What does it mean to be you?

Interesting short video here on the nature of identity. Asking prominent philosophers and scientists such as Daniel Dennett, Susan Blackmore, and others what they are. The general answer is a physicalist or materialist one, unsurprisingly as the video has been uploaded by Julian Baggini, a prominent atheist and physicalist philosopher, and memes seem to be a part of the explanation. Take for instance Dennett’s answer:

“What I am is a consortium of memes that have taken domicile in my brain that control the teams of neural agents that compose my brain to get them to work together to control my body, to keep track of my beliefs and desires, and to further my projects”

Of course, the question of identity has a long history in religion and philosophy. 2500 years ago the Buddha came to the conclusion that there was no abiding permanent self, that ‘I’ am a collection of aggregates (or skandhas in sanskrit) which are things like feeling, mental formations, and sensations, however these have no essence in themselves. David Hume came to similar conclusions when he applied his method of skepticism to his own experience: “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception” (Treatise,

Gilbert Ryle thought that it was good to have a common-sense view of the self, and that people who claim there is a soul are guilty of an error of thinking – mistaking the functioning of the whole thing for a separate entity. This is a popular view – Baggini states a form of it here in his H2O example.

So how far does the idea that we are not an abiding self, but rather a process or stream of experiences, constantly changing, lead us to have to accept physicalist or materialist accounts of the world? This question interests me. It seems to me that there is an assumption in the modern ‘meme’ account of identity that because we can find no underlying permanent basis for identity beyond the functioning of processes that are based in brain and body, that we then have to accept the view that the brain and body are what we ‘really’ are.  Ryle was not himself a materialist, so clearly didn’t think that this account of self had to be part of a materialist worldview (although it is hard to say what worldview Ryle really had!). And Keith Ward, in his book More Than Matter, shows that although reductive materialism is the current prevailing orthodoxy, there is no logical reason why, just because ‘I’ means a collection of processes without a central essence, that therefore mind is nothing but a physical phenomenon seen from a subjective viewpoint, and therefore really illusory:

“A Cartesian hangover from Aristotle was the notion of substance, an enduring substratum that could contain various changing properties. For many philosophers, this was slowly replaced by the idea of process, of a flowing succession of properties, located in space and time… The idea of strict numerical identity was replaced by the idea of a succession of properties, “identity” being largely a matter of degree and convenience…In modern science, questions of identity are often treated as matters for conventional decision, upon which nothing much turns. With personal and mental lives, however, the idea of identity becomes morally important. It matters to me whether tomorrow I will remember the plans I made yesterday and be able to continue them or whether I will take over the plans of someone else and pass them on to another person in turn. “This is just what I planned to do ” is very different from “This is what he would have wanted me to do”. It is the chain of privately accessible experiences and actions, thoughts and intentions, that makes the difference. When one and only one person can have such private access then I could reasonably say that the same personal subject of experience and action continues to exist. The sense of being one and the same continuing subject of many experiences and acts is important to a person. That I think is what Descartes meant by a mental substance. For that reason there is little or no substantial difference between being a mental substance and being a process of of privately accessible, temporally flowing events and acts. That is just what being a mental substance is. 

So, although we are chains of mental events or processes, because we privately experience the continuity of that chain in our sense of self, regardless of the actual discontinuity of one event from the next, that is what counts as our identity. But Dennett would say that this sense of continuity is actually illusory and is better described as the action of memes within my perceptual and experiential field. There is really no me as I think of it.

I think Ward is saying that if that is an illusion it is one that we can’t act without having, and that any reasonable explanation of human actions would have to take into account this very illusion as part of the explanation. In other words if we do think we can explain human actions wholly in terms of memes we are missing an important element of the equation.

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