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!)
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.
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:
- 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?).
- 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?
- 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.
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Photo: taken from YouTube video “How is personal identity maintained?“