Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas


Devout Disbelief

Claims that we do not exist are based on a fundamentally outdated conception of the self.

In Search of the Self SAT 23 MAY

I am getting increasingly astonished at hearing so many well-qualified scholars repeating – as official scientific doctrine - a claim which they clearly don’t believe. The claim is that they (and indeed their readers) don’t exist. But existing isn’t something extra that you do on top of just being present. It is simply being present in the first place.

We can, of course, ask these people, `Who, then, are the beings that are now making this claim? What are the mysterious entities which (in your view) actually write their books - work out their subtle doctrines - make their life-changing decisions for them and deal, for instance, with their children and their bank-managers? How do these bogus entities manage to go on deceiving all the people round them into taking them for genuine human beings? And who, indeed, are all those surrounding people? If they are all just flickering illusions, how do they manage to provide us with a world which is certainly not just fantasy but is solidly and painfully real?’ The answer – that, apart from the brain-cells they are all indeed imaginary – doesn’t make any sense. To repeat, imaginary people can’t constitute a real world.

Why (then) do otherwise rational people sign up for this surprising story? I think I see two reasons why they might do so. First, they think they have only got two options. They think they have got to choose between a particularly crude, implausible kind of religion and an equally crude, implausible distortion of science. They drift into seeing this pseudo-scientific story about their own non-existence as a pillar of their faith in science itself, a vindication of the material world, a crucial prop for the certainty which, amid today’s widespread confusions, we all long for. They also see this attitude as rather heroic - a stern, manly substitute for the more feminine idea that our own thoughts and feelings really matter. Declaring that you yourself and your hearers are only fantasies - or indeed are a bunch of brain-cells - sounds rather daringly realistic. But an exciting name doesn’t actually turn an unintelligible idea into a usable one.

The other reason why they might make this move is that there really are awkward, long-standing difficulties about grasping just what kind of things we human beings are and fitting us in among the items that compose the world. Much of this trouble may be due to our evolutionary history. Early language was probably most often needed to say useful things like, `Pass the hammer’ or `Climb that tree’ or `Where has Jenny got to?’ It gave us plenty of words for dealing with trees and hammers, but rather fewer for saying complicated things about human beings such as Jenny. And when we did have to talk about human beings we found a great many confusing things to say about them, many of which still defeat us.

Since Evolution did not provide us with ready-made categories for dealing with these things, we invented ways of talking – often highly metaphorical ones – which structure both our talk and the world-picture that lies behind it. These patterns keep changing with time. Yet the one that still tends to shape our thinking today – though it has often been denounced – is still the pattern that reigned at the dawn of modern science in the sixteenth century; mind-body dualism. Mind or soul was still supposed to be still present much as it had long been in the Christian tradition, while the kind of body or matter that went with it would be the kind developed by the new sciences – especially by physics.

Thus God ruled the inner world while physics took over the outer one. But these two distinct worlds were not properly fitted together – indeed, both of them were ill-thought-out - which is why that twofold arrangement has gradually collapsed. The recent attempt to rescue it by dropping the inner life altogether is only one among a long series of unusable solutions. As the prestige of science has gradually risen, it has become harder and harder to find a plausible place for our own immediate experience – even though that experience provides us with the whole world that we actually live in.

What we really need today is to rethink this whole arrangement. We need to grasp that a human being is not a rough combination of two separate components but a single complex thing – a person. And that person can be understood in dozens of other useful ways besides the two very inadequate ones that happened to appeal to our ancestors five centuries ago.

As Iain McGilchrist says:

Descartes’s mistake was to think of mind and body as two separate substances –(two `whats’) This was, I believe, a typical product of a certain way of thinking… characteristic of the brain’s left hemisphere, a concern with the `whatness’ of things. When it was so obviously a matter of two `hownesses’ in the same thing, two different modes of being, he could formulate this only as two ‘whatnesses’, two different things… Mind has the characteristics of a process more than of a thing, a becoming, a way of being rather than an entity.

(The Master And His Emissary; The Divided Brain And The Making Of The Modern World, Newhaven, Yale University Press, 2009. Emphases mine)

 Rather than evaporating altogether, perhaps we should try that one for size

See big ideas like this one debated live at the IAI’s online festival, HowTheLightGetsIn Global between September 19-20. Hundreds of events live-streamed from London, Delhi and New York, featuring the biggest thinkers in philosophy, science, politics, the arts and economics. Find out more here.
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Matthew Bixby 8 May 2015

This sounds like a very promising way to view mind, not as an illusion, but not a substance either.

Here are some of my own thoughts on reality as a lived experience.