First, this is an extension of sorts from a prior post on No-Self, Selves & Self, but I wanted to create a short video for my YouTube channel to establish somewhat of a foundation for my intended video on the causa sui argument. Related content can be found on this one of the Theseus posts.
This video is under 8-minutes long and provides some touch-points. I had considered making it longer and more comprehensive, but since it is more of a bridge to a video I feel is more interesting, I cut some corners. This leaves openings for more in-depth treatment down the road.
As has become a routine, I share the transcript here for convenience and SEO relevance.
In this segment of free will scepticism, we’ll establish some perspectives on the notion of the self.
Most of us in the West are familiar with the notion of the self. What’s your self? It’s me. For the more pedantic crowd, It is I.
We’re inundated with everything from self-help to self-awareness to self-esteem to selfies and self-love. We’ve got self-portraits, self-image, and self-harm. We’ve got self-ish and self-less.
We’ve even got self-oriented psychological disorders like narcissism. Attending to the self is a billion-dollar industry.
And whilst psychology and pop-psychology seem to consider the self to be a nicely wrapped package fastened tightly with a bow, it’s a little more contentious within philosophy. But there are other perspectives that don’t include the self, from no-self to slices of discontiguous selves. Let’s shift gears and start from the notion of having no self, what Buddhism calls no-self.
Buddhism is an Eastern discipline, so it does not have the same foundations as the West. According to this system of belief, the notion of a personal identity is delusional, so there is no self at all. This obsession and clinging to this delusional self is a major cause of suffering.
In this view, all is one and indivisible, but self-deception leads us to believe we are individuals, each with a discrete self. In fact, the Buddhist notion of Enlightenment—as opposed to the Western notion of Enlightenment—is precisely this realisation that there is only one self, and this is the collective self. But, to be fair, except for the times where the self has yet to be developed—we’ll get to this in a bit—, this notion of no-self is aspirational in the sense of losing one’s self in order to reduce suffering.
The concept of selflessness exists in language, but this is more aimed at sublimating the self in favour of a greater collective good.
The self is the central feature of many personality theories from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to Rollo May and Abraham Maslow. From individuation to self-actualisation. The self is self-referenced as I and me. Historically, the self had been considered to be synonymous with some metaphysical soul. Nowadays, psychology has taken the reigns on definitions.
One version of the self can be thought of as a single thread connecting beads of experience through time, time-slices of experience. We’ll come back to this. This sense of self extends backwards in time until now and contains aspirations projected forward in time as viewed from the perspective of now.
Whilst we use terms like ‘person’, ‘self’, and ‘individual’ somewhat synonymously, they each have different meanings. Whereas ‘individual’ is a biological term; ‘person’ is sociological or cultural; ‘self’ is psychological. Although the default position in the West is the adoption of the psychological notion, where each person has a self, there is also a philosophical notion. Given that the perspective of self is so ubiquitous with people accepting it as obvious, that it feels like I shouldn’t even spend time producing content to fill this space. But for a sense of completeness, I shall.
Psychologist William James distinguished between the ‘I’ and ‘me’ sense of the self, but let’s not parse this and consider each a stand-in for the self as experienced by the self. In this view, the self is generally considered to be the aggregation of continuous phenomenological moments and how we interpret them into a sense of ‘identity’.
In the West, the notion of having a self is imposed by convention. To feel otherwise is considered to be a sign of mental illness. As much as I want to share Foucault’s perspective on how delineating mental illness operates to the benefit of power structures, let’s just consider this out of scope. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, notes that a key symptom of borderline personality disorder, BPD, is a ‘markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self’. Become selfless at your own peril.
There are challenges with the notion of self even in psychology. In developmental psychology, the self—differentiating one’s self into an identity separate from the world—, is not acquired until about the age of 18 months. Lacan had suggested that this so-called mirror stage developed at around 5 months as part of ego formation, but further research disputes this.
Although I won’t go into detail, individualist cultures experience the self differently than collectivist cultures. The origin of the concept of the individualistic view of self can be traced to early Christianity. In American culture, Protestantism seems to be a primary driver of the individualistic view of self. Let’s continue.
Heraclitus quipped, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man’. This is a nod to the impermanence of the self. Instead, there are selves.
Galen Strawson proposes that although he understands intellectually what others mean when they use the word self, he doesn’t share this experience emotionally. Unlike the phenomenological slices connected by a thread, he doesn’t feel he has a thread. He posits that he experiences this prevailing sense of narrativity episodically without continuity.
A typical view of the self is that one feels narratively connected to past slices—the 5-year-old self with the 20-year-old self and with the 50-year-old self, whether that 50-year-old self is in the past, present, or future. Even though we are not the same person, there is some felt affinity.
As for me, I consider the self to be a constructed fiction that serves a heuristic function. I don’t feel as disconnected as it seems Strawson does, but I don’t feel very connected to my 7 or 8-year-old self. And I can’t even remember before that. I’m not even sure I’ve got one data point for each year between 8 and 12, and it doesn’t get much better until 18 or 20. From there, I may be able to cobble together some average of a dozen or so per year without prompting, but I don’t even feel like the same person. Many of my views and perspectives have changed as well.
I was in the military until I quit as a Conscientious Objector. During that time, I became aware of Buddhism, and I doubled down on my musical interests. I worked in the Entertainment industry until I became an undergrad student, transitioning to become a wage slave whilst also attending grad school until I graduated. I’ve had several career foci since then. With each change, I’ve had a different self with a different outlook.
Can I connect the dots? Sort of. But I can also create a thematic collage out of magazine clippings or create art with found objects. I can tell a disjointed story of how I transitioned from X to Y to Z. It may even contain some elements of truth. Given how memory operates, who can tell?
In any case, what about you? In the next segment, I’m going to be discussing why we may not have free will owing to a lack of agency based on a causa sui argument.
Do you feel like you have a self? Does your sense of self have any gaps or inconsistencies? Do you feel you don’t have a self at all?
Let me know in the comments below.