First Person Singular
What do you see when you turn out the light? I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine.- The Beatles
You strive and sweat to maintain your physical body. It in turn protects and feeds a mind that is like a whole ecology inside your head, with myriads of actors like organisms, major and minor. Is there anyone in charge? If not, what accounts for our feeling that we are distinct, durable entities?
Many ancient mystical traditions say that our essence is a non-material soul. Plato made this a concept for all future philosophy when he said that our immaterial soul was indivisible, a whole without any parts. Anything that has no parts cannot decay, so the soul was therefore eternal, without beginning or end. Hundreds of years later this idea was still so popular that it was adopted by third century Christian authorities as dogma. The Church, as well as many other mystics and thinkers, still believe in a soul.
Not, however, the Buddhists. They say that the existence of a first person, perceiving self is an illusion, and there is also no unchanging, permanent thing, material or not, that could be called a soul in humans or other living beings. Indeed they believe that our constant embrace of this illusion is the source of all suffering. The sciences of the mind have at least come to largely agree with the illusory aspect.
There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is — the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself — can be altered or entirely extinguished
[Waking Up: A guide to spirituality without religion. Sam Harris, Simon and Schuster, 2014.]
Some scientists also embrace the Buddhist belief. Nearly all scientific work on meditation, for example, uses the ancient Buddhist technique of vipassana, usually translated as mindfulness. The latter term is also widely used and misused (watered down) in pop culture. Sam Harris, the atheist cultural gadfly, is a lifelong vipassana meditator and advocate of the practice. Theoretical biologist Franceso Varela (mentioned in part three of this chapter) co-founded The Mind and Life Institute with the 14th Dalai Lama to foster dialog and research between scientists and contemplative practitioners.
Speaking of illusions, the soul concept does morph to reappear in some current accounts that say the brain is not the substrate of the mind, that there must be something else, some other mysterious thing involved. Overwhelmingly, scientists don’t buy that. There is too much evidence that specific mental functions correlate with measured brain activity, and changes in mental functions with brain lesions. Ditto for mental changes due to direct artificial stimulation of the brain, either with electrical current or psychoactive chemicals. This sort of evidence might have been on the Dalai Lama’s mind when he wondered that even the highest form of meditative awareness was dependent on (i.e., had as a material cause) the activity of the brain. For a religious leader this is a shocking break with deep tradition.
What’s new about the new sciences of the mind is that it is not as common as it once was to be a “reductionist”: to claim that the mind is “nothing but” brain activity. More and more the lab people and the theory people are writing about the contents of consciousness and how they are being studied as mental phenomena. These two types of boffins now often work together. There seems to be a broad understanding that the correlation between mental activity and brain activity is a special realm, where each side can inform the other’s work.
Even forty years ago the mentalists and the physicalists were not speaking. Of course many still aren’t. The change might have happened, in part, due to a sort of hedge philosopher named Ken Wilber, (for a readable intro, see A Brief History of Everything [A Brief History of Everything, Ken Wilber, Shambala Publications, Inc., 2000.]) who started writing in the mid seventies. One of Wilber’s main themes as an integrative philosopher/psychologist is that mental experience is just as real as the tangible concrete things that we perceive outside of ourselves, objective and measurable, the traditional food of science. Unlike some spiritual guides, who eschew the tangible as uninteresting or as a useless illusion, Wilber believes that we should study the mental and the physical as equally valid sources of knowledge for personal and social development. Citation of Wilber in popular books on the mind is hard to find. He is barely mentioned (one line) in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He apparently is ignored by mainstream scholars, yet his 25 books have sold well enough that translations have been made in 30 languages. It’s hard for me to believe that he had no influence, direct or indirect, on the respectability of mental phenomena in current science.
Near death experiences and round trips to heaven remain a bone of contention with those of a bent that “there must be something else” to the mind, but their examples do not require that conclusion. Suppose someone has a flat EEG (”brain wave”) and their heart has stopped. Are they dead yet? Initially no, although they might be soon. But until they are dead some metabolic energy is still available inside cells, which will continue to try to function. That includes brain cells, which one reasonably might assume will have enough energy for a stunted level of functioning. Such a low level of activity might not add up enough to create measurable electrical signal (the EEG) at the outside of the head. As for anyone who has been in a vegetative state and lived to say they visited another realm, well — they actually lived, didn’t they? Therefore their brain was keeping the automatic body processes going. It was there, it was busy, it could have hallucinated as well. There is also hard evidence. Steven Pinker reported back in 2007 that “… a team of Swiss neuroscientists reported that they could turn out-of-body experiences on and off by stimulating the part of the brain in which vision and bodily sensations converge.”
Pinker’s article in a popular magazine is a concise and accessible review for anyone wanting to catch up on the sciences of mind and the attempts to understand consciousness. The territory of these studies is tripartite.
All Gaul is divided into three parts.
– Julius Caesar, The Gallic Wars
First of all, the mind is not all conscious. There’s a huge amount of computational work that is unconscious, therefore often called automatic, but that can be shown to exist logically or in experiments. The unconscious mind is constantly and quickly piecing together data about what we see, hear and touch, coordinating the contraction of our muscles and assessing our position in space. There’s even well-developed research showing that many decisions we make actually occur neurologically before we are aware of consciously deciding them. In other words, conscious decisions are rationalizations after the fact, not deliberate causes of action.
Stuff like this is what makes the idea of free will seem like a farce. Inside each of us there is a big unconscious machine, chugging away based on inputs from our memories and the world around us, coming up with what we must inevitably do or think. What would widespread understanding of this mean to a world that needs, desperately, equally widespread moral guidance of behavior? Pinker quotes Tom Wolfe on the consequences of science killing the soul: “the lurid carnival that will ensue may make the phrase ‘the total eclipse of all values’ seem tame.” But Pinker thinks that the flip side is that widespread understanding of consciousness will increase empathy, reducing our ability to demonize, dehumanize or ignore other people. My guess is that it will depend on how new knowledge of consciousness is taught, and whether the knowledge itself gets vilified like other inconvenient truths have been of late.
The conscious part of the mind, these days usually called “the Self” (capitalization is part of the term), has been understood in a number of different ways. Typically it’s considered to have two aspects (our other two “parts” of the mind), but experts do not all agree on what they are. However, the modern origin of all such divisions of the conscious mind seems to come from an analysis by the nineteenth century American philosopher William James. He was an early practitioner of the direct introspective analysis of mental contents (”stream of consciousness” is his term) , which was a practice that the behaviorists eclipsed for a while in America after WW II. James said that on the one hand there’s the subject, thinking part, the knowing “I.” On the other hand there’s the “Me”, which is an object, the known part: what the “I” knows about itself.
For Bruce Hood [The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Oxford University Press, 2012] and others, the “Me” is a narrative, the running story of a person’s life by which the “I” maintains the continuity of its identity. Sam Harris describes the difference this way. When you wake up from sleep, you initially are just aware of sensations: groggy, bad taste in your mouth, need to pee, etc. That’s the “I”. But the “I” quickly starts thinking about the “Me” which just had a stupid dream, has to get ready for work soon, remembers a social conflict to resolve, and wants to eat more healthy food today, but not for breakfast.
You could try to say that the “I” is just a perceiving machine, what Thomas Metzinger and others think of as the moment to moment apprehender of conscious reality, whose point of view is only a second or two wide. But during those moments it is also thinking about the “Me”, spinning those tales of the Self, dredging up memories, and making decisions. Clearly the subject/object distinction is at least a little muddy. In defense of the difference, note that the “Me” addresses the question of the continuity of personal identity, while the “I” seems to reflect the uniqueness of identity. This is because nobody — but nobody — else has access to your “I.” It’s unique and it’s yours alone.
Consciousness may be one of the most challenging topics of all time. One positive aspect is that the thing itself is the very definition of easily accessible. It’s with you virtually all the time. You are not always conscious, but note that even dreams are conscious. The serious obstacles to study are: your consciousness is not accessible to me, and none of us can step outside of our consciousness to examine it as a process. We can only examine what the philosophers call the contents of consciousness, the stuff that happens in that private world.
In 1994 a young denim-clad, decidedly non-stuffy Australian philosopher, David Chalmers, blew the minds of a gathering of consciousness luminaries in Tucson. He said that research and analysis would let us eventually understand much of the mind and the brain, but there was one and only one hard problem: how each of us has that singular, first person perception of our own world. [Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? Oliver Burkman, The Guardian, 2015] . This issue had been posed twenty years earlier by another philosopher, Thomas Nagel, who noted that his peers often ignored the question of why it is like (i.e., it feels like) something to be conscious — why does subjectivity exist [ What is it like to be a bat? Thomas Nagel, Philosophical Review, 1974]. But in 94 the time was right. Soon every expert interested in conscious was slapping themselves on the forehead, realizing that this was indeed (capitals not optional) the Hard Problem of Consciousness. Hardly a learned or popular discussion of the mind since then has failed to make note of the Hard Problem.
The most lucid and engaging account I have found about the Hard Problem and the related concept of the Self is Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel. [The Ego Tunnel: the Science of Mind and the myth of the self. Thomas Metzinger, Basic Books, 2009.] He starts by noting that reality is incomparably richer and more complex than we perceive. This is not necessarily a spiritual or drug-induced idea, but is just what we have been able to infer from the study of physics. In our environment here are no colors or objects as such, only differing activities and densities of innumerable particles, sparking in and out of existence at unbelievable speeds. That we see, hear and touch things is because our senses, indeed any animal’s senses, make a very simplified model of our immediate environment. This method of knowing the world is not just an option, a choice from among other methods made by evolution. No, Metzinger points out that for philosophers knowledge itself is the fact of representation. What evolution did choose for our model of reality is still extraordinary in its apparent detail and in how we are able to use it.
Metzinger calls it the phenomenal self model, or PSM. The content of the human PSM also includes a model of our Self as a representational system (i.e., as a “knowing” entity). The PSM contains not only our moment to moment perceptions but access to memories and a sense of location within our body. There is a focusing mechanism to reflect on particular memories or perceptions, so that we can run the model backwards, thinking about the past, and forwards, thinking about the future. The scope of the PSM thus encompasses both James’s “I” and “Me”. The trick of consciousness is that it is “transparent”, which is philosopher-speak for the fact that we see right through it, without any access to the fact that it is a model. This transparency creates our first person point of view, which Metzinger and others call the “Ego”. When we open our eyes, the world is just there, immediately, without any mental access to the underlying truth that it is a continuous, real-time construction.
This Ego is the central mystery of the sciences of mind: how do we explain that patterns of neuronal firing create experience (the Hard Problem from a science point of view)? We can find neural correlates of experience, but all agree that there is an “explanatory gap” about how the experiencing Ego can be produced from physical events in the nervous system. Quite a few experts subscribe to what is, perhaps jocularly, called “mysterianism”, the possibility that we will never know. That’s heady stuff from scientists. No wonder others are willing to step in and bring back the soul as an explanatory prop.
With this background let’s return to our concern about what creates the durability of personal identity. The beginning of modern thought on the subject is often traced to John Locke, the great British empiricist whose wide influence included the views on liberty held by the founders of the United States. Locke had the idea, revolutionary for the time (1690) that what sustains a person’s identity is psychological continuity, which he said was based on personal memories.
Psychological characteristics as the source of our continuity seem to folks today to be the obvious common sense answer. Studies usually present subjects with some kind of story about brains being transplanted to another body, or some variation on the Star Trek transporter. Subjects are then asked whether, after transfer of psychological characteristics to some new body, whether a person moved to the new body and what this implies. People generally think that the person’s location will follow their memories to a new body. However, they may waffle if the story includes something about bad consequences to the body that was left behind. Common sense is not consistent, especially when presented with stories about mind or brain transfer that really are currently impossible. However, it’s easy to prove to someone that their body and brain are not sufficient for survival of their Self. Just ask them if their Self would survive permanent coma or senile dementia.
As a philosopher Locke was looking for certainty beyond common sense. A man of his times, he still believed in the soul, but as the earliest Empiricist he wanted to ground his philosophy in facts of human experience. He claimed that, whatever the soul was, its experience of continuity was based somehow on remembering previous aspects of the person’s life.
Locke, who was English, did not live to receive the big smackdown of this idea, which came a few decades later at the hands of a truly dour looking Scotsman, one Thomas Reid. The essence of his contradiction of Locke came in a simple parable. He imagined an elderly general who remembers a courageous charge when he was a young cavalry officer (this was getting personal, for Locke’s father was a captain of cavalry!). The young officer remembers himself as a lad, getting beaten for stealing apples. The general, however, has no recollection of the apple incident. Reid said that Locke’s theory fails to confirm that the general and the lad are the same person, therefore memory is not sufficient to sustain the enduring Self.
Reid’s example is just one such, since we know of numerous ways that memory just cannot be the whole story. Most of us can hardly remember anything at all before we were three years old. At the other end of life, memories fade or else they are made into hash by dementia. Our psychological continuity is interrupted by dreamless sleep, by drunkenness, by being knocked out, by anesthesia, by coma, by disease, by brain damage, by dementia, by psychological trauma, and by sudden drops into, and back out of, amnesia for no apparent reason.
Furthermore, research shows that memory itself is all too often a tissue of lies, a second-order construction only loosely based on our first-order model, the PSM. A common view is that memory is a narrative whose details are invented to summarize and make sense of things, not to record them in veridical detail. I first ran into this at a seminar by Julian Jaynes, a biologist who is famed for promoting a wild theory [The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1976] that humans have only been conscious for about the last couple of thousand years. Jaynes said to us, “I want you to imagine as best you can, what it was like when you last went swimming.” He then asked us whether we remembered (A) our conscious point of view with things like eyes at water level, being wet, the feeling of moving and breathing in the water, or (B) an image from a point of view looking down at ourselves, a body in the water in the setting where we swam. For most of us it was, you guessed it, (B), an experience that we never had, but instead was a fictitious mental photograph, a third person perspective “edited for clarity.”