Tackling the Self

Of course, there is a way out of the dilemma: we have simply to postulate that there is no such thing as an intrinsically-existing “core” self at all, and that’s just something we imagine that exists. In a sense, we just think that we are, and not we think, therefore we are. There is a profound consequence for that, and one that most people would be very, very uncomfortable with. Nevertheless, that’s what we experience every day in Second Life: we imagine that there is this “self” which people attribute to the avatar, which interacts with others freely, acquires some consistence, and persists across login sessions. Nevertheless we know that this “avatar self” doesn’t really exist on its own: it depends on the human behind the keyboard. It just looks like it exists on its own. Others will also believe it exists, since when they interact with it, they have the same experience as if they interacted with a real flesh-and-blood human. If we have just this very slight idea that our “avatar self” is only a bit different from our own “true inner self”, then we have made a huge leap: we have assumed, at least to ourselves, that we are able to imagine a self (even if it’s 99.9999999% equal to our “true inner self”) that somehow is not “real” but everyone will experience it as being real. From that, jumping to the conclusion that our own flesh-and-blood (or should I say “grey matter”-based?) self cannot be more than that: something we just made up for the convenience of interacting with others. But we cannot say it doesn’t exist, either, because we clearly have the experience that it does exist, and this experience is verified and validated by all people we come in contact with. And, finally, we know it has to be encoded in the brain, because if we change or destroy the brain, the self gets changed or gets destroyed as well. And yet we cannot seem to be able to describe where exactly and how it is inside the brain or how it manifests in the brain. All we can say is that brain and self are interlinked; and we can even go further and say that the “idea of the self”, even if we cannot describe it, is fully perceivable by others as well. However, in this case, the strangest thing is that the “idea of the self” as seen by others is different from our own idea. So at the same time we all agree about each other’s selves, but we fail to describe it, and when we start comparing notes, we come to the conclusion that each of us experiences the same self in different ways. We can attribute that to both the “mask” we wear — so that people actually never perceive the “inner self”, but just the mask — and to people’s perceptions, which will react differently to the mask. But when we do that, what we’re actually saying is that the notion of self is completely relative. Interrelated, yes; interlinked with the brain, yes; but not more than that. We can even claim that others see our masks and extrapolate from that the existence of our own selves and try to get a mental image of what our “inner self” is supposed to look like. Since we all do that all the time for all people, we cannot simply say that this “inner self” doesn’t exist — because we all will agree that we think it exists.

Whatever that “inner self” is supposed to be, it’s quite clear that however we look at it, it becomes more and more clear that it cannot be something “hard-coded” in the brain, in the sense of being immutable, unchanging, and acting independently from circumstances. All we can say is that it’s “an emerging property” of the brain, changes all the time, manifests in different ways (“masks”), and is affected not only by chemicals interacting with the brain, but also by the experiences we accumulate over the years and the people we interact with. But, ultimately, that so-called “immutable, hard-coded self” that somehow is at the root of our experience cannot be much more than a myth — an assumption we made but which fails to be validated, and even refuses validation, no matter what kind of test we try to apply to it, even if we come up with the excuse that current technology isn’t sufficiently advanced to figure out the validity of that assumption. If that’s the case, I prefer to accept the alternative: that it’s just a myth like many others, just another concept that we create to facilitate conversation, but that the so-called “true inner self” is nothing more than a sequence of thoughts and imaginations that our mind creates, which changes all the time — often chaotically, in reaction to circumstances beyond our control — and interacts with other “selves”, even though these will have different perceptions. That model of interdependence between brain, self, others, and external conditions and circumstances is at least very simple to validate. But of course it raises a lot of interesting questions. 😉

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