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Nowhere Men

Nick Inman wants to know where you’re at.

Are you ready for the ultimate trick question? Here it is: Am I me, and are you? That is: do I and you exist? Only a yes/no answer is allowed. It wouldn’t be good philosophy to say that you ‘sort of’ exist, nor that you are a working assumption pending further investigation. It is also essential that we don’t just wriggle out of this question by playing with words and definitions.

The easiest way forward would be to defer to the great minds that have been wrestling with this problem over the last few decades. Consensus among them, reached by reasoning based on the evidence of brain science, is steadily hardening. I’m going to attempt to show why this consensus is not only wrong – because it is based on a dodgy premise – but dangerously misguided.

The Materialist Orthodoxy

Many contemporary philosophers begin by ruling out the question ‘Who are you?’ as only of interest to an anthropologist: ‘who’ defines a person by his relationship to other people – it doesn’t shed any light on human nature. The crunch question, which is the only one a physical scientist would allow, is ‘ What am I?’

Now we’re dealing with stuff. What else is there to deal with? If everything that exists is stuff – matter – then it is obvious that if I am, I must be something too. It would also help to say where I am because, as Eccles in The Goon Show put it, “Everybody’s got to be somewhere.”

Well, there’s only one place I can be. Whatever my self is, it must be me the animal, the biological organism, or part thereof. So I am inseparable from my body: I move around with it, I rely on it for input and output. When my body dies I will disappear.

The search for me can be narrowed down further. Although I have a foot, I would not say that I am a foot. Rather, the part of me that perceives and thinks is behind my eyes. “Logically,” says neurobiologist Dick Swaab, “you are your brain” (We Are Our Brains, 2014).

End of mystery. I am found and explained. All that is left is to sort out the neuroscience of why I feel who I feel. I may still believe that there’s more to me than one and a half kilos of electrically active meat – that my rich inner life is more than biological. I dream, I create, I engage in abstract thought. Above all, unlike any other species I know of, I am self-conscious and able to tell another being about myself. There must be something more going on, surely?

Not necessarily. Experiments with computers have shown that if you start with simple building materials (basically, stuff capable of binary logic functions) arrange them into complex patterns, then pile complexity on complexity and let the system run by itself, adding to its knowledge by learning, then you can get extraordinary manifestations of artificial intelligence that can fool an observer into thinking it’s conscious. The resultant ‘being’ appears uncanny, as if it must have been instituted by a supernatural creator. But not at all: reverse the procedure by stripping the complexity down into its components, and you will see that there’s no deus ex machina involved. The whole was only ever a sum of its parts, even if it seemed to our minds to acquire a quality of being more than that.

It’s the same with the brain, the materialists argue. Really complex complexity can even convince itself (ie, me) that it is someone, a self, an entity which feels real and substantial and of intrinsic worth. Yet my innermost self is not a ‘pearl’ – an enduring thing of substance – but a bundle of properties that temporarily come together to make a person. Whatever my beliefs about God and the soul, I am nothing more than a (perhaps gloriously deluded) biological automaton. Daniel Dennett has described the self as a ‘Center of Narrative Gravity’, by which he means that I am no different to a fictional character which I and the world make up, and that my sense of self is similar to my centre of gravity: I have to have one, although I can’t locate it precisely. However, I wouldn’t be able to function if I knew that I was merely a coalition of my members, so nature pulls a confidence trick. In effect, it lies to me through my brain. In order to live well in society and to be motivated in pursuit of its own interests, the organism needs to have the illusion of separateness, autonomy, and significance. Therefore, I need to believe in a self that is substantial, coherent and sustainable; above all, a self which matters. That I only think I exist has been called the ‘self illusion’ by Bruce Hood (in The Self Illusion: Why There is No ‘You’ Inside Your Head, 2012). When this is understood, I can begin to see myself in an entirely different way: I am better thought of as not a noun but a verb. What I call my ‘self’ is really my brain ‘braining’.

An intellectual consensus is coalescing around this materialist (or physicalist) view. Many of our greatest contemporary thinkers are quite happy to announce in public, without any irony, that they do not really exist. It has almost become a badge of macho pride (they’re mostly men, as it happens). It is as if we are in the grip of a new fashion for personal nihilism. The theme around the year 1000 AD was the end of the world; in the twenty-first century we have gone one better and declared the end of ourselves.

Nowhere Men
Nowhere Men illustration © Steve Lillie 2016. Please visit

I Confess To Heresy

It is not respectable any more to speak up for dualism, the notion that there are two kinds of stuff, the material and the immaterial, body and mind. But I would like to point out that the materialist’s argument as I have set it out above does not run smoothly from premise to conclusion, and that dualism is not just a theoretical possibility. It is quite literally inescapable. You are living proof.

Half of me does not exist; or at least, I cannot prove to you that it exists – isn’t that the same thing? And I assume it’s the same for you. I can give you independent confirmation of my name, occupation, address, passport number; but I find it hard, if not impossible, to convey to your senses anything about what I think of as the real me – the invisible, intangible, internal sensations of which only I am aware, and which are wholly beyond words and demonstration.

The point I’m making is that the materialist argument as set out above only works in as far as we must speak objectively about the universe, and specifically, about human beings, including when you speak about someone else. You, to me, are an object like any other physical thing. I have no direct access to what goes on in your mind. From outside it is quite clear to me that you are an animal, and that everything about you can be expressed in terms of zoology. If you say you are a conscious, thinking being, I may give you the benefit of the doubt, but I am not going to accept it as demonstrated fact in the same way that I know your hand can hold things.

However, if I turn my attention inward, everything changes.

Unlike all the phenomenon I have experienced through my senses (including reading about them), I have certain unusual properties:

• I am the only substance in the universe of which I have intimate direct knowledge.

• I am the only substance I can experience that I cannot examine objectively, in the sense of carrying out an experiment free of bias and error.

• I am experienced differently from the outside and the inside, with no join between the two perspectives.

• I am the only possible expert on this aspect of myself.

• I am unique. For all I know, I may not even be like you.

I literally cannot put my finger on myself. I don’t have mass or volume. I am not solid, liquid, gas, or even another kind of physical substance. Some may think I am merely my brain braining, and so conclude that my believing in my conscious self is an ‘ego trick’, but I have good reason to believe that my doing so is not a trick: I am proof to myself (but not to you) that there is more to me than matter. I know it, because I am it. This is more than “I think, therefore I am.” Trite as this may sound, I know I am because I am.

The Nothing Beyond Words

I immediately crash into an insurmountable problem in talking about this to you. How do I describe this self that I know to exist? What word can I use for such a ‘non-thing’ which is not ‘nothing’? ‘Something’ and ‘substance’ will probably only mislead you. To call me ‘sensation’ may make you assume that my being is reducible to what can be sensed, and then you will fall into line with David Hume, who wrote, “when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception” (A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 1, Part 4, Section 6, 1738) – and so denied the existence of the self. To call myself a ‘concept’ would assume that I am an abstract phenomenon, a construct even. In order not to mislead ourselves, perhaps we’d do better to adopt a symbol which has no definition or potential mistranslation: it stands for what it stands for.

If language is one trap we continually fall into when discussing human identity, another is false analogy. It is, for example, erroneous to suppose that a brain is a glorified input-output computer running a program supplied by an organism’s DNA. The organic is radically different from the inorganic, and furthermore human awareness and thought, as far as we can tell, are radically different from anything else in organic nature.

So what am I, this ‘symbol that was formerly known as Nick Inman’? I am a meaning-maker. The meaning that I apply to the universe comes from me, even the meaning that I allocate to logic, reason, and the evidence gained through the senses. Without me nothing means anything, or to put it another way, without this immaterial sensation of awareness I have, the universe might as well not exist. It is gobbledygook to talk, for instance, about the laws of science as separate from the conscious creatures who codified them. One easy illustration of this idea is to look at any object, remove its name and forget everything else you remember about it: what is left has no meaning. Anyone who doubts this must imagine an undiscovered, uninhabited planet somewhere in the cosmos on which meaning exists independent of thought. How? And how would we ever know? We would need to imagine that such a world is verified by a computer not build by human beings, and that does not report its findings back to anyone.

You Need To Know Yourself To Know Anything Else

Scientists and philosophers, including the most eminent, frequently gloss over an unjustified assumption: that they, the person reporting their results to us, are an objective instrument. But however much I may claim to be peddling objective truths, ultimately, what I am doing is reporting my subjective experiences.

A few years ago, the British philosopher Galen Strawson wrote a long, erudite piece for the London Review of Books (26 September 2013) which began: “I’m a naturalist, an out-and-out naturalist, a philosophical or metaphysical naturalist, a naturalist about concrete reality. I don’t think anything supernatural or otherwise non-natural exists.” I tried to read his arguments but I got lost on the first half of the first word. Anyone who is going to make confident statements about the nature of reality should first define him- or herself.

The entire project of human knowledge is back to front. The ambition of science is to explain the universe, which means getting around to explaining human consciousness whenever feasible. But without starting from the fact of consciousness, explaining anything is like drawing conclusions from the results produced by an uncalibrated machine, or, if we are to be brutally honest, using an optical instrument of mysterious hidden workings to examine itself. For an immaterial entity to insist that all must be matter, then the self must be matter; and so, since the so-called ‘self’ has none of the properties of matter, it does not exist. This is about irrational as you can get. I exist. Moreover, it is only logical for me, an immaterial presence, to suppose that I am not alone. There must be more immateriality in the universe. You, for instance, behind your eyes and beyond whatever words you say, if you exist, must be immaterial like me.

The Pay-Off For Not Existing

So why do so many very intelligent, well-educated people in high-status academic positions claim the opposite? I can only suppose there is a pay off for the ‘Nowhere Men’ that makes them hurry through the premises of their argument – including the dodgy ideas that the world is only what exists objectively, or in other words, that there is only material stuff – to get to the conclusion of their non-existence.

There are several important victories to be gained by denying your own existence if you are a modern philosopher or scientist. Some of them are to do with shying away from the fear of not knowing and the unknowable. The most prominent of these is that it gets around the thorny problem of consciousness, releasing science from an impossible bind, since if consciousness is ‘merely the brain functioning’, we don’t need to consider an immaterial aspect to the universe. We also don’t need to talk anymore about the mind, or the spirit or soul. This delivers a knock-out blow to religion, which now becomes a form of culture akin to art: indulge if you want to, but don’t claim to be making a contribution to knowledge. At the same time, any objection to materialism is pre-empted: altered states – dreams, drugs, meditation, visions, and what are merely called ‘mental’ illnesses – can be accounted for in purely materialist terms, that is, in purely neuroscientific terms. The emotions are downgraded, love now being defined as one brain process communicating with another brain process. Moreover, all competing views of reality, and all ‘weirdnesses’, such as complementary medicine and true self-sacrifice (as opposed to the bowdlerized versions of altruism accepted by neoDarwinists) are ruled absurd. Intuition, and personal mystical knowledge are automatically derided. With all the alternatives out of the way, the Nowhere Men can now stake a monopoly on truth. Evidence becomes everything. Eventually there will be nothing that does not fit into a model or formula. If man is nothing but a mechanical animal, all his affairs become predictable and calculable. Political affairs will be judged by science, as will be ethics.

An even bigger prize would be to finally end the argument concerning whether humans are special or not. The materialists would rather make us subhuman than superhuman. If the self is illusory, if there is only biology, then the human being is just an animal. This gets us off a really painful hook: our moral responsibility to other species and the planet. More insidiously, to deny the human mind and the complementary moral responsibility of free will is, perhaps unconsciously (if you will forgive the pun) to promote the modern project of rampant, selfish, immoral consumerism. The modern values of ephemerality and you-only-get-one-life-so-you-may-as-well-do-what-you-want hedonism are triumphant.

So this kind of thinking has a very distasteful endgame, which can play out in two different ways. One way is that because we are nothing special, in fact don’t even really exist, it doesn’t really matter what happens to us, or what we do to the world. Who cares which dystopia we end up with when there is no ‘we’ to live with its effects? The other way forward is, that if we trust in science completely it will take over the role of development once allocated to God, and ensure that we evolve into successful sentient robots. Key to the modern notion of progress is a belief that technology can and will solve all problems. More than that, it will improve us. And if the self is no more than the output of the machine – if consciousness is just a sequence of brain code a bit more sophisticated than Microsoft Office – it follows without any insuperable moral or other difficulties that to upload a human being to something better than a human body, is a desirable end.

Negating The Self-Negation

I suspect that many of the Nowhere Men see the absurdity of the position they have chosen, although they don’t know how to get out of it. Significantly, when David Hume absented himself from existence, he left a door of hope open behind him: “If anyone, upon serious and unprejudiced reflection, thinks he has a different notion of himself… he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continued, which he calls himself; though I am certain there is no such principle in me.”

If we are to paddle our way out of the whirlpool of oblivion to which the materialists would apparently consign us, we must start by accepting that we are subjective creatures, and that reductionism in the case of consciousness only leads to misunderstanding. If you think you are observing reality objectively, not subjectively, you should not forget that you are in it, way above your neck.

We shouldn’t place all our trust only in branches of human knowledge prefixed ‘neuro’. To do so takes us into an endless loop of the human self exorcising the human self. On the contrary, quantum physics suggests that we must allow there to be different levels of explanation to any given phenomena and that sometimes you just have to accept apparent strangeness for what it is. So could I be both a ‘pearl of self’ and a ‘bundle of perceptions’, depending on which direction I look at myself from, and at which moment?

True intellectual courage lies not in declaring yourself publically to be nothing, and your person a mere animal brain whirring away in the service of genes. It consists in accepting that you are something more than that, even if you can’t say exactly what.

© Nick Inman 2016

Nick Inman’s most recent book is A Guide To Mystical France: Secrets, Mysteries, Sacred Sites, published by Findhorn Press. He is also the author of Who On Earth Are You?, which began as a letter to his bank apologizing for not being able to confirm his true identity.


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