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Philosophy Article: Why We View The Self As We Do

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Scott

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Philosophy Article: Why We View The Self As We Do

Post Number:#1  PostNovember 21st, 2007, 2:20 am

Why We View The Self As We Do
by Scott Hughes

Philosophy and psychology both often focus on the self, which generally refers to the source of unique consciousness in a unified being. In other words, the self is usually seen as that thing in us which thinks and makes decisions.

In reality, the mind is not a unified being. It is a natural machine made up of various parts. The mind has many different desires, feelings, and instincts. The self is actually a construct of the mind and of society.

The mind uses the idea of the self so that it can function in a centralized way. By conceptualizing itself as a more unified and singular entity, the mind can more easily understand its desires and feelings. In other words, the mind constructs the self to synthesize all the different desires, feelings and instincts into one coherent set, which it then uses to make decisions and rationalize past decisions. For example, part of a person may like and want something while another part of that person dislikes and does not want that thing; the mind can more simply understand these conflicting parts by conceptually synthesizing them, and deciding on either liking or disliking the thing.

Society and other people also use the concept of the self to understand and interact with a human. Generally, it is impossible and impractical to know all the different feelings, desires, instincts and influences that cause a human to act certain ways and make certain decisions. To understand humans, we conceive of them as singular persons with singular selves. For example, it would be possible for a human female to both want and not want to have sex with a man, and for her to both consent and not consent to the sex, but it would be incredibly difficult to understand those conflicts and to judge the situation; To help with that, we conceive of the woman as a unified and singular person who either consents or does not consent.

Basic wisdom also influences our idea of the self. As relatively unwise children, we have a much more immediate idea of self. A child could think of "themselves" in the far future, and the child would not fully see it as the same person. We all do that to some degree, which is why we make decisions that give us immediate benefit but hurt us more in the long run. Examples include procrastination, overspending, and overindulgence. As we get older and gain experience, we have to pay the consequences for our shortsighted choices. As a result, we learn to behave in a wiser, more longsighted manner. We learn to think of ourselves as a longer-running entity.

Thanks to wisdom, we do not just define ourselves as the body and feelings we have today, or this week, or even this year. Instead, we define ourselves as the fundamental sameness between the body and feelings that we have throughout our entire life. We do not think of ourselves as just the atoms or matter in our body today, but instead we think of ourselves as a more generic pattern that remains the same even as all the atoms and matter in our body are replaced.

Death also greatly influences the way we define the self by creating the limit for its longevity.

The human death generally happens quickly, and marks a major turning-point where the human body permanently loses consciousness. The body quickly stops functioning and decays. All the unique information and thoughts stored in that human's brain or "mind" are lost. This includes memories, perceptions, personality, and such.

As a major turning-point, death makes for a useful place to conceive of the self as existing until. Additionally, since we usually associate all the unique information and thoughts of a human as elements of the self, it becomes necessary to think of death as the end of the self, unless we think of death as simply an event of major transformation of the self, which we usually do not. (Of course, there are some people who believe that all the unique information and thoughts of a human, and thus the self, still exist after death despite the destruction of the brain.)

In summary, the mind and society construct the self to understand and interact with the human in a practical and simplified way. Wisdom causes us to view the self as more than just a momentary being. Death usually causes us to view the self as the elements of a person that exist to death, but not beyond death.

Luckily, our view of the self is very unclear and adaptive. We adjust our ambiguous conception of the self to deal with new situations. Feel free to consider rethinking your idea of the self and how you define yourself.

Whatever you do, good luck and have fun!

About the Author: Scott Hughes owns and manages OnlinePhilosophyClub.com which is an informative philosophy website. You can discuss this article and other philosophical topics at the Philosophy Forums. It's completely free, and all viewpoints are welcome.

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Post Number:#2  PostNovember 21st, 2007, 12:01 pm

I think this is a good definition of the self. There is also research showing the "significant attachment of another empathic being" to be extremely significant in the creation of a self. Related to this, the creation of the idea of "self" is seemingly necessary for existence. There was a case of a girl who was deprived of everything and locked in a basement for many years, barely kept alive, until she was an older child. She had absolutely no concept of self what-so-ever. Attempts were made to help her create a sense of self, but it was too late. Most attempts failed, and she died suddenly for no apparent reason before adolescence. The beginning of the formulation begins very early in age, and it is a critical step in development. Without the significant care and attachment of another empathic being, this step cannot begin. It is furthered by the ideas you mentioned, but it begins at even an earlier age than is effected by those ideas.
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Post Number:#3  PostNovember 21st, 2007, 12:41 pm

I'm a first year psychology major and sociology minor at the College of St. Scholastica, located in Duluth, MN. I've always been interested in the concept of "self" and really, the influences other people have on us, how perception is influenced (or manipulated) by others in different group settings, and so forth.

I was just wanting to clarify what Patrarch was saying. If I'm correct, by mentioning the "significant attachment of another empathic being" you were meaning (in some instances) a mother/father, or person who assumes such a role?

If so, this is correct, I can recall my psychology professor mentioning that actually children that do not have touch from others will have immensely retarded growth from it, and perhaps it could end in death. That I cannot clarify though.

Also, if you're interested I faintly remember Time magazine writing an article about the "self" and how it is our brain and a large amount of stimuli always fighting for attention, and whatever is the strongest stimuli wins our attention. For instance, I have headphones on, listening to music in a coffee shop and I hear outside noise from the people around me talking, however the stimuli that is grabbing the larger portion of my consciousness is this computer screen.

I would go deeper into my perception of self from a more scientific view (I believe it would be the biological psychological model) but I believe my post is getting to long, and perhaps I will next time!

Peace.

yin

Re: Philosophy Article: Why We View The Self As We Do

Post Number:#4  PostNovember 22nd, 2007, 6:59 am

Just wanted to say I completely agree. Very well said. Something that interests me though, is that while it took until the 20th century for the western world's intellectuals to realise this, the concept was common currency within Indian philosophy 2,500 years ago: Buddhism teaches exactly the same principle, and so does the Samkhya branch of Hindu philosophy.

Samkhya tells us that all the different faculties of 'selfhood' (ie, intellect, ego, sense perception, etc) are manifestations of the material world, and come to exist (or, appear to exist) through the interaction of simple consciousness with the material processes it witnesses - and these material processes include internal states (although Samkhya claims these are of a more 'subtle' form of matter than objects like tables and chairs - which clearly, from a scientific viewpoint, they are). So, it is awareness of our own perceptions and actions which form our concept of 'I'. Both Samkhya and Buddhism teach that the only way to be happy is by realising that the 'I' we commonly identify with, is an illusion, and the most essential aspect of ourselves is the stream of simple, non-personalised copnsciousness.

Secondly, isn't it interesting how our social concept of a unified self mirrors the medieval picture of God as the universe's self, a unified single entity that is consciously responsible for all its actions, rather than being a complex of different processes and stimulus-reactions. It seems that the urge to unite complex processes under a hierarchy with a controlling 'conscious self' at the top is a fundamental human need.
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Post Number:#5  PostNovember 26th, 2007, 1:21 am

I'm glad you all like the article and understood me. I was worried that I hadn't done a good job expressing myself clearly with this one.

Patrarch, I agree that the relationship with the main caregiver affects a child's development of self very much. In fact, I assume the vast majority of environmentally-caused psychological abnormalities can be traced back to an abnormality in the child's relationship with the parent. The story about the selfless child who died is especially interesting to me; do you have more information about it?

Aleksis, It's great to have feedback from a psychology student. It's amazing that children can be so damaged from neglect and lack of human contact, but it's definitely believable. Our brain's consciousness works very complexly and interdependently. Perhaps trying to work it without a good idea of self is like trying to run a computer without a proper operating system.

yin, although I would not call myself a Buddhist, Buddhist ideas have greatly influenced me. I agree a lot with the teachings to try and give up a superficial attachment to an individual self to become more "at one with the universe."

Thanks,
Scott
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Post Number:#6  PostOctober 31st, 2010, 4:19 am

I do not believe the self is a construct of the mind and of society any more. Instead, I believe it is how we, as social units process reality. On the one hand, we intuit reality and on the other, we realize what it feeds back to us or requires from us. We recollect-, and we ourselves construct forms that we believe, will fit our world intuitively yet precisely, until we realize our dream or we realize our mistake. After postmodernism, we no longer blame it on the mind or on society, how we are and what we do, unless we can and are held to account for that. So in my view, it is the pre-existing self that constructs the self, from the depths of our being, and in social units or in social unity.
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Post Number:#7  PostOctober 31st, 2010, 5:22 am

Good article Scott, although
As we get older and gain experience, we have to pay the consequences for our shortsighted choices. As a result, we learn to behave in a wiser, more longsighted manner. We learn to think of ourselves as a longer-running entity.


too late too late alas
:roll: :( :? :cry:
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Post Number:#8  PostOctober 31st, 2010, 11:32 pm

We do not think of ourselves as just the atoms or matter in our body today, but instead we think of ourselves as a more generic pattern that remains the same even as all the atoms and matter in our body are replaced.
I think there is a material basis for this. I call it our individuality. What I mean when I use this term are the components of individual experience stored as memories, habits, beliefs, assumptions, etc. in our brains. This content accumulates physically in the brain and evolves over a lifetime and is unique to each individual. When you talk about wisdom it is this process that allows it to develop. It is this dynamically evolving individual content which provides unique input into the neural computations that we call decision making.
too late too late alas
Never too late Belinda! I am now 66 and I view participation in this forum as a very practical way in which we can mutually enhance each other's wisdom quotients. Along with those of many other thoughtful members I certainly view your posts as valuable contributions to my ongoing education.
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Post Number:#9  PostNovember 1st, 2010, 5:25 am

Tfindlay, thank you.
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Post Number:#10  PostNovember 1st, 2010, 6:49 am

I agree with the OP. Dennett calls it the "center of narrative gravity", which IMO perfectly captures it.
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Post Number:#11  PostNovember 1st, 2010, 11:09 am

Scott, you mention that we can have contradicting "desires" or wishes. Do you (or anyone else) have any sources or anything where I can learn more about this state and any possible consequences if the state doesn't "settle down"?
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Post Number:#12  PostDecember 17th, 2010, 6:42 am

"The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but that the relation relates itself to its own self." Soren Kierkegaard. Now, I don't pretend fully to understand this doctrine and its ramifications, but I take two main insights away from this, which seem correct. First, that selfhood is an activity rather than a state; in the conttext of an infinitessimal time-slice, there is no meaningful difference between a living person and a recently dead one (assuming metaphysical materialism). Second, that in order to successfully 'posit a self' to torture the language just a bit, the being must be polysubjective, must be composed of multiple loci of perception and desire that interactively intend a consensus, which consensus we call the self.

Also, Mark, good accounts of intrapersonal conflict are especially abundant in the literature on self-deception and human irrationality. Of course, some accounts are better than others--Antonio Damasio and Joseph Ledoux are personal favorites--and I've just picked up a book by Rita Carter titled Multiplicity: The New Science of Personality, Identity, and the Self, which looks quite promising. I hope that helps.
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Post Number:#13  PostDecember 17th, 2010, 8:56 am

BubbaD0g wrote:"The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but that the relation relates itself to its own self."

Second, that in order to successfully 'posit a self' to torture the language just a bit, the being must be polysubjective, must be composed of multiple loci of perception and desire that interactively intend a consensus, which consensus we call the self.


Force a creation of the self? Did I interpret you the way you intended?
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Post Number:#14  PostDecember 17th, 2010, 2:31 pm

I'm sorry, I don't understand your question. Could you elaborate a little?
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Post Number:#15  PostDecember 17th, 2010, 3:28 pm

It seems I was mistaken. Never mind me.
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