We all believe in what we call our ‘real self’, the one that stays with us notwithstanding changes we experience throughout life. We find comfort in the idea that our true self is a permanent thing and is always there for us to offer stability in life’s unstable and chaotic order of things. It really emerges as the result of our need to be defined by and identified with something recognizable, something which is perpetual and real.
Julian Baggini challenges the idea of a permanent self, as he believes that “there isn’t actually a “you” at the heart of all these experiences…” What is there, then? Well, clearly there are memories, desires, intentions, sensations, and so forth. But what happens is these things exist, and they’re kind of all integrated, they’re overlapped, they’re connected in various different ways. They’re connecting partly, and perhaps even mainly, because they all belong to one body and one brain. But there’s also a narrative, a story we tell about ourselves, the experiences we have when we remember past things. We do things because of other things. So what we desire is partly a result of what we believe, and what we remember is also informing us what we know. “And so really, there are all these things, like beliefs, desires, sensations, experiences, they’re all related to each other, and that just is you.” In many ways, our self is the result of all these connections we make between everything happening to and around us.
Baggini also opposes the idea of an illusory self, proposed by many psychologists today who claim that the self is an illusion. He doesn’t think that this is a very helpful way of looking at it. “The fact that we are, in some ways, just this very, very complex collection, ordered collection of things, does not mean we’re not real.” We have to see ourselves as something which keeps all things together, we are a continuous process and are forever changing.
The model Julian Baggini proposes for understanding ourselves is a liberating one. “Because if you think that you have this fixed, permanent essence, which is always the same, throughout your life, no matter what, in a sense you’re kind of trapped. You’re born with an essence, that’s what you are until you die… But if you think of yourself as being, in a way, not a thing as such, but a kind of a process, something that is changing, then I think that’s quite liberating… There are limits to what we can achieve. There are limits to what we can make of ourselves. But nevertheless, we do have this capacity to, in a sense, shape ourselves. The true self, as it were then, is not something that is just there for you to discover, you don’t sort of look into your soul and find your true self. What you are partly doing, at least, is actually creating your true self.”