Who are we? Is there both an "I" and a "me" inside my head? Where do my stories about myself come from? Is it possible to live without a coherent life story?
Great questions. So it didn't take me long to reply to this email with a "Sure, Alex, I'll put up a post about the video."
I'm writing from the Institute of Art and Ideas, where we organise a philosophy and ideas festival called HowTheLightGetsIn in May every year. All the debates at the festival are filmed and released over the course of the following year and I thought a video we released recently might be of interest.
It's called 'Life Story' [ http://iai.tv/video/life-story ], and it's a debate with psychologist Bruce Hood in conversation with Galen Strawson and Marya Schechtman on the nature of the self and the narratives we create to explain our self to ourselves. Hood argues in particular that the self is a construct, a framework of false coherency but that in simplifying it enables us to make decisions in an otherwise over-complex world.
I know that you blog on the subject occasionally and so wondered - if the video appeals - whether you might be able to make a post about it on Church of the Churchless?
All the best, Alex
I enjoyed the 41-minute video. Watched and listened to it while puttering around in the kitchen last night.
It won't win an Academy Award for production values. It's just a simple recording of how three intelligent, thoughtful, well-spoken people with different ideas about the "self" made their pitch for a certain point of view, and answered three questions:
(1) Do we require narratives for experiences?
(2) Can we control our life stories?
(3) Do we need an observer?
My favored answers:
(1) Yes. Even if we think we're totally "in the now," this presupposes a conscious entity with a history of certain life experiences that now make it possible to experience the present moment in a certain way.
(2) Sort of. Each of us constructs a life narrative which puts ourselves at the center. Not surprising, since it is our life being narrated. This is largely beyond conscious control, but by focusing on certain plot lines to the exclusion of others, we can make the story turn out a certain way.
(3) No. However, the brain produces the illusion that "I" am observing "my" life from some sort of detached perspective. Thus we make our subjectivity into something objective. Or rather, we try to pull off this impossible task.
Given my steadily-increasing admiration for neuroscience, I found that psychologist/neuroscientist Bruce Hood made the most sense. (I've blogged about Hood's book in Key to self-knowledge: knowing you don't have a "self" and Truly "living in the moment" would be horrible.)
I liked how Hood referred to actual facts about how the brain works.
By contrast, Strawson tended to answer questions by starting with a quote with some writer or philosopher. "So what?" I'd think. It's easy to find quotes supporting any sort of idea, including notions that are demonstrably wrong.
Stylistically and substantively, Schechtman was in between the two men, though closer to Hood than to Strawson.
You can click on the six Jump To images beneath the full video and watch portions of the debate. The last two, Theme Two and Theme Three, were particularly interesting to me. I really liked the interchange between Hood and the moderator for a minute or two after the 38:30 mark.
I felt like I easily understood what Hood was saying. "I" am the brain. "Me" is the brain. "Self" is the brain. Whatever we feel that we are, it's the brain doing its thing. I got a sense that Hood couldn't understand why this simple proposition, which almost certainly is true, was so difficult to grasp by the questioner.
Probably because our sense of being a self separate and distinct from the body/brain is such a strong illusion. Read Hood's interview with Sam Harris. This isn't new news. Just newly evidenced news.
The reason that the status of reality cannot be applied to the self, is that it does not exist independently of my brain alone that is having the experience. It may appear to have a consistency of regularity and stability that makes it seem real, but those properties alone do not make it so.
Similar ideas about the self can be found in Buddhism and the writings of Hume and Spinoza. The difference is that there is now good psychological and physiological evidence to support these ideas that I cover in the book in a way that I hope is accessible for the general reader.