The Elusive Self

Last week ABC radio interviewed German philosopher of mind Thomas Metzinger:

The physical body certainly exists, the organism exists, but organisms are not selves. I don't deny that there is a self-y feeling. I certainly feel like someone, but there is no such thing. There is neither a non-physical thing in a realm beyond the brain or the physical world that we could call a self, but there's also no thing in the brain that we must necessary call a self.

Of course Buddhist philosophy had that point 2,500 years ago. So the idea that, as philosophers say, the self is not a substance, that it is something that can stay and hold itself in existence, even if the body or the brain were to perish, that's not a very breathtaking and new idea. What I am interested in is to understand why we just cannot believe that this is so. We have the feeling there is an essence in us, a deepest, inner core. We have this feeling that there must be something that is just not right about neuro-scientific theories about self consciousness, there's something beyond it. And I want to understand what that deepest core is because that's the origin of the subjectivity of consciousness.

One of his more frightening thoughts:

I mean, how will our culture actually react to a naturalistic turn in our image of man, if there's no supernatural root even in our minds anymore, and we actually have to come to terms with the fact that not only our bodies but also our minds are results of a process that had no goal, that was driven by chance events...I mean, how are we going to come to terms with this? Will we develop a culture of denial, or will we all become vulgar materialists?....I think, to put it very simply, we could do it by just thinking not only about what is a good action but what is a good state of consciousness. What states of consciousness do we want to show our children? How can neuroscience help us with optimising education? What states of consciousness are we allowed to impose, to force upon animals? Are all these experiments in, say, primate research, in consciousness research, in neuroscience ethically tenable? What states of consciousness should be illegal in our society? New drugs. What states of consciousness do we want to foster and cultivate?

It's also a question of preserving our dignity in the face of these sometimes very sobering discussions, and in developing a cultural response to it. Can modern science help me? It's not only about defending ourselves, it's also about what I call riding the tiger; can all this new knowledge help us to improve our autonomy, maybe also our rationality? How can I take responsibility and charge for the way I deal with my own brain? Can it help us to die better deaths? Who knows? But I think we should all, not only philosophers and scientists but all of us, start to think about what we want to do with all these new brain/mind technologies. Just looking the other way won't make it go away.

(Hat tip: Mind Hacks)