Where is Timbuctoo, I wonder, that opulent city of legend, it’s shaded squares alight with the vivid yellow blossom of a thousand Jacaranda trees? In far away China, I suppose. But how shall I convince you? Perhaps I will take you on a journey of discovery.
First, to the islands of the Hebrides, where I will show you that none of them is Timbuctoo. Then to the Welsh valleys, none of which hides Timbuctoo either. Crossing the Channel to France and then the Pyrenees to Spain, we establish that there is no such city in those countries. Therefore it can only be in China!
This kind of persuasive logic is used by the writer Julian Baggini in his latest book, The Ego Trick, which I had the opportunity to read recently. His supposition is that the self, your sense of being a person, is not real, and that you are instead just a bundle of parts.
To convince his readers, he writes about a voyage of discovery, and a fascinating voyage it is too. He has interviewed many interesting people, and he has read books about many others.
There are men who have decided to become women, former professors, the 17th Century French philosopher, Déscartes, the blogger, prostitute and research scientist who became famous as Belle de Jour, and many others.
Each time, we find no definition of the self. Therefore the self must not be real!
Perhaps the most interesting interview he reports was with Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne, who argues for the existence of the soul. It’s interesting partly because Baggini returns to the topic of the soul in the book’s final chapter, and also because he singles Swinburne out for personal attack (page 69):
Swinburne’s commitment to the truth seems to be genuine, whatever his ability to arrive at it.
And (page 72):
Put simply, [the majority of serious thinkers] recognise bad arguments when they see them, and Swinburne’s are often very bad indeed…
The other interesting character in the book is Derek Parfit, who appears to be Baggini’s only hero, but whom he did not actually interview (page 234):
Of course, the person I most wanted to ask about the liberating effects of embracing a bundle theory was Derek Parfit, to whose work in this are my PHD was really just a series of footnotes.
I described Timbuctoo as an “opulent city of legend, it’s shaded squares alight with the vivid yellow blossom of a thousand Jacaranda trees”. Is Timbuctoo really like that? Armed only with that description, if you did pass through Timbuctoo somewhere on our journey, would you even recognize it?
As a straw man, a false argument that is easy to knock down, Baggini uses the idea of the self as a pearl. This metaphor conflates several falsehoods, guaranteeing that the reader who falls for the ruse will not recognize the self along the journey.
A real pearl is an inanimate physical object, but no one thinks of himself or herself as an inanimate physical object. A pearl represents something rare and valuable, whereas everyone has a self, making selves commonplace. A real pearl is small and unchanging, whereas oneself is everything that one is, and always changing.
On Baggini’s journey, the reader is misdirected to seek a pearl. Although the description of the pearl changes, the pearl is never found. Therefore the self must not be real!
From Gibraltar we look towards Africa. There’s no point, I explain, in going there because the African language does not contain the letter T. It follows that Timbuctoo cannot possibly be in Africa.
Baggini’s writing is engaging when he reports his encounters with all the various people he interviewed and when he reviews the books he read. As a journalist, he is very readable. When he attempts reasoned argument, though, it tends to fall apart spectacularly.
As an example, take his argument that no region of the brain could possibly represent the unity of the self (page 28):
The unity of the self is not to be explained in terms of a single, unified brain region, which acts as the master controller.
He attempts to use the example of vision to explain how the brain works (page 29):
Armed with an elementary knowledge of how the eye works, it is tempting to think that light shines on the retina and then the brain creates from this a single, three-dimensional image. But who sees this image? The temptation is to think (or perhaps more usually assume) that there is a kind of mind’s eye which inspects the image in the brain. But then how does this ‘mind’s eye’ see this image? It cannot be that there is a little person — a homunculus — in our brains which watches mental images. If that were the case, we’d have to ask what was going on inside the head of that homunculus. Would there be another mental image, and if so, what would be seeing that? An even smaller homunculus? If we continued to explain each stage in the same way, we’d end up with an infinite number of even smaller homunculi, each packed Russian-doll-like into our brains. Such an infinite regress could never explain how any seeing actually went on at all.
You can see clearly that this is a straw man argument. He describes it only to knock it down at the end of the paragraph. The flaw in his argument is elementary: in the mind, it is perfectly possible to have an infinite regress.
Indeed, there must have been an infinite regress in Baggini’s mind when he wrote those sentences. He must have imagined a ‘mind’s eye’, and inside that another ‘mind’s eye’, and inside that another, and so on, in order to have been able to describe it to us. And anyone who reads it also gets to imagine the same infinite regress.
Suppose Baggini had applied this argument to mirrors instead of brains. A mirror, he might say, could be placed behind you and another one in front of you. Looking in the mirror before you, you would see the one behind you, and in that the one in front of you, and so on — an infinite regress. Therefore mirrors are impossible!
This is the elementary mistake he made. It is indeed impossible for a mirror to contain another mirror, or for a brain to contain another brain, but it is certainly possible for a reflection to reflect another reflection, or for a mind to imagine another mind.
In the book, the argument drifts off topic after that, but Baggini has missed something important about how brains process and represent information. It is entirely possible for the representation of an abstract property like the unity of the self to be represented in a single place.
As an example, suppose this web page you are reading were coded to do some computation with dates. Every web browser contains an abstract representation of dates, called a prototype.
The prototype is not an actual date. It is a representation of all the things that dates have in common. For example, every date must be in some month, and this ‘monthiness’ of dates is represented in the prototype in your browser.
If this web page wanted to work with an actual date, known as an instance of a date in programming jargon, then it would have to specify an actual day, month and year. If you visit many web pages that perform computations with many dates, those dates would all have separate days, months and years, but the monthiness of all those instances of dates, the requirement that every date must be in some month, exists in only one place — in the single Date prototype that is shared by all the instances.
Therefore it is perfectly possible for the representation of an abstract property to exist in a single place even though it is a property that belongs to many separate things. This makes it seem entirely possible that the brain could store an abstract property like ‘unity over time’ in a single place and apply it to the many things that have that property — the self, other people, rivers, trees, and so forth.
What’s more, the way vision has been found to work in the brain suggests that something like the prototype model really is what’s going on. For example, it has been found that when you look at a scene, certain brain cells respond to abstract properties of the image.
For example, certain brain cells respond only to vertical lines. If you gaze out to sea at the horizon, those brain cells go quiet. If you look at anything with a vertical line, they become active. It is suggestive of a single prototype that represents verticalness.
This is not to say that ‘unity over time’ really is represented in a single place in the brain, only that it could be. Systems of representation of that kind are as common as web browsers, and they have already been identified in the activity of brain cells.
By contrast, Baggini’s argument against this kind of representation of the unity of self is trivial and foolish.
The book’s conclusion is in the middle, where Baggini informs his readers of what he considers to be the correct answer. The answer is supported by four claims, but each of them is shaky (page 114, original emphasis).
First, there is no thing or part of you which contains your essence…
This claim is shaky for the reason I outlined above. The essence of your identity might well be a single part of your mind that represents not just your identity but the identity of other people and things.
Second, you have no immaterial soul…
Weirdly, Baggini himself tears this claim down later in the book when he considers in more detail what various theologians mean by the word soul. For example, depending on who you ask, your soul might be your unique combination of mind, body and personality — that unique combination not being a material object, while at the same time certainly being something that exists.
Third… If there is no single thing which makes you the person you are, then you must be the result of several parts or things working together.
This is so obvious that it does not need saying, but it tells you nothing about your sense of being a unified self. One of those parts, a part of your mind, might be your sense that you are yourself. Or it might not. This third claim is a statement that contains no information.
Fourth, the unity which enables you to think of yourself as the same person over time is in some ways fragile, and in others robust…
This claim assumes you do have a unity after all, but further than that it says nothing useful. What is there, after all, that is not in some ways fragile, and in others robust?
After some faffing around, and after crediting philosopher Derek Parfit with finding the correct answer, Baggini gets to the point (page 120):
There is no single thing which comprises the self, but we need to function as though there were.
It turns out that Parfit’s theory of the self is only one of many theories that see the self as a bundle of parts. The remainder of the book refers to bundle theories in the plural, and it mentions some of the individual bundle theories, amongst other things, by way of trampling the straw man pearl theory that was put forward at the start. It is not just that the self is a bundle, but bundle theories of the self are themselves bundled into the second half of the book.
The book ends by explaining what it was really all about — it was not about the nature of the self at all. The last chapter, Living without a soul opens by quoting Derek Parfit (page 218):
My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air.
Clearly, this describes a spiritual conversion of some kind. The change of view that it refers to was (according to Baggini) when Parfit adopted a bundle theory and abandoned any clear sense of self. It is not clear whether Baggini is aware of the irony of quoting that under the chapter heading Living without a soul.
What Baggini seems to be proposing, and perhaps Parfit too, is that self-as-bundle is a kind of artificial do-it-yourself soul. The point of believing in a soul is to express the idea that your existence as a person has a higher meaning, so that if there are parts of you that seem to make no sense to you, it is OK because at some higher level they do make sense.
The point of believing in a bundle theory is exactly the same. If there are parts of you that seem to make no sense, it is OK because you are just a bundle and the parts do not need to make sense.
Belief in the soul and bundle theories therefore share the same function of making it OK for there to be parts of you that cannot be made to fit with the rest of you. How attractive this seems probably depends on the kind of person you are.
If you are a person whose sense of self seems to encompass your whole self, then you don’t need to believe that you have a soul or that you are a bundle. It does nothing for you.
If, though, you are a person who feels oppressed by irreconcilable elements within yourself, then belief either in a soul or in a bundle theory is no doubt liberating. There will no longer be any need to reconcile those elements. This seems to be Baggini’s conclusion — that believing in a bundle theory sets you free.
It is tempting to speculate that when interviewed, Swinburne detected a need in Baggini to be reconciled with himself in some way, and that was what led to the personal attack, while Parfit’s theories offered Baggini a way out of something oppressive in his life without actually having to face it. As to what that oppressive something might be, the book does contain clues, but I won’t spoil the whole plot.
The real Timbuktu in West Africa, should you ever find it, will not live up to the expectations that its legend and I may have created. There, at the edge of the Sahara, it is too dry for jacaranda trees to flourish. Go four thousand miles south to Pretoria in October for the profusion of their vivid blue blossom to take your breath away.
Just as I would not venture into Africa, Baggini did not venture into psychotherapy to discover what the self means. Psychotherapists help people to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable within themselves every day, making it OK to be who you are. There is no need for complicated theories about either souls or bundles in order to make it OK. It’s just OK all by itself.