BY JORDI FAXON
Is there a self?
Most philosophers would define the self as the common folk would define the soul: an independent and unified entity within a body that exceeds tangible adjectives. It’s that one metaphysical definition that fully encapsulates the nature of an individual.
In a conversation about the self, it is essential to make mention of the great Scottish philosopher David Hume. He—being an atheist-determinist-empiricist—felt that the self doesn’t exist. There is no need for it to exist, he says, and it can be rationalized away. All of man’s actions can be fully accounted for in a computational input-output model. To Hume, each of us as individuals is truly no more important than a potato. Whether this is good or bad, Hume sees humans as consistently acting on emotional impulse rather than composed rationalism.
Now, as someone who lives in a household that largely, vocally and axiomatically condones the teachings of David Hume, I was prompted to question it. As I was lying in bed thinking about it, a curious notion propped itself into my head: What prompts that alienation we feel from ourselves after exhausting a base hedonism?
Take an example: Have you ever stayed up, watching the newest season of “Bojack Horseman” on Netflix at the break of dawn, in bed? And has it happened to you that, after the end of an episode, you see your slouched and unceremonious figure reflected back at you on the black screen, and have wondered at what terrible low you’ve sunk to?
Is this aversion of a biological response not a consequence of the self, for what else can set your own emotions against the action that you are biologically supposed to carry out (seeking dopamine reward), except for a separate entity that also commandeers your body’s thoughts and behaviors (i.e., a self)?
Alas, there is still a strong counter to this analysis. The voice that strikes you when facing what actions your body has committed can be understood as a reflection of your society’s expectations, also included in the Hume model. Such disgust at one’s self for having eaten a whole bag of chips in five minutes could always be attributed to society’s condemnation of gluttony, a much more reasonable source of behavior than a reflective conviction coming from a true self, because the former behavior influencer explains more effectively, and with the fewest undue assumptions, the vast majority of human actions: impulsive, not calculated.
Here’s a thought: If the self does not exist, then who do we love? If a significant other has asked you what you love about him, what are you moved to say? Would a discrete and specific, but limited, list of attributes be granted with appreciation, or would it feel dry? It tends to be the latter because if we hear this from our partner, it feels like we’ve met a pre-existing criteria, and that our partner’s love is conditional on all of these attributes. And that if our partner found someone else with all of the same attributes we have, they would have no better reason to stay with us.
This reveals a wrinkle in the rationalist argument I’ve been making so far. People can argue about human nature ad infinitum, but there are things we know about ourselves. We love selves; we love whole individuals, and only them. The argument against the existence of a self can only take us so far, but after a while becomes fairly useless because it stands in contrast to a truth that is revealed to us every day. There must be a self, if for nothing else because we understand that our relationships with others aren’t only interest-based, but that they’re personal and unconditional.