Goran Schill asked:
Hi, I wonder if the constant inner monologue I have in my self-conscious mind suggests that there is only one part of myself. When I ask myself if I should grab a beer in the fridge, and I hear one voice saying “yes, nice, you deserve it” and another “no, go to the gym and work on your belly instead”, and then there is a will inside me that decides to either close the fridge and go to gym, or open the beer, are these voices and this will just one single unit of myself, or are there two or even three parts of my self-conscious self? One reason I am asking is that I wonder if Plato’s tripartite soul may be at work here: the appetitive (have a beer), the rational (go to gym) and the spirited (will to decide either). Or is this just amateurish hairsplitting?
Answer by Graham Hackett
I often think that, in talking about consciousness, the only serious game in town is the argument between those who believe that human consciousness is a part of us which is separate from our material selves, and those who think we are just body. As human beings, some would say that we are not just our body, physical makeup, phenotype, etc. We also have a soul, a mind, a consciousness; however you wish to designate it. The consciousness is really us, much more so than our physical constitution.
If you believe that we have a consciousness separate from our physical make-up, then you might get into a secondary discussion about how this works out in practice. Plato liked to think of a “soul” which had the parts you describe, which performed performed various functions such as providing direction (reason), sufficient vigour and vim (spirit) to proceed in this direction, and finally, appetite, (to make sure we are properly sustained our nourished). Freud, regarding himself as rather more scientific than Plato, parcelled us up into id, ego and super-ego. In your own case, you were wondering whether there were different voices, etc, which might decide you either have a beer, go to the gym, or ruminate a bit more about it.
How likely is this? It occurs to me from time to time, that we are making a lot of this up as we go along. We are so strongly sure of the sense of our own selves (think of Descartes “cogito”), that we may be giving ourselves special privileges when we compare ourselves with brute beasts, whom, we surmise, may not have this powerful feeling. I do not wish to be disrespectful to Plato, who has spent a great deal of his powerful intellect building a philosophical position to be admired. However, is there any reason to believe in attempts to divide our consciousness into supposedly functional parts, especially when we might want to query the very concept of consciousness itself?
When I read your amusing description of your soliloquy with your fridge, I was reminded of a famous observation by Hume.
“There are some philosophers, who imagine we are every moment conscious of what we call our SELF; that we feel its existence and continuance in existence; and are certain, beyond the evidence of a demonstration, both of its perfect identity and simplicity. …[But] from what impression could this idea be deriv’d? …For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.
“…I may venture to affirm …that [persons] are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux and movement.”
How can you go from your “particular perceptions” of fridge, bottle of beer, pleasure at the contemplation of the beer and guilt at the thoughts about the gym to a feeling that parts of your self are regimenting your responses?
My own particular view of consciousness is strongly influenced by scientific discoveries in neurology and brain function. I think that consciousness is a self-organised emergent property of property of billions of neurons firing in patterns in the brain. This leaves open the question as to whether self-consciousness really exists. Isn’t a property — even a self-organised emergent one — a real thing? It is certainly real enough to help me organise myself about whether I eventually take the beer or go to the gym. Or prevaricate.