Issue #5: 'self'

You are not who you think you are

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by Tim Dean on October 6, 2014

You are not who you think you are. Philosophers, from the Buddha to David Hume to Derek Parfit, have been telling us that for centuries. There is no essential you, there is no unchanging nucleus at the centre of your being, and there is no homunculus looking through your eyes and pulling the levers that steer your actions. Whatever you think the hard core of you is, it’s an illusion.

But if it’s all just smoke and mirrors, why do we have a sense of self in the first place?

One way to tackle such a question is to ask not what the self is, but instead ask what it might be for. What is its purpose? What function does it serve? We happen to have a splendid tool for answering such questions. It is that great synthesiser: evolution.

From an evolutionary point of view, illusory or not, the self is no accident. Like depth perception, the sweetness of a plum and the wrinkly skin on our elbows, our sense of self is the product of evolutionary forces. More specifically, it’s the by-product of the way our minds have evolved to work.

Ignore for a moment all the airy-fairy definitions of the mind as the seat of consciousness or as the place where qualia happen and instead look at the mind as a tool for making decisions to better steer adaptive behaviour. That’s it in a nutshell, or in a skull.

Good decisions are those that have aided their makers in the existential evolutionary challenges of survival and reproduction. After all, it was only those creatures that cannily evaded predators, tracked down prey and found a mate that passed on their genes to us. But making good decisions requires information, sometimes lots of it.

Simple organisms living blissfully in simple environments don’t require much information in order to make good decisions: if the temperature hits a certain point, then open the flowers; if you sniff out a predator in the pond, then make babies with tougher shells to resist them.

However, as the environment, both physical and social, becomes more complex, the amount of information required to make a good decision explodes. And the environment of our hominid ancestors, particularly their unique social environment, was spectacularly complex.

Not only did they have to navigate the peaks and troughs of their physical world, discriminate between potential predator and prey, and pick the berries that don’t taste like burning, they also had to interact and cooperate with other complex beings just like them. They needed to make friends and maintain alliances; gauge their status in an ever-changing social hierarchy; select, woo and retain a suitable mate; and then figure out how to raise more little beings just like them.

To this end, evolution kindly furnished them with a slew of sub-systems to track salient features of their environment. This included features of the physical environment, like shape, distance, temperature and whether that rustle in the bush over there is a gust of wind or a slavering sabre-tooth.

They also tracked features of the social environment – like their relative status, who were friends and foes, and whether that was a smirk or a grimace from the fertile young thing across the cave. They also had equipment to track their internal, or bodily, environment. Every pang of hunger, every urge to pee and every twinge in their back was information to help them follow an appropriate behavioural course.

But what happened when the information from these sub-systems conflicted? What should they do when different sub-systems nudged them towards opposing actions? What to do when there emerged a tug-of-war between desire and fear mixed with uncertainty, such as on any first date? With hundreds, if not thousands, of different streams, it was inevitable that they would often pull their host in different directions.

That’s where they needed some kind of conflict-resolution system. Something that could integrate and weigh up the various streams of information, evaluate the alternative courses of action and overrule short-term impulses for the sake of long-term interests. A system that could recognise that all the sub-systems ultimately serve a single master: the reproductive fate of the whole organism, and its precious payload of genes.

Thankfully evolution furnished our forebears with this conflict resolver, this grand integrator and ultimate decision maker, situated somewhere in the frontal lobes of their burgeoning brains. It was the CEO of the bodily corporation.

Most of the simple decisions and behaviours remained motivated directly by departments within the corporation, and took place without needing to bother sending a memo to the CEO. It’s only when there was a conflict or some balancing of interests that the executive needed to step in.

It just so happened that, like in many corporations, the CEO had a habit of taking all the credit for the triumphs of the autonomous departments under its charge, and a corresponding habit for blaming those departments for its failings.

The CEO was also often blissfully unaware of all the messy details that had gone into producing any particular decision. It had a tendency for making up any old justification for doing what it did, usually explaining it in terms of its executive initiative, even though most decisions happened without involvement from upstairs.

This CEO is at the root of the illusion of self. The central decision maker, useful though it is to us today as it was for our ancestors, makes it seem from the outside (and when looking in the mirror) like the massively cooperative corporation is constituted of just one entity.

But why would evolution produce a system with such a persistent error? It’s because evolution is famous for caring a whole lot less about truth than it does about survival and reproduction. If believing the sky is purple and every rustle in the bushes is a cranky yeti leads to having more babies, then so be it, says evolution.

As long as the few dumb decisions inspired by the illusory self were overwhelmed by the many good decisions resulting from effectively coordinating the whole corporation, then evolution had little incentive to change things. Ultimately we have this unshakable impression of a hard core to our self for one simple reason: it is a spectacularly useful illusion.

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