Monday, June 30, 2008

Address to the Hampstead Humanist Society

This is a paper I gave to the Hampstead Humanists' society. Any Humanists who have any questions or wish to raise any points are more than welcome to add comments. To do this, scroll to the bottom. Click were it says comments, add your comment in the box. Click "anonymous" or "other". Please add your name in the comment at the top. Fill in the word recognition box. (its there to filter out spam). Sometimes you have to do this twice. Of course, you don't have to be a humanist to add a comment!


The aim of this talk is to dispel a philosophical myth and this myth is the myth of the self, where the self consists in consciousness. In order to effectively dispel a myth it is best to say what the myth actually is, and to check whether anybody believes it in the first place. So here goes:


The myth is that we all have an inner world which is transparently available to ourselves but invisible to everyone else. This world is the world of our consciousness. Without this world there would be nothing that corresponds to our self, and we would not exist in a first personal way. In this world are all our thoughts, our beliefs and desires, our emotions, our sensations and even the way things look to us and taste. Nobody else has access to this inner world but our selves. No one can know our thoughts, our emotions or even how things appear to us. According to this myth we are completely alone in our inner world.

Once we adopt the Myth of the Self, many problems instantly arise. How do we know that anyone else has this inner world, given that we have no access to it? All we have access to is our own inner world. And in that world are various sense impressions or sense data. These consist in patches of colour and light and shade, sounds and smells. From this raw data we build up pictures of whole bodies and in this way we can observe the behaviour of other people. But according to the Myth of the Self, we cannot deduce from these impressions that any body has thoughts and feelings like our own. For all we know, we could be alone in a planet of Zombies, who, although they move around and talk, have no consciousness. Why is this possible? Because we know about our own inner life though introspection, we are conscious of our beliefs and desires directly in a way that gives us certainty. But other people we only know about through exteroception, we only can guess at their inner life. We can only hope that they too have feelings and emotions like ours, we can never be certain. This is the myth of the self. It is the myth that we know everything about ourselves and nothing about anybody else.

The Myth of the Self has some very undesirable consequences. One of them is tied up with religion and morality and I think is relevant to Humanist concerns. The consequence I am talking about is the primacy of Self interest. If we adopt the Myth of the Self then it seems to follow easily that the only real motivation for anything is self interest. This is because action is motivated by beliefs and desires, and beliefs and desires exist only in the inner world. Fundamental desires, like the desire to avoid pain and seek pleasure, are therefore also only in the inner world. Since we have no access to these beliefs and desires in other people, we are not motivated to act in anyone’s interest but our own. This self interest is assumed in most economic models and in biological models as well. When people don’t act in their own best interest it is assumed that they are behaving irrationally. It is a consequence of the Myth of the Self that it is only possible to act rationally in one’s own self interest, since one does not have access to the beliefs and desires of others, so one cannot act upon them. Obvious acts of altruism, like common kindness and decency, are thus in need of explaining. But the Myth of the self has no problem here. If one acts in someone else’s interest it is because one has made their interest into ones own interest. A mighty example of this is in the religious answer to the question “Why be moral”. In another form: Why should I refrain from hurting Adam if hurting him is in my interest? A religious answer would be because Adams pain will be avenged by a judgemental God, and that God will make me suffer as I made Adam suffer. So in the end my motive from refraining from hurting Adam is just another Self motive and the Myth of the Self is preserved. The Myth of the Self is dangerous because it makes ordinary morally good behaviour appear irrational and in need of explanation.


To dispel the Myth of the Self I will show that when we think about it correctly it is clear that we are often conscious of other peoples so called “inner world”, and sometimes we can even be conscious of someone else’s beliefs and desires when they themselves are not. We can feel other people’s feelings without their feelings therefore becoming our feelings. We can act on other peoples desires without them becoming our desires and we can accept other people’s beliefs without them becoming our beliefs.

To do this I need to give a brief account of what beliefs and desires are, and what it is for us to be conscious of them. Beliefs and Desires are mental entities and therefore, according to the Myth of the Self, are accessible to our consciousness but are inaccessible to anyone else. But beliefs and desires issue in action and actions happen in the public world that is accessible to everyone through light and sound. Beliefs and desires are in the mind, whereas actions are in the world. For example, I believe my hat to have fallen on the floor. I desire that my hat should be on my head, so I act: I pick up the hat and put it on my head. The belief and desire came first, and they were in a way invisible. But they caused the action, and the action is perfectly visible. A belief is a kind of representation of how the world is. A desire is a representation of a way the world ought to be. So in general we believe what is true, and want what is good, or at least we try to.

Now it is perfectly clear that, even according to the myth of the self, we can be conscious of other people’s beliefs and desires in a kind of indirect way. But all this means is that we believe that other people have desires, and we are conscious of those beliefs. Suppose Susan were to see me pick my hat and put it on my head. It would be easy for her to deduce that I wanted my hat to be on my head, and that I believed it to have fallen to the ground. So in her inner consciousness she is conscious of me picking up my hat and she is conscious of her belief that I desire it to be on my head. But she is not conscious, according to the myth of the self, of my desire to put it on my head. Because if she was, then it would be necessarily her desire because one cannot be conscious of anyone else’s desire but one’s own. The difference between believing someone to have a desire, and being conscious of that desire, is that when one is conscious of a desire, then that desire has a motivating force. One is conscious of the motivating force in its effect on one’s action. To be conscious of a desire is to be conscious of a reason to act. To simply observe that someone has a particular desire in no way constitutes a reason to act in order to satisfy that desire.

The same distinction can be made of beliefs. I can be conscious in an indirect way that Susan believes that the winning lottery numbers will be 17 23 43 65 79. But, given that I desire to win the lottery, this does not motivate me to buy those numbers. Whereas if I was conscious that I believed those numbers would win, then I should be motivated to rush out and buy them immediately. According to the myth of the self, I can only be motivated in this way by my own beliefs, since these are the only ones that I can be conscious of directly.


So according to the myth of the Self, we can only be conscious of our own beliefs directly, and other people’s beliefs indirectly. This means that if it can be shown that we can be directly conscious of the beliefs of other people, then the Myth of the Self is proven to be false.

The place to start is to observe that quite often we are not conscious of our own beliefs. I do not just mean suppressed Freudian type unconscious beliefs, but also everyday background assumptions that we don’t even think about. For example, how many times in a day do you presuppose that the person you are talking to can understand English? For most of the people that you talk to, you already know they speak English. You’ve talked to them many times before and they’ve never had any difficulty understanding what you say, so it is perfectly reasonable to believe that they understand English. If you didn’t have this belief, then you would act differently. You wouldn’t talk to them in English, or perhaps you would talk slowly with accompanying hand gestures. So this belief has a causal influence on your behaviour.

But are you conscious of this belief?

Not necessarily. It is not obvious that this belief is a part of your consciousness, accessible only to you and to no one else. The act of talking to someone involves all sorts of assumptions, and although these assumptions are in some way being made, it can’t be that we are conscious of all of them. Most of these background assumptions are correct, otherwise the conversation would break down and end in misunderstanding. But it just can’t be that we are conscious of all these thousands of necessary background beliefs.

Here is a little story:

Hans is a German on holiday in the Falklands. Hans does not know what language people speak in the Falklands. He goes into a pub where he sees Jim talking English to Joan, the attractive woman at the bar. Hans realises that Jim believes that Joan can understand English, and thereby Hans deduces that English is the language of the Falklands. This belief has an effect on Hans’ behaviour since from this point on he will initiate conversations in the Falklands in English.
In this little story, Jim’s belief that Joan can understand English is in Hans’ consciousness, but not in Jim’s consciousness. Notice that Hans does not even have to believe that Joan can speak English for this belief to be in his consciousness. Perhaps he has already discovered that Joan can’t understand a word of English. He can still be conscious of Jim’s belief and make the inference that English is the language of the Falklands, without actually believing himself that Joan can speak English.

When we engage in a good conversation, there are many beliefs we hold in common. Normally the beliefs we hold in common are not the subject of the conversation, why would they be? Because they don’t need to be said, or argued for, they are not present before our minds. We are not conscious of them. It is undoubtably true that such common beliefs exist. Without them we would not be able to communicate at all.

But under the model of the mind presented in the Myth of the self, this seems incredible. If my own beliefs are directly accessible to me through introspection, whereas I can only infer your beliefs from your behaviour, how could I ever know that we have the same beliefs? And how could the beliefs really be the same at all?


Can we be conscious of other people’s desires? According to the myth of the self, we can only be indirectly conscious of the desires of others, but we are directly conscious of our own desires. It is only through this direct consciousness that a desire has any motivational force. On this picture the consciousness of a desire is in and of itself a reason to satisfy it. But while we can be indirectly conscious of the desires of others, we cannot feel their motivational force.

Now I think this is just flat wrong, and it is easy to come up with examples where a person is not conscious of their own desire while a third party is directly conscious of the desire’s motivational force.

It is best to break this down in to stages. The first stage is to give cases where a subject is directly conscious of their own desire without recognising its motivational force. Here’s another simple story: Fred has recently given up smoking. Bert offers Fred a cigarette using the conventional phrase “Do you want a cigarette?” Fred is honest and does not want to lie to Bert. He introspects. He is conscious of his desire to smoke a cigarette and so answers Bert’s question literally: “Yes I want a cigarette.” But he does not take one, because, although he recognises that he wants a cigarette, this desire has no motivational force. It does not provide him with a reason to smoke. In fact, in a way, its very strength provides him with a reason to be more resolute in his decision to stop smoking. Still, we want to say that he is conscious of his desire to smoke and that this desire is painful. Bert can recognise this desire and the pain it causes and resolve not to offer Fred any more cigarettes. Or alternatively, if Bert is not interested in Fred’s project of giving up smoking, Bert may try to persuade Fred to take a cigarette, since Bert himself may feel the motivational force of Fred’s desire in a way that Fred doesn’t.


Wittgenstein, when he wrote the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, made the observation that there is a lot more to language than propositions. Propositions are whatever is capable of being true or false. The philosophical background to Wittgenstein’s change in direction is complicated and controversial. Simply put the project of analytical philosophy exemplified in Wittgenstein’s earlier work, the Tractatus, had been to analyse language in terms of truth conditions of sentences. But a moment’s thought reveals that many sentences do not have truth conditions at all. One species of sentence that do not have truth conditions are Orders. In the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein uses the example “Bring me a yellow flower!”

If we attempt to translate this into a proposition, with the myth of the self, we can suggest that such an order is actually the expression of a desire: “I desire that you bring me a yellow flower”. Or perhaps a threat “If you do not bring me a Yellow flower, then I will punish you.” The first is a report of an inner mental entity that the speaker is conscious of through introspection. The latter is a conditional prediction. As such both are either true or false and are therefore propositions. But why should we even try to translate orders in this way? In seems that if anything is basic to the use of language, it is an order.


Here is another story. Princess Beth tells her faithful knight Alfred to bring her a yellow flower. Alfred knows exactly what she means. He goes off and searches for a yellow flower. The Princess does not think much of Alfred and quickly forgets all about him and her order. Alfred however is unshakably obedient to Beth and his consciousness is filled with his mission to fetch a yellow flower. Meanwhile her consciousness is filled with Sir Cuthbert, the dashing Red Knight.

Alfred is conscious of the Princesses desire and feels its motivational force. Her desire fills his consciousness and guides his actions. When he finds a yellow flower and brings it back, he will feel the satisfaction of her desire. Yet the Princess, once she has issued the order, need do nothing further. She need not even be conscious that the order has been satisfied. But it was her desire that was satisfied, not his. At no point do we need to suppose that Alfred wanted to fetch a yellow flower. If he had wanted to do this on his own account, then it would not have been a demonstration of his blind loyalty.

To put this into a more mundane setting, suppose Beth was a business women and Alf was a keen employee. Beth tells Alfred to organise a party for the employees to show the companies gratitude for their good work. However, she asks him to do it when she is away, since she finds such events painfully embarrassing. She also tells him to just get on with it and not trouble her with the details. Consequently she forgets all about it. Alfred organises a fantastic party and it is a great success. The employees feel valued and are more productive as a result. In this case, Alfred has satisfied Beth’s desire, and this is true whether or not Beth even bothers to enquire about the employee’s party. The desire, its motivational force and its satisfaction are all present in Alfred’s consciousness, whereas Beth is not conscious of the desire at all. But the desire is still Beth’s. Alfred may have had the opinion that employee’s parties are a waste of time and not wanted to organise one at all. In this story Alfred is conscious of Beth’s desire while Beth is not conscious of it. The desire, however, is Beth’s not Alf’s.

The most important species of consciousness of other people’s desires is in charitable giving. I am not talking about writing a cheque for Oxfam, I’m talking about acts that are aimed at satisfying someone else’s desire with no ulterior motive.

The story here is that Alfred is talking very earnestly with Fred about a game of football he watched. He is so engaged in his conversation that he does not notice that he is really thirsty and wants a drink of water. Beth, however, does notice that Alfred wants a glass of water, and without a thought for herself she pours him a glass of water and sets it at his elbow. Alfred picks up the glass and drains it off in a single swig. Alfred is so engaged in his conversation that he is not even aware that he is doing it. Beth, however, sees how his thirst is quenched and feels the satisfaction of it.

In this story, Beth became conscious of Alfred’s thirst, consciously took action to satisfy it, and was conscious of its satisfaction. Alfred however, was never conscious that he was thirsty, nor that his desire for water was satisfied. However, the desire for water was Alf’s, not Beth’s. Beth did not want to give Alfred water. She gave him water because he wanted water.


So it seems we can be conscious of other people beliefs and desires in a way that motivates us, even if they themselves are not conscious of those beliefs and desires.. But can we be conscious of other people’s feelings? The Myth of the Self says no, but once again I think the Myth of the Self is wrong.

In the previous examples it was already apparent that we can be conscious of the satisfaction of other peoples desires, desires that we are in the business of satisfying. When we are set a task by somebody, or organise a surprise for somebody or help somebody get something they want, we feel a sense of satisfaction, and this feeling is the satisfaction of their desire.

Compassion is possible. Compassion involves feeling somebody else’s feelings with them. People are more or less compassionate and some people have no compassion at all. Those with no compassion are considered to be mentally deficient and are diagnosed as psychopaths. The Myth of the Self can have no account of compassion. If other people’s suffering is inaccessible to us, then how can anybody be anything other than a psychopath? People in the grip of the Myth of the Self tend to think of themselves as being sensible and realistic. Economists and Biologists act as if the Myth of the Self is hard fact. But how realistic is it to suppose that we are all psychopaths?

Cruelty is also difficult for the Myth of the Self. It is well known that children are cruel. Then can spot very quickly when a certain phrase will cause somebody discomfort or embarrassment and repeat it endlessly. School bullies also delight in the physical suffering of their victims. In darker days, physical punishments meted out by the state drew large crowds. In Roman times the citizen would pay to watch people eaten alive. What is this cruelty? The simple answer is that it is the taking pleasure in someone else’s pain. But if people’s feelings are inaccessible, hidden from view, then what are these people taking pleasure in? Surely it is not the wincing of the face, or the flailing of the arms. These are just the signs of pain. The bully is exalting in the pain he is inflicting in itself. And it is an important part of this exaltation that the pain is felt by someone else. The bully has to be conscious of the feelings of another.

Can one feel somebody else’s happiness? Yes. Here is a story: A couple of newly weds who’ve just come in to a pile of money burst into a room babbling their good news and the whole room brightens up. Even poor Mavis who is terribly alone and grieving for her dead husband starts to smile.. Mavis can still feel the happiness of the young couple, and for a moment forgets her own grief. She is not feeling her own happiness, because she is unhappy. She is feeling the happiness of the young couple and their good luck.

Perhaps easier than happiness is laughter. Laughter is renowned for being infectious. What is it to be conscious when you are laughing? It is certainly a good thing. I even think that it is perhaps the best form of consciousness. A distinction is often made between laughing with someone or laughing at them. What is it to laugh with someone? Sometimes lovers or friends can just look at each other and begin laughing for no apparent reason, and laugh this way for a long time. Whole comedy audiences can laugh together at some shared joke. Pre lingual infants can laugh. When you are fully conscious of someone else laughing, then you often can’t help laughing yourself. Laughter is by its very nature shared. It doesn’t seem to fit the model of an inaccessible private feeling. Yet it feels like something to laugh. It feels good.

Can one be conscious of friendship? Of course. Sometimes people yearn to talk to their friend or even just enjoy being silently in their company. What are they yearning for? They are yearning for the presence of their friend, and this is something consciously felt. When you are conscious that your friend is walking behind you, it is the friend who is in your consciousness. Not such and such a view of their body or such and such a facial expression. This consciousness of your friend is not a feeling of friendliness that only you are aware of and is hidden from view. You are conscious of your friend and that they are your friend and that the friendship is mutual. Friendship is impossible according to the Myth of the self, since the mutual feeling involves an infinite regress. I infer from his actions that he infers from my actions that I infer from his actions that etc. etc. etc. But people are friends and so we must be able to directly apprehend this relation. The Myth of the Self cannot tolerate friendship.

Much the same can be said of love. In fact love is the vehicle by which we can become conscious of the beliefs, desires and feelings of another. The examples I have given do not involve telepathy or anything mysterious like this. I leave it to neuro scientists to learn how it is we can be conscious of the minds of others. But it is abundantly clear from my own experience that when someone loves someone, they can often know exactly what they are thinking and feeling, and what is more, feel the motivational force of their desires and the credible force of their beliefs. It is a common phenomena that a man and wife will have a furious row over some trivial disagreement, a disagreement that they would shrug off in a stranger. Why is this? A contradiction in the shared beliefs of lovers is an intolerable thing. They can feel the credible force of their own beliefs, and equally strongly the credible force of their spouse’s beliefs. Agreeing to disagree is not an option, because both beliefs have a motive force in one consciousness. Without love, then it may be that the beliefs and desires of others are truly inaccessible. The myth of the self ignores the possibility of love.

Love, laughter, happiness and suffering it seems we can share. But these are complex things, and maybe a good proponent of the myth of the self will have a complex answer to all of these points. A much simpler feeling is raw physical pain. Is it possible to feel someone else’s pain? Surely pain is a private thing that only the person who is in pain can be conscious of? Philosophers of love and laughter are few and far between, but, especially since Wittgenstein, Philosophers of pain are two a penny. And the myth of the self, as I am calling it, is of such consensus with regard to pain that it is reported as fact without argument in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of philosophy. Here are two quotes:

“Like other experiences as conscious episodes, pains are thought to be private, subjective, self-intimating, and the source of incorrigible knowledge
Pains are said to be private to their owners in the strong sense that no one else can epistemically access one's pain in the way one has access to one's own pain, namely by feeling it and coming to know one is feeling it on that basis”
[Murat Aydede (2005).]

The Stanford reports this as the common sense theory of pain. But is this common sense?

Here is a picture of what it would be like to feel someone else’s pain. I see someone bump their head and my experience includes a painful feeling. Surely I am not alone in seeing someone bump their head and feeling the pain myself. I am not some telepath, or extraordinary person. Even the most low brow football fan can be heard to say “Ooh, I felt that,” when seeing a particularly nasty tackle. When carried away by a film we can feel the pain of various sympathetic characters. Not as our pain, but as their pain. It is common enough in films and doubtless in real life too, that when a violent man wants to extract information from someone who is strong enough to resist torture, they will instead torture the girlfriend or the children, since it takes a different kind of strength to ignore the pain of your loved ones. The logic of this needs no explaining to men of violence, but to philosophers of the mind it is unaccountable. What is worse: being tortured, or knowing that your wife is being tortured? According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy this is not a well formed question since pain is essentially private, so you can never know that your wife is in pain.

Perhaps I will be accused of playing with words here. It is one thing to prefer to suffer yourself than to have someone else suffer. It is another thing to be able to literally feel their pain. But if a cinema showed someone getting their fingers jammed in a door and there is a collective sharp intake of breath from the audience, is it really playing with words to say that the audience felt the pain? Of course it wasn’t their pain they were feeling, they felt the pain of the person in the film. Perhaps a proponent of the myth of the self would want to say that the audience weren’t literally feeling the pain. But if they weren’t literally feeling the pain then what? Were they symbolically feeling the pain? Metaphorically? Were they going through the motions? None of this makes sense to me, let alone common sense.

Perhaps this idea of the privacy of pain is a result of philosophy being done in lonely offices and bedrooms. When a philosopher wraps his knuckles against his desk while writing an article about pain, then it is true that no one else felt his pain apart from himself. But then no one else could see him wrap his knuckles against the desk either. It is not his feeling of pain that is essentially private, but his office.

The idea that pain is epistemically private also results from of a kind of naïve picture of how the body works. I have a nerve that runs from my toe to my brain, so when I stub my toe, the pain messages go from my toe to my brain. But when Jack stubs his toe, there is no nerve that goes from Jack’s toe to my brain. Therefore I cannot feel his pain. This is a kind of Victorian plumbing model of consciousness.

This simple argument involves accepting this simple model of pain. But the simple model doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It is appealing, but it is not scientific. It is easy to disprove it. If we could only feel pain when there was a nerve connecting the painful area to the brain, then there could be no phantom pain. Phantom pain is when an amputee feels pain in an absent limb. There is no nerve where he feels the pain. Such a patient is still thought of as being in pain. The naïve model of pain that asserts the privacy of felt pain would deny that phantom is really pain at all.

Another reason to suspect the model of being false is the consideration that pain can be abated by distraction. A tooth that throbs appalling in a darkened room, can be completely forgotten about when the room fills with people. But presumably the nerve signals from the damaged tooth are constant, so why is there a variation in the pain?

One cannot deny the phenomena just because it doesn’t fit in with one’s theory. We can be conscious of other peoples feelings, beliefs, desires and motives. How we do this is a matter for scientists to work out. An interesting aside here is that there are quite plausible hypotheses that link emotional experiences to status. In the human case, one can be directly conscious of the status of somebody else and this consciousness will be causally effective in one’s attitudes toward them. (fawning to high status, condescending to low status) This status awareness is well documented in other animals and zoologists have little difficulty spotting “Alpha Males” and dominance hierarchies. Some very convincing experiments have shown that status is directly correlated to blood serotonin levels. So much so that in experiments on Rhesus monkeys it was found that one could artificially increase the status of a particular individual monkey by merely increasing its serotonin levels. (For a way in to this research go to this web address: M The question might be asked “how can the other monkeys tell that the individual monkey now has increased serotonin levels?” A number of answers suggest themselves, but none follows directly from the data. If the serotonin levels really are the physical correlate of high status, then the question might be “how do monkeys recognise the status of other monkeys.” The very question shows that the fact that they do recognise the status of other monkeys is already established. People also clearly recognise when other people are in pain. How we do it is not known. The Myth of the self might impede a proper scientific enquiry into this interesting question.


In conclusion our conscious experience is filled with people and their thoughts and feelings, whether we are engaged in conversation, sharing time with friends or feeling compassion for a lover. We are not alone in our consciousness, it is not a private inaccessible world. Our consciousness is open to anyone who cares to love us, or even to hate us. And it is even possible that other people could be conscious of elements of our minds that we are not even conscious of ourselves.

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