The Atman, Part 9
Part 9 of 10: Are You Always the Same Person?
Are you the same person now that you were five minutes ago? This is one of the most strange and disillusioning questions that you can possibly ask yourself. When you first hear of it, it might seem like a stupid question, but then after you think about it, you realize how curious it really is.
Before going any further, I want to make it clear what exactly the question is asking. The question is not asking whether or not one’s personality, moral character, or perspective on the world change over time. Those things doubtlessly change over time. But that’s not what the question is asking.
The question is asking this: If you believe that an Entity of some kind exists in our brain, does it always remain there, or does it get continuously replaced? Is the entity you have in your head right now the same as the entity you had five minutes ago? Was the person you were five minutes ago you or was it a completely different person who has now been replaced by your present self? Is there a coherent self that persists through time? Is there a qualitative, metaphysical connection between your past self and present self?
There are four possible answers to these questions:
Option 1. There is no such entity in our brains (there is no self, Anatta), which means that there is no coherent self.
Option 2. We have one Entity which never changes and stays with us throughout our lives. Thus, there is a coherent self.
Option 3. We have one Entity which changes over time but still stays with us throughout our lives, which still means there is a coherent self.
Option 4. We have a different Entity at every moment in time. Thus, there is a self, but it’s not coherent. Your past and future selves are completely different people from your current self.
Let me draw a diagram of the four possibilities to make it clearer:
So under Options 2 and 3, we hold on to the same thing for our entire lives; it’s just that in Option 3, it somehow evolves over time, while in Option 2, it is unchanged. Meanwhile, in Option 4, we get a new copy for every single moment in time. And under Option 1, of course, there was never any such entity to begin with.
Options 1 and 4 are actually fairly similar, because they both involve no coherent self. But the difference is that under Option 4, there is an incoherent self (you get a different one at every moment), while under Option 1, there is no self at all.
I actually don’t know of any philosophers who advocated Option 4, even though it is a perfectly plausible idea. The philosophers are divided between Options 1, 2, and 3. Predictably, it mostly falls along the lines of the atheism vs. religion debate, with most of the religious philosophers advocating Option 3 (and some, like me, advocating Option 2) and most of the atheist/secular philosophers advocating Option 1.
By the way, it is possible for someone to believe in an entity while considering it to be material, rather than immaterial. They might consider it to be a part of the brain. Thus, someone could be a physicalist atheist and still believe in Options 2, 3, or 4. And I think some of them do, including John Searle. However, Option 1 remains the general atheist view. Most of the atheist/secular philosophers speak only of conscious experience, not of any entity within the brain. In their view, neuroscience has supplanted such concepts as the self, Atman, soul, etc., and they dismiss the idea of coherent self, except as an illusion generated by the brain.
Before the Enlightenment, most of the European philosophers, such as Plato and Descartes, would have advocated Option 3 (the evolving self), or maybe Option 2 (the unchanging self). Options 1 and 4 probably would have seemed totally unfathomable to them. However, in the 18th Century, thinkers like David Hume and George Berkeley broke ground by arguing that there is no coherent self. This left Options 1 and 4 available. Given that Hume was so skeptical of anything immaterial, he chose Option 1. And in the modern world, most of the atheist philosophers concur. They advocate Option 1, regarding the self as an illusion. In their view, our lives are merely a sequence of experiences: there is no “self”.
This debate also played out in Asia, as it forms one of the most important differences between Hinduism and Buddhism. Hinduism holds that each of us possesses an Atman, while Buddhism holds there is no such thing as an Atman (this doctrine is called Anatta). The Hindu philosophers are divided between Options 2 and 3 (and maybe 4 — I am not sure). But they all agree that we have an Atman. In contrast, Buddhism is firmly set on Option 1. In fact, they advocated Option 1 about two millennia before the Europeans ever thought of it.
According to my own views, options 1 and 3 are untenable. (Again, that’s according to my own views — you don’t have to agree.) Option 1 is untenable because I hold that each of us contains an Atman in our brains. We don’t just have brains, we have an Entity within our brains (see Part 4). Meanwhile, Option 3 is untenable because I consider the Atman to have no properties except for its location (somewhere in the brain), its state (which is either active or dormant), and — perhaps — the ability for free will. I don’t think that the Atman contains things like your personality, your thoughts, or your emotions (see Part 5). I think those things belong to the brain (although I do think that the Atman floats over them, making them conscious experiences), not to the Atman. I think the Atman is just the ghost in the machine that allows you to be conscious. Thus, the Atman does not evolve over time, other than moving and switching between conscious and asleep. It has no continuous changes, only the binary change of switching between on and off.
However, Options 2 and 4 both seem plausible to me, and I don’t have any definitive argument for preferring one over the other. I know of one compelling argument to support each of them, and I think they are both viable possibilities.
But I am not a purely rational creature (neither are you), and I am not motivated by reason alone. I also have a personal preference. I very much want Option 2 to be correct and for Option 4 to be false, because it seems to me that if I believed in Option 4 (or Option 1), that would be so disillusioning that I couldn’t stand it. If I actually believed that I am a separate person at every moment in time, I would find it quite difficult to have any sense of order, meaning, purpose, or reassurance. Thus, I am definitely on the side of Option 2, even though I have no clear reason to think it any more or less plausible than Option 4.
If we actually went through life believing that there is no coherent self (as in Options 1 and 4), life would be so weird, because there would be no sense of permanence. It would imply that my experiences in this moment constitute someone’s entire life, and as soon as we move on to the next moment, that life has slipped away. It would seem that we are dying in every moment.
One strange consequence of this is that there would be no fear of death. There’s no need to fear death if you’ve already died millions of times. There’s no need to fear the lack of your existence when every existence only lasts for one moment anyway.
On the other hand, even if this worldview took away the fear of death, it would also take away all the things that make life worth living. Our lives involve things like hopes, dreams, regrets, etc. But if you believed that you are a separate existence in every moment in time, then none of those things would have any meaning. We would all just have to be “riders on the storm”.
Furthermore, our friendships would have no meaning. It’s common for people to say things like, “I’m so glad that I’ve known you for ten years and that we’ve shared so many experiences together.” But if you believed that you are a separate existence in every moment, then you and your friend haven’t shared any experiences together. The person you were yesterday is a separate person from the person you are now, and the person your friend was yesterday is a separate person from the person they are now. The only experiences that either of you will ever have are the experiences you’re having in this moment — and then you’ll both be gone forever, to be replaced by new selves. If we actually believed in this stuff, life would feel so lonely.
Essentially, if we believed that there is no coherent self, then that would force us all to adopt a very extreme version of the philosophy of “live for the moment.” The idea of living for the moment might appeal to you if you are a bohemian hipster like Bob Dylan or Jim Morrison. But most of us are not like Bob Dylan or Jim Morrison. Most of us have jobs, families, dreams, obligations, etc. And it would feel so disillusioning if we came to believe that the continuity of our lives, as a single person, is nothing but an illusion.
Furthermore, the belief that there is no coherent self would eliminate the possibility of delayed gratification. We all make little deals with ourselves every day, such as, “As soon as you write two more pages, you can go for a walk,” or “As soon as you’re done doing the dishes, you can watch a movie.” We need to make these deals with ourselves, because otherwise, we couldn’t have any motivation to get through the drudgery of everyday life. But if you actually believed that you are a separate existence in every moment in time, then the promise of delayed gratification could not motivate us. The person who gets to go for a walk is not you. It is your future self, but that’s not you. That’s some other guy. Why should I care about how much fun he’s having — he is someone else. I want fun now, because this moment is the only life I will ever live. As you can see, in order for us to believe in a long-term goal, we have to believe in a coherent self. If we actually believed that there is no coherent self, it would be impossible to persevere in accomplishing a goal. In fact, it would be impossible to accomplish anything at all, even something as simple as doing the dishes. And given that we all need to do the dishes (at the very least), we need to have a sense that we are a single, coherent person, not just a sequence of separate experiences.
Anyway, regardless of your opinions about philosophy, I am sure that you believe in a coherent self de facto during the course of your day every day. We all have an intuitive perception that we are the same person we were yesterday. We all consider ourselves to be a single person travelling through time, not a sequence of different people. Thus, even if you favored Option 1 or 4 in a philosophical debate, Option 2 (or perhaps Option 3) is still the intuition that you carry around during your everyday life.
In fact, we can see this in the way we speak of our past and future selves. If I say that I went running yesterday, it mutually understood that the person who was running yesterday was me, in the past — not some other person. If I say that I will go to the beach tomorrow, it is mutually understood that the person at the beach tomorrow will be me, in the future — not some other person. Our language indicates that we all conceive of the self (whatever it is) as persisting through time.
And because our intuition that the self persists through time is so deeply rooted in us, you can see why it would be so disillusioning if we were to reject the idea of a coherent self. In general, in order to have peace of mind, we need to believe that things are what we think they are. If we lost that belief, everything would seem random, chaotic, and incomprehensible. Thus, since we all carry around an understanding (de facto) that we have a coherent self that persists through time, this is the view that I want to be correct. But I don’t know if it is or not.
As previously stated, I consider only Options 2 and 4 to be plausible (under my own views). Option 2 involves a coherent self; Option 4 does not. I actually know of one good argument for each of them.
The best argument to favor Option 2 over Option 4 is that time is continuous, not discrete. A “moment” is a single point in time, not an actual interval of time. Time is not quantized. Option 4 holds that we have a different Atman (a. k. a. self, soul, etc.) at every moment in time. That means there is a one-to-one correspondence between Atmans and moments. For every moment, you get exactly one Atman. But if that’s the way it works, you would have to have an infinite number of Atmans over the course of your lifetime. In fact, you’d have an infinite number of Atmans over the course of one minute. In mathematical terms, the number of Atmans you would have over any interval of time is uncountably infinite. (“Uncountably infinite” is not a redundancy. In mathematics, there is a distinction between countably infinite sets and uncountably infinite sets.)
And doesn’t that seem rather unlikely? Under Option 4, you would have an uncountably infinite number of Atmans over any interval of time. Doesn’t that strike you as totally unlikely? In fact, in order for something to qualify as an experience, I feel like it would have to last for at least 0.5 seconds or so. Something that’s only a single snapshot isn’t even an experience.
And if you argue that an Atman lasts for a fraction of a second, then you do think that an Atman persists through time, because a fraction of a second is still an interval of time. And if it can persist for a fraction of a second, why couldn’t it persist for your whole life? Why would it end after one second?
(I guess Option 5 would be that an Atman lasts for a certain interval of time and then disappears and gets replaced. But that doesn’t seem likely at all.)
I also have another argument in favor of Option 2, although I consider it to be a somewhat weak argument. I stated in Part 4 that the Atman floats over some region in the brain and that it moves over time. But at any given time, the region over which it floats is not just a single point in space. This region has a nonzero volume. Thus, the region occupied by the Atman extends over a nonzero interval in the x direction, the y direction, and the z direction. Why couldn’t it do the same in the t direction? If it occupies a nonzero region of space, it should also occupy a nonzero region if time. If it extends through space, it should also persist through time.
However, I also have one argument for preferring Option 4 (no coherent self) over Option 2 (the coherent self), which is that Option 4 makes it so much easier to resolve questions about where the Atman goes when you’re unconscious. You are not conscious all the way from birth to death. Obviously, you fall asleep every night, and there might be other times in life when you are under anesthesia or were knocked out following a blow to the head. In extreme examples, someone might be in a coma, or might have a near-death experience and somehow survive. In the imaginations of philosophers, there are even weirder circumstances, such as a surgery in which someone’s brain is split in half, and each half is transplanted into a different body (God only knows what the point of that surgery was).
Anyway, it is much easier to resolve these problems under Option 4 than under Option 2. Option 2 leaves you wondering where your Atman goes when you’re asleep. (In Part 4, and again in Part 8, I hypothesized that the Atman has two states: active and dormant. When you fall asleep, it switches to dormant, and when you wake up, it switches back to active. But that was only a guess, and, in fact, I would say that I have less than 50% confidence in that guess.) However, under Option 4, it is much easier: when you’re asleep, you just don’t have an Atman. You have a different Atman at every moment in time, but that’s only when you’re conscious. When you’re asleep, you just don’t have one. Same thing goes for if you’re under anesthesia or were knocked unconscious. As you can see, the fact that we are not always conscious makes Option 4 seem more plausible than Option 2.
In Parts 1 through 3 of this series, I argued that the mysteries of consciousness can never be explained by science alone. In Part 4, I proposed that each of us possesses an immaterial entity, which I call an Atman, within our brains. That rules out Option 1. In Part 5, I specified that this entity does not affect our thoughts, emotions, or personality, which implies that it cannot evolve over time. That rules out Option 3, leaving only Options 2 and 4. In trying to decide between these two options, I have thought of arguments in both directions. In the end, I consider the two of them to be about equally likely. However, I do not merely have rational arguments, I also have a personal preference. I want Option 2 to be the truth, because I like it better. And that’s why I choose to endorse Option 2. I believe that we possess the same Atman throughout our lives, from birth until death. I think that you are indeed the same person now that you were five minutes ago.
[Author’s note, February 2021: This whole series is still a work in progress. Sometime in the coming months, I will make revisions to this article.]
Other parts of this series:
Part 7: [under revision]