The Different Notions of Self

Over at Quartz, Tim Urban offers a fairly fun and comprehensive rundown of all the theories of self — what makes you, you. It is an often maddening topic that has been reflected upon and debated by philosophers and average folks alike for about as long as we’ve been capable of higher thought.

Though it is a long read, it is well worth your time if you want to understand, in an often humorous and digestible way, the different arguments for what makes our identity and how. I am especially fond of this excerpt.

It’s like having an old wooden boat. You may have repaired it hundreds of times over the years, replacing wood chip after wood chip, until one day, you realize that not one piece of material from the original boat is still part of it. So is that still your boat? If you named your boat Polly the day you bought it, would you change the name now? It would still be Polly, right?

In this way, what you are is not really a thing as much as a story, or a progression, or one particular theme of person. You’re a bit like a room with a bunch of things in it—some old, some new, some you’re aware of, some you aren’t—but the room is always changing, never exactly the same from week to week.

Likewise, you’re not a set of brain data, you’re a particular database whose contents are constantly changing, growing, and being updated. And you’re not a physical body of atoms, you’re a set of instructions on how to deal with and organize the atoms that bump into you.

People always say the word soul and I never really know what they’re talking about. To me, the word soul has always seemed like a poetic euphemism for a part of the brain that feels very inner to us; or an attempt to give humans more dignity than just being primal biological organisms; or a way to declare that we’re eternal. But maybe when people say the word soul what they’re talking about is whatever it is that connects my 90-year-old grandfather to the boy in the picture. As his cells and memories come and go, as every wood chip in his canoe changes again and again, maybe the single common thread that ties it all together is his soul. After examining a human from every physical and mental angle throughout the post, maybe the answer this whole time has been the much less tangible Soul Theory.

For my part, I think the self is an amalgamation of different elements, namely continuity of narrative combined with data. Of course, no concept is without its shortcomings and gaps, which is what makes the discussion about self so timeless. As the author alludes towards the end of that snippet, there is just something fundamentally intangible about the self, something many of us just know without any explanation.

What do you think?

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