A Question of... Identity

In another entry in our introductory series, Steven Campbell-Harris finds the self tantalisingly out of reach.

Western cultures are often derided as self-obsessed. We take too many “selfies”, tell each other to “be true to yourself” and read copious quantities of “self-help” books. Yet rarely do we take time to consider what the self is.

Examining the nature of the “self” comes with problems. With distance usually comes greater perspective. We can perceive something, and understand it better, when we see it from afar. However, we can get no distance from our self. Who am I? I’m at once detective and suspect. No wonder we find it so difficult to think about.

Where is the self?

Right now, you see words and think ideas. Your awareness of this seems to require that there be a subject of that experience. As the French philosopher Rene Descartes famously put it, I think, therefore I am. Our self - the “I” which Descartes speaks about - is both behind, and yet expressed through, our experience.

Descartes’s argument for the self curiously bypasses many of our usual ways of acquiring beliefs. We can’t observe the self with our outer senses (i.e. sight, touch, hearing, etc.), and we don’t find out about it from the testimony of others. Instead, he thought that we could uncover it ourselves by looking within, a process that we call “introspection”. Yet if we turn our focus inward, can we find anything more to an experience than the features of the experience itself? Can we also notice a “self” doing the experiencing?

Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume didn’t think so. For him, introspection fails to identify anything recognisable as a “self” within:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.

What is the self?

Hume claims that we cannot observe a self without a perception, but some of our perceptions may give us clues about what the self is like.

For one, when I experience something, I sense some separationbetween myself and the world. There are things which are part of me, like my hands, and those which belong in the category of not me/everything else, like this computer I’m writing on now. The “self” includes and excludes, dividing the world into what is and is not me.

When I look within, I also sense some mixture of creation and control. The philosopher Galen Strawson summarised it as a perception of “radical, absolute, buck-stopping up-to-me-ness in choice and action.” My actions and thoughts seem to come from me, so they must reside in something. This we call the “self”. This explains why the majority of us tend to identify more with our minds than our bodies, since we believe that it is where what we do, feel, and think originates.

I also perceive my self as something stable and unchanging. I think of myself developing over time, to be sure, but will insist that I am nevertheless essentially the same thing. Maybe this is a product of my memory - since this identifies me with past versions of myself. Or perhaps I find this sense of myself as unchanging through an ongoing identification with my physical body.

Some may object that this exercise is fruitless since it only aims to describe features of the self, not the self itself. Yet if we take any ordinary object like a bowl, we describe what it is by describing the properties it has (e.g. it is round, it has a hole in it etc.) and by describing what it does (e.g. it holds objects, it can be used to eat out of etc.). So presumably we can do the same of the self. Deeper problems arise if we consider whether a self with the features we have identified can come into being in the first place.

When did “you” begin?

Have you always existed? If not, you began to exist at some point. Yet when was that exactly, and how did it happen?

These questions are deeply perplexing, and worthy of discussion for a whole article, so I will put aside questions of how and when this might happen to focus only on the general possibility of a self coming into being. Though the idea of a self always existing is very strange indeed, the second – of the self emerging - comes with its own mysteries and paradoxes.

Let’s start with the idea that the self is the part of us that doesn’t change. From a purely biological standpoint, each human being begins as a sperm and egg fused at conception. At this point there is no conscious experience; nothing it is like for that fertilized egg to be itself. And yet, at some point - through growth and consumption of various organic materials from the mother - a self mysteriously emerges. This poses a problem for us. We have said that the self is unchanging, yet doesn’t the creation of the self require a kind of change from one state to another?

A second, perhaps deeper problem comes from considering the self as separate to the world, forming a boundary between us and everything else. If the self is created within the universe, we have a paradox: how can something that is a part of the universe divide the universe?

The British philosopher Alan Watts once wrote, “We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.” Watts’ imagery of emergence carries the message that we are not alien to this world, yet that it is often how many feel.

This isolating feeling may be an illusion that emerges at a later stage of our development. Babies seem to lack this basic sense of separation between themselves and the world. Instead, they consider the world as an extension of themselves, finding it initially difficult to grasp that others have different perspectives to their own. Could a baby’s basic experience of unity be closer to the truth than our own feeling of separateness?

Finally, the view that we are a source of creation and control leads us into a puzzle when we consider our development as biological organisms. Most of us concede that we begin our lives as an embryo or foetus in total dependency. Everything we do at that point is wholly determined by natural laws and processes. Yet at some point we develop an inescapable sense of “up-to-me-ness” in our conscious experience. We feel free. We feel that we are now in charge of what we do and what we think. Have we managed to wrestle back control from nature? If so, how can we grow into independence when we begin life utterly dependent?

At this point, we might reflect that considering the self both as a biological organism and as something separate from the world, unchanging and in control leads us into all kinds of thorny problems. We have a few options: we can maintain that the self is in the world and we will eventually resolve these problems, we can argue that the self doesn’t really have the features we describe, or we can assert that the self does have these features but is not purely biological.

Those who argue the self isn’t merely biological often claim that we possess a transcendent soul. This is our unchanging, free, and indivisible essence and it exists prior to our birth and outlasts our death. For many religious believers, believing that we each have a soul makes sense of our feeling of separateness, our sense of creation and control, and our apparently unchanging nature.

First, we feel separate because we really are not of this world. For Christian apologist and Narnia author C. S. Lewis, it was incorrect to say that we have souls. Rather, we should say “We are souls. We have bodies.” Second, we are a source of creation and control as we have been endowed with free will by our Creator to make our own decisions. We are not limited by the laws of nature as we are not just natural beings. Finally, the problem of an unchanging being coming into existence is avoided by proposing the immortality of the soul. Our soul exists before and after our body has been created and perished. As such, we avoid the problem of how our “self” can emerge out of matter alone.

Belief in the soul generates its own problems though. How does this soul come into being, or was it never created? How does the soul fuse with our body? Is the soul separate from the mind, or the same as the mind? Considering these questions, we might think that the “soul” is a term that doesn’t stand for our ideas, but the lack of them. Is ascribing selfhood to the soul just giving our ignorance a name, or does it genuinely help to explain who we are?

Further Reading

“You are a network”, by Kathleen Wallace

A New Science of Consciousness, by Anil Seth

The Ego Trick, by Julian Baggini


"A Question of…” is a new series for young adult readers brought to you by The Philosophy Foundation. Commissioning editors for the series are Emma Swinn MBE and Peter Worley.

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Steven Campbell-Harris is a Senior Specialist and Trainer with The Philosophy Foundation. In these roles he facilitates philosophical conversations with children of all ages, gives talks on philosophy in schools, and trains philosophy graduates in philosophical enquiry. He has published articles on philosophy and education in Philosophy Now, Teaching Times, and Innovate My School.