Faith and the Reality of the Self.*

*With apologies to Philip K. Dick and the makers of Blade Runner (Warner Bros. 1982)

Stephen Wilson meditates on the nature of the self

In 1943, C. S. Lewis published The Abolition of Man, a defence of objective values and natural law, which he saw as under threat from scientific hubris. Today, something rather similar is being attempted with our ordinary conception of the mind and the self, a ‘reductionist’ assault on consciousness, free will, and much else that, in our right mind, we think of as essentially human. A kind of intellectual hubris seeks to inflate the power of physical science to explain our world beyond its legitimate territory—into what the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson (in her book, Absence of Mind: the Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, Yale, 2010) has called ‘parascience,’ in which the language and prestige of science is inflated into a philosophical doctrine, or prejudice. Should this really give cause for concern to anyone—whether believer or not? Some commentators, such as the veteran philosopher Mary Midgley (in a number of her writings, among them Beast And Man: The Roots of Human Nature, Routledge, 1978, revised edition 1995; Wisdom, Information and Wonder: What Is Knowledge For?, Routledge, 1989; Science As Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning, Routledge, 1992) would give a resounding ‘yes’ to that question.

To begin, as they say, at the beginning: We think of the new-born infant as gradually, through its interaction with the mother (in the first instance) becoming self-aware, and then, little by little, conscious of the wider world. So primordial a process is this that it must be thought of less as one of ‘learning’ than as something prior to all cognition. Psychoanalytic theory thus terms the process as one of ‘internalisation,’ with the sequence: me>mother>other>third party>world. So we think of first-person singular pronouns—‘I,’ ‘me,’ ‘mine,’ ‘myself’—as a basic feature of everyday language. These expressions symbolize a developed grasp of the world and of our place in it. And first-person words and expressions have the appearance of referring to an item—to ‘the self.’ This ‘me’ we think of as possessing an inner world—‘my’ thoughts and feelings, experiences, sensations, memories and so on—and (so we are told) the subterranean world of the unconscious. Marilynne Robinson asks us to consider (in Absence of Mind, op. cit., at Chapter 4, ‘Thinking Again’)—

‘…the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word “I” and mean by it a richly individual history of experience, perception and thought. For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone…’

Yet something baffling and strange is afoot in the worlds of science and philosophy. There is a claim that this first-person feature of our language is quite misleading. We are wrong to think of the self as something really ‘there.’ And what is more, the inner world which ‘I’ once thought of as ‘mine’—the domain of consciousness, memory, free will and so on—all that we would think of as a part of being a human person—is also an illusion. The ‘I’ does not exist, and so cannot ‘have’…anything.

The view among certain scientists and philosophers comes to this: both the mind and the self are illusions generated by the brain. Possessing a brain is a necessary condition for conscious (and unconscious) experience, of course. But they are saying that the inner world of ‘felt experience’ just is a whirl of neural events or processes. And the self that is the possessor of it is merely a projection back from experience, an illusion formed under evolutionary pressure, perhaps, to give a semblance of unity to experience which presumably has survival value. ‘Felt experience’ may seem real enough, but the owner of that experience is illusory. There is no unitary self. This is an echo of David Hume’s famous complaint (as set out in A Treatise of Human Nature):

‘[A]nd pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time. It cannot, therefore, be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that the idea of self is derived; and consequently there is no such idea…For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.’

David Hume’s fellow-philosopher and near-contemporary, Immanuel Kant, reported in his Prolegomena to Any Future Physics that it was this argument of Hume’s that helped to awakened him from his ‘dogmatic slumbers,’ in thrall to the somewhat ossified scholastic philosophy of the day. The later work of one of the greatest of philosophers of the modern period rose to Hume’s challenge and has influenced all, or nearly all, thinking on the nature of the self and the mind ever since, not only among philosophers but also in empirical psychology. Nevertheless, the enigma of the ‘I’ remains, to the point where some contemporary thinkers prefer to pronounce the self to be not merely elusive but illusory. A materialist theory of mind has gained a certain notoriety among some practitioners in neuroscience, cognitive science, information theory, artificial intelligence theory and the like—and a few philosophers of mind who sponsor it, often under the title of philosophical ‘naturalism.’

Scientists who pronounce on such matters should heed the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s cautionary remark (see Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Simon & Schuster, 1995): ‘There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.’

Yet Dennett himself is a philosopher of mind who seems at first sight to be intent on abolishing his subject. He seems to regard consciousness as so much ‘brain buzz’ (my term, not his). ‘The trouble with brains,’ he says, ‘is that when you look in them, you discover that there is nobody home.’ (Consciousness Explained, London, Allen Lane, 1991). The philosopher (and Reith Lecturer) John Searle has a similar, reductionist take on the mind (in The Rediscovery of the Mind, (MIT Press, 1992), repeated in summary in a 2013 TED lecture in Merine, Switzerland, but also on offer in Minds, Brains and Science, based closely on the Reith lectures of 1984 and on themes adumbrated elsewhere in previous writings), saying that mind-language and brain-language are simply different levels of description of the same biological reality, much in the same way as describing the hardness of a table top is on a different level from the micro-description of it as atoms—and mostly empty space—or (going still further down) as packets of quantum energy in space-time. But Dennett and Searle aside, it is scientists and the science commentariat who are most prominent in denying the self and its inner world (e.g. neuroscientist Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion: Why there is no ‘you’ inside your head. (Constable, 2012), cognitive scientists Stephen Pinker (How the Mind Works, W.W. Norton & Co.,1997) and Douglas Hofstadter (I Am a Strange Loop, Basic Books, 2007), and  biologist Edward O. Wilson (Consilience, Knopf, 1998, ch. 6)). The consensus here is that we are simply fleshy machines with advanced AI software. New Directions readers will readily have spotted the significance of this for Christian faith: no self, ergo no soul; ergo no resurrection hope, for starters.

So what can be said by way of a response to materialist or ‘naturalist’ mind theory? Does the materialist theory of mind rest on a mistake? The fact is, we do have a sense of an essential ownership of consciousness: as conscious beings, it’s something we have. It belongs ‘somewhere.’ We could open up this question of ‘ownership’ by asking: Can I say ‘I am a self’? Or is it better (and less odd) to say ‘I have a self’? Or are both these ways of speaking examples of our forms of expression leading us astray? Or by contrast, is the comparison of the mind with a kind of highly advanced software itself a profoundly false analogy, and a symptom of conceptual confusion?

Perhaps the clue here lies with finding analogies that don’t mislead. Forms of words that express this sense of essential ownership of myself—of ‘having a self’—might be seen as rather like ‘having a point of view.’ We generally use that expression as a helpful metaphor, on a par with ‘having a perspective’ on a subject or issue. This ‘perspectival’ analogy is a guiding metaphor in the philosopher Roger Scruton’s Gifford lectures of 2010 (published as The Face of God, Bloomsbury, 2012). I think Scruton—following Thomas Nagel and others—is essentially correct in his account of the self and, therefore, of what it is to be a conscious being. Scruton invokes Nagel’s question: where in the world of objects (say as completely described in terms of physical science) am I? And what exactly is implied in the statement that this thing is me? Scruton responds (The Face of God, ibid., at p.31): ‘The self is not a thing but a perspective; but, as Nagel reminds us, perspectives are not in the world but on the world.’ In a well-known philosopher’s analogy: just as the eye is not part of its visual field but a condition of it, so neither is the thinking, perceiving subject an item in the world (cf. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), §5.631 and §§5.632, 5.641; the visual-field analogy derives ultimately from Schopenhauer). Scruton then observes (op. cit.): ‘It is the distinction between the first person and the third person points of view that gives rise to many of the puzzles concerning consciousness.’ This, surely, is the reason Daniel Dennett finds ‘nobody home’ from a third-person perspective. To characterise that distinction between perspectives, one could adapt Stephen Jay Gould’s ‘NOMA’ doctrine: ‘Non-Overlapping Magisteria’ are complementary but incommensurate ways of viewing the world (Stephen Jay Gould was an evolutionary scientist and historian of science; cf. especially Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, New York. Ballantine Books, 2002). Gould is particularly concerned with the complementary perspectives of science and religion but I think the comparison stands. Scruton infers some compelling theological observations from this argument too detailed to go into here, and perhaps more could be said on another occasion about the relations between self, mind and soul (for example), but I believe enough has been said here to suggest, at least, a compelling case against the kind of ideological hubris that is the motive power behind philosophical naturalism and the ‘abolition’ of the self.

Fr Stephen Wilson is an Assistant Priest at St Stephen’s Lewisham