Jim Holt in Prospect Magazine:
Most of us, when we look in the mirror, have a sense that behind the eyes looking back at us is a me-ish thing: a self. But this, we are increasingly told, is an illusion. Why? Well, according to neuroscientists, there is no single place in the brain that generates a self. According to psychologists, there is no little commander-in-chief in our heads directing our behaviour. According to philosophers, there is no “Cartesian ego” unifying our consciousness, no unchanging core of identity that makes us the same person from day to day; there is only an ever-shifting bundle of thoughts, feelings and memories.
In the last few years, a number of popularising books, bearing titles like The Self Illusion and The Ego Trick, have set out the neuroscientific/psychological/philosophical case against the self. Much has been made of clinical cases where the self seems to malfunction spectacularly: like Cotard syndrome, whose victims believe they do not exist, even though they admit to having a life history; or “dissociative identity disorder,” where a single body seems to harbour multiple selves, each with its own name, memory, and voice. Most of us are not afflicted by such exotic disorders. When we are told that both science and philosophy have revealed the self to be more fragile and fragmentary than we thought, we take the news in our stride and go on with our lives. But perhaps we should be paying closer attention. For example, there is striking evidence (detailed by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow) that each of us has a “remembering self,” which makes decisions, and an “experiencing self,” which actually does the living. And when the remembering self looks back on an experience and decides how enjoyable it was, it can arrive at an assessment that is quite out of whack from what the experiencing self actually endured. It is your remembering self that tyrannically resolves to take another family vacation this summer, even though your voiceless experiencing self was miserable for most of the last one. Evidently, the subtleties of the self are of practical as well as scholarly interest.