Hume on the Self

by F.

Humean ideas of the self, it seems, are in fashion—thankfully. First, Hume’s basic idea and analogy, which the “David Hume” Wikipedia entry nicely summarizes:

Hume pointed out that we tend to think that we are the same person we were five years ago. Though we’ve changed in many respects, the same person appears present as was present then… When we start introspecting, “we are never intimately conscious of anything but a particular perception; man is a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement….”

Note in particular that, in Hume’s view, these perceptions do not belong to anything. Rather, Hume compares the soul to a commonwealth, which retains its identity not by virtue of some enduring core substance, but by being composed of many different, related, and yet constantly changing elements.

Compare that to this abstract from Kurzban and Aktipis’ forthcoming paper, entitled “Modularity and the Social Mind: Are Psychologists too Selfish?”:

A modular view of the mind implies that there is no unitary “self” and that the mind consists of a set of informationally encapsulated systems, many of which have functions associated with navigating an inherently ambiguous and competitive social world. It is proposed that there are a set of cognitive mechanisms—a social cognitive interface (SCI)—designed for strategic manipulation of others’ representations of one’s traits, abilities, and prospects. Although constrained by plausibility, these mechanisms are not necessarily designed to maximize accuracy or to maintain consistency with other encapsulated representational systems. The modular view provides a useful framework for talking about multiple phenomena previously discussed under the rubric of the self.

More at Overcoming Bias:

Research from psychology and neuroscience shows that your brain has organizational characteristics similar to this caricature of the Bush Administration.

Before you get too scared, keep reading:

There are systems that are responsible for powerful, simple emotional reactions that serve to focus other systems to give fine-tuned attention to your brain’s priorities and preferred outcomes. Most of the detailed systems don’t care much about why they have the jobs they are given; they just do the work of carrying them out in a highly distributed, bureaucratic way. And you — the conscious, chatty you — are that dimwitted patsy, the misinformed press agent. The conscious you is not the President and you’re certainly not Karl Rove. You are the Scott McClellan for your bureaucratic brain. You’re constantly being duped into believing public-friendly stories about yourself, because your entire job is to tell stories handed to you by ruthless, clever, unconscious communications systems. You’re not the whole head; you’re just the talking head.

You can’t even trust your own introspection, because your press agent simply doesn’t have direct access to the Oval Office. The best you can do, even with your own behavior, is to try to piece together hypotheses about the hidden motives at work based on what the person actually does, situated in the context of things you know are generally true of why people might want to do those things.