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Tallis in Wonderland

Brains, Minds, Selves

Raymond Tallis uses all three to show that he has all three.

It is over a decade since your columnist challenged the claim, made by several philosophers, that the self does not really exist (‘Saving the Self’, Philosophy Now Issue 63). Among them, Tor Norretranders called the self a ‘user illusion’ (The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, 1999). To press home his message, Norretranders asserted that “the epoch of the ‘I’ is drawing to a close.” As usual, my arguments seem to have had little impact; the autocidal industry has gone from strength to strength. The claim that selves are constructs fabricated by people who are not selves is now almost mainstream in philosophy and psychology. Time, therefore, to resume the good fight to save the self from the autocides.


Last time round, I pointed out that the self-deniers are usually contradicting themselves (or non-selves). I began with the most famous autocide of them all, David Hume. In his Treatise of Human Nature (, he argued as follows:

“For my part, 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 can never catch myself at any time without a perception and can never observe but the perception.”

David Hume concludes from this that ‘David Hume’ is nothing more than a succession of perceptions; a mere ‘bundle’ of experiences associated with one another.

If this really were the case, then it would be difficult to know what meaning to give to the ‘I’ that appears four times in the passage just quoted, or to the ‘my’ and ‘self’ that he refers to as myself. A bundle or train of perceptions would not seem to have the capacity to rise above itself to proclaim that its selfhood is no more than the bundle or train of perceptions.

That this charge of pragmatic self-refutation does not seem to cut much ice with autocides suggests that what is needed is not a counter-argument but a diagnosis to explain the otherwise inexplicable popularity of a view that cannot be stated without contradiction. Behind many autocides is a phobia – a fear that accepting the reality of the self means subscribing to Cartesian dualism or to the view that one is or has a soul, or at least its secular equivalent.

This is, of course, nonsense. It is entirely possible, without invoking immaterial spirits, to acknowledge that the Raymond Tallis who was a junior doctor in 1973 and who is a retired physician in 2018 refers to the same self when he says ‘I’. Memory, the connectedness of experience, the continuity of characters traits, a distinctive body of knowledge and a repertoire of skills, supported by the cladding that comes from the world that acknowledges him as the same person, along with the ‘address’ (in the widest sense) that he has in that world, the offices he occupies, the audit trail of his responsibility, and so on – these are sufficient to underpin a non-illusory, enduring self. What’s more, the connectedness is often self-affirming – most notably when RT takes justified ownership of his past experiences and the world in which they took place, and of his behaviour in that world.

All of which is pretty obvious. So why does the idea of the self as an illusion have such a hold? It may be because the rejection of the notion that we are ghosts in a machine has created space for the idea that we are just a machine. The machine in question is the brain and the brain, being a material object, cannot host an immaterial self. More precisely, the self is an illusion created by the brain.

Psychologist Nick Chater’s recent book, The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind (2018) is devoted to this very idea. Indeed, more radically, he claims that even ‘mental depth’ is an illusion: the surface is all that there is: “To believe that we have constructed a ‘picture’ of the visual world in our minds is to fall for the illusion of mental depth, hook, line, and sinker” (p.82). His idea of the mind is of something entirely ‘in-the-moment’, and indeed, without breadth: the mind is a pin-point. If we disagree with this, it is because “almost everything we know about our minds is a hoax, played on us by our brains” (p.15). A hoax that Chater’s brain has mysteriously unmasked.

The grounds for this extraordinary claim are worth examining. Take visual experience. Our visual focus is sharply concentrated in a minute area of each retina. You may feel that you are currently looking at a page of print, but what you are seeing is one word at a time, with everything else being ignored. Your sense that you have a visual field – corresponding, for example, to a view of a room or a landscape – is an illusion. The feeling that we are simultaneously grasping a ‘whole’ is the result of being fooled by our brain into thinking “that we ‘see’ the stable, rich, colourful world before us in a single visual gulp, whereas the truth is that our visual connection with the world is no more than a series of localized ‘nibbles’.”(p.54) And what applies to perception applies even more strongly to thought, feelings, to the exercise of our will, and to our sense of being unified or coherent selves. To imagine that our mind is more than fleeting fragments and to think of ourselves as having inner depths is therefore to fall victim to a Grand Illusion.

Brains, Minds, Selves
Graphic © Amy Baker 2018. Please visit instagram.com/amy_louisebaker

The Illusion of an Illusion

Illusion? Hardly. After all, the richness of the world that we see is clearly not an illusion. The seething vista of events and objects that is the moment-to-moment appearance of the world around us clearly corresponds to reality; and so to see a rich world is not to be the victim of any illusion. I see a room or a landscape, as opposed to pin-pricks of sense data, because there is a room or a landscape to see. If there is an illusion, it is a little one, about the processes underlying visual consciousness, not about the objects of consciousness. But rather than even an illusion, since most of us are not up to speed with the latest research in the psychology and physiology of perception, it is merely an unawareness of those processes. Indeed, if we were aware of those processes as we looked around us, we would be distracted to the point of being blind. Anyway, all that psychology shows us is that at least one version of the representational theory of experience is bankrupt – and that our visual experiences are not realist pictures in the head, mirror images of our surroundings. Psychology does not show us that our having an experience of a complex world is an illusion. In fact, if the mind were a succession of moments, and the idea of enduring mental phenomena, such as beliefs, were untrue, it is difficult to see how Chater could have become sufficiently together in order to write a book (which was presumably planned, researched, and written over many years) in support of those beliefs. In short, the existence of The Mind is Flat is itself the most decisive refutation of the thesis contained between its covers.

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously argued that his method was to “pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense” – thereby undermining daft ideas that may have seemed like serious philosophical positions. We are indebted to Chater for doing something like this, albeit inadvertently. More importantly, he illustrates the absurdity of taking empirical science as having the capacity to overturn our fundamental intuitions about our own nature.

The Mind is Flat also illustrates how reducing persons or selves to their brains – what we may call ‘brainifying’ the person – invariably involves personifying the brain and treating it as if it were, after all, a kind of self. The brain, Chater tells us, perpetrates “hoaxes”, “solves problems”, “is continuously scrambling to link together scraps of sensory information”, trying to organize and interpret them. All of this is, “in a very real sense mindless” – although (with a characteristic wobble) Chater asserts that we (italics mine) are “relentless improvisers, powered by a mental engine, perpetually creating meaning from sensory input.” How very like a self!

At any rate, for Chater, the sense that we are extended in time is simply a report of “the brain’s interpretation” (p.176). Therefore: “talk of being conscious of one’s self is incoherent nonsense – ‘selves’, after all, aren’t part of the sensory world. And all ‘higher’ forms of consciousness (being conscious of being self-conscious), though beloved of some philosophers, are nonsense on stilts” (p.183).

“There is the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back” J.L. Austin once said caustically about philosophers who claimed to adhere to counterintuitive views. And Chater takes it back in spades. For example: “what makes each of us unique is our individual and particular history – our own specific trail of precedents in thought and action. We are each unique, in short, because of the endless variety of our layered history of thoughts and actions” (p.202). Layered? In a mind without mental depth?

Time for the Self

We do not need psychologists to tell us that we won’t find the self by examining the brain and that brains are fundamentally different from selves. For example, the state of the brain at given time is confined to what it is at that time. It cannot reach out to its own past, not even to those past events that have shaped it, or to its future, or to the timeless zone of general meanings and facts that we take account of to make sense of our lives. The self, by contrast, is not temporally confined in this way. RT in 2018 is open to, aware of, RT in 1973 in the way that his body or brain is not open to its past. It is clear then that the brain does not have the wherewithal to hoax us and to coin the ‘illusion’ of the self with its various modes of self-consciousness. The brain is as temporally flat, as temporally depthless, as the mind according to Chater. Brains could fool us into believing that we are or have selves only, per impossibile, by borrowing the capacities that actual minds (persons, selves) have.

That I am a self is hardly something I can be mistaken about. As Dan Zahavi has pointed out, we cannot take the subjective dimension of our experiential lives seriously without ascribing our experiences to a self as a “built-in feature of experiential life” (‘Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, Selfhood: A Reply to some Critics’ 2018). This seems unassailable. But, he adds, we mustn’t think of that self as something present in experience – either “as additional experiential object or as an extra experiential ingredient.” To do so would be to fall foul of Hume’s critique. Selfhood, Zahavi concludes, is inseparable from the quality that experience has of being first-personal, of being mine.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2018

Raymond Tallis’ new book, Logos: The Mystery of How We Make Sense of the World has recently been published by Agenda.

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