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determining the self

rewley house, oxford, 6 november 2001

To start talking about the self is to enter a swamp of controversies, as over the years there has been a huge and wideranging set of debates over the nature of the human self. Much of the contemporary debate, however, resolves itself around three sets of questions, which I want to address. First, is there such a thing as the self or is it simply an illusion? Second, is there such a thing as free will or is human behaviour fully determined? And third, does our existence as subjective beings limit the possibilities of objective knowledge?

All three questions - and the answers people generally give to them - are closely linked. But all three questions are also, I think, ill-formed. I want to argue that the self is not an illusion even though it is not a thing in the way we normally construe things; that free will only exists because the universe is fully determined; and only our existence as subjective beings makes possible objective knowledge.

Let me begin in the middle, with the question about free will and determinism. For most people free will is expressed in opposition to the idea of determinism. We can either be free or we can be determined. One side of this debate insists that genetic determinism, biological determinism, or any form of determinism must be wrong. The other side claims equally strongly that free will must be an illusion, something that natural selection has designed us to believe in, because it is a useful belief not a true one.

I want to argue for both free will and determinism. An undetermined world - a world in which events happen without cause - is not a free world but an arbitrary one. If human behaviour took place without cause, then we could not possibly possess anything called free will. For if there is no cause to my behaviour, then I could not be in control of it. As John Locke pointed out more than three centuries ago, if free will is the freedom to act without cause, then only madmen would be free.

The implausibility of thinking of events in the world as uncaused has led many to adopt the opposite viewpoint: that since everything is determined, so free will must be an illusion. As Colin Blakemore has put it, when 'we feel ourselves to be in control of an action, that feeling itself is the product of our brain, whose machinery has been designed, on the basis of its functional utility, by means of natural selection.'

We think we are in charge, but in reality there is no self which can take charge. There is simply the machinery of the brain churning away, thanks to a chain of causal links that goes back to the Big Bang itself. The status of humans, in this view, is no different from that of other animals, and human behaviour can be understood in exactly the same terms as animal behaviour. It's a proposition I believe is as untenable as the belief that we live in an undetermined universe. To understand why we need to look at what distinguishes humans from other animals.

Humans, like all animals, are biological beings, and under the purview of biological and physical laws. But unlike any other organism, humans are also self-conscious beings with purpose and agency, traits the possession of which allow us to design ways of breaking the constraints of our biological heritage. Consider, for instance, the distinction between an explanation for a behaviour and a justification for it, a distinction that lies at the heart of contemporary Darwinian theories of human nature. Evolutionary psychologists rightly argue that an explanation for, say, male promiscuity is not necessarily a justification for it. The question of whether a behaviour is right or wrong is distinct from the question of how it comes about.

But for what kind of being does it make sense to make such a distinction? Certainly, not for the kind of being that is a non-human animal. For animals the question of justification makes no sense because they are not subjects possessing agency. Humans are. Unlike animals, humans can articulate notions of right and wrong, take responsibility for our actions and can transform both our behaviour and our world in response to moral and political arguments. That is why human behaviour, and only human behaviour, can be justified as well as explained. That is also why we talk about humans, and only humans, as having selves and possessing agency.

Humans are both determined and free because of the peculiar condition of human beings: as both subject and object, as both created by events external to us, and as creators of such events. Humans are determined because we are objects, part of the natural order. Humans are free because we are able to become subjects, to order nature and shape events external to us.

How do humans become subjects? Think of how a child becomes an adult. To begin with an infant has no control over itself; it is a creature of natural impulse. At this point it is simply an object, not a subject. As it develops, an infant learns first to control its gaze and its movements, to learn to crawl and then to walk, to manipulate objects, and eventually to control its behavioural impulses. Most importantly it learns, particularly through language, to relate to others, to understand social conventions and norms, and the distinction between right and wrong, and rational and irrational behaviour. It understands how its actions can have consequences, and how it is possible to transform one's self, one's nature, one's culture, one's society.

The process by which a child learns to control its natural impulses is also the process by which its comes to construct its self. The self is not something that is innate or pre-exists, or something that is to be found in a particular part of the brain. Rather it is a description of the capacity to control oneself. As a child develops into an adult it learns to construct a self, which is another way of saying it learns to control its impulses. It is the process whereby a natural creature is transformed into a social being, an object transformed into a subject, an animal into a person.

It is also the process whereby one acquires freedom of will. For freedom of will is expressed precisely through the power of self-control. An infant, like an animal, has no freedom of will, because it has no self-control. To become free, to be able to make choices, it has to learn to subjugate its natural impulses to the needs of reasoned behaviour. Free will or agency, therefore, is an expression of the relationship between humans as objects and humans as subjects. It is a description of the process by which our humanness emerges, both developmentally and historically.

The psychologist Susan Blackmore argues differently. When you look inside someone's head, she says, you find neurons, and glial cells, but no self; hence it cannot exist. And it's true: if you look inside Alan Hudson's [the chair of the debate] head you won't find a self, nor even any thoughts: only assorted biological gunk. But there is much more to being Alan Hudson, I hope, than simply the workings of that biological gunk. The fact that a notion or a concept or a phenomenon is not physical in form does not mean it is illusory: ideas and beliefs and hopes and desires have no physical existence but all have a material impact upon the world. As do notions such as equality or justice or racism. And if you don't believe that they have a material impact upon the world, just ask a woman living in Afghanistan or an African American living in the Bronx about the material impact of racism and equality. Social or mental phenomena can be as real as physical entities.

This is particularly true of the self. If there were no selves, if humans did not exist as subjects, there would be no ideas or beliefs, or desires; no concepts of equality, justice or racism. And, indeed, no possibility of a debate such as this.

All of which brings me to the third question: what is the relationship between our existence as subjective beings and the possibility of objective knowledge? Crudely put, the debate around this question runs something like this: on the one side is the belief that since humans only relate to the world through language and culture, so objective knowledge is unattainable. All knowledge is mediated through language and relative to the culture or historical epoch in which we live. Humans, so the argument runs, create the world that they study rather than find it. And truth is largely consensual – it is that which we come to believe is true – rather than a correspondence with reality. These are ideas influenced by a variety of postmodern theories.

On the other side are those who argue that science does provide a route to an objective understanding of reality, that cultural influences on scientific discoveries can, in the words of the physicist Steven Weinberg, be 'refined away like slag from ore'. And linked to this is the notion that all human capacities, including our capacity to reason and to think scientifically, are evolved dispositions. There is in this view nothing particularly special about being human. The distinction between subjects and objects that I've talked about does not exist and human beings can be understood in naturalistic terms like any other animal. The social sciences and the humanities, in the words of EO Wilson, are simply 'the last branches of biology.' This is the naturalistic view of what it is to be human.

One side downplays the possibility of objective knowledge, the other degrades the idea of human subjectivity. Both sides, I believe, are wrong. Objective knowledge is possible, but only because we are subjective beings.

The problem with the naturalistic view is that truth has no meaning for non-human animals. Darwinian processes are driven by the need, not to ascertain truth, but to survive and reproduce. Of course, natural selection often ensures that an organism possesses the means to ascertain the truth about the world, but it does not always do so. For instance, the argument of people like Colin Blakemore that free will and the self are illusions created by natural selection relies on evolution selecting for untruths about the world in aid of survival.

If our cognitive capacities are simply the products of evolved dispositions, there would be no way of knowing which of these capacities lead to true beliefs and which to false ones. As the American philosopher Thomas Nagel points out, there would be no basis on which to trust reason itself. To accept the truth of reasoning, Nagel observes, 'I have to be able to believe... that I follow the rules of logic because they are correct - not merely because I am biologically programmed to do so.' And to believe this requires reason to be more than a 'contingent psychological disposition'. What this requires, he argues, is 'an independent basis for confidence in reason'. To have faith in the notion of objective truths, and in the scientific method, therefore, requires us to move beyond a purely naturalistic view of what it is to be human.

At the same time the fact that all knowledge is created socially does not invalidate the possibility of objective knowledge. All humans view the world from a specific perspective: from the perspective of our individual senses, of our particular culture, of the historical period we inhabit. But we are also able to proceed beyond the particularities of our individual lives, to take a more inclusive, objective view of the world.

And what allows us to do this is precisely language and culture. Language allows us to understand other peoples' perspectives and experiences. It emancipates thinking from the here and now, the here and now both of our senses and of our culture, and enables us to think of the future and the past, of the present and the absent. And culture provides the institutions though which we can collectively make use of language and reason. Science itself, for instance, is a historical product, a creation of human history, but one that allows us to transcend the particularities of both human history and human nature.

Far from imprisoning us, as some cultural relativists believe, language and culture provide us with the means to transcend the limitations both of our natural and our cultural heritage. They do so because it is through language and culture that we express ourselves as conscious, thinking subjects.

Part of the problem in this whole debate is the conflation of two meanings of subjectivity: at the level of epistemology - or the way we obtain knowledge - and of ontology - that which exists; a confusion between the claim that we should try as much as possible to eliminate personal subjective prejudices from the search for truth and the claim that the real world contains no elements that are irreducibly subjective. When, as a biologist or a historian, we try to make sense of the world we should, as far as possible, be objective, leaving behind our personal prejudices and ideological views. But we should not confuse this with the idea that the world only contains objective entities; the world also contains subjective entities, entities that would not exist if humans did not exist - thoughts, feelings, capitalism, democracy. Indeed, it is only because humans are subjective beings - ontologically - that we are able to be epistemologically objective.

Another way of putting it is that there is an inextricable connection between rationality and subjectivity. We are only rational beings because we are social subjects. The debate about the self, therefore, is not simply a debate about the idea of the individual self, though that is a vital discussion. More crucially it is debate about what it is to be human, and about the status of both science and history in our lives. Most importantly it is a debate about whether or not we conceive of ourselves as transformative beings, as political subjects, as beings with the capacity to reason, to articulate political and moral arguments, and with the capacity to respond to such arguments by transforming both ourselves and our world.