I have dealt briefly with the history of the Christian "soul". With the advance of neurology, psychology and the cognitive sciences, we've come a long way from the days when people still thought that the earth and the universe were inhabited by wandering ghosts, kind-hearted fairies, unpredictable sprites, mischievous goblins, malicious elves, black-hearted devils bent upon our destruction and guardian angels gingerrly watching over our every step to prevent us from ever falling and when our lives were still governed by the mysterious workings of all kinds of Nature gods, animal gods and later an all powerful, all knowing and all loving God. Many now think that man has finally come of age and that we may safely discard our former notions of "ghost" and "spirits" along with our folk psychology concepts of how we are able to make moral choices (i.e. with our so-called "free will"), the way we leave behind our furry toys the moment we mount the steps of our first university. We have entered the so-called "modern" age! Shall we modify the way we look at our behavior. Galen Strawson certainly thinks so.
In an article entitled "The Sense of the Self" (1999), Strawson argues that human life is founded on three connected illusions: romantic love, free will and the self. Of the three, he thinks that love is "probably the most common target of skepticism but at least, the notion of "romantic love" is "certainly naturalistically respectable". But he has no hope that so-called "free will" is still a scientifically sustainable notion except in a very special sense. To him, "free will" in the strong form as many still seem to believe, is "probably an illusion.". He agrees with Susan Greenfield that we do not have to believe in "free will" to believe in an immortal or immaterial soul and that we do not have to believe that "the mind can exist without the brain" to believe in immortal life. He argues that in so believing, he has the support of Calvin, St. Augustine and Origen (3rdC Church Father), Joseph Priestley, the great 18thC chemist and Unitarian, who argued that belief in an immortal soul was unorthodox from the Christian point of view.
To Strawson, the "self" is the most difficult of the 3 topics, not so much because the words we use to talk about "soul" are often unclear and confusing but because the "concept" of the word is already unclear even before we try to analyze it in language. To him we do have a "sense of the self", even if there is no such thing as the "self". Some think that the illusion of the "self" arises from an improper or "unnatural" use of language e.g. Anthony Kenny, (The Metaphysics of Mind (89)) but Strawson does not think so. He thinks that the use of such a phrase as “the self” arises from a prior and independent sense that there is such a thing as the "self": it has a natural use in religious, philosophical and psychological context.
Strawson thinks that we can prove that my "self", the putative mental self, is either nothing at all or it is simply myself, the living, embodied, publicly observable human being considered as a whole because the term “I” that refers to the former undoubtedly also refers to the latter; so the former does not exist independently from the latter. So either it is the latter or nothing at all (cf. Kenny 1988: 4) but to Strawson, this argument which appeals to the use of public language has no force precisely because such language merely "reflects" the phenomenon that the public do in fact "talk" that way. It does NOT prove the real "existence" of the "reality" to which the term “self” refers. Even on its own terms: the distinction between “I” in the sense of our "mental self" and “I” meaning "the human being" is clearly marked out even in ordinary talk and thought: people naturally and sincerely report certain experiences to each other by saying things like “I felt completely detached from my body” “I felt I was floating out of my body and looking down on it from above; such experiences are particularly vivid and common in adolescence, occurring spontaneously about 1 in 300 cases. To them, the fact that such "detachment" do not actually occur is unimportant. What matters to them is that they "felt" such detachment and that that is the "natural" way they talk to others about what they regard as "real" the experience in which the intended reference of "I", is felt as not being the same as the human being considered "as a whole". But Strawson does admit that when others hear about one person talking about such an "out-of-body" experience, they would naturally "assume" that the former is talking about the "whole" human being in front of them and not about "some separate inner mental entity.".
To Strawson, the way we tend to experience ourselves is "as a mental entity" e.g sex addicts, athletes, supermodels etc., especially when at the relevant time, our mind is preoccupied with our bodies is simply an example of the way our attention is focused upon ourselves when we are engaged with our own thoughts and experiences, living with ourselves principally in our inward mental theatre, incessantly presented to ourselves as entities engaged in mental business. Russel Hurburt has found out in 1994 empirically, by asking 3 people with Asperger syndrome ( a mild form of autism) at the time when the experimental bleepers they were carrying were bleeping what they were thinking of. (” R. Hurburt, R. Happe, U Frith 1994: 387 “Sampling the form of inner experience in three adults with Asperger syndrome” in Psychological Medicine 385-95) . The majority of them were focused on some "internal mental event" with "no direct awareness" of any "outside events" at that moment. We always have a "'sense of the self" and of things going on within our brain even when we are thoroughly preoccupied with our bodies and even when we are intensely focused on things in the external world not directly related to such mental goings on, when we have just a "background" awareness of our own mental goings on. Thus we do have constant background or foreground awareness of our minds. But to say this is not to say that we are right or wise to think of ourselves merely as a mental thing. We may also think of ourselves as "a whole being",a unified person to which mental and non-mental predicates are equally and fundamentally applicable and this is also the way we tend to think of other people. It is also true that since Descartes, we may often think of our mind and our body as separate entities. But Damasio (see previous blog) has shown that our body has always been the reference point upon which we base our self-reflection when we are thinking of our "self". Philosophers and psychologists are anxious to dissociate themselves from Cartesianism but kinaesthetic experience and other forms of proprioceptive experience of body are just that—experience—and in so far as they contribute constantly to our overall sense of ourselves, they not only contribute to awareness of the body, they also contribute themselves together with background awareness of themselves.
Strawson thinks that there are no easy or guaranteed inference from facts about ordinary public language use to facts about how we fundamentally or really think about things (psychology is not that easy) nor do facts about public language use prove that self-experience involves an illusion (metaphysics is not that easy) and when we think in private, there is nothing to prevent us from thinking of ourselves as primarily or fundamentally mental things: even public language use cannot break in our inner privacy and tell us we are not really doing what we think we are doing (i.e not really thinking about ourselves). However, empirically, human beings in different cultures are much more alike psychologically than most present day anthropologists and sociologists suppose: there are profound emotional and cognitive similarities between human beings that wholly transcend differences in cultural experience: the cultural relativism of Emile Durkheim, elegantly renewed by Clifford Geertz and orthodox in large parts of the academic community, has been severely undermined by recent works in evolutionary psychology. It is based on an underestimation of the genetic determinants of human nature and a false view about human mental development (For a sustained criticism of the relativist position from the point of view of evolutionary psychology see L. Cosmides, J. Tooby “The Psychological Foundation of Culture” in Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby eds. The Adaptive Mind NY:OUP (92))
What then is meant by "a sense of the self"? Certainly not the kind discussed in books about “personal growth”. It's the sense people have of themselves as a mental presence, a conscious subject, with a certain personality distinct from all its particular experiences, thoughts, hopes, wishes, feelings etc. To Strawson, such a sense of the mental self is felt by every normal human being, in some form, even in childhood from the realization that one’s thoughts are unobservable by others, a sense that one is alone in one’s head or even in a room full of people: a sense that one’s body is just a vehicle or vessel for the mental thing that is what one really or most essentially is. This doesn’t mean however, that "the sense of self" automatically leads to the belief in an immortal soul or in life after bodily death.
To Strawson, the mental self is conceived or experienced as comprising 8 elements: it's usually experienced as a thing ( not a state or property of something else or an event or series of events and not a thing in the same sense that a stone is, something that can undergo things and do things, a thinking active principle), something mental ( the self is a mental self), single at a point in time (during an experientially unitary or hiatus free period of thought or experience: (research by Poppel and others provides clear evidence that the experienced NOW is not a point but is extended and endures for about 3 seconds E. Poppel “ Time Perception” 1978 in R. Held, H. W. Leibovitz and H. L. Teuber ed. Handbook of Sensory Physiology NY: Springer) and but may be experienced as something synchronically multiple “My name is legion” Mk. 5:9 : one may be subject to rapid mood changes, feel oneself being pulled in different directions by opposed desires but even so, one still feels both desires belongs to the same person and are one’s own) and through time (diachronically), ontologically distinct from its thoughts, experiences etc (although the mental self has thoughts, experiences, emotions etc it is not the same as them or not the same as one’s beliefs, preferences, memories, character traits etc: it may have such but is not the same as such but Hume thinks that the self is not ontologically distinct from the series of mental goings on) and from all other things physical, a subject of experience ( especially when one is alone and thinking ), a conscious feeler, thinker, chooser, decider, an agent ( when one undergoes something, an experience passively) or actively as an intention agent (e.g. William James thinks that the mental self is “the active element in all consciousness…the source of effort and attention and the place from which emanate the fiats of the will” and is thought to be a revelation of the living substance of the Soul : James The Principles of Psychology Vol 1 NY: Dover 1950 297-8, 299; Psychology: Briefer Course Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP 1984: 163)) with a particular personality.
Of the 8 elements of the self, at least ( a mental, a thing, mental, occurring in time and though time, ontologically distinct from its thoughts, experiences, a subject of experience and an agent with a certain personality) two may go eg. the diachronic singularity and the personality element but the agency component also may go. Thus most people have at some time and however temporarily, experienced themselves as kind of pure consciousness, not just as detached but as void of personality, stripped of particularity of character, a mere point of view: this may be the result of exhaustion, or solitude or abstract thought or the result of depression in which one experiences “depersonalization”: sustained experience of depersonalization is classified as psychotic but is experientially real.
Although a sense of the self may be vivid and complete at any given time even if it has to do with the present, brief hiatus-free stretch of consciousness at any given time but this may be just a formal possibility, remote from reality and from our interest,. One can be fully aware and have a strong sense of what one most truly and fundamentally is: viz. that one has long term continuity as a human being without ipso facto having any sense of the mental self as something that has long term continuity, that one has a past and a future as the latter idea may have little or no emotional importance for one. People differ great in this respect: some have an excellent personal memory (of their own past life) and an unusual capacity for vivid recollection whilst others may have a very poor personal memory or one which never intrudes spontaneously into their current thought, ie have little force in the way they imagine, anticipate or form intention for the future
Some people live deeply in the narrative mode: they experience their lives in terms of something that has shape and story, narrative trajectory, rehearse and revise interpretation of their lives, are great planners and knit up their lives with long-term projects; others have little early ambition, no later sense of vocation, no interest in climbing a career ladder, no tendency to see their life in narrative terms and live life in a picaresque or episodic fashion, make few plans and are little concerned about the future. Some live intensely in the present and others are simply aimless and some go through life as if stunned.
Per Strawson, neither inconsistency nor poor memory is necessary for the episodic experience of life e.g John Updike has an extremely powerful personal memory and a highly consistent character and writes in his autobiography “I have the persistent sensation, in my life and art, that I am just beginning” (1989: 239) but I have an extremely poor personal memory, live an episodic life, has no sense of my life as narrative with form, have little interest in my past and little concern for the future, and my poor personal memory rarely impinges on my present consciousness and when I do think about my past, I not particularly interested in it as my past in any emotionally significant way and even if I do make plans for the future, I seldom think of the future ME as something in the future—I may feel anxiety about the future but this may be something innate and hard-wired, a manifestation of the instinct for self-preservation: it is biologically grounded and autonomous in such a way that it persists although I do not now feel that ME will be there in the future.
When death or eternal non-existence is in question, the time gap between ME and the moment of my death approximates to nothing like when a finite number is compared with infinity—the thought of eternal nothingness doesn’t override commonsense but has an emotional force that makes it plain that death stares me in the face. The lesson is that one’s sense of one’s temporal nature may vary considerably depending on what one is thinking about but that it does not necessarily involve a sense of it as something that has long-term continuity
My phenomenological experience of my own mental self may be one kind among others but it shows that the human sense of long term continuity may not be universal, it may fade over time in some and is withered in others by reflection.Some think that conscious experience flows eg William James “Consciousness…does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as :train” or “chain” do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A “river” or a “stream” are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described…Let us call it the stream of consciousness or subjective life” 1984: 145 Is the stream of thought a stream? People vary: yes, no, usually, sometimes and almost never. But one can’t assume that their answers are true even if they are sincere. Human thought has very little phenomenological continuity or experiential flow “Our thoughts is fluctuating, uncertain, fleeting” as David Hume said (A Treatise on Human Nature ed. L A Selby-Bigge and P H Nidditch Oxford: OUP (1978) 1947；194): It keeps slipping from consciousness into self-consciousness and out again: it is always shooting off, fuzzing, shorting out, spurting, stalling--William James described it as “like a bird’s life…an alternation of flights and perchings (1950:243)
Trains of thought are constantly broken by detours, byflows, fissures and white noise, especially is just sitting and thinking: things are different if one’s attention is engaged by some ordered and continuous process like a fast and exciting game or music or a talk in which case thought or experience may be felt to inherit much of the continuity of the phenomenon which occupies it but it may still seize up, fly off or flash with perfectly extraneous matter from time to time and reflection reveals gaps and fadings, disappearances and recommencements even when there is stable succession of content. There is an important respect in which James Joyce’s use of punctuation in his stream of consciousness novel Ulysses makes his depiction of the character f the process of consciousness more accurate in the case of the heavily punctuated Stephen Dedalus than in the case of the unpunctuated Molly Bloom. Dorothy Richardson, acknowledged as the inventor of the stream of consciousness novel in English, remarked on the “perfect imbecility” of the phrase to describe what she did.
Consciousness is continually restarting, resuming where it left off and conscious thought has the character of a series of disjunct irruptions into consciousness from a basic substrate of non-consciousness.: it keeps banging out of nothingness: it is a series of comings to. Some hiatuses in the process of consciousness involve complete switches of focus and subject matter: others occur between thoughts that are connected in subject matter or when one is attending to something in such a ways that one hardly notices the hiatus because the content of the experience is more or less the same after the hiatus as before: the hiatus is often fast and it is not hard to overlook the recurrent flicks and crashes of consciousness, the absolute fugues and insterstitial vacancies—just as we overlook the blinking of our eyes but they are easily noticeable when they are attended to The sense of the mental self as something that has long term continuity lacks a certain direct phenomenological warrant in the moment to moment nature of our thought processes and not supported at the level of detail by any phenomenon of steady flow and any continuity is derived indirectly from the massive constancies and developmental coherences of content that link up experiences through time and by virtue of short-term memory, across all the jumps and breaks of flow.
For my part, I have no sense of seamless flow or continuity in the process of consciousness but it does not follow that I have no sense of the continuing mental self—when one thinks about this mental self rather than simply have it, one reactions may well be that it does present the mental self as a single continuing thing through the waking day: something that has all thoe interrupted and jumping thoughts and experiences but is not itself a gappy interrupted thing but only a robustly persisting body of basic beliefs, preferences, mental abilities etc. but for me, I’m met with the sense that there is no "I" or self that goes on through the waking day even though there is an "I" or self at any given time and if "I "consider myself as a mental subject of experience, my sense is that "I" am continually new, just like John Updike: I feel I am a nomad in time although the metaphor is intus-susceptive, because it is the “I” itself that has the transience of abandoned camping grounds and some may think that experience like mine may be the unnatural result of philosophy or drugs: philosophy may simply make one examine more closely the already existing nature of one’s experience.
Perhaps the best account of the existence of the self is one that may be given by certain Buddhists: it shows that a mental self exists at any given moment in time but it retains all the essential Buddhist critique of the idea of the self and gives no reassurance to those who believe in the non-physical soul. So it takes us from soul to self but it doesn’t leave us with nothing: it stops short of the view of analytic philosophers that the mental self is a myth is so far as it is thought to different from the human being considered as a whole: it leaves us with what we have, at any given moment of time—a self that is materially respectable, distinctively mental and as real as a stone.
(To be cont'd)