Julian Baggini

The Sum of Your Parts

"There isn't actually a you at the heart of all these experiences. Strange thought? Well maybe not. What is there then? Well, clearly there are memories, desires, intentions, sensations, and so forth. But, what happens is, these things exist — and they're kind of all integrated, overlapped. They're connected in various different ways. They're connected partly — even mainly — because they all belong to one body and one brain.

But there's also a narrative, a story about ourselves, the experiences we have — we remember past things...What we desire is partly a result of what we believe and what we remember also informs what we know.

And so really, there are all these things like beliefs, desires, sensations, experiences — they're all related to each other and that just is you.

In some ways it's a very small difference, from the common sense understanding; in some ways it's a massive one. It's a shift between thinking of yourself as a thing which has all the experiences of life and thinking of yourself as simply that collection of all experience in life. You are the sum of your parts."

~ Julian Baggini, from "Is There A Real You?" TEDxYouth@Manchester 2011

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A Collection of Parts

From "What Does it Mean to be You?" by Julian Baggini, RSA, June 22, 2011:

Hume invites us to introspect...in discussing the proposition but over by people like Descartes — that the existence of the self was the most certain thing in the universe — he kind of said, For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, and try to find this self, all I ever stumble across is a particular feeling, a particular thought, a particular memory, and so forth. 

The people who study how the sense of self emerges through the brain are pretty much in agreement that there is certainly no one spot in the brain where it all comes together and also the very nature of subjective experience is much more fragmented than we kind of tell the story of it afterwards. 

We basically do a lot of work tidying up experience to create a coherent sense of self and narrative, and that in experimental conditions and if you examine people with certain brain pathologies and so forth, it's not difficult to show that actually things are much messier than that — much more like Hume said, One thing after another, diferent bits of the brain not knowing what the others are doing, lots of unconscious processes and so forth.  

The question that emerges fromt this, really, is whether or not that means that the self is an illusion. Susan Blackmore is a psychologist who likes to use the illusion theme, and she gives a good justification of it. She says, 

An illusion is something that is not what it seems to be, or is in some way misleading, intellectually or perceptually. So when I say the self is an illusion, that's what I'm saying. I think that is what the Buddha was saying — not that there's no such thing as a self, because in many contexts he would say there is, but that the self is not what it seems to be.

But I think when you go around saying "the self is an illusion," I don't think that's generally how people take it. People take it to mean that the self doesn't really exist in some way and I think that's nonsense...You don't discover that something doesn't exist by discovering that it's just a collection of parts, because everything is just a collection of parts.

Full audio recording of presentation including audience Q&A

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