Inventing the Self

Susan Blackmore’s The Self Illusion

September 16th, 2013 by Kristina Bodetti · 4 Comments

In 20 minutes Susan Blackmore runs through her theory of the self as illusion, uses some basic neuroscience to back it up and concludes that we’re not the same person from one minute to the next. I can’t be the only person to hear this and think that its absurd. While we can all admit that we all change, I am by no means the same person today that I was when I was five, but to say that today I’m not the same person I was yesterday is a bit more than can easily be swallowed.

Her analysis of the relevant neuroscience is accurate and does make her thesis a bit more plausible. As she states, there is no one place in the brain where our experience is put all together as one whole. One part of the brain translates light in our eyes into images. Another part converts sound waves into sounds we hear. There is no point in the brain that we can point to with certainty and say that is where the “self” is formed; that’s where our experiences come together, that’s where our actions are decided; that is the part of the brain responsible for self. It doesn’t exist and strongly supports Blackmore’s argument that Self is an illusion.

She takes a step too far though when she insists that self is illusion because the self changes moment to moment. While brain chemistry may change moment to moment we can not conclude that the self does as well. In fact, this assertion discredits her previous argument that the self was an illusion because it didn’t exist in the brain. If our illusion of self were changing moment to moment then it wouldn’t sound like such a strange idea to us when she first states it. In fact, she wouldn’t need to defend that stance if it were actually the human experience for the self to change so frequently.

She comes around to the idea of the ever changing self by beginning with the question, “are you conscious?” and asking people to ask themselves this question on a regular basis. She describes a sensation of becoming conscious and eventually decided that the self that became conscious today is not the one that became conscious yesterday. She states that our idea of the self as a unified, continuous experiencer is false, but I would have to disagree. One has to already, in some sense of the word, be conscious in order to ask the question, am I conscious. The sense of becoming conscious that she describes is not simply becoming conscious in general but rather becoming conscious, or you might say aware, that you are conscious. At this point in her lecture she begins to speak about mindfulness but I can’t help but think that she hasn’t read much work on the subject since I have and what I have just stated is much more along that line of thought then her theory which she claims is in line with it.

This idea of the ever changing self is not truly one of mindfulness. I have studied and practiced mindfulness and meditation for a while now and have never come across this idea in any of the works on the topic that I have reviewed. To make a conscious effort to be self-aware does not translate into being aware of a different self every time one becomes aware. In fact, the goal is to hold this sense of awareness for as long as possible which would be an impossible task if the self were not a continuous thing.

As a student of philosophy also I feel the need to point out one over-arching flaw in Blackmore’s argument. Her biggest piece of evidence for her theory is neuroscience. In her description of the science she is using as evidence she clearly states that there is no place in the brain responsible for self and given the scientific facts that is indisputable. However, she then assumes that the self cannot be a unified or continuous thing because our experiences aren’t unified in the brain. If self is not in the brain then we cannot base our ideas about self on how the brain works.

Since we all have a sense of self we can assume it is a real thing, even if we concede Blackmore’s point that it is an illusion, it is still real to each individual. If we say this thing we all have is not in the brain then it follows that it must be located somewhere else. We can guess that this “somewhere else” is also where other things we all perceive but can’t find in the brain are such as a sense of morality, sense of faith, etc. It would also be easy to argue that this “somewhere else” is where we get the things that make us human and separate us from other animals. All animals have a brain but as far as we know only humans have a sense of self, an overwhelmingly strong sense of justice, faith, and the ability to think critically and reason about abstract ideas. All these things are shared experiences of humans and not all brain possessing animals. They are also the things that remain relatively the same in us even though we change overall as we age. I would argue that this “Somewhere else” is the “Self” Blackmore has disregarded as illusion and ever changing. It’s what some might call the soul and others the mind. What is clear is that it does exist and is not part of the brain.

Perhaps Blackmore should not have been so quick to completely discard Cartesian dualism…

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4 responses so far ↓

  • Ruperta Nelson // Sep 17th 2013 at 7:26 pm

    I agree with everything you have written and I am reminded of something J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter when Harry Potter asks if he is experience with him is real?

    The quote is below:

    “Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

    Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

    “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?” p. 723
    (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Scholastic, 2007)

  • Jason Tougaw (he/him/his) // Sep 17th 2013 at 7:37 pm

    I’ve never read Harry Potter, but Dumbledore sounds a lot like Paul John Eakin (or Siri Hustvedt)!

    Kristina: I’m going to watch the video again, and this time I’m going to see if I can parse Blackmore’s rhetoric and her ideas. Your post makes me think she’s using exaggerated language, which make her claims sound more dramatic than they may actually be. But off the top of my head, I can’t say for sure that he claims aren’t just as dramatic as the language. I’m curious to view it with this in mind.

  • matthew finston // Sep 18th 2013 at 12:40 am

    I have to disagree with you, respectively. First of all, she does say at 16:31 “If this is true, it may not be . . . this is the scientist in me coming out. Have an idea have a hypothesis . . .”, in which “she” the scientist, brings her discussion down to an academic level as if to say, well this is a hypothesis and let’s test it. I think just as she is arguing for multiple selves and further that the self is an illusion, she is demonstrating how that “self” with the idea that “self is an illusion” is separate from the scientist self. She plays this game with the audience by asking “are you conscious” to get us to reflect on how this “self” discovers or discloses self. While she may believe that her theory is true, she also recognizes that it is still a hypothesis. In effect she wants us to loosen to our fixed notions of self so as to better understand the phenomena of self.

    I think there is subtly to her argument that can help illuminate other theories of consciousness. I don’t believe that she is denying the existence of a self, but that this self is less permanent and unified.

    I think there is something troublesome about her lecture. It feels uncomfortable when she keeps asking the audience “are you conscious”. Because how would they know the answer? And when trying to answer the question the audience member asks him or herself, well “Am I conscious”. But that’s what funny and exciting about the question. The question probes the listener to ask the question to the “self”. And in that moment, what is exactly happening? The phenomena and problem of consciousness essentially is contained in that moment of asking “am I conscious” because in asking you are manifesting a state, a self, and a being, or at least altering whatever it was before. It is that state, self, and being manifested that causes us to say, “yes I am conscious” because when I asked the question, there was a me asking a question to myself. I think including some of these ideas will be useful in further understanding what this thing called consciousness really is. When we include the notion of self as an illusion, we might be able to better understand what this self is.

  • Yana Walton // Sep 18th 2013 at 5:21 pm

    As someone who also practices mindfulness/insight meditation, I’m curious about the fact that we both had opposite ideas about Blackmore’s “Illusion of Self” and the ever-changing and thus unable to locate “self.” Maybe I parsed pieces of her argument into separate neat categories that were applicable to Buddhist notions of self, but I was left thinking that being self-aware is being aware of the temporarily of everything, including myself. Nothing is permanent, certainly not our bodies, and selves, and in a very physical way we are maintaining but also re-creating ourselves at every instant. Granted, when I practice meditation, there I am using the consciousness of myself as a self and attempting to be the self-as-knower, instead of self-as-object, as Damasio termed it.

    So when I sit and observe the places my mind wants to go while trying to not get carried away, it’s hard to even keep up with that self – because everything is shifting faster than the observer can keep up with. I don’t want to conflate the observer with my thinking self (the observer both seems to be is and not be my self – in order order to be aware of something that is mine to observe, I need a self.) But this process goes both ways instead of in a single direction, and neither observer or self can be pinpointed down. I’m not even speaking from a neurobiological standpoint here, but from my experiences trying to be mindful/aware. So the self is just not a static thing one can point to easily, despite the fact that it exists – Like Matthew said better than me, it’s just less permanent and unified.

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