The elusive ‘self’

The OU course I’m following rightly takes a materialist approach, i.e. that human behaviour ultimately must rise out of events at the molecular and neural level. However, as the authors acknowledge there remain both ‘hard’ and ‘easy’ problems of consciousness (from Chalmers, 1995). The hard problem being that it is difficult for contemporary science to even begin to grapple with the subjective experience which we call self. As far as I can tell, this is still true today.

‘Self’ really matters because a lot of the work that is done with older people and objects revolves around unstated notions of the self or the identity of the participants.

I have to confess that I find the materialist approach challenging on a theological level. I think it is fair to say that all three Abrahamic faiths share an understanding that there is an irreducible ‘self’ within each person and that somehow this has a coherence beyond life. Neuroscience clearly contests this belief.

Last week I went to pay my last respects to my dad, who died recently. What most struck me about this was that whatever it was that had animated his body in life, it was now well and truly gone. I’m struggling to think of this in terms of neural activity now ceased rather than a soul now departed. Peter Hammill once wrote about a similar experience in his song, Four Pails, where the character in the song struggles to maintain a materialist philosophy in the face of the death of a loved one. Whilst never completely relinquishing his philosophy, the character’s certainty is certainly shaken. After my experience I find the position of 18th and 19th Century thinkers who posited the idea of an ‘animating spirit’ or ‘life force’ to be much more understandable. It clearly seemed like my father’s animating spirit had departed. (My dad himself would never have approved of such ideas, he was avowedly materialist.)

Once, when reading a text by Augustine (that I can’t find at the mo’), I came across a section wherein he said that we should trust the judgment of natural philosophers (if they had done their work properly). I still find this statement hugely encouraging but I don’t think that Augustine could ever have imagined how far the thinking of natural philosophers and (after them) scientists would take them. Much more recently, and thinking about chaos theory, John Polkinghorne (2008) has argued that the laws of physics are fundamentally not deterministic and that lack of determinism creates space.. (Polkinghorne is a Nobel Prize winning mathematical quantum physicist and minister of the Anglican church.) I wonder whether there might be an analogy that I could use to move from Polkinghorne’s argument into this domain. In the meantime, I have to follow Augustine’s advice, follow the materialist path and trust that at some point I’ll find a resolution.

Meanwhile, the materialist position was expressed very forcibly in a talk given at the RSA by Robert Kurzban (2011) wherein he argued that the brain is made up of a large number of functional modules that work independently of one another, that these modules may work in competition or collaboratively but that our conscious selves are not and can never be aware of their functioning. One of the conclusions that he drew from this is that our subjective experience of ‘free will’ and ‘self’ are illusions. We might experience these things but (as things stand) science cannot pin them down.

Personally, I find the notion of ‘emergent properties’ helpful at this point. If you consider complex systems made up of many components: you can study and understand the behaviours of the individual components but understanding the behaviour of each component doesn’t necessarily help you understand the behaviour of the whole system because that emerges out of the interaction between the components. I wonder whether ‘self’ is an emergent property of the interaction between all these functional modules.

Interestingly, the recent discussion of ‘Free Will’ on In Our Time (Bragg et al., 2011) ended up in a similar position, much more positive than Kurzban’s. The participants in the discussion concluded that these insights from neuroscience, rather than removing the notion of ‘self’, give it a richness and depth. So, ‘self’ is no longer the simply conscious, cognitive self; instead, ‘self’ is the cumulative consequence of all these different modules working throughout our lives.

I was reflecting on this a while ago. I used to share an office with Katherine and Anna. They were good friends but quite different personalities. Anna would ask questions that only Anna would ask. The person that was ‘Anna’ was consistent over time, it would be shock to all of us if one day ‘Anna’ came in behaving like ‘Katherine’. So, all these modules were working away inside Anna’s head but they had repeated and consistent outcomes which created the coherent personality, the ‘self’, that we knew as Anna.

Perhaps it can be said that each of us is, neurally at least, a community, with our conscious experience of individuality floating on top of it all. This rich notion of self is helpful then when thinking about reminiscence in that we should shift our focus from the superficial, conscious, linguistic self to some of these other ‘layers’ of self.

Furthermore, there is a social element to reminiscence or creative group work. There is also a social element to self and I’ve come across authors who suggest the self only exists in relationship with others. I find that to smack of hyperbole but nonetheless we need to address the social and cultural expression of self and I wonder whether the idea of emergent properties will be helpful again but on a larger scale. I need to look at this…eventually.

Anyway, I want to come back to this individual idea of self. Both Cohen (2000) and Zeisel (2009) have emphasised that the ‘self’ remains dynamic even into later life. We need to hold on to this notion that self is changing and not fixed or predetermined (Walker Bynum, 2005). Some elements of self are lost with age or with dementia or other diseases, some elements of self are retained. In early stages of dementia, new expressions of self can be found, explored and celebrated (Zeisel, 2009). The work of the ARTZ project and ‘Meet Me at MoMA’ helped participants in later stages of dementia by recovering elements of a lost self. But Zeisel is keen for us to always celebrate the self that is rather than lament the self that has been lost.

Bragg, M. et al. (2011) ‘Free Will’, In Our Time, Radio programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on March 10th, 2011, Available at [Accessed 30/03/2011]

Chalmers, D. (1995) ‘Facing up to the problem of consciousness’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2, 200-219

Cohen, G. D. (2000) The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life, HarperCollins: New York

Kurzban, R. (2011) Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite, Lecture given at RSA on 17/03/2011, Available at [Accessed 30/03/2011]

Polkinghorne, J. (2008) Theology in the Context of Science, London: SPCK Publishing

Walker Bynum, C. (2005) Metamorphosis and Identity, Cambridge, MA: Zone Books

Zeisel, J. (2009) I’m Still Here: A New Philosophy of Alzheimer’s Care, Avery: New York

About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, free will, identity, theology. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The elusive ‘self’

  1. Pingback: Chaos, complexity and freedom | holding the moment of holding

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s