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3. Who am I?

August 11th, 2019

We have looked at how the universe gives us strong clues that God exists. Now it is time to come closer to home, and examine how humanity offers clues to God.

We know everything else in the universe from the outside, but we know ourselves from the inside. That inside knowledge raises some perplexing questions.

I know what it feels like to be me

We are all different. We all know what it feels like to be “us”, but we know much less about what it feels like to be someone else. What looks, sounds or tastes attractive to me may not affect you in the same way, and we can’t always understand why.

Our brains are active, keeping us alive and well by reminding us we are hungry or cold or in danger. But we are also introspective most of the time we are awake. Thoughts like: “What are they thinking about me?”, “I wish I could remember her name.” and “Do I look silly with this haircut?” can fill our minds.

This is what it is like for us to be human. We are conscious of ourselves, and it seems like we look out on a world where other people inhabit their bodies and look out at us.

The science of the brain and mind

But neuroscience tells a different story.

Science measures and observes the physical world, and in our brains, this means electrical and chemical processes. And neuroscientists find no “self” in these processes. Instead, they say, the reality is the processes, and the sense of self is just an illusion. As famed biologist Francis Crick wrote: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Crick is not alone in his thinking. Psychology Professor Steven Pinker: “There’s considerable evidence that the unified self is a fiction – that the mind is a congeries of parts acting asynchronously, and that it is only an illusion that there is a president in the Oval Office of the brain who oversees the activity of everything.”

And Psychology Professor Susan Blackmore says: “there’s no room for a thing called a self”. We feel we are the same person that was around 5 years ago, but, she says: “the so-called me now is just another reconstruction. There was another one half an hour ago, and there’ll be another one, but they’re not really the same person, they’re just dust happening in the universe.”

Mysteries ….

But the same neuroscientists often admit that our consciousness, our sense of self, is a real mystery. They can objectively study our brain processes when we feel pleasure or pain, but the processes cannot explain what the pain feels like, for that is a subjective experience that can only be known from the inside.

Susan Blackmore again: “How can objective things like brain cells produce subjective experiences like the feeling that ‘I’ am striding through the grass?”

Biologist Richard Dawkins agrees: “Neither Steven Pinker nor I can explain human subjective consciousness… We don’t know. We don’t understand it.”

The scientists can see no evolutionary reason why we should have a sense of self, for we could survive and reproduce just as well without it.

…. and disagreements

But other thinkers are critical of these conclusions, arguing that science only addresses the physical world, and so is unable to detect the self. It sees the wood but not the trees (so to speak). If there is a non-physical explanation for consciousness and self, science is not equipped to see it.

There is clearly a difference between saying “someone is sick” and saying “I am sick”. The brain processes may be the same in both cases, but the subjective experience is different. That difference is what it means to be “us” and not someone else. So, it seems, we can easily understand and experience what it is to be a conscious self, we simply cannot explain it scientifically.

Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard: “The mind … remains a mystery. It has no mass, no volume and no shape, and it cannot be measured in space and time. Yet is is … real”

Even those who think “self” is an illusion often conclude that it is impossible for humans to live without a sense of self.

Finding an explanation

So science is unable to explain what we all experience without reducing it to an illusion, and what we experience cannot be confirmed by science to be real. How should we resolve this?

Simplifying slightly, there are two basic views.

Naturalism

Naturalism is the philosophical view that the natural or physical world is all there is. Science works well within naturalism and more or less assumes it is true.

If naturalism is true, then our sense of self must be an illusion, and the physical brain processes must totally explain our minds, consciousness and self. We may feel like there’s more to being human than that, but we would be mistaken. We just have to learn to live with it.

Beyond naturalism?

But if our sense of self is real, if we humans are more than the chemicals that make up our bodies and brains, and the chemical and electrical processes in our brains, then it looks like something more than naturalism is required to explain these things.

This conclusion can be developed in two directions. Some philosophers and neuroscientists believe we must somehow enlarge our understanding of “natural” to include our conscious experience. They don’t seem to know how we can do this, but they believe it is necessary to provide a true picture of the reality of being human.

But we can explain our common experience if we go beyond the natural, to the supernatural or the spiritual, areas where science cannot take us. Perhaps we humans are more than physical because we were created by God to be living conscious selves? This conclusion is resisted by most scientists because it cannot be observed and measured, but it explains what science cannot explain.

Conclusion

So we face a choice. Naturalism cannot explain what we all experience as human beings. So either we must reject naturalism or we must reject the reality of what we all experience and call it an illusion.

One way to judge an idea is whether it explains reality. Naturalism provides a scientific explanation, but doesn’t explain what we all experience as reality. However believing that we are created by God explains the reality and the science too.

One step at a time

To me, this all makes theism a little more likely and naturalism a little less likely. On its own, perhaps, it is a small step. But as we’ll see in the next few posts in this 12 reasons series, the choice between naturalism and theism has some far-reaching implications.

Nevertheless, after looking at three reasons so far, we have evidence that God created this universe for a purpose, and he seems to have endowed us humans with a sense of self that is crucial to being human. Each step adds a little to the puzzle.

And that isn’t the end of the story! Stay tuned for more on what it means to be human.

14 Comments

  1. We all know what it feels like to be “us”

    Speak for yourself.

    As for me — I haven’t a clue as to what it feels like to be me. If I knew, then I could describe it. But I cannot describe it.

    I have only ever been me. In order to know what it is like to be me, I would need some standard of comparison. But I have never been anybody else, so no actual comparison is possible. I cannot know what it is like to be me.

    This is just another “god of the gaps” argument. But it isn’t a real gap. It’s a pseudo-gap. It is really a “god of the pseudo-gaps” argument.

  2. Hi Neil, your comment raises some interesting questions.

    If you “haven’t a clue as to what it feels like to be” you, then how can you say “I have only ever been me”? As you think back to who you have ever been, you would be comparing nothing with nothing!

    It remains true that the scientists I quoted cannot explain consciousness which we all experience. Perhaps invoking “God of the Gaps” is the pseudo argument that covers up the difficulty? I think “God of the Gaps” is often invoked in such a way – my views on God of the Gaps are here (if you are interested).

  3. If you “haven’t a clue as to what it feels like to be” you,

    Here “feels like” implies a comparison. But no comparison is possible.

    , then how can you say “I have only ever been me”?

    I know what the words mean. And what they say is true.

    It remains true that the scientists I quoted cannot explain consciousness which we all experience.

    Consciousness is really a philosopher’s problem, rather than a scientist’s problem.

  4. Sigh!

    “I” and “me” mean the same thing. The only difference is grammatical.

    So “I have only ever been me” ought to be a trivially obvious truism.

    I’m puzzled that you are questioning it.

  5. I think you should know that I understand the grammar of I and me. That was never my question.

    The key is the word “ever”, which implies a period of time. So you are saying the “me” in the past is the same as the “me” now. I am asking you how you know that? After all, most of the molecules in your body have changed from back then to now. So how do you know? It is a serious question.

  6. The key is the word “ever”, which implies a period of time.

    That “I” means the same as “me” is time independent.

    Yes, there was a time before I was born. So at that time, I didn’t exist. But, back then, I was still me because also me didn’t exist.

  7. So you DO know something of what it feels like to be you! It feels like “back then, I was still me”.

    Not only that, but you have told me on this blog, or mentioned on your own blog, that:

    “I’m a semi-retired mathematician and computer scientist.”
    “I became interested in how humans learn”
    “The way that I think about typical philosophic issues, particularly those related to knowledge and to human cognition, is very different from the way philosophers look at them. ”
    “my color vision is abnormal. That doesn’t mean that it is bad. It just means that it is different from what is typical.”
    “You guys need to get out more. You are trapped in a world of logic, and unable to think outside that box.”
    “I became interested in trying to understand learning.”
    “my starting assumptions were apparently quite different from those of epistemology”
    “I did feel a little poorly after the surgery.”
    “I was developing the uneasy feeling that Jesus had never actually claimed to be God.”
    “I do not consider myself a dualist.”
    “I am not a materialist.”
    “I don’t agree with the reductionism that is often taken to be part of what materialism entails.”
    “I acknowledge being a behaviorist, of kinds.”
    “I agree with Ruse on that. However, Ruse says a lot of silly things”
    “I grew up in Australia (Perth area).”
    “I disagree with a lot of what Sam Harris says. I’m not an admirer of Dawkins, either, though I probably don’t disagree with him anywhere near as much as I disagree with Sam Harris. I do not admire the style of PZ Myers, however I do think that if I look past the style, he often has better judgment on issues than does Dawkins.”
    “I see reductionism as absurd.”

    I could go on and on with more. It is quite clear that you have many, many ideas and feelings about yourself, and you DO know how to describe what it means to be you.

    So I wonder why you said otherwise?

  8. You seem to have completely missed the point.

    All of those things you list about me — those are objective descriptions. They describe what means about the same to everyone.

    The “what is it like to be” question is supposed to be about subjective experience. And that’s where I have no basis for comparison.

    Take that color vision thingy. I experience the world as myself. I cannot experience it as anybody else. As far as I can tell, the world looks fine. If I had not taken color vision tests, I would never have known of my abnormality. So maybe the world looks worse to me than to everybody else. Or maybe it looks better to me than to everybody else. There’s no way that I can tell.

  9. Neil, you’re going to have to convince me, because it doesn’t look that way to me:

    All of those things you list about me — those are objective descriptions. They describe what means about the same to everyone.

    The same to everyone? You have said: “The way that I think…. is very different from the way philosophers look at them”; “my color vision ….. different from what is typical”; “I don’t agree ….”; “I disagree ….”. (my emphasis). It sounds like there are heaps of things even in that short list of your sayings are very far from “the same to everyone”!

    The “what is it like to be” question is supposed to be about subjective experience.

    1. Why? Isn’t thinking an important part of most people’s experiences, especially yours (and mine)? Part of what it is like to be you is that you are good at maths.

    2. There are feeling things in that list too – “I did feel a little poorly ….”; “I was developing the uneasy feeling.

    3. Feelings (subjective) and thoughts (objective) generally go together. You say “You guys need to get out more. You are trapped in a world of logic, and unable to think outside that box.” You use the word “admire” several times which is a feeling accompanying an assessment. And even in this conversation, you began one comment with “Sigh!” indicating an emotion, commonly used in internet discussions to indicate some level of frustration with the response of the other person.

    4. Memory is a subjective experience – two people can remember the same event differently. Yet much of what you say depends on memory – your upbringing in WA, the change in your feelings about christianity, your memory of your surgery, your views on authors you have read, your memory of your career and your thinking about philosophy, etc.

    So everything I quoted from you is part of what it means to be you, how it feels, what you think, how you react, your memories, etc.

    And that’s where I have no basis for comparison.

    You have mentioned many comparisons even in that list – with philosophers, re your vision, your feeling “poorly” after surgery (“poorly” is a comparison with feeling well) and so on.

    You know quite well that you differ from other people in many ways – not everyone grew up near Perth, few people had the same upbringing, no-one had the same experiences, not everyone became a mathematician, not everyone thinks about philosophy like you do, not everyone responds to blog posts like you do, not everyone has your vision, other people’s response to surgery is different, the list could go on for longer than I could write it.

    The reality is that we don’t know anything totally, you made that point to me several times, but we do know many things enough to describe them. We know our feelings and thoughts far better than anyone else knows them, and we know other people’s feelings and thoughts far less well, but enough to know they are often very different to our own – as you have said many times!

    But even if you could make no comparisons, you still know what it is like to be you, and you haven’t offered any reason why you don’t, only that you can’t compare with others, which is just an exaggeration of what I wrote.

    I experience the world as myself. I cannot experience it as anybody else.

    That is exactly the point I made, that you originally disagreed with!

    So maybe the world looks worse to me than to everybody else. Or maybe it looks better to me than to everybody else. There’s no way that I can tell.

    It’s not really important after that last comment, but this isn’t quite true either. It has some truth in it. But there are ways to tell. For example, vision is about seeing things, If you can see a tree on the horizon and I cannot, and then the optometrist tests our eyes and explain how my eye’s lens has been harmed in some way, then we can definitely say that your sight is better than mine. There are many other examples.

  10. Why?

    Because that’s the history of “what is it like to be”. As far as I know, it started with Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?” It is typically raised in questions of subjective conscious experience.

    If you want to make it all about objective descriptions, rather than about subjective experience — well, it’s your blog. But, for now, we seem to be talking past one another.

  11. Hi Neil, I don’t think we are talking past each other. I think the discussion has clarified things, which is what discussion is supposed to do.

    1. I said this in my post:

    We all know what it feels like to be “us”, but we know much less about what it feels like to be someone else.

    2. You initially said:

    I haven’t a clue as to what it feels like to be me.

    3. But after some discussion, you have said:

    I experience the world as myself. I cannot experience it as anybody else.

    That is pretty much in agreement with what I said, and it seems to me we are more or less agreed. It’s not exclusively about subjective OR objective, because most of the time the two cannot be separated, as you have said to me several times in other discussions.

    So I think we can move on, thanks.

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