The Idea of the Self

This week, I finished the first and most onerous phase of the graduate school application process. This whole endeavor was dreary and stressful. Whenever I felt especially demotivated, I awarded myself treats that I could partake in once the applications were turned in. Because reading was the hobby I most neglected during this research process*, the treats I promised myself were mainly books. As a result, I cannot open my Kindle without encountering an intimidating queue of unread titles.

One of the books that was hardest to resist reading was Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris. As the title implies, Waking Up is an introduction to meditation and mindfulness for a secular audience. The thesis of the book is that in spite of all the religious associations, transcendent experience is a real phenomenon that can be studied and practiced without sacrificing the rigorous standards of scientific argument.

(Note: I haven’t started to read Waking Up yet. The purpose of this post is to organize my thoughts about the topic so that I can engage with the book more thoughtfully when I do read it.)

One of the central arguments of Waking Up is that the experience of the self is an illusion. Moreover, it is both possible and desirable to dispel this illusion. The first part of Harris’s case against the self is philosophical, demonstrating that despite its intuitive appeal the concept of the self is incoherent.

The second part of Harris’s case is scientific, relying on recent findings in neuropsychology. This makes me bristle, because I do not fully trust Sam Harris to accurately present scientific evidence. In his previous book, Free Will, he overstated the relevance of neurological findings about free choice. I thought that Daniel Dennett’s critique of Free Will was very persuasive on this point. To be clear, I still trust Sam Harris, but I will not be as reflexively accepting of his framing as I am with, say, Steven Pinker. This is unfortunate, because I want Waking Up to be a compelling book. I want it to give me the inspiration and the intellectual justification to start meditating. But I know I will not be as motivated if I have lingering doubts about his representation of the relevant research.

Therefore, I am assigning myself a prerequisite: The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, by Bruce Hood. Bruce Hood is a distinguished neuropsychologist who was involved with much of the research that Sam Harris cites. I am familiar with Bruce Hood’s work from his contributions to Edge.org (http://edge.org/conversation/essentialism-), and I have confidence in both his fundamental knowledge and scholarly standards.

I am aware that there is a research program in neuropsychology dedicated to understanding the self, but I know very little about it. I know even less about the history of philosophical speculation on the subject. For instance, I can’t articulate a decent definition of the self off the top of my head. That being said, in the course of my studies I have encountered some anecdotes that might be relevant to the issue of the self.

  • In my introductory psychology class, we learned about split brain patients: people who have had the three/four major nerve bundles that connect the two cerebral hemispheres severed in order to ameliorate their seizures. Although split brain patients appear to be a single, unified self, clever studies that present information to one side of the brain but not the other reveal that each side of the brain seems to operate independently, almost like separate selves. I say “almost” because these studies show that the two sides share some information between them. There’s a great 10-minute documentary with Alan Alda and Michael Gazzaniga involving a split brain patient. Actually seeing the person perform the tests is very compelling. We see a phenomenon called confabulation, where a patient insists that he or she chose to behave in a particular way when actually that behavior was evoked by the experimenter’s manipulation. In this case we see the left hemisphere (the speaking side) confabulate reasons for choosing a particular picture, when the real reason was that the right hemsphere was exposed to the picture. The fact that the two separate hemispheres appear to function as independent selves, coupled with the fact that each of these hemispheres cannot distinguish between internally-generated and externally-suggested thoughts, suggest that our seamless experience of a self is illusory.
  • Another possible argument against the self is the psychological phenomenon known as the hot-cold empathy gap. In their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, the authors describe the hot-cold empathy gap as “the inability, during a cool, rational, peaceful moment, to appreciate how we’ll behave during the heat of passion and temptation.” (Baumeister & Tierney, 148) This seems to be what people mean when they refer to their sleepy, hungry, willpower-depleted self as a different person. I can relate. If I was a unitary self, why do I sometimes act erratically and counterproductively? Why does anticipating and subverting the bad behavior of my future self feel so much like anticipating and subverting another person? It is unsurprising to me that people in the past attributed their intense, maladaptive impulses to demonic possession; it really feels like another self, or at least an augmented self, is controlling your behavior. If I was a singular self, I would expect my preferences to remain more constant across time.
  • A philosophical argument that casts doubt on the reality of the self is the notion that there is no continuity-of-structure in our bodies. The molecular composition of your body is in constant flux. It’s possible that none of the atoms that comprised your body ten years ago are present your current body. This constant overhaul of your physical body seems inconsistent with our single, uninterrupted experience of self.

I am looking forward to reading more about the self, its illusoriness, and its relationship to my goal of increasing my wellbeing through meditation.

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