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Chapter I: The Elusive Self

In this book I shall be taking for granted much that I have defended at some length elsewhere, expecially in the earlier volumes of my Gifford Lectures.1 But I offer in this first Chapter a summary, with some new emphases, of what I have said earlier about persons and their identity.

I start with a point which I state very bluntly, for I have presented it many times; it is that there is a radical difference of nature between mental events and physical ones, however closely they may affect one another. I have various experiences at the moment, so-called bodily sensations, perceptions, the course of the thoughts I am now putting on paper. I sustain my intention to do all that I do. None of this is physical. It happens through a particular time, however measured, but none of it is itself extended. Such occurrences are also conditioned, in the experience we know, by physical states and processes. I see what I do see because my eye is affected in certain ways and the change ‘relayed’ to the brain. Changes in my brain are also involved in the course of my thoughts. If my brain were deranged, or indeed subject to a very small malfunctioning, I would not be following the present course of my thoughts. But this conditioning is not exhaustive determination; the nature of meaning itself, my understanding of what I am thinking, and how one thought leads to the next in a sensible developing process of thinking, play the decisive part. My own intentions, what I set myself to do all the time, affect the state and location of my body, initially, as a rule at least, through my brain, though what I actually intend is the state of the body that ensues. There is continuous interaction. No further explanation of this interaction is possible, we find that it happens in certain ways and with limitations which we come to know and reckon with in what we further set ourselves to do. But, however close and consistent the inter-dependence turns out to be, mental events remain radically different in nature from the physical ones that condition them. We know this immediately in the process of having any experience at all. To think and perceive, to set ourselves to accomplish things, is known to be non-extended and has none of the attributes of the external reality in which we function and communicate with one another. This I affirm on the grounds that I have specified and amplified elsewhere and without further commendation here.

But there is more to our existence than the actual course of our experience. One’s experience does not merely happen, it happens to me; I am the one who sets himself to accomplish certain things. What is this me? What is being affirmed, in saying that I have a certain experience beyond the fact that there is a certain on-going experience? How is it claimed, and by whom or what? What makes a particular experience mine? What am I beyond the course of my experince and how am I identified as a particular person? There are two ways in which a person may be identified. The first is by description. This is familiar and fairly straightforward. Who am I? I am the person whose description is on the passport — date of birth, height, colour of eyes etc. Or I may be pointed out — that person sitting at the end of the row. There are also ways of describing a person that do not involve physical peculiarities so directly — the professor of philosophy at King’s College, the chap who is always defending a dualist view or tiring people with excessive talk about Wales. People may know me in these ways without ever setting eyes upon me. The description of my character and interests along these lines could be sufficiently precise to establish as firm an identification as we would wish for most purposes. For legal purposes a physical peculiarity would usually be the most conclusive, evidence of dental treatment or finger prints.

If required, a very full account of some individual can be provided in these ways, in biographies or autobiographies for instance. Characters in fiction may be very fully presented in the same fashion. This, then, is one type of identification, what I am like and what the course of my life has been. In essentials, this identification is no different from the identification of items in the external world—this table, this tree, this mountain. Interest determines what precisely counts as an item in this case. The mountain is many things, rocks, smooth slopes, grassy patches, blades of grass, grains of earth, down to the yet more minute specifications of the scientist, atoms, electrons, etc. We may think of the table as one object or as an assemblage of top, legs, etc., and all these can be broken into much smaller units in turn. At the physical level, there is no strict finality in the identity of objects in such ways, although the process of identification must not, for that reason, be thought to be itself arbitrary; it depends on what in fact we find, whatever words we use for things. I could not properly describe this table as a chair. But if I were counting the rooms in a house I would take items of furniture, wall-paper, etc., to be absorbed for this purpose in the one item, a room.

In the case of persons, however, there is yet another, radically different, mode of identification. However full the account of me in terms of descriptions may be, there remains the question, to which there is no strict equivalent at the physical level — what does it mean for these peculiarities and the course of my experience to be mine or me? I am thinking these thoughts now, I am seeing the tree, or, as is happily not the case, I am in pain. We incline to say that these experiences, or the dispositions they reflect, are ‘had’ by me or characterize me; they ‘belong’ to me or are ‘owned’ by me. Is this proper, except in a rough and ready sense? Is there anything here that is truly different, different in some radical way, from the way qualities belong to various entities in the world of nature? I firmly maintain that there is.

To present this claim, it is not strictly necessary for me to consider the question of identity generally or the identity of objects in the world around us. There are features of that issue which I could not examine closely without being taken too far from my present purpose. On the whole there seems to me to be nothing of substance in the identity of entities other than subjects of experience which cannot be accounted for in terms of the relations or patterns or the proportions of things and their changes. But the matter is quite different in the mental sphere. Whatever we say of the world around us, my experiences and the properties we specify on the basis of these belong, it seems to me, in a peculiarly intimate and significant sense to a being, a self or subject, which can not be reduced in any way to the course of my experiences, including the things I intend, an entity which is, as we sometimes put it, over and above the course of my experiences themselves. There is not merely the pain, but my having the pain or my being in pain as more than just the pain occurring in certain conditions or a web of inter-relations.

There have been very determined, indeed, it seems to me, desperate, attempts to avoid coming to the conclusion that my experiences are had by me in a sense which goes altogether beyond their being the experiences they are. Some find the principle of personal identity in the continuity of our bodies, others consider that our bodies might be dispensable for this purpose. Some find our memories to be themselves constitutive of our identity. Others think in terms of the closeness of certain relations, or an overlap. I have examined typical impressive recent presentations of such views in my The Elusive Self. Ingenious as they often are, they all seem to me to leave out what is most evident and vital, to provide elaborate stories to cover up for something which is patently missing. I shall not illustrate that in detail again now. But we have to ask what it is that is essentially missing in such accounts of persons. What is it about the ‘me’, or the self as subject, which cannot be netted in variations on the theme of the nature and inter-relations, or the course and physical conditions, of my experiences in terms of which I deem them to be mine? What, over and above some features of the experiences themselves, is it for me to have them?

The answer to this question may seem to be disappointing or evasive. For the answer is that there is no proper answer we can give. If some account were offered of what precisely characterizes the self over and above what is otherwise said of experience and character, if properties were specified, then all this would have itself to be taken into the full account of experience and character. All we would have done would be to single out some rather special feature of our make-up or nature, completing the story as normally told. But the claim is, and has to be if it is to be significant, that there is something that does not come within this particular story at all, something which is not open to further description. But in that case how is it known?

The answer may be that it is known as a pre-supposition, along the lines of Kant, of our having the sort of experience we do have, and especially its coherence and the way we make sense of things; but I do not think we can get very far with that supposition on its own. As James Ward was fond of saying, the self must be ‘a something’. It cannot be just a postulate known a priori, much less an ‘imaginary focus’; but how is ‘a something’ known if not by description?

My own answer to this is that each one knows himself in the fact of being himself and having any experience whatsoever; I am in pain, to stick to the more simple stock example. I just cannot fail to be aware of this, however misleadingly I may describe it, or fail to discover its cause. But I do not merely know that there is this sort of pain, I am equally immediately aware that I have it, and no other. I am in no doubt at all about this. I provide no evidence for it, I have the pain. If it should be someone else I must draw the appropriate conclusion on the evidence available; whose body has been mangled in an accident, from whose mouth does the groaning come, etc? Even in my own case, if it is a question of who has been wounded, I may need evidence. If it is dark after the accident I may wonder from whose body the blood is flowing, whose is the mangled leg I touch. But once the pain itself begins I just can be in no doubt. I know that there is the pain and that it is mine. To ask me how I know this would be absurd2. I feel the pain, it is me that is in pain; and in the same way it is me that is having these thoughts now, however inadequate my effort to communicate them.

We cannot know this in the same way in the case of other persons. But, in ascribing experience to them, on the basis, normally at least, of what we observe of their behaviour or the state of their bodies, we must ascribe to them also the same awareness for each one of being the distinct person he is in having experience which we find to be inescapable in having experience ourselves. What would it be like for there to be a thought or a pain, and no more? Can we conceive of a pain that is not someone being in pain, or having the pain in the irreducible way we find in one’s own case? It seems to me to be an immediate feature of experience that it is known, beyond possible mistake, to be the experience of the particular being who has it. Such a being. I submit, we each of us find in his own case to be distinct and irreducible. I know myself to be me and no other.

If I am asked, as I sometimes have been, what is the purport of this distinction between being me and being another, I must answer again that this, from the nature of the case, cannot be indicated. In finding myself to be myself I find myself ipso facto not being another. My being me just means that I am not you or any other. It is ultimate, but just in the special sense that each one apprehends it immediately in his own case, whether he reflects on this or presents it in sound philosophical ways or not.

It is unfortunate that we are so conditioned by normal forms of speech and our practical procedures to take up the attitudes appropriate to external objects, that we find it almost irresistible to make that the universal norm for all understanding. Much recent philosophy has endorsed this, but it is a serious limitation on our grasp of our own situation. In matters of experience we simply are aware of what the experience is like, in essentials, in having it; and we are likewise aware, I submit, of ourselves as the irreducible beings that each of us is in the very fact of having any experience at all. The case can certainly not be sustained in any other way, but that it is sustained in the way indicated seems to me the plainest deliverance of our own consciousness.

But at this point we need to be exceptionally cautious; and I come now to a point which I wish especially to emphasize in this context. Much that goes awry in the discussion of self-identity at the stage now reached comes from failure to be explicit and also cautious enough at the very critical and most difficult juncture we have now reached. For it is only too fatally easy to let ourselves be guided again by the model for our thought which is derived from the normal direction of our thinking in the understanding and management of things in the world around us. I have spoken already of ‘owning’, ‘belonging’, etc. These are words which have their normal habitat elsewhere than in reflection on ourselves. ‘Own’ is usually an ethical term; its significance in that sense has no direct relevance to the present issue. We likewise think of ‘belonging’ in terms of the relation of a part to a whole — this spoke belongs to this wheel, this cog to this part of a machine. But it is very misleading to think in these ways, or in any other way derived from external reality, in thinking of the self and its experiences.

Indeed the very notion of a relation itself is not very appropriate. We do indeed speak in that way. Our central question could well be put in the form of asking what is the relation of the self to its experiences, and at once we are on the slippery slope. For we are already thinking of some describable relation of the subject to passing mental events. This relation, if the word is appropriate at all, is a quite unique one for which there is no proper parallel, and we must be very careful not to give the impression of the self as something altogether apart, subsisting in splendid isolation but also, as it happens, related to certain experiences. That is the travesty which brings on the most severe and bewildered criticism, the self or subject being presented sometimes like a string on which beads are stretched. The best way to avoid this is to avoid as far as we can any pictures or models for the unique situation we are handling.

We do have to say that the self is more than the course of its experiences. It has them, but it is at the same time not an entity quite apart to which they are incidentally related. The experiences could indeed be different and the self is not an external something to which they are attached, it is much more unavoidably involved. It is me having the experiences; in a sense I am my experiences at the time though not exhaustively them. No proper wedge can be driven between me and my pain. But there is also more involved than the occurrence of the pain or the having it. It is my being in pain.

At this stage of the subject it is most essential that we hang on to this seemingly paradoxical position, that I am my pain, for example, and yet not it. The pain is not like a garment I put on and discard. I am it, and yet more than it and others too. The pain is not just a part of what I essentially am, but neither is it incidentally me. It is very genuinely me, and this is why I am especially concerned if I learn that I am about to be hurt. On the other hand, when the pain is over, it is still me, in my new state, and the whole indivisible me.

This is not in fact as paradoxical as it may seem. It only appears so when we bring the conventions and assumptions of our understanding of external things to the way we think about a radically different situation in our apprehension of ourselves and our mental states.

It follows also from what I have just been maintaining that when we think of persons being identified, on the one hand, by description and, on the other, in a yet more fundamental way as the being who is known, in the having of experience, in a way of which further description is not possible — in this we must on no account be led to suppose that there are really two selves, a ‘pure’ and an ‘empirical’ one. These terms are not inappropriate, but it is to the one self that we refer in both cases. The ‘pure’ self is not an appendage, as on some religious views — or travesties ot them — the soul is a thing apart due to function properly elsewhere. It is the one ‘pure’ self that has the gathered up experences of the empirical one, and for this reason also it is most false to our situation to suppose that the ‘pure’ self is not in time, but only some counterpart of it. A bifurcation of that kind has been the source of notorious confusion and mischief in the past.

The picture I wish to present is not, however, altogether complete as yet, for even if it is allowed that, in having one’s experiences at any particular time, one is aware of oneself as the distinct indivisible being that one is, the question may still be raised of the justification of thinking of this self as identical and indivisible in all other experiences. On what basis can I affirm that the self I know myself to be now will also be the self I still know myself to be in an hour when quite otherwise engaged, and so throughout the course of my life, from infancy to the end? I will have passed through many experiences and I will have changed a great deal over the years. In what sense, if not in terms of patterns and relations of experiences, am I still the same in my closing years — and perhaps in a markedly changed situation hereafter?

My answer will again be short, as this is also a subject on which I have written at some length elsewhere.3 The main consideration is memory, but not as constitutive of personal identity. The facts of memory provide the most direct and conclusive reason we have for affirming our continued indentity from one experiential situation to another. Prior to this the way may be prepared, in now familiar ways, by some application of the Kantian argument about the ‘transcendental unity of apperception’. To make sense of my present situation I must view it as a whole in itself and in relation to past events, and this cannot be without my being the same subject in these manifold occurrences. But whether this works irrespective of the initial awareness we have of ourselves as subjects of experience may be doubtful. I venture, in any case, to offer a consideration that seems to clinch the issue in a more final way than the traditional appeal to the unity of our apprehension of a world of objects.

To this end I distinguish between memory in the general sense of being able to recall matters which we have previously learnt, as when I remember that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066, and memory in the stricter sense we have in mind when I say that I remember eating my breakfast this morning. When we take memory in this strict sense it seems we can only remember events in which we took part ourselves, indeed strictly what we did or underwent — what we saw and heard, etc., — ourselves. But when we do remember in this way we recall, we reconstitute, though not in a literal sense, the past situation in the respects remembered including the same awareness of oneself as the distinct irreducible subject of experience that we find ourselves to be now. In that case we establish beyond any possibility of error the continuity of oneself as a strictly identical being in all the experiences we are able to remember in the strict sense.

This does not give us all we need. But, having got thus far, the rest is fairly straightforward. We build around the cases in which we have firm continuity through memory in the strict sense, we build around these the events and situations of which we learn from independent evidence as having continuity, as parts of a rounded story, with the events we actually recall.4 This is not foolproof. In theory, or conceivably, there may be a substitution of distinct subjects at various stages of the story that extends beyond the events we strictly recall. But the boundaries of what we strictly recall are flexible. We can be brought to remember occasions which we had forgotten; and it seems in any case very improbable that there would have been some alternation of subjects within the area of a continuous ascertainable story which falls outside the events of which we can have memory in the strict sense. The complexities of any substitution in the course of an embodied existence, where a mind interacts with one exceptionally complicated neurological system, also tell heavily against the possibility of any suspension of continued identity in a life where the mind is organic to a particular body.

It is indeed not very difficult, along these lines, to establish at least a general principle of one mind, one body. If there seem to be exceptions, as in the now familiar problem cases, they must be approached on the basis of our initial understanding of the irreducible and indivisible character of the subject of experience as found by each one in his own case. Fission in any strict sense is ruled out in this way on principle. There could only be alternations of distinct subjects, or a very extraordinary concurrent interaction of one mind with more than one body. If the holy man, meditating in his high retreat, is able, as is alleged, to move around in the villages in another body or bodily form doing good, then he must be aware in the one consciousness of what goes on in both respects at the time.

If we think of the problem cases, for example the much discussed supposition that a brain might be divided into its two main halves and these housed in different bodies, then I think we must say that, if these two parts of the brain can function effectively in these conditions, they will stimulate memories which will only be possible if they are recalled by the one person who had the remembered experience originally. This is not so inherently preposterous as might appear at first, even though the bodies remain at opposite ends of the earth. For the mind itself is not extended and is not affected by the appropriate brain state through any physical contiguity. A more substantial difficulty would be the affecting of the mind at one and the same time by sets of stimuli from unrelated areas. But whatever we consider to be conceivable or probable in such very speculative examples, we can be certain, from what we find it to be to have a mind or be a person, that consciousness has its indivisible centre in one indispensable subject.

It is worth adding that the evidence from what is known of the surgical operations which prompt the very intriguing speculations of the problem cases is very far from providing any support for the supposition of strictly multiple personalities.5

We may, however, readily admit that there are important subsidiary ways in which we may be said to have different personalities. We function in a variety of ways and in very different spheres of interest, as in the fairly obvious division of one’s life at work and one’s life at home or in leisure projects. This may sometimes carry with it marked differences of attitude and character. The person who has a fine public image may not be ‘a hero to his valet’, or seem so noble and generous a person to his family. Nor is this merely a matter of the impression we leave. Contrasting traits of character may be brought to the surface in the varying contexts in which we function. Some persons are much better integrated in their personalities as a whole than others; we can count on their being as considerate and conscientious at home as they are in their place of work — or the opposite. Others are prone to more violent change, as in Plato’s famous account of ‘the democratic man’. Some diversity of outlook and demeanour is indeed desirable. One expects to be more relaxed at home, though the reverse is sometimes the case. These are important matters, and the Bible rightly warns us, as Plato had done, that ‘A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways’.6 But the point that concerns us especially now is that these different personalities that we all have, including violent changes which lead us to say of someone that he ‘is no longer the man he was’, are variations in the traits and responses of essentially the same proper person. I am not strictly another person in my place of work, however I may change from the person I am at home or with other people than my colleagues and employers. To some extent we all present a different persona in changing situations, and this raises questions of proper adaptations and basic consistency which have ethical implications. But whatever their importance, they lend no support to the view that one is, in these variations of situation and attitudes, a strictly different being. One’s proper identity persists in all such variations. The ruthless official in the concentration camp is the same ultimate individual being when he is being gentle with his children at home. That is one of the appalling features of such situations.

It is sometimes maintained that these are relative matters, and that, when the examples become extreme ones, we have to tell a different story. Dr Jekyll is really a different person from Mr Hyde. But consideration of this and like cases of ‘split-personality’, in fiction or in real life, seems to me to lend no support to the view that we have had more than extreme and peculiar examples of a situation to which we are all in some measure exposed. An individual who finds it difficult (some would say ‘impossible’) to resist an absurd inclination to go shop-lifting is not a properly different being in the remaining sensible and decent aspects of his life. The way we put these things itself reflects the fact that ‘he is not a different being.’ Even when there are severe or total lapses of memory, as when Jekyll had presumably no notion what Hyde was about, we are peculiarly sad and perturbed that this has happened to so-and-so, we hope he can be cured and retain the normal balance of a united personality.

In the situations, in life or fiction, when we are most seriously disposed to think that there may be a strict and genuine alternation of persons or subjects, more sustained considerations will bring out the extreme unlikelihood of this being the case. It is very hard, for example, to understand how the same nervous system and brain can interact, even at different times, with different minds or persons. The familiar examples of Eve White and Eve Black seem much more effectively explained as alternating states of the same individual. But if we were driven to suppose that we have, in such instances or in some still more aggravated or complicated varieties of them, two (or more) properly distinct individuals, then one would just have to say that they are distinct and not any multiplication or fission of the one initial individual. For we find, in one’s own case initially, that consciousness has to be, from the nature of what we find it to be, the consciousness of one indivisible person. It is with this understanding, based not on blind affirmation but on reflection on what consciousness discloses itself to be, that we should set out to give a proper philosophical account of instances of seeming multiple personalities and similar problem cases.

If this seems dogmatic or apt to close the issue prematurely, I can only invoke the principle I have tried to defend elsewhere, namely that a point is reached in philosophical controversy when, not out of weariness but from what the situation involves, we can only reflect and declare the way things seem to us to be. I can easily conceive of myself being subject to drastic changes, in my circumstances or in my character — and we all do change a great deal in the course of our lives. But I can form no conception of what it would be for me to become strictly another person, another subject of experience — it would not be me; and it is for the same reason that I do not think it even conceivable that I should know the other person’s mind strictly as it is for him. The prince may become the cobbler, but he knows that this total metamorphosis has happened to him. He is the one to whom this bewildering change has happened. He has not become the person the cobbler was, he has only changed his appearance and situation for that of the cobbler. He has his new experience still as his own, and even if we reach a stage where telepathy has become very common and extensive, this does not begin to give me the experience of the other person strictly as it is for him — or, so to put it, from within his own mind.

Normally, what happens in telepathy is that we find ourselves thinking somewhat insistently about someone else and what he may be undergoing or thinking, only to discover later that this corresponds closely to what in fact was the case. If this is often repeated we find the occasions such as to be more than astonishing examples of coincidence — as it would presumably be in an isolated case — and thus are induced to look for a further explanation in terms of some peculiar power we have to envision the situation of someone not present to us and think the kind of thoughts he is thinking — and we might do this of course for someone physically present who is not in fact communicating such thoughts to us in the normal ways. This is not the place to elaborate an exact account of how we must think of telepathy and related phenomena. All I wish to contend now is that, whatever theory we propound, there is nothing in the facts, if found to be para-normal, to require that I ever become the other person whose mind I ‘read’ in this strange fashion or have his thoughts in the way he has them as the individual expressly involved.

I reaffirm, then, the view that all experience is had, and all initiation made, by a subject which is simple and irreducible but at the same time has the experience as essentially its own, not as something incidentally attached or belonging. This, I submit, is what we find to be the case all the time. It is not peculiarly mysterious or bewildering but only seems so to philosophers and others heavily predisposed to look for ways of explaining things or describing and distinguishing them thereby in ways or a measure beyond what the circumstances in fact allow. We all, I maintain, truly know what it is to be oneself, and to find this of first importance, although it is only a few sophisticated people who pause to reflect on this and how it may be properly expressed.

The difficulty that some feel about this submission is sometimes brought sharply to a head by asking what, in the event of a complete metamorphosis or exchange of situation, thoughts, attitudes, etc., there could be to differentiate one from another. If I have all my friend’s thoughts and memories, etc., if there is duplicated in me all that can be said of him, what sense would there be in saying that we were still different, most of all if this involved ‘coinciding’ in the same body, or being related in the same way to it? On my view there would still be a radical difference of the utmost importance in the simple fact of my having all this experience and another having it.

Some would reply that this is a distinction without a difference, or add something about the identity of indiscernibles, or say (as one of my students did) that the self has no peculiarity on this view other than being sui generis. This comes very close to the mark, but it is not wholly adequate to speak of being sui generis7 More is involved but what this more is can only be apprehended by each one reflecting on what it is to be himself, to ‘be me’.

Among those who sought most desperately to avoid this conclusion are some celebrated idealist thinkers. They took quite the opposite course to what I am defending. The difference is exhaustively for them a difference of content. To the extent that the content overlaps we overlap. We wholly coincide if the content coincides, as in the familiar illustration of enlarging our peep-holes until no wall is left. To bring this more into line with our ordinary attitudes, some of these thinkers, perturbed by consequences accepted by bolder idealists, stressed very much the function of each of us as particular centres of unification within the whole. But this seems to me inadequate to save the situation. It did not come to terms with the ways in which we normally think about ourselves and our own situation, and it was still hard to avoid the ultimate notion of one universal mind which is thought to be also all of us.8

A very different line, but one with similar consequences for our view of personal existence, is taken by some mystics and mystical philosophers, of whom W.T. Stace9 is an excellent recent example. The view of persons is initially here very close to my own; it is often described as a doctrine of ‘the pure self. We are to think away the content and centre our thought on what each one is just as subject of experience; there really is such a subject. But as soon as we think of this subject in stark isolation from everything else, or withdraw in meditation into this inner core of our being, there is, it is urged, nothing to stand between us and others, no wall of partition. Each self is seen to be all selves and the Supreme Self. On my understanding, however, the ultimacy of the self is that which cuts in precisely the opposite direction by altogether precluding any diminution of our distinctness or any merging in others or in the Ultimate.10

I would also urge that it is not possible to think of the self as a ‘pure self in a way that leaves it without any remnant of a content of experience, a self which is aware of nothing and does nothing. I can form no conception of what it would be like to exist in that way; and when the situation of possible dreamless sleep is mentioned in this context, I reply that, if this actually occurs, then I have for the time ceased to be. Some find this odd, and indeed a practical worry, but I myself do not find it disturbing philosophically or in any other way. Why should we be concerned about ceasing to be for a while if it is certain that we shall resume our existence as the persons we are now once the interval is over? We shall have missed only a few minutes of low-grade experience. The philosophical worry that there is nothing to ensure our identity in bridging the gap only comes about if we persist in thinking of identity in terms of characterizable continuity, or if we forget that in the last analysis there is nothing about us which guarantees our existence; we do not exist by necessity, and if we suppose, as I do, that there has to be some ultimate existence, or Supreme Being, to account for limited finite existences, then there is no reason to think that such a ‘Ground’ of our being could not establish us as we were after a lapse into non-existence.

In short, provided I return as the person I now know myself to be and have the normal continuity of my experience, as must be supposed if it is thought that we have dreamless sleep and then begin to dream and awake into our normal anticipated situation, there is nothing to alarm us or to cause us philosophical trouble in the possibility of a temporary conclusion of our existence. We assume, in any case, in Western culture, that we did not exist before our birth into the present life. What matters is that, in all experience, we should find ourselves to be the persons we have always been; and I have indicated already how this comes to be established. This view of persons, if it is sound, has many far-reaching implications. It is of great importance, for example, as I have insisted on other occasions11 for views we may hold about the possibility of existence after death and its nature. But I leave this aside, for the present purpose, to concentrate on my main preoccupation in this work, namely the nature and implications of our responsibility and freedom.


The Logical Limits of Willing12

Is it possible for us, by willing, to bring something about other than changes in our own bodies? In one sense at least the answer is obvious, namely that we can do this. We are doing it all the time. That is what our actions mostly involve, and, without that, life as we know it would hardly be possible. I tighten the grasp of my hand on a billiard cue and move it sharply forward so that the tip of it hits a ball which cannons off another. We can change things in this way at the other end of the world, by speaking on the phone, for example, to request or order something. We can bring highly complicated things about in remote parts of space. Indeed we could always do this, since any movement of our bodies brings about some change, however infinitesimal, in remote places.

But normally, at least, we do this solely by bringing about some change in our own bodies in consequence of which other things happen, the cue strikes the ball, my hand moves the pen to make intelligible marks on the paper. That is how we normally function. Are there exceptions? Is the body the limit of what we directly bring about, and, if so, what sort of limit is it?

It is widely maintained today that there is such a limit, and that it is also a logical one. That is the view of Brian O’Shaughnessy in his exhaustive treatment of the subject in his two volumes. The Will. Godfrey Vesey firmly holds the same view, and so does Michael Cohen in his paper for a symposium at the meeting of the Mind and Aristotelian societies recently at Southampton.13 He takes the line that a view like that of H. A. Prichard, whereby ‘it is a brute matter of fact’ that my will effects the changes it does, leaves open the possibility, in principle at least, of my bringing about changes beyond my body by simply willing in the same way that they should happen. But this is also thought to be logically impossible, and is taken thus to provide a reductio ad absurdum of Prichard’s view.

I agree that, on Prichard’s view (with which I concur), namely the view that all that we properly do (that all that is within our own strict control and all for which we are therefore morally accountable) is to set ourselves, or will,14 to bring something about which we expect to come about as a result of so setting ourselves — I agree that on this view there is no essential reason why we should not be able to bring about similar results, by appropriately setting ourselves, in the world around us beyond the body and without its mediation — ‘at a distance’ as it has sometimes been put.

This is an implication of Prichard’s position (I style it so for the moment, though he had been long anticipated in the substance of it) which many repudiate outright today. They do so, not only in respect of the actual facts, but as a matter of logic, and so a priori. There are, it is held, logical limits to the will, and they include the boundaries of our bodies.

I do not doubt that there are logical limits to the will. I do not think we can will to be another person, or to perform the acts of will of another person — a possibility which Derek Parfit seems to have envisaged in his notion of ‘q-intending’ etc. Some views about what it is to be a person would not rule out the possibility of our seeking to become another person; but, for reasons set out elsewhere,15 I hold that the ultimate distinctness of persons rules out our becoming or being another person, although it does not rule out radical changes of character. We could will the latter at least to the extent of setting ourselves to cultivate a different character, to subject ourselves to influences that may bring about the appropriate change. But we cannot, if we are clear-sighted about it, will the former.

In the same way, if I understand what the words mean at all, I cannot will that twice two should be five. I maintain likewise that, in respect to physical changes also, we certainly cannot will what is senseless. I cannot conjure a square circle to appear on my table, unless I am using those words in some unfamiliar sense which does not make utter nonsense of them.

Cohen ascribes to Prichard the view that while we cannot intend two things which cannot both be true, we may will them. We need here to distinguish between what we can will, in the sense of effectively willing them, and what we can just will. Prichard would certainly not hold that we can actually bring about two incompatible things. But I much doubt whether he thought we could will them in any sense. But if he did I would certainly consider him mistaken and saying something out of line with his central thesis. I hold this because willing is for Prichard a matter of setting ourselves to do something, and it does not seem to me even conceivable that a person should set himself to bring about something which he did not at the time think could be brought about in that way. This seems to me to be more than a feature of the rational beings that we are, it is an inherent impossibility.

The same applies to other cases where we might be thought to be willing things we do not consider possible or within our power. Prichard does indeed say16 that we could will the table to move as a way of proving to others or to ourselves that we could not so move the table. But he does this in the context of its being uncertain whether we could do this in some particular case, setting out in the preceding sentence with the statement that ‘there is no reason to limit the change which it is possible to will to a movement of some part of our body’.17 He also thinks it possible that, at a football match we may will a player’s speed to increase. I doubt whether we ever in fact do this, for the likelihood that our so willing would make a difference is so remote, in the light of all our experience, that it does not seem that we could normally consider it possible — and could therefore not properly will it.

We could in such a case go through the accompaniments of willing, or shout or wave our arms to encourage the player. But we would not normally expect our willing to make a difference, any more than when someone eagerly twists his body around, in a game of bowls, we seriously think that this will bring the bowl closer to its target. And, if we do not believe that something can be brought about by our willing, it is hard, in my view, to see how we could properly or seriously will it.

But while there are important logical limits to what we can will, including, in my view, our own beliefs as to what we may accomplish in that way, the possibility of changing things in the external world by other means than the mediation of our own bodies does not seem to me to be among them. We may believe this to be possible, and so set out to achieve it; and there is also no inherent reason why we may not be right in such an expectation.

Mr. Cohen presents his objections to this claim very succinctly in these terms: ‘If it is the thesis that I might bring about a movement of a chair without there being any causal connections between my brain and the chair, then it is indeed incoherent because self-contradictory, positing and denying the existence of causal connections.’18 He concludes that ‘it is no mere matter of fact that my actions are identified in connexion with this body.’19

This is a curious argument. For Prichard the causal connection immediately involved is that between willing or trying and some change in one’s body or beyond it if that ever happens. But Cohen seems to be taking it that any causal connections we may posit must be of a neurological or other physical sort. If not what is the force of saying that Prichard ‘denies the existence of causal connections’. But this is just to beg the question.

Prichard thus seems to me to be right in the view that there is no reason to limit the change which it is possible to will to some part of our body. It does not follow that we ever do bring about changes directly beyond the body. Normally we certainly do not expect to do so. All the evidence goes against it. But it is a matter of evidence. It does not seem to be inherently impossible that our willing should be extended in that way. When such claims are made, the proper reactions would be, and surely ought to be, to put them to the test.

Consider two claims I might make (1) to conjure a square circle to appear on the table, (2) to make a chair rise into the air by just willing it, as I may bring up my arm. The first you would reject out of hand. It is meaningless. But you can perfectly well understand what it would be like for the chair to rise on the occasion of my willing it. Fairy tales and Disney cartoons are full of much more fantastic things. We can very easily imagine them happening. It is very rarely that we could ever will them, for all the evidence goes against their being within our powers, and it would be pointless therefore to attempt them. But this is simply because we find, as a matter of ‘brute fact’, in Prichard’s phrase, that we rarely, if ever, can bring about anything other than by initially bringing about some change in our bodies.

In practice, it is not always clear how much we can accomplish physically. The runner can go faster on his good days than on others. Ambition or desperation may lend wings to his feet. He may will to run faster than ever before, to break the record. But nothing could induce him to try to overtake an express train. We may will to bring things about which it is just possible, though by no means certain, that we can accomplish. But it seems to me at least that we cannot seriously will to do something which is plainly outside the reach of what we can expect to accomplish. With a raging fire behind me and a six yards chasm in front, I may prefer to drop into the chasm or just leap blindly in panic (anything to escape the flames), but I would not seriously try to leap across the chasm. If the distance were six feet I would have a good try in hope. But it is still a matter of what we find to be the case.

Admittedly we all know that, before my arm rises, some very intricate processes have to occur in my brain and nervous system to reach the final stage of my arm rising. This happens within a consistent system for all such processes which enables experts to study and anticipate changes and provide remedies for malfunctioning. Within the system there is the necessity which it guarantees, but it is all the same a system which we discover to be operative. There is no inherent necessity why things should operate in that way. We find that they do and that it is fortunate for us that we can, for that reason, understand and correct them.

In addition, there is no reason that we know why our setting ourselves or willing to bring about a bodily change should in fact initiate the changes in the brain which culminate in the change we intend. We certainly do not will the brain changes directly, and few would have any notion what they might be. The experts themselves would not think normally of carrying out all they do from day to day by implementation of their specialized knowledge. They will their arm to rise in the same way as the rest of us. But we find that there are certain things we can consistently do and what, in point of fact, are the limits to what we can expect to accomplish. These limits vary much from one person to another, and they vary within the experience of the same person as new skills are acquired or other powers atrophy with age or illness. Paralysis limits our powers severely; and the conditions for such extensions and limitations of our physical powers can be discovered and, in some measure, modified. But, even with such knowledge, we can say nothing about such ability as we have to bring about bodily changes other than what, in the last resort, we find to be the case.

It is interesting that those, notably of late Brian O’Shaughnessy, who make the need for exhaustive explanation final, and thus find a fatal flaw in the ‘brute fact’ thesis, provide nothing by way of explanation besides the familiar story about brain changes and neurology etc. This might do, up to a point, on an outright physicalist view, but it is no advance for those who do lay some stress on the distinctness of the willing or ‘trying’. No explanation is available at that point other than what we find to be the case.

It is for this reason that those who go along with Prichard (and William James and many others before him) can entertain the possibility that we could will, and by so doing bring about, some change beyond the limit of our own bodies. Whether that in fact ever happens is another matter. It is totally at odds with what we find we can normally accomplish, and it falls outside the normal conditions and character of physical action. But it is not otherwise absurd, as would be the claim to have learned to ride a square-circle. If someone should claim that he can successfully will the chair to rise as he manages to raise his arm, our initial reaction would surely be, not to register total mystification, but to challenge him to do it. If he did then announce that he was so willing and we found the chair rising, we would still remain deeply suspicious, though no doubt astonished too. It would look as if we had to ‘believe our eyes’, with the likelihood of a linkage with the alleged willing. But we would also want to go on with further tests, to make sure that there was no fraud or some other more normal explanation. This is plainly what happens when such claims are made. We request a repeat performance and call in those best qualified to discover some explanation (in terms of trickery or otherwise) which would fall within what we normally expect, expert scientists or the conjurors and magicians skilled in seeming to do ‘impossible’ things. If all such persons failed to provide the explanation we expect of them, it would become hard to resist the conclusion that someone had the power to will something successfully without the initial bodily change.

The main point is that what would settle the matter for us is evidence, and the availability of some normal explanation of evidence. It would not be a matter to be settled a priori.

To those who dispute this I would like to put the question — What line do they take on the extensive claims that are made for paranormal phenomena? A great part of these do involve changes which are brought about by our willings, or by other mental states, without the normal mediation of our own bodies. Are these to be rejected out of hand without even troubling to investigate them? That would seem to be very high-handed, especially as some very distinguished and cautious investigators, including in our own time C. D. Broad and H. H. Price, seem convinced that some paranormal phenomena are genuine. Is the whole area of alleged paranormal phenomena to be closed — and that not because of misgivings about the purported evidence but because of a sweeping, indeed total, rejection of the appropriate claims from the start and independently of all investigation? How dogmatic can we get?

  • 1.

    The Elusive Mind (Allen and Unwin 1970) The Elusive Self (Macmillan 19829. See also The Self and Immortality (Macmillan and the Seabury Press) and Persons and Life after Death (Macmillan and the Westminster Press).

  • 2.

    Suppose there had been a serious explosion in some house. I enter a room where there are several persons. One of them is crying out. Would it make sense to approach him and say. ‘Wait a little for us to make sure that the pain is yours and not that of someone else’. Other persons may have been wounded and be unconscious or not so alarmed. But unless we have good reason for supposing that the person who is actually screaming is pretending or playacting, we must conclude that the pain which causes him to scream in his — he feels it, however little he may know about the precise physical conditions which cause it. To tell the person crying out or screaming to wait till we have investigated things to be sure that he is not mistaken and that the pain after all is not that of someone else, would be most offensive. The sufferer knows that he himself is in pain, however mistaken he may be in other ways about this.

  • 3.

    The Elusive Mind (Allen and Unwin 1970) The Elusive Self (Macmillan 19829. See also The Self and Immortality (Macmillan and the Seabury Press) and Persons and Life after Death (Macmillan and the Westminster Press).

  • 4.
    Mr Eric Mathews (Mind, Jan. 1984, p. 154) accuses me of grave inconsistency here. But that would only be true if my appeal to physical continuity implied that identity itself were reduced to physical continuity. That is by no means the case. I simply maintain that, where there is such physical continuity in the episodes I do not strictly recall, there is good reason to believe that the experience to which such occasions point have every likelihood of being the experience of the same person as is immediately known in present and strictly remembered experience. I have argued at some length, in the context Mr Mathews has in mind, against the likelihood of more than one person being directly involved with the same body. This presents no difficulty for my central view of self-identity.
    I have never questioned the importance of physical continuity (See my Chapter ‘The Importance of the Body’ in my The Self and Immortality) or of the inter-relations of our experiences. But I do not think this tells the whole story. The most important factor, what makes me the finally distinct person that I am, is left out.
  • 5.

    See article by James Moor, of Dartmouth College, on ‘Split Brains and Atomic Persons’.

  • 6.

    James, 1, 8.

  • 7.

    See my reply to Daniel Metzler on p. 65–67 of Mind and Nature published by the Department of Philosophy. Emory University, Atlanta, 1978.

  • 8.

    See my fuller discussion of this in Chapter XIV of The Elusive Mind.

  • 9.

    See his Mysticism and Philosophy (Macmillan).

  • 10.

    cf. my discussion of Stace in Chapter XV of The Elusive Mind.

  • 11.

    For example Persons and Life after Death.

  • 12.

    Reproduced from my article in Mind (1983) Vol XC2, 585–589. I am grateful for permission to include this paper here.

  • 13.

    ‘The Agent’s Independence of the World’. P.A.S., suppl. vol. LVI.

  • 14.

    In the article to which Cohen is referring Prichard comes down firmly in favour of ‘willing’ as the appropriate term.

  • 15.

    See The Elusive Self.

  • 16.

    ‘Acting, Desiring, Willing’. Moral Obligation, p. 193.

  • 17.

    ibid. p. 193.

  • 18.

    M. Cohen, ibid. p.28.

  • 19.

    ibid. p. 28.

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