Who am I? What does it mean to be me? There has been a recent surge of interest towards the nature of the Self and consciousness. As a person who is interested in the philosophy of mind, I’d like to briefly examine my take on the Self.

The Self is a puzzle that has perplexed me more than what Chalmers refers to as the hard problem of consciousness. I have never doubted the fact that my “self” persisted through time and space. I knew I loved music, philosophy, and vanilla ice cream. I knew I was the same person as the shy, frail child in Philadelphia twenty years go. So, when I read Derek Parfit’s essay, “Divided Minds and the Nature of Persons,” I was rattled –unsettled by the restlessness of reason as Kant once said. I found his variation of the Ship of Theseus [1] thought experiment unconvincing. I did not think that it was possible for me to be the same person after I was zapped away by a machine, even if it were to replicate my brain and body exactly the way it was before – my body that actually experienced my childhood and puberty would still be gone! was not just a bundle of experiences! It wasn’t until reading Daniel Dennett’s essay, “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity,” that I began to become more sympathetic to the idea of no-self or the bundle theory. Dennett suggests that the Self is a psychological imposition on which we weave a single story from our experiences. A powerful example of Dennett’s is that we often edit and revise our memories according to our biases or others’ corrections. The seeming arbitrariness of the Self presented in Dennett’s essay made Parfit’s view less queasy.

Despite my newfound ease with Parfit’s no-self, the debate was far from over. As I have indicated already, I was quite fond of the body view of the Self: that the body is constitutive of the Self. In order to buttress my sympathy to the body view – my particular defense was that it mattered, rather than that it was the only thing that mattered, I looked online and found Eric Olson. Eric Olson’s provocative challenge to Parfit was that if all that mattered were the psychology, then wouldn’t be a human being, i.e., a human being is an animal with its body, internal structure, etc. For instance, if a dog’s life functions were to cease, then it wouldn’t be a dog anymore. Analogous to the dog, if a human being’s life functions were to cease, they wouldn’t be a human being anymore – it would be a dead body!

Olson’s view is quite powerful, since it passes the Ship of Theseus test. He doesn’t think the body needs to be identical through time and space in order for the same animal to persist through time and space. To Olson, an animal is:

“a self-organizing biological event that maintains the organism’s complex internal structure. The materials that organisms are made up of are intrinsically unstable and must therefore be constantly repaired and renewed, or else the organism dies and its remains decay. An organism must constantly take in new particles, reconfigure and assimilate them into its living fabric, and expel those that are no longer useful to it. An organism’s life enables it to persist and retain its characteristic structure despite constant material turnover. (Olson 2007: 28)

As long as its life-functions persist, the animal persists through time and space. Now, one could argue that time doesn’t pass as Simon Prosser has argued for in the past, but I will skip that discussion for the sake of brevity.

So which view is correct: the bundle view? the psychological narrative view? the animalistic view? I would say that they’re all correct. How can this be possible? Well, we speak of the Self in many different ways. For a Buddhist, the Self doesn’t exist. We also definitely seem to psychologically impose a narrative unto our experiences. Moreover, we do not consider my dog as different just because she lost her memory; she is still the same animal. Ok. I could hear some of you screaming, “No more handwaving! I want you to truly address the issue!” Fine. I will. You want to know which I consider to be the most objective definition of the self, right? Ultimately, I agree with Derek Parfit in that what matters is psychological continuity: it is better to have humans survive as data rather than perishing. I also think Parfit’s bundle view is compatible with Dennett’s narrative view, for the latter is really a description of how we experience the former. Then what about Olson’s animalism? Well, I think there is much use for the animalistic view –particularly, personal identity. We often tacitly assume that the Self is my personal identity. But, am I truly the same person if my life functions ceased and I persisted as electronic data? My self – my psychological narrative – may be identical, but I would not be identical to the animal I was before: a bundle of electronic data is not identical to homo sapiens. This is why I said earlier that they were all correct. The Self is psychological; personal identity is animalistic.

In order to spot the relevance of both views, I needed to take a step back and carefully examine the way we use the Self in ordinary language; merci Wittgenstein. I remembered that when commenting on Johnny Depp’s new movie, Transcendence, folks would say things like, “He’s the same person, but he’s not the same person.” This cued me into how we think of personhood and sameness: we could somehow consider a person, or more specifically Johnny Depp, as psychologically continuous yet different.

[1] Video that explains the Ship of Theseus

“Suppose that you enter a cubicle in which, when you press a button, a scanner records the states of all the cells in your brain and body, destroying both while doing so.  This information is then transmitted at the speed of light to some other planet, where a replicator produces a perfect organic copy of you.  Since the brain of your Replica is exactly like yours, it will seem to remember living your life up to the moment when you pressed the button, its character will be just like yours, and it will be in every other way psychologically continuous with you.”

Above is a quote of Parfit’s variation of the Ship of Theseus. Below is his article where he uses this particular experiment to probe into the Self:
Divided Minds and the Nature of Persons


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