interests have changed, your beliefs have changed, but the continuity is there. You are the person who thought that your thumb tasted nice and juicy as a child, you are then the person who put it in your mouth and sucked it until it was raw and dry. Who you are is denoted by the story that you tell yourself with each of your thoughts. Descartes concluded that “I think, therefore I am” but I conclude that “I am always thinking, therefore I am always existing”. The narrator may be your brain, which is subject to change and therefore your behavioural patterns may change somewhat, but the analogy of a story still holds true – you can have multiple people read out the story to Harry Potter and although they will each have their own spin on things, their own interpretation, their own gruff voice for Hagred, it remains the same story. And at the same time, this is just a story, this is not an immortal soul, this is a story, that will end when we die, make no mistake about it, but as long as you think continually, then you will continue to exist…
Thank you for listening, I am always thinking, therefore I am always existing as Manraj Bahra.
If you want to be a good person, tell yourself that you are a good person and act in such a manner, then I hope you will be so kind to complete the most complex and physically demanding part of my talk. You can start when you understand what I am getting at…
What I want you to do is relax the muscles in your hand and then rapidly bang the front of them together. Not just ordinarily hard, but so hard that the vibrations reverberate throughout the air. 15 to 20 seconds will do…