One of the most seemingly obvious truths is that we exist. There is such a thing as “you” that exists throughout your life.
In a TED talk that has recently gone viral, philosopher Julian Baggini has challenged this view.
He admits that while there is a kind of permanent truth about ourselves — something that’s the same throughout life — in reality this is an illusion.
We have accumulated different experiences, have memories, desires, beliefs and sensations and this is the common-sense model of what a person is, but Baggini says there is something fundamentally wrong with this model.
Rather, Baggini tells us we are not so much a being as a process. There isn’t actually a “you” at the heart of all your experiences.
Check out the talk below. For those without the time to watch it, read our summary below.
Baggini puts forth the idea that the way to understand ourselves, is not as some permanent being that has experiences, but as a kind of a collection of experiences.
Does this idea strike you as weird?
Baggini says it’s common-sense. Just look at pretty much anything in the universe, he says, taking water as an example.
We know that water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. No one thinks that what that means is there is a thing called water, and attached to it are hydrogen and oxygen atoms, and that’s what water is.
“We understand, very easily, very straightforwardly, that water is nothing more than the hydrogen and oxygen molecules suitably arranged. Everything else in the universe is the same. Now if everything else in the universe is like this, why are we different?”
It is not a new idea to think of ourselves as being a collection of all our parts and not a separate, permanent entity which has those parts.
“You find it in Buddhism, you find it in 17th, 18th-century philosophy going through to the current day, people like Locke and Hume.”
It is also being reinforced by neuroscience. Baggini quotes Paul Broks, a clinical neuropsychologist:
“We have a deep intuition that there is a core, an essence there, and it’s hard to shake off, probably impossible to shake off, I suspect. But it’s true that neuroscience shows that there is no center in the brain where things do all come together.”
Baggini explains that there are lots of different processes in the brain, but it’s because of the way that they relate that we get this sense of self.
He calls it the ego trick:
“It’s like a mechanical trick. It’s not that we don’t exist, it’s just that the trick is to make us feel that inside of us is something more unified than is really there.”
You might be wondering if there is no abiding core of self, no permanent essence, does that mean the self is an illusion? Does it mean that we don’t exist?
“The fact that we are, in some ways, just this very, very complex collection, ordered collection of things, does not mean we’re not real,” says Baggini.
He uses the metaphor of a waterfall to make his point. In a way there is nothing permanent about a waterfall: it is always changing, the water keeps carving new channels – the water that flows through the waterfall is different every single instance. But it doesn’t mean that the waterfall is an illusion.
What it means is that the waterfall is (we are) something which has a history, has certain things that keep it together, but it’s a process, it’s fluid, it’s forever changing.
It also means it that the true self is not something that is there for us to discover. We are always creating our true self.