06 November 2019

Self as Process

Evan Thompson’s response to “neuro-nihilism”.

I recently re-watched season one of True Detective, interested in taking another look at the philosophy of Rust Cohle. It’s been pointed out that the worldview articulated by Cohle shares obvious points of inspiration from Thomas Ligotti’s book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, which in turn was heavily inspired by an essay from Peter Wessel Zapffe.

One particular scene makes Cohle’s debt to Ligotti and Zapffe clear, articulating in a few sentences what Cohle means when he calls himself a pessimist:

I believe human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself; we are creatures that should not exist by natural law… I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing. Walk hand in hand into extinction. One last midnight, brothers and sisters, opting out of a raw deal.

Alongside the belief that consciousness is a burden too heavy to bear, another major element in Cohle’s philosophy is the belief that the self is an illusion. As Cohle puts it, people “labor under the illusion of having a self”, living “with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.”

While the belief that humankind should intentionally work toward its own extinction has few adherents, the claim that the self is an illusion is now in fashion amongst some philosophers and neuroscientists working on the study of consciousness.

Thomas Metzinger is one such philosopher. In a recent essay he writes: “I should come clean at this point and confess that I don’t believe in any such entity or thing as ‘the self’.” Or consider this passage from historian Peter Watson’s massive book on the history of ideas:

There is no inner self. Looking “in,” we have found nothing—nothing stable anyway, nothing enduring, nothing we can all agree upon, nothing conclusive—because there is nothing to find.

An obvious question hovers in the air after reading these passages: what could possibly count as a real self? What would it mean to be (in the words of Metzinger) “a whole and persisting entity”?

Just like Rust Cohle, Metzinger and Watson seem to be clinging to a Platonic/Christian framing of what constitutes a self. What they are asking for could only be satisfied by some thing that survives the death of the physical body; in other words a soul. Since this soul is nowhere to be found, then the self must not exist either.

I was lucky enough to stumble across an essay by Evan Thompson, written in response to True Detective, that offers a way out from this line of thinking. No, there is no entity called the self, but the self still exists. Countering the perspective he calls “neuro-nihilism”, Thompson writes:

The self isn’t a thing; it’s a process—one that enacts an “I” and in which the “I” is no different from the process itself, rather like the way dancing is a process that enacts a dance and in which the dance is no different from the dancing. From this “enactive” perspective, although meaning and the self have no absolute foundation, neither are they complete illusions or nonexistent; they’re brought forth in how we act and live our lives.

Thompson’s essay is a gem of philosophical thinking and I highly recommend reading the whole thing. After reading it over several times, I found myself pondering what seems an obvious larger question: what could possibly exist outside of process, time or change?