What is rubbish about the ‘self’ and what not?

A few points about ‘self’ and about what I have said and have not.


1.  Comment: “Say, Mr. X
made 1 run, 2 runs, 3, 4, n, and a total of 50 runs. Now to say “I made 50 runs” is to assume that, Mr. X who made 1 run, 2 run, etc. is linked to each other, and this organism [Mr X i.e.], in this sense, has a unity. This unity is what Balu calls rubbish”.

First, I do not call this ‘unity’ rubbish. Second, this is a problem not pertaining to ‘the self’ but one applicable to any object or entity that persists over time. Because we can speak about the spatial and temporal career of an object (whether it involves disassembling and then reassembling a watch or whether it is about a merger of two corporations or firms or about our bodies or whatever), the logical problem of identity crops up: what makes some object, any object, the same object at different spatial and temporal intervals? I.e. how can the organism (currently called ‘Balu’, say) be the same organism when, as it spatially and temporally moves in the world, it accrues different properties? After all, ‘Balu’ at some spatio-temporal point (say when the organism is 5 years old) has properties different from ‘Balu’ at some other spatio-temporal interval. Because these two spatio-temporal units do not have identical properties, they have to be different objects. Yet, we say ‘here is Balu’s photo when he was 5 years old’. The problem of logical identity crops up in such contexts. As I say, this is a problem that confronts any theory of identity (as a logical relationship). Philosophy of logic has provided a few solutions to this question even if they all face problems.

2.       We carry this problem over into discussions about ‘psychological identity’. It is unclear what this notion refers to; it seems to pick out different things to different people. Let me pose the issue negatively: why would we want to call someone who thinks he is ‘Hitler’ at one moment, ‘Stalin’ an hour later, ‘Freud’ half an hour later, ‘Alexander the Great’ after 10 minutes of being Freud….etc as crazy? Why, on the other hand, do we sagely nod, when people tell us that every one of us has multiple identities like, say, being scholar, a husband, a father, a teacher, a political activist, a poet, an avid Rafi fan… etc? What makes the first person a lunatic and the second person ‘normal’? The theory of ‘psychological identity’ tries to answer this question. To some extent, even this issue is not called ‘rubbish’ by me.

3.       This problem too is carried over:  into the realm of law, ethics and society. For certain purposes, we need to assume that the issue of ‘identity’ is not problematic. If it were, we could not even pay wages (the ‘Balu’ who worked yesterday is not identical to the ‘Balu’ of today because they have different properties. Therefore, I refuse to pay wages to ‘this’ Balu.), nor prosecute someone for a crime, nor identify culpability and so on. Our social life will ground to a halt in the absence of some kind of implicit convention about the social, psychological identity of a person. Even this is not called ‘rubbish’ by me.

4.       Then there are those who call our ‘self representations’ (our images about ourselves) as a part of psychological identity. I think this is rubbish. Not the whole of the set of self-representations (like ‘Balu’ names an organism that is biological in nature, a member of a species,… etc) are false but only some parts which appear to define our ‘uniqueness’ to ourselves. I am still thinking about this problem and what thinking I have done suggests to me that our ‘self representation’ (used narrowly to represent our individual uniqueness to ourselves) stands in the way of ‘knowing ourselves’.

5.       Further, there is also the problem of ‘Self’ (atman): what is this entity, how do we recognize it, does it exist or not, what is its relation to a body, and so on and so forth. There is not much for me to say about this partly because I do not have a grasp of either the conceptual apparatus or the experiential knowledge behind it. If and when I succeed in representing the Indian traditions in the twenty-first century language, I could also tell you what it is. But not now. For the moment, in my personal life, the adhyatmic tradition which advices me to pursue this line of enquiry helps me. I am not willing to call it rubbish at all.

6.       And there is the fact that the Christian concept of ‘soul’ has more or less been translated as our ‘individual personalities’. What to do with this when there are disciplines which claim to study this scientifically? (Developmental psychology, clinical psychology, personality psychology, etc.) There is also the fact that this soul is the basic notion of ‘agency’ in law, ethics, micro-economics, rational and social choice theories, etc.

In other words, there is not one problem about the ‘self’ but a bewildering variety instead. Please keep these and other sundry themes in mind while talking about ‘the self’.