The self thingy

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Wed, 23 Jun 1999 14:54:06 EDT

From: <>
Date: Wed, 23 Jun 1999 14:54:06 EDT
Subject: The self thingy

In a message dated 6/23/99 4:48:05 AM Central Daylight Time, writes:

>> So I have a suggestion. Since we all agree that Blackmore's
>> conclusions on the nature of self are erroneous, let's start
>> discussing the other stuff.
>I beg to differ, sir. I think none of you have understood what
>she, and others, _mean_ by 'self is an illusion', so, just for the
>record, I judge the matter very far from resolved. However,
>it is an extremely difficult area, and I don't think further
>discussion looks fruitful at this time.

If she means what her words are commonly taken to in conjunction mean, and I
believe that to be not far from the case, then not only do I contend that she
is mistaken, but I have, on this list, previously posted a critique of her
no-self stance, from both the theoretical and the "history of the evolution
of scientific contention (Kuhnian)" stances, as well as posting what I
consider a more palatable alternative, of self as dynamically recursive
system, beneath the integral categories of one and many, and although not a
thing, not nothing either, as well as a phenomenological and genetic
epistemological justification for this position which remain unrefuted. <<


I heartily agree with you assessment.

Self is certainly not "a thing" as in an homonculus, but "things" and even
"real things" are much broader categories than just that. Here is the kind
of thing - real thing at that - that I would call a self: A sophisticated
scheme of control made possible by the structure of cultural narrative.
Please note that cultural narrative alone is not the whole picture. So I
would say that Dennet's favorite "center of narrative gravity" is not the
comprehensive picture of self. If it were, then I might be willing to
concede that is somewhat less "real" than my understanding - though still
real in some sense.

"Center of Narrative Gravity" is however a useful metaphor - and it does a
good job of entailing the unimportance/elusiveness of spatio-temporal details
in understanding the truly relevant and real aspects of self. It also
establishes the importance of narrative to the self. However, like all
metaphors, we have have to understand that its entailment is necessarily
partial. "Center of Narrative Gravity" is not the end of it, any more than
"cultural gene" is the entire story of memes.

This narrative is both constructed by and active in the construction of a
scheme of control that extends back down to physiological levels and out into
the physical environment as well as up to the highest level of human
enlightenment and out into the cultural environment. True selfish narratives
are necessarily *embodied* in some form - though the spatio-temporal details
of that embodiment are considerably less important than the fact that they
are embodied. This leads us to the phenomenological experience of having a
self - complete with the physiological array of complex, sophisticated
emotional/affective responses and drives that necessarily accompany the
having of a self.

Susan Blackmore, in concentrating too heavily on defining "true imitation" in
typical behaviorist style, fails to recognize the centrality (not just the
importance) of language and therefore narrative in human psychology. William
Benzon has already made an important reference to Lev Semenovitch Vygotsky's
"Thought and Language" on this list. Vygotsky's work would make a much more
practical psychological foundation for memetics, than Blackmore's excessive
knee-jerk behaviorism which remains an unfortunately jealous zeitgeist in
western psychology.

The reason that Blackmore obsesses about "what makes us different from
animals", is that behaviorism - while working marvels of explanation in
animal behavior, has failed to make nearly as impressive explanations for
human behavior. This remains its stumbling block - which might explain why
she tries to make this unfortunate question central to a subject in which
such questions should be otherwise uninteresting. In talking about memetics
- who cares what makes us different from animals? Why should it matter? Why
is it remotely important to her that this so-called "true-imitation" should
be so peculiar to humans?

Beside the fact that I doubt that it is - assume for a minute that this
so-called "true imitation" actually occurs in other animals. The chimp
culture stuff seems suggestive that it does. Why does it fundamentally matter
to memetics that this true imitation be so peculiar to humans? Reading her
you would think that memetics lives or dies on points like this. I assert
that it doesn't. Her pointless handwringing over issues like this says much
more about the state of humanist angst in behaviorism than it does about

Indeed, this whole discussion about memetic self-illusion (or I should say
the no-self delusion) *should* be irrelevant to this list. But Blackmore's
book has unnecessarily made it relevant. Now that the elephant is in the
living room, we can't ignore its presence. Certainly not until we have
successfully removed it.


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