The Self Is Not Fictional

On the perils of doing metaphysics by way of pathologies

Figs in Winter
Apr 12 · 8 min read
[image: (left) David Hume by Allan Ramsay, 1766 (right) Buddha as an avatar at the Dwaraka Tirumala temple, Andhra Pradesh (Wikipedia); this is essay #289 in the Figs in Winter series]

Steven Hales is a professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. As he describes in an essay for Aeon/Psyche, a traumatic personal experience has convinced him that there is no self, that the word “self” simply refers to a convenient fiction. He is in good company in his conclusion, from Buddha to David Hume. But I don’t think that’s quite right, and Hales in particular draws his inference on the basis of a mistake that is common to a number of philosophers: arriving at metaphysical statements on the basis of pathological examples.

Hales at one point suffered a disturbing and indeed frightening occurrence, what in medical terms is known as transient global amnesia (TGA). Suddenly, for no apparent reason, he had no recollection of all sorts of things, from living through a pandemic to the fact that he had just discussed dinner plans with his wife, from the date of his wedding anniversary to why his wife was desperately hitting on the gas while driving him to the hospital.

As Hales explains, there is no known cause of TGA. It isn’t the result of tumors, strokes, epilepsy or what not. The largest risk factor is suffering from migraines and being over 50. The good news is, it is a rare event. I’m sure glad that Hales is doing fine, and his essay is fascinating in a number of respects. But I fundamentally disagree with the metaphysical lessons he drew from the experience. Let’s see why.

The notion that the self is a matter of psychological continuity over time was articulated most famously by John Locke in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1689. While Locke focused on memory as a fundamental component of the self, Hales is certainly correct that there are many other strands of psychological continuity that, together, contribute to having a sense of self. He mentions personality, tastes, beliefs, memories, interests, preferences, desires, and ambitions. So far, so good.

His experience of TGA, of course, has dramatically shown Hales what others have experienced before: the self, whatever it is, can be broken, either permanently (e.g., because of a progressive neurodegenerative disease) or temporarily (as it was, luckily, Hales’ own case). But to go from this factual observation to the conclusion that, in a real sense, there is no such thing as psychological continuity and therefore no self, is unwarranted.

Hales brings up an even more dramatic example than his own, that of musician Clive Wearing, who suffered brain damage in 1985 as a result of viral encephalitis. Wearing is unable to store new long-term memories, and even his short-term memory is very limited. It is a tragic predicament. Here is part of Hales’ description:

When he viewed himself conducting the London Lassus Ensemble on TV, Wearing declared that the person on TV is not himself, that the person ‘is not conscious to me … no connection to me at all.’ When he looked at earlier entries in his diary, written minutes ago in his own hand, he angrily crossed them out or revised them, and has insisted that ‘these entries were written by other people.’ Most hauntingly, Wearing steadfastly maintains that he has been dead, and just now, in the present moment, lifted out of the abyss of nonexistence.

Obviously, Wearing is wrong in his assessments. He did conduct the London Lassus Ensemble on television. He did write the diary entries. And most certainly he hasn’t died and suddenly reappeared from the abyss of nonexistence.

Why is Wearing wrong? Because he is saying those things — of which I’m sure he is absolutely convinced — because his brain has been damaged by a severe pathology. It is not the case that those people he doesn’t remember where not him. It is the case that his mind is no longer functioning normally. It is not that he has no self. It is that his self has been broken by a disease. Permanently, unfortunately.

Imagine a much simpler case. You had an accident and your spinal cord was damaged. As a result you can no longer walk — maybe permanently, maybe not, depending on the severity of the injury and the state of medical knowledge. It would be ridiculous for you to conclude that, since you cannot walk now, you realize that you really never walked. It was an illusion, a convenient fiction.

The only reason why the example of your damaged spinal cord is obviously ludicrous while we take seriously the sort of metaphysical inferences Hales indulges in is because, deep down, we are still dualists. We still think, with philosophers from Plato to Descartes, that the mind is in an entirely different ontological category than the body. But it isn’t. Your mind is not a thing, it is an activity. “Minding” is what your brain does when it functions properly. Like allowing you to walk upright is one of the functions of a normal spinal cord, breathing is the normal function of your lungs, and pumping blood is the normal function of your heart. We are not puzzled at the metaphysical implications of a damaged spinal cord, diseased lungs, or a non functional heart. The only reason we are puzzled by the effects of the brain ceasing to work normally is because we are irreducible dualists. It’s high time to abandon that pernicious metaphysical assumptions.

Of course, science learns a lot from accidents like those that affected Hales and Wearing, as well as countless others. I have used a similar technique myself as a biologist. I wasn’t studying the brain, as my interest was in plant physiology, morphology, and development. But I used both naturally occurring and experimentally triggered “accidents” to make progress. They are called mutations, tiny alterations in the genetic material of an organism that can tell us a lot about how that organisms normally functions.

Here is how that sort of inference works. Suppose I identify a mutation that causes plants to stop photosynthesizing, that is, making sugar out of carbon dioxide and sunlight (and releasing oxygen as a byproduct). What this tells me is that the mutated gene, in its normal form, may play a key role in photosynthesis. At least initially, I will not know what role, precisely. Figuring that out may require years of research. But the inference is a sound one, and can be summarized like this:

Observation: normal plants photosynthesize
Occurrence: the plant population is exposed to mutagenic substances
Observation: some plants stop photosynthesizing after the occurrence
Inference: some plants now have a mutated gene whose product interferes with photosynthesis
Inference: that gene(s) normally contributes to functional photosynthesis

Analogously, neuroscientists studying brain disease may work in this fashion:

Observation: normal human beings have a sense of self
Occurrence: some people suffer from conditions that alter or erase their sense of self
Inference: brain areas affected by such conditions normally contribute to a sense of self

Notice that the inference is not that the self didn’t exist in the first place.

In his essay, Hales brings in some philosophical big guns in support of his conclusion, starting with the Buddha:

The Buddha thought there is no true self, that the self is a fiction, a mere name to describe a collection or aggregate of ever-changing components. In one text, he gives an analogy of a chariot — a chariot is made out of parts that are in a sense more real than the chariot itself, which is just a convention, a name we give to a certain assemblage of those parts.

Let’s sparse this carefully, assuming this is a correct exposition of the Buddhist notion of anattā (there are reasons to doubt it, as some colleagues who study Buddhism tells me). I am in complete agreement with the Buddha when he says that the self is a collection of ever-changing components. Indeed, I am certainly not putting forth an essentialist view of the self, along either Platonic or Christian lines (what both of those traditions refer to as “the soul”). But it is a non sequitur to go from observing that an entity is not static and actually made of dynamic processes to the conclusion that the entity in question is a fiction.

Consider a mountain, for a moment. Is it a thing? No. It is a set of dynamic processes. It changes all the time. It was gradually born aeons ago, perhaps because of the movement of continental plates, and it will disappear aeons into the future, because of protracted erosion. But to say that the mountain does not exist, that it is a fiction, is missing something fundamental about how the world works. The mountain exists, here and now, as the result of underlying processes. And it will keep changing because of those same processes. You can most definitely climb on it. And it’s really hard to climb on illusions.

In the case of the mountain we, of course, do not observe the pertinent processes, because they occur over time scales that are not detectable by human senses. We think we have a better grasp of the alleged non-existence of the self, by contrast, because its underlying processes are comparatively rapid, and can be experienced by human perception. But the difference is one of scale, not of fundamental ontological status.

We need to move away from a metaphysics of static entities and embrace one of dynamic processes. Nowadays this is referred to as process metaphysics, but the idea goes back at the very least to the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus (he of “ye shall never walk into the same river twice” memory).

The analogy given by the Buddha actually makes it clear why his conclusion, as interpreted by Hales, is untenable. Yes, a chariot is most definitely made of parts. And surely the name “chariot” is conventional. But the thing itself isn’t. You can ride in a chariot, you cannot ride in a piece of fiction. But of course if you ask what else is there to the chariot other than its parts?, the answer in a basic sense is: nothing. That answer, though, misses something important. Those parts make a chariot because they interact with each other in specific ways. If you consider the parts on their own, or if you assemble them incorrectly, you won’t have a chariot. (I dislike the mystical sounding phrase “more than the sum of its parts,” but it isn’t too bad of a description of what is going on here.)

The other big philosophical gun invoked by Hales is, of course, David Hume:

The 18th-century philosopher David Hume too insisted that he is no more than ‘a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux and movement.’

Hume makes the same mistake as the Buddha. Yes, we are “no more” than a bundle of perceptions (and other mental events). But those perceptions are not randomly organized or inert, like the discarded pieces of a no longer functioning chariot. They constantly interact with each other in specific ways, and those interactions are the self. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.

Hales concludes his essay with a perhaps unintentionally revealing passage:

Mindfulness enthusiasts encourage living in the moment, without regret for the past or anxiety about the future. For them, I can recommend amnesia, which is an excellent way to live outside of time. It’s not a state in which to take up residence indefinitely, though, as the story of ourselves is a temporal one. I’m glad to have rejoined the narrative.

Why is he glad to have rejoined the (fictional) narrative? Why doesn’t he recommend amnesia on a permanent basis, if the only effect of it is to reveal that the self is an illusion? Because he wants to be a normally functional human being, not one affected by a pathology. The breaking of the self is a pathology. Normally, the self exists, and it is crucial to our lives.

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Figs in Winter

Written by

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

Figs in Winter

Written by

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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