MWP 1.1.j: Metaphysical Assumptions about the Self

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One more major area needs to be tackled to complete this survey of major metaphysical assumptions in Western philosophy. It is an area that interlocks with all the other sets of metaphysical assumptions: the self.

Western philosophers have sought a static quantity, or at least a clearly definable continuity, in the self. For Plato and for the Christian tradition, the self was an eternal soul, meaning that the body was contingent. For Descartes, the self was the self-conscious thinker separated from the doubtful and changing physical world. For Kant, the empirical self (that is, the self as we experience ourselves) could be distinguished from the self of apperception, the centre of experience. Even for many philosophers in the analytic tradition, who no longer take seriously the idea of an eternal soul, there is a search for continuity (whether physical or psychological) which would give a philosophically defined shape to what I mean by ‘me’.

Alone in this tradition, it is Hume who consistently applies sceptical argument to the problem. In Hume’s account, when I observe my inward experience, I only find various mental events (thoughts, feelings etc) which I label as ‘mine’, rather than any particular experience I can identify as ‘me’. Hume thus concludes that there is no self, only a changing set of mental events[1].

Kantians have pointed out that Hume is looking for a self as the object of experience, when the self, they argue, is actually the subject of experience, shaping the very way we experience rather than being something we explicitly experience. There does seem to be a centre of experience (for more on this see section 2) – what Kantians call apperception – but this apperception is just another a priori condition of our experience, together with other conditions like space, time, and the assumptions of causality and substance. This is not what I think of myself as being and identify with as myself. The central distinction here is that the self of apperception is not necessarily conscious: it is just an assumed framing feature of experience. My sense of myself, however, whether directly experienced or projected onto that experience, is self-conscious, and it is this sense of myself that is subject to Hume’s argument, not a possibly unconscious centre of experience.

So Hume’s sceptical argument remains correct – except that, as usual, an argument that justifies agnosticism has often slipped into one of denial. Hume’s argument justifies the recognition that we do not know whether we have a self, and have no grounds for distinguishing a metaphysically existent self from a mere assumption. It does not justify us in concluding that we have no self.

What this whole tradition of argument assumes, however, is that the self, if it existed, would be a static quantity with fixed identifiable features. Even the discussion about continuity of identity is looking for sufficient overlaps in features over time for us to be able to relate the self to a continuity. Since we do not experience ourselves as a static quantity, and we are unlikely to be satisfied by accounts of ourselves as a continuing series of overlapping features, this whole discussion appears to have missed the point. It has done this, again, through the abstracted turn which looks for cognitively identifiable objects (‘facts’) as opposed to recognising the meaning of terms like ‘self’ in terms that give due recognition to the affective and dynamic.

Experience does not offer us clear justification either for being a certain self, or for denying our selfhood. What we can assert on the basis of experience without metaphysical claims is that we have desires in relation to ourselves, usually to exist as a certain self (or sometimes, perhaps, not to exist). There is no sceptical problem about whether my drives and wishes are me, for it would be contradictory to say “I want some tea but I may be deluded” in a way that it could not be to say “I believe there is some tea but I may be deluded”. Believing there is some tea because I want it may be wishful thinking, but I can still want it even if I do not believe there is any available. I can also be confused about what I want, but not deluded when I think I want it. I want, therefore I exist – in a sense.

Of course, this should not be taken in any cognitive metaphysical sense, but merely as a psychological point. I do not continue to exist as the same being because I continue to want, for the “I” is not anything separate from the changing wants. So Hume continues to be correct that we have no grounds for believing that the self exists as a fixed entity. Nevertheless, we experience a changing dynamic entity which we identify with – which I call the ego, in distinction from the self. This is merely a stipulation, a way of navigating through a minefield of contradictory usages in both philosophy and psychology. The ‘self’ is a term I shall be using for a metaphysical claim, whereas the ‘ego’ represents a dynamic experience. Some distinction of this sort has to be made, even if others would prefer to make this distinction differently or even reverse my usages of these two terms. The ego may experience continuities – of belief, of memory, of social recognition and of purpose – but these are all contingent within the experience that I call ‘ego’..

This account of the self is also consistent with scientific evidence about the self-representations of the two brain hemispheres. The objectified and wilful self – what I have called the ego – corresponds to the left hemisphere’s functions, whilst the right hemisphere maintains a self-view over time and in relation to others[2]. The problem of the self as understood by Western philosophers has consisted in the difficulty of reconciling these two perspectives, which will each become active when the hemisphere that promotes it is dominant, so as to explain and justify the right hemisphere view in terms of the left. This is an impossible task, because the left hemisphere has no grasp of continuity over time[3]. The self I want to be can vary from moment to moment, but the sense of the self continuing over time and relating to other wants is discontinuous with the egoistic view. Rather than asserting that either the left hemisphere or the right hemisphere view of the self is finally correct, then, it is better to think of the ego as existent within its momentary, willed limitations and to neither affirm or deny the right hemisphere self, avoiding any appropriation of it by the left hemisphere. The function of the right hemisphere is to integrate these different egos that we experience at different times, rather than either to destroy them or to give them the illusion of complete dominance.

The recognition that we cannot justify believe in a self, but that we can justifiably think of ourselves as egos with changing identifications, revolutionises a whole set of philosophical problems at a stroke. If we have changing identifications and these identifications are interdependent with our beliefs, then we can have more or less consistent and more or less adequate identifications and beliefs. The integration of our desires and beliefs becomes available as a criterion for objectivity that is capable of explaining the variable adequacy of our experience without appeal to metaphysics. The Middle Way becomes more than just an avoidance of metaphysics to either side, but can increasingly be understood in positive terms as a path of integration.

If we understand ourselves as egos, the question of how value can be objective, so puzzling to so many Western philosophers, can be resolved. We are the bearers of value, for value is no different from desire, but desires can be more or less integrated. We do not have to destroy the ego to be moral, merely to channel it in a way that is more consistent and realistic in its demands. Nor does moral progress have any necessary connection to being “selfish” or “selfless”, since ego-identifications may or may not be with one’s individual body, but may be with others, or with groups or ideas. 

This central point is the basis of a number of other arguments in this book, including about objectivity (section 4), justification (section 5) and integration (section 6). These in turn lead on to the more detailed accounts of different aspects of integration in volumes 2, 3 and 4. All that is required in understanding these further arguments is that you do not interpret them in the terms of the traditional metaphysical assumptions, which we should now be able to increasingly leave behind.

[1] Hume (1978) pp 251-263

[2] McGilchrist (2009) p.87

[3] Ibid. p.76

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