According to supernatural conceptions of the self, we’re not identical with the brain since we consist of a spiritual, immaterial and thus seemingly immortal substance. That substance portends an apocalyptic end of all of nature by a hidden, transcendent reality that’s thought of as the abode of the universe’s personal creator. The modern word for “spirit” is “consciousness,” since consciousness, too, seems like a ghostly presence, an invisible homunculi within the head. According to the science-centered view, though, the self is a congeries of programs computed somehow by the embodied nervous system; at any rate, the self is a natural thing or process, operating under physical laws. The opposition between these two conceptions sets up either the personal self or the natural body to be interpreted as an illusion subordinated to the other’s corresponding ontology.
But all of this is oversimplified. There clearly is a materialistic, animalistic, embodied self just as clearly as there is a subjective, personal, and thus potentially noble or transcendent thing as mind.
The Self’s Origin in Higher-Order Thought
Here’s how I see mind arising from mechanisms operating in the body. The brain evolved as a hodgepodge of modules, which are independent, specialized subsystems that carry out specific functions. Most animals receive inputs from one or another module and their training takes over, automating their behaviour. This is to say that they lack personhood, which is the awareness of being a self that processes perceptual inputs and can freely decide how to respond. Our species adapted to life after the eons in which dinosaurian might made right, by developing a capacity for high intelligence that’s generated by the cerebral cortex. Our Mesolithic and Paleolithic ancestors found themselves able to categorize phenomena to a high level of abstraction and to systematize their communications using the technology of linguistic symbols and rules. Instead of reacting automatically to stimuli, they could reflect and prepare their response, learning the most efficient techniques and preserving that information for future generations.
Consciousness arose as a special kind of higher-order thought. Picture a primate flooded with information from its environment which it could now customize by categories and access at will, thanks to its cerebral cortex which acts as a brain within a brain, detaching the emotion and motor centers from the environmental cues so that the primate’s behaviour needn’t be slaved to genetic programming. The primate could always investigate the outer world with its paws and outer senses, but now it could also organize the flood of data within its head. In short, it could think about its thoughts. For example, the primate could think roughly, “This pain feels bad, but it would be best not to wince, to avoid looking like a weakling.” Instead of being concerned just with modifying its outer environment, the sapient primate learned how to develop its cognitive capacities. It did so by rational detachment and by linguistic abstraction, which allowed for higher-order thoughts, which in turn enable the species to thrive and thus to continue to practice thinking in its free time.
But what is the self that is accomplishing these cognitive feats? There was no otherworldly monolith that intervened in the Stone Age and miraculously transformed animals into people, as in Kubrick’s film 2001. Instead, I think we should picture those early intelligent primates as being terrified of their cognitive powers and as inventing the self to manage that fear. Specifically, as their reasoning center gradually disentangled itself from the older neural subsystems, with the advent of their brain within the brain, and as those forerunners became more sophisticated in managing their thoughts, they would still have been exposed to fear of that enclosed inner space.
Primates in general are highly territorial, which means they react against invasions of their home space. When invaded, they display a fight-or-flight response, triggered by the amygdala which processes emotions associated with spatial proximity to others. Normally, home territory is defined in relation to the body: the nearer the threat to the body, the more threatening the invasion and the more likely the animal will fight or flee. But as I said, the cerebral cortex represented a brain within a brain, by enabling higher-order cognitive control of thoughts, not just of the rest of the body and thus indirectly of parts of the environment. Thus, the sense of home space that had to be defended would have been redefined to include the inner world of thoughts and feelings (memories, plans, lusts, doubts, fantasies, and so on). Just as the body’s private space can be invaded by others, including predators and dangerous but actually inanimate parts of the environment (lightning, volcanoes, floods), so too the modules that process abstract thoughts are invaded by all of that data in addition to the data of the lower-order thoughts, which is to say the more reflexive mental states that can be categorized and harnessed by the higher-order cognitive capacities.
When dominated by a predator that intrudes on an animal’s private space, the animal feels terror since it can neither successfully fight nor flee. To be sure, this isn’t claustrophobia since the fear isn’t irrational. Instead, the fear is nervous energy signaling that the animal’s situation is dire. The territorial fear is a mighty alarm bell that sounds when the animal’s home is violated and its body is threatened. This behaviour is reproduced in an irrational form, though, due to the creation of a global (holistic) cognitive system that sets itself increasingly apart from everything else, including the mental states it filters. That is, the plans and fears and dreams and memories that crowd in on the hypothetical primate’s intelligence are perceived as invaders of this newly-delineated inner home, and to the extent the primate can’t cope with the cacophony of conflicting voices and emotions, the amygdala triggers a fight-or-flight response. Physically fighting a thought is, of course, impossible, since even if you could punch an idea, it could just as swiftly return and anyway its logical status would be unaffected by such a crude reaction. Fleeing is likewise impossible, since you can’t literally run away from the contents of your head. However, simulated flight as well as combat is made possible by higher-order thought.
If you’re feeling bombarded by your thoughts which never end while you live, not even while you sleep, thanks to your dreams, you can flee to a level of abstraction whereby you quarantine the thoughts by taking symbolic ownership of them, attributing them to an imaginary container called the self. Thus, the intelligent primate copes with the constant invasion of its mental sanctuary, by reorienting its cognitive activity towards a higher intellectual plane. We symbolically step outside the lower-order boundary, by pretending that we’re not identical with the constant flow of thoughts, but are located instead at a higher level of abstraction in which there’s a unifying self that needn’t be threatened by the inner invasions as long as it retains the capabilities for intellectual detachment and reflection. To reflect on a feeling, from the abstract position of being a self that has the feeling is to flee to another order in psychological space. This is the equivalent of a rabbit running away or perhaps, better, of a turtle retreating within its shell, to avoid facing an intruder on its home turf. Since neural states are isolated within the skull and can only interrelate with each other rather than being subject to much useful manipulation by the body’s outer parts, the only recourse, when met with inner data glut, is to carve out an inviolate position in the space of mental programming, a sort of singularity that’s always safe because of its unique position.
Higher-order thoughts provide the illusion of a unified self by their potential, felt as a sort of anticipation, to follow upon any given lower-order thought. Indeed, with language the illusion is preserved by the mere use of the word “I,” which use seems to transport the same possessor of thoughts to each occasion of that word’s use in the interior monologue or outer dialogue—even though we know that, strictly speaking, we change from one moment to the next as do all other things. So for each lower-order mental state, such as a pleasure or pain, we’re aware of having the power to ascend to a point of abstraction, at which we can entertain a second-order thought about that mental state, such as, “I’m glad I’m having this pleasure” or “I wish I wasn’t enduring this pain.” Instead of ever finding a unified self, what we encounter within is an asymptotic relationship between the orders of cognitive abstraction: each assurance that a mental state is had by the self that occupies a higher order of mental space is attended by a feeling of potency since there’s a similar assurance with regard to that second-order thought which could in principle be followed by a third-order one, and so on to infinity. Instead of a real inner unity, there’s endless deferral from one abstraction to the next. We constantly wait for the presence of our self as though it were Godot.
Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” But as is well-known, the evidence permitted him to say only that since thoughts occur (including the doubt of the world’s existence), thoughts certainly exist. Descartes smuggled in the existence of a personal container of the doubts, the self that has them, because he was influenced by the intuitive medieval metaphysics of substances and their properties. The intuition which seems to form part of folk physics is that there are things and then there are their motions or the actions they take. In English, this distinction corresponds to that between nouns and verbs. At some point this intuition had to be learned by our prehistoric ancestors who studied their environment to survive. So foods were distinguished from poisons because of their effects of nourishment or sickness. The same distinction must have been applied to the inner world as it was opened up by the cerebral cortex’s role of being the rest of the brain’s overseer. Thinking and feeling are actions we take, while we must be something that performs them. Of course, biologically speaking, the thing to which we’re identical is our embodied brain. But the intuition long preceded that discovery, based as it likely was on the slowly emerging and terrifying powers of language and reason (the cerebral cortex).
Not only was there no monolithic origin point of the human self, but some elite primates would have created selves with their gift for abstraction, while others would have remained zombified like the other animals. The process in which everyone came to think they have selves could have taken tens of thousands of years. In particular, there were two dynamics at play besides the physiological difference between our prehistoric ancestors’ cerebral cortexes. First, there was the introversion-extroversion continuum, which meant that some of our ancestors would have been more sensitive to incoming information than others, whereupon they would have been more prone to retreat to solitude. The protohuman introverts would have led the flight to the abstraction of selfhood. Not only would they have been terrorized by the flood of information pouring into their cognitive center, but they would have worked the most with thoughts and so they’d have been well-positioned to take the needed leap of imagination, of positing a subjective position in mental space, an impregnable fortress to reassure the beleaguered thinker that she can survey her mental states from a psychological “distance.” By contrast, the extrovert would have been at home acting in the outer environment, not tinkering with the furniture of her inner space. The extrovert would thus have been less likely to think of her thoughts as being possessed by an invulnerable self, which is to say she would have had no such self since the self is nothing more than the entertaining of that higher-order thought. This continuum remains to this day, so that those who are more extroverted have a comparatively diminished inner life, while introverts can become imprisoned in themselves. Again, in all of our extroverted moments, when we’re consumed with completing a bodily task, we can feel at one with the outer world as we lose sight of our inner selves, while the opposite obtains in our introverted moments.
Along with that dynamic there would have been opposite pulls in the directions of faith and reason, fantasy and objectification. Whereas in technologically powerful societies, the stance of modern objectivity is commonplace so that we easily resort to analyzing a phenomenon in terms of its mechanical underpinning, in the Stone Age what Henry Frankfort called mythopoeic thought would have predominated. This means that the ancients would have given free rein to their abstractions instead of reserving their personification to themselves. So the retreat from the hyperawareness of the world that was sustained by cognitive oversight and by linguistic symbolization would first have happened on all fronts. The early hyper-intelligent primates would have fled to a fictive spiritual interior, but they would also have pacified the bustling confusion of an independent world around them by personifying every part of it. The ancients freely, which is to say childishly, projected their psychological capacities onto all natural processes, so it wasn’t just they who thought and who might have required an inner retreat; no, the natural elements were likewise considered alive and able to be dealt with on a social basis through prayer, sacrifice, and other magical relations. Mythopoeic projection of subjectivity onto the alien outer world would have mitigated the fear of being overwhelmed by thoughts, by making the world seem akin to us. As the aphorism has it, we fear what we don’t understand, what’s different from us. To compensate for our ignorance, we can pretend that everything has an inner world, a spiritual core, making it similar to us. Indeed, we catch a glimpse of this imaginative free-for-all in children who likewise interpret their surroundings as imbued with magic.
But this resort to fantasy was only one side of advanced cognition, the other being objectification, which amounted to protoscience. Objectification is the converse of psychological projection, in that instead of interpreting an external phenomenon as having a mental dimension, the protoscientist ignores her own subjectivity in the endeavour to divine that phenomenon’s impersonal nature. The protoscientist excels at reasoning, which means she adopts an emotionally neutral stance, putting aside her preferences and biases and following logic and the evidence where they lead. Now, whereas mythopoeic thought would have driven the creation of personhood by a theological codification of the initial abstraction, that is, by comparing the self to a god, objectification would have done so by intensifying the need for that abstraction. With mythopoeic freedom, the ancients would have indulged in speculation about the self’s spiritual properties, its ultimate destiny and so forth. So its separation from all particular mental states was interpreted as being due to the self’s immateriality, to its having entered the natural world from a transcendent plane. The self is invulnerable to threats because it’s immortal, having been created not by any human act of imagination, but by divine fiat. As the shamans of their day, ancient introverts, in particular, would have exceled at this religious speculation.
But objectification spoils that fantasy, by returning nature to its actual, horrific indifference to us in our vision of the world. The more we objectify, the more we learn that natural events happen for no psychological reason, because most things are entirely dead inside, having no thoughts or feelings at all. Moreover, the technique of objectification calls on the protoscientist to detach from her emotions and thus to depersonalize herself, which she can do only because she’s never actually presented with any personal self in the first place. She can ignore her preferences and work around her biases, because objective thought is only one cognitive routine working alongside others. Were there a real unifying subjective power within each of us, we could hardly think objectively about anything by disassociating from ourselves, since that act of detachment would derive from that very unifying power. It’s precisely because there’s no subjective unity underlying all mental activity, that objectivity is possible as the exercise merely of one module rather than another. This protoscientific confirmation that there’s no real singular, removed self heightens the fear of being overwhelmed by experience and so forces a compromise with the mythopoeic initiative, whereby that one act of imagination is rationalized as being intuitive and is thus safeguarded. Underlying the intuition that there’s a self that has its thoughts is the existential crisis, which is that what we actually find through introspection is a void. Certainly, we don’t thereby discover our neurological self, the brain. But the despair of really being so empty or as transitory as a terribly fragile brain subsides when we imagine an emergent domain to call home, a mental or spiritual world of consciousness, meaning, and purpose. The image of that inner domain not only saves us from angst but catalyzes a technological enchantment of all of nature by imbuing it with our creativity.
From Fear to Authenticity
Does all of this imply that the self is nothing at all? No, since illusions and fictions are real; they’re just not what we usually think they are. If the preceding speculations and hypotheses are on the right track, the self begins inauspiciously as a crutch to manage the fear of being confined to a newly-flooded interior space. The self thus begins as an accident, but so does every biological mutation. From fishes’ fins to birds’ wings to mammals’ claws, animals’ traits develop by chance and natural selection, but they’re nonetheless quite real for all of that. How else would godless nature create the myriad forms that evidently litter its dimensions than by such stumbling, fumbling, and happenstance? Human bodies are supposed to be especially beautiful, from our biased perspective, at least, but our evolutionary strengths evidently lie within, since those beautiful bodies are pitifully inadequate in the wild without our hyper-intelligent guidance. If the spider can spin an elaborate web of silk that only it can skillfully traverse, a human can conceive a network of ideas that we excel at seeing. There are psychological and intellectual niches which all species inhabit to some degree, but which we dominate with our unmatched brainpower. Other species categorize phenomena and communicate the results, for example, but only we depend primarily on more sophisticated versions of such mental exercises, such as on our fantasies, rationalizations, and other mental escape hatches, because we’re the only ones cursed with a superabundance of reason which calls for such desperate stratagems.
Granted, there’s no immaterial, immortal self that pops into being via the mere act of imagination that eases our fear of confinement. However, the cerebral cortex really does exercise unprecedented control over much of the rest of the brain, and linguistic symbols really do range over phenomena. Those symbols are meaningful in virtue of their common uses from one generation of language-speakers to the next, despite endless variation between their brain states. The intellect’s independence from the emotions and instincts gives rise to objectification and to protoscience, as I said, which in turn produce human technology that amounts to an artificial world threatening to replace much of the natural one. Technology, too, is all too real, and it indicates reason’s (limited) autonomy within the mind. That autonomy is supported by heroic capacities for abstraction and withdrawal, but also by vices of arrogance and by a savage lust for dominating whatever’s weaker than us. Of course, those capacities of cognition and character are also real.
As are mythopoeic religion, which showcases the fantasies of rampant subjectivity, and the depersonalization which leads to the existential crisis of discovering an inner maelstrom of competing impulses and biases rather than an elevated and invulnerable mental or spiritual self. Buddhists deal with that crisis by learning how not to care, renouncing the urge to identify with anything, including a self. And in the West, the Enlightenment was followed by the Romantic backlash, as poets and other artists realized the threat posed by uncompromising objectification, namely nature’s disenchantment. After the World Wars in which megamachines deployed cutting-edge technology to slaughter millions and turned much of the planet into a hellscape, existential philosophers such as Heidegger and Sartre called for a postmodern (non-scientistic) kind of heroism, for personal authenticity which is a way of life that’s antithetical to delusions and that’s dedicated to creatively overcoming the horrors of our existential predicament. Rather than addressing that challenge head-on, we typically prefer to avoid it with subterfuges of ironic comedy and with sentimental and sanctimonious liberal demands for social equality regardless of manifest differences between individuals. For example, some live as psychopathic gods, others as slumbering slaves.
As I’ve said, the higher-order, imaginary and always merely expected self was likely a gambit to save us from fear of the enclosed inner space of hyper-intelligent cognition. Even as our command of our mental states grew, so did our claustrophobia because the tactic of employing the imagination as a back door only shunts the stream of mental activity into a narrower and more isolated space. The more abstract our thoughts, the further they are from ground-level reality and the greater our sense of alienation. As the saying goes, it’s lonely at the top. We isolate ourselves when we seek refuge in a network of abstractions, when we dwell on relations between our mental states to avoid the dread that our perceptions represent so many intrusions on our home territory from the outer world. We succumb to the perils of introversion and to the curse of reason. The greater the independence of our rational side from the rest of our personality, the less we’re inclined to identify with the sacred myths that bind society together, and the more crippling our loneliness and anxiety. The creation of the personal self spares us from the primitive urge to fight or to flee from the stream of intruding thoughts which are seen all the more clearly by the brain within the brain, but the self’s invention also ejects us from the real world into a mental space of simplifications, including corrupting fantasies and delusions. The worst of us are degraded by those mental substitutes for facts, our inner life indeed being little more than a dream. By contrast, the more enlightened among us use their purgatory in the cul-de-sac of their mind to meditate on those facts, dismissing feel-good myths and reconciling themselves to the objective truth of nature’s undeadness. Indeed, objectivity or protoscience is obviously a silver lining of higher-order thought, and it presents the beleaguered ascetic with the possibility of undead nature’s aesthetic renewal, since the aesthetic attitude overlaps with objectivity, as I explain elsewhere.
My ultimate map of reality begins, then, with the following picture: mindless nature swirls with myriad forms, which are perceived by hyper-intelligent creatures that develop cognitive filters for transducing the sensations into symbolic conceptions. The wealth of that information overwhelms the creatures since they’re hampered by the primitive impulse to construe the data as so many despoilers of the sanctuary of their rational control center. The flow of information is neutralized through a kind of commodification, whereby an all-embracing self is imagined as owning or “having” its mental states. That self consists of a stream of higher-order thoughts that divides the thinker from the natural world which is now perceived as foreign to the detached self. Like the alpha fixed point of a Mandelbrot fractal, the emptiness of the withdrawn self, which nevertheless commands vast powers of fantasy and objectification, is the occasion for a stupendous recycling of nature into the dimension of artificiality. Natural forms are reflected in the symbolizations and simulations that flourish in our artificial microcosms, including our languages, cultures, and cityscapes. Moreover, there’s the ironic possibility that the fantasy of our immortal self is a self-fulfilling prophecy, since it preconditions the advent of technoscience which may yet produce the so-called transhuman, the self that has fully merged with technology and escaped the confines of the biological nervous system. Such irony is generally a prime indicator of the most profound truth, since nature has always been alien to us as soon as we retreated from it in horror, to occupy the psychological vantage point from which the world might be seen in all its strange glory: nothing has a greater capacity to surprise than the alien other.