What is “the Self”?

And assuming we can answer that, how is science changing it?

Big philosophical concepts bother me, but I am expected later this week at Tufts University, where I’ll be on a panel discussing “The New Biology and the Self.” So I need to get over my reluctance to talk about the self. And it’s not the only big idea that gives me trouble.

Consciousness and free will are two other notions that seem to evaporate as you approach them. You can do brain imaging studies and find out what parts of the brain are active when these states emerge, But what does that tell you, really? Some circuit or other is humming while we are self-aware or while a “free” choice is made. So? This tells us what these human experiences look like to an observer at the physiological level. It doesn’t say anything about the subjective experiences that we are really curious about.

Something similar applies to the “self.” We can describe it from the outside, but it is our subjective experience of it that matters. The  cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser used to talk about different parts or varieties of the self—the cognitive self, based on tendencies to perceive and think in certain ways; the ecological self, owing to a person’s particular situation in the surrounding environment; the narrative self, arising from a more or less coherent story we tell ourselves about our lives. But after holding a series of conferences on five different kinds of “self,” he seemed to end in disappointment, thinking that it’s not a terribly useful word.

The self sounds to me in part a lot like consciousness. Not the consciousness of which a playful dog has more than a sleeping philosopher, the state you measure on a scale of stupor and coma; rather the awareness of our inner lives, an ongoing binding or bundling of sensations, actions, feelings, and thoughts, the awareness of our awareness. Metacognition, some psychologists call it.

No one knows how this works. Clearly, Descartes’ claim notwithstanding, there is no “homunculus” or little person inside the mind watching everything else (which only leads to an infinite Russian-doll regression of one homunculus inside the next). Somehow the mind watches itself; somehow the brain gets and gives us a subjective sense of both consciousness and self.

As for free will, there are determinants of every human choice, and determinants of those determinants, and so on back through development to the genome and then back beyond that through evolution. However, because no one, including ourselves, can ever trace that chain of causation—it is formally chaotic and thus empirically unknowable due to sensitivity to initial conditions—we have no alternative but to rely on our subjective sense that we are making a free choice, and hold ourselves and each other responsible accordingly.

But assuming each of us has a self—or several—what does “The New Biology” imply for it or them? I can easily think of three things.

First, the revolution in genomics, especially personal genomics, is gradually giving us all the chance to find out what ethnic groups our ancestors came from and what diseases and even behavior patterns we are predisposed to. Some of this information may be useful, some interesting, some scary. Suppose you are prone to a disease—Alzheimer’s, or some cancers—that nothing can be done about. Suppose you have genes that predict criminality, or falling in love with the wrong person. Of course, you can refuse to have your genome done, but you haven’t really escaped, since you are now in your own eyes and  those of others the person who chose not to know, which is not the same person you were before you had the choice.

Second, the brain imaging revolution can theoretically find the neural activity associated with every act, thought or feeling. Does that make your brain you? Do you want to know what is going on in there when, for instance, you look at a picture of your wife, boyfriend, or son? Whether your charitable donation was done out of the goodness of your heart, to snatch some pittance out of the jaws of the IRS, or just to show off? Again, the objectivity of the method appears to change our sense of ourselves, even if we reject the chance to know.

Third, the constant stream of new enhancement drugs—let’s just consider the prescription ones—that  can change thoughts, feelings, even actions. Stimulants for alertness and cognitive function, modafinil for a controlled sleep-wake cycle, Prozac and the like for sadness, Viagra and Cialis for sexual readiness. Memory enhancers seem to be right around the corner. Every one of these is an intervention we can now (with a little help from our friendly doctor) more or less make upon ourselves.

Is the chronically sad self now a happy one, or just a sad one with a drug on board? Is the long-desexualized elderly man really sexual again, or is the viagrafication just below the belt? Is the student who couldn’t concentrate without Adderall really different? One thing is for sure: we all have a lot of new questions to answer.


  1. Wenjie Xiao says:

    I have been wondering something about the “self” recently too, since trying to train my dog. It dawned on me to wonder what his name meant to him. He certainly responds to his name, but does he think he specifically is being called to attention, or that he is Chewey and Chewey is being called to attention? For example, if I say “Chewey, sit” does he think I am saying “attention, I’m talking to you, sit” or “you sit”? As humans our names have a lot to do with our identity, but when did the first person begin to associate a symbol to a specific call of attention with identity?

    As for drugs that alter mood, I think the interpretation is really up to the person. Some people report that they finally feel like themselves again once they feel the effects of the SSRIs, while others claim they feel like a zombie and must be taken off. That is not to say that only the self can determine who the self is, but even people with episodes of mania or depression or hallucinations will say “I was not myself at the time.” Perhaps the self is deeper than delusions, or are the delusions are part of the self?

  2. Mel Konner says:

    Dear Wenjie,

    Thanks for writing. I often wonder in similar ways about our dog, Fergus. He seems to pay attention when his name is mentioned, even if he is not being addressed. There is no way he could have the kinds of associations we have with our names–their family and ethnic associations, for example, or in my case the fact that I was named after a cousin killed during World War II and that other kids made fun of me for it back in Brooklyn. We can never know what goes on in animals’ minds, but I would guess that the sound “Fergus” has a meaning for him that is different from other words he responds to–a sound that belongs to him in some way, and one that reflects a lot of experiences with people who say his name. Not memories, but habits and especially feelings, collectively adding up to something more than “sit” or “go out.” But I’m just speculating here.

    Of course you are right about psychoactive medications. They are not for everyone, and when they don’t work and are discontinued, they don’t affect the self. On the other hand, if someone rejects them because they don’t want the self to be subject to chemical influences, that rejection is surely part of the self, which makes it hard to escape some change in the self caused (indirectly) by them even if you reject them.

    As for hallucinations, delusions and self-delusion, I think they are all part of who we are, and so is the effort to detect and escape them as influences on us. I don’t think we can do that very well, certainly not entirely, but the person who is making the effort differs in an important way from the one who isn’t. I don’t in the least accept Plato’s claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, but I do think the examined life is different.

    I posted a new blog entry consisting of the remarks I ended up making at Tufts, which expanded on some of the issues raised in this one.

    Thanks again for writing, Wenjie.

  3. Jeff says:

    This made me laugh: “…we have no alternative but to rely on our subjective sense that we are making a free choice, and hold ourselves and each other responsible accordingly.”

    According to your proposition, you are quite right, we have no alternatives whatever. If this proposition is true, there is no such thing as responsibility, moral or otherwise. If an agent did not cause an action, he, ipso facto, cannot be responsible for it. There is no middle ground. Either we have free will, viz. we cause our own actions, or we do not. If we do, then people are morally responsible for their actions, if not, either because things are determined or random, morality has no meaning whatever.

    This seems to be nothing more than a rationalization to avoid that angst, as the Germans called it, caused by the contemplation of our existential impotence. You are asking us to indulge in something you believe to be an illusion.

    What is more terrifying, if we are completely determined, knowledge is impossible! After all, you did not accept a thing because you saw that it conformed to reality and thence chose to accept it, rather certain chemical/electrical processes in the brain made you, or indeed, made you want to, accept it.

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