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Contradictions of the Enlightenment: Liberal Individualism versus the Erosion of Personal Identity

J. Hughes

Ethical Technology

November 19, 2011

Enlightenment values presume an independent self, the rational citizen and consumer who pursues her self-interests. Since Hume, however, Enlightenment empiricists have questioned the existence of a discrete, persistent self. Today, continuing that investigation, neuroscience is daily eroding the essentialist model of personal identity. Transhumanism has yet to come to grips with the radical consequences of the erosion of the liberal individualist subject for projects of enhancement and longevity. Most transhumanist thought still reflects an essentialist idea of personal identity, even as we advance projects of radical cognitive enhancement that will change every element of consciousness. How do ethics and politics change if personal identity is an arbitrary, malleable fiction?


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Posted by Gordon Cornwall  on  11/20  at  01:08 PM

Thanks for this interesting overview.

One comment: ‘Walker says that since radical changes might violate personal continuity the path from humanness to “godlike” posthumanity should be gradual.’ I think this gives gradualness a metaphysical importance it does not deserve, and which is at odds with the Humean skepticism about the self which informs most of your discussion. Consider a more familiar transformation: senile dementia. It is a transformation which most ordinary people think they would survive, even if involves near-complete memory loss and radical personality change. Diagnosed with dementia, most people do not regard it as an immediate death sentence (if they did, they might be relieved); instead, they dread the life of the survivor—the confusion and anxiety which we know dementia patients suffer. Whether the slide into severe dementia is gradual or not, is not thought to make the difference between surviving and not surviving this transformation. Although it would matter to most people whether they were diagnosed with a gradual dementia or one that has an extremely rapid onset, an important difference is that the gradual case might give them more time to put their affairs in order. It also might increase their suffering, and sense of loss. But it would not be the difference between surviving and dying.

In my view, the deeper lesson of Humean and Parfitian skepticism about the self is that anticipation of experience is NEVER rationally justified. For more on this subject, visit the Phantom Self.

Posted by hankpellissier  on  11/21  at  12:54 AM

fascinating essay -

it seems to me that “memories” will become less and less important as a definition of the “self” - and that “patterning” especially “values” will become of paramount importance.

I am definitely saying that because my own definition of my “self” has changed in that direction. I am quite bored with defining myself as someone who has done such-and-such - it seems more accurate to define myself via my interests and opinions.

transhumanism’s quest for immortality seems partly like a highly individualistic desire - an attachment to the “self” - - -

I am wondering - if we have the option in the future to change consciousness - to change our sense of “self” or “non-self” - what would we opt for?  Would we want to alter ourselves in a way that guaranteed a more concrete sense of self, or would we want to enable ourselves to see more clearly that there is no self?

Posted by CygnusX1  on  11/22  at  05:22 PM

Excellent piece..

Rationalising the Self/Ego is crucial to any future transformation of mind and body

Posted by Joern Pallensen  on  11/23  at  12:54 PM

I agree: Excellent piece, and deeply essential questions and considerations. “Rationalizing” the Self/Ego is crucial, but then is the same not true for the Kantian “Ding-an-sich / Thing-in-Itself”, - another presupposition we have no way of proving is ontologically real either.. , - at least not to my knowledge..

It seems to me, therefore, that whether we speak of some mysterious “self”-substance or non-phenomenal “Thing-in-Itself”, - we are - maybe, maybe not.. - doomed to rely on our common sense, - that same common sense that “brain-washes” us into believing the “self-evident” truth of our very personal existences.

When, therefore, neuroscience shows that the “self-y” feeling is simply a useful heuristic that our minds create, without any underlying reality , the same goes for the “physical / phenomenal” Universe, as told by quantum physics, - (although that is possibly a somewhat “new age” inspired interpretation..).

In view of these considerations, I’d stick to a double-strategy of viewing the individual Self as “nothing more than a pack of neurons” - (F. Crick) - but never-the-less paying due respect to that Ghost-in-the-Machine, as it serves the essential purpose of human progress, i.e. evolution / Transhumanism !

Not implying he does in any way flirt with Transhumanism, this appears also to be the position of Thomas Metzinger:

the salient difference between Metzinger’s profession of no-self and the Buddhist view is that Metzinger sees the development of a first person point of view and a self as a valuable part of evolution, leading human beings forward into culture, whereas the basic Buddhist view regards clinging to the first person point of view as a primary cause of suffering and ignorance”..

David Galin, in MEETING AT THE ROOTS: Essays on Tibetan Buddhism and the Natural Sciences:

“the Western perspectives of cognitive neuropsychology and adaptive evolution may add to Buddhist understanding of the inborn view of self, and of how the “correct” view is attained”.

If I am not totally mistaken, this is also the opinion of author J. Hughes..

Posted by CygnusX1  on  11/24  at  07:27 AM

“Existentialism and personal responsibility are high on the agenda at IEET, and this generally goes without saying.

Any true humanist must embrace and support this tenet, and any Christian too? Or else what hope for the progress of humanity?

You can still speculate the metaphysical with both feet on the ground. You may still reconcile the quantum and atomic with the macro illusion of ego Self?

Then what of this phenomenon termed Consciousness?”

Well.. we don’t need to worry about Consciousness do we?

At the quantum and physical level, free will is generally accepted as illusion? Yet obviously at the macro level, the Self/Ego can and does action real choices.. I had the choice to either respond to this article or not, despite any complex second guessing regarding my own free will. (“Will I, won’t I, shall I join the dance?”)

The acceptance of free will is as important to a philosophy grounded within existentialism as the acceptance of Ego Self, not only to support personal responsibility and social contract, but also progressive ethics and evolution of humanity. (This is not news, and is widely accepted).

A “Big Bang theory”, Universal inflation, asymmetrical distribution of energy/matter, and the actions of gravity are now attributed to the formation of matter, stars, galaxies, planets and etc. Chaos theory also gives rise to the “ghost in the machine”? maybe? And perhaps this too substantiates the manifestation of free will also, (philosophically speaking, free will must be valid anyhow, as you say, acceptance of reality of Self is acceptance of freedom of choice)?

Or indeed if you believe in a soul eternal to reconcile the “fundamental question”, then this is fine, (at least for the time being, and personal views are progressive), the acceptance of free will is essential, or atonement and enlightenment is impossible?

So we should be able to reconcile all views in debate?

Anatta, (no self), physicalism, determinism and no free will, as well as, belief in souls eternal, validity of free will, and progressive ethics.. as well belief in human evolution and transformation?

I think this “acceptance” of all views, and philosophical discussions depending upon context, are key to reconciling dilemmas and conflicts. We are each much more than the sum total of parts, (energy/matter), and this is what we need to grasp and hold onto? If we accept free will as real and valid, then rational religious philosophies also have a great role to play in progressive ethics and humanism?


“You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose freewill”

ps. For further consideration - If intelligent design at first cause, (creation), is not real and valid, then it most certainly is real and valid now and for the future? So.. intelligence must be an emergent phenomenon? Thus we are headed in the righteous direction?

Posted by CygnusX1  on  11/24  at  09:02 AM

@ Ghost-beyond-the-Machine

“.. but then is the same not true for the Kantian “Ding-an-sich / Thing-in-Itself”, - another presupposition we have no way of proving is ontologically real either.. , - at least not to my knowledge..

It seems to me, therefore, that whether we speak of some mysterious “self”-substance or non-phenomenal “Thing-in-Itself”, - we are - maybe, maybe not.. - doomed to rely on our common sense, - that same common sense that “brain-washes” us into believing the “self-evident” truth of our very personal existences.”

Indeed !

And this positioning is key, and the bridge between the reconciliation of the spiritual/theological and of existentialism/non-theism. Truly, the only legitimate position to occupy, (at this time), is agnostic!

And furthermore, this positioning is a step closer to unification, (the basic premise built on the universal answer of “we don’t know, and most likely never will fully?”) The acceptance of our existence as real and non-exclusive from the “whole” picture? (that includes ALL of us!)

Hinduism resolved the universal “thing in itself” with the description as “That” (which is unknowable, indescribable and without attributes - codename Nirguna Brahman). Yet the most practicable way to describe this Universal “thing in itself”, (in one or many or infinite guises), is using the term “potential”. It happened, is happening, I perceive, “I am” through the grace of “potential”, (the potential for it to happen) - what more do you need to know?

The personification of God, perhaps as the naïve resultant projection of “Self” Ego and “veil of ignorance” (subjectivity), may not be excluded from the path to progression and enlightenment/wisdom. Again, all views may be accepted within the context of their discussion and debate?

Posted by jhughes  on  11/24  at  04:33 PM

@ Ghost-beyond-the-Machine

Yes I definitely think neuroscience will add to the Buddhist perspective. But I don’t think Buddhism is as negative to self-illusion as implied. You can’t have liberation without self-illusion, and (at least in Mahayana Buddhism) the enlightened person can only help others by living simultaneously in the realm of illusion (self) and emptiness (no self). In other words, the self is a necessary concept both developmentally and as a part of the repertoire of consciousness. The problem is that when we don’t also understand that it is a fiction we get bound up in defending it and make oursleves crazy.

@ Mike

You zero in on the essential problem: if our developing neurotech problematizes our current concepts of what makes a meaningful life, a life that frames and works toward goals, then we will have a profound crisis of meaning on our hands. For instance, what if I can use neurotech to edit all my goals and desires to the things that I already have, or even worse, to simply give myself the illusion that I have achieved everything I want? And yes, free will is also problematized.  If we decide that the illusion of self is necessary for the general will, we may decide to persist with them even as the evidence of their fictiveness mounts.

@ CygnusX1

Your reference to Hinduism hints I think at some of the religious and political answers that will be offered when neurotech presses the erosion of self into a public crisis. Some will suggest that we give up our fictive individual desires and identities for “truer” identities, ones in which we are united with other humans around collective projects or religious, transcendent identities that merge us with nature and the universe. One of my worries about those who long for humanity to be subject to the authority of godlike robots is that artificial intelligence may in fact not have the same kind of self illusion as mammals, which arises from the contiguity of sensations and the biological imperatives of the body; the appeal to drop individuality and merge our consciousnesses with AI could be seen as a solution to quite a few of the existential dilemmas of remaining human.

Posted by CygnusX1  on  11/25  at  11:25 AM

With regard to the possibilities for future Posthuman existence, I would speculate humanity to be even more diverse than today, with evolving political and religious philosophies, and perhaps even greater conflicts and divides arising from ideals of both individualism and unity. And even envisaging disparate species arising from a fundamental divide in existential ideals and philosophy of mind, with those that favour unity and merging evolving separately from humans that strongly favour individualism?

I know I would favour unification, and also speculate true “Union” of minds and experiences with machines and other humans, although this does not necessarily mean I would be able to accept this circumstance, and may even reject it outright. I would have to taste first?

The ideal would most likely incorporate the ability to merge, yet maintain individualism and sense of Self, and thus also have the choice to disconnect, (high probability this would indeed be the case anyhow, especially be way of mind/machine interfacing), with the goal to share intellects and experiences with a mind towards always maintaining a sense of “Self” and “free will”.

I certainly would not favour promoting any machine demiurge through which we relinquish sense of Self in exchange for want of peace and security, (misplaced hopes supported by irrational fears for longevity?)

Also to add regarding this possibility for “true unity” and merging..

All of the Abrahamic faiths cling strongly to the persistence of Self/Ego after death in heaven as essential, (initially understood as the resurrection of the “physical” body, as with the traditional notion of the resurrection of Christ, rather than the belief in the persistence of the “Spiritual Self”/Soul more readily accepted today). And thus communion in heaven with God as extended human relationship governed in love and peace and security, (exactly as with Hindu dvaita). And yet I have to ask myself why?

Why, if one had the chance of true union and communion and “Oneness” with God, and with each other, would you not relinquish individualism altogether and totally, (not unlike the Borg), in favour or this “true unity”? The answer must be, “Fear of loss of Self”, (not merely fear of death)?

As Ghost-beyond-the-Machine, (and everyone here), has already indicated, perhaps we cannot fathom “true unity” at all without this persistence of Self to experience “change in circumstance”. Thus the whole understanding of Anatta, (no Self), must firstly originate from this contemplation and understanding/revelation of Anicca, (impermanence), again founded in Hinduism, and initially understood by Buddha who was raised as Hindu.

“Long term” memories and apperceptions, (perceptions + memory and experiences), affected also by our genes and memes and our sociocultural histories, may define “who we think we are” and provide contiguity of “sense of being”? Yet it must be “Short term” immediate memory, and the ability for “perception of change in circumstance” from each moment of being to the next, which “enables” vitality and the persistence/illusion of Self/Ego? Rather like volatile RAM in a computer, as opposed to long term memories stored on hard disc?

Both are equally important, and as you highlight in your article, personal identity is intrinsically linked to memories, (which is the logical proposition concerning the possibility for uploading).
Yet the ability to perceive change in circumstance, (through impermanence), must be the most important issue to vitality, (and for the prospect of longevity through uploading to different substrate)? For this, it is “duality” which enables the substantiation of Self, (subject), through sense ability and the perception of objects, by way of change/impermanence, that is essential?

We may even speculate that the sense of contiguity in transfer, by means of the above, is really the only essential problem to overcome? The gradual transfer of sense of being through uploading of memories may need not be so gradual at all, depending upon one’s own philosophy of sense of being, and to what extent we are “willing” to relinquish past attachment to “Self” to overcome death?

Posted by Peter Bishop  on  11/26  at  05:49 PM

Philosophers, like scientists, need to take a reductionist approach to their inquiries.  Early humans lived in a world imbued with mystery and magic, beyond understanding.  Modern physics has brought us back to a world that rubs our noses in mystery whether we like it or not, but we came to curved space-time and quantum mechanical uncertainty by way of a reductionist analysis of physics, first flattening and simplifying it, and then seeing (rigorously, for the first time) the ways that it really does defy understanding. 

Surely philosophy of mind is going through a similar process.  There are three things areas I see in your article where it seems to me like the “Newtonians” of philosophy have yet to account for the mind’s equivalents of curved space-time and quantum uncertainty.  I want to consider three things I don’t see addressed in J. Hughes’ article: (1) that “memory” is nowhere near as simple a thing as John Locke regarded it, (2) that much of our identity is unconscious, and (3) that our identities can transcend our individuality.  Finally (4) I want to make an argument for the primacy of experience (which is not quite the same thing as memory) in considering identity.

1. Would I still be me if I lost my memory?

John Locke considers memory to be the basis of identity.  I remember being who I was as a child, and when I am old I will remember being who I am now, so all three are the same person.  Therefore, saving for retirement is rational behavior on my part.  This suggests to philosophers like Kutzweil (and to numerous science fiction writers) that if I upload my memories to a computer as I am dying, and that computer remembers having lived in a human body, then that computer is still me.  For me, this highlights one of the biggest oversimplifications of philosophers: they often describe memory (and all knowledge) as a narrative or a story—something that can be encoded in language in its entirety.  If the computer remembers the narrative of my life, including the upload, then it is still me. 

My grandmother lived with us from when she was 93 until she died at age 97.  During that time, she had significant dementia and progressively lost huge amounts of her memory, yet there were underlying personality traits that persisted.  My wife described this as her “basic kindness.”  One can imagine a situation in which my grandmother’s memories had been uploaded to a computer, the computer would remember the process, identify with the earlier memories, and regard itself as my grandmother, and yet the underlying mental and emotional habits would be those of a computer, while my grandmother, though lost in a world she did not recognize and surrounded by loved ones she no longer knew, retained her instinctive habits of interaction with other people.  Which one would be more “real”?

Parfit uses England as a metaphor for an individual person.  “The self exists only insofar as an entity like England exists – it has a physical history and on top of that an evolving set of cultural groups and political institutions. Any attempt to definitely say that England began at a particular time and constitutes a specific set of people and institutions would simply be an arbitrary fiction.”  Yet, like my grandmother, England has habits of being that will persist even if its recorded history and cultural institutions are erased.  English schoolchildren may learn as much about China’s conquest of Tibet as they do about Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, but they live with the consequences of the latter in ways they never will of the former.  The English and Irish would continue to regard one another with a certain degree of mistrust even if all the history books were burned and all the parliaments abolished.  (Look at the ways that inter-ethnic hatreds resurfaced in eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.)  In fact, even if England were completely depopulated and new settlers moved in, certain distinctly “English” qualities would remain.  England would always be an island, close to the continent, damp and chilly but with mild winters.  A major city would likely be built on the banks of the Thames even if all trace of London were eradicated, because the river makes a natural port and an island nation will necessarily be a maritime nation.  The land will leave its imprint on the new people, and in some ways at least they will come to resemble the old.  Parfit sees (correctly) that “England” can be seen as a fiction…but from your summary, it looks like he stops there.  England is much more than its continuous history and culture.  So was my grandmother.

2. Is my “self” really only to be considered the part of me that I’m aware of?

I read an article recently in which neuroscientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) to monitor the brains of test subjects, and found that they could see simple decisions being made in the brain before the subjects themselves were even aware of it.  The writer asked if this meant free will is an illusion—decisions are made by mechanistic, physical processes in the brain, and afterwards the conscious mind falsely perceives itself as making the decision.  This highlights two other gross oversimplifications that I see philosophers of mind making: that the “mind” consists only of the surface layer of consciousness, and that the mind is a single, unified entity.

You don’t need to have your corpus callosum severed to have the experience of being at war with yourself—of different parts of yourself driving you toward contradictory goals.  Even the thinking, rational part of the mind (the only part that most philosophers seem interested in) is not a single calculating machine.  If the mind were a computer, then it would be one with lots and lots of coprocessors.  Human beings can think and reason, yes, but what we really excel at is pattern recognition, and there are areas of the human nervous system (both in and out of the brain) that make this easier.  Reason is a notoriously poor guide in areas of emotion, intuition, and creativity.  Even something as purely rational as arithmetic involves using algorithms that we’ve seen work although we may or may not understand why, and higher math is often described as a search for mathematical beauty rather than logical certainty.  Discerning meaning in a sea of chaos is a function of the unconscious layers of the mind, yet many people work at becoming more intuitive, more in touch with the unconscious.  We often perceive patterns long before we understand them, and we may often make decisions on an unconscious level before that thought process rises to the level of consciousness.  Does this make us less free?

Yet it is the rational and self-aware layer of consciousness that philosophers keep focusing on, to the exclusion of the rest of the human psyche.  When Kutzweil imagines uploading the human mind into a computer, it seems he would upload only the conscious thinking mind with its narrative of memory and be satisfied with that. 

3. When I am “true to myself,” does that mean being true to more than my individuality?

If it quacks like a duck and it walks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.  Yet another thing that ducks do is to fly in V-formations with other ducks.  Is the V-formation a characteristic of an individual duck?  No.  A solitary duck does not fly in any formation.  The individual duck has a preference for flying with another duck ahead and a little to one side.  The V-formation self-assembles as a result.  Does that mean the V-formation is somehow just a convenient fiction?  No.  No more so than a wave in the ocean is a fiction.  Individual water molecules do not move in waves, they merely bob up and down in response to forces acting upon them, yet in some sense the wave is far more real than the molecules.

Consider the way that wealth moves through human society.  Concentrations of wealth self-assemble among humans much the way V-formations do among ducks.  This is not always even in the enlightened self-interest of the wealthy.  The CEO of a large company might find the most happiness by retiring, buying a house in the country, and hosting parties to which he invites his favorite artists, writers, and performers.  Yet few of them do that, preferring instead to pursue the game of acquisition for its own sake, far beyond the point where increasing wealth actually increases happiness.  I see a similar dynamic with military honor among soldiers and cycles of violence that escalate out of anyone’s control.  You could also describe Quakers’ corporate discernment of the will of God the same way; a Higher Power guiding us to inward serenity and enlightened action could be seen as self-assembling around the gathered body of worshippers.  Even if that were the only thing happening in gathered worship (which most Quakers would dispute) it would still not be fictional.  It is a lived experience, as real as a wave in the ocean.

And what does this have to do with individual identity?  The soldier may say he cannot be true to himself unless he defends his honor, avenges his fallen comrades, strikes back at the enemy who has so insulted him.  The Quaker feels most fully himself when he finds his way to unity with God and with the gathered body of worshippers.  And the CEO feels personally injured when taxes on billionaires threaten to limit his income, even if he himself is only a multimillionaire and not directly affected.  I am me.  I am also one of us.  My continuity is not just with my own memories; it is with the shared stories of all of those with whom I identify.  Much that is unfortunate in human history stems from this fact, but also much that is worthwhile.

And also, what of mental phenomena that are passed down through evolutionary time?  Memories are recorded in neurons and result from the brain’s adaptation to experiences within a single lifespan.  But there is another kind of memory, one that is recorded in the genome and results from a species’ adaptation to experiences over many generations.  Is this kind of continuity any less real?  Granted, it is below the level of consciousness and it is spatially discontinuous.  But does that make it unreal?

I once read an evolutionary biologist talking about different reproductive strategies depending on whether an organism reproduces slowly (like at oak tree) or quickly (like dandelions).  He pointed out something that is not immediately obvious:  In a field of dandelions, every individual may be genetically identical.  Therefore, the entire field could be considered as one organism, though spatially discontinuous.  Considered as such, it falls into the category of a slowly reproducing organism, and indeed its reproductive strategy (as one population of dandelions engenders another population in a new location) is observed to match those of other slow-reproducers.

The boundaries of self vs. non-self have changed profoundly over the course of evolution, first when prokaryotic cells began to live endosymbiotically, becoming organelles living together as parts of eukaryotic cells, and again when single-celled organisms joined into colonies and then became true multicellular organisms.  The evolution of self-awareness is only the latest in a series of profound shifts in the definition of “self.” 

I look at my dog.  He has a certain way of tilting his head, a certain hypnotic stare when he looks back at me.  And it is the same stare I see in border collies, which makes me think he has some border collie in him.  And that also makes me wonder about the ways in which all border collies can be considered to make up, in some sense, a single mind, spatially divided and with different memories and experiences, but still sharing common thought processes, continuous with each other not through uninterrupted awareness but through evolutionary heritage.  I see him play with a bone, reaching out preferentially with his right forepaw to manipulate it, and I think about my own right-handedness and I wonder how much he and I are part of the same organism—how much my mind and my thoughts are continuous with his.

4. Beam me up, Scotty!

Of the four theories of identity that you list (ego, psychological continuity, materialist, and no-self) none entirely satisfy.  I suppose I am closest to the psychological continuity theory, but with a strong emphasis on the extreme, almost infinite complexity of the “pattern.”  But there is something fundamental missing from all of them.  None of the theories actually address the nature of consciousness.

Consciousness is not the same as memory.  My pocket calculator has memory.  It is smaller and simpler than the memories I store in my brain, but in general it is the same kind of thing.  But there is nothing in the calculator analogous to consciousness.

Consciousness is not the same as thought, not even self-referential thought.  A computer can be programmed to regard itself objectively, mapping the world around it and placing in that map a marker to represent “self.”  That computer may make decisions to optimize the attainment of goals by that “self.”  But that does not make the computer conscious.

Up until now I’ve been downplaying the importance of conscious awareness.  I am now going to make a plug for its primacy.  Consider the transporters on Star Trek.  Imagine that these fictional devices operate exactly as portrayed in the TV show: matter is converted into energy, beamed across great distances, and then reassembled remotely.  Obviously (though it is never mentioned on the show) energy cannot be the only thing beamed.  A pattern for reassembly must also be transmitted.  Imagine being the inventor of the transporter beam.  You test it first on inanimate objects, and they reappear exactly as they were.  Next you test it on animals.  They materialize with not just the same mass and physical structures, but alive, with all the complicated processes of metabolism still in motion.  Now you are ready to test it on a human subject.  You step onto the transporter pad, and just as you are about to energize, someone asks you, “Is the animal that materialized really the same animal that was sent?  Or is it an exact copy, and the original animal actually died?”  This question may not matter to us if we are looking at the animal from the outside.  Even if it is a beloved pet, the animal stepping out of the transporter still looks and acts like the original, still comes bounding up to you to nuzzle you until you scratch its ear.  But now it’s you that’s about to be beamed away.  And you might conclude that, don’t be silly, of course it’s still the original animal, and you will go ahead and energize.  And when you step out at the other end, you have all the original’s memories, so you give me a smug look and say, “See?  Still me.”  But I bet you hesitated for at least a fraction of a second before energizing.  Why?  Does it really matter if the original you died and a new, exact copy was made in its place?

Hell yes.  Because even if that new you goes on to live the rest of what would have been your life, you aren’t there to enjoy it. 

One may argue that the self was only ever a fiction in the first place, but even a philosopher who believes this will acknowledge that the fiction is a very convincing one.  He might argue that any identification of the present self with the future self is illusory, yet if I kick him in the shins and then move as if to do it again, he will flinch away.  Who then has won the argument?

I want to suggest that the experience of having a “self” is not an illusion.  Instead, the ability to have experiences is what defines a self.  This ability probably can’t exist independently of a physical brain, so I do not subscribe to the ego theory of mind.  We can experience the world even if we do not remember those experiences, so I can’t fully accept the psychological continuity theory.  It’s not about correlation either—multiple identical copies of my may be materialized by a malfunctioning transporter, but as soon as they appear, they begin having their own experiences—so Parfit’s materialist theory doesn’t satisfy.  And yet there certainly is something that I experience as myself.  It will always be there when I look for it.  Piaget would say it has object permanence.  Theories that regard it as existing will predict the future better than theories that regard it as illusory. 

The origin of consciousness seems to me to be as fundamental and as important a mystery as the origins of mass, energy, time, and space.  It’s a great question to wrestle with, but we’re nowhere near an answer.

Posted by jhughes  on  11/26  at  10:55 PM


Yes, I’m well aware that the illusion of self is persistent and one that most of us find painful, as in the fear of death that you point out. That is why the gradual erosion of that illusion by neurotechnology, and the gradual realization of its arbitrary and fictive nature will be so jarring.

As to the rest of what you are saying, I’m not sure how to respond. I guess I’m gratified that the essay inspired so much struggling with the issue for you.

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