May 21, 2004

How Can We Be Persons if There is No Self?

I received an interesting question in response to my "Better Living Through Transhumanism" article that was recently re-published in The Humanist:
Your article "Better Living through Transhumanism" page 8 right column includes "..and its denial..or the self" Paragrapg 2 of the same column ends with "..subscribe to person-hood ethics." I do not follow how an individual can deny the self yet have person-hood ethics. Please explain.

A fair question. Broadly speaking, the issue of self is a problem for the cognitive sciences and the philosophy of mind, while personhood ethics is a social consideration for moral and legal theory.

To say that there is no self is to suggest that there is no definable, immutable or linearly persistent aspect to cognition that would give rise to the phenomenon of a fixed self that exists over time. Most people who believe in a fixed self have really just substituted vitalism in favour of a supposed functional cognitive equivalent. The idea of a self is also a rather potent illusion (see Paul Bloom's recent article, "Natural Born Dualists."

To further prove the point, if you had no capacity for memory, you would still experience the world but without any capacity for self-identity; the self is in many respects the accumulations of past experiences that can be recalled into a coherent narrative. Also, brain damage, drugs, and hormonal influences constantly alter brain-state and literally change who we are. Similarly, I am not the same person I was 10 years ago; I may share that person's body and experiences, but the way I look at the world now is profoundly different than it was back then.

That being said, because we function in this world as discreet conscious agents who persist and act over time, we need to be considered persons (or in other words, agents deserving of moral consideration). Moreover, because we have the capacity for a spectrum of emotions and sufferings of varying sorts, and because we deserve the right to work towards goals and pursue happiness, we should expect legal protections.

So, the fact that the self does not exist in any tangible form doesn't really change our status as persons so long as we exhibit the characteristics of a person, which primarily includes a minimum threshold of intelligence, sentience and the capactity for formulate plans and intentions over time.


Anonymous said...

Excellent question, and excellent explanation.

the absurd said...

i am in much agreament about the idea that there is no self.

However, how do you explain your "should's" and "deserve's"? it seems to me that hume was rite when he said there is no logical justification for "should" or "ought to."

This seems to me to be the case even while accepting that there is a self. And when there isn't a self... than there is no agent that can choose one way or another and thus can not even remotely be held acountable. With no self there is no agent, let alone a "free agent" that can make choices, thus everything is determined in the strongest sense, and responsibility goes out the window.

i'm interested to read your response =)

Anonymous said...

Don't attempt to sum up Buddhism in a three-paragraph spree of verbal masturbation.

Zen/Nirvana cannot be fathomed by people in this day and age. Buddhism is simply a beautiful practice. That's all it is. Leave it alone. If you're in the mood for questioning, Christianity sure has a lot of loopholes and loose parts to it.