The Ego Trick is a book that digs into what the self is, what personhood is. First the author, Julian Baggini, overviews various ‘pearl’ theories of the self: ideas of the self as a real, in-the-world entity, located in a specific part of the brain, or the soul, or even an individual body. But what these all have in common is their essentialism. We feel ourselves to be individuals with strong identities, an inner core that dictates who we truly are, from which our actions and personalities emerge.
Baggini says nuts to all that. He prescribes to something called ‘bundle theory’, which is the notion that the self is itself emergent from a combination of environment, experience, and human nature. We may debate in casual conversation whether or not ‘people change’, but we usually mean that our core selves are doing the changing. Bundle theory (and actually there are a whole bunch of related theories, a bundle of bundle theories) suggests that there is nothing there to undergo change. It’s not that there is no self at all – it’s that the self is a pattern of behaviors instead of a thing.
First, there is no thing or part of you which contains your essence. Your body, your brain and your memories are all very important for who you are, but none of these is the pearl of self in which your identity resides.
Second, you have no immaterial soul. Whatever stuff you are made from, it is the same kind of stuff that everything else is made of, be it plankton, cabbages or orang-utans [or stars or apple pie].
Third, given that the pearl view is to be rejected, this means that your sense of self must in some way be a construction. If there is no single thing which makes you the person you are, then you must be the result of several parts or things working together.
Fourth, the unity which enables you to think of yourself as the same person over time is in some ways fragile, and in other ways robust. So although we may not be unified in the simple, strong way the pearl view suggests, that does not mean that we go wrong when we think of ourselves as integrated individuals. (114-115)
Or, as he puts more succinctly later in the book, ‘You and I are what our bodies and brains do. There is no pearl sitting at the core of our selves, we are rather bundles of psychosomatic activity, albeit highly organized and remarkable stable ones. We are not illusions but we are not what we most obviously appear to be either.’ (215)
The obvious and overused analogy is a river: it’s not the same matter inhabiting it from minute to minute, yet the overall structure remains coherent; the river may meander over time, shift its location, rise and fall, but the continuity from state to another allows us to see it as a real, singular, nameable entity in the world – in one sense if not in all of them.
If this sounds vaguely Buddhist, well then, Baggini wouldn’t disagree. He actually introduces a Buddhist atheist (heck yeah!) named Stephen Batchelor, who explains the Buddhist concept of anatta (no-self) as a rejection of Hinduism’s counterintuitive concept of self, atman. Basically, atman is the bit of soul (part of the big soul-y sea of brahman) that gets whirled from lifetime to lifetime accumulating karma, but it has nothing to do with personality and ego – those are as illusory as the material world. ‘If atman succeeds in becoming fully reintegrated with brahman, personhood is destroyed… so when [the Buddha] says anatta, he is rejecting the idea that there is an atman, that there is a brahman, and focusing attention therefore on the phenomenal world.’ (147) And because a person is not born with a karmically-determined self, their self is what they create themselves throughout their life.
And this is, to me, the most empowering part of moving away from a pearl view of the self. We do not have to resign ourselves to who we were, or even to who we are now. This gets to be a bit a sticky situation when one also throws in the lack of free will that bundle theory implies, but let me get there. First of all, we do have personality traits and characteristic ways of acting and interacting. But what we might label a person depends on context. In one environment, a person might seem generous – but only because most of the situations they are confronted with in their life are those situations in which they behave generously. But throw them in a different environment, like jail or a stressful job or the lap of luxury, and now the situations in which they tend to be mean predominate. Are they a generous person or a mean person? Trick question! As the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s Obedience Experiments have dramatically demonstrated, personality is heavily influenced by social standing, role, and environment.
I wonder if improv and roleplaying games (especially live-action ones) can (if they don’t take themselves too seriously) help us become more aware of the impact of external stimuli on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and even overcome them when we’re pressured to act against our values. Baggini actually brings up virtue ethics – haven’t heard of that since Aristotle, now have we? – and suggests that the few people who resisted authority in Milgram’s experiments (and in real life) have developed exactly that sort of strong devotion to their values. They have, in other words, moral character. ‘The evidence is that unless you try to cultivate traits, whether you display them will depend more on circumstances than on you. So consistency in character is something to be created; it does not arise organically.’ (166)
I am on board with this, especially if it helps us become aware of privilege and work actively towards anti-racism and a more just society. Systems of privilege and oppression are invisible and embedded so deeply in our culture that what ‘arise[s] organically’ is often sexist, racist, or classist even if we do not want to be and claim not to be that kind of person. But if being ‘good’ is a matter of how we behave in a situation and not some essential core identity, then being called out on sexist or racist behavior is not an attack on one’s self. Relief! Without defensiveness, then, we are free to practice building up new traits that actually make us more consistently good people. Not that this is easy: ‘Being of good character requires self-monitoring and sensitivity to context, no just relying on automatic behaviors. We can strive to be certain types of person but we should not expect to automatically behave according to whatever regulative ideal we set for ourselves.’ (167)
Ah! But how can we choose to become better people if there is no ego to do the choosing? ‘Who’s having this free will’ anyway? (222) Susan Blackmore puts it this way: ‘It’s not that I have free will. It’s that this body here is a decision-making instrument and it will make decisions, given its necessity to do so and its ability to do so.’ (223) It’s like a wave function collapsing from a series of super-imposed states into a single, most stable, one. The desire to change arises from the interactions of memories and relationships and emotions – and, of course, reason and logic and ethics, because we’re still thinking, of course, even if those thoughts aren’t being directed by single control center. Quoting Antonio Damasio, Baggini makes the case for the inseparability of reason and emotion, anyway: ‘”Well-targeted and well-deployed emotion seems to be a support system without which the edifice of reason cannot operate properly.” What’s more, emotions are not produced simply in the brain. Rather, “the body is the main stage for emotions, either directly or via its representation in somatosensory structures of the brain.” This is because “feelings are largely a reflection of body-state changes.”‘ So, free will is – according to bundle theory – an illusion based upon the complex and distributed calculation of decisions based on sensory inputs and internal psychological processes. Just as I suspected!
But ‘free will’ means more than the ability for a little person inside our heads to defy the constraints of reason and emotion in order to do whatever the heck it wants (otherwise being random and absurd would be more free), so Baggini offers up compatibilist free will as an alternative. ‘In simplest terms, the compatibilist position is that freedom is not the ability to do other than what you actually do, but simply the ability to do whatever it is you choose to do,’ without coercion. ‘Whether these choices are simply the products of brains and bodies following the laws of nature or not is beside the point. Indeed, it could be asked, what else could these choices be the products of?’ (224) Anecdote time: in high school, one of my classmates astutely observed that he ‘didn’t have free will because he couldn’t turn this computer into a banana’. Truly, a definition of free will that considers the laws of physics themselves to be coercion is a useless one – under the compatibilist definition, that was never a choice to begin with. Though I have to wonder: if culture influences and constrains our choices, often defining what choices have value, can we consider people to be free and autonomous within a culture that restricts their choices to ones that are bad for them? Even if those people never feel themselves to be acting ‘under duress or coercion’?
Now, the words ‘illusion’ and ‘trick’ come up quite a few times. Like in the name of the book, for instance. We tend to think of these things as equivalents of lies, but there are also used to refer to short-hands and short-cuts. The example in the book is a computer’s graphical user interface, which brings together information from all over the computer (and the internet) and packages it up with some intuitive metaphor, like a desktop. There is no physical desk, of course, but it helps you get stuff done and enables more powerful interactions. Similarly, the strong impression most of us have of being a stable, singular entity – an ego – driving all our thoughts and actions, rather than being derived from them, is apparently helpful for interacting with the world and other people.
I have long thought this to be the case with personalities. Babies seem to be able to change moods at the drop of a hat, bawling one minute and giggling the next. This behavior would be unsettling in an adult. Somewhere along the line, we learn to smooth out our moods and habits so that they become intelligible and predictable – which is kind of a necessary thing to happen for successful social interaction if you think about it. If we could not count on others having individual identities, we could not have relationships as we know them. Our brains would be woefully underpowered for the task of sorting out the interactions between such non-discreet entities. (Side note: If octopuses indeed have distributed intelligence, as their individually-intelligent limbs might suggest, and are not capable of or simply never develop a sense of self, I wonder what the implications are for the development of a cephalopod society or the ethics of dealings between an ego-tricked species and an species without an ego trick?)
A non-essentialist view of the self allows us to move away from viewing an entire person (and ourselves) as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘introverted’ or ‘extroverted’, unable to change, or the same in all contexts. Because we’re not. Our personality traits lie in multidimensional spaces that change fluidly over time in reaction to the environment, experience, and our own choices. I very much like The Ego Trick, not least of all because it presents philosophy as relevant to how I think about myself and how I live my life on a daily basis. And Baggini makes many complex philosophical ideas comprehensible, and will hopefully spark some good discussions when I convince my friends to read it, too.