A person is not a self

Bertrand Russell, in The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (1918), wrote that “the point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.” Few chains of philosophical reasoning fit this bill better than the one that ends with the claim that the self is an illusion. Yet over millennia, and across the world, it has been as popular with philosophers as it has been baffling to everyone else.

Jay L. Garfield’s Losing Ourselves makes a concise and comprehensive argument for both the truth and the value of this counterintuitive view. He bases his case on the versions of the theory independently developed by the seventh-century Buddhist scholar Candrakīrti and the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume. He avoids excessive scholarly exegesis, however, and draws on his sources as part of an “exploration of an idea in conversation with a wide range of partners”.

From the outset he is clear that the denial of the reality of selves is not the claim that we do not exist. “That would be madness”, he reassuringly concedes. Persons are real, selves are not, and he insists the difference is not a “trivial lexical point”. Selves are autonomous, independent cores of being that give unity to a life both at a time and over time. Think of them as pearls of me-ness that constitute our essential core. Selves are not bodies or minds, but rather the things that have bodies and minds. Immanuel Kant called the self the transcendental ego, while classical Indian philosophy called it ātmanthe “unseen seer” in the Vedānta tradition.

This is not just a theoretical construct. Garfield argues that “we seem to be wired to experience ourselves as selves”. The fact that we find it easy to imagine having the body of someone else (Garfield would apparently opt for Usain Bolt’s) shows that we instinctively feel that our selves are not our bodies, but loci of experience that occupy them. Less persuasively, he claims we can even want to have someone else’s mind. Personally, I can’t begin to make sense of this. Still, the fact that we can imagine our minds in others’ bodies suggests it is true that we think of ourselves as separate from the rest of the material world, even when we know reflectively we are anything but.

However intuitive this picture, it swiftly crumbles on examination. We are not indivisible, unified atoms of being, but are, as Hume colourfully put it, bundles of perceptions, linked over time by memory and by psychological and bodily continuity. Unlike stable selves, persons are always in flux, under construction, works in progress. Persons are embodied organisms who could no more switch bodies than cats or dogs could. Moreover, our intuition of selfhood is itself weak: as Hume famously noted, when we attend to what it is actually like to experience the world, we may note plenty of sensations, but never find a self at the centre.

“Though this fact may escape our notice, in much of our life, our sense of self is absent”, writes Garfield. We routinely “lose ourselves” in music, conversation, sports or just daydreaming. Acting in and perceiving the world does not require us to be of a self behind those actions and perceptions. Being self-conscious is the exception rather than the rule. It is often uncomfortable – an obstacle to both performance and attention. Garfield rightly points out that these ancient insights are “confirmed by the best contemporary neuroscience”, which shows that there is no central, all-controlling ego lodged in the brain. Rather, experience is generated by a number of overlapping and interconnected parallel processes.

There should be no concern that a selfless person isn’t real. A smartphone is just a collection of its parts and has no unchanging essence of phoneness, but it certainly exists. The same is true of us. The suspicion that we are “no more than” or “just” neurones and cells is rooted in a misguided idea that what is real is what is most physically fundamental. But we cannot understand the world only by looking at its basic physical parts. As Garfield notes: “You can’t use physics to understand a chess game, or to understand how money works.” The best explanations are not always bottom-up. Indeed, sometimes you need to understand the wider whole to make sense of the parts. “One does not come to understand our cultures by understanding how an individual Homo sapiens organism works, and then scaling up”, he writes. “One understands how a person works by understanding our cultures and our multiple roles there.”

One of the most significant consequences of this switch in thinking – from selves to persons – is a fuller realization of our deep, ineluctable connections with the world and other people. “We are not independent selves, but interdependent persons”, Garfield observes. We do not stand outside the external world looking in. We are inextricably tied up in it.

He is on less solid ground when he argues for the ethical ramifications of this realization. He suggests that the autonomous self fosters egotism, whereas the relational person blurs the distinction between self and other. “This universe”, he writes, “unlike the one that motivates egoism, gives one no reason for special self-regard, or to distinguish between the moral standing of others in virtue of their relationships to oneself.”

But that sentence is equally true if we think we are indivisible, enduring selves. The person-centred view may make our social nature and interdependence more obvious, but the self-centred view need not deny it. You don’t need a metaphysical theory of self to understand John Donne’s claim about men and islands.

Similarly, Garfield endorses the eighteen-century Indian philosopher Śāntideva’s argument that the self illusion “leads to unwarranted attributions of free agency to ourselves and to others.” Through imagining we are self-contained units of being, we also imagine that we can act unconstrained by the laws of nature. But although the limits on our free will be certainly more obvious if you understand our dependence on others, even believers in selves can see that we live in a world of cause and effect in which we cannot be the ultimate originators of our natures and choices.

Although many advocates of the no-self view have claimed that it is existentially and morally transformative, it is striking that Hume never made such a leap. His argument that morality is rooted in moral sympathy, for example, made no mention of his conception of selves. Why should it? It is no more difficult to empathize with selves than it is with persons.

In many ways, the no-self view leaves us as we were. Persons exist, live, love, make choices and die as much as selves do. So, as Garfield asks, “having identified the person, what is the harm in calling that the self?”. After all, he acknowledges that in practice “sometimes people use the word self indifferently to refer to a self or to a person”.

Garfield is right that the conceptual distinction between selves and persons as he defines them matters philosophically. But given that we can’t do away with locutions such as “myself” and “yourself”, banishing self-talk would be quixotic. In everyday speech there seems no harm in continuing to talk of selves and it seems implausible to hold that our doing so encourages a metaphysical illusion. It is more probable that when a philosopher declares that the “self is an illusion”, people think they are being told they don’t really exist. How we understand the self matters, not what we call it.

Despite some dry academic prose, Garfield’s book is an admirable combination of accessibility, rigour and clarity, let down at times by needless lapses into unexplained jargon. It’s unnecessarily demanding not to explain the differences between introspection, interoception and proprioception, or to throw in an academic like “ontologically noncommittal” and “intentional object”. But it’s worth the effort of looking them up. Popular books on the illusion of self tend to be crass and sensationalist, the academic ones dull and turgid. Jay L. Garfield has successfully followed the less trodden middle way. As a result, the promise of losing yourself in a book has never been more literal.

Julian Baggini‘s books include How the World Thinks2018, and The Great Guide: What David Hume can teach us about being human and living well2021

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