on 9 October 2011
If you've ever wondered about what the self is, then The Ego Trick is an accessible and thorough introduction.
Julian Baggini approaches the subject as a philosopher, but draws on ideas from a wide variety of places, from neuroscience to Buddhism. He interviews people whose sense of self has changed dramatically for a variety of reasons and recounts the experiences of those who have suffered various kinds of brain injury that affected their sense of self. He also discusses the idea of self with philosophers of many contrary viewpoints.
Each of these intriguing insights leads us closer to understanding the idea of self. It is as if each discussion is a small piece of the puzzle, either giving us one aspect of the self, or showing what the self can't be, in both cases forming a more complete picture. This is not a book which simply states its opinion and preaches it until you wearily submit. There's a real investigation and discovery. The "bundle theory" that is the book's eventual explanation of the self emerges from these disparate ideas which seem to have only grasped small aspects of the whole self.
Like myself, many people will find the book challenging to their pre-conceived ideas of self, which is exactly why they should read it. The discoveries I made while reading it were often unsettling at first. For example, the tendency for people to apparently change their selves in different situations. When given due consideration, however, this made me feel more understanding towards people whose selves seem quite different from my own.
Those who've read Julian Baggini's other books will be familiar with his highly-readable and non-technical style. The Ego Trick is more in-depth and more thoroughly researched than his previous work and is so demands more concentration. That said, this isn't a book aimed at philosophy geeks, but at anyone with an enquiring mind. If anything, I'd say it could've gone into more detail, but this balance is always a fine one.
In conclusion, this is an excellent and amazingly-accessible discussion of the self that encourages non-philosophers to understand what is a pretty complex topic.
on 21 March 2011
This book is a 'must read' for anyone who has ever wondered who they really are!
Julian Baggini adds rigour and readability to what could easily be a dry and confusing subject. Having said that the first half of the book is devoted to what the self 'obviously' isn't and is perhaps overlong, but then things start to hot up.
The author makes a convincing case for his theory that '"I" is a verb dressed as a noun.' It is not a 'thing' but what brains and bodies `do'.
So is self 'just an illusion'? No:
The self is really a 'bundle' of thoughts not a hard fixed 'pearl', but it is still 'real', just not what we generally assume it to be.
The self as 'no-thing' can't be destroyed by death but this doesn't mean it survives it! In as far as the self is real it will end in death! This is even less comforting than the often used non-dualist idea of 'how can something that was never born die?' But this isn't about comfort of course, neither is Stephen Batchelor's (Buddhist) idea that there is nothing (no-self) beyond the veil of appearances - all is impermanent and contingent. There is no 'transcendent' self.
Christine Korsgaard's theory of 'self-creation' is examined next: the sense in which the self is created from what is chosen and enacted. We are responsible because we are 'agents' and we 'are what we do'. This sounds very like existentialism to me. We are nothing beyond what we do and are condemned to freedom since we must do something.
This 'living without a soul' is explored further: according to Susan Blackmore bundle theory lends itself to determinism rather than free-will. This is quite convincingly explained. However having already given support to the idea of freedom and responsibility, Baggini suggests that rather than 'freedom' we use the compromised term of 'autonomy' whereby we can regulate our own behaviour based more on 'internal machinations' than on external events. But what are these internal machinations based on? and who is the regulator? This part of the book becomes rather vague and contradictory.
So has Baggini cast new light on the subject of self? Probably not, but he has clarified the terminology and linked the philosophical, scientific, religious and psychological ideas into a very thought-provoking whole. This considerable task alone merits the five stars.
Personally I don't think this investigation is radical enough in that it is undertaken within the context of the phenomenal world. It is to some extent about playing within boundaries rather than with boundaries (to borrow a James Carse expression). For example what if consciousness is the 'ground of all being' as proposed by non-dualist philosophers? (e.g as expressed by Jeff Foster (An Extraordinary Absence) or Tony Parsons (The Open Secret)). This would give a whole other starting point and resulting investigation.
However the case for the 'self' model that Baggini proposes sounds plausible, although his eloquence and clarity does not leave one thinking that we now have all the answers, but rather what new and greater implications these ideas may have. This is a good thing of course!
This is probably Baggini's best book to date and he stands virtually alone in being able to make incredibly complex and subtle philosophical ideas both accessible and entertaining.
on 16 May 2011
Those of us not entirely unsympathetic to the philosophical enterprise should be reassured by this memorable image, in itself almost all the recommendation this fascinating book needs. Julian Baggini is a practitioner who has evidently managed to retain, despite constant professional exposure to the writings of countless Great Minds, both a sense of humour and a healthy regard for human foibles and the fallibility of philosophers. That this book is both readable and comprehensible by ordinary mortals is no slight on Baggini's philosophical credentials. His intellect is sharper than most, and his verdicts on the self are delivered with a surprising degree of certitude. "The solidity of self is an illusion; the self itself is not. The Ego Trick is not to persuade us that we exist when we do not, but to make us believe we are more substantial and enduring than we really are."
Baggini's surefooted conclusions are of course a million miles away from dogmatic assertion. As far as I can tell, they rely on the best available evidence and emerge from sound arguments. This is all the more impressive given that, as well as the usual background research, he has talked to all kinds of people with all kinds of views, ranging from the common sense to the frankly eccentric. He quotes from many of these interviews, and comments according to the principle of charity (a phrase I first came across in a talk given by Baggini). That said, if the best sense falls short, he pulls no punches ("Swinburne's commitment to the truth seems to be genuine, whatever his ability to arrive at it").
"On the question of whether we are physical beings or not, the case should be closed." This is one of those surefooted conclusions I agree with, but many may be surprised to hear that the idea of "the immaterial soul is dead" and cannot even be rescued by playing the mystery card. Of course we don't yet fully understand how consciousness arises out of neural activity, but it seems pretty certain that it does: "damage the brain, and you impair consciousness". Physical stuff is all there is, "but to describe our true nature, you need more than just a physical vocabulary". The way Baggini sums up "non-reductive physicalism" is that "we are no more than, but more than just, matter".
This is one of the three facts about ourselves that are central to understanding the Ego Trick. Anyone repelled by materialism, worried that if we are made of the same stuff as rocks and dirt, then perhaps we can be treated the same as rocks and dirt, is forgetting the self, which "is a function of what a certain collection of stuff does". Baggini quotes the neurologist Todd E. Feinberg: "your life is not a pack of cells; your life is what your particular pack of cells collectively do". Last time I looked, rocks and dirt weren't doing much of anything off their own bat (although give them enough evolutionary time - but that's another story).
Another key fact is that "the unity of the self is psychological", a result of "the remarkable way in which a complicated bundle of mental events, made possible by the brain, creates a singular self, without there being a singular thing underlying it". Mental events emerge from physical ones, just as a university emerges from all the relevant buildings and individuals. Thoughts and feelings are what matter does, "but they are not themselves lumps of matter". In this sense, "I" is a verb dressed as a noun, and the Ego Trick is like a mechanic's and not a magician's trick: it's a psychological shortcut to the self.
The third idea underpinning the Ego Trick will probably surprise a few more people than the falsity of dualism: identity "is not what matters" and is even "the wrong concept to apply to persons". Here, things get a little technical but not too hard to follow. Basically, you cannot have "a strict philosophy of the identity of anything which is not a strict sortal concept". Baggini thinks that most philosophers of personal identity have been caught in its spell and, as a result, "their arguments have gone badly wrong".
Having gone diving for pearls in part one of the book, and found none, "no core of self that holds steady through life", Baggini turns to bundle theory. Not the most poetic or high-falutin of names to label a defining feature of humanness, perhaps (word associations conjure up a bundle of rags, being bundled over, even bungle), but prosaic is better than portentous. It's a radical idea, and one that happens to go back to the Buddha: "bundle theories explain why it is we believe ourselves to be individual persons who exist over time, but deny that any such beings really exist". (Anyone concerned that Baggini might be turning Buddhist need not worry. He points out in passing a slight difficulty, that "Buddhism needs to deny the personal nature of reincarnation in order to make it coherent, but assert its personal nature in order to make it ethical".)
Philosophers have always argued between themselves, and most of us are happy to leave them to it, either uninterested or unqualified to adjudicate. In this case, since you've woken up today and so long as you vaguely remember who you are, then you're getting up close and personal with the Ego Trick. That should make this corner of philosophy a shade more interesting. As for qualifications, Julian Baggini has them and comes across as using them even-handedly to solve the riddle of the self. The only way it could be more entertaining is if you could catch him nailing custard to the wall.
on 9 August 2011
A wonderful book. Profound and yet a relatively easy read.
His question: "What are we and on what does our continued existence over
time depend?" is obviously a rather broad question.
But through the book he manage to get some good points across, as well as
answering the question. At least, to some extent.
He starts out by describing that in the brain - the self is "No central
system, but different brain systems working together - with no central,
Then we get some very memorable examples on how the self can fall apart. How
memories are just one component in what makes a self. A section about mind and body, goes into Descartes "cogito ergo sum" argument. And how Antonio Damasio have picked that apart by showing that our bodies are actually quite important in thinking also. Just as emotions are necessary ingredients in rational thought.
Baggini concludes that our "selves" change over time, rather than stay the time. It follows rather neatly from his argumentation that a self is not "one thing", but rather a bundle of things. That selves changes over time obviously have some rather dramatic consequences for our thinking about our future. All of which is nicely explored in the book.
Finally, Baggini lets Susan Greenfield tell us a little about what selves will be like in the future. She sketches three scenarios - someones, anyones and no-ones. Rather unnerving she thinks that we will all be noones in the future.
Great book. Important stuff.
on 13 January 2013
well written, easy to read and very accessible arguments, with references to interesting anecdotes and case studies. Still, I found it difficult to connect with the...enormity?...of the topic. The reasoning used by Baggini is cogent and convincing, and largely very thorough; but I didn't have any 'ah' moments about the fickle or intangible nature of Self. For me, most of the angles presented by Baggini seemed sensible and consistent with my current views, rather than eye-opening or challenging as I'd hoped. Perhaps it's further testament to his good reasoning and writing skills - able to present things so clearly and reasonably that it feels like common sense - but the book left me feeling a bit indifferent. Worth reading.
on 28 February 2014
I enjoyed this book very much. It is a difficult subject which stretches across several disciplines and traditions and the author has succeeded in bringing the most important people and points together. He pays attention to the common sense view about the self, what it feels like to be oneself. He looks at the traditional Christian view of the soul, as well as the Buddhist views. He also presents arguments and views from the history of ideas, from philosophy of mind. But then he also looks at psychology and brain science. He does not merely consult the literature, but has corresponded and/or interviewed many prominent scholars and not only those with whom he might agree. The book does provide an answer and does not just present competing viewpoints, but the answer does not close the conversation. In fact, it opens many future possibilities for thought and research. He provides a good bibliography to support his research and provides opportunity for further reading. The author makes it clear that the view of the self as an inner essence, or a soul within the body (the pearl view), is not persuasive anymore. The current view of the self as a combination, a construction is favoured, the so-called bundle view. I strongly recommend it as an introduction.