I do exist, but not for long - RSA

I do exist, but not for long


  • Social brain

Years ago I was mountain walking in Wales. After about six exhausting hours we climbed to the second highest peak in Snowdonia. Just as we arrived, a middle-aged man carrying what looked like a very heavy rucksack dashed past us having clearly run the whole way. He didn’t burst our bubble of self satisfaction but he certainly deflated it.  

Writing and talking about how the brain works, I have often been reminded of that day. I struggle though the undergrowth of neuroscience, the winding paths of behavioural economics and the forest of social psychological research to arrive triumphantly at what I think is a new view of cognition, only then to find a philosopher of mind lying sunbathing on the peak having reached the same view by gliding through the thin air of abstract reasoning.

So I hesitate before sharing my excitement at a review by Thomas Nagel of Galen Strawson’s recent book ‘Selves: An essay in revisionary metaphysics’. The core thesis of the book, arrived at by a combination of phenomenological introspection and metaphysical inquiry, is this.

There are two meanings of the word ‘I’. There is an ‘I’ which is not fundamentally different to any other thing that we might describe. In this sense the statement ‘I went to the shops’ is no more problematic than ‘Fred went to the shops’ or, come to that, ‘the dog ate some biscuits’.  The other ‘I’ is what we mean when we say ‘I feel angry’ or ‘I don’t know’. This is the idea of something that is uniquely personal and internal, having an experience and exercising agency.

I have said in an earlier blog post that I am fascinated by the phrase ‘I said to myself’. If I get Strawson’s thesis right, the uncomplicated concept in this phrase is the ‘I’ while the ‘myself’ is the mysterious personal thing. The ‘I’ in ‘I said to myself’ is no more difficult than ‘I said to Fred’ or ‘the bus hit the curb’. ‘Fred said to me’ is also no more complicated than ‘Fred kicked the ball’. However, ‘Fred said to myself’ would not only be ungrammatical it also involves a completely different, non-material, concept.

Allowing again for the possibility that I have got this all wrong, Strawson’s dual track methodology of introspection and metaphysics leads him to two conclusions. First, that the myself in ‘I said to myself’ exists and is a qualitatively different kind of thing to other things (a point which many philosophers and scientists would reject). Second, and this is the bit that makes my brain hurt, that this ‘myself’ thing exists only in the moment.

In other words, while the ‘I’ which is the uncomplicated thing like Fred or a dog does have temporal consistency (I am the same person, more or less, as the person I was five minutes, five weeks or five years ago). The ‘myself’ thing only exists at the moment that I am having an experience. Selves do not exist through time. Once an experience has stopped being experienced it enters the realm of all other things. And the self I am at this moment lasts only until the next moment.

Strawson claims this not only on the grounds of metaphysics but because – he says – this on reflection is how he feels:

“ When I consider myself in the whole-human-being way I fully endorse the conventional view that there is in my case – that I am – a single subject of experience – a person – with long term diachronic continuity. But when I experience myself as inner mental subject and consider the detailed character of conscious experience, my feeling is that I am – that the thing that I most essentially am is – continually completely new’

If I wasn’t a chief executive, if I had a much bigger brain and if I could sit still for more than five minutes I would love to think for hours and hours and hours about this idea, and what it means for me and the world. But all I have is twenty minutes to bang out a blog post. And who knows who I will be by the time I read the comments.

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