Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes).
— Walt Whitman (Song of Myself, 1855 Leaves of Grass)
I call my view of self “Many-Selves–No-Self” — its is a view similar to insights found both in cognitive science and in some Buddhist psychologies. Many-Selves–No-Self resembles the computational theory of mind which many popular science writers have written about:
- Marvin Minsky: The Society of Mind (1987) — M.I.T. (Artificial Intelligence)
- Robert Ornstein: The Roots of Self (1993) — Stanford University
- Steven Pinker: How the Mind Words (1997) — M.I.T (Psychology)
But my version of a computational model of mind has a Buddhist flavor. Some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism contend that we have no substantial self — “No Self”. They are right that there is No [one-stable-uintary] Self, but I think there are Many Selves. Thus, it is not necessary to be flagrantly paradoxical by saying there is No Self. In the Buddhist view and my view, our normal understandings of self is deluded — self-deluded. Many forms of religious mysticism have expressed similar insights.
I will now try to illustrate my model of Many-Selfs.
Let the orange polygon (right) represent your mind. The yellow dots (stars) represent modules or functions in your mind. A function can be a belief, tendency, a habit or a skill your brain/mind has. Indeed, the modular view is too simple — instead it is complex networks, but for simplicity sake, we will discuss them as discrete modules.
Of course your mind has many more functions (yellow dots) than I have illustrated here, but for sake of illustration, imagine you only have these few functions.
Next (left), imagine that there are a few functions that you rarely use. The ones you commonly use are in the purple oval — you consider this to be the “real” you. Imagine that these rarely-used traits are ones that you may have expressed in the past, but you haven’t acted on in years. They are traits you thought you grew out of years ago. So what you consider to be your “real you” is within the purple oval.
But then imagine that you bring a close friend to a family get-together at your childhood home with all your siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins etc … Your friend notices a change in you at the get-together. She states she sees a side of you which she has never seen before. You feel it too, but can’t explain it. Of course you are still “you”, but you seem to slip back into old childhood behaviors when arguing with your siblings. That “you” is represented by the blue oval (right) where you have revitalized those two supposedly dormant traits and one of the traits from your purple self is turned off (or toned way down). Thus another self emerges.
There are countless times where we can see the many-selves unmasked. The unmasking is apparent when a person, and those around them, are surprised by the odd actions of someone they thought they understood. Here are a few examples of when a person acts “out of character” similar to my above example of dropping back into childhood behavior :
- In an emergency, she does something she would normally never do.
- She kills someone in a “fit of passion”.
- She completely deceives long-term trusted friends to hide shame.
- After winning a million dollars, she takes on a different behavior.
- She is observed to be completely different at a class reunion.
It is such changes in self that makes for statements like:
- “I don’t know what came over me”
- “I couldn’t believe what I said”
- “That wasn’t me.”
- “I don’t know what came over me”
- “I shocked myself”
- “I felt like a different person”
In actuality, they are surprised only because they are under the illusory spell that they have “one true self”. They don’t understand the way mind strings together traits to meet different settings — to form new selves. We are different at work, home, church, clubs, with family etc… Some people shift less than others, be we all shift.
In my “Many-Selves, No-Self” model of mind, instead of “one true self”, there are many selves. Actually, my mental model is not ovals, but constellations. Each function is related to another function by a connection (a line, in my diagram to the left). Thus I can re-illustrate my model of self as a constellation of functions of the mind or modules of the mind. In the above illustration, I simple put an purple oval around this constellation. But you can imagine that a model with many selves and thousands of functions, the oval illustration would fall apart but then, the constellation model would appear a jumble also. This captures the complexity of networks and systems a little better.
Continuing with the constellation illustration: When an individual gets into a different environment with significantly different triggers — a family get-together with people with a long past history in an old setting (home). Old traits are triggered and old linking of existing traits re-link. And thus the light blue self — a new constellation of traits — emerges. Most of the functions (modules) are still present in the “new self” except one trait drops out and two old traits are re-enlisted. The linkages also change. It is these linkages that are key.
A common objection to materialism is that the sum of the parts do not equal the whole, which is indeed true. However, it is not the parts alone that make an organism (or a machine), but it is the parts and how they relate to each other. This web relationships (nested functionality) is the magic of the machine.
What makes the model non-intuitive is that part of the brain also weaves the illusion of a continual self. This continual self becomes our identity which is the “you” of normal conversation. It is true in the sense that all these “you-s” are happening in one brain, but not in the sense that your personality and behavior are stable. It is a useful illusion, but it is false, because there is no true self. Instead, we have many selves.
The hexagon in my model is the individual. And the individual is anchored to the world of finances, family, tribes, safety, and pleasures via lines from all the functions. It is these external anchorings that trigger most shifts between different selves. But some people can shift due to illness or even by pure imaginations — as skillful actresses and actors can attest.
It is this complexity of Self that makes many philosophical discussions difficult. And it is this picture that generates apparently paradoxical statements like: “Many-Selves, No-Self”. But the paradox only exists because we don’t understand the true nature of mind.
I hope this explanation has worked. This idea of Many-Selves, No-Self is core to my philosophy of religion, language and relationships. Without understanding this view, many of my writings may appear unnecessarily enigmatic.