A few years ago, when Lola B was not quite four, I became a student again. One eccentric lecturer thought that pubs were more conducive thinking places than conventional classrooms, especially since cigars could, then, still be smoked in them. Our small group of a dozen or so students met in a variety of drinking places to study the workings of the European Court of Human Rights and to help the lecturer prepare to take on the British Government in a case brought by the families of members of the IRA killed by the British security forces in Northern Ireland in 1987. The case resulted in a second landmark decision for this human rights maverick against the United Kingdom, Kelly and Others v UK. The Court found that the UK had failed to properly investigate the deaths of IRA members at the hands of the security services, whilst the earlier judgment condemned the use of a “shoot to kill” policy by security services operating in Gibraltar.
We felt enormously connected to the fight not least because we mocked up the hearing before it happened – in another pub somewhere in Cambridgeshire. Together with another student, a keen military expert, it fell to us to “represent” the families of the terrorists. I can place my fellows students now as a chief state prosecutors in Norway and Egypt, a UN lawyer in Geneva, a lawyer drafting judgments in relation to Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, human rights activists in Hungary and the former Soviet bloc. I was lucky to have met them all. I remember one particular sunny day, sitting on the tables that sprawled outside an ancient pub by the waterfront, as a moment of pure bliss.
Now every Tuesday I go back to the same waterside village to attend a philosophy class. Our group is somewhat bigger and considerably older, and we meet instead in the local sailing club. Our long table stretches along the floor-to-ceiling windows that open out onto the river wall. I often take my terrier with me and take him for a run along the river wall before the class begins. The river is prone to spilling its banks and so there is a marshy area behind the river wall, full of tussocky grass and ponds, over and around which my dog practises Harrier-like leaps and mad runs when his rigid tail takes on a right-angled bend and nothing will deflect him.Each term we have a new subject. This term it is, loosely, Consciousness, or Arguing about the Mind. One half of the class will never speak, whilst I am locked in mortal combat with one half of the remainder. We rarely divide along traditional, predictable gender lines, but along the analytical/Continental fault-line that divides philosophers. I have long given up any hope of seeing the world as the analytical scientists do. Each week this term we have four or five articles to read and discuss, usually by living philosophers, but we have read extracts from Descartes, and will read articles by doctors too. As a fitting finale to the course, we hope to attend a confrontation between Daniel Dennett and Lord Winston entitled “Religion is the greatest threat to scientific progress and rationality that we face today.”
Naturally we are concerned not only consciousness but also with the entity we called the “self”. Absent a self we cease to exist or, certainly, descend into madness.
Daniel Dennett has written his understanding of this ghost-like being. He is an exceptionally eminent American philosopher and a committed atheist, often spoken of in the same breath as Richard Dawkins. I suppose it is relevant to his atheism to mention here that his father died when Dennett was five in an unexplained plane crash. It is irrelevant but interesting to mention that he claims credit for having introduced the first frisbee into England whilst a student at Oxford University. He is a “materialist“, convinced that there is no duality between the body and the soul, but that science can offer an explanation for everything. Materialists have become the dominant force in the philosophy of the mind, dismissing dualists as religious self-deceivers, and trying to explain consciousness. Almost always the materialist will fail to explain two other ideas which are connected to consciousness, and which present even more problems, namely “intentionality” and “free will”. Consciousness is enough of a problem, and even here the world-class materialist, Dennett, is less than convincing. Daniel Dennett is sure that “We are all, at times, confabulators, telling and retelling ourselves the story of our own lives, with scant attention to the question of truth.” We are “inveterate and inventive autobiographical novelists.” Our autobiographies are our “selves”. Our self does not exist in any more meaningful way than as a fictional character like Sherlock Holmes, for example. A fictional character is very different from something that actually exists in fact, in reality. In respect of real things it is possible to ask any question and for the answer to be either “yes” or “no” (the principle of “bivalence”. Ask whether a particular car has four wheels and the answer is either “yes” or “no” depending on how many wheels the car actually has. Our “selves” are different, unlike motor cars. You can ask whether my eyes are blue and the answer will be “yes” or “no”, but you cannot ask such a question about my self. My self if a bit like a centre of gravity. We treat a centre of gravity as existing in the sense that we know where we situate it, but we cannot see it, or touch it, and its situation is conditional upon other things existing in a particular form.
Our selves are dependent upon the information they receive from our bodies. Things that happen to our bodies happen immediately afterwards to our fictional selves. If you hit my body, my fictional self records that it has been hit. My body is like a robot. It does not choose to feel or not. It simply records in its brain what happens to it, though it is capable of a randomness that appears as unpredictability. The record takes the form of a fictional novel. It is, moreover, a fictional novel that can be rewritten over and over again, and parts can be refined with more detail added after the event. The “me” after rewriting is different from the “me” before rewriting, a phenomenon which would be “utterly mysterious and magical” if my self was anything other than an abstraction.
Why would we tell ourselves these stories? If I believe that science will be able to explain everything, I will look for an evolutionary explanation. Daniel Dennett is a confessed adaptionist, and what follows is his evolutionary explanation.
Before we were conscious (before we had given our “self” a name”) we communicated with each other but only in instinctive ways, blurting out information without any filtering at all. When we had problems in this primitive state, we would blurt out a question to those around us and we came to be designed so that we provided answers when thus provoked by a question. Then one day somebody asked a question but there was nobody around to answer it, and then an answer came to him from a part of the brain separate to the part that had asked the question. After a while this talking and listening and responding got shorter until it all happened in the brain without the thought having to be vocalised by one part, heard and responded to by another part. Conscious verbal thought had arrived.
It is a non-question to ask what the self is, since the self is an abstraction that does not have any real existence except as a work of fiction.
My self is made up of my stories, but, being a lawyer, I usually try to check them for veracity against all available evidence and to keep my self-delusion to a minimum. I hope they are not fiction, and that I am more than the sum of my own confabulations.
Dennett, Daniel, ‘The self as a center of narrative gravity’, in Arguing About the Mind.
Searle, John R, Mind, A Brief Introduction, OUP, 2004