Will “the self” survive because it can provide people with a greater sense of happiness? Or is it - perhaps along with the constructs “Free Will” and “Determinism” - doomed to the dustbin of history? Should cyborgs, avatars, and a rewired human brain be developed with a stronger or weaker sense of self? An interview with Dr. Garret Merriam, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Southern Indiana.
This interview was conducted via email, in early May 2012.
Hank Pellissier: My understanding is that the notion of the “self” was rather “invented” by the Greeks; then it faded until it was brought back during the Age of Enlightenment - is this correct? Does this mean that the notion of the self is primarily a European idea?
Garret Merriam I think that while there is some truth to that, it’s also an oversimplification. There is something like ‘the self’ that transcends cultures; even in prehistoric China people realized there was a difference between their being hit over the head with a stone axe and their neighbor being hit over the head with a stone axe. That basic sense of ‘self vs. other’ is neurologically hardwired and is not unique to humans; other primates, cetaceans, elephants, some bird species, octopi, and dozens if not hundreds of other species exhibit it, so it cannot be a cultural artifact.
But there is a more sophisticated sense of the term ‘self’ that is built upon that more basic sense that does seem to be a cultural creation. When we think about a written biography, an account of a person’s whole life, character, personality and accomplishments as belonging to/constituting this single unified thing that we also call ‘the self’? That has a distinctly Greek texture to it. It is this sense of self that’s the controversial one, and what I think most philosophers mean when they debate the nature of ‘the self’ (and how I’ll be using the term from here on out.)
Ancient literature in other cultures—Egyptian, Hindu, Chinese, etc.—that predate classical Greece don’t seem to emphasize the significance of the individual ego in the way the Greeks did. It isn’t wholly absent in these other cultures, but a rather arrogant Eurocentric bias blinded scholars to it’s presence in these cultures for some time. But the did Greeks focus on it more, develop it more, make it a more explicit and central part of their thinking on human nature. And while it did fade away during the Middle Ages, it never fully disappeared. (Stories from the high Middle Ages, like The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, while not as ‘self’ centered as the plays of Sophocles, nonetheless have well developed characters that reflect their author’s sense of ‘self.’)
It came back like gangbusters in the Renaissance, with the invention of the personal essay (Michele de Montaigne) and later, in the Enlightenment with the development of the modern biography (Samuel Johnson). It reached it’s apogee with the Romantics (early 19th century) and started to crumble thanks to the work of Sigmund Freud by the turn of the 20th. The existentialists made a go at resurrecting it again, in the mid-20th century, but it’s hard to say how well they succeeded, and inasmuch as they did, their notion of ‘self’ is pretty far removed from what the Greeks or the Romantics thought of as ‘the self.’
Hank Pellissier: In your opinion, is the future going to be an era where philosophy and psychology gets increasing influenced by new neuroscience knowledge? In 50 years, will the notion that we have a “self” be outdated? In 100 years, will the idea that we have a self, free will, and self-determination, be entirely laughable?
Garret Merriam: I definitely think philosophy—like nearly everything else about culture—will become deeply influenced by developments in neuroscience. I doubt it will be COMPLETELY saturated; you will still be able to do philosophy without mastering neuroscience. But much in the same way that psychology became something of a parallel discipline to philosophy in the 20th century, and most philosophers took the psychology literature very seriously in their own work, the same will be true of neuroscience in the 21st.
I’m more hesitant about the idea that neuroscience will kill the idea of ‘the self.’ I think it might be a good thing if it did, but some ideas are recalcitrant and just won’t go gently into that good night, and I suspect that ‘the self’ will be one of them (it has so far, in spite of thinkers like Freud.) The notion of ‘self’ will transform, as it always has in times of great cultural upheaval, and mold itself to the new contours of the culture, but I bet we’ll still be talking about ‘the self’, at least in our unguarded vernacular, 100 years from now. After all, we still talk about ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset’, even though we’ve known for nearly 500 years that it’s not the sun that’s moving, it’s the earth.
“Free will” may prove equally recalcitrant (it certainly has despite powerful philosophical arguments against it), but I personally have an ambition to help send it to the dust bin of history. I think both the notion of ‘free will’ as well as it’s presumed default of ‘determinism’ are both useless concepts and I have high hopes that neuroscience will be able to eliminate them in favor concepts that can do a much better job of explaining human action. My recent research has been focusing on this.
Hank Pellissier: Are humans happier with the notion that we have a self? Is that why the notion was constructed? Happier with everything that accompanies the notion of a self, i.e., identity, individualism, alienation, “self-awareness”, personal growth, contemplation of the self, etc.? Are we really happy with all that, or would we be happier with regarding ourself in strictly neurological terms?
Garret Merriam: I don’t think the notion of ‘self’ was a deliberate creation, so it would be wrong to say it was constructed in order to make us happy, or for any other conscious purpose. That having been said, there is a fair amount of empirical evidence, principally from positive psychology and social psychology, that suggest that people with a strong ‘sense of self’, a healthy ego, are happier than people without it.
Cross culturally, there is a key balance between what you might call a ‘radical individualism’ (in which the individual is the only thing that matters) and ‘radical collectivism’ (in which the community is the only thing that matters. Happiness seems to happen most when you’re somewhere in the middle; you have strong community ties with good social capital, but a high premium is placed on individual rights and liberties. That is, cultures that have a healthy sense of self are happier, but when that is taken to an extreme you get what the sociologist Emile Durkheim called ‘anomie’—a breakdown of social belonging and cultural identity. When that happens, people are just as miserable (but in different ways) as when they live under the thumb of a dictator.
How neuroscience will impact this is a complicated question, and I think it will depend a lot on how we as a culture mange the use and direction of neuroscientific research. Ideally, positive psychology will fuse with neuroscience (as it already seems to be doing, at least in a preliminary way). That will make the increase of human well-being one the central goals of neuroscience in the 21st century. This will require a deep understanding of the sources of human flourishing, not simply medicating us until we stop asking troubling questions.
Suffice to say, I think it would be very peculiar indeed if neuroscience told us both that in order to live happy lives we have to have this very specific notion of ‘self’, while at the same time disproving the existence of such a ‘self.’ That’s not to say it won’t happen, but it would be ironic, tragic and just highly unlikely. Why would evolution produce such a tragic species as that, that so crucially depending on this rather culturally specific notion of ‘self’? It’s certainly not an adaptive trait, so it would have to be a side-effect of some kind. If so, then perhaps we could use neuroscience to correct for it.
But here of course is where the nightmare scenarios start to creep in. Once neuroscience starts tinkering around with those deep aspects of human nature, such as our (alleged) need for sense of self, where does it end? We may end up in a Brave New World where we don’t just jettison the things that inhibit our flourishing, but we also jettison the things that make us who we are. And if who we are is valuable, worth preserving, then neuroscience may become a threat our very existence.
I don’t think there is any easy answer to problems such as these. But I am sure that the best way to position ourselves to find the answers is through neurophilosophy, by studying the developments in neuroscience and bringing them to bear on these kinds of traditional philosophical problems.
Hank Pellissier: This next question is rather far-out. The question is, if humans decided that it was more “fun” to have a “self” would it be possible to rewire the human brain, in any possible self, so that the notion of a SELF made more sense? Would it be possible to construct a cyborg, for example, that actually did have a self? Would that cyborg be at an advantage over humans, in terms of less doubt, stronger sense of identity, clearer goals?
Garret Merriam: Like I said in response to the last question, I imagine any engineering would likely work the other way: enhance human well-being by making us less dependent on such philosophically and scientifically dubious notions as ‘the self.’ But in principle it should be possible to work it the other way around. Whatever exactly the ‘sense of self’ is (assuming the ‘sense’ is real, even if the ‘self’ is not) it must manifest in the brain somehow, hence we should be able to measure it, manipulate it and control it.
In practice, however, I doubt it will work that cleanly. ‘Sense of self’ is not a specific thing, like levels of serotonin or norepinephrine. It’s some kind of emergent property, and those are notoriously difficult to pin down and dissect. I think by the time we have enough technical facility to get our hands around something like that our conceptual apparatus will have changed drastically and we won’t be nearly as invested in our notion of ‘self’ as we think about it today.
Hank Pellissier: Here’s a (set of) questions—looking 200 years into the future, and imagining numerous different scenarios of advanced civilizations, what percentage of these possible advanced civilizations do you see as having: 1) No Self at all, no regard for the notion of Self, just seeing as an antiquated notion. 2) Same sense of Self as Earth today, general popular belief in it, except among scholars and neuro-intellectuals. 3) 100% Belief in a Self, either through some type of enhancement, or mind-file feature, or cyborg overthrow, or redefinition of the term.
Garret Merriam: 200 years out is a very long time-horizon. It’s hard to grasp how many turns of the screw that is in terms of scientific advancement. I’m about as confident in any prediction that far out as I would have been in Socrates’ predictions about the year 2000. That having been said, I don’t think that should prevent us from trying, so long as we take our predictions with a large block of salt.
As such, I actually don’t think any of these three is terribly likely. (1) & (2) both seem ruled out by historical patterns; our notion of self always changes with the culture, and given how many cultural changes we’re going to experience in the next 200 years it’s highly unlikely that our we’ll have THE SAME notion of self. But by the same token, some notion of self has stuck around, in spite of these big upheavals, so I doubt it will be completely eliminated, either.
(3) seems like the most plausible of the options because there is some reason to think that a sense of self does make us live better, so enhancing that would make sense. However I think the very process of pursuing that kind of enhancement would change our understanding of what self is, so I don’t think “100% belief in the self” would be a terribly accurate description. It will mean something pretty different. I’d call it something more like ‘Self 2.0’ (or rather 5.0, or 10.0, or even larger, depending on how you parse the history.)
Hank Pellissier: Do you think the notion of the “Self” is a wishful-thinking fantasy, a desire for something positive that doesn’t exist? Do you see it as misinterpretation of how the brain works? Do you think “the self” has desirable qualities that future advanced civilizations will seek to incorporate into new minds?
Garret Merriam: I think ‘misinterpretation of how the brain works’ is probably it. We’ve known since Freud that we’re not terribly good at understanding what’s going on for us through simple introspection, and the ‘evidence’ (such as it is) for ‘self’ seems pretty much entirely from introspection. As I’ve said, there does seem to be some positive value
in it, but I suspect we’ll figure out a way to keep that value without holding on to this particular concept—we can take the cake out of the box, as it were.