WTF IS THE SELF ANYHOW?
Is my personhood an action or a reaction or a bruise?
Am I an agent, an object, a fiction, a victim?
My spirit, playing as a horse escaped, begets in me so many extravagant Chimerae, and fantastical monsters, so orderless, and without any reason, one huddling upon another.
– Michel de Montaigne, Confessions
Though Montaigne lived in the 16th century, a time of considerable religious and political turmoil in France, his inquiry into the nature of his own self was highly prescient. To wit our modern selves, arguably more beleaguered, splintered and refracted as we are by the cacaphony of modern life, the deluge of images and events, many of them monstrous. How do we isolate what is ours amidst that onslaught? Where do we locate the source of our identity? Is it a product of environment, of culture? Is it a work of art? How many are the tales we tell about ourselves? Or rather, what is the tale we make of ourselves?
Contemporary Stoic philosopher Massimo Pigliucci states that the self “…is neither an illusion nor a static ruler of the mind.” This approach seems to be catching on in that confluence between the worlds of neuroscience and philosophy. Neuroscientist David Galin considers the Western view of the self, as an enduring entity, to be the source of our suffering, as we cling to something – a relative figment – whose existence is created by constant interplay with ever morphing contexts…
Add to that essential mutability the fact that we operate, some neuroscientists believe, perhaps as much as 95% of the time, from our nonconscious (the advanced cognitive processing that occurs automatically without awareness) the term most academics use now so as to distinguish it from Freud’s unconscious, with all its murky connotations. You see, whatever you think you believe, most of the facts you’ll cite, memories you’ll dredge up, or excuses for behavior you’ll muster – they will all quite possibly be specious. In effect, we experience life through our nonconscious and then explain it all with our conscious minds, which are way more fallible than we think.
Our memories are card-indexes consulted and then returned in disorder by authorities who we do not control.
– Cyril Connolly
Bit by bit, thanks to neuroscience, the old ‘Central Command Center Self’ is getting disassembled. What we, more-or-less all, actually are is a small crowd of selves, and we have scant control over them too. I mean, put Free Will and the Nonconscious in the ring? It will be a knockout, with Free Will left panting on the mat.