Thursday, December 3, 2009


Thomas Riggins

The philosopher Galen Strawson has recently published a 448 page book entitled SELVES: AN ESSAY IN REVISIONARY METAPHYSICS. This article is based on Thomas Nagel's review in the London Review of Books 5 November 2009 ["The I in Me"].

Nagel tells us this a book of "shameless metaphysics" [in the good sense] in which GS argues that there are such things as "selves" [you probably think you have one] but they "are not human beings" [we'll see about that]. GS is not some kind of wild idealist. He refers to himself as a materialist and so thinks if you have a self it could NOT "exist apart from your central nervous system." Well. Marxists would agree with that. There is a catch, however. All your experiences are brain events and for "orthodox" materialists brain events, and hence experiences, are events that take place in the physical world. But GS doesn't think that our experiences can be properly explained by an appeal to the properties of the material world.

This does NOT mean there is some other non physical world involved. It means that the material world is of greater extension than the world described by physics. "This means,' Nagel writes, "that the conscious brain has a mental character that is not revealed by the physical sciences , including neurophysiology." Pretty strong stuff. Maybe we should say "not YET revealed", etc. But let's see where GS is going.

Here is the direction of the argument according to Nagel. GS begins with phenomenology ( the subjective feeling of experience of the self) and moves to metaphysics (the objective nature of the self itself). We are told the "results are radical and unexpected." Consciousness is the experience of a subject. A subject is for GS a SINGLE mental thing. If there is a "self" it is a "subject as a single mental thing" which GS calls a SESMET. Your sesmet in the form of "I" thinks of itself as persisting through time as a single entity.

GS thinks this may be an incorrect thing to think and asks how the "I" as a sesmet can persist through discontinuities of consciousness. The human being that you are is the host of fleeting sesmets but there is really no underlying "I" which belongs to all of them. So there are a series of "selves" in the human being-- when you go to sleep and are unconscious one sesmet ceases and a new one comes into being when you regain consciousness-- a new "I"-- which due to the memory storing capacity of the brain links the new sesmet with some memory content stored from the the previous sesmet or "I"-- the feeling you have of a persistent "I" existing in the past and having a future is an illusion-- maya!

GS goes so far as to say that when he remembers today what "he" did yesterday he has no sense that it is the same "I" today as was the "I" of yesterday. Nagel thinks this very strange and suggests that GS has a very atypical conception of himself. Nagel quotes GS as follows:

"The episode of consciousness is certainly apprehended from the inside, and so I take it for granted that it is mine, if I care to reflect: I take it for granted that it is an episode of consciousness of the human being that I am. But there is no sense, affective or otherwise that it was consciousness on my* part.' [Nagel explains: The asterisk indicates the use of 'my' to refer to the subject of present consciousness.] "My past in mine* in the sense," GS continues, "that it belongs to me,* but I don't [ should the "I" have an asterisk?--tr ] feel that I* was there in the past."

GS again: "When I consider myself in the whole-human-being way I fully endorse the conventional view that there is in my case-- that I am-- a single subject of experience-- a person-- with long-term diachronic continuity. But when I consider myself as an inner mental subject and consider the detailed character of conscious experience, my feeling is that I am-- that the thing that I most essentially am is-- continually completely new."

Nagel is not the only one to not be able to feel this way about his own "I". To think, as GS says in the following, "that there simply isn't any 'I' or self that goes on through (let alone beyond) the waking day, even though there's obviously and vividly an 'I' or self at any given time"-- is to think about the "I" quite differently, I think, than most of humanity. But that is his phenomenology and will lead, as Nagel says, to an "equally strange metaphysics."

Since we experience the "self'" both DIACHRONICALLY [a technical term philosophers like to use meaning through time or historically] and SYNCHRONICALLY [at a particular instant in time] all we know about the self arises from experience. Without experiences, no self. A thing is experienced only insofar as its properties are experienced. In fact, a thing and its properties are indistinguishable.

Warning-- thin ice ahead. Nagel: "Further, this thing cannot be distinguished from its properties, and those properties are exhausted by the experience, which is in turn identical with the experience's contents." Is this really materialism? Subjects have experiences and if the thing's properties are exhausted by the subject's experiences this does not leave the possibility of a thing having an existence or property independent of the subject and that smells, I think, of idealism.

In any case, Nagel says that the foregoing discussion of the self and its experiences means that at any given time the "self" is just an episode or unity of a given set of existing experiences-- a sesmet. This is why there is a synchronically, but no diachronically, existing "I". But since GS also supports MATERIALISM the self must be a brain process, or as he says in his book, "a synergy of neural activity which is either a part of or (somehow) identical with the synergy that constitutes the experience as a whole."

As a sequence of sesmets the self of one moment is not the self of the next. The human being has a new self with every consciously aware brain process episode's set of experiences for any given moment in time, but has no diachronic existence. GS says, that Materialists "take the mind-- the mind-brain-- to have non-experiential being in addition to experiential being that provides all the ontic depth anyone could possibly want." By "ontic depth" [from ontology, the science of being] he means the feeling we have of a persistent being of a diachronic "I", that is myself and has memories and past experiences belonging to it even when not consciously present at every given moment.

Does all this sound like a lot of complicated play on words? Why not just say the feeling we have of a "self" is the I's awareness of its present consciousness PLUS what it remembers of past experiences. Brain processes give rise to consciousness and also store memories which can be recalled at different times. Why postulate and try and prove that we have zillions of fleeting selves (sesmets) rather than basically just one? Why multiply entities needlessly?

GS replies: "Philosophy, like science, aims to say how things are in reality, and conflict with ordinary thought and language is no more an objection to a philosophical theory than a scientific one." But science is based on experimentation with regards to the physical world and not speculation with regard to metaphysical theories. By analogy a religious person could say: "Religion aims to say how things are in reality also, so religious ideas that conflict with ordinary thought and language should not be objected to anymore than scientific theories that do the same."

When I said above GS's materialism gave off a whiff of idealism I had this in mind; this opening his conception of philosophy gives to idealist theories. A well founded materialism closes the door on religious speculation, it does not leave a crack open for the irrationalists to squeeze through. Bertrand Russell, the philosophical fore barer of GS as well as Nagel, defined philosophy as the no man's land between science (what we do know) and religion (what we don't know) and this is the territory that GS's theory of the self inhabits.

Nagel does not think GS has made his case in any event, but highly recommends the book both for the high level of philosophical argumentation it contains as well as the wealth of information on the opinions of other philosophers and the answers that they have come up with regarding the mind and the nature of the self. "SELVES is a work of profound philosophical reflection," Nagel writes, and he credits GS with being a philosopher of "imagination and audacity" as well as of "intellectual power and exemplary integrity."