It is clear that most people generally have some notion of a “true self”. Like many cognitive scientists, I feel that notion is an illusion caused by the human mind’s “essentialism reflex” — a reflex that causes many errors in human thought including our thoughts on the soul and life-after-death. But the reflex is also adaptive.
True or not, the essentialist belief in a “true self” influences our behavior and different views have different effects. Though illusory, how do we form views of self? Which is view is better– an unstable of view of self or a stable (essentialist) view?
Philosopher/psychologist Joshua Knobe gives an excellent 25 minute talk here sharing experiments done to explore these issues. The Edge.org audience questions were even further enlightening on the issue. Please do consider listening to the short talk.
Knobe shows that people generally envision the “true self” of another person as a mix of both their morally good impulses and and their morally good beliefs, instead of viewing the self as being composed of either just our beliefs (reflective feelings) or just our impulses (visceral feelings). “Good” here would be the subjective values of the person imagining the self. I am not sure this is true for everyone for each situation, but I can see the tendency.
Knobe also shares an experiment revealing that our views of self can change our behavior. There, those with an “unchanging” view of self tend to save money for their future self, while those with a more fluid self notion, tend to share more money with charity (other selves).
During the insightful audience questions, Laurie Santos, a psych prof and colleague of Knobes at Yale, suggests the generosity of the believers in an unstable-self is due to that view allowing believers to see themselves more like others than the me-me-me essentialist view. Knobe feels it would be a good question for experimental philosophers to probe further.
Theists tend to view the self as stable (and, of course, eternal). My experience shows me that atheists also tend to view the self as stable, albeit dieing with the mind. But as my readers know, often more important that the after-life question for me is this stability-of-self stance which both atheists and theists seem to generally share.
If you watch the video, please do share a reflection or two below.
Pic credit: I love the drawing above — the many selves of a woman. Here is the source, but using TinEye, I can not find other sources.