27 January 2009

Imagining the Self (1)

In his book The Kingdom of Infinite Space, Raymond Tallis disparagingly refers to the (scientifically supported) idea that we are our brains as ‘neuromythology’. While I agree with Tallis’s argument that though the brain is a necessary condition for consciousness, it is not a sufficient condition in itself, I think he underestimates the importance of the brain as the seat of consciousness. He is (partially) correct to assert that
Selves require bodies as well as brains, material environments as well as bodies, and societies as well as material environments.

However, this presumes a conventional, organic kind of Self, one shaped by a human body and by a human-centric material environment and society. As a thought experiment, say we hook up a living human brain to a sophisticated piece of machinery, effectively creating a cyborg. One could argue that the cyborg would thus be conscious and so have a Self, but a Self that would be very different to the Self that Tallis argued depended on non-brain factors. The brain remains the prime ingredient, without which we wouldn’t be able to even speak of Selves.

But I digress. Since Tallis spoke of myths, one myth that I would like to examine is that of the singular, objective Self, an abstractly conjured self-consciousness that, as Tallis believes, is not entirely equivalent with the brain. I propose that this concept we identify as our ‘Self’ is simply a product of our imaginative faculties. Human culture is replete with the products of our prodigious (and as far as we know, unique) powers of imagination, from the multitude of fantasy worlds populated by fictional characters in the arts to the blueprints for as-yet-to-be manifested works of architects, designers, industrialists and civic planners, and their completed reality. Perhaps this sense we have of possessing a consciousness particular to our-Selves is a kind of imaginative exercise. Just as we are able to create in our mind an image of a creature or object that is physically impossible, using only abstract materials, we also fashion the Self out of equally intangible parts that have no physical reality.

This Self – or consciousness, or mind – that we like to think of as being us in the same singular, limited sense that we consider our body to be our body may not be that after all. Perhaps there is no Self. What we call the Self, our identity, could simply be a combination of thoughts, sensations, emotions, memories, proclivities, aversions, habits, neuroses and so forth. And neuroscience is increasingly able to show that all these components have a physical basis in the brain. There is no Cartesian Theatre in our heads where a disembodied soul or mind – a Self – does the ‘thinking stuff’ independent of the body (i.e. the brain). Obviously we do have minds, but our minds emanate from our brains. No brain, no mind. Or more soberly, a damaged brain (whether through injury or disease) equals a damaged mind.

Consider this: all the aforementioned mind paraphernalia (thoughts, emotions, memories etc) that make up our sense of identity - our Self-conception - are engaged in our moment-to-moment living. Yet tellingly, a part specifically labeled ‘my Self’ is totally unnecessary for us to live. It doesn’t even need to exist. You can go on having thoughts, feeling sensations, remembering past events and relating them to your present situation, making choices, avoiding certain circumstances, performing those quirky habits or gestures of yours, feeling intense emotions, all without needing to invoke a Self that does all these things (keep in mind the distinction between you being aware of performing such actions as a physical, self-acting agent and you deliberately thinking of your abstract Self performing such actions. Even a cat is to a certain extent aware that it is drinking from a bowl of water, and not the dog across from it. But unlike us humans, the cat cannot think to itself, ‘I, my Self, am drinking water’). And when you optionally do engage in a self-reflective moment where you are thinking of your Self – seeing yourself as a spatiotemporal entity possessing a consciousness unique to you – you are not using a distinct part of your mind, or brain, called the ‘Self’. I believe that you are using that part called your imagination.

Rather than claim that a defining trait of our species is our sophisticated Self-awareness, which implies the existence of an independent, coherent Self, I suggest instead that our species be defined by its superlative imagination. It is our ability to conceive of a Self (and in such a particular way too) that sets us apart from and above all other living creatures on this planet. The reason why animals (and arguably human infants) do not perceive themselves as Selves is because they lack the imagination to do so. In the case of human babies, as they grow up they develop their imaginative abilities and eventually come to think of – imagine – themselves as an ‘I’ that acts, feels and thinks. Thus hypothetically, if that part(s) of the brain that governed the imaginative faculty was to be excised, I am confident that the unfortunate person with a brain so deprived will have his Self-awareness severely compromised, if not entirely lacking.


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