The Ego Trick
by popular philosopher Juilian Baggini is a highly-readable attempt at describing what makes you, you. Using a blend of anecdote, religious and secular philosophy and smatterings of neuroscience and neurology, he tries to answer questions that have plagued us as soon as we became ‘self’-aware: What is the ‘self’ that we are aware of? Where is it found? What exactly is it made of?
The first half of the book tries to get at what the self is by illuminating what it isn't; Baggini uses anecdotes and personal testimony to falsify the idea that we have a discrete core, or ‘pearl’ which constitutes self-ness.
For the idea that the self is intimately tied to the body, he uses examples of those who experience gender dysphoria, who have an overwhelming sense that their gender does not match the sex of their physical bodies, to show that whilst the medium of our existence (the physical body) most certainly shape the person, the person is not just the medium. I thought his neat metaphor of bodies as musical instruments was so good it bears repeating: “just as a violin can play notes that a bass guitar cannot, and vice versa, so a tall, beautiful female body provides different possibilities to a short, plain male one … [those with gender dysphoria] are like players who have switched instruments mid-performance.”
Some of the best known experiments in neuropsychology also show up: Zimbardo’s infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment is used as an example of how context-dependant and discomfitingly malleable personalities are; Phineas Gage and his famous and fascinating personality change after having a steel pole spear his frontal cortex; and patient HM, one of the most studied human beings in all of science, who developed anterograde epiliepsy (the inability to form new memories) after having some of his brain surgically removed to cure epilepsy. They’re all used to demonstrate the way that personalities can and do change according to the brain and the environment. Away from these classic examples, there are the occasional contemporary references, particularly Belle De Jour, that make the writing, but not necessarily the ideas, feel needlessly dated, although I was fascinated to learn that Dr Brooke Magnanti is actually a research scientist with a raft of publications under her name.
Baggini, as he is well-known for doing, wears his atheism lightly throughout the book, and readily draws the parallels between scientific thinking and the teaching of Buddhism. He is, however, careful not to show Buddhist monks too much reverence, and is quick to point out where they, and Christian apologists, have gone awry in their tangled philosophising as they attempt to ‘rationalise’ reincarnation and the resurrection of immaterial souls.
Having done an admirable job of putting to bed the idea of a singular pearl of self, and not getting bogged down in stodgy philosophising on the way, Baggini outlines his own thesis, the titular ‘ego trick’, which is the ability of the brain to (un)consciously create a uniform self from disparate, fluid character traits, which evolves over time and is far more contextually dependant than we might like to admit or be comfortable with.
This ‘bundle’ theory (Hume, is quoted as saying ‘what we call the mind, is only a bundle of thoughts, passions, and emotions, without any subject’) is founded on the functionalist philosophy that, as Baggini put it ‘we are no more than, but more than just, matter”. In laying the foundation for this paradoxical statement, Baggini must be commended for managing to write one of the plainest and neatest debunking of mind-matter dualism (that mental/non-physical aspects of the ‘mind’ are different and distinct to ‘matter’ of the body) that I’ve come across. To take the Cartesian line is to make an elementary category mistake: the mind is not something which is distinct from the body, but it is a function of the body - the mind (the self/consciousness) is what the brain/body does.
I remember reading somewhere that “I” is best thought of as something dynamic rather than static; more like a verb than a noun. This simple to express but difficult to grasp idea is one that has been the mainstay of neuroscientific conceptions of the self for some time, and with The Ego Trick, Julian Baggini has done an excellent job of bringing this sophisticated and counter-intuitive idea to the public conscience.
How conceptions of the self will change in light of our ever-increasing lifespans or dependence and meshing with technologies is touched on only briefly at the end of the book. Many of the ideas mentioned, such as Aubrey de Grey’s Methusala Foundation (which aims to put an end to ageing), Baroness Susan Greenfield's far-fetched doom-mongering, or transhumanism are pure speculation, but as thought experiments (i.e. when not presented as actual science à la Greenfield), pose fascinating questions. What’s not speculation, however, is that the me living one, five, or fifty years down the line, will not the same me that is sitting here typing these words, but my brain will be doing its best to convince me that it is, and that is a very trippy thought.