Out of Bounds

Where do I end and you begin? The question is not as nonsensical as it might appear. When I shake hands with you or take a seat, I do not normally feel I have merged with you or with the chair I am sitting on. Between myself and everything else there are clear boundaries that are coterminous with my body. And yet amputees commonly report they still feel their missing limbs to be part of their bodies. Even more puzzling is the so-called alien hand syndrome in which patients with various neurological impairments report that their hand feels as if it were part of their body but operates outside their conscious control. Neuroscientists have even devised experiments in which subjects were fooled into thinking a rubber hand was their own. All this would suggest that the boundaries between self and other are not in the body but in the mind.

The philosopher Rene Descartes was saying this a long time ago, insisting that thought was the only sure foundation of the self (“I think, therefore I am.”). Descartes did not, of course, have the benefit of the latest neurological research. He would not have known that our bodily sense of self is localized in the posterior superior parietal lobe of the brain, which controls the body’s orientation in three-dimensional space. Nor would he have known that infants enter the world without a clear sense of boundaries between “me” and “not-me” in what developmental psychologist Jean Piaget characterized as a state of “protoplasmic consciousness.”

The distinction Descartes makes between mind and body as a foundation of the self tends to break down in actual practice, even among fully developed adults. How does one account for such psychological anomalies as Cotard’s syndrome, in which the patient may believe he does not exist and avoids the use of the first-person singular pronoun to refer to himself? These individuals can think but, contrary to Descartes’ formulation, they would deny they exist. Descartes was not wrong in dissociating the body from the self, but he may not have gone far enough. “Contrary to what most people believe,” says German philosopher Thomas Metzinger, “nobody has ever been or had a self.”

For those of us who do normally refer to ourselves in the first-person singular, the notion that the self is an illusion may take some getting used to. My body certainly feels like it belongs to me, as do my thoughts. This particular delusion -- if that's what it is -- is close to universal, which suggests there may be some evolutionary advantage to it. Certainly you can see why looking out for Number One may have more survival value than being one with the universe. If I don’t stick up for myself, who will? But that, of course, presumes that I have a self to stick up for, or at least something I can mistake for the real me.

So what are we to make of this “mirage that perceives itself” – cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter’s phrase for our peculiar self-conjuring trick? If the self does not, in fact, exist, who exactly is doing the perceiving? According to Thomas Metzinger, nobody. The mind generates its own Matrix-like virtual reality model of the world that comes complete with a virtual model of a self that perceives this world. The illusion is complete and self-contained, something Hindus and Buddhists have been saying for millennia. More recently, the philosopher David Hume called attention to the fact that the mind is full of perceptions but we never actually catch sight of a perceiver. The only tangible evidence we have of a self is some thoughts expressed in the first-person singular. But maybe Descartes got it backward: I don’t think the thought, the thought thinks me.

Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self

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