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The self, this elusive intermediate entity that initiates action

Essayist Tim Parks and philosopher, psychologist, and AI expert Riccardo Manzotti in Aeon, in an excerpt from their new book, Dialogues on Consciousness:

Parks: I see what you’re saying: my experience, which is none other than the accumulation of all the objects my body has encountered, eventually determines my actions. But I’m not altogether convinced. And my problem is this: not only do I have the impression of making decisions, cogitating, not just acting, but I also believe that I ‘organise’ experience. That I see the world in a certain way. I hold a system of political opinions, of aesthetic preferences, and so on. So I feel that, rather than being a world of objects coming together over time to determine an action, I have an inner world that determines how I organise the outer world. I don’t just act as consequence; I decide how to act, coherently.

Manzotti: Let me offer an analogy to suggest the fallacy behind your conception. We’ll stay with cars. When you drive, you turn the steering wheel and, thanks to a complex yet easily understandable coupling of cogs and drive shafts, the vehicle’s front wheels turn accordingly. Is there anything mysterious between the steering wheel and the two wheels that turn? No. Just a chain of cause and effect such that, given the turn of the driving wheel, the front wheels have to turn.

Okay, now imagine an infinitely more complex object, a human body. The world acts on the body, but before the body is going to translate that cause into an effect, an action, a simply enormous, though of course necessarily finite, number of causal events may take place, inside the body and outside. What’s more, unlike the car, which is a fixed object when it comes out of the factory, your wonderful body can change in response to the world, it is teleologically open — so that, to give the simplest example, when you see a face a second time, the experience is different from the first time, because the first experience is still causally active in your brain, hence we have the sensation of recognition. So with this fantastically complex object, the body, we cannot conceive the whole causal chain that precedes an action (this was a favourite observation of Baruch Spinoza’s) and hence we cannot predict what action will be taken. As a result of this conceptual impossibility, we slip into the habit of inventing an intermediate entity, the self, to which we attribute a causal power. We say that I, or my self, caused this to happen. But as David Hume said, we never meet or see a self; we meet ideas, or, as I would say, objects. The self, this elusive intermediate entity that initiates action, is a shortcut, an invention, a convenient narrative to explain our complex experience.

Parks: To wind up then; as you see it: experience, mind, is the world relative to the body, but a world, or an I, that accumulates over the years, that continues to act long after the moment of immediate proximity, creating an ever-changing agglomeration so complex that it becomes impossible to predict how, in the face of a new situation, a new experience, we will behave. And all the tensions we experience, that we call decision-making, or the exercise of freewill, are the ongoing evolution of this agglomeration of world, which is ourselves.

Manzotti: Right. And you don’t need to feel alienated by being at the mercy of a blind material world; you are the world.

More: “You Are the World