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.