What makes me, “me”? Now what remains in me of the child I once was? Despite the infinite vicissitudes and fortuities of life, I manage to sketch a sort of leitmotiv between who I was and who I am. Something has still remained immune to the ravages of time. Is this sense of “me-ness” real? Where does this perception of compactness and unity come from?
Contemporary philosopher Julian Baggini (1968), PhD in Philosophy of personal identity, tries to answer these questions through his recently published The Ego Trick.
Mixing anecdotes, religious and secular philosophy and smatterings of neuroscience and neurology, the essay appears as a pleasant and highly-readable attempt at describing what makes you, “you”.
THE “I” DOES NOT EXIST
Trick, from the Old North French trique, that is trichier of uncertain origin, probably from Vulgar Latin triccare. Tricari, that is “be evasive, shuffle”.
If Baggini’s essay were a play, deception would be the subject, and actor and public would overlap. The “Ego Trick”, Baggini explains, is the brain and body’s creation of a “strong sense of unity and singleness from what is actually a messy, fragmented sequence of experiences and memories.”
Baggini confutes the previous and opposite “pearl” theory, according to which, despite how much we change over a lifetime, there is some essence of “me-ness” that does not change.
However, neuroscience’s numerous searches have not found any such pearl in any particular area of the brain. Rather, as the philosopher suggested, several brain systems work together to give us a sense of being singular and in control.
This movement towards self-consciousness is incredibly strong, and for a good reason: we can not function as social animals, if we don’t see ourselves and others as separate “I”s.
DOES TALKING ABOUT CHARACTER STILL MAKE SENSE?
Baggini starts The Ego Trick with a quote from David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature:
“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, colour or sound, etc. I never catch myself, distinct from some such perception.”
We don’t have an undying essence; rather, we are a bundle of perceptions, emotions and memories, which is constantly changing. The self has no real centre; does talking about character still make sense?
According to Baggini, our confidence in character is misplaced; our environment can have a much bigger effect on what we do. As proof of this, the philosopher reports several psychological experiments, including two particularly well-known ones.
In Stanley Milgram’s famous “obedience to authority” experiments people were supposed to willingly give electric shocks that they knew would be harming people, only for the purpose of pleasing those in charge of the experiment. The subjects were normal, actually considerate people, yet it was noticed that seeking approval had greater attraction than compassion for others.
In the equally well-known Stanford Prison Experiment, Philip Zimbardo simulated a prison environment over the course of five days, in which college students were introduced. After only a day or so, a drastic fall in individual conduct was observed: these subjects, though selected as highly balanced, mature and barely attracted to deviant behaviour, came to behave in a vexatious and sadistic manner towards those under their control. “The human mind gives us templates or potentials to be anything at any time,” Zimbardo concluded.
Personal belongings and relations
Not only the environment, the psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) pointed out how much clothes become part of our identity; the same could be said for houses, vehicles, and other belongings. Where do “you” stop and the objects around you begin?
Also, William James remarked the influence of our social environment in shaping us: our family and friends make us who we are. By living with others we gain their worldview, and they ours. As Baggini argues, the relations which constitute our identity are those we braid with others, not those we hold between thoughts and memories in our minds.
We are our collection of roles.
Thus, anything of ours is spared from this stream of subjective consciousness and bundle of perceptions that we are?
“And yet,” Baggini observes, “we are not just a collection of roles” – we do sustain a psychological sense of self, whatever role we are playing in life.
We are more than mere constructions: we have unity and continuity, even if we have no fixed essence or eternal soul. “The self clearly exists,” the philosopher underlines, “it is just not a thing independent of its constituent parts.”
As Walt Whitman stated more poetically:
I am large
I contain multitudes
In a similar vein:
Sam Harris, Free Will
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
Michel de Montaigne, Essays
By Noemi Manghi