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Thursday, July 4, 2013

On the Supposed Non-Existence of the Self

Vallicella (and Lupo): More on the Supposed Non-Existence of the Self

Peter Lupu e-mails:
In your recent post criticizing Harris' argument against the self (which is already present in Hume) you point out that the argument against the self is lacking. It is lacking, you argue, because from the mere fact that the self is not revealed in certain types of introspective experiences it does not follow that the self does not exist. I agree.

But a stronger complaint can be advanced. Harris (and Hume) must answer the following question: Who (what) is doing the introspection (meditation) which allegedly reveals no experience of the self? I suggest that there is no reasonable candidate for such a role other than the self. And so now an explanation can be given to the puzzle how come introspection does not reveal the self; it fails to do so because the self is inevitably absent from the introspective field in order to perform the introspective function. But the self leaves its own recognizable trail behind; it is the trail of a conscious subject which unifies the various experiences encountered by the introspective self as belonging to the same person. If it were not for this trail, the introspective self would have no reason to think that this toothache and that memory or desire belong to one and the same subject.

I think your searching-for-my-glasses-on-my-nose example illustrates well the point.
It is a pleasure to have Peter as a sort of philosophical alter ego who sees many matters as I do. Here are the main points and I think we agree on all of them.

1. The nonexistence of what one fails to find does not logically follow from one's failing to find it. So the failure to find in experience an object called 'self' does not entail the nonexistence of the self.

2. So failure to find the self as an object of experience is at least logically consistent with the existence of a self.

3. What's more, the positing of a self seems rationally required even though the self is not experienceable. For someone or something is doing the searching and coming up 'empty-handed.'

4. There are also considerations re: diachronic personal identity. Suppose I decide to investigate the question of the self. A moment later I begin the investigation by carefully examining the objects of inner and outer experience to see if any one of them is the self. After some searching I come to the conclusion that the self is not to be located among the objects of experience. I then entertain the thought that perhaps there is no self. But then it occurs to me that failure to find X is not proof of X's nonexistence. I then consider whether it is perhaps the very nature of the subject of experience to be unobjectifiable. And so I conclude that the self exists but is not objectifiable.

This reasoning may or may not be sound. The point, however, is that the reasoning, which plays out over a period of time, would not be possible at all if there were no one self -- no one unity of consciousness and self-consciousness -- that maintained its strict numerical identity over the period of time in question. For what we have in the reasoning process is not merely a succession of conscious states, but also a consciousness of their succession in one and the same conscious subject. Without the consciousness of succession, without the retention of the earlier states in the present state, no conclusion could be arrived at.

All reasoning presupposes the diachronic unity of consciousness. Or do you think that the task of thinking through a syllogism could be divided up? Suppose Manny says, All men are mortal! Moe then pipes up, Socrates is a man! Could Jack conclude that Socrates is mortal? No. He could say it but not conclude it. (This assumes that Jack does not hear what the other two Pep Boys say. Imagine each in a separate room.)

The hearing of a melody supplies a second example.

To hear the melody Do-Re-Mi, it does not suffice that there be a hearing of Do, followed by a hearing of Re, followed by a hearing of Mi. For those three acts of hearing could occur in that sequence in three distinct subjects, in which case they would not add up to the hearing of a melody. (Tom, Dick, and Harry can divide up the task of loading a truck, but not the ‘task’ of hearing a melody, or that of understanding a sentence, or that of inferring a conclusion from premises.) But now suppose the acts of hearing occur in the same subject, but that this subject is not a unitary and self-same individual but just the bundle of these three acts, call them A1, A2, and A3. When A1 ceases, A2 begins, and when A2 ceases, A3 begins: they do not overlap. In which act is the hearing of the melody? A3 is the only likely candidate, but surely it cannot be a hearing of the melody. For the awareness of a melody involves the awareness of the (musical not temporal) intervals between the notes, and to apprehend these intervals there must be a retention (to use Husserl’s term) in the present act A3 of the past acts A2 and A1. Without this phenomenological presence of the past acts in the present act, there would be no awareness in the present of the melody. But this implies that the self cannot be a mere bundle of perceptions externally related to each other, but must be a peculiarly intimate unity of perceptions in which the present perception A3 includes the immediately past ones A2 and A1 as temporally past but also as phenomenologically present in the mode of retention. The fact that we hear melodies thus shows that there must be a self-same and unitary self through the period of time between the onset of the melody and its completion. This unitary self is neither identical to the sum or collection of A1, A2, and A3, nor is it identical to something wholly distinct from them. Nor of course is it identical to any one of them or any two of them. This unitary self is given whenever one hears a melody.

The unitary self is phenomenologically given, but not as a separate object. Therein, perhaps, resides the error of Hume and some Buddhists: they think that if there is a self, it must exist as a separate object of experience.
It is also an error of 'materialistic' "reasoning" that, in one way or another, it generally presupposes materialism, which leads to constant category errors by the materialists. At base, behind all the verbiage, Harris' (and Hume's) argument (ahem) against the reality of the self amounts to this: "This so-called 'self' is not a material/physical entity, nor can it be *reduced* to a material/physical entity ... therefore, it doesn't exist."


matthew said...

I would disagree very slightly with your conclusion: it seems to me that the self, that is to say the experience of the self, can be reduced to a material cause/origin, but that is not to say - nor does if follow - that it does not exist, in the sense of being in some undefinable way illusory.
It's a non-issue for me, that endures only because the two sides of the argument each see their position as vital to the support of a much bigger antithetical worldview.
Exactly the same thing with free will. Does it truly exist, or are the pathways and mechanics of a deterministic model so unimaginably (by us) complex that what we experience is merely the illusion of free will?
The answer in both cases is that there is no difference. If my mechanistic model of free will or the self has all the properties, characteristics, predictable effects and related content of your non-materialist conception of the same experiences, then all we are doing is describing the same thing in two slightly different ways. There may be bigger and more divisive questions from then on in terms of where those two accounts take us, but it is a mistake to think there are any battles to be won on this particular field. There is no ultimate difference in terms of lived experience or functioning between the two, thus they are two different ways of describing the same thing. So if I 'proved' tomorrow that free will or the self were an illusion, or if you 'proved' tomorrow that they were not, nothing would change for either of us. You can call it Rover or a canine quadruped, but it's still a dog.