I Think Therefore I Am Not

“I think therefore I am” was the famous phrase coined by French Philosopher René Descartes. Essentially, Descartes  was saying that no one can deceive him that he does not exist because any conscious thought of his own accord proves his existence. But what if he consciously thought that he didn’t exist? Would he still technically exist? Confused yet? This tidbit of philosophy is a great introduction into the world of the “self.” What makes you-you? Is it conscious thought, narrative experiences, memories, or just the ability to experience things in the first-person? Thanks to my friend Megan, who bought me The Man Who Wasn’t There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self by Anil Ananthaswamy I have a better understanding of what makes us-us. 

We all have an inclination of what our “self” represents. On the surface, our “self” is the culmination of our thoughts and experiences in the past, present, and future. We also have a physical “self” that comprises our body and a model of how the physical world should function (when I hear a noise outside I know that is not self-produced but coming from some other source). This basic thinking of the self stems from philosophers who connected the self with conscious thought and shaped western ideology of the mind-body connection. Unfortunately, the “self” is not that simple especially when disorders of the brain give us very different pictures of reality.

Would you pay someone 20,000 dollars to have your healthy leg-amputated? You may think this is a crazy question but there is a disorder known as Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) where people feel that certain parts on their bodies are not their own. Individuals with BIID, from an early age, can pinpoint the exact place on their body that feels alien and many go to extremes to remove what doesn’t seem their own-there are several reports of people laying out on train tracks or paying foreign doctors to excise healthy legs or arms. Does BIID bring into question the “self” as defined by the body we inhabit? What about people with Cortad’s Syndrome who believe they are dead. Individuals with Cotard’s have no desire to eat, drink, or do anything (including committing suicide) because they believe that they no longer exist. So would this scenario disprove Descartes-“I think therefore I am not.” Going along with questioning Descartes, do individuals with Alzheimer’s disease have a “self” if they are incapable of conscious thought? What about Schizophrenics who have multiple “selfs”? Even weirder, people who have out-of-body experiences where they can view themselves through the third-person, or communicate with their own doppelgänger. Is their self fixed, split, or dynamic in the conscious mind and physical world?

All of these maladies of the self can be explained by dysfunctions of certain areas of the brain and help explain all the dimensions that make up the self: “our narrative, our sense of being agents of our actions and initiators of our thoughts, our sense of ownership of body parts, our sense that we are our emotions, our sense of being located in a volume of space that is our body… all of these can be argued as comprising the self-as-object.” Beyond the self-as-object is still the self-as-subject. In all the aforementioned maladies there is still an “I” which is experiencing and this is always present regardless of consciousness. Who am I? What is the most reducible version of the “self.” It isn’t our physical body or our ability to think but rather something irreducible and essentially undefinable. The self is always present but intangible to objective measurements. I think the poem, “Nirvana Shaktam” by Indian Philosopher Adi Shankara best explains the “self.”

I am not the mind, nor the intellect, nor any entity that
identifies self with ears, tongue, nose or the eyes;
Not even perceived by space, earth, light or the wind.

So is there a self or is there not a self? I believe there is a self and it’s greatest reduced component is the soul. Of course, the soul is not scientific but science cannot explain the self entirely through states of consciousnesses or physical dimensions. Buddhists and many philosophers do not believe in the self-rather they believe the self is a made up manifestation to help explain our personal subjectivity of the world. So why does this philosophical question matter at all? It matters because understanding the self can help us understand the way we interact with the world. Are we just a body walking around with a library of thoughts? Are individuals who have maladies of the self negatively disordered or just neutrally different. Simply put, what you define as “self” will dictate  what you deem important in life and your interactions with people on a daily basis.