Self, with or without Selfies

By Stan PerskyMay 5, 2015

Self: Philosophy in Transit by Barry Dainton

ONE OF THE NOTABLE features of human beings is our ability to sleepily glance at the bathroom mirror in the morning, and not only recognize ourselves, but also reflectively note, “Hmm, I don’t like myself very much these days. I wonder what I can do to change who and/or what I am.” This otherwise minor bit of self-reflection might inspire a variety of actions, from getting a membership at the local gym, to deciding not to snort that line of available cocaine sitting on the little shelf above the bathroom sink, to rethinking one’s bigoted views about ethnic group X, gender Y, or nation Z.

The mundane capacity to engage in such considerations is nonetheless a remarkably rare ability among living things, and the smaller subset of conscious beings that includes us. A very few other animals — mostly other primates, dolphins and whales, maybe elephants, possibly a bird or two — are able to pass what’s known in psychology as the “mirror test” for self-recognition. But even those other animals that recognize themselves in mirrors don’t appear to make judgments about those selves or make resolutions to alter themselves. And as one commenter at quipped about our uniqueness, “Sadly, humans are the only animals that use mirrors for taking deceiving self-portraits to put on social networks.” Ah, yes, those ubiquitous selfies.

It seems obvious to many of us that the ability to conjure up, construct, or develop a “self” is directly dependent on the complex brain that has evolved in humans, and on the unique human capacity for language. What’s notable about language is the device known as “grammar,” the set of rules or algorithms that allows us to combine and re-combine the thousands of items in our total vocabularies (both lexical — e.g., “apple,” “ball,” “the,” “self,” etc. — and referential — e.g., “World War I,” “Justin Bieber,” “Iran,” “New York Yankees,” etc.) to generate new sentences, thoughts, and ideas. There are no doubt other “vocabularies” of images, sounds, and movement that also come into play. As far as we know, no other animals share this generative capacity (despite a good deal of sentimentality about animals we like) and, in a sense, that’s why we have rocket science and chimpanzees don’t.

For those who haven’t thought much about the topic, a good discussion of language and animals can be found in Clive Wynne, Do Animals Think? (Princeton, 2006). His short answer is, Well, sort of, maybe, but not very much; and despite our extensive efforts to teach chimps language use, they, by and large, don’t or can’t use grammar. Other animals have communication systems, of course, as well as memory, dreams, learning capacities, and a host of wonderful abilities, but not language. Naturally, this conclusion disappoints animal lovers, but Wynne’s arguments are persuasive to me. (Animal lovers, as is well known, have all sorts of idiosyncratic ideas and, as with religious believers, it’s not a good idea to get into a protracted argument with one of them unless you have considerable free time. I once knew someone who insisted that his pet boa constrictor snake liked listening to the heavy metal band Metallica as much as he did, despite snakes’ absence of ears and limited hearing capacities. On a more hopeful note about reptiles and music appreciation, according to the Holy Internet, snakes pick up sound vibrations through their jaws, which may be sufficient for appreciating Metallica.)

It’s also the case, or appears to be, that the self is a developmental entity, connected to brain growth after birth, the previously noted language acquisition capacity, and the continuing experience of embodiment, as well as intersubjective experiences with others and the world, sometimes described, perhaps a bit romantically, as being-in-the-world-with-others. The development of a self is, then, a process, and the self is capable, through self-reflection, of making significant changes of belief and behaviour in the course of a lifetime.

Further, for a lot of us, it’s increasingly clear that this self-reflexive self which depends on physical brains, or is a developing and “emergent property” of brains (as they say in philosophy discussions), has nothing to do with souls or other transcendent spiritual entities. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence at all for “souls,” and it appears that once the individual human animal dies, it and its self permanently cease to exist. Of course, there are many claims, and a long historical argument about other possibilities involving life after death, immaterial eternal “substances,” divine beings and the like, but to date, it looks like none of those claims is true.

We also know (or think we know) that a self is not a physical object. It’s not as though there is a little homunculus inside you or a mini-person sitting inside the mini-cab of a mini-crane, say, moving your limbs and mind. So, a self is a mental entity which comprises, refers to, or represents you, and includes your experiences, memories, beliefs, “character,” interests, knowledge, and everything else that goes into making up an identifiable “you.” There is a set of terms, such as “mind,” “consciousness,” “I,” “me,” “identity,” “beliefs,” “personality,” “thoughts,” and many more — some of them synonyms for, or related to, or overlapping with the notion of “self” — in which we carry on this discussion of who and what we are.

The immediate questions that flow from these ideas and these various mental entities are, What, exactly, is a “mental entity,” and what is the status of mental entities in relation to “reality”? It seems to be the case (I’m using words and phrases like “seems,” “appears,” and “as far as we know” to indicate how modest our understanding is of how all this works) that a self is not a physical object in the ordinary sense, though its existence is directly dependent on a physical object, the brain, and it’s not a spiritual entity in whatever sense we use that term. It, at best, seems to be quasi-autonomous, and has the ability to reflect on itself and possibly the power to change itself. One thinker about these matters, Douglas Hofstadter, author of I Am a Strange Loop (Basic Books, 2007), employs the metaphor of a feedback loop, an indeed strange one, to get at some of these ideas. Among other things, he asks if the “I,” a rather mysterious abstraction in some ways, is real or if it’s merely a convenient fiction, a kind of virtual rather than substantial thing. And Hofstadter further asks, Does an “I” exert genuine power over the particles in our brain or is it helplessly pushed around by the “laws of physics”?

In considering notions about the condition we call “consciousness” (as well as sleep, dreams, and unconscious processes) and of a “self” (and whether we can offer it some “self-help”), a number of related topics naturally come into play. The three main ones enshrined in introductory philosophy courses have to do with identity, the relationship between minds and bodies, and free will. We want to know, for example, in what ways identity does or doesn’t persist over a lifetime. Does a person who changes gender or enters a state of advanced dementia have the same identity he or she had at some previous time?

Further, how do mental entities interact with the physical particles that make up brains and the rest of the body? After all, we know that people who ingest alcohol and other drugs experience changes in their mental functioning, and that among people under intellectual stress or stimulation, the mental processes appear to affect the functioning of their bodies, but what exactly is going on? And how should we conceptualize situations where what’s going on in someone’s mind (and resultant actions) and what the rest of us perceive as reality is so ill-fitted that we label certain behaviors “insane” as contrasted to the “normal” range of behavior. And finally, do these mental entities we variously describe as “minds” and “selves” have the power, through a learned process we call “reasoning” or “rational deliberation,” to exercise “free will” and to change themselves if they so choose? (I often tell the students in philosophy classes I teach that I believe that if they read the required textbook, and study various other recommended books and assorted media, they will gradually become different and, I impolitely imply, better people.)

As you can see, like many others, I regard the “self” as deeply interesting, both as a matter of being (what are we?), and as a practical question about “who am I?” Even in the crude sketch above, it ought to be apparent that these topics in philosophy are important, complex, and worth thinking about. (And I haven’t even said anything about “reality,” “the world” or “the universe” yet!)

I should further note that all the views implied by my description above are contested, often opposed, or modified, and alternatives proposed by people who work and teach in the field of philosophy. Many well-known and respected philosophers and scientists deny that selves exist in any meaningful way and suggest that our sense of having or being a self is simply an illusion. As Barry Dainton puts it in the book under review,

It is worth noting that in some contemporary intellectual circles the doctrine that there exists anything resembling a self as traditionally conceived — a fundamentally mental thing that is in principle separable from a body — is widely assumed to have been wholly discredited, regardless of how most people might think of themselves. Indeed, the banishment of the self as traditionally conceived is sometimes seen as a hallmark of modernity.

Dainton adds, as would I, “But I believe this assumption is simply wrong, or at least far too simplistic.”

The history of radically alternative conceptions (or denials) of selves stretches from ancient Buddhist thinking to contemporary neuroscience. In modern Western philosophy, James Fieser, in his entry on Hume in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, considers the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume’s skeptical claim:

that we have no experience of a simple, individual impression that we can call the self where the “self” is the totality of a person’s conscious life. [Hume] writes, “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other [...] I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.”

Hume nonetheless concedes that “Even though my perceptions are fleeting and I am a bundle of different perceptions, I nevertheless have some idea of personal identity, and that must be accounted for ... the resemblance or causal connection within the chain of my perceptions gives rise to an idea of myself, and memory extends this idea past my immediate perceptions.” Hume adds the warning that “a common abuse of the notion of personal identity occurs when the idea of a soul or unchanging substance is added to give us a stronger or more unified concept of the self.” (For those interested in Buddhist thinking on self and its relation to contemporary neuroscience and philosophy, see Evan Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy [Columbia, 2014].)

The most recent and popular of contemporary accounts allegedly denying the traditional conception of the self is psychologist Bruce Hood’s The Self Illusion (2012). To put it very briefly, Hood uses the word “illusion” not to mean that something (in this case, a self) doesn’t exist, but that it’s very different from what it seems to be. Hood argues that a self is an illusion generated by the brain, one that presents a self-portrait of internal coherence and coordinated interaction with the world. Among other things, this self “illusion” provides an evolutionary advantage and operational efficiency to the human organism. Although Hood regards it as quite important to recognize this illusion, “the sense of self” generated by human brains that he argues for is not as novel as he thinks and doesn’t strike me as all that far from other contemporary philosophical notions of the self. More important, this brain-generated representation of self may be good enough for our purposes. The “illusion” of self differs from say, a drug-induced hallucination of a unicorn where we say, the unicorn isn’t real but the hallucination is. In the case of selves, this may be an instance where the “virtual” (or illusionary) self does all the work that earlier thinkers thought required a more substantial entity. So, if you have that sort of self, you don’t need a more heavy-duty version.



The reason I’ve said all these rudimentary things about the self at the very outset is because, oddly enough, Barry Dainton, in Self, doesn’t quite. Or, at least, he says hardly any of these things at the beginning of his otherwise lively, readable, smart, and tidily packaged book. Or maybe he does say something like the things I’ve said here, albeit in a different way. I see that I’m sliding toward conceding that we have different approaches to the topic. If a person looks in the mirror and finds that he’s dissatisfied with his current self and wants to change it, the first questions I want to ask are, What is meant by the term “self” and is changing our selves within our power? Whereas, for Dainton, his first impulse is to imagine a fictional scenario: if a person looks in the mirror and discovers that his brain is missing (but is elsewhere, and functioning), what does that mean for our notion of a “self”? I should also admit that Dainton does think, as I do, that these discussions have practical consequences, given that he says, “Debates about the nature of the self do not just matter in the abstract. How we conceive of ourselves is of profound importance to how we live and how we relate to others and the world around us.”

Dainton is a philosophy professor at the University of Liverpool, England, and as the author of three earlier and more technical works, The Phenomenal Self (2008), Stream of Consciousness (2006), and Time and Space (2001; 2010), he has a professional stake — that is, a theory — in the current philosophical debates about consciousness and related topics. Self is part of a new series of “Philosophy in Transit” books published by Penguin and aimed at a general readership. (Other titles in the series include Slavoj Žižek’s Event, Truth by John Caputo, and Susan Neiman on Why Grow Up?) The reason for paying attention to “philosophy in transit” is because a lot of philosophy these days seems to be transiting out of its traditional home in universities and intellectual forums, and being exiled to a sort of no-person’s-land that’s as bleak as a Samuel Beckett landscape. Although Dainton’s book is stylishly up-to-date and accessible, I think it would have been useful to provide a more elementary discussion at the outset about “selves” and the mysteries they pose, something like the one offered above. Admittedly, this is just a judgment call about the state of mind of the readership for whom the book is intended.

In fact, Dainton begins, as I’ve done here, by looking in the bathroom mirror. “You wake up feeling normal,” he proposes. “It’s only when you get to the bathroom mirror that you notice there’s something amiss. As you look in the mirror, you see your all-too-familiar face staring back... alas, it’s not looking quite its best at this early stage of the day... You notice something very peculiar: there are what look to be two short antennae sticking out of the top of your head.” Eventually, you also discover a window in your forehead, and with the aid of a penlight you further find that your brain inside your head is missing.

It turns out that your brain has been snatched while you were asleep, but not to worry, wherever it is, it’s hooked up to you (or what’s left of your body) through a complicated set of electronic devices (that’s what the antennae are for — to pick up the signals) and you’re able to function perfectly normally. This fanciful scenario, a “thought experiment” as it’s known in philosophy, is, as Dainton notes, based on the famous “brain in a vat” image concocted by another vividly imaginative philosopher, Daniel Dennett, in an essay-lecture called “Where Am I?” (which can be found in Dennett’s Brainstorms (1981) and at various internet sites). The point of philosophical thought experiments, which appear regularly throughout Dainton’s Self, is to imagine various situations which don’t exist, or might possibly exist in some unspecified future, in order to generate new ways of thinking about familiar topics.

In this instance, the point has to do with where we’re located. Dainton’s missing-brain protagonist in the imaginary scenario happens to be a neuroscientist who firmly believes that,

for all intents and purposes, we are our brains. Since you do believe this, and you also believe that your brain is no longer in your body but floating inside the vat you can see on the computer monitor [the brain-snatchers have set up a live-feed of the brain in a vat as proof of its new location], this much is clear: you should feel yourself to be in the vat, along with your brain. After all, that’s where your thinking is really taking place. But, try as you might, you can’t really bring yourself to believe this.

Even though, at best, you can believe that your brain is elsewhere, where you seem to be located is “exactly where you are normally situated, i.e., at a point an inch or so behind your eyes and between your ears.”

Dainton notes that one of the useful things that arises from this otherwise “outlandish tale” is that “it suggests that the relationship that exists between you and your brain is not as straightforward as you might have assumed.” Further, this thought experiment “brings into clear relief a simpler and more fundamental question: what are you?” When Dennett initially “performed” his thought experiment as a kind of shaggy dog story at a philosophy conference some four decades ago, it was not only regarded as definitely a cut above, in terms of entertainment value, your ordinary philosophy paper, but he conjured up an even more elaborate version than Dainton’s, involving a multiplicity of brain and body switches and artificial constructions that left auditors perhaps somewhat confused but persuaded that there was plenty to think about. (I probably should note that in a later work about consciousness, Dennett also pointed out how practically difficult it would be in real life to get a brain into a vat and functioning in a now brainless person through transmitted signals.)

I confess to having a more pedestrian mind than Dainton or Dennett, so while I recognize that it’s theoretically possible in a thought experiment to have your sense of self and your brain in different locations, I find myself repeatedly coming back to the fact that our brains are not outside our heads and are not likely to be anytime soon. So, one reason that the imaginary neuroscientist in Dainton’s example can’t get his head around the idea of feeling himself to be in the vat is because our actual sense of self is inseparable from the notion that we are embodied selves. We can imagine disembodied selves in thought experiments (and other fictions), but we have no real experiences of that kind of self (or possibly only very rare experiences under special conditions).

Now, if it ever becomes the case that we are able to “upload” our minds into computers (Dainton has a closing chapter speculating about the possibility of future minds), and that becomes a regular and widespread practice in real life, then I assume that our conception of a self will radically change and, if the concept of a self is still relevant to our concerns, it will be because we have substantially changed our selves (and the world). I certainly don’t mean to be churlish here, and I appreciate what Dainton is doing with thought experiments (in addition to livening up a possibly abstruse topic). My slight resistance is no more than a caution about keeping in sight the limits of fanciful conjectures.

Modern philosophy, ever since René Descartes in the mid-17th century, has piled up a considerable heap of such imaginings, though not all of them have contributed to the edification of knowledge seekers. Dainton will get to Descartes shortly in an upcoming chapter, once he deals with teleportation (yes, Star Trek-like teleportation), so it’s not premature to anticipate Descartes’ own thought experiments about deceptive demons trying to fool him about what he knows, or his reflections on the difficulty of distinguishing dreams from waking life, and the assertion of his most famous phrase, cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), as the foundational proposition of all certain knowledge. All of this led Descartes to the notion, now known as “Cartesian dualism,” that there are two substances, one of them material (and accounting for bodies) and the other immaterial (and accounting for souls, and/or selves). You won’t be surprised to learn that I also have some slight resistance to Descartes, or at least to the uses to which he’s been put in philosophy, uses that lead to odd difficulties that students of philosophy have with his thoughts and thought experiments.

Just as an aside, I once imagined creating a museum consisting of philosophical thought experiments. I pictured it as being something like the Jean Tinguely museum in Basel, Switzerland, filled with often whimsical sculptural machines. There would be vats with brains in them beeping away, and Star Trek teleporters to “beam” us up, and all the rest. I think I once read that Bertrand Russell had proposed that if you smashed a car into a brick wall enough times, the nature of the universe was such that at least on one occasion the car would pass through the wall unscathed. Maybe that exhibit could be sponsored by the safety-conscious Volvo automobile corporation. The museum guards and other security officials would be folks togged out as “philosophical zombies,” as they’re known in the trade — beings that completely resemble and behave as we do, but who don’t have selves. Given the rapidly advancing state of computer animation and virtual reality machines (topics that Dainton takes up in due course), it’s likely that some bright entrepreneurial type has already founded a start-up to bring the Philosophy Thought Experiment Museum “on stream,” as they say these days. Ok, end of aside.



Before taking us on the Grand European Philosophy Tour of the history of thinking about selves, Dainton considers one more thought experiment. It’s about teleportation. He envisages, as in Star Trek, an “information transfer” of our minds and bodies, but not a teleportation of our physical substance. Our bodies (including our brains) would be destroyed at the teleportation departure point and the information transfer would yield an exact replica reproduced at the teleportation arrival gate, on Mars, say. Dainton wants to know if that form of teleportation would be sufficient to count the resultant being as a persisting or “surviving” self, the same self as the one we started with. He thinks not, for reasons that are not altogether clearly expressed, but that have something to do with his view of the importance of “experiential continuity,” as he calls it. All of this is admittedly a bit conceptually tricky, but the reader does learn quite a bit about the so far non-existent (except in science fiction) technique of teleportation and what it philosophically might mean.

The teleportation thought experiment, as Dainton notes, has been invoked previously, namely by a well-known contemporary philosopher, Derek Parfit, in his Reasons and Persons (1984). The teleportation process as imagined by Parfit is “survivable .” “Parfit’s claim that teleportation is survivable,” says Dainton, “is grounded in his highly influential account of the persistence conditions of people. According to Parfit, our personal survival requires a certain form of mental continuity, and — crucially — this form of continuity is preserved by informational teleportation.” Dainton asks us to notice that Parfit’s model of mental continuity “does not require us to have immaterial souls, or any other kind of mysterious, otherwordly properties.” Parfit’s account, for various reasons, is not, however, good enough for Dainton. Once more, I get the point of the philosophical probe, but I’m missing the distinction that leads one to think that the self does or doesn’t survive. Since teleportation remains a fantasy well beyond our experience of selves, I’m not sure how much it matters whether or not the replica that is beamed up is or is not a “survivable” self. The argument in the thought experiment is fun, but the side you end up on with respect to survivability clearly depends on the view you take of who and what the you is that will or won’t survive, and a slew of corollary questions, beginning with your view on what is or isn’t physical reality, a material universe, and the nature of substances.

Dainton now turns to a history of “routes to the modern soul,” beginning with René Descartes (1596–1650). Dainton is notably generous to believers in immaterial souls throughout Self, partly because he recognizes that there are so many people who, even today, still believe in such things. At each point in the discussion, he takes polite note of whether a given idea about selves, identity, and the like does or doesn’t violate some principle of belief in souls. I don’t think I’d be half as patient as Dainton is on the matter, but perhaps it’s just a strategic positioning on his part.

In any case, and appropriately enough, we’re brought to Descartes, given that he’s the inventor of the modern idea of immaterial substances. Descartes, as Dainton says, “is probably best known for a thought experiment introduced in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)” in which he “invites us to consider the radical hypothesis that our experience does not derive from perceptual contact with the external world ... Instead, our experience is being completely controlled by a powerful and malicious Demon, who is intent on misleading us as to our real condition.” So we’re back to brains in vats and the plot of the Matrix movies. “The challenge Descartes laid down is simple: can you prove that your current experience is not being produced by such a Demon?”

This is the skeptic’s argument, and Descartes is resisting it. He’s trying to “distinguish what we really know from what we merely think we know.” Eventually, Descartes works his way toward the one thing you can be certain of, namely, “that you are now having your current thoughts and experiences.” That’s the famous “cogito, ergo sum,” mentioned earlier. You can at least be certain that you exist, even if the Demon is controlling everything else. From here, Dainton goes on to point out the value of Descartes’ meditations about reality and how he arrived at the idea of the mind as an immaterial substance, which has much to do with the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century and its new conceptions of physical reality and what we now call scientific materialism. But before we get there, and then proceed to subsequent theories about minds, identities, and selves, this is the point at which to register my objection to Descartes’ initial thought experiment.

I’ve always been uneasy with Descartes’ insistence on certainty, at least with respect to ordinary human experience (and to a range of moral questions). I understand why Descartes’ thought experiment was relevant in the 17th century argument against skepticism, but I’m somewhat puzzled by its persistence in contemporary discussions, where skepticism is not the issue. Rather than trying to defeat skepticism by proving the Demon wrong, why not start with the assumption that we and reality are more or less as we and it seem, at least at the medium-sized, local level. Or that reality for us human beings, for most practical purposes, is enough as it seems that it’s workable for us. There are mistakes of perception and interpretation, but the errors are mostly correctable. At the micro and macro levels (quantum particles and cosmic spaces and times), we’ve learned from science, and accept, that reality is something other than it appears (insofar as it appears at all among the dark matter and dark energy). Once we’ve acquired basic concepts of dreams, hallucinations, and normal consciousness, we don’t seem to have much trouble distinguishing between dreams and waking life, or hallucinations and ordinary consciousness (except of course when we’re briefly in those dream and hallucinogenic states).

How can we be sure the whole thing isn’t a dream or simulation or parallel universe? Answer: we can’t be sure, but why do we have to be sure? Why do we have to prove the Demon wrong? And anyway, isn’t the claim about the Demon’s deception so extraordinary that the burden of proof ought to rest on those making the claim that there is a Demon? Why isn’t “pretty sure” that I’m not now dreaming good enough? Given that our perception and interpretation of reality is supported by a) generally reliable sensory evidence, b) intersubjective human agreement, c) “scientific” explanations and evidence, and d) absence of evidence that anything else is going on, why isn’t that good enough for most of our purposes?

There are areas, usually involving science and technology, where we need more certainty, but in terms of much of reality at the local human level, a more relaxed practical metaphysics may be more appropriate than a demand for across-the-board epistemological certainty. I suspect that these differing positions on certainty may also affect what we think about selves and how we judge the relevance of thought experiments. Readers of philosophy will recognize that I’m pointing to the debate in the field between what is known as realism and anti-realism, and they will also know that philosophers and others take various views about different aspects of reality. Some people accept local realism (e.g., that rock over there exists and is independent of our minds and language), but reject moral or aesthetic realism, and are wishy-washy about, say, scientific realism. Obviously, this is a topic that, while at least tangentially relevant to selves, can only be afforded passing mention here. Equally, this is a good time to conclude my complaints about Descartes, lest I be charged with mere self-indulgence.



Dainton really gets down to business about persons, identity and selves once he gets to John Locke (1632–1704). Locke, as Dainton tells us in a thumbnail sketch, was an influential figure in both the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, whose thinking about empirical methods in science “was as important as his work in political philosophy, where he is regarded as one of the founders of modern liberalism.” In 1694, about a half-century after Descartes, Locke published a second edition of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) containing a new chapter on “Identity and Diversity” that set much of the tone for thinking about selves ever since. In it, Locke considers various non-human, mostly fictional characters (such as a rational parrot), as well as human beings, in order to introduce a modern concept of “person” and a set of criteria by which to determine whether candidates for personhood meet the standard.

A person, according to Locke, is “a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places, which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking.” As Dainton paraphrases Locke’s view, “a person is anything which has the mental capacities he lists: the ability to have experiences, to feel, to think and reason intelligently, and to be aware of oneself as a conscious subject which has existed for some time, as one that has a past.”

It turns out that despite our vivid imaginings, fictional creations, and thought experiments, so far only human beings — at a certain point in our development and within ranges of normal consciousness — qualify as persons, although if any aliens from other planets turn up and have those attributes, they’ll be regarded as persons, too. Locke’s notion of person has had practical consequences in subsequent centuries as we’ve grappled with the status of various humans, including fetuses, babies, brain-damaged people, the mentally ill, and those suffering from severe dementia, and the concept also features in recent arguments about “animal rights.” Dainton notes that Locke was agnostic on the question of whether persons were “wholly material things, or a combination of material and immaterial parts,” and that he also held the sensible view “that our understanding of our own natures and the physical world is very limited.”

Having established a notion of person, however arguable, Locke raises the related issue known as the “problem of personal identity over time.” How do I know that I’m the same person now as I was at some earlier time? For Locke, as Dainton puts it, “What is needed for an earlier and a later person to be one and the same is for that later person to be mentally continuous with the earlier person ... Mental continuity makes for sameness of person irrespective of what else occurs.” Locke, like other philosophers, also proposes thought experiments about body swaps and soul swaps, but we can skip most of that here. 

The obvious relevant question, Dainton says, is “what precisely does ‘mental continuity’ amount to?” Locke puts considerable emphasis on our ability to remember past experiences as a crucial feature of our consciousness, and hence, our identity. “As far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought,” says Locke, “so far reaches the identity of that person.” Given this view, Locke is often described in contemporary textbooks as defending a “memory theory” of our identity over time. Discussions of memory theory and identity usually provide an array of distinctions to deal with how to bridge gaps in memory, how to deal with your objective existence prior to memory formation and the development of personhood and the like.

Dainton also points to problems with Locke’s version of mental continuity. What about people who suffer amnesia, while their “capacity for experience, reason and language are unaffected? Would you regard this misfortune as fatal” to identity? “If we can lose all our memories and still survive, Locke’s account of what makes for personal survival must be mistaken,” Dainton claims. Modern philosophers who follow Locke, such as Derek Parfit and others, and who are sometimes known as “Neo-Lockeans,” have various moves to solve the problems found in Locke’s views.

One of them is to broaden the range of psychological states that the account of identity draws upon to extend beyond memory. Neo-Lockeans, says Dainton, “talk in terms of ‘sameness of psychology.’ A person’s psychology consists of memories, but also beliefs, values, character traits, preferences, intentions, hopes, and so forth.” So, even if memory of prior experiences is lost, “much else that is distinctive about you in a mental way can remain,” as we frequently see in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

“A psychology-based account of personal identity has to be able to accomodate change,” Dainton notes, and theories like that of Parfit do so. So, a persisting memory or belief (that 2 + 2 = 4) or musical preference is known as a “psychological connection,” and while, as Dainton says, there may be “no one psychological connection that runs through the whole length of an average person’s life,” that’s not a problem. “We can say that an earlier and later person are psychologically continuous if they are joined by a chain of overlapping psychological connections.” Usually, psychological change is slow enough that “from day to day our psychologies overlap to a high degree.”

Dainton invokes one more thought experiment to show how Neo-Lockeans deal with a final difficulty. If an exact replica of you pops into existence, and has all your memories and psychology, “does this mean your replica really remembers” all your experiences? Of course not, so the Neo-Lockeans stipulate that “your memories are genuine by virtue of being causally dependent on your earlier experiences.” Your replica’s memories are not causally dependent on your experiences and that’s why they are illusory. Meanwhile, back at the teleportation depot (Dainton is a bit obsessed with teleportation), if you’ve bought into the Lockean and Neo-Lockean account of identity — “you find it plausible to think that identity-preserving mental continuity is psychological continuity” — well, then “there is every reason to be confident that teleportation is person-preserving.”

As you might anticipate, Dainton doesn’t think psychological continuity is sufficient as an account of mental continuity. Yet again, there’s a thought experiment. This time, Dainton once more proposes something in the future, but it’s a more proximate future than teleportation. The what if is based on video games. Dainton imagines an “ultimate” game or simulation device. Current gaming devices provide “a simulation of your external environment, but they leave you unchanged.” In the imaginary U-Sim (or ultimate simulation machine), “The machine would temporarily remove (and store) your psychology... and replace it with copies of...”, say, Napoleon’s psychology. The machine would give you, from the inside, so to speak, Napoleon’s experience at the Battle of Waterloo; you’d be equipped with his beliefs while your psychology would be parked until the game is over, at which time your psychology would be returned to you, and would now include your memory of the experience of being Napoleon.

The point of this thought experiment for Dainton is to show how there can be a real break in psychological continuity but not a break in consciousness or experiential continuty. While you’re simulating being Napoleon, your psychological continuity is wiped out, but not your consciosness, your experiential continuity. For Dainton, this shows that the Neo-Lockean theory fails the mental continuity test and what you need is a notion of experiential continuity: “provided our streams of consciousness continue to flow without interruption we will continue to exist, irrespective of what changes take place.” I’m not as persuaded by Dainton’s continuous consciousness theory as he is. We have all sorts of interruptions of consciousness everyday. While we’re unconsciously sleeping, the dreams that we can remember that periodically interrupt our sleep often present us with a distorted funhouse mirror or not-so-fun nightmare self that doesn’t much resemble the psychological continuity of waking life; the same seems true of drug- and brain-induced hallucinations. The difference between Dainton’s U-Sim experience and our own odd (but ordinary) disruptive experiences doesn’t seem that great, and yet in real waking life doesn’t pose much of an identity or self problem.



That’s as far as I want to take my reprise of the content of Dainton’s Self. He goes on from his Ultimate Simulation Machine thought experiment to a rather more specialized discussion of the theory about consciousness and self that he’s staked out as his position in the debate. There’s also a good deal of speculation about future selves that may not be wholly biological and, of course, more thought experiments. All of that can be left to readers who go on to read Dainton’s book, which I find provocative and stimulating enough, though I don’t share his approach.

My own sense of what to do with the question of self is to pay more attention to the remarkable mediation or interface provided by language between brain and “you,” and between you and others. We and our biological brain particles gradually acquire language, personhood, self, and the rest. Despite the fashionableness of neuroscience, I don’t think we yet know much about how the process works, and I think our observations of the development of children continues to be as useful as brain scans. (Actually, I probably believe that childhood development observation is more useful than scans, but why start pointless quarrels, given that we can avail ourselves of both methods?)

In any case, the process of becoming a self is developmental and occurs in the course of your interactions with the world and the other things and beings in it. I’m equally attracted to the self-reflexive features of brain and self. At a certain take-off point, the mental entity we think of as a self seems to make decisions about what to do with that self. You decide, for example, that you need to acquire more words, more ideas, more history, etc., to develop into the person you aspire to be. If that’s the case, then to answer the question of whether we’re able to change ourselves, we have to do some thinking about the possibilities of free will (a somewhat unfashionable topic in philosophy these days). I tend to think of free will more as an acquirable skill connected to “reasoning” about complex problems (as contrasted to spontaneous decisions about pushing buttons or choosing a flavour of ice cream) than most philosophers I’ve met.

Dainton, to my mind, doesn’t say much about language, self-reflexivity, or free will, or not as much as I’d like, though he does offer a chapter on “mind in the world” and is committed, as I’ve noted earlier, to the notion that “how we conceive of ourselves is of profound importance to how we live and how we relate to others and the world around us.” In the end, the surfeit of thought experiments is distracting and Dainton’s fanciful speculations often left me with the sense that we had drifted away from talking about selves as we know them. While the sci-fi aspect of many of the thought experiments is simply meant to illuminate our understanding of present selves, I frequently had the sense that we really were speculating about future selves. I have nothing against thinking about uploading minds into machines to achieve a form of immortality, and certainly figuring out how to do so would tell you something about how minds work, nor have I anything against regarding selves as in principle separable from bodies, but I haven’t met one yet. At least, not that I’m aware of.

As I’ve suggested throughout this discussion, I think that language, self-reflexiveness and free will are tightly bound up with our approach to interpreting reality. I’m fond of Hilary Putnam’s view in Realism with a Human Face (Harvard, 1990) that “elements of what we call ‘language’ or ‘mind’ penetrate so deeply into what we call ‘reality’ that the very prospect of representing ourselves as being ‘mappers’ of something ‘language-independent’ is fatally compromised from the start.” I’d apply the same thought to the self as I would to the world.


Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano University in North Vancouver, British Columbia.

LARB Contributor

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano University in North Vancouver, British Columbia. He’s the author of many books, including Buddy’s: Meditations on Desire and Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011). His most recent book is Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014).


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