The What, Where, and How of the Self
In the first chapter of this book, a number of questions were raised about the self. The first was “What is the self?” I believe the evidence supports the existence of a Kantian “I” at the center of each of us that is the subject of our conscious experience and the core of our being. The margins of the “I” are not entirely fixed, however, and they change throughout one's life. The patients in this book with altered egos demonstrate the dramatic, surprising, and sometimes frightening flexibility of the margins of the self.
Another question posed was “Where is the self located in the brain?” When we consider the brains of patients with perturbations of the self, one message comes through loud and clear: Many different areas of the brain contribute to the preservation of the self. From the asomatognosia cases we learn that the nondominant parietal lobe is essential to the feeling of ownership of a limb. Analysis of the neurology of patients with misidentification syndromes teaches us that many areas of the brain contribute to our personal relatedness to the world. The patients with personal confabulation demonstrate that both frontal lobes are necessary for a proper relationship between the self and the world, and the split-brain patients demonstrate the manner in which the corpus callosum contributes to mental unity. While the many parts of the brain create the self, however, there is no specific material locus of the self or the inner “I” within the brain.
The third question raised was “How does the brain produce a unified self?” The brain is extended and divisible, but the self is unified and integrated. The integration of the self cannot be explained by its emergence at the top of the hierarchy of a non-nested brain. The brain creates the unity of the self by producing a nested hierarchy of meaning and purpose, where the levels the self, and the many parts of the brain that contribute to the self, are nested within all other levels of the hierarchy. The brain has no pinnacle of consciousness, but we experience ourselves as unified because our meanings and our actions are unified within the nested self.
Beings and Brains
If Descartes’ enigma is solved, and Descartes’ dualistic solution to the mind-body problem was incorrect, then what is the answer to the final question “What is the relationship between the brain and the mind?” The answer leads to a most surprising and curious result. We know that the brain is a material object in the world. On the other hand, the neurological evidence confirms that the self has an entirely “first-person existence.” The consciousness of each individual is uniquely related to the self. Our minds are a part of us, of our living being. The material existence of a mind depends solely on something being that mind.
If the existence of a mind presupposes a subjective personal point of view, and if a subjective point of view presupposes a being, the presence of consciousness presupposes life. The question then becomes What is it about life that allows the creation of a being, and what actually is a being?1
Evolution creates from nonlife living things—only some of which are beings. Being alive does not guarantee that a thing is a being. For instance, what about a plant? A plant is alive, it carries on respiration, metabolizes, moves, and so on. We humans have much in common with plants. We surely have a lot more in common with plants than with, for example, rocks. But is a plant a being? The majority of people don't think so. Despite the similarity between plants and ourselves, we do not consider plants beings because plants are simply not enough like “us” to be considered beings like us.
What about a frog? Is a frog a being? Although many people would claim that a frog is not a being, a case could be made that a frog is a primitive being. In the preceding chapters, it was argued that a frog has a primitive mind, and the presence of a mind is surely an important ingredient of a being. So, for me, a frog is a being. What about a chimpanzee? Is a chimp a being? Most people would agree that a chimp is a being. But again, what are the clear and objective criteria for this determination? It appears that all the features we do share with chimps—life, intelligence, some individual social identity—make chimps seem so much like us that we intuitively grant chimps “beinghood.”
In the final analysis, there is no single criteria for determining whether or not something is a being, and the criteria that we do use do not seem terribly objective or clear-cut. On the other hand, there seems to be a cluster of features that we uniquely identify with being human, and it seems the more something possesses those features, the more likely we
are to consider it a being. These features include, but are not restricted to, being alive, having subjectivity, and, finally, possessing a mind.
What about computers? Will the human race someday decide that an advanced computer is a being? Is it possible, at some point in the future, that someone could be charged with murder if they pulled the plug on a PC? Not a likely prospect. Even now, computers can be pretty smart at times, more so than frogs in many ways. In the years to come, computers will get even smarter. But a computer is not alive, and a computer is not a being. No matter how intelligent a computer may be, a frog on a lily pad soaking up some noonday sun is more a being than a computer. It follows that between frogs and computers, only the frog can have a mind. I doubt that computers will ever be considered conscious, because in order for a computer to be“conscious like us” and to have “feelings like us” it will need to be made like us and be alive like us. This is why I cannot take seriously the claim that a mind could be made out of silicon chips if only you could put them in the correct combination. It is more likely that the particular material substance of our brains is essential to the quality of our consciousness. To be enough like a human being to be considered conscious by us, a computer would have to be like us, of the same matter and process, and this includes being alive. In the nested hierarchy of an organism, all its parts—the cells, tissues, organs—are alive, and the life of the parts is what makes the entire thing alive. “Life” is simply not present in silicon chips.2 Life itself is so indispensable to the mind that this probably rules out silicon-chip computers as candidates for consciousness or selves. In the final analysis, each mind is intimately connected to our lives and part of our lives as organisms. For this reason, our minds are just as much alive as our brains, and to have a mind is to be a living nested hierarchy of meaning and purpose. The mind is irreducibly personal. It begins and ends with the possessor of that mind and has an existence only for that person.
So here I am, inside my head, my inner mind, my pains, no more than illusion to you who read these words. There is a certain loneliness to all this, but this is the cost of the evolution of our brains. When self-aware minds developed their independence from the world, they separated from other selves, other beings, as well. As the life of every organism is surely unique, so is the mind. The ultimate personal uniqueness of each and every organism's mind and being is what we refer to as the “soul.” The soul of each brain is indeed a unique, one-of-a-kind thing. We can donate an organ or provide blood for transfusions, but the meaning of
oneself to oneself possesses a reality that can only be experienced by one person.
As our minds separate us from one another, however, so are they shared. The cases in this book demonstrate the dramatic ways in which the mind and the self can be altered. Transformations of the margins of the self, however, are not restricted to persons with brain damage. Each and every one of us, nearly every day, experiences change in the margins of the self. Whenever we identify with another person, put ourselves in another person's place, experience sadness when confronted with another's pain, or rejoice at another's good fortune, we partially merge with another's person's mind, thus sharing their subjective experience.
I am not suggesting that when we identify with others, anything materially, physically transfers between persons. However, I am proposing that under these circumstances a merging of minds does occur in more than a purely figurative sense. When we enter into states of mutual identification, when we love someone, for instance, or are bonded in friendship, or are part of a family, we enter into a new nested relationship of minds.