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April 11, 2011 6:56 am
The Ego Trick, by Julian Baggini, Granta, RRP£14.99, 257 pages
The British comedian Kenneth Williams reported that he was once approached by a fan who, delighted to encounter him in Regent’s Park, cried, “Oh! You know who you are!” Williams said that he only wished he did.
The problem of self-understanding is a perennial one. But even before you tackle it there is a prior problem: making sense of selfhood itself. What is a “self”? Given that we change physically and psychologically throughout life, what is it that somehow makes us remain the same person in spite of those changes? If I borrowed money from you 20 years ago, and in the interval much happened that drastically altered me, surely I still owe you that money nonetheless?
In this entertaining, educative and gracefully written book, Julian Baggini explores the question of the nature of the self and in what sense it persists through time. Ever since the philosopher John Locke devoted a chapter to the problem in the second edition of his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1692, these questions have been central to much philosophical enquiry.
But, as Baggini shows, they are not “merely” philosophical questions. Psychology, neurology, gender issues, brain tumours, head injuries and dementia, multiple personality, memory, social construction of personae, ideas about souls, reincarnation and the afterlife – all these are in some way relevant to the debate and Baggini considers them in pursuit of clarification, arguing that there are, indeed, answers to be found.
First, he offers some negative answers. There is no single thing or part of you that is essentially you, he says; your brain, body and memories all play a part in constructing you but there is no one thing – a particular structure in the brain, for example, that is the seat of personal identity.
Moreover, there is no such thing as an immaterial soul, upon which most of the religions rely. “Whatever stuff you are made from,” he writes, “is the same kind of stuff that everything else is made of.”
The unity that is you, constructed from the interplay of various physical and psychological factors, is in some ways very fragile and in other ways robust. Although a brain tumour can destroy the self, much else can happen to people – grief, disaster and other life-transforming experiences – and they can still recognisably be the same people afterwards.
But to say that we are essentially “unified material constructions” still leaves three problems, indicated by each of the words in this formulation. What do we mean by them? In the most philosophical of the chapters, Baggini sets out the answers.
Two of the problems can be dealt with simultaneously: the question of the unity of the self is answered by understanding how the self is constructed. Baggini follows philosopher Derek Parfit in describing the unity of the self as being achieved by a trick – the “ego trick” of his book’s title – namely, that of constructing a strong sense of connectedness and continuity out of the memories and fragmented experiences in a brain with no overall command centre. And the trick, he says, works.
This links to an answer to the third problem, which Baggini puts by saying that “we are no more than, but we are not just, matter” – by which he means that we cannot describe selves adequately with only the vocabulary of physical stuff but need to invoke psychological concepts too. Thoughts and feelings are real things, though they are not describable in physical terms. But the universe only contains physical things. Therefore, says Baggini, we must accept that thoughts and feelings emerge from (perhaps one could say, are secreted by) the physical stuff from which brains are made. Or to put it another way: your mind is not your brain, it is what your brain does.
In effect, Baggini holds that the different suggestions about how to think of personal identity over time – as consisting in a memory criterion, or a continuous-body criterion, or a more traditional selfhood criterion – each captures part of the truth, and each helps to constitute the whole truth. In a way that is sometimes typical of philosophical debate, one or other of these criteria has been often insisted upon as the ultimate explanation; but a wise syncretism recognises that we use different criteria for different purposes, and a permutation of all of them for most purposes.
There is, though, one interesting function of brain activity that might serve as a candidate for selfhood or the closest we can get to such a thing. This is the “narrative” function performed by the left cerebral hemisphere, where human language capacity is hard-wired. If this is how Baggini’s “trick” is performed – by our fashioning an autobiography for ourselves – then it seems less like a trick than the real thing. At least, it would be close enough to the real thing to be a very satisfactory substitute.
This is one of the best, most readable and most stimulating introductions yet written about this intriguing topic. Enjoy, and profit.
AC Grayling is author of ‘The Good Book’ (Bloomsbury)
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