I’ve written before about the problem of the “self.” What is it like to be a bat? was the title of a famous article by philosopher Thomas Nagel. All sentient creatures experience life – that’s what sentient means – but how does that work? For a bat, it’s so different that we have a hard time imagining what it’s like, to the bat.
I have a better idea of what it’s like being a cat, having long lived with one; still, his interior life is very alien to my own. But never mind bats and cats. What is it like to be me?
This I ought to know. But David Hume said no amount of introspection enabled him to catch hold of his “self.” And I have repeated his experiment (continually) with the same result. The problem is using the self to seek the self. Like using a flashlight to find light. Hard as I try to grasp the true essence of being me, it slithers away like jelly.
I’ve also written about free will. Sam Harris wrote a book against it – but was his writing it not an act of free will? There’s a big difference between activities like that and quotidian everyday life. My choreography of motions in showering is exceedingly complex. And of course I’m conscious during it. But that doesn’t seem required, the motions are on automatic pilot, while my mind can be elsewhere. Like on another Humean attempt to fathom my self while it’s doing the shower routine. (Yet my free will could have chosen not to shower.)
Experiments have shown that the brain forms an intention to act milliseconds before one is consciously aware of it. This has bugged me no end. I try to beat it. When I’m ready to get out of bed, I’ll try to do it precisely when I consciously decide, not when some uncon-scious process pre-decides. And it’s impossible! No matter how much conscious concentration I muster, I can never feel I’ve trumped that interior system. I’ll lie there, knowing it’s lurking, waiting to spring its decision on me. If I say “Now!” and get up, what made it happen at that particular microsecond? Me, or it? Even if I decide I’ll get up on the count of three, and do it, didn’t the decision to count to three at that moment precede my conscious awareness? Sam Harris would say this proves there’s no free will. However, I could have chosen to stay in bed.
We know what pain and pleasure are. But the true nature of these “qualia” is similarly elusive. What is it like to experience eating a cookie? Or having sex? It’s in the mind where the pleasure takes place. And we not only have experiences and thoughts, but thoughts about them, attending to them. So when I have sex, I try to make sure I experience the experiencing of it; to reify it by, at the same time, visualizing that I’m doing the things I’m doing. As though watching myself doing them, with another part of me, apart from the part doing them. So that it’s being experienced on more than one level.
However, as this suggests, there’s a recursiveness here, a loop that cannot be closed. The problem once more is Hume’s: the attempt to unify experience with the self that does the experiencing. And is that even enough? Don’t you need a further experiencer that experiences the experiencing? And so on endlessly? So on what level do I truly experience anything? That’s why I struggle with the Nagelian question of what it’s like to be me.
Cookies, and sex, produce complex sets of sensory inputs, and why do our brains do a pleasure response, whereas some other set of inputs produces a very different response? That might seem an easy question: evolution has programmed our brains to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli, as adaptations, for survivability, to make us seek or avoid those respective stimuli. Calories (and sex) were good for survival and reproduction; pain (from injury), bad. So could a brain be reprogrammed to change those pre-installed responses? Of course; we do it all the time. Some people somehow even get reprogrammed to feel whipping as pleasurable.
What is it like to be such a person? Almost as mysterious to me as what it’s like to be a bat.
So I sit here trying to truly understand who wrote that last sentence, really. We could go on like this all day, as better minds than mine have done, with no better result (or hardly any better).
But at least I understand the problem. At least I think so. Whatever “think” means. And whoever “I” is.