Does the Self Exist?

When neuroscientists peer into the tapestry of neurons woven together inside our skulls, is someone looking back at them? We all have the experience of being a unified self, or as physicists like to dub, “an observer.” But what is a self? The self is a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from anyone else. “What it is like to be someone,” as the philosopher Thomas Nagel states. Yet when neuroscientists look for the self, down the optic nerve, past the frontal lobes and in the limbic system, nobody is home. So how can we continue to see the world as real, if the self that determines the world to be real, is intangible?

There are many ways to view the self. One is to argue that the self and the brain are two separate substances. This is known as Cartesian dualism. Rather than the self and the brain being identical, the self uses the brain as an instrument to express “itself”, in the same way a pianist uses a piano to express music. If the piano is broken, then the pianist cannot properly express music. If the brain is impaired, then the self cannot be properly manifest. Therefore, it should be no surprise there exists a correlation between mental states and brain states.

There are many different arguments for dualism. One argument is derived from Leibniz’s law. Leibniz’s law states that two objects are identical if and only if they share all the same properties. This would also include modal properties. A modal property is a logically possible state that an object can occupy.

This is where the argument gets slippery. Materialists believe that people are material objects. Our bodies and selves are identical on this view. Yet it is easy to imagine that the self could exist independently of the body, giving strong evidence that it is logically possible that the self could occupy such a domain. This being the case, there is a modal property for the self that the body lacks—namely, the self existing independently of the body. Therefore, the self and the body are not identical.

Some philosophers have argued that the ability to imagine the self existing independently of the body is due to our limited knowledge of the brain, in the same way that the geocentric model of the solar system was a product of our limited knowledge of physics. If we actually did understand everything there is to know about the brain, the ability to imagine the self existing independently of the brain would disintegrate.

Other philosophers have deflated the self to a status on par with physicists’ center of gravity. The center of gravity is a mathematical point constructed in the minds of physicists, where the mass distributed within an object sums to zero. Yet the center of gravity does not actually exist in the external world. Rather, it is a useful conceptual trick developed by physicists in order to simplify calculations. Likewise, the self is a narrative spun by the brain in order to deal with life’s varying situations. This does not mean the self does not exist. Rather, the self is simply not what our prior intuitions led us to believe.

Materialism tends to be the rage these days in the towers of academia. This being the case, many philosophers and scientists do not believe in the traditional view of the self. In fact, many people go so far to argue that the self does not exist. Rather, the self is an illusion fixated in machinery of the mind. If this is the case, the expression “self-deluded” takes on a whole new meaning. In other words, there is nothing it is like to be someone. Upon self-reflection, all there is, is darkness. Regardless, whether the self is a mystery or a narrative spun by the brain, our sense of self is here to stay.

By Nathan Cranford


Rutgers University

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