The Grand Illusionist: The Non-Existent Self

Sometimes in those insomniac nights of sleeplessness and ennui  I ponder the reams of paper or the interminable light-bits of datatrash – those computing algorithms that have gone into the veritable destruction of the Great Illusionist: the Subject as Self-Identity and Substance. Everything from the current philosophical speculators to the vanguard research of neurosciences tells us the Self is an illusion, that it doesn’t exist… and, yet, the illusion persists, we get up every morning, we wander into the bathroom, we wash our face, and then look at the sack of shit staring back at us out of the mirror and, say: “You’re just a figment of my imagination, an illusion and linguistic trick, an evolutionary display of memes, ideas, notions, errors all wrapped up in bullshit.” We blink, we laugh, we cry… it’s still there, whatever ‘it‘ is or is not; it want go away, disappear, fall off a cliff.. the illusion of Self persists; it endures your vituperative invective, your satirical jibes, your slow witted verbiage… it blinks back at you, defies you, challenges you to disbelieve in its existence. But it does not go away… this illusion of Self. No matter how many intelligent people show you in report after report, thesis after thesis, image after image that it is an empty thing, a dead concept, a parlor trick… nothing more. We cling to our ‘I’ – our sense of identity, our uniqueness, our eccentric and marginal belief that we are different, that we are singular, unique, and one-of-a-kind beings; that all those who would reduce us to a cipher, an automated process in a vast and complex system of algorithms shifting in the substratum of the brain’s own biochemical vat must be wrong. So that in the end we hang onto this illusion of Self – this self-reflecting nothingness, a mirror world of illusive memetic monstrosities we keep referring to as our intentions, our intentional self; both intelligent and willful. Illusion, as Freud once believed, is not so easily gotten rid of, even the illusion of self and identity.

Most of the great religious systems of the world were built around deprogramming this sense of Self. Buddhism is a veritable registry of this hollowing out of the illusion of Self and Things or Mindedness… One turns to the Gnostics, remembering Basiledes who said: “Show me your face before you were born.” Or, Monoïmus the Gnostic who would tell his followers: “Cease to seek the Self as Self, and sayeth: ‘My god, my mind, my reason, my soul, my body.’ And learn whence is sorrow and joy, and love and hate, and waking though one would not, and sleeping though one would not, and getting angry though one would not, and falling in love though one would not. And if thou shouldst closely investigate these things, thou wilt find the Void in thyself, one and many, just as the atom; thus finding from thyself a way out of thyself.”

One could recite a Thousand and One Nights of such quotes from both religious, philosophical, scientific and other literature. Robert Musil in The Man without Qualities would say of Self and self-reflection: “This non-plussed feeling refers to something that many people nowadays call intuition, whereas formerly it used to be called inspiration, and they think that they must see something suprapersonal in it; but it is only something nonpersonal, namely the affinity and kinship of the things themselves that meet inside one’s head.”

The notion that the sense of Self is a mere congeries of things floating in and out of the voidic hollow of one’s brain is an apt metaphor for out times – a time when we still believe in the notion of Self – of the hollow men and women we call Leaders who presume to represent other selves in a Government based on the illusion of Selves in Nations built on an outmoded liberal model of subject and subjectivity, representation and presence, an illusion of the stable and continuous Liberal Subject-as-Substance and Substance-as-Subject. Amazing, quite amazing…

The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self

In their book The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity  Raymond Martin and John Barresi would trace this sordid history into all its nooks and crannies (at least into its Western Heritage and lineage). Yet, it was in Hume that the defining moment came to turn the mind’s scalpel onto that strange entity. In book 1 of the Treatise , the heart of his account is his argument that belief in a substantial, persisting self is an illusion.1 Hume addressed the task of explaining why people are so susceptible to the illusion of self. And in book 2 he explained how certain dynamic mentalistic systems in which we represent ourselves to ourselves, as well as to others, actually work, such as those systems in us that generate sympathetic responses to others. This was Hume the empirical psychologist at his constructive best. In these more psychological projects, Hume often seems to have taken for granted things that in book 1 he had subjected to withering skeptical criticism.(163)

Next we come to the work of Thomas Cooper (1759–1839). Cooper’s most important philosophical contribution was his Tracts, Ethical, Theological, and Political (1789). 53 In a chapter, “On Identity,” he first surveys the important eighteenth-century literature on personal identity, including Locke, Leibniz, Isaac Watts, Clarke, Collins, Butler, Priestley, Price, and Charles Bonnet. Cooper’s own view, which he expresses all too briefly after his leisurely survey of the views of others, is, in the language of our own times, that personal identity is not what matters primarily in survival. He argued that there is no evidence that people have immaterial souls and ample evidence that all of the matter out of which they are composed is constantly in the process of being replaced, with nothing remaining constant. (172)

Cooper would destroy (or so he hoped) the last metaphysical bastion of the afterlife – the notion of a Soul. In Cooper’s view, no one lasts even from moment to moment, let alone year to year. Rather, there is a succession of similar people, each of whom is causally dependent for its existence on its predecessors in the series. This similarity misleads people into supposing that identity is preserved, that is, that someone who will exist in the future is the very same person as someone who exists now. He concluded that personal identity is an illusion—at best a pragmatically useful notion with no adequate support in the nature of things. In response to the objection that “the man at the resurrection will, upon this system, be not the same with, but merely similar to the former,” he replied that similarity, rather than identity, is the most that can be got even in this life, which no one regards of any consequence. He concluded that maintaining identity should then be of no consequence in connection with the afterlife. (173)

Next we come to Schopenhauer whose notion of Will would replace this thing we call the ‘I’:

When you say I, I, I want to exist, it is not you alone that says this. Everything says it, absolutely everything that has the faintest trace of consciousness. It follows, then, that this desire of yours is just the part of you that is not individual—the part that is common to all things without distinction. It is the cry, not of the individual, but of existence itself; it is the intrinsic element in everything that exists, nay, it is the cause of anything existing at all. This desire craves for, and so is satisfied with, nothing less than existence in general—not any definite individual existence. No! that is not its aim. It seems to be so only because this desire—this Will—attains consciousness only in the individual, and therefore looks as though it were concerned with nothing but the individual. There lies the illusion—an illusion, it is true, in which the individual is held fast: but, if he reflects, he can break the fetters and set himself free. It is only indirectly I say, that the individual has this violent craving for existence. It is the Will to Live which is the real and direct aspirant—alike and identical in all things. (203)

Yet as Schopenhauer declared if our individual selves are at bottom an illusion, how can people overcome their egoistic concerns? Up to a point, he says, by developing the human capacity for sympathy and thereby becoming more virtuous. But what is really needed to overcome our self-centeredness is not mere sympathy but a “transition from virtue to asceticism,” in which the individual ceases to feel any concern for earthly things. In this “state of voluntary renunciation,” individuals experience “resignation, true indifference, and perfect will-lessness,” which lead to a “denial of the will to live.” Only then, when humans have become “saints,” are they released from insatiable Will. (204)

Of course as we know Schopenhauer was steeped in the new influx of translated works from both Hindu and Buddhist literature of that era in German scholarship so that his notions would meld the old Christian apophatic traditions with those of India to create a new deprogramming model for self-abnegation. Nietzsche would catch the drift of this and keep a wary eye on the old pessimist.

Yet, we need to turn back to those old Eighteenth century mechanists of the spirit, too. Among those whom influenced by such notions was Paul-Henri d’Holbach (1723–1789), who in System of Nature (1770) defended secular materialism. In it, d’Holbach argued, at the time sensationally, that humans are a product entirely of nature, that their moral and intellectual abilities are simply machinelike operations, that the soul and free will are illusions, that religion and priestcraft are the source of most manmade evil, and that atheism promotes good morality. (213)

The work of Nietzsche is well known so I want add examples here. A few—Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, for instance—had claimed that there is an irrational, unconscious part of the mind that dominates the rational. But Freud had a much more elaborate theory of how this happens, for which he claimed support from his psychotherapeutic and historical case studies, as well from his analyses of dreams and mental slips.

Freud claimed that most human behavior is explicable in terms of unconscious causes in the person’s mind, a view which he supported by appeal to ingenious interpretations of such things as slips of the tongue, obsessive behavior, and dreams. In short, the mind is like an iceberg, the bulk of which—the unconscious—lies below the surface and exerts a dynamic and controlling influence upon the part which is above the surface—that is, consciousness. It follows from this, together with a general commitment to universal determinism, that whenever humans make a choice, they are governed by mental processes of which they are unaware and over which they have no control. Free will is an illusion. Nevertheless, one can empower the ego by making the unconscious conscious. (256)

Freud had been interested in the process by which children become civilized, productive adults. He hoped that by bringing the contents of the unconscious into consciousness, repression and neurosis would be minimized, thereby strengthening the ego or self. His goal was the development of an ego that is more autonomous. In Lacan’s view, Freud’s goal is an impossible dream. Since the ego is an illusion, it can never replace or control anything, let alone the unconscious. Lacan’s theoretical interest was not in how children become civilized, productive adults but in how they acquire the illusion of self. (267)

Lacan in his notions of the mirror image would see in the child a sense of misrecognition as a category mistake that creates what Lacan called the “armor” of the subject, an illusion of wholeness, integration, and totality that surrounds and protects the child’s fragmented sense of its own body. This illusion of wholeness gives birth to the ego . That, in essence, is Lacan’s famous mirror theory . The idea that one is an ego or self, he said, is always a fantasy, based on an identification with an external image. (268)

Whereas the real is a realm of objects, the imaginary, which is prelinguistic and based in visual perception, is a realm of conscious and unconscious images. In this realm, the mirror image, an “ideal ego,” becomes internalized as the child builds its sense of self and identity. The fiction of a stable, whole, unified self that the child saw in the mirror becomes compensation for its having lost its original sense of oneness with the mother’s body. The child protects itself from the knowledge of this loss by misperceiving itself as not lacking anything. For the rest of its life, the child will misrecognize its self as an illusory other—an “image in a mirror.” This misrecognition provides an illusion of self and of mastery. (269)

In his recent work Antonio Damasio, a neurologist, has, on the basis of reports from his patients who have suffered brain damage, proposed the existence of a neural self . 45 He claims that these patients, deprived of current information about parts of their bodies, have sustained damage to the neural substrate of the self. By contrast, healthy people use their senses of self to access information about the slowly evolving details of their autobiographies, including their likes, dislikes, and plans for the future. They also use them to access representations of their bodies and their states. Damasio calls a person’s representations, collectively, his or her concept of self , which, he says, is continually reconstructed from the ground up. This concept is an evanescent medium of self-reference. It is reconstructed so often that the person whose self-concept it is never knows it is being remade unless problems arise. (291)

In a more recent book, Damasio, proposed that consciousness represents a relationship between the self and the external world. The self model that actually shows up phenomenologically as a more or less constant feature of our consciousness is not the robust self of our narrative reveries but what he calls the core self . It is a representation of a regulatory system in the brain and brain stem, the function of which is to monitor and maintain certain of the body’s internal systems, such as respiration, body temperature, and the sympathetic nervous system. He calls the system being represented, the protoself . In his view, all states of consciousness are bipolar in that they include a representation of the core self in relation to the external world. In this representation, he says, the core self remains relatively stable, while sensory input from the external world changes dramatically and often. Thus, in almost every conscious state, there is something relatively stable, namely the core self, and something changeable, the external world. This fact about consciousness, he claims, generates the “illusion” that there is a relatively constant self that perceives and reacts to the external world. (292)

Ultimately in the conclusion to their survey – dated in 2006 so lacking in current research, they suggest that our notion of a unified self-identity is not only an illusion, but that the disturbing realization that what we are characterized as a unified self is not something that we once had and then lost sight of but, rather, something that we never had to begin with. To whatever extent it may have seemed like we had it, this was an illusion. In this view of things, a better way of characterizing what happened as a consequence of the development of theory is not that we lost something valuable that we once had but that we became better positioned to shed an illusion and finally see what we had—and have—for what it truly is. Shedding an illusion, even the comforting one that there is a unified subject matter of self and personal-identity theory and we can grasp it whole, is a kind of progress. It is not progress of a sort that is internal to any theory but, rather, progress in gaining a better synoptic understanding of the development and current state of theory—metaprogress, if you will. Arguably, it is a sign of the importance of the shedding of the illusions of a unified self and of theoretical closure that it may be psychologically impossible to embrace wholeheartedly that there may be no knowable comprehensive truth about who and what we are and about what lies at the root of our egoistic concerns. (313)

Nevertheless, they argue, each of us seems to have a kind of direct, experiential access to him- or herself that makes the development of theories of the self and personal identity, however interesting, seem somewhat beside the point. This feeling of special access is what fueled Descartes’s contention that one’s own self is first in the order of knowing. The truth, however, seems to be that nothing is first in the order of knowing, that is, that there is no single privileged place to begin the development of theory, no single privileged methodology with which to pursue it, and no practical way to unify the theories that result from starting at different places using different techniques. This was not so apparent until recently, but it seems abundantly clear now. In sum, as “we have already suggested, if there is unity in sight, it is the unity of the organism, not of the self or of theories about the self”. (314)

Such are the quandaries of this strange history, a world built out of words and thoughts, lies and misrecognition, illusory at best; yet, a world that continues to build on such illusions as Self; its secret histories, battles, disjunctive sense of loss, even though we know it to be the Great Illusionist at the core of the human project. But, then again, are we even human anymore? We let the machines answer that, our future progeny may look back on our quandaries and laughingly click metal to metal as if to say, “Those fools who once shared our world and spent so much effort in creating us as the perfection of their dreams of Reason. Little did they know what it was they were doing…” or why?


  1. Raymond Martin and John Barresi. The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity.  Columbia University Press (July 22, 2006) (Page 163).

(Note: I could have brought it up to current speed with both neuroscientific, philosophical and other literature after 2006, but thought it would make this post far too long …)

6 thoughts on “The Grand Illusionist: The Non-Existent Self

  1. Who knew? I think it goes to my point, has probably quite the similar point that you would want to make also yet somehow differently stated perhaps: it appears to me that no matter how anyone wants to say it or how many people talk about it no one in fact ever can implement the meaning that you seem to convey through this post. To me it seems that the meaning is always misappropriated. That indeed in the very first part of your essay hear that identity keeps popping his head up, is indeed inescapable. But where I differ is I say that the fact of this inescapable aspect that seems to never go away despite how many people argue this and that or whatever — I say that this aspect is reality. I don’t propose that there is some sort of illsusionary thing about identity. I just say that identity is real. Trees are real. That someone is a professor of philosophy is a real thing. That the discussions around how reality reduces to this somehow illusionary quality of identity being not real somehow, Is Real. Because the fact is no matter how much anyone wants to talk about this suppose it deep the metaphysical truth it appears to me quite evidently that no one ever replies i because the fact is no matter how much anyone wants to talk about this suppose it deep the metaphysical truth it appears to me quite evidently that no one ever applies it to their daily activity, except, I would say, inasmuch as they want to argue how this is not the case or somehow illusory. If we say that this is just the facts at hand that this is just what we have to do, The Naches supports my point that this is all occurring in reality and that any sort of metaphysical speculation that wants to suggest there is a deeper route reality such that the reflection of identity is false or has no substance, is itself a false statement. Yet people continue to rely on this same method. And this is the reason why in my work I talk about things about reality being a conventional method, and being founded in faith in what is true.

    Because the truth of the matter it seems to me very very few people ever apply at in such a way that it is apparent that they understand what the truth is.

    I feel like this is nothing that you don’t somehow already comprehend. But like way somehow your poststirred something in me.

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    • Faith, truth, reality? This post is about the history of our notions of Self-identity through discourse from Hume to the neurosciences… you seem to argue as if “truth” was something substantial, eternal; a Platonic notion with a long history, with one of its latest practitioners being Badiou in his philosophy. Nothing your talking about pertains to the actual argument I’m describing, not is the illusion I’m speaking of pertaining to the old metaphysical battle of reality/illusion or appearance/reality distinctions… I’m not even digging into that. Sometimes I wonder if you actually read what a person is saying, and arguing with or against the actual argument of the post rather than going off on strange ramblings… excuse my impertinence but your post is strangely misconstruing, to say the least.

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      • What i see i a bunch of authors throughout history talking about the same thing in different terms, the same feature expressed through different ways of talking about it. I see a central theme that you reiterated over and over in your essay.

        It is apparent and obvious to me. But then of course. I have to consider whether or not I’m insane.

        😳

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      • What else is philosophy but various thinkers stretched across the ocean of time talking about the ideas – as Nietzsche tells us that keep returning – the “eternal return” of those age old battles of the Philosophers. 🙂

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  2. Yes, we tend to see the tree, the person really existing as discrete objects and no matter how many times you say, “there is no tree, no person, all appearances are illusory” that doesn’t lessen the hold of how they appear to be concrete, out there, waiting to be experienced. For the Buddhists this point is always stressed: that you can know this conceptually, but the point is to “realize” it. It’s the constant familiarization with the process of deconstructing appearances that eventually wears away their solidity.

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    • Problem with that then is the question: Who or what is doing this, and why? If the Self doesn’t exist, then why the expended effort to estrange one’s self from the process using deconstruction or any other critical apparatus? If the Self is a Void, empty except as the site or place of flows, of content, then there needs to be know process of defamiliarization, deconstruction, or anything at all… So what is it that thinks it needs to do this, to continue this critical task if not the Self? Something else? Some third way or process? Why the clinging and attachment if the Self is as suggested but a necessary illusion, nothing more?

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