Self-Theories and their Consequences

many selves_womanIt 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?

Josh Knobe

Josh Knobe

Philosopher/psychologist Joshua Knobe gives an excellent 25 minute talk here sharing experiments done to explore these issues. The 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).

Laurie Santos

Laurie Santos

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.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

19 responses to “Self-Theories and their Consequences

  1. Interesting stuff. You might want to check out this rather bizarre post and deposit some of your always-well-oiled thoughts and expertise in the matter.

  2. @ John Zande,
    Glad you found it interesting. Would love to hear your opinion.
    BTW – meanwhile, I went to that post and commented but I am not sure why you felt it particularly important for either me to read it or comment on it. There are tons of ‘bizarre’ posts out there, why this one?

  3. True, many strange posts, but i thought this one was interesting to you (in relation to thispost) due to its (weak) appeal to cognitive science, and what you’re calling “essentialism reflex.” Never heard that before.

    As to my views on self: i’d say every person is unique in both the degree and depth in which they perceive themselves. Many people are little more automatons; functioning at only very superficial levels. The prevalence of organised religion is proof enough of this. Others are more reflective and are, as such, more aware not only of their thoughts and actions, but of the consequences of those actions.

  4. @john zande,
    Ah, thanks, that helps.
    As for Essentialism, if you enter it in my search box, you will find 3-4 other posts on the same. It is Platonism — Bruce Hood wrote a fun popular book illustrating it well called “SuperSense”. But lots of folks write about it. It is a delusion most atheist share with theists and yet self-righteously are blind to. You’ve heard me ramble about it before under different terms, perhaps.

    The conversation about “self” is very complex. But before talking about the nature of “soul” or its nonexistence, I feel “self” is a much more informative discussion. Thanx for sharing your thoughts.

  5. If you watch the video, please do share a reflection or two below.

    That’s a really awful video.

    I’ll start with the technicalities.

    The video insists on watching it full screen. When in full screen mode, I am unable to get to the volume control. And the recording is a bit quiet compared with typical videos. FAIL

    The audio quality is poor, though I’m not sure why. That is, it is hard to listen to Knobe. Perhaps a tad more bass would help.

    A big part of the audio problems are with Knobe’s style of speaking. I think it’s called “uptalking”, where he ends each statement with a rising pitch. His sentences sound as if he is unsure of himself (because of the uptalking).

    The video itself is very distracting. It shows Knobe’s face from three different directions. When the speech is already difficult due to the audio, one looks to the lips for a little help. But with the disconcerting three different images, that is no help at all.

    Fortunately, using linux, I can switch between different desktops. So I switched, to where I could not see the video. It was easier to follow with only the audio available.

    And now the content:

    I was underwhelmed. This guy comes across as practicing the methods of religious apologetics. He tells stories intended to bias people opinions, and then asks leading questions to reinforce the induced bias.

    He calls this “experimental philosophy”. Yet he violates the principles of good experimental method.

    Sorry. Whatever it is that he is trying to sell, I am not buying.

    He is discussing “true self”. I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. I have a self, but what does that “true” mean? I cannot make sense of it. Is it supposed to mean “innate self”? I have no doubt that my own self is a product of a lifetime of experience, rather that something innate. That’s why I find “true self” a confusing term.

  6. @ Neil,
    Wow, that was impassioned !
    I found no problem with the video, sound was great, I loved the angles and found his voice interesting. But, that is what makes horse races,!

    As for your comments on the lecture itself, I disagree there too. But before pursuing (if you are interested): Are you read up on the issue of self, or is this a new area of philosophy for you == as I know you are read up on a great many things.

  7. Are you read up on the issue of self, or is this a new area of philosophy for you …

    I’ve read a small amount on personal identity, but I was not particularly impressed. Sure, I’m willing to further discuss it.

    I’m inclined to say that personal identity is a rather vague notion, and that people disagree a lot about it. So it may well be a topic that will always lead to disagreement.

  8. @ Neil,
    OK, so onto your comment:

    (1) You said, “he violates the principles of good experimental method”. Where do you see that?

    (2) You said, ““true self”. I have no idea what that is supposed to mean.

    I was actually primed to dislike the video by Knobe because a commentor said he was a Platonistic essentialist on the issue, but I think he was mistaken. Instead he was just reporting what people perceived, not his personal ontology.

    So I don’t think he believes in a “true self” either, but it is part of common perception of folks (if you listened to his examples) and part of reasoning in moral realms. I also don’t believe in a “true self” — it is a cognitive illusion.

    (3) You said, “I have no doubt that my own self is a product of a lifetime of experience”
    But is that your memories, others??? Memories are forgotten and changed — they are highly inaccurate. So that sort of self seems highly problematic.

  9. (1) You said, “he violates the principles of good experimental method”. Where do you see that?

    He seems to be doing things to try to get the answers he wants. Good experimentation should be such as to attempt to prove you wrong.

    However, realistically, he was doing a demo rather than an experiment.

    (3) You said, “I have no doubt that my own self is a product of a lifetime of experience”
    But is that your memories, others???

    I’m not quite sure what you are asking. Generally speaking, memories are not to be trusted. Our brains are not video cameras. Experience does change us. A memory is a reconstruction, based on those changes. It is not an information retrieval. And our memories tend to be biased in a self-serving way.

    Here’s my thought experiment on personal identity.

    Suppose my parents had been living in Nazi Germany at the time of my birth:

    (a) would their son have turned out to be a Nazi sympathizer?
    (b) would that person be me?

    I’m inclined to say that the answer to (a) is probably “yes”, but the answer to (b} is likely “no”. The person would have the same genes and the same parentage. But my identity is built far more out of my experience than out of the genes and parentage.

  10. @ Neil,
    Well, I won’t argue the video or the nature of his research though I disagree.

    From your story we may agree more than not.

    I have found this Bruce Hood video discussing this “self” which was recorded at “TAM 2012” (The Amazing Meeting)
    Bruce did a book called “The Self Illusion”.

    It is 30 minutes long. It is very basic and probably stuff you are familiar with, but it puts it together to discuss the illusion of self — both the “self” part of that phrase and the “illusion” part.

    Why does this matter? It helps us understand ourselves, others and more. In religion, it makes the notion of “soul” all the more strange. But it also shows hyper-rational atheists that even they are susceptible to day-long illusions, thus spoiling their self-righteous pseudo-rationalism.

  11. Lamar87

    This is such a fun Q&A. I’ve thought a lot about what I think the self is but not so sure I’ve thought much of the wild differences between people’s view of self. In general discussion, you would have to go through a entirely off topic conversation about the self to get to the basic building block of agreement that would facilitate your initial conversation. And this, of course, applies to wide variety of topics. If there ever was a general consensus on this, it’s a strange thing to think that it might one day lead to a different method of assigning responsibility in our political and judicial systems.

    I personally think of the self as being a combination of the slight genetic difference within all people that would determine their visceral reactions and their beliefs and convictions that are constantly changing but stable enough that at any given moment you could say “This is me now” that usually lasts for years. In other words, I wouldn’t say it is an illusion but a combination of innate behavior and changing viewpoints. Also, given that no matter how much you change over the course of your life, you are always relatively different from those around you. Therefore a unique self is always present due to the push and pull created from the influence of others.

    The story from the man with the white beard (Dennett?) made me laugh. I think it encapsulates the questions that Joshua and his colleagues are asking.

  12. I really liked that vid. Thanks. Personally, I think of identity as a narrative construct. I’ve been strongly influenced by Kenneth Gergen’s “The Saturated Self” According to him, rather than personal identity as being singular (a modernist perspective), it is better to think of us as living in a “multi-phrenic condition” in which we all have a multiplicity of selves that make up who we are (a postmodern perspective).

  13. @irreverance,
    Sounds like Kenneth Gergen‘s book (1991 – btw, I fixed your link) might state something very similar to my view of Many Selves – albeit, I am not a post-modernist (though I may be in part). 😉

  14. Thanks for fixing the link. (You should put a referral link in there and make some $ while your at it.) And thanks for the tip. I’ll have to go through those pages, since this is something of special interest to me (or at least a few of me’s).

  15. @ irrevarance,
    What is a “referral” link?
    And when are you going to start blogging again?

  16. @Sabio, a referral link is a link that identifies you with driving traffic to a commerce site. If you sign up to be an Amazon affiliate, then you can earn a commission for sales. For example, if you go through any of the Amazon links on my site and make a purchase, then I get a kickback.

    I didn’t realize you read my blog. Thanks! I was taking a break because the business and responsibilities of life have overwhelmed me. I admit, this break has taken far longer than I expected. I need to get back to it.

  17. @ Bo (irreverance),
    Ah, does not allow commerce and thus referral links. I remember now.

  18. @ Lamar,
    Darn, I typed out a reply to you but never seem to have posted it. So here goes again:

    Yes, it is a complicated subject.
    But I think there is no “me now” (yet alone for a years), as you contend. I mean there is in a conventional sense but in a deep meaninful way, there isn’t. The brain conjures it up every moment. It is definitely an illusion — See my Bruce Hood link above in my comment to Neil. It is basic stuff but gets at the some key issues — though a bit long.

    And since I don’t believe in a self at all, a unique self or true self is nonsense to me. But my mind continues to tell me I am a fool! 🙂

  19. Lamar87


    I can’t say what is deep or meaningful about another’s sense of self but I think a self doesn’t have to be meaningful at all to be a self, it just has to have behaviors and distinctions that separates it from other people. In Joshua Knobe’s video, people seemed to view the self as something being intrinsically good or meaningful. I don’t view the self this way. As for whether “me now” lasts for years, this is subjective. I’d still say it’s stable, unless you’re having life-changing epiphanies every minute of the day.

    After seeing the video by Mr. Hood, I see that my definition of illusion also includes the notion that something isn’t real which he addresses as not being the case. Buddhists often use the term illusion to illustrate a lack of reality within our world and mind. So maybe you can see why I think the term illusion is usually used to indicate that something isn’t real. So in this sense, it’s not a word I would apply to someone’s thought process and definitely not to activities of the brain. The self construct being one of those activities. I just kind of get a kind of harsh and accusatory vibe from the word especially when used by Buddha’s newest fans. Not saying that you are using it this way here, of course.

    In the video, he doesn’t address genetics and how this affects our personality and behavior. Twins who have been apart for long periods of time live eerily similar lives. A child’s behavior is sometimes incredibly similar to a grandparent who has never been around the child. And if you change only 5% of the genetic structure of a human, you get an ape. So, given the strength of genetics, I don’t think the self consists just of what we create in our minds.

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