Two new books explore the self and identity.
Most of us, when we look in the mirror, have a sense that behind the eyes looking back at us is a me-ish thing: a self. But this, we are increasingly told, is an illusion. Why? Well, according to neuroscientists, there is no single place in the brain that generates a self. According to psychologists, there is no little commander-in-chief in our heads directing our behaviour. According to philosophers, there is no “Cartesian ego” unifying our consciousness, no unchanging core of identity that makes us the same person from day to day; there is only an ever-shifting bundle of thoughts, feelings and memories.
In the last few years, a number of popularising books, bearing titles like The Self Illusion and The Ego Trick, have set out the neuroscientific/psychological/philosophical case against the self. Much has been made of clinical cases where the self seems to malfunction spectacularly: like Cotard syndrome, whose victims believe they do not exist, even though they admit to having a life history; or “dissociative identity disorder,” where a single body seems to harbour multiple selves, each with its own name, memory, and voice. Most of us are not afflicted by such exotic disorders. When we are told that both science and philosophy have revealed the self to be more fragile and fragmentary than we thought, we take the news in our stride and go on with our lives.
But perhaps we should be paying closer attention. For example, there is striking evidence (detailed by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow) that each of us has a “remembering self,” which makes decisions, and an “experiencing self,” which actually does the living. And when the remembering self looks back on an experience and decides how enjoyable it was, it can arrive at an assessment that is quite out of whack from what the experiencing self actually endured. It is your remembering self that tyrannically resolves to take another family vacation this summer, even though your voiceless experiencing self was miserable for most of the last one. Evidently, the subtleties of the self are of practical as well as scholarly interest.
I’ve read articles about how the self doesn’t really exist, and the arguments are compelling. But they’re wrong. When I stub my toe in the dark, there is a self involved, which feels pain and swears.
This isn’t just abstract philosophy for me. This train of thought leads to places more personal and important than I like to share online. This thinking leads to issues I’m having a tough time dealing with. I’m not comfortable talking about them here now. Maybe I never will be.
So instead of sharing those thoughts, I’ll share a story about something that happened to me once at a computer conference.
I didn’t have to be at the conference until midday, so I arrived after most of the journalists had already registered. I went directly to the press registration room, which was nearly deserted, except for a couple of low-level PR people behind a table and one loud and obnoxious journalist who’d arrived a few minutes before me. There had been some problem with his registration and he was outraged. Didn’t they know who he was? He was from WCBS News Radio 88, the biggest news radio station in New York, and how dare they not have his registration? The low-level PR people were apologetic, as they always have to be, but there was nothing they could do.
I wandered around the deserted pressroom for a while looking at stuff until the situation with the News Radio 88 guy was resolved. Then I approached the registration table. I was a little bit more polite than usual, as I try to be when in a situation like that — when dealing with service people who just had to deal with a jerk. “I’m Mitch Wagner from Computerworld. I preregistered,” I said.
Well, I got the reaction that NewsRadio 88 guy was looking for. “Mitch Wagner from Computerworld!” They were waiting for me, had feared I would not show up, and were very glad that I had arrived!
I’ve thought about that encounter every now and then in the subsequent years. The welcome I received, gratifying though it was, was because Computerworld had decided to show up for the conference. It had very little to do with me, personally. If you work for an important company, you should never confuse yourself for the company you work for. That’s a lesson that often comes hard for midlevel employees when they leave the very important company they work for.
We are each simultaneously the center of our own universe, and an insignificant mote in objective reality.
On the other hand, I had earned my place at Computerworld, so I could take pride in that.
Over my career, I’ve worked for publications that got a lot of respect in their industries, where the name of the publication opened doors for me. I’ve worked for unknown startups. Working for the big name pub is better, but working for the unknown startup has its advantages too.
I grew up listening to NewsRadio 88, and so I might have been impressed to meet someone who actually worked for it, if he hadn’t been such a jerk.
Still, the more I think about it, the more sympathetic I am to the guy from NewsRadio 88. It’s hard to be reminded of your own cosmic insignificance.
When I was freelancing, I did an article for The Washington Post. The pay was lousy and the whole project turned out to be a fiasco (not my editor’s fault. I didn’t understand the nature of the assignment and therefore it required extensive revision). But it was worth it, just to have the opportunity to call people on the phone and say, in my best Ted Baxter voice, “This is Mitch Wagner, calling for the Washington Post.” My identity — my self — was that I was the Washington Post guy for a little while.
Is there such a thing as the self?