Sunday, 19 February 2012


It came to my attention lately, that we had got one of our fundamental tenets incorrect. We labelled the self as an untested assumption. This logically figured to me, once I had this insight, that is exactly how I saw it. However when viewed this way, it does not give us a full picture. It left out a key piece of the story, which I will outline here.

Of course, you never stopped to question your own existence, on face value it does seem absurd. However, when you actually look in to some of the claims you make about the self, then they become counter intuitive, and even contradictory to what your own experience tells you.

Lets try this another way and ask the question; do dogs explode?

Your first answer will likely be no, unless you can conceive of a spontaneous combustion event. Furthermore, you have never considered this before in your life. 
You already knew that this didn't happen, yet you did not have to conceive of this, in order to infer that this doesn't happen. We can assume that a generalisation has been made, in order to accurately predict the behaviour of other 'like' things.

Objects and animals don't really explode as a rule, except fizzy pop bottles, cans when dropped, and these are not really what we would term an explosion anyway. Firecrackers, fireworks and the like, aerosols in fires, these require a deliberate act, to make an explosion. We know that ordinary everyday objects will not explode when we touch them.  

We never have to think about every possible outcome. We predict with great success the behaviour of everyday things. We could map many other possibilities on to things, such as; soup cans don't sing, milk doesn't burn. If we had to assign properties to everything, we would end up wasting time and energy, so our brain makes generalisations, in order to enable us to survive.

We had to evolve this way, since analysis of the environment, would have proved too costly. What we really needed, was a fluid way of adapting to new things, and the ability to predict the behaviour of new people and new phenomena. This generalisation, may or may not be strictly correct, but it would likely give us the highest chance of survival, therefore, that is why we see it in its present form.

So, many facets of our behaviour are already predictable, since our genes made us ready for a variety of situations and challenges. We can refer to these acquired behavioural traits and cognitive patterns as 'dispositions'.

How then, does this relate to the self?

In simple terms, we can look at how a disposition to think in terms of a self, arises from when we are very young. Since we think predominantly in terms of words and visuals, we have an ongoing narrative, that weaves a story of our life. 
Perhaps, the first time, the brain attributed a single utterance or phoneme, such as “uh” to an object, or to signify a desire or want. This would likely appear some time before the time a child is able to chain phonemes together, in to a coherent word. We often hear young kids, trying to speak, but coming out with an incomprehensible mish mash of singular phonemes.

This would tell us that the brain is already perceiving external objects, and the learning of communication is starting. From the first word you spoke, this was as a result of the brain attributing a pattern match to an external object, that was repeatedly referenced to as “Mama”, or whatever phrase was repeated around the child.  

Since you were young, you already responded to your name. Even a dog with a brain the size of a walnut can make a pattern match to sounds. When your name is called, you are disposed to enquire what it is the person wanted. We see this disposition expressed by the meeting of eyes, and as we get older, maybe a corresponding thought of “what do they want?” arises.

As we grow up vocabulary is added, and before long, we are able to have a concept of people talking directly to us, and an understanding of the terms “I” and “you”, in simple conversations. We are able to assign traits to other people, in order to predict their behaviour. As we go along we recognise traits in our own behaviour, have a concept of things that we cannot do, find difficult and so forth. From this we lay the foundations for a disposition to think in terms of ourselves as the centre of gravity.

Since many actions are run through our awareness as a metaphor for that action, the brain simply uses a cause and effect model, which attributes this “I” to be the cause. When we look for the “I” in real life, we actually find nothing, it was a complex illusion. 
As our narrative starts to increase in complexity, it propagates the illusion of agency, or control over our actions. As our actions are cross referenced with past events, a thought will occur, relevant, to the course of action the brain is taking. As words form, you simply bought in to the illusion that these words referred to a person who was calling the shots and thinking the thoughts. It was simply your human agencies expressing themselves in thought.

As a decision to act arises, the consequence may be weighed up, this gives us the idea of free choice, when simply, it is a doing that we do not control. We simply get the feeling that we are controlling life from a young age, when really, life was always living itself. 
We think in words because we have to communicate with people. The ability to communicate, comes in part from our constructive experience, and analysis of the environment. We don't think in terms of dogs not exploding, our awareness is tuned to spot relevant things in our environment. This frees up our thinking as such. In order to communicate, we need to be able to think in terms of words, it is apparent that our thinking would reflect this.

So, the self was never an untested assumption, it was never assumed. Thinking in terms of an outer life in relation to this organism formed a disposition to think in these terms. The pattern matching faculty of the brain attributed meaning to words by extension from them.

If we look at an item “cup”, we can think about its properties, extensions, uses and so forth. You are disposed to think of a cup in these terms.
If we in turn think about the word “you”, what properties can we assign to it?
We often relate the word “you” to the person who controls the actions, this body etc...

Lets attribute it to a human being.
What properties can we assign to “you”? Are “you” a thinking being?

That would be undeniable.

If we take “you” to refer to the physical body that thinks, then we have something tangible. We can apply properties to you, predict the things you could do, and what it would be useful for.

Now, when we take “you” to refer to the person behind the body who makes the decisions and controls the actions, or to put it simply, the person you think you are, it is actually an illusion. We cannot assign any properties to this “you”. You don't really exist. 
“You” is a supposed objective reference, by a subjective thought. This “you” does not exist in objective reality. “You” is nothing more than a thought, “I” refers to nothing. If we take “you” to mean a physical thing then yes, the physical human exists, but the idea of an immaterial thinking thing, or soul is just plain nonsense.

It is simply a disposition to act in terms of being an agent, really, this agent who thinks the thoughts, does the actions, or as we say “the ghost in the machine”, is simply an illusion. There is no you. There is simply a human being living. Life lives itself, take a look.


Jason Kephas said...

To equate an immaterial thinking thing with a soul seems an unnecessary leap of language. Aren't they separate propositions?

The idea of consciousness existing outside the body, for example, does not require an immaterial thinking self-thing, but it does overlap with the idea of soul, energy body, and so forth - an idea which an be verified by experience. A sorcerer can travel to the Moon - though he can't bring back rocks! ; )

Gh0$T V1Ru$ said...

"To equate an immaterial thinking thing with a soul seems an unnecessary leap of language. Aren't they separate propositions?"

Since many people equate the self being numerically identical with a soul I stipulated a thinking thing OR a soul, in order to cover either angle. Many people start off with this generalisation and have not come across these ideas before.

"The idea of consciousness existing outside the body, for example, does not require an immaterial thinking self-thing,"

Neither is it requisite for a body to be conscious

"but it does overlap with the idea of soul, energy body, and so forth - an idea which an be verified by experience"

Cool, maybe you can show us how to experientially verify this?

Jason Kephas said...

That's OK, I am pretty sure nothing I could say would get past your rigorous standards of logic, or be especially new to you. I just wanted to throw that one out there. While I support the need for reductionism, it can create its own form of dogma.

There are things that are fundamentally unknowable, and therefore, perhaps, best left unmentioned, since the unknowable tends to confuse the real task: finding out what we (can) know. (G-d being the obvious one.)

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