The Ego Trick - by Julian Baggini

It seems that, over time, we change completely, yet remain completely the same.

The Pearl at the Heart of Self

Her Buddhist beliefs deny the existence of an enduring self. ‘To say "what you truly are" is difficult, because that implies I can look within myself and find something that is "truly are", as it were, whereas what I find is a flux and a flow, something that is continually dependent on conditions, where impulses are arising and falling away.'

Neuroscience shows that there is no centre in the brain where things do all come together. The unity of the self is not to be explained in terms of a single, unified brain region, which acts as the master controller.

The unity and permanence we feel over time largely depends on our ability to construct an autobiographical narrative that links our experiences over time. But individual experiences and sense of self at any particular time can vary enormously. What is more, the autobiographical self is very good at self-revision. In effect, we are constantly rewriting our histories to keep our inner autobiographies coherent.

The relationship between memory and sense of self is therefore a rather complicated one. It is often said that we construct our sense of self from our memories, but in some ways we construct our memories from our sense of self. We all ignore and do not commit to memory facts and events that conflict with the way we see ourselves and the world. We remember selectively, usually without conscious effort or desire to do so. And yet because we believe memory records facts, objectively, we fail to see that all this means that we are constructing ourselves and the world.

Thinking and feeling are what brains and bodies do. Mind should not be thought of a substance, but as a kind of activity. Dualism's mistake is to argue that since minds, thoughts and feelings are not identical with any particular physical things, they must be non-physical things.

_‘I'd say if you have too healthy an appreciation for who you are, that leaves you open to fossilising yourself. Everything's open to revision.' _ -- Brooke Magnanti, a.k.a. Belle de Jour

State-dependent memory: ‘In different mind-states one does not have access to the same bag of memories, and that has been demonstrated in a lot of quite clever studies. So when you are very angry you do not have access to the same memories that you have when you are feeling very benign and relaxed.' The research on this is extensive and well established. If you want to remember an event or fact, it is better to be in the same situation or state as you were when the event took place or when you learned the fact. There is even some evidence that something learned when drunk is better remembered when drunk than sober. Not only memories, but skills and personality traits are often to some extent state-dependent. A familiar example, in the literal sense, is that no matter what their adult personality is, many people revert to childhood versions of themselves when they gather together as family.

To know a person's nature is to know how they behave in different situations, in different roles, not how they behave in one isolated role. Even if we were to believe, as we surely must, that we put on a front in some situations more than others, there is no justification for privileging solitude as the state which reveals the truth as to how we are. For one thing, it is not obvious that we play no roles when alone. Indeed, in many cases, privacy allows us to indulge the most deluded fantasies about our identities. It can be easier to convince yourself you are a rock god playing guitar in your garage than it is in front of people whose faces reveal you are no such thing. Many a person plays the role of great thinker when no one else is around to challenge their thoughts. The eyes of the world can force us to see ourselves as others see us. Alone, the image we may hold of ourselves may be no true reflection, but a flattering portrait produced by the magic mirror of vanity. Recognising this is important for self-knowledge. We may feel most ourselves when alone, for instance, but our self-knowledge is severely limited if we fail to see how our interactions with others also reveal important truths about who we are. What we see of ourselves when we are playing no roles is not the real self, but a partial glimpse of our self.

The Ego Trick

  1. The unity of the self is psychological. There is no place in the brain where it all comes together and there is no immaterial soul which is the seat of consciousness. The unity we experience, which allows us legitimately to talk of ‘I', is a result of the Ego Trick – 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. It seems as though there is some pearl at the self's core, but in fact there is no core at all. Generations of thinkers have gone wrong in thinking that we need to postulate a unified core self to account for the unity of self-experience. In fact, unity is not a cause: it is an effect of a remarkably disunified, bundle-like system.

  2. We are no more than, but more than just, matter. Thought and feeling are what matter does, when it is arranged in the remarkably complex ways that brains are. Matter is all that is needed for them to exist, but they are not themselves lumps of matter. In this sense, ‘I' is a verb dressed as a noun.

  3. Identity is not what matters. The idea that we are creatures without a definite identity over time is the third and least-noticed aspect of the Ego Trick. The unity of sense of self it creates is so compelling that it becomes natural to think of ourselves as beings with clear boundaries in time and space, whose existence over time is all-or-nothing. This is false. We are fluid, ever-changing, amorphous selves. For practical purposes it's usually easy enough to say that we remain the same as we age, but we only need to think of early childhood or dementia to realise that this is not always the case.

_‘You don't have to be afraid of your destruction because there is nothing to destroy.' _ -- Ringu Tulku, Tibetan Lama

Anattā– traditionally translated as ‘no-self'.

According to Stephen Batchelor, ‘What the Buddha did was to reject that whole model altogether and declare that such an ātman effectively was a fiction, an illusion. So when he says anattā, he is rejecting the idea that there is an ātman, that there is a brahman, and focusing attention therefore on the phenomenal world. The Buddha's teaching is really about how we come to terms with the world of appearances. For him there is nothing behind the veil of appearances, there is simply an open field of impermanent and contingent and very often tragic suffering and painful events.' what the Buddha is pointing to is the notion of self as something like a project to be realised rather than something that inheres within you in some sort of transcendent way. So like a field to be cultivated, like an arrow to be fashioned, like a block of wood to be sculpted, so the person through their actions creates themselves. The Buddha's idea of self therefore is something that we create.

The problem with talk of illusion, I think, is that most people contrast illusory with real, so to say the self is an illusion is to imply it is not real. But it is. There is an Ego Trick, but it is not that the self doesn't exist, only that it is not what we generally assume it to be. The unity and continuity we perceive are really there. We only go wrong when we interpret that as a unity and continuity of a single, solid thing.


Self-creation is not heroic but necessary. ‘Every human being must make himself into someone in particular, in order to have reasons to act and live. Carving out a personal identity for which we are responsible is one of the inescapable tasks of human life.'

Strawson is perhaps best known for his articulation of one such axis of variability in persons, between short- and long-termers, or what he calls episodics and diachronics. ‘Here what I think you find is that people fall along a spectrum,' he told me. ‘At one end of the spectrum there are the long-termers, who I call the diachronics, and they just naturally think that they're the same selves throughout their lives, and they really identify with themselves when they were children, say. And then there are these people who whenever they look back more than about five years, feel that it's not really them. And then moving to the other extreme, there are people who, like me, or how it seems to me, people who just feel that they're effectively in the moment and they don't really think that the self that they are in the moment was there even a minute ago.'

Self and other

Hofstadter is another kind of bundle theorist, who thinks we are ‘strange loops', not things, but patterns of information that feed back on themselves to create higher, more complex networks of abstraction. ‘It ain't the meat, it's the motion,' he colourfully says of the brain's role in identity. But if we are patterns of thought, then other people's patterns can start to be mirrored in our own brains. We internalise their ways of thinking and in that sense parts of them live in us. There is not ‘an unbridgeable gap between two such people. Each of them is instead spread out into the other one, and each of them lives partially in the other.' This even provides for a kind of impermanent afterlife. Like an eclipsed sun, ‘when someone dies, they leave a glowing corona behind them, an afterglow in the souls of those who were close to them … When, eventually, all those close ones have died as well, then all the embers will have gone cold, and at that last point, it's "ashes to ashes and dust to dust".'

It does mean something to recognise the porous boundaries of the self. It is all part and parcel of seeing oneself as less solid and determinate. For me, this does make some difference. Getting used to the idea that I am a process, never remaining the same, helps me to accept how life too is forever in flux, never settled for too long. Accepting the impermanence of self is part of accepting the impermanence of all things. Parfit is right: there is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people, as there is between land and sea. That difference, however, is now more like a tidal beach, and less like a cliff edge.

There are two ways in which holding a bundle theory might change how we choose to make the most of the one life we have. First, it is not the same to focus on our mortal lives as a whole as it is to focus on the time around the present. Someone may be convinced that they are mortal and yet not live for the day, the week or even the year. They may live for the whole life, building for a comfortable retirement, for instance. Pearl theories may reinforce that, because they create the illusion that there is no essential difference between retired-you and just-graduated you. It therefore makes rational sense to worry as much about what happens in thirty years as it does what happens in thirty minutes. On a bundle view, the greater the distance in time, the weaker the unity. Although it may be irrational to care nothing at all about what will happen in thirty years' time, it may be entirely rational to care less about it than the more immediate, strongly connected future. Second, seizing the day can be a rather desperate, tragic affair, especially if you do so only because the alternative is not available. Carpe diem becomes the consolation prize for those who would rather carpe aeternitatem: seize eternity. The bundle theory, however, shows that carpe aeternitatem is beyond us, even if we could be made immortal. Persons do not have a sufficiently fixed and constant nature to persist long enough to even seize a millennium, let alone eternity. You could stop your body dying but you could not stop your self changing, so that, in time, your current self would in effect have been superseded by another one, so far removed from you that he was as little connected and continuous with you now as you are with a long-dead relation. That is why the bundle theorist's rejection of the afterlife is not just an acceptance of the harsh facts of biological reality, but an acceptance that we are not the kinds of beings who are made for eternity.

To see the self as a contingent impermanent process is in a sense a recognition that death is simply part of that. Who I am is unintelligible apart from the notion that I will cease, that what I am is something that is moving inexorably towards its end. To live fully is to embrace that fact, to take every moment as an opportunity, as something quite precious, as something that will not last. To me it has an aesthetic consequence.