The true self? It’s all in your head.

Josh Knobe has an op-ed piece in The New York Times today about the nature of the true self. In the article, he raises the question of whether the true self is reflected in decisions that are made upon rational reflection or those that are made based upon following one’s natural urges. Philosophers, Knobe argues, tend to favour rational reflection, while non-philosophers endorse following those natural urges wherever they lead. Actually, both are probably right.

The problem I believe comes from the question itself – what is the true self? As with many concepts that we humans have developed in the course of trying to make sense of the world, we fall into the trap of thinking that there is one thing that represents the true self. Not so, say the neuroessentialists (me, for instance) who argue that the self is the sum total of the activity of all of the constituent elements of the brain. If one accepts this premise, then both natural urges and rational reflection represent the true self. That they may sometimes be in conflict highlights the cognitive dissonance that the addict feels when, via rational reflection they want to quit smoking and yet, following their ‘natural’ urges, succumb to lighting another cigarette. Such cognitive dissonance is a common feature of everyday life.

The issue is brought into clarity when one considers the issue of autonomous decision-making. Gidon Felsen and I have a long paper forthcoming in AJOB Neuroscience in which we review the neuroscience which underlies this process. We rely on a different set of terms that essentially describe the same process: first order and second order desires. First order desires represent the natural urges, and second order desires represent the rational reflection. Aligning one’s first and second order desires is what we normally think of when we make an autonomous decision. But in the messy world of real brains, perfect alignment is, well, imperfect. It seems that what transpires is that a variety of first order desires compete for primacy, and rational reflection weighs them for saliency. The one that shines the brightest wins.

One of the insights that emerged for me as I worked with Gidon on the article was that in the process of making an autonomous decision, rational reflection serves to authenticate the decision. That is to say, we commit to a line of action when we authenticate a decision. But the information that we use to inform that decision is hardly perfect. To paraphrase a former Secretary of Defense, you make a decision with the information that you have.

Some (but not all) of that information derives from first order desires, those natural urges that the philosophers (not to mention the Less Wrong crowd) would have us decry. A real world example was recently described in a PNAS paper whose abstract says,

Are judicial rulings based solely on laws and facts? Legal formalism holds that judges apply legal reasons to the facts of a case in a rational, mechanical, and deliberative manner. In contrast, legal realists argue that the rational application of legal reasons does not sufficiently explain the decisions of judges and that psychological, political, and social factors influence judicial rulings. We test the common caricature of realism that justice is “what the judge ate for breakfast” in sequential parole decisions made by experienced judges. We record the judges’ two daily food breaks, which result in segmenting the deliberations of the day into three distinct “decision sessions.” We find that the percentage of favorable rulings drops gradually from ≈65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to ≈65% after a break. Our findings suggest that judicial rulings can be swayed by extraneous variables that should have no bearing on legal decisions.

Those extraneous variables are first-order desires.

Of course, it is not the case that responding to first-order desires is always a bad idea. Those first-order desires are either important issues that must be dealt with quickly (i.e. there is a threat to my person, and I must react) or heuristics that we have learned as shortcuts to free up our neural apparatus for other matters – the cognitive economy of emotions. Learning how to make one’s way in the world efficiently is hardly a handicap, and I would argue that such neural circuitry is also a part of who we really are.

The problem gets even more murky when we realize that the information that feeds into our decision-making apparatus, even when it is functioning at its best, may not necessarily be our own. A powerful set of studies has emerged from Stanislaw Dehaene’s laboratory which demonstrate quite nicely that events in the world around us affect our decision-making, and can do so without our being aware of them. Stan was a Peter Wall Visiting Professor here in April, and I spoke to him about this over lunch one day. When I asked him about how much of brain activity involved such unconscious processing, he didn’t hesitate to say “most”. If much of our brain processing goes on without our knowledge, and it affects future ‘rational’ decision making, how can it ever be said to be ours?

These observations pose a significant challenge to those who strive to find evidence of the authentic self. The data from neuroscience seem to suggest that there is no such thing, at least not in the way that Josh Knobe and the philosophers hope to define it, nor in the way that everyday people think about it. Our decision-making is affected by all of our internal urges, be they base or morally upstanding, rational or emotionally tinged. Our neural apparatus is regularly polluted with ideas, concepts, and observations that are not our own, but become incorporated into our synaptic universe nonetheless. Given these constraints, it seems unlikely that we can ever identify the ‘authentic self’. Unless we resort to accepting that our selves are just whatever our brains are doing. Right here. Right now.

image credit: QuBit Technologies via SpaceSuit Yoga


6 thoughts on “The true self? It’s all in your head.

  1. i like the picture u paint regarding first and second order desires, i have not heard of that. And i agree with unconscious processes, but lets not overstate the influence of unconscious or incidental stimuli upon processing – at best it counts for a fraction of the variance in moral judgements (Haidt). And the authentic self need not be a discrete product, we are in constant flow of conceptual symbiosis; process philosophy. I think it need not be unsettling to accept this, maybe it connects us all. your ideas have given me a lot to consider and may even infiltrate my dreams tonight

  2. Aren’t these questions raised in any discussion of the “self.” Why qualify it with words like “true” or “authentic?” Would that imply that “true self” can exist but a “false self” does exist? Ow…my mind hurts.

  3. Great post! I’m inclined to agree with your view that takes into account both 1st ad 2nd order desires (Frankfurt had a lot to say about the distinction). It strikes me as odd that a person could consider only one of the two as representing their “true” self. To exclude one or the other seems to me to be indicative of wishful thinking–it’s too selective, and is essentially an attempt to (rationally) bracket out desires that one does not “want” to associate with oneself.

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