What is the self?

One of the questions that keeps coming up, as I talk with people about the possible future where everybody is wearing (in the Verner Vinge sense of the word), is the relationship, if any, between the nature of our physical interaction with the world and the definition of ‘self’.

For example, if Neo in The Matrix actually only believes that he is walking around and interacting with the physical world, whereas in fact his body is floating in a vat somewhere, does this impact in any essential way who he is? Does it mean that his ‘self’ has been altered in some fundamental way?

This is a potentially thorny question, and there are many possible directions from which to approach it. But for now I’m just going to let the thought linger. Something to chew until tomorrow.

2 Responses to “What is the self?”

  1. Dax Pandhi says:

    To take the Neo example, I don’t believe it alters him in any way*. Just like our actions define who we are more than our thoughts (write), our perception seems to trump memory/fact (read).

    A parallel is cracking a software’s security. To oversimplify, at the root of it all is a boolean that decides whether the software is licensed or not. It has to read something to determine the value. But if you crack it, it believes it is licensed.

    A human example is how we “remember” a person. John and I have a strained relationship. I do not like him often. John is dying/dead. In feeling bad about his demise, I try to remember all the good qualities he had. In looking at these qualities I feel a sense of loss. John as a person had not changed. My perception of him had. I overwrote the boolean which was set through a legal operation with what can considered an illegal overwrite from a different source.

    * Maybe I was in a vat before, or maybe I am now. Doesn’t matter to me at that level of existence. It only matters if I have impact on or can influence the higher level of existence where I am able to differentiate between being in a vat or not.

    Whether it is Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, agnostic spirituality, or even what Yoda said – it comes down to a similar enough point – “Luminous beings we are, not this crude matter.” Perhaps we are just encountering that from a different direction.

  2. Weston C.B. says:

    Oh man, getting into this subject has been a sort of can of worms for me the past couple years. Here’s where I am with it at the moment:

    (1) ‘self’ or ‘I’ is something like a special/key/reserved word in the human brain. A more complete analogy, however, is to Unix/Linux device interfaces, where you have special files for doing I/O with peripherals which appear like any other file, though on the other side of this common interface the behavior is totally different. I think there are several words like this—’reality’ is probably another (and I don’t think it’s coincidence these words are the principle subject matter of philosophical inquiry). These words are special in that they seem to step outside the bounds of ordinary sandboxed conceptualizing, and actually effect the operation of the brain.

    (2) ‘I’ or ‘self’ seems to hold a definition used by the brain to determine a definite set of possible actions, and a set of information sources used to define the dynamic state of ‘that which acts.’ This changes all the time: when we are dreaming, when we become immersed in a video game, when driving a car, etc. we ‘become’ one or another of these things, and for some part of our brain, the interface is essential the same: a set of actions and this dynamic, influenceable state. The concept of ‘self’ is important to us because what it refers to can change in ordinary human life; it has its philosophical character because of our (tacit) assumption that this behavior of ‘becoming’ something (as I used it above, to refer to the mind controlling/feeling as one avatar or another) generalizes beyond the human realm to the universe itself. The answer to the philosophical question, “what is ‘self’ in the deepest sense?” is that ‘self’ doesn’t have a ‘deep sense’ like this; it only has a human sense.

    (3) The rest of the weirdness of this question seems to be a consequence of how we think about the relation between the subjective and the objective. I think it can be largely sorted out by conceptualizing along these lines: “The universe exists; Jack is a part of the universe; my ‘subjective’ experience is what it’s like for the universe at the place where Jack’s brain is.” I think a more typical approach is to think “I am my brain,” for instance (or “I am my body”—whatever), which has the effect of creating this second, mixed subjective/objective entity ‘I’ which is still somehow separate from whatever we identify it with. This ‘I’ feels capable of detaching, soul-like, from the body and still being somehow sensical; but doesn’t that feeling probably just derive from the fact that one can ‘become’ a character in a dream, or a video game, etc.?

    4) The universe is; human concepts can outline much of (what’s important to US about) it; much of the rest probably ‘works’ my means we’re as incapable of reconciling as a dog is theology by his sense of smell.

    Apologies for the essay!

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