Self as Process

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

Matthew McConaughey as Rustin “Rust” Cohle

Matthew McConaughey as Rustin “Rust” Cohle.

I recently re-watched season one of True Detective, interested in taking another look at the philosophy of Rust Cohle.

Nic Pizzolatto, the creator and writer of the show, has cited Thomas Ligotti’s book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, as one inspiration for Cohle’s character. Ligotti’s book argues that human consciousness is a burden too heavy to bear and that humans should voluntarily stop reproducing in order to end the inevitable suffering that comes with being born.

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti.

Cohle’s many philosophical monologues make his debt to Ligotti clear:

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 a group of 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 idea of the 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 the soul is nowhere to be found, they conclude that the self must not exist either.

Evan Thompson offers a way out from this line of thinking in a fantastic essay written in response to True Detective. No, the self is not a “whole and persisting entity”, 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.

After reading Thompson’s essay several times, I found myself thinking what seemed an obvious larger question: if the self doesn’t exist outside of process, time or change, then what does? A little research showed that many people have had the same thought.