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Question anyone can answer: Is there such a thing as “self”

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If you understand the question, you know the answer.

Yet it is an academic question that generates books. You can guess what type, right?:

In the last few years, a number of popularising books, bearing titles like The Self Illusion and The Ego Trick, have set out the neuroscientific/psychological/philosophical case against the self. Much has been made of clinical cases where the self seems to malfunction spectacularly: like Cotard syndrome, whose victims believe they do not exist, even though they admit to having a life history; or “dissociative identity disorder,” where a single body seems to harbour multiple selves, each with its own name, memory, and voice. Most of us are not afflicted by such exotic disorders. When we are told that both science and philosophy have revealed the self to be more fragile and fragmentary than we thought, we take the news in our stride and go on with our lives.

But perhaps we should be paying closer attention. For example, there is striking evidence (detailed by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow) that each of us has a “remembering self,” which makes decisions, and an “experiencing self,” which actually does the living. And when the remembering self looks back on an experience and decides how enjoyable it was, it can arrive at an assessment that is quite out of whack from what the experiencing self actually endured. It is your remembering self that tyrannically resolves to take another family vacation this summer, even though your voiceless experiencing self was miserable for most of the last one. Evidently, the subtleties of the self are of practical as well as scholarly interest.

Barry Dainton’s Self and Jennifer Ouellette’s Me, Myself and Why stand out, in different ways, from the recent crop of books that seek to undermine our sense of self-identity. Dainton, a philosopher who teaches at the University of Liverpool, is a dissenter from the no-self consensus. He can tell you exactly what your self really is and how to keep track of it over time, even if it somehow escapes your body (which he appears to think is possible). Dainton presents a theory of the “core self,” in all its philosophical purity. In contrast, Ouellette is concerned with the “extended self,” the sum total of all we turn out to be: genetically, socially, temperamentally, sexually. An American science journalist, she wants us to understand how genes and environment conspire to make each of us idiosyncratically singular—indeed, more singular than you might have imagined (as in the case of a transgender person mentioned by Ouellette who refers to her genitalia as “Schrödinger’s vagina”). Ouellette goes to heroic lengths to explore her own self, on one occasion even dropping LSD in an attempt to dismantle it temporarily. More.

Yeah. Let’s read Dante’s Divine Comedy (free online) instead. Illustrations (half the fun).

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2 Replies to “Question anyone can answer: Is there such a thing as “self”

  1. 1
    jstanley01 says:

    I’d long suspected that the laureates and clinical cases had more in common than they’d admit… bada-bing

  2. 2
    Mung says:

    So who should I ask? I certainly can’t ask myself!

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