Hume, Douglas Adams, and “the self”

Julian Sanchez puzzles over the resilience of ego-theory:

[W]hy does the idea seem so (ahem) self-evidently true to so many people? I think this is one of many cases where it’s hard to disentangle our raw intuitions about the internal reality we directly apprehend from the mental habits overlaid by language.  Not any quirks of English, of course, but rather the perfectly natural way we talk about a world where strange split-brain disorders are extraordinarily rare, and Star Trek teleporters nowhere to be found.   There is every practical reason to speak of “the person” as a unique and perduring entity who remains the same over the course of a life, just as there is every reason to individuate objects instead of talking about clusters of molecules or parts. We also, quite naturally, have a hardwired concern with the survival of our brains and bodies—having evolved under circumstances where that was, after all, the only way genes were going to get to the next generation.  So it makes sense that we’d end up treating the verbal convention as though it represented a deeper fact of the first importance. In every context we actually deal with, to be told it is an “open question” or a matter of “grammar” whether or not we will survive a particular experience just sounds absurd—like someone trying to pull a fast one—because, of course, it isn’t like that in real world situations: The survival of brain, body, and all the mental traits we’re centrally concerned with go together. Even when it comes to external objects, when we think it’s important whether “the same thing” continues to exist, we have a sense of how weird it is to encounter a different set of conventions, though usually we ultimately recognize that it is a matter of convention.


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