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What does it mean to be you? by Julian Baggini

What does it mean to be you? by Julian Baggini.

Amazon review: 5 stars out of 5.

March 20th 2011.
Simon Laub

In the ”Ego Trick” Julian Baggini asks a broad question: What are we and on what does our continued existence over time depend?

Surely, an important question, if not the most important question. Philosophers have thought about it for ages.
But, to see the self one must have the right perspective. Indeed, the book is all about this right perspective, that allows us to see – that selves are real, but that they are not what most of us imagined them to be.

Bishop Berkeley once wrote:”Philosophers have raised a dust, and then complain they cannot see.” And Baggini follow in Berkeleys footsteps: ”The cloud that obscures our view of the self has been thickened by psychologists, scientists, theologians and sociologists too… In comtemporary academia, the solution to this often seems to be that we should examine each particle of dirt in ever more isolated detail….
Instead Baggini wants us to let the dust settle a little and have a closer look at what was actually there in the first place.

The self and the brain.

No central system, but different brain systems working together – with no central, top-down control.

The statistician George E. P. Box once quipped: ”Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.
Most people have the intuition that deep inside the brain there most be one centre where it all comes together. Where the self is located. Not so, Baggini tells us!

In the end, there might not be one definitive answer (Giving us a true model of how the self really works).
But there is widespread consensus that our sense of self is constructed from a variety of different brain systems working together. Paul D. MacLeans Triune brain model hold interest for many psychologists and members of the general public because of its simplicity (Even though some of the theory’s claims about our evolutionary past might not be 100 % accurate today).

In Paul D. Macleans model, different brain areas make their contributions and work together. In the modern version, there is no top-down control and there is no single centre of control. Rather the whole system puts constraints on what both parts and the whole system can and can’t do.

MacLean divides the brain into three broad regions:
Reptilian brain: Is the oldest of these areas: And comprises the brain stem and the cerebellum. It regulates basic, automatic functions such as breathing and instinctive behaviour. It is more than 200 million year old.

The Limbic system emerged during the Jurassic period, 206 – 144 million years ago, It regulates emotional reactions, including fight or flight responses, sex, food. (Anatomically it comprises the Amygdala, Hypothalamus, and Hippocampus).

The Neocortex is quite new. Some 24 – 55 million years old. Higher brain functions like logical thinking and episodic memory depend on it.

The division into these three regions is useful for a first overview. But each of these three regions can of course again be divided into smaller regions (having specific sub-funtions) etc.

When the normal integrated self falls apart.

In the brain, the self is both frighteningly fragile and astonishingly robust.
Finding examples of the fragility of the self is easy. The litterature on neural pathology is stuffed with cases, where the normal integrated self in some sense falls apart. And Baggino gives us a lot of really interesting examples:

Among the striking examples is Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga’s ”split-brain” patients. Here, as a last-resort procedure to treat severe epilepsy, surgeons severed the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemipheres of the brain. The result of this (a commissurotomy) was that the epilepsy was much reduced. But with no information flowing between the two brain halves, one hemisphere might be aware of something the other hemisphere is not aware of.
Gazzaniga and Sperry could set up controlled experiments, where one hemiphere would receive input and the other not. When asked about what they have been shown the halves would actually tell different things based on their different experiences [p. 36]. I.e. a commissurotomy seems to suggest that selves can be divided. There need not be just one center for consciousness!

And, selves are fragile in many other ways. E.g. everyone knows that break-up in relationships or bereavement might change a person. People might actually not be the same after such an event!

Strangely, ”split-brain” patients ”does not find one side of the brain missing the other”. We don’t miss what we no longer have access to: Consciousness of self emerges from a network of millions of conscious moments. When we lose bits, we don’t sense anything lost at all.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes the self as having two parts: ”The seemingly changing self, and the seemingly constant self. Although closely related they are not one, but two.”
The permanent self, is the autobiographical self, and what seems to change is the core self.
The autobiographical self is very good at self-revision. In reality we are constantly rewriting our history to keep our inner autobiographies intact!

In Bagginis words: ”The fragility and robustness of the self is therefore not really a paradox, when you think about it. The robustness, lies in the fact that it is not really a thing, but rather a complex interactions of parts of the brain and body. Very few parts are necessary and critical to its existence. So it can adapt to massive losses.”

All in all it lets Baggini demonstrate that ”The self is a construction of the mind, one flexible enough to withstand constant renovation, partial demolition and reconstruction.”
Indeed, everything we know are just mind constructions.

Memories – and psychological connectedness and continuity over time.

Still, memories is just one component that gives us personal continuity over time. Other components are temperament, desire, intention and beliefs. Just as memories, these must stay the same over time in order to provide psychological continuity over time. Surely, a person who had a good memory, but woke up with a different personality would not experience psychological connectedness and continuity!

And there are many ways to destroy an individuals psychological connectedness and continuity!
In another bizarre thought experiment Julian Baggini asks us to consider an experiment, where a very unethical neurosurgeon divides the two hemispheres of a brain and places each one in bodies, whose own brains have been destroyed, but whose bodies have been kept alive……
One body is called right, the other left. Both awake and claim to be the original. The question is then – who is the real one?

Instead of the logical answer (that both are real, but diminished versions of the original) Baggini uses this rather strange thought experiment to attack those who would have mentioned the soul at this stage.
According to Baggini you can’t conclude from persons are not just their bodies, to an immaterial soul must exist.
Sure, that sounds right, you cant logically make this conclusion. But at our current level of ignorance, I wonder what you can conclude from this and other similiar thought experiments?

To me it all seems to be brain constructions. Take multiple personality disorder. In the book, Baggini uses the analogy of users logging in to a computer. Sometimes a user might ”logon” as Bob, the next time as Wanda.
For our sense of self this is certainly scary, but perhaps we all have a little of this personality disorder?
But it doesn’t fit we our other world models though! Indeed, humans make sense of their world by telling stories. And we also have meta narratives, the big stories that tie everything together (And our reality is really just something constituted by our understanding of it…). So, surely, for most sane people this means wiping out any hints of the multiple personality disorder!

Julian Bagginis four claims about the self – the ego trick.

According to Baggini we are unified, material constructions:

1. There is no part of you which contains your essence. Your body, your brain and your memories are all important. But none of these is the whole thing

2. There is no such thing as an immaterial soul.
(Pope Ratzinger rather surprisingly agrees with Baggini here. According to Ratzinger the soul is a greek idea, not a christian idea).

3. When there is no one thing that holds a complete identity. Identities and our sense of self must be a construction. The ”I” must be the result of several parts working together.

4. The unity which enables us to think of ourselves as the same person over time is both robust and fragile.

Philosopher David Hume was the first to advance the view, ”bundle theory”, that the mind is nothing but a bundle of thoughts, passions and emotions, without any subject.
According to Hume: ”For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble upon some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred. … I never catch myself… distinct from such perception.”

This is the heart of the ego trick : Creating a strong sense of unity and singleness from what is actually a messy, fragmented sequence of experiences and memories.
It might be a trick. But the trick works! According to Baggini: The self is not a substance or a thing, it is a function of what a certain collection of stuff does. There is no place in the brain where it comes together, no one seat of consciousness. The unity we experience, which allows us to speak of an ”I” is a result of this ego trick. The way our brains takes a bundle of mental events, and creates a singular self, without there being a singular thing underlying it.

The neural correlates of consciousness. Mind and body.

Baggini then goes on to tackle the question: What does it mean that we are biological creatures with a mind and a body?
With fMRI scanners you can see brain activity associated with mental activities. And perhaps it will one day be possible to say exactly what kind of experience a person is having based on a scanning of the persons brain. But there will still be a difference between observing a brain event and experiencing a mental event.”
We only see the ”neutal correlates of consciousness”. We observe a brain listening to music, but that is not the same as hearing the music.
And, that our brain is made of matter would earlier have been a more pursuasive argument. ”But developments in physics have changed the way we think about matter. At the quantum level it is all so weird and mysterious that it all becomes rather contentious and question-begging.”

All this said, Baggini still think that we (and the ”I”) are made of physical stuff. But it is important that we not use words like ”mere” and ”just” to describe this reality.
And just because there are still mysteries, it doesnt mean that everything concerning the mind is a mystery. According to Baggini, we actually know quite a lot about what is going on!

And Baggini certainly doesn’t want us to go back to Descartes. Where our bodies where simply a necessary, perhaps temporary inconvenience. And where todays Cartesians let ”Properties of mind define who we are, while our bodies are just the necessary material substrate we live in.”.
Surely, Descartes ”Cogito ergo sum” assures us that one’s mind exists. Which, according to wikipedia: ”Forms a sort of bedrock for all knowledge, because, while all things can be questioned as to whether they are from the realm of reality or from some figment of imagination, the very act of doubting one’s own existence serves as proof of the reality of one’s own existence.

But when this lead us to think that mind and body are separate, then Baggini thinks this is wrong. Indeed, he is also sceptical whenever someone suggest there should be a distinction between reason and emotion.

This all follow Antonio Damasio’s reasoning in ”Descartes Error” ( ”Descartes error was the separation between body and mind, between the mechanically operated body stuff on the one hand and the mind stuff on the other.”).
In Bagginis words: ”Damasios target is not only the general separation of mind and body, but the distinction between reason and emotion, which it is deeply connected to.
In ”Descartes Error” Anotonio Damasio continues:”Emotions are necessary and essential to rational decision making.
I.e. emotions are not just produced in the brain. Rather the whole body is the stage for emotions. Feelings (necessary even for our ”rational” thoughts) are ”largely a reflection of body-state changes”.
There is nothing about the psychological that requires us to think of it as being separate from the physical body. On the contrary. To Damasio, Descartes error was to think that mind and body are of different orders, not that mind exists.

Damasio’s argument summarized:
(1) Emotion is always involved in reasoning and decision-making, and plays a role in biasing the materials that one has to work with.
This is what makes timely decisions possible. Emotions speeds up the decision process.

(2) The body is intimately involved, in our thinking.
Patients who have lost these updates from the body are unable to fend for themselves very well.
Somatic markers (like ”gut reaction”) are very important for our wellbeing.

(3) Our sense of self is continuously recreated moment by moment. It keeps being reinstantiated by stimuli from inside or outside the body.

Are the ”I”s changing all the time?

Most people are quite happy to embrace the idea that people can ”grow” as individuals. At the same time the idea of ”selves” changing over time might not be so popular.
For Baggini there is no doubt though: ”We are fluid, ever changing, amorphous sleves. For practical purposes it’s usually easy enough to say that we remain the same as we age, but we only need to think of early childhood or dementia to realize that this is not always the case.
The self is not an illusion. What is illusory is an idea of a self which sees itself as an unchanging, immortal essence.
Strip that away and you are left with, in Buddhism, the ”five aggregates”: Body, feelings, perception, mental formations and consciousness. Which might all change and create new >>I<<s.
Again: There is an Ego Trick, but it is not that the self doesn’t exist, only that it is not what we generally assume it to be. The Ego Trick ”make us believe that we are more substantial and enduring than we really are”.

But can society really work if there are no concrete, solid selves around? Take marriage. Does wedding vows make any sense, if selves changes all the time? Can you bind your future self, if that self is not really the same self as the current self?
Actually, yes, according to Baggini: We promise to build future selves that will be able to maintain the vow. We do not promise to be, we promise to make ourselves into….
Indeed, intentions are an important ingredient in what makes a ”self”. Yes, memory is important. But so is action and agency. With a reasonable stable set of intentions, and the ability to carry them through, it all helps to create the ”I”.

The idea that selves are changing all the time, obviously, easily raises some questions about selves and a hoped for afterlife. E.g. is it our ”childhood self” or our ”grownup self” that should survive into an afterlife? Baggini is surely not satisfied with an answer along the lines: ”Christians look forward to everlasting life, life without beginning or end. How, is the preserve of the deity.
To Baggini, this lack of clarity about a central claim is not satisfactory. Even though he would surely understand that most people are quite patient, and don’t expect answers to all questions about the human condition.

The future of the ”I” – Someone, anyone or noone?

Susan Greenfield has speculated about the future of the ”I”. She sees three scenarios:

Someone”: This is how we almost all, always, feel ourselves to be. With connections and associations that are unique to our experience of life.
Anyone”: Is how we are, when we are part of team. When we subsume our own interests, when we sacrifice our own personality to fit in with the group.
Noone”: Is when we ”let ourselves go” – When we are no longer self-conscious, but just conscious. Dancing would be one example of such a state of mind. Anything that puts a premium on the senses. And takes you back to early childhood, where everything is just one booming, buzzing confusion.

Greenfields worry is that in the future we will all be nobody’s…. In her words: ”Screen culture bombards us with experiences, that doesn’t create the connections that make us into ”Someones”…..” Of course, most totalitarian regimes would be happy to turn us all into ”Anyone”s or ”Noone”s anyhow, getting rid of the troublesome ”Someones”…..So, surely, we shouldn’t expect to be ”someone” in the future without a fight…It was never that easy, so why would we expect it to be easy to defend the ”I” in the future?

The future will see other threats to our sense of ”I” though. E.g. life extensions will probably be quite common. But with no immutable essence of self – It is quite possible that it would not make much sense to talk about a person being the same from young to old (if that period is many hundreds of years). The bundle we call ”self” will simple then have changed completely.
And we have not even begun to talk about cognitive enhancements, ”superintelligence” etc.
Surely, all of these things will also influence our ”I”s.

-Simon

Simon Laub

http://www.simonlaub.net

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