philosophy

Looking in the Brain for the Self is Looking in the Wrong Place

Looking into the brain and trying to find “the self” is like looking into the brain and trying to find “the importance”.
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Almost nobody’s self is unified but your self becomes unified as you struggle to get clear about what is important to you and what isn’t, and then you make (or allow stuff) to fall into line.  In other words it’s not something you find, it’s something you make happen (if you’re lucky and you want to).   A person who hasn’t decided or experienced what’s important and what isn’t would not have a self — there would just be a bunch of feelings and jingles and social roles and expectations and emotions knocking into each other.
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The answer to the question “what is my self” and the answer to the question “what is most important to me” are answers we make together.  Neither answer can be provided by looking into the brain because whatever sort of thing happened in my brain I could still say “Yeah that’s not me, that’s not important, I don’t care about that.”
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So f I had a phobia of dogs I could say “dogs give me this panicky sensation but they’re not actually bad — I don’ think they should be destroyed” and I could seek a pill or a therapy that would cure me of this phobia. If I did that I would not think the fearsomeness of dogs was important and I would not view my panicky reaction in the presence of a dog to be part of my self.  I would view it as a problem that my self has to deal with.
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On the other hand if whenever I saw a dog I went crazy with hatred, and then when I wasn’t in the presence of a dog I didn’t know what I thought about that, then I would be so dissociated my self would be in trouble.
[photo by Jan Lakota]
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6 thoughts on “Looking in the Brain for the Self is Looking in the Wrong Place

  1. N.S. Palmer says:

    A lot of ideas there, all worth attention. Let me focus on just one.

    That our “selves” are either in our brains or identical to them isn’t a new idea. The Roman poet Lucretius (99 – 55 BCE) wrote in De Rerum Natura:

    “All nature, as it is in itself,
    Of two things: there are bodies and there is void
    In which these bodies are and through which they move …
    Impossible without body, must we not
    Admit that mind and spirit are bodily?”

    Today, we have more details. Lucretius didn’t know about neurons, action potentials, Broca’s area, or any of the scientific discoveries in which modern physicalists couch their accounts of mind. But the argument still boils down to this:

    1. Only physical things exist.
    2. But the self exists.
    3. WTF?!
    4. Therefore, the self must be physical.

    Bertrand Russell, of course, thought that the self was a series of classes of sense data, though he changed his mind several times about it, as he did on most issues in his 98-year life. It seems to me the self can be partly explained as a set of beliefs we hold about ourselves. They are answers to the question “What am I?” “I am a writer. I am a father. I am a gamer.” Beyond that, I can’t explain much about what the self is. I believe, without proof, that it’s a manifestation of something transcending this reality, but I can’t say much more than that without lapsing into complete nonsense.

  2. Is a surgical procedure really dealing with ones problems?

    Honestly, this sounds a bit like being ashamed of ones parent/relatives – except here it’s the very origin of the thing that is saying ‘that’s not me, I don’t care about that’ and forgetting to put an ‘i’ in if that one time.

    Can’t choose your family.

  3. Mikey says:

    Having a concept of importance is essential to having a concept of anything else. If you want to identify the edge of something – a dog for example – that edge must have a differentiating factor. As we pick up concepts, our vision goes from white noise to blurry images to a full conceptual map of the world around us (full-ish anyway). But without importance everything would be white noise.

    So why isn’t there a unit for measuring importance? Why aren’t scientists looking into it? You might say “Oh because what’s important for one person isn’t important for another person” but that shouldn’t stop us trying. We could have said the same about size, or sweetness or loudness or anything else that we can measure quite accurately now. I hope someone invents a unit for it. And I hope it’s the French or the Germans or someone like that because then they’re’ll be 1000 milliImps to the Imp and 1000 Imps to the kiloImp, instead of the American version which would have 14 Hellas to the Tight and 22 Tights to the Flag and no one would be able to follow it.

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