“The assumption of one single subject is perhaps unnecessary; perhaps it is just as permissible to assume a multiplicity of subjects, whose interaction and struggle is the basis of our thought and our consciousness in general.”
- Nietzsche, The Will to Power
Probably as a result of being absolutely inundated with election-year political ads, news reports, and presidential debates, I’ve come to see the inception of the United States of America after the War of American Independence as a metaphor for Julian Baggini’s framing of our sense of self in his worthwhile book, The Ego Trick. After surveying traditional notions of the self, and citing our best scientific efforts at understanding what the self actually is, Baggini concludes that it’s the combination of our bodies, memories and our nature as social animals that creates the feeling of a unified self. The "ego trick" is to create a strong sense of unity out of what’s actually a concatenation of disparate capacities and characteristics.
So think for a moment about the creation of the United States of America. After the Revolution, the American colonies were a collection of fiercely independent and mostly autonomous states, each with its own distinctive character. In 1787, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay set out to convince these states to come together in a federation that would ensure a durable government for posterity. Eventually, this new entity would evolve a shared national identity out of the idiosyncrasies of these separate states; it became a functioning unit in its own right.
The picture of the self Baggini shows us is similar, and he takes a non-reductive physicalist approach rooted in a thoroughly naturalistic understanding of the human animal:
You and I are what our bodies and brains do. There is no pearl sitting at the center of our selves, we are rather bundles of psychosomatic activity, albeit highly organized and remarkably stable ones.
Here, the person is understood simply as a coalition or federation of inner and outer “states” with nothing extra in charge of the coalition. Yet most of us have the strong abiding sense of a singular mental “me,” and each of us functions (most of the time) as a coherent entity, not a coalition. As Baggini puts it elsewhere, “We are no more than, but more than just, matter.” But what is this “more” and how is it generated?
Baggini, a philosopher who is primarily interested in bringing ivory tower ideas into the streets for the lay person, doesn’t offer his own technical thesis of how this “more” is generated, nor does he delve into the details of others’ proposals, such as German philosopher Thomas Metzinger’s self-model theory of subjectivity presented in his books Being No One and The Ego Tunnel. Baggini is more concerned with presenting a survey of numerous thinkers on the subject, such as Galen Strawson and Derek Parfit.
After an overview of the dualistic views of the self - in which mind and body are envisioned as separate substances - he notes how neuroscience has effectively confirmed, through observation and experiment, what naturalistic philosophers have long maintained: there’s likely no immaterial self or soul. Nearly the first half of his book is devoted to providing examples from the scientific literature of the mind-brain connection: a man with multiple-personality disorder; a woman who loses her sense of self because of a brain tumor; a man who lost the ability to record any new memories (à la the 2000 movie Memento); and numerous other accounts of brain disease and traumatic brain injury. He sums all of this up with a quotable, incontrovertible maxim: damage the brain and you damage the self.
For those familiar with, and especially those already convinced by, a naturalistic understanding of human beings, Baggini’s argument that the person is a fragile-yet-robust bundle of psychosomatic functions in constant-yet-coherent flux throughout our lifetimes is accessible, straightforward and uncontroversial. It’s when he draws out the conclusions of this view that things start to get a bit contentious. After all, the feeling of being a unified self is the subjective psychological star around which the planets of our personal projects revolve. It gives them meaning and purpose; it gives them significance as our projects. But if we are merely collections of functions and processes without any central core that corresponds to our feeling of being a unified self, then when we use the pronouns “I” or “me” aren’t we referring to an illusion, a fiction?
Baggini encourages us to reject the idea that the self is illusory. After describing a reinterpretation of the earliest Buddhist formulation of the self as an example of why it isn’t an illusion (drawing on the work of Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Belief), he takes issue with the self-as-illusion view as advanced by such fellow naturalists as Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett. Even though they both use the term “illusion” in the dictionary sense of something that is not as it seems to be, Baggini thinks that this usage is too easily confused with the everyday meaning of illusion as something that’s not real. But the self is real, he argues, even if it’s not what it seems to be.
This may sound like mere semantic wordplay, but it marks an important distinction. We don’t exist as souls or immaterial mental essences, even though we might seem to, but the sense of a unified self corresponds to the reality of being a coherent and unique individual, with relatively stable physical and behavioral characteristics. Getting this right matters, since how we understand the sense of self touches upon some of the most important features of our humanity. Very few people will come around to a naturalistic view of human beings if they think it implies that what they’ve always believed was the defining aspect of their existence – being an identifiable, coherent me – isn’t real. They might want to be explained, but not explained away. Baggini shows that being skeptical about the “pearl” needn’t undercut a valid sense of being such a “me,” a sense rooted in the (relative) stability of the physical, psychological, behavioral ensemble that makes each of us a distinct individual.
Another concern raised by a naturalistic view of ourselves is the status of free will. The problem for us here, as in our sense of self, is that it doesn’t feel that our behavior is causally determined, as is it under naturalism; on the contrary, the feeling of being uncaused causers, having what philosophers call contra-causal or libertarian free will, is as subjectively robust (at least for many of us) as the appearance that the sun revolves around the Earth.
Sam Harris, another champion of the naturalistic worldview, applies the term “illusion” with respect to freedom of the will. In the introduction to his book Free Will, he writes:
Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we have no control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.
Harris further argues that the illusion of (contra-causal, libertarian) free will should not be construed as a necessary illusion. In a blog post addressing some of the concerns raised by his book, he writes:
One of the most common objections to my position on free will is that accepting it could have terrible consequences, psychologically or socially....in psychologically healthy adults, understanding the illusoriness of free will should make divisive feelings such as pride and hatred a little less compelling. While it’s conceivable that someone, somewhere, might be made worse off by dispensing with the illusion of free will, I think that on balance, it could only produce a more compassionate, equitable, and sane society.
He feels that coming to terms with our true nature is ultimately a healthy endeavor. But as Harris notes, many if not most people feel that conceding we don’t have free will in the sense of being an uncaused, immaterial conscious controller would be catastrophic. The best I can say to that is, based on the experiences of those who have given up the idea that we have contra-causal free will and have been able to live with it - Blackmore, Harris, myself, and who knows how many more - it is possible to do so without any extreme existential angst or radical changes in behavior. In fact, here’s Harris again on the effects that giving up on free will have had on him:
I haven’t been noticeably harmed, and I believe I have benefited, from knowing that the next thought that unfurls in my mind will arise and become effective (or not) due to conditions that I cannot know and did not bring into being. The negative effects that people worry about—a lack of motivation, a plunge into nihilism—are simply not evident in my life. And the positive effects have been obvious. Seeing through the illusion of free will has lessened my feelings of hatred for bad people...It is a relief to put down this burden, and I think nothing would be lost if we all put it down together.
As for Baggini, his view of free will ultimately derives from his analysis of character and, like Harris’s, is resolutely naturalistic. A common truism has it that Character equals Destiny. But what is character? Is it permanent and unchangeable, once we’ve reached a certain age, or is it endlessly shifting? Baggini claims that one’s character is part fixed, part pliable:
It would be absurd to deny that there is any predictability and stability to character...Nevertheless, there is a lot of evidence that character is not quite as constant as we tend to assume.
The evidence he cites consists largely of experiments performed by various researchers that show that context is almost as important as one’s purportedly intrinsic traits in determining how one will act in any given situation. Stanley Milgram’s infamous obedience experiments and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment show decisively that good people can do horrific things, depending on circumstances. However, Baggini also notes that “all the situational approach says is that we must take account of the mitigating circumstances.” So while one’s character is not an unchanging, rock-solid core that can be predictably relied upon no matter what, neither is it a chaotic, mercurial phantom.
Baggini also points out that, even though our basic traits come from a combination of genetics and early life experiences, later environmental and societal circumstances continually provide individuals with opportunities for changing their character throughout their lifetimes. One enters into life with a basic scaffolding of dispositions, as it were, upon which one’s choices help shape its final form.
Following up on this, Baggini has a section entitled “Self-creation” which echoes many of the themes found in the writings of Existentialist thinkers such as Ortega y Gasset and Sartre. Existentialists take self-creation to an extreme, believing that human beings are solely responsible for creating themselves, a notion akin to the idea of an uncaused causer with contra-causal free will. Indeed, a common refrain among them is the idea that the human being, and the human being alone, is condemned to freedom. Paradoxically, we have no choice but to create ourselves. Baggini seems to come close to Sartrean thinking when he asks:
...could one...say that identity itself is not just given, but is something we in some way create ourselves, by our actions?
But, consistent with his naturalism, he ultimately denies contra-causal free will and ultimate self-creation as posited by existentialists, while arguing against fatalism. He closes his section on free will saying:
Whether you reject [contra-causal] free will as an illusion...or accept a compatibilist view of what freedom really means, the believer in the Ego Trick is not condemned to live life feeling like a passive cog in the machinery of nature.
The naturalistic conception of the self argued for in The Ego Trick shows that the person as agent doesn’t disappear or become superfluous; as agents we make our own active causal contribution to our lives. Our actions do make a difference in the working out of our fate, which is what the fatalist denies.
Baggini also speculates on what the forces that form character might hold for us in the future. He briefly considers various notions regarding the possibility of an afterlife, comparing and contrasting Eastern (reincarnation) and Western (resurrection) hypotheses, programs for radical life extension, and transhumanism. Of these, transhumanism is at once the most speculative and the most troubling. According to a paper written by Nick Bostrom, who heads the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, transhumanism is
The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.
While many might agree with these goals, a danger lurks in this agenda: the risk that those in power will exploit whatever technologies and methods become available to serve their own ends, not the general good. As Baggini puts it:
The people around at the dawn of these choices are going to have more control about how they pan out than people later down the line . . . A certain generation in the future could have disproportionate power over the future of humanity.
Given the long history of abuses of power, I’d say Baggini’s caution is well taken.
All told, Baggini’s book is useful and important. It presents a concise and approachable survey of the best arguments for thoroughly naturalistic conceptions of self and personhood and how to guard against their misinterpretations and misuses. Along with Sam Harris’ book Free Will, it is a welcome addition to the growing literature for the general reader on naturalism and its implications for human agency.
Juno Walker, January 2013