Am I just a story my brain tells itself?

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Who am I? Taken most abstractly, I can restate this question as: “What kind of thing is it that is thinking my thoughts, having my experiences, asking this very question?” In other words: What is the human self? This seems to be a straightforward question, but a few thousand years of Western philosophy and science have not been able to find an answer.

Maybe this is because we have started our search in the wrong place, some cognitive scientists and philosophersAmong them Susan Blackmore, Daniel Dennett, Keith Frankish and Michael Graziano.

argue. In the so-called Illusion Theory of ConsciousnessFor an overview see Frankish (2017), for a detailed and empirically well-supported development Michael Graziano’s “Attention Schema Theory” of consciousness (Graziano 2019).

, they instead start with the following question: Why do we ask for an explanation of the self in the first place? At the very least, one has to say, because we believe we have such a self. “But do we really?”, they ask. If not, there is nothing to explain!

We can only know about something we have information about, so we can only know about ourselves on the basis of information about ourselves. But maybe the information we have about ourselves as living systems with big brains is incomplete or even wrong. If that were the case, then at least parts of our beliefs about ourselves would probably be incorrect, maybe including ones about our self. So to see whether our beliefs about our self are correct, we need to look at the information available about it, and then check if this information is correct.

“Ha,” I hear another philosopherA (slightly caricatured) amalgam of Thomas Nagel, Galen Strawson and other critics of the Illusion Theory of Consciousness.

say, “that’s nonsense – my knowledge about my self is incorrigible. The information I have about it is direct, since I experience it directly – I am it, for god’s sake!” But this argument is presupposing what still needs to be shown – that there is a subject of conscious experience, and how it relates to experience in the way we call subjective. It really just restates our blurry first-person intuitions about the self.

If we look instead for a third-person, scientific account, we have to start with the fact that we are complex biological systems. How will such a system present and use information about itself? It will use a model of itself to do so – a useful, computationally efficient model, not a detailed, truthful, but unwieldy one. So if we have any information about ourselves, it will be in a not very realistic model.

It is such a model that we usually refer to when we talk about the self – and since it is not a truthful model of ourselves, it will provide useful, but factually incorrect information about ourselves. Thoughts, experiences, the self itself as something non-physical – all are helpful, but highly simplified abstractions of what is really going on, which is a hugely complex physical process that we intuitively don’t think about when we think about thinking.The useful, but highly simplified model corresponds to Wilfrid Sellars’s “manifest image of man-in-the-world”, the accurate description to the “scientific image” (Sellars 1963). The Illusion Theory of Consciousness can be seen as the culmination of the scientific image of ourselves and is indeed, e.g. by Daniel Dennett, propagated as such.

”But you‘re still talking about us and you having information and believing things, even if they are wrong. There’s your special something again!” Yes, I do – but with “I” and “we” I don’t mean any elusive metaphysical essences anymore, but my and our bodies and brains.

And that is quite radical.

The “me” that I usually think is real is just a construct of the real, physical me. It is physical-me that is the true subject of experience, not construct-me. Nothing that I think is being thought by construct-me, but by physical-me, including this exact thought.

Construct-me doesn’t have any causal powers – physical-me has. It has no say in what happens, in what physical-me thinks or does. The “I” as which my brain imagines itself, a person with memories, ideas, hopes and anxieties, is a useful construct the brain needs to function properly – but it’s a tool, not an agent. The brain, or rather the larger biological system the brain is part of, or maybe rather the even larger spatiotemporally extended complex system that is the evolution of life, a four-dimensional Gaia, is in charge – but not construct-me.

So in this sense, I don’t really exist. I am no more real than the people that I sometimes mock when I have a lucid dream – “you know, you’re not real, but I don’t expect you to get that”. I could be saying the same thing to myself.

I am just a story my brain tells itself about itself.After finishing this essay, I discovered Susan Blackmore is using the same phrase to describe ‘illusory self’ theories (Blackmore 1999, 228).

In the same sense, the user interface of a computer isn’t real – it is the virtual product of countless “real”, i.e. physical processes. But describing the computer’s behaviour in interaction with its users on this level might be more interesting than describing how it “truly” functions on the level of transistors and memory banks. The user-interface picture contains more effective information about the computer’s behaviour because it is more stable throughout different physical realisations and more resilient against “noise”, i.e. irrelevant physical detail.This follows Hoel’s (2017) account of how higher levels of causation emerge from microphysical reality due to increased effective information. Don Ross’s “rainforest realism” uses a similar argument to turn Daniel Dennett’s instrumentalist “real patterns” (Dennett 1991) into “real things”, including higher-level systems like the ones described here. (Ross 2007)

Then why not just say that the computer works this way? Our answer to “how does it work” depends on our specific interest when asking – particle physics, electronics, hardware design, software design, interface design. Most of the time we want to talk about usable features, because that’s what the computer is for (its rationale) in the relationship with its users.When looking at the computer in its economic, technological, or cultural context, other descriptions might provide more information: As a product or platform technology, an aggregate of design decisions and patterns, or an enabler of widespread behaviour change.

In this sense, describing the interface is describing the computer.

Similarly, the answer to the question how we should describe ourselves and thus our self depends on the interest with which we’re asking it. This interest expresses what we think our rationale, our ergon is as humans: Are we just here to survive and reproduce, because that’s what evolution is about? Or are we here to act and take responsibility for it, because that’s what being a person in a society is about?

These two perspectives seem incompatible, even irreconcilable. But we have to take them both: We have to accept that on a physical level, from a third-person perspective, the selves we usually assume to be are probably just constructs of our brains. At the same time, by giving such an explanation and taking discursive responsibility for it, from the first-person perspective of participants in a scientific discourse, we presuppose rationality, normativity and hence the reality of persons.Habermas (2007) calls this position “epistemic dualism”. See also my essay “Perspectives”.

Participating in these discourses is part of what it means to be human: It is, in more precise evolutionary terms, part of inhabiting our evolutionary niche.See Rouse (2015) for an account of how discursive practice is a form of evolutionary niche construction.

The “space of reasons”The logical space “of justifying and being able to justify what one says” (Sellars 1956, §36).

has become part of the environment in which (cultural and natural) evolution is operating, so fully describing humans as part and product of evolution means describing their selves as causally effective after all.

So I might be a story my brain tells itself about itself – but who says stories aren’t real?



I am grateful to Gregor Groß and Phil Harvey for comments on drafts of this essay.