Susan Blackmore: there’s no ‘me’!

April 29th, 2019

Have you ever wondered: if the cells in our bodies change every 10 years or so, am I still the same person I was 40 years ago?

Ask a psychologist!

Susan Blackmore is a Professor of Psychology and has specialised in studying consciousness. She was asked this question and her answer may surprise you.

First of all, the question is actually mistaken. Many cells in our bodies, especially those in the brain, don’t in fact change nearly so fast, and some not at all. And the patterns formed by our cells are much more enduring. So it seems likely, according to latest research, that quite a lot of our brains and our memories are preserved over time.

Nevertheless, Susan doesn’t believe there is a real ‘self’. If you study the brain’s processes, she says, “there’s no room for a thing called a self”.

But it seems like I exist as a ‘self’

Susan says there is an “illusion of continuity”, but what we think is “us” is just a “multiple parallel system” with “multiple parallel things going on”.

So, 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.”

However she admits that the sense of self is hard to shake. Intellectually, she thinks the self is an illusion, but emotionally and psychologically she still feels like there’s someone in there.

But wait, there’s more!

Susan says that “on this view, there can’t be free will in the traditional sense”. She admits this is a difficult view to actually live, but she says she has taught herself over time to think according to her conclusion.

She also says her view of self takes away the sting of death, “because there never was a ‘you’ to die”.

So many issues, so little time!

I like Susan as a person (as much as you can know someone from a few videos and papers), and I’ve said before I think she’d be very interesting to talk with. I respect her learning, her motives and her thoughts, and I realise that I am in many ways unfit to argue with her.

Yet so much of her conclusions seem to me to be assumption, untrue to life and therefore unlikely to be true.

Ask a philosopher!

The subject of self or personal identity, and the continuation of the self, has been much discussed by philosophers, and many answers have been suggested for the questions that Susan raises (see e.g. Personal Identity in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Some philosophers more or less agree with her (e.g. Hume thought the self was no more than a constantly varying bundle of experiences), but others don’t. Some of her statements therefore seem to be over-simplifications (as no doubt some of mine are!)

No continuity?

Especially questionable is her thought that our sense of continuity is an illusion. There are many things about us that continue over time. We know other people, including Susan herself, to be who they are by their appearance, they way the speak and the things they know. Our DNA persists through our entire life. These characteristics are what we use in everyday life, and were what the interviewer used to know he was talking with Susan Blackmore.

It is true we can imagine a brain being placed in a different body with different DNA, and if we regard that as the same person, appearance could be seen as an unreliable indicator of a person. But mental characteristics don’t fall into the same difficulty. Even if my body changes unrecognisably, my knowledge, mental abilities and weaknesses and memories would still readily indicate I am the same person as graduated from university 50 years ago. If I can remember things about myself in the past that nobody else knows, then it seems likely that I am the same person as the one who had the original experiences.

So it seems to me more accurate to say that the person that is me really existed back then and is the same person today, albeit with many different abilities and characteristics, and an older appearance. The cases of a brain in a new body or a person who loses their memory may be just difficulties in identifying the continuity, or even rare cases where the person isn’t the same.

What is a self?

The dictionary defines “self” as “a person’s essential being that distinguishes us from another”. Most people would accept that definition and see it as a real thing. Perhaps we may go deeper and say that a self or person has a capacity for self reference, to be aware of ourself in ways we are not aware of others.

For example, two identical twins may have the same appearance, personality and DNA, yet each is easily able to distinguish themself from the other. We all know the difference between the statement “Someone is feeling sick.” and “I am feeling sick.” That difference is what it means to be “us” and not someone else.

So while it may be difficult to exactly pin down what makes a person a conscious “self”, we surely have plenty of indications and plenty of life experience to suggest the self is real. I wonder whether what Susan means is that there is no self separate from the brain and mind, no jockey riding the horse of our brain and body (so to speak). This is still a debatable view, but it isn’t the same as saying the self is an illusion.

Tying ourselves into knots

If the self is an illusion, what is it the thing that draws that conclusion, and how valid is a conclusion drawn by an illusory thing? It seems somewhat contradictory.

Susan admits that the sense of self is hard to shake. We even see it in the title of her latest book, Seeing Myself: The New Science of Out-of-body Experiences If the self is an illusion, then the apparent experience of seeing one’s body from outside during an “out-of-body” experience seems to become simply the experience of seeing a body that has no connection with the person having the experience.

Assumptions rule!

It seems to me that this is another case of drawing firm conclusions based on questionable assumptions. Just because neuroscience cannot find a place for the self doesn’t mean there isn’t such a thing. Science may lack the tools to answer this question. There may be something material we have yet to discover, or it may be that something non-material will explain this phenomenon. To simply assume there is nothing non-material, especially when science lacks an explanation, is going too far in my view. Of course this doesn’t mean that she is wrong, but it does seem to undermine her certainty.

In the end, we are left with a dilemma – while we trust the findings of science, do we trust the metaphysical conclusions of a scientist who is a naturalist and has already ruled out a non-natural explanation, or do we trust universal human experience, and human culture, social mores, law and ethics that are built on a sense of self?

Our answer to that dilemma will reflect our own metaphysic and worldview.

Some “unreal” conclusions

Some of her other conclusions also seem to me to be unreal, i.e. not well related to life as we experience it:

  1. Her dismissal of freewill as a reality is consistent with her naturalism but is contrary to almost universal human experience (as I’ve argued in Can we be human without free will?).
  2. I doubt that believing that the self doesn’t exist takes any of the sting out of death. Death is the end of all the life we know, our pleasures, relationships, our work and our sense of self, and that is a tremendous loss. If we believe in an afterlife, this loss may be ameliorated, but is still real. Surely most of us would prefer life to continue as long as it is enjoyable?
  3. She suggests we can be comfortable to let go of free will if we can trust human nature and if we are civilised, educated, and we have been taught to be kind and to play our part in society. I am not a christian who thinks human nature is utterly sinful, but I do think this is a naive view that ignores that most people in the world don’t share the material advantages that enable her (and me!) to be altruistic, and many harbour much more competitive and destructive thoughts and ambitions.

The logical conclusions of naturalism

I see Susan’s ideas as the logical conclusions of naturalism, and the result of a strong theoretical commitment, even though human experience seems to negate them.

I see her conclusions as part of a trend to deconstruct humanity and reduce us to something less than we observe and experience, all to satisfy a naturalist metaphysic that seems unable to explain what human beings all experience. We see this in many places:

  • William Provine’s statement that “no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; no ultimate meaning in life exists; and human free will is nonexistent”.
  • Alex Rosenberg’s view that there is no purpose, no meaning, no morality and no free will.
  • Francis Crick’s statement: “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.”

I think these deconstructions of humanity – the denial of self, free will, objective ethics and the innate worth of all human life – are not only mistaken, but also dangerous, and will inevitably lead to dehumanising behaviour and a reduced concern for truth and morality.

I think we can already see the signs.

References

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Photo: taken from YouTube video “How is personal identity maintained?

8 Comments

  1. am I still the same person I was 40 years ago?

    Yes.

    And, yes, there is a self.

    What is a self?

    In a way, that question is the mistake. As a question, it is fine. But we often make a mistake when we attempt to answer it.

    Do our words and meanings delineate fixed categories? And are we obliged to try to fit the world into those fixed categories?

    Or are the categories flexible, and we adapt and adjust the categories to best fit the world as we find it?

    I see this as a mistake that is widespread among philosophers. And by “philosopher”, I mean pretty much any human who engages in intellectual debates. There’s a great tendency to assume fixed categories, and to assume that we try to shoehorn the world into those categories. But that isn’t how language works. Rather, our categories are flexible and adaptive, and we adjust them as needed to fit the world as we experience it.

    If we assume fixed categories, then we try to come up with a precise definition of self. And we notice that nothing quite fits. That’s when people jump to the conclusion that there is no self.

    If, however, we take our categories as flexible and adaptive, then we come to a different conclusion. We use the term “self” for communication. And we seem to be able to communicate effectively using that term. So the meaning of “self” is just whatever we successfully communicate. But we cannot pin it down precisely. From this point of view, there is obviously a self, but we cannot precisely define what that means.

    Our inability to precisely define “self” is just a limitation of language. It does not imply that there are no selfs.

    We can see a similar issue with “nature” and “naturalism”. I guess we can take “naturalism” to be the assertion that “nature is all that there is.”

    If “nature” is a fixed category, then naturalism constrains us to never consider anything that is outside that category.

    But maybe that isn’t the right way to take it. Maybe we should see “nature” as a flexible category. And then naturalism merely says that if we discover something new, we will incorporate that into what we take to be nature. If we look at it that way, the naturalism isn’t actually any kind of constraint.

  2. Hi I actually agree with most of what you say here, which is “nice”. I think we need strict definitions of what we are talking about, otherwise we will easily talk at cross purposes, but I agree that often those definitions will be incomplete and will vary a little depending on the discussion.

    But I disagree with you about naturalism as the term is commonly used. I think we need a term to distinguish between two important viewpoints, (1) that every thing that exists (not just a concept) is physical, and (2) there are some non-physical things. As a theist, I need some terms to describe my belief and distinguish it from other beliefs. I would be happy to use the term physicalism for this, but it is less common.

    But I think that if we use the word “nature” to mean “everything that is” then we already have a word (or phrase) for that, so I’m not sure we gain by your proposal.

    Why is this important? Because a strict concept of naturalism (or materialism, or physicalism) can lead to views of the self that Susan supports, and I think her conclusions are wrong, so if I want to discuss the differences between her and I, I need some terms to assist that discussion.

  3. I think we need a term to distinguish between two important viewpoints, (1) that every thing that exists (not just a concept) is physical, and (2) there are some non-physical things.

    I’ll go with (2). I’m a mathematician, and I don’t see mathematics as physical. More specifically, I don’t see numbers as physical.

    In more detail, I’m a mathematical fictionalist. I see numbers as useful fictions. So they don’t really exist. And thus they cannot be physical. So there we have something that is important but not physical.

    It maybe doesn’t help you with your theism. But it also doesn’t argue against your theism.

    Because a strict concept of naturalism (or materialism, or physicalism) …

    There couldn’t be a strict concept of naturalism or materialism or physicalism.

    This really gets back to the question I asked in the previous thread. What do we mean by “change” or by “different”?

    A strict concept of change would require something fixed on which to base that concept. But there is nothing fixed.

    If we are to be autonomous agents, then the most fixed thing available to us, is we ourselves. And that’s probably where our sense of self comes from — we take ourselves to be the fixture on which we base our ideas of change.

    Science uses external standards, such as that meter long platinum rod in Paris. That move to external standards is part of what makes science effective. It is also part of why science doesn’t see a self. But if we, individually, were to move exclusively to external standards, then we would lose our autonomy and we would lose our free will.

  4. “In more detail, I’m a mathematical fictionalist. I see numbers as useful fictions. So they don’t really exist. And thus they cannot be physical. So there we have something that is important but not physical.”

    This is a question that philosophers argue over. I’m not too fussed about whether numbers are “real” or not, because the answer depends on our definition of “real”. My interest is in whether we can rule out because of science non-physical beings such as gods, spirits, fairies, etc, or not.

    “There couldn’t be a strict concept of naturalism or materialism or physicalism.”

    And I guess this depends on the definition of “strict”. But it seems clear to me that some people do take naturalism and the rest as making certain things impossible, like God or free will or the value of human life, etc.

  5. My interest is in whether we can rule out because of science non-physical beings such as gods, spirits, fairies, etc, or not.

    My take on that, is that we cannot rule them out. But we also cannot rule them in. There is no evidence one way or the other.

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