Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Julian Baggini

Is there a real you?

Wise people fashion themselves

This might seem to you like a very odd question. Because, you might ask, how do we find the real you, how do you know what the real you is? And so forth.

0:23 But the idea that there must be a real you, surely that’s obvious.

If there’s anything real in the world, it’s you. Well, I’m not quite sure.

At least we have to understand a bit better what that means. Now certainly, I think there are lots of things in our culture around us which sort of reinforce the idea that for each one of us, we have a kind of a core, an essence.

There is something about what it means to be you which defines you, and it’s kind of permanent and unchanging. The most kind of crude way in which we have it, are things like horoscopes.

You know, people are very wedded to these, actually. People put them on their Facebook profile as though they are meaningul, you even know your Chinese horoscope as well. There are also more scientific versions of this, all sorts of ways of profiling personality type, such as the Myers-Briggs tests, for example. I don’t know if you’ve done those.

A lot of companies use these for recruitment. You answer a lot of questions, and this is supposed to reveal something about your core personality. And of course, the popular fascination with this is enormous.

In magazines like this, you’ll see, in the bottom left corner, they’ll advertise in virtually every issue some kind of personality thing. And if you pick up one of those magazines, it’s hard to resist, isn’t it?

Doing the test to find what is your learning style, what is your loving style, or what is your working style? Are you this kind of person or that?

 I think that we have a common-sense idea that there is a kind of core or essence of ourselves to be discovered. And that this is kind of a permanent truth about ourselves, something that’s the same throughout life.

Well, that’s the idea I want to challenge. And I have to say now, I’ll say it a bit later, but I’m not challenging this just because I’m weird, the challenge actually has a very long and distinguished history.

Here’s the common-sense idea.

There is you. You are the individuals you are, and you have this kind of core. Now in your life, what happens is that you accumulate different experiences and so forth. So you have memories, and these memories help to create what you are.

You have desires, maybe for a cookie, maybe for something that we don’t want to talk about at 11 o’clock in the morning in a school.

You will have beliefs. This is a number plate from someone in America. I don’t know whether this number plate, which says “messiah 1,” indicates that the driver believes in the messiah, or that they are the messiah. Either way, they have beliefs about messiahs.

We have knowledge. We have sensations and experiences as well. It’s not just intellectual things. So this is kind of the common-sense model, I think, of what a person is. There is a person who has all the things that make up our life experiences.

But the suggestion I want to put to you today is that there’s something fundamentally wrong with this model.

And I can show you what’s wrong with one click. Which is there isn’t actually a “you” at the heart of all these experiences. Strange thought? Well, maybe not. What is there, then? Well, clearly there are memories, desires, intentions, sensations, and so forth.

what happens is that these things exist, and they’re kind of all integrated, they’re overlapped, they’re connected in various different ways. They’re connecting partly, and perhaps even mainly, because they all belong to one body and one brain.

But there’s also a narrative, a story we tell about ourselves, the experiences we have when we remember past things. We do things because of other things. So what we desire is partly a result of what we believe, and what we remember is also informing us what we know.

And so really, there are all these things, like beliefs, desires, sensations, experiences, they’re all related to each other, and that just is you. In some ways, it’s a small difference from the common-sense understanding. In some ways, it’s a massive one.

It’s the shift between thinking of yourself as a thing which has all the experiences of life, and thinking of yourself as simply that collection of all experiences in life.

You are the sum of your parts. Now those parts are also physical parts, of course, brains, bodies and legs and things, but they aren’t so important, actually. If you have a heart transplant, you’re still the same person.

If you have a memory transplant, are you the same person?

If you have a belief transplant, would you be the same person? Now this idea, that what we are, the way to understand ourselves, is as not of some permanent being, which has experiences, but is kind of a collection of experiences, might strike you as kind of weird.

actually, I don’t think it should be weird. In a way, it’s common sense. Because I just invite you to think about, by comparison, think about pretty much anything else in the universe, maybe apart from the very most fundamental forces or powers.

Let’s take something like water. Now my science isn’t very good. We might say something like water has two parts hydrogen and one parts oxygen, right? We all know that. I hope no one in this room thinks that what that means is there is a thing called water, and attached to it are hydrogen and oxygen atoms, and that’s what water is. Of course we don’t.

We understand, very easily, very straightforwardly, that water is nothing more than the hydrogen and oxygen molecules suitably arranged. Everything else in the universe is the same. There’s no mystery about my watch, for example. We say the watch has a face, and hands, and a mechanism and a battery, But what we really mean is, we don’t think there is a thing called the watch to which we then attach all these bits.

We understand very clearly that you get the parts of the watch, you put them together, and you create a watch. Now if everything else in the universe is like this, why are we different?

Why think of ourselves as somehow not just being a collection of all our parts, but somehow being a separate, permanent entity which has those parts?

Now this view is not particularly new, actually. It has quite a long lineage. You find it in Buddhism, you find it in 17th, 18th-century philosophy going through to the current day, people like Locke and Hume.

But interestingly, it’s also a view increasingly being heard reinforced by neuroscience. This is Paul Broks, he’s a clinical neuropsychologist, and he says this: “We have a deep intuition that there is a core, an essence there, and it’s hard to shake off, probably impossible to shake off, I suspect. But it’s true that neuroscience shows that there is no centre in the brain where things do all come together.”

So when you look at the brain, and you look at how the brain makes possible a sense of self, you find that there isn’t a central control spot in the brain. There is no kind of center where everything happens. There are lots of different processes in the brain, all of which operate, in a way, quite independently.

But it’s because of the way that they relate that we get this sense of self. The term I use in the book, I call it the ego trick. It’s like a mechanical trick. It’s not that we don’t exist, it’s just that the trick is to make us feel that inside of us is something more unified than is really there.

you might think this is a worrying idea. You might think that if it’s true, that for each one of us there is no abiding core of self, no permanent essence, does that mean that really, the self is an illusion?

Does it mean that we really don’t exist? There is no real you. Well, a lot of people actually do use this talk of illusion and so forth. These are three psychologists, Thomas Metzinger, Bruce Hood, Susan Blackmore, a lot of these people do talk the language of illusion, the self is an illusion, it’s a fiction.

But I don’t think this is a very helpful way of looking at it. Go back to the watch. The watch isn’t an illusion, because there is nothing to the watch other than a collection of its parts. In the same way, we’re not illusions either.

The fact that we are, in some ways, just this very complex collection, ordered collection of things, does not mean we’re not real. I can give you a very sort of rough metaphor for this.

Let’s take something like a waterfall. These are the Iguazu Falls, in Argentina. Now if you take something like this, you can appreciate the fact that in lots of ways, there’s nothing permanent about this. For one thing, it’s always changing. The waters are always carving new channels. with changes and tides and the weather, some things dry up, new things are created.

Of course the water that flows through the waterfall is different every single instance. But it doesn’t mean that the Iguazu Falls are an illusion. It doesn’t mean it’s not real. What it means is we have to understand what it is as something which has a history, has certain things that keep it together, but it’s a process, it’s fluid, it’s forever changing.

This is a model for understanding ourselves, and I think it’s a liberating model. Because if you think that you have this fixed, permanent essence, which is always the same, throughout your life, no matter what, in a sense you’re kind of trapped.

You’re born with an essence, that’s what you are until you die, if you believe in an afterlife, maybe you continue. But if you think of yourself as being, in a way, not a thing as such, but a kind of a process, something that is changing, then I think that’s quite liberating.

Because unlike the waterfalls, we actually have the capacity to channel the direction of our development for ourselves to a certain degree. Now we’ve got to be careful here, right?

If you watch the X-Factor too much, you might buy into this idea that we can all be whatever we want to be. That’s not true.

I’ve heard some fantastic musicians this morning, and I am very confident that I could in no way be as good as them. I could practice hard and maybe be good, but I don’t have that really natural ability.

There are limits to what we can achieve. There are limits to what we can make of ourselves. But nevertheless, we do have this capacity to, in a sense, shape ourselves.

The true self, as it were then, is not something that is just there for you to discover, you don’t sort of look into your soul and find your true self, What you are partly doing, at least, is actually creating your true self.

And this, I think, is very significant, particularly at this stage of life you’re at. You’ll be aware of the fact how much of you changed over recent years. If you have any videos of yourself, three or four years ago, you probably feel embarrassed because you don’t recognize yourself.

11:11 So I want to get that message over, that what we need to do is think about ourselves as things that we can shape, and channel and change.

This is the Buddha, again: “Well-makers lead the water, fletchers bend the arrow, carpenters bend a log of wood, wise people fashion themselves.”

And that’s the idea I want to leave you with, that your true self is not something that you will have to go searching for, as a mystery, and maybe never ever find. To the extent you have a true self, it’s something that you in part discover, but in part create. and that, I think, is a liberating and exciting prospect.

(Filmed at TEDxYouth@Manchester.)|By Julian Baggini

Heathen manifesto to Atheists?

Atheists are too often portrayed as bishop-bashing extremists.  Any meaningful debate with the religious is thus made impossible to carry on. How can this be remedied? I am reposting an article and saving my replies and comment for another follow-up post.

At the Guardian Open Weekend, Julian Baggini presented his 12 rules for heathens titled:  “Atheists, please read my heathen manifesto”.

“In recent years, we atheists have become more confident and outspoken in articulating and defending our godlessness in the public square. Much has been gained by this. There is now wider awareness of the reasonableness of a naturalist world view, and some of the unjustified deference to religion has been removed, exposing them to much-needed critical scrutiny.

    • Atheists protest in Tacoma, Washington.
    • Atheists protest in Tacoma, Washington. Photograph: Joshua Trujillo

In a culture that tends to focus on the widest distinctions, the most extreme positions and the most strident advocates, the “moderate middle” has been sidelined by this debate. There is a perception of unbridgeable polarisation, and a sense that the debates have sunk into a stale impasse, with the same tired old arguments being rehearsed time and again by protagonists who are getting more and more entrenched.

It is time for those of us who are tired of the status quo to try to shift the focus of our public discussions of atheism into areas where more progress and genuine dialogue is possible. To achieve this, we need to rethink what atheism stands for and how to present it.

The so-called “new atheism” may have put us on the map, but in the public imagination it amounts to little more than a caricature of Richard Dawkins, which is not an accurate representation of the terrain many of us occupy. We now need something else.

This manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to, but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion.

Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.

1.  Why we are heathens

It has long been recognised that the term “atheist” has unhelpful connotations. It has too many dark associations and also defines itself negatively, against what it opposes, not what it stands for. “Humanist” is one alternative, but humanists are a subset of atheists who have a formal organisation and set of beliefs many atheists do not share. Whatever the intentions of those who adopt the labels, “rationalist” and “bright” both suffer from sounding too self-satisfied, too confident, implying that others are irrational or dim.

If we want an alternative, we should look to other groups who have reclaimed mocking nicknames, such as gays, Methodists and Quakers. We need a name that shows that we do not think too highly of ourselves. This is no trivial point: atheism faces the human condition with honesty, and that requires acknowledging our absurdity, weakness and stupidity, not just our capacity for creativity, intelligence, love and compassion. “Heathen” fulfils this ambition. We are heathens because we have not been saved by God and because in the absence of divine revelation, we are in so many ways deeply unenlightened. The main difference between us and the religious is that we know this to be true of all of us, but they believe it is not true of them.

2.  Heathens are naturalists

Heathens are not merely unbelievers: we believe many things too. Most importantly, we believe in naturalism: the natural world is all there is and there is no purposive, conscious agency that created or guides it. This natural world may contain many mysteries and even unseen dimensions, but we have no reason to believe that they are anything like the heavens, spirit worlds and deities that have characterised supernatural religious beliefs over history. Many religious believers deny the “supernatural” label, but unless they are willing to disavow such beliefs as in the reality of a divine person, miracles, resurrections or life after death, they are not naturalists.

3. Our first commitment is to the truth

Although we believe many things about what does and does not exist, these are the conclusions we come to, not the basis of our worldview. That basis is a commitment to see the world as truthfully as we can, using our rational faculties as best we can, based on the best evidence we have. That is where our primary commitment lies, not the conclusions we reach. Hence we are prepared to accept the possibility that we are wrong. It also means that we respect and have much in common with people who come to very different conclusions but have an equal respect for truth, reason and evidence. A heathen has more in common with a sincere, rational, religious truth-seeker than an atheist whose lack of belief is unquestioned, or has become unquestionable.

4. We respect science, not scientism

Heathens place science in high regard, being the most successful means humans have devised to come to a true understanding of the real nature of the world on the basis of reason and evidence. If a belief conflicts with science, then no matter how much we cherish it, science should prevail. That is why the religious beliefs we most oppose are those that defy scientific knowledge, such as young earth creationism.

Nonetheless, this does not make us scientist. Scientism is the belief that science provides the only means of gaining true knowledge of the world, and that everything has to be understood through the lens of science or not at all. There are scientist atheists but heathens are not among them. Science is limited in what it can contribute to our understanding of who we are and how we should live because many of the most important facts of human life only emerge at a level of description on which science remains silent. History, for example, may ultimately depend on nothing more than the movements of atoms, but you cannot understand the battle of Hastings by examining interactions of fermions and bosons. Love may depend on nothing more than the physical firing of neurons, but anyone who tries to understand it solely in those terms just does not know what love means.

Science may also make life uncomfortable for us. For example, it may undermine certain beliefs about free will that many atheists have relied on to give dignity and autonomy to our species.

Heathens are therefore properly respectful of science but also mindful of its limits. Science is not our Bible: the last word on everything.

5. We value reason as precious but fragile

Heathens have a commitment to reason that fully acknowledges the limits of reason. Reason is itself a multi-faceted thing that cannot be reduced to pure logic. We use reason whenever we try to form true beliefs on the basis of the clearest thinking, using the best evidence. But reason almost always leaves us short of certain knowledge and very often leaves us with a need to make a judgment in order to come to a conclusion. We also need to accept that human beings are very imperfect users of reason, susceptible to biases, distortions and prejudices that lead even the most intelligent astray. In short, if we understand what reason is and how it works, we have very good reason to doubt those who claim rationality solely for those who accept their worldview and who deny the rationality of those who disagree.

6. We are convinced, not dogmatic

The heathen’s modesty about the power of reason and the certainty of her conclusions should not be mistaken for a shoulder-shrugging agnosticism. We have a very high degree of confidence in the truth of our naturalistic worldview. But we do not dogmatically assert it. Being open to being wrong and to changing our minds does not mean we lack conviction that we are right. Strength of belief is not the same as rigidity of dogma.

7. We have no illusions about life as a heathen

Many people do not understand that it is possible to lead a meaningful, happy life as a heathen, but we maintain that it is and can point to any number of atheist philosophers and thinkers who have explained why this is so. But such meaning and contentment does not inevitably follow from becoming a heathen. Ours is a universe without guarantees of redemption or salvation and sometimes people have terrible lives or do terrible things and thrive. On such occasions, we have no consolation. That is the dark side of accepting the truth, and we are prepared to acknowledge it. We are heathens because we value living in the truth. But that does not mean that we pretend that always makes life easy or us happy. If the evidence were to show that religious people are happier and healthier than us, we would not see that as any reason to give up our convictions.

8. We are secularists

We support a state that is neutral as regards people’s fundamental worldviews. It is not neutral when it comes to the shared values necessary for people of different conviction to live and thrive together. But it should not give any special privilege to any particular sect or group, or use their creeds as a basis for policy. Politics requires a coming together of people of different fundamental convictions to formulate and justify policy in terms that all understand, on the basis of principles that as many as possible can share.

This secularism does not require that religion is banished from public life or that people may not be open as to how their faiths, or lack of one, motivate their values. As long as the core of the business of state is neutral as regards to comprehensive worldviews, we can be relaxed about expressions of these commitments in society at large. We want to maintain the state’s neutrality on fundamental worldviews, not purge religion from society.

9. Heathens can be religious

There are a small minority of forms of religion that are entirely compatible with the heathen position. These are forms of religion that reject the real existence of supernatural entities and divinely authored texts, accept that science trumps dogma, and who see the essential core of religion in its values and practices. We have very little evidence that anything more than a small fraction of actual existent religion is like this, but when it does conform to this description, heathens have no reason to dismiss it as false.

10. Religion is often our friend

We believe in not being tone-deaf to religion and to understand it in the most charitable way possible. So we support religions when they work to promote values we share, including those of social justice and compassion. We are respectful and sympathetic to the religious when they arrive at their different conclusions on the basis of the same commitment to sincere, rational, undogmatic inquiry as us, without in any way denying that we believe them to be false and misguided. We are also sympathetic to religion when its effects are more benign than malign. We appreciate that commitment to truth is but one value and that a commitment to compassion and kindness to others is also of supreme importance. We are not prepared to insist that it is indubitably better to live guided by such values allied with false beliefs than it is to live without such values but also without false belief.

11. We are critical of religion when necessary

Our willingness to accept what is good in religion is balanced by an equally honest commitment to be critical of it when necessary. We object when religion invokes mystery to avoid difficult questions or to obfuscate when clarity is needed. We do not like the way in which “people of faith” tend to huddle together in an unprincipled coalition of self-interest, even when that means liberals getting into bed with homophobes and misogynist. We think it is disingenuous for religious people to talk about the reasonableness of their beliefs and the importance of values and practice, while drawing a veil over their embrace of superstitious beliefs. In these and other areas, we assert the right and need to make civil but acute criticisms.

And although our general stance is not one of hostility towards religion, there are some occasions when this is exactly what is called for. When religions promote prejudice, division or discrimination, suppress truth or stand in the way of medical or social progress, a hostile response is an appropriate, principled one, just as it is when atheists are guilty of the same crimes.

12. This manifesto is less concerned with distinguishing heathens from others than forging links between us and others

Our commitment to independent thought and the provisionally of belief means that few heathens are likely to agree completely with this manifesto. It is therefore almost a precondition of supporting it that you do not entirely support it. At the same time, although very few people of faith can be heathens, many will find themselves in agreement with much of what heathens belief. This is what provides the common ground to make fruitful dialogue possible: we need to accept what we share in order to accept with civility and understanding what we most certainly do not. This is what the heathen manifesto is really about.




May 2023

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