on Individuation, self, and free will


Who do you think you are? Why your sense of self is an illusion.

Catherine de Lange (2019) reporting in New Scientist 11 December 2019


LET’S be honest, it is what we think about the most: ourselves. What we want to eat or do, how we feel and whom we love. It is the essence of being.

This selfhood generally feels like a continuous “me” sitting somewhere in our heads: a me that is the same today as yesterday. “Most people feel that they are a coherent, integrated individual. They have free will, they are making their choices and they’re looking out through their eyes at the world around them,” says Bruce Hood at the University of Bristol, UK, author of The Self Illusion.

And that is just what selfhood seems to be – an illusion. “You are actually a collection of conflicting messages and signals and thought processes,” says Hood. “And these are somehow brought together to experience as unified self.” Fine, so your self is just the “you” experiencing that, right? That becomes a Russian doll problem, says Hood. “There’s someone inside the head who’s having these experiences taking place inside their head and so on,” he says.

Neuroscience tells us that our subjective sense of self must be a distributed experience, involving various bits of the brain. Although experiments have taught us much about the brain areas involved in creating it, how exactly it is conjured up still eludes us.

We do know that a sophisticated sense of self and others only comes on us gradually. “Understanding that your thoughts are different from someone else’s and being able to reflect on your own thinking, that’s a higher order skill and it doesn’t emerge until you are 3 or 4,” says Megan McClelland at Oregon State University. Even then, the brain areas involved in our experience of the self don’t fully mature until we become adults.

The continuity of our sense of self seems to have something to do with autobiographical memory. Very young children have little sense of self and also very limited autobiographical memory, while the experience of people with amnesia lays bare the role of memory in selfhood. “If we suffer amnesia, the self becomes frozen in time because it can’t form new memories,” says Martin Conway at City University in London.

“Ironically, the self’s main advantage might not be for ourselves”

The unreliability of memory might help explain why even our illusory self isn’t very, well, self-aware. “Most of us have distorted self-images,” says Hood. “Most people think that people are more interested in us than they really are. Most people think they have an above average sense of humour, above average intelligence. We can’t all be above average.”

So why have a self at all? Because it is the interface between a complex outer world and a complex inner world, says Hood. Without it, we would be bombarded with conflicting information.

Ironically, the self’s main advantage might not be directly for ourselves. “Having your ‘self’ means you can behave as an individual and be part of a group,” says Conway. “But not just a mindless part of a group like an ant is, rather an individual who is in a group and can make their own individual contributions or walk away.” That ultimately allows us to form our complex human societies – making the self, if it is an illusion, an extremely useful one indeed.

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You are not one person: Why your sense of self must be an illusion (We have a strong sense of continuous, coherent existence – yet from the cells that make our bodies to our defining character traits, we are in a constant state of change)  Tiffany O’Callaghan (2020) reporting in New Scientist, HUMANS 9 December 2020

Are you always the same person?

MY MOM sometimes jokes that it is fortunate she didn’t meet my dad when he was in college, because she wouldn’t have liked him. She was (and is) a self-described goody two shoes. Dad not so much, but presumably even less so when keg parties were involved.

We know that we change over time. Our bodies grow, then age; we mature and our views shift; our memories sharpen and fade. Yet for most of us, our sense of self is seamless and continuous. You are the same old you, right?

Let’s start with the physical. Some of our cells, notably neurons in the brain, are with us from before birth, and can live more than 100 years. “Most of the nerve cells in the brain are actually as old as we are,” says molecular biologist Jonas Frisén at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

But most of our cells aren’t. Some, including certain kinds of white blood cell, live for only days. How quickly our skin cells are replenished changes as we age, but in general it takes about a month. The notion that the liver regenerates every 40 days or so is a myth: our liver cells live 200 to 300 days.

On the level of atoms and molecules, meanwhile, we are exchanging material with our environment with abandon. Think of your body like a grassy field, says Frisén. “It’s the same lawn from year to year, but each strand of grass is completely different.”

But what about less tangible aspects of you? This, after all, is where it matters to us. Losing a consistent sense of a “narrative self” is at best discombobulating, and at worst devastating when we observe it in ourselves or in our loved ones as a result of injury or neurodegenerative disease. Ultimately, our physical bodies and ever-eroding collection of memories are what we are made of. “It’s all we’ve got,” says psychologist Helge Gillmeister at the University of Essex, UK.

Always a new you

And yet even our long-lived neurons are constantly in flux, rewiring themselves to generate new thoughts, memories and states of mind. The simple fact is that what we learn, what we eat, how well we have slept and countless other things influence our choices and behaviours all the time. So in many ways, “you are not the same person from one moment to the next”, says Gillmeister.

The illusory nature of the continuous self was backed up in 2016 when researchers at the University of Edinburgh, UK, investigated changes in the behavioural habits that make up our personalities across a span of 63 years. Previous studies, looking over shorter periods, found only small changes, suggesting that we largely stay the same. But the longer view was startling: measured over six decades, barely anything about our personalities stays the same. We turn into different people over time.

Sometimes, people go through major changes all at once – “something big happens that turns their lives upside down and very thoroughly shakes them up”, says psychologist Wendy Johnson, a co-author on that paper. Yet for the most part, our personalities drift through “dribbles of change, conscious and not, in specific behaviours over long periods of time”, she says.

We are strangely skilled at shifting our notions of who we were or what we believed to maintain an illusion of a continuous self. For example, we scramble to rewrite history to get our previous attitudes to more closely match our current ones, dismissing the idea that we once held strong political views, say, with which we now disagree. “You make yourself up in the past,” says Gillmeister.

At some level, we are also aware of the disconnect. Studies have demonstrated that we think about our future selves in a very different way to how we think of ourselves in the moment – in our brains, it is as if future you is a completely different person.

That might be something to work against: research also shows that simply thinking about the ways you will be the same person in the years ahead can make you more conscientious, for instance. Maybe that is what swung it for Dad.

YOU…consist of over 30 trillion cells that come in more than 300 types, controlled by the workings of 20,000 distinct genes

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Do we have free will or are all our decisions predetermined?  IS “FREE WILL” too loaded with baggage such that useful discussion is not possible?  

According to the laws of physics, everything we do follows inevitably from what happened before – and yet we’re convinced we can change the world. Can we?

HUMANS 9 December 2020  By Richard Webb

Are you predetermined?

WHAT are you doing right now? Reading these words. Why? Presumably because you chose to. Even if you didn’t – if you are encountering them years in the future lining a forgotten box of crockery in the attic, say – you can always choose to look away now. You possess the nebulous quality of human free will.

Nebulous because, despite debating it for millennia, philosophers have been unable to pin it down – and although we are pretty convinced we have it, at some level it must be an illusion, rather like our sense of self is (see “Are you always the same person?”).

Let’s start with the physics. Whenever you decide something, a certain pattern of neurons fires in your brain to turn your thought into action – moving towards the kitchen to make coffee, perhaps, or formulating an utterance you will come to regret. Ultimately, that is all down to pulses of electrons – fundamental particles that follow the cast-iron laws of physics, under which everything is determined by what happened immediately before.

That doesn’t leave much room for free will, apparently. “Physical laws, if they’re deterministic, tell me that everything that I do, everything that happens in the world, including everything that I do, including every decision I ever made, follows logically from the laws of nature [and] the initial conditions of the universe,” says philosopher of physics Jenann Ismael at Columbia University in New York. Since we control neither the laws of nature nor the initial conditions of the universe, we can’t be fully in control of our actions – can we?

Not so fast. We should define our terms first, says philosopher Eleanor Knox at King’s College London. “There’s this really strong notion of free will, which is what my students all come into the classroom with,” she says. “To have free will, I must right now be able to behave just with no connection to any contingent plan – so however I like.”

“The laws of physics apparently don’t leave much room for free will”

Even leaving physics aside, that is clearly not the case. “We think that when we make a decision, the locus of control for behaviour is inside,” says Ismael. “But really, there’s all kinds of influences: cultural influences, psychological influences, influences that are more formative of our psychology that we don’t control and so on.”

Our choices are the result of a bundle of predilections formed by genetic nature and environmental nurture – a unique product of circumstances we aren’t necessarily in immediate control of (see “How likely are you?”). Fine, but there is an argument that this is just you being “you”. You can still choose to go against the grain of what you just decided. That, after all, is the core of free will as we experience it.

And to say that this sort of free will is incompatible with deterministic laws of physics is rather to get things the wrong way round, unless you advocate some sort of mysterious, non-physical essence of the mind. “Whatever we call free will must ultimately be explicable by the laws of physics,” says Knox.

The question is how. Lifting the lid on that vexed question is the subject of a new and burgeoning field of research looking, for example, at whether the property emerges from the ability of living, conscious organisms to organise and integrate information from many sources.

But “free will” is a term so laden with baggage that those involved prefer to think in terms of a subtly different concept called agency – an undeniable, if still inexplicable, ability to bundle up hopes, dreams, desires and compulsions and use them to change the world.


All of the “You: Special issue” features

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