Predictable Identities: 23 – The Self

In reality there are only atoms and the void, but in our mind exists the self. This thing here is part of me, this thing there isn’t. The concept of self serves the same purpose as all others: it makes good predictions. Or perhaps it made good predictions at some point, and got stuck.

Self-identification gets off to a good start. A baby notices that when it wants the toy to move by itself the toy doesn’t budge, but when it wants its hand to move the hand immediately obliges. It begins to identify the body: that which is immediately moveable in the intended way by thought alone.

As a child grows, more and more things are reinforced by the world as part of its identity. This toy is yours, the other one isn’t: one can be grabbed with predictable good consequences, while grabbing the other one will trigger unpredictable retaliation. This essay was written by you and this is your grade for it, go back to your seat. The process is extended to one’s mind: the thoughts and feelings you recognize in your mind are yours, and other people have their own.

It is at the level of thought that the model of the unified self starts to buckle under the strain of contradictions. Careful introspection reveals that your mind comprises a multitude of independent subagents influencing your behavior and emotions in ways that your conscious self can’t access, let alone control. Careful study of societies reveals that our thoughts are shaped by memes, myths, and egregores, cognitive processes that run in vast groups, not individuals. This post was written by my conscious model of the self, a mild anxiety in my stomach, Alberto Albero, and Buddhism. In what sense is it mine?

Once we notice the breakdown of the rigid self as it relates to thought, we can see it in other contexts as well. Roles, blame and praise, personalities — these are merely conventions, as is private property. This even extends to the body: partnered dancers have as much control of their partner’s limbs as their own, while the most control you can exert over your appendix is chopping it off.

None of this means that drawing a circle around some things and calling them “myself” is always wrong. Just that there’s no clear “self” that matches reality in all contexts. This is good news, it means that the self is a thing to be played with.

Series Navigation<< Predictable Identities: 22 – The Entropic BrainPredictable Identities 24: Anti-Identity >>

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About Jacob Falkovich

Jacob is so proud of his blog, putanumonit.com, that it's on his online dating profiles. He also tweets @yashkaf.

Comments

  1. I tend to see my conscious self as a stranger piggybacked on a biological machine of which I have limited understanding and executive control. I know I’m giving into my body’s emotion when I snap at my partner out of annoyance. And I’ll never have fluid fine motor control; when you think about fine hand eye coordination (like batting in softball), it only works if I provide steady emotional drive to my body to do it, but otherwise stay out of my body’s way.

    Have you read the novels Blindsight and Echopraxia? Very very interesting.

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