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TEDxYouth@Manchester

Julian Baggini: Is there a real you?

November 3, 2011

What makes you, you? Is it how you think of yourself, how others think of you, or something else entirely? In this talk, Julian Baggini draws from philosophy and neuroscience to give a surprising answer. (Filmed at TEDxYouth@Manchester.)

Julian Baggini - Philosopher
Julian Baggini is a journalist and philosopher who studies the complexities of personal identity. He is the editor-in-chief of the Philosophers' Magazine. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Is there a real you?
00:12
This might seem to you
like a very odd question.
00:13
Because, you might ask,
00:16
how do we find the real you,
00:18
how do you know what the real you is?
00:21
And so forth.
00:23
But the idea that there must be a real you,
00:24
surely that's obvious.
00:27
If there's anything real
in the world, it's you.
00:28
Well, I'm not quite sure.
00:31
At least we have to understand
a bit better what that means.
00:33
Now certainly, I think there are
lots of things in our culture around us
00:36
which sort of reinforce the idea
00:40
that for each one of us,
we have a kind of a core, an essence.
00:42
There is something about what it means
to be you which defines you,
00:46
and it's kind of permanent and unchanging.
00:49
The most kind of crude way
in which we have it,
00:51
are things like horoscopes.
00:53
You know, people are very wedded
to these, actually.
00:54
People put them on their Facebook profile
00:57
as though they are meaningul,
00:59
you even know
your Chinese horoscope as well.
01:01
There are also
more scientific versions of this,
01:04
all sorts of ways of profiling
personality type,
01:06
such as the Myers-Briggs tests,
for example.
01:09
I don't know if you've done those.
01:12
A lot of companies
use these for recruitment.
01:13
You answer a lot of questions,
01:15
and this is supposed to reveal
something about your core personality.
01:18
And of course, the popular fascination
with this is enormous.
01:22
In magazines like this, you'll see,
01:25
in the bottom left corner,
they'll advertise in virtually every issue
01:27
some kind of personality thing.
01:31
And if you pick up one of those magazines,
01:33
it's hard to resist, isn't it?
01:34
Doing the test to find
what is your learning style,
01:36
what is your loving style,
or what is your working style?
01:39
Are you this kind of person or that?
01:42
So I think that we have a common-sense idea
01:44
that there is a kind of core
or essence of ourselves
01:48
to be discovered.
01:51
And that this is kind of a permanent truth
about ourselves,
01:52
something that's the same throughout life.
01:56
Well, that's the idea I want to challenge.
01:58
And I have to say now,
I'll say it a bit later,
02:02
but I'm not challenging this
just because I'm weird,
02:04
the challenge actually has a very,
very long and distinguished history.
02:07
Here's the common-sense idea.
02:10
There is you.
02:13
You are the individuals you are,
and you have this kind of core.
02:14
Now in your life, what happens
is that you, of course,
02:17
accumulate different experiences
and so forth.
02:22
So you have memories,
02:24
and these memories help
to create what you are.
02:26
You have desires, maybe for a cookie,
02:28
maybe for something
that we don't want to talk about
02:31
at 11 o'clock in the morning
in a school.
02:34
You will have beliefs.
02:36
This is a number plate
from someone in America.
02:38
I don't know whether this number plate,
which says "messiah 1,"
02:40
indicates that the driver
believes in the messiah,
02:42
or that they are the messiah.
02:45
Either way, they have beliefs
about messiahs.
02:47
We have knowledge.
02:49
We have sensations and experiences as well.
02:51
It's not just intellectual things.
02:53
So this is kind of
the common-sense model, I think,
02:56
of what a person is.
02:58
There is a person who has all the things
that make up our life experiences.
02:59
But the suggestion
I want to put to you today
03:06
is that there's something
fundamentally wrong with this model.
03:08
And I can show you what's wrong
with one click.
03:12
Which is there isn't actually a "you"
at the heart of all these experiences.
03:14
Strange thought?
Well, maybe not.
03:21
What is there, then?
03:23
Well, clearly there are memories,
desires, intentions, sensations,
03:24
and so forth.
03:28
But what happens is
these things exist,
03:30
and they're kind of all integrated,
03:32
they're overlapped, they're connected
in various different ways.
03:34
They're connecting partly,
and perhaps even mainly,
03:38
because they all belong to one body
and one brain.
03:40
But there's also a narrative,
a story we tell about ourselves,
03:44
the experiences we have
when we remember past things.
03:47
We do things because of other things.
03:50
So what we desire
is partly a result of what we believe,
03:52
and what we remember is also
informing us what we know.
03:55
And so really, there are all these things,
03:59
like beliefs, desires,
sensations, experiences,
04:02
they're all related to each other,
04:05
and that just is you.
04:07
In some ways, it's a small difference
from the common-sense understanding.
04:11
In some ways, it's a massive one.
04:16
It's the shift between thinking of yourself
04:18
as a thing which has
all the experiences of life,
04:20
and thinking of yourself
as simply that collection
04:23
of all experiences in life.
04:26
You are the sum of your parts.
04:28
Now those parts are also physical parts,
of course,
04:31
brains, bodies and legs and things,
04:33
but they aren't so important, actually.
04:35
If you have a heart transplant,
you're still the same person.
04:37
If you have a memory transplant,
are you the same person?
04:40
If you have a belief transplant,
would you be the same person?
04:43
Now this idea, that what we are,
the way to understand ourselves,
04:46
is as not of some permanent being,
which has experiences,
04:51
but is kind of a collection of experiences,
04:55
might strike you as kind of weird.
04:58
But actually, I don't think
it should be weird.
05:00
In a way, it's common sense.
05:02
Because I just invite you
to think about, by comparison,
05:04
think about pretty much anything else
in the universe,
05:09
maybe apart from the
very most fundamental forces or powers.
05:11
Let's take something like water.
05:14
Now my science isn't very good.
05:17
We might say something like
water has two parts hydrogen
05:20
and one parts oxygen, right?
05:23
We all know that.
05:24
I hope no one in this room
thinks that what that means
05:26
is there is a thing called water,
and attached to it
05:30
are hydrogen and oxygen atoms,
05:34
and that's what water is.
05:36
Of course we don't.
05:38
We understand, very easily,
very straightforwardly,
05:38
that water is nothing more
05:42
than the hydrogen and oxygen molecules
suitably arranged.
05:43
Everything else in the universe is the same.
05:48
There's no mystery about my watch,
for example.
05:50
We say the watch has a face, and hands,
05:55
and a mechanism and a battery,
05:58
But what we really mean is,
06:00
we don't think
there is a thing called the watch
06:01
to which we then attach all these bits.
06:02
We understand very clearly
that you get the parts of the watch,
06:05
you put them together,
and you create a watch.
06:08
Now if everything else
in the universe is like this,
06:10
why are we different?
06:13
Why think of ourselves
06:15
as somehow not just being
a collection of all our parts,
06:17
but somehow being a separate,
permanent entity which has those parts?
06:21
Now this view is not particularly new,
actually.
06:26
It has quite a long lineage.
06:29
You find it in Buddhism,
06:30
you find it in 17th,
18th-century philosophy
06:32
going through to the current day,
people like Locke and Hume.
06:34
But interestingly, it's also a view
06:38
increasingly being heard reinforced
by neuroscience.
06:40
This is Paul Broks,
he's a clinical neuropsychologist,
06:44
and he says this:
06:48
"We have a deep intuition
that there is a core,
06:49
an essence there,
and it's hard to shake off,
06:51
probably impossible to shake off,
I suspect.
06:54
But it's true that neuroscience shows
that there is no centre in the brain
06:57
where things do all come together."
07:01
So when you look at the brain,
07:03
and you look at how the brain
makes possible a sense of self,
07:06
you find that there isn't
a central control spot in the brain.
07:10
There is no kind of center
where everything happens.
07:13
There are lots of different processes
in the brain,
07:17
all of which operate, in a way,
quite independently.
07:19
But it's because of the way
that they relate
07:22
that we get this sense of self.
07:25
The term I use in the book,
I call it the ego trick.
07:28
It's like a mechanical trick.
07:32
It's not that we don't exist,
07:36
it's just that the trick is
to make us feel that inside of us
07:39
is something more unified
than is really there.
07:42
Now you might think
this is a worrying idea.
07:46
You might think that if it's true,
07:49
that for each one of us there is
no abiding core of self,
07:51
no permanent essence,
07:55
does that mean that really,
the self is an illusion?
07:57
Does it mean that we really don't exist?
08:01
There is no real you.
08:03
Well, a lot of people actually do use
this talk of illusion and so forth.
08:05
These are three psychologists,
Thomas Metzinger, Bruce Hood,
08:08
Susan Blackmore,
08:12
a lot of these people do talk
the language of illusion,
08:14
the self is an illusion, it's a fiction.
08:17
But I don't think this is
a very helpful way of looking at it.
08:19
Go back to the watch.
08:22
The watch isn't an illusion,
because there is nothing to the watch
08:23
other than a collection of its parts.
08:27
In the same way,
we're not illusions either.
08:29
The fact that we are, in some ways,
just this very, very complex collection,
08:31
ordered collection of things,
08:37
does not mean we're not real.
08:38
I can give you
a very sort of rough metaphor for this.
08:40
Let's take something like a waterfall.
08:43
These are the Iguazu Falls, in Argentina.
08:46
Now if you take something like this,
08:49
you can appreciate the fact
that in lots of ways,
08:52
there's nothing permanent about this.
08:55
For one thing, it's always changing.
08:57
The waters
are always carving new channels.
08:59
with changes and tides and the weather,
09:02
some things dry up,
new things are created.
09:04
Of course the water that flows
through the waterfall
09:08
is different every single instance.
09:12
But it doesn't mean that
the Iguazu Falls are an illusion.
09:15
It doesn't mean it's not real.
09:17
What it means is we have
to understand what it is
09:19
as something which has a history,
09:22
has certain things that keep it together,
09:25
but it's a process, it's fluid,
it's forever changing.
09:27
Now that, I think, is a model
for understanding ourselves,
09:30
and I think it's a liberating model.
09:34
Because if you think that you have
this fixed, permanent essence,
09:36
which is always the same,
throughout your life, no matter what,
09:39
in a sense you're kind of trapped.
09:42
You're born with an essence,
09:44
that's what you are until you die,
09:47
if you believe in an afterlife,
maybe you continue.
09:49
But if you think of yourself
as being, in a way,
09:52
not a thing as such,
but a kind of a process,
09:55
something that is changing,
09:59
then I think that's quite liberating.
10:01
Because unlike the the waterfalls,
10:02
we actually have the capacity to channel
10:05
the direction of our development for ourselves
to a certain degree.
10:08
Now we've got to be careful here, right?
10:11
If you watch the X-Factor too much,
you might buy into this idea
10:14
that we can all be whatever we want to be.
10:17
That's not true.
10:19
I've heard some fantastic musicians
this morning,
10:20
and I am very confident
that I could in no way be as good as them.
10:23
I could practice hard
and maybe be good,
10:26
but I don't have
that really natural ability.
10:29
There are limits to what we can achieve.
10:32
There are limits to what
we can make of ourselves.
10:34
But nevertheless, we do have
this capacity
10:37
to, in a sense, shape ourselves.
10:39
The true self, as it were then,
10:43
is not something that is just there
for you to discover,
10:46
you don't sort of look into your soul
and find your true self,
10:50
What you are partly doing, at least,
10:53
is actually creating your true self.
10:55
And this, I think, is very,
very significant,
10:58
particularly at this stage of life you're at.
11:00
You'll be aware of the fact
11:01
how much of you changed over recent years.
11:03
If you have any videos of yourself,
three or four years ago,
11:05
you probably feel embarrassed
because you don't recognize yourself.
11:09
So I want to get that message over,
that what we need to do
11:12
is think about ourselves as things
that we can shape,
11:15
and channel and change.
11:18
This is the Buddha, again:
11:19
"Well-makers lead the water,
11:20
fletchers bend the arrow,
11:23
carpenters bend a log of wood,
11:24
wise people fashion themselves."
11:27
And that's the idea
I want to leave you with,
11:30
that your true self is not something
that you will have to go searching for,
11:32
as a mystery, and maybe never ever find.
11:39
To the extent you have a true self,
11:42
it's something that you in part discover,
11:44
but in part create.
11:47
and that, I think,
is a liberating and exciting prospect.
11:49
Thank you very much.
11:54

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Julian Baggini - Philosopher
Julian Baggini is a journalist and philosopher who studies the complexities of personal identity. He is the editor-in-chief of the Philosophers' Magazine.

Why you should listen
Julian Baggini is the author of several books including Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind, Complaint and The Ego Trick, as well as the recent Really, Really Big Questions about Faith. He has written for numerous newspapers and magazines including the Guardian, the Financial Times, Prospect and the New Statesman, as well as for the think tanks The Institute of Public Policy Research and Demos. He is founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. He has been writer-in-residence for the National Trust at the White Cliffs of Dover and philosopher-in-residence at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and Wellington College. He has also appeared as a cameo in two Alexander McCall-Smith novels.
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