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The Concept of Self

This is a muddled concept that demands some analysis if the confusion is to be cleared away. It has been divided below into four distinct concepts, the first of which has already been introduced:

1. The Self as the Person

The notion of "self-as-person" was introduced in the section above entitled "Subjective and Objective". This is the notion of self as a member of the category known as "people", or more specifically as the conceived human organism in its habitat. Note that (i) the idea of the field of experience, (ii) the idea of the self-as-person (the human organism associated with the field of experience), and (iii) the problematic association between these two ideas (the mind/body problem), are all constituents of the field of experience. However, the broader unqualified concept of “self” is complicated by other ideas that also appear as constituents of the field of experience, namely the "subject of consciousness" and the "agent of action".

2. The Self as the Subject of Consciousness

There is an innate idea of “being a subject” over and against the objects that constitute the field of experience, the subject being “that which is experiencing” the constituents of that field. However, this idea is but another constituent of the field of experience, and the question arises as to how this idea might be accounted for. The main problem is that the constituents of the field of experience are in constant flux, and there is no single entity amongst those constituents that could possibly qualify as the “enduring subject”. One approach to this problem is to propose that the subject is a metaphysical entity existing in some putative domain “beyond” the field of experience. Another approach is to conclude that this idea is an innate misconception and to seek a possible source for the misconception.

Whatever the mechanism by which this idea is generated, the idea complicates the useful concept of self-as-person by accreting upon it the idea of self-as-experiencer (or as the “subject of consciousness”); more specifically the idea of a “something” that somehow experiences the field of experience. No such object appears amongst the constituents of the field of experience, and neither does anything that does appear amongst those constituents give any grounds for such a concept. The idea that one portion of the constituents of experience somehow “experiences” another portion of those constituents is difficult to sanction, and also raises the question of how there can be any experience of the experiencing portion itself - i.e. the idea of an experiencer entails an infinite regress known as the “homunculus problem”. Note that rejecting as a misconception the idea of self-as-experiencer would eliminate to the notion of direct acquaintance with the constituents of experience (or immediate knowledge of them), since there would then be nothing other than the constituents of experience for which any such relationship could obtain. The upshot would be that there is no “observer” of subjective experiences, since the term “observer” would then only pertain to the self-as-person in respect of empirical data concerning its environment. (Note that this would be consistent with the foregoing rejection of the possibility of a “science of consciousness”.)

3. The Self as the Agent of Action

Objective biological processes are sufficient to account for much of our behaviour - e.g. eating, drinking, procreating, avoiding injury, etc. Not only are such "biological drives" accompanied by subjective sensations (e.g. hunger, thirst, pleasure, pain, etc.), but they are also accompanied by a conviction that this correlation between the biological drive and the associated subjective sensation is causal in nature - i.e. I eat because I’m hungry, drink because I’m thirsty, etc. That is to say that I consider myself to be something more than just an organism in its habitat - a something that can envisage possible future outcomes, that has preferences in regard to those possible outcomes, and that directs the organism to behave in a manner that aims to meet those preferences. So when I say “I lift my arm” I mean something more than merely that the self-as-person (the conceived organism) lifts its arm, since there is a conviction that this “I” (the something more than just the organism in its habitat) is an active process that intervenes in what would otherwise be an entirely automatic process. There is a conviction that this “I” receives information from sense organs, processes it in conjunction with stored information, and issues outputs that direct the activity of the organism's skeletal muscles.

This “I”, then, is conceived in such a manner that, given prevailing conditions, it has the capacity to envisage a number of possible future outcomes and to cause the organism to behave in such a way as to favour some preferred subset of those outcomes, and this mode of behaviour might usefully be referred to as "willing", or more commonly "the will". Consistent with this idea of being something more than just a biological machine, we have a propensity to speak of our conscious decisions in contrast to our automatic (or unconscious) actions, as though consciousness were some kind of active participant in our behaviour (in contrast to the way the word is being used in this document). Moreover, this way of thinking implies that this active “consciousness” is in some sense “free” of the dictates of the organism’s otherwise automatic responses, thereby rendering “me” an agent rather than just a biological machine. So, conceptually at least, “I” (as agent) can choose a course of action that favours some preferred future outcome.

The fly in the ointment here is the provenance of “my preferences.” It would seem that these preferences are determined by (i) membership to a particular species (human instincts), (ii) personal history (conditioning), and (iii) the ability to work from premises to conclusions (reasoning). Of these three categories of behaviour, it would seem that only the third category is a suitable candidate for the term “conscious deliberation” and therefore a suitable candidate for the activity of the agent. But given that my ability to work from premises to conclusions permits me to envisage possible future consequences of my behaviour and to behave in a manner that favours one such outcome, that conclusion still fails to account for my preference for a specific outcome. If the only way such preferences can be accounted for is in terms of instincts and conditioning, then reasoning is just an extension of these automatic biological processes and operates in accordance with those processes. Indeed the reasoning process itself, rather than conferring some kind of “freedom”, would appear to be a constraint on behaviour, preventing the organism from behaving inappropriately with regard to future outcomes (otherwise this “freedom” would reduce to randomness and would fail to account for the orderliness of our "willed" actions).

The conceived “self-as-agent” in this process seems to be redundant. If this is the case then the “conscious” of our “conscious decisions” implies nothing more than (i) that reasoning is a process that is active within the field of experience, and (ii) that reasoning is ascribed therein to a “reasoner” (or “thinker”) that is conceived as being distinct from the organism (self-as-person). But this conceptual divorce of "the reasoner" from the organism has no solid foundation - it is the organism that reasons, and so the notion of self-as-agent would appear to be nothing over and above the self-as-person. The conceived distinction would be an innate misconception, along with the innate notion of any metaphysical “freedom” with regard to the will. But given this innate idea of the autonomous agent, the idea becomes a drive in itself known colloquially as "selfishness" (whether of the "zero sum" variety, or of the "win-win" variety otherwise known as "enlightened self-interest"). This view challenges our idea of altruism, and our notion of "selflessness" is called into question. It would then be conceivable that a variant use of the term "selflessness" might pertain to a state in which this misconception (of the self-as-agent) has become so eroded that it no longer influences the organism's behaviour.

To recap, there is an innate notion a self-as-agent; more specifically a something that somehow causes the actions of the associated person (or some subset of the actions, given that much of our behaviour is blatantly automatic). But no such object appears as a constituent of the field of experience, and neither does anything that does appear amongst those constituents give any grounds for such a concept. (This is consistent with work initially carried out by Benjamin Libet and supported by a great deal of subsequent work by other investigators.) Some people fear that in relinquishing the metaphysical concept of free will (as it appears in the guise of the agent of action) we are forced into accepting the unpalatable or even abhorrent (as it may seem to them) metaphysical view known as determinism, but this is a misconception. The absence of metaphysical free will does not necessarily entail that the world is unfolding deterministically, since all indications are that there is a level of indeterminism at the atomic and subatomic levels (e.g. the stochastic element introduced when a quantum object undergoes an interaction after a period of non-interaction with any other quantum object). But this caveat is often insufficient to placate such individuals, and their objection might better be considered to pertain to predestination rather than to determinism.

Since it is not at all clear how the stochastic element introduced by quantum systems could possibly give rise to the kind of ordered behaviour that is characteristic of their conception of free will, some people speculate that quantum mechanical indeterminism may leave open a “back door” by which such a self-as-agent might possibly influence the self-as-person. This would be to invoke the notion of a metaphysical subject just as may be done in the case of the self-as-experiencer covered in the preceding section.

4. The Self as the Field of Experience

It seems, then, that the idea of the agent of action and the idea of the subject of consciousness have been accreted onto the concept of the self-as-person, adding nothing useful for the person. The only reasons for retaining these two ideas would seem to be psychological in origin rather than that of conferring any explanatory value. But another idea of self remains to be considered, and this is the idea of self as the entire field of experience. Whereas the idea of self-as-person has pragmatic value for the organism, the idea of self as field of experience has no such value since the idea of the field of experience itself has no pragmatic value. Note that this notion of self is consistent with the idea that consciousness is inessential for all practical purposes, but it cannot be claimed that the idea of self as the field of experience might be grounded in a misconception since the existence of the field of experience is beyond doubt (any such doubt would itself be a constituent of the field of experience). We would simply be giving a short name to the field of experience, albeit a name that invites confusion because of the already extant uses of the word "self". However, this would be consistent with a certain interpretation of the following passages in Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

5.63     I am my world (the microcosm.)5.631   There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas. [...]5.632   The subject does not belong to the world: rather, it is a limit of the world.5.641   Thus there really is a sense in which philosophy can talk about the self in a non-psychological way. What brings the self into philosophy is the fact that 'the world is my world'. The philosophical self is not the human being,  not the human body, or the human soul, with which psychology deals, but rather the metaphysical subject, the limit of the world – not a part of it.

Furthermore, this would also be consistent with a certain interpretation of the following passages in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations:

398: "But when I imagine something, or even actually see objects, I have got something which my neighbour has not." - I understand you. You want to look about you and say: "At any rate only I have got THIS." - What are these words for? They serve no purpose. - May one not add: "There is here no question of a 'seeing' - and therefore none of a 'having' - nor of a subject, nor therefore of 'I' either"? Might I not ask: In what sense have you got what you are talking about and saying that only you have got it? Do you possess it? You do not even see it. Must you not really say that no one has got it? And this too is clear: if as a matter of logic you exclude other people's having something, it loses its sense to say that you have it.

[...] I think we can say: you are talking (if, for example, you are sitting in a room) of the 'visual room'. The 'visual room' is the one that has no owner. I can as little own it as I can walk about it, or look at it, or point to it. Inasmuch as it cannot be any one else's it is not mine either. In other words, it does not belong to me because I want to use the same form of expression about it as about the material room in which I sit. The description of the latter need not mention an owner, in fact it need not have any owner. But then the visual room cannot have any owner. "For" - one might say - "it has no master, outside or in." [...]

399: One might also say: Surely the owner of the visual room would have to be the same kind of thing as it is; but he is not to be found in it, and there is no outside.

400: The 'visual room' seemed like a new discovery, but what its discoverer really found was a new way of speaking, a new comparison; it might even be called a new sensation.

404: [...] What does it mean to know who is in pain? It means, for example, to know which man in this room is in pain [...]. What am I getting at? At the fact that there is a great variety of criteria for personal 'identity'. Now which of them determines my saying that 'I' am in pain? None.

411: Consider how the following questions can be applied, and how settled:
(1) "Are these books my books?"
(2) "Is this foot my foot?"
(3) "Is this body my body?"
(4) "Is this sensation my sensation?"
[...]

(4) Which sensation does one mean by 'this' one? That is: how is one using the demonstrative pronoun here? Certainly otherwise than in, say, the first example! Here confusion occurs because one imagines that by directing one's attention to a sensation one is pointing to it.

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