The Concept of the Self – Blog Post 0014

"In general, we are least aware of what our minds do best." - Marvin Minsky


The self is a hard concept to grasp when thought about in a deep and meaningful way. What is it about us that makes us uniquely us? There is no good definition for the self that maintains its integrity through time. The best definition I can think of for the self is a semi-unique set of dynamic patterns. But let's explore this concept a bit further to see how difficult a problem this really is.

We can define ourselves in terms of our physical makeup. The unique shapes of our bodies. The color of our eyes, hair and skin. But we quickly run into a problem. All these physical characteristics can and do change throughout one's life. Your height and weight are drastically different from that of your childhood self. Some might have lost a limb during a war or dyed their hair. And then there's plastic surgery, a tool that can potentially change our physical appearance so much that our closest relatives might not recognize us afterwards. At what point of morphological change do we consider ourselves a different self? Are there multiple selves? The baby self, the child self and the adult self? It gets even more confusing when we realize that the actual physical stuff, the molecules and cells that comprise our physical makeup, changes over time. The physical self seems like a pretty shaky concept to anchor ourselves to.

Maybe it's not our physical morphology that defines us, but rather our behavioral characteristics. Those sets of behavioral patterns that seem to be relatively unique for each one of us. But again, there is a problem. Behavior changes with experience, mood and differing circumstances. You might have been warm and open as a teenager, but have grown to be a bitter old lady. You might be extremely nice to your family but a complete tyrant to your employees. Maybe you were having a good laugh with your best friend earlier in the day, only to find yourselves fighting it out on the streets after a serious drinking binge and an exchange of personal insults. And there's a further complication. You might think of yourself as nice, kind, generous and open. Meanwhile, your ex-girlfriend might take issue with this description of your character. Additionally, since you are the only individual that has a complete account of and access to your entire set of behaviors and memories, it would seem that you should be the best judge of your own character. But this is hardly the case as we are all subject to personal biases that seem to distort our perception of self in our own heads. Just because you think you're great, doesn't mean others won't treat you like the asshole that you really are. So the behavioral self is also problematic in terms of accurately describing us through time.

Well, what's left? Isn't there an essence, a spirit, a soul that remains consistent throughout our lives? No. No there isn't. Just as we have discarded the ideas of demonic possessions and body humors as being real, we should discard useless and shapeless terminology that seems to shift its meaning to counteract the criticism leveraged against it.

We might conclude then, that there is no self and I think we would be justified in doing so. There is no one idea that can accurately describe and capture the complexity of an individual through time. Instead, it would be safe to say that there are a multitude of selves that are created, refined, pruned and destroyed throughout our lifetime. These selves might even compete with each other for dominance over our behavior as is often illustrated when we struggle not to eat a donut. Our immediate gratification self is fighting it out with our logical and health-conscious self.

The self is a hallucination and any hallucination taken seriously enough, will become one's reality. Luckily, many of us have the capacity to break old and destructive patterns of ourselves and program in new ones. We can change or bodies for the better and we can change our minds for the better.

The self, a semi-unique set of dynamic patterns subject to external and/or internal positive and/or negative reinforcement loops.

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