The Problem of the Self

Our physical experiences are highly diverse, and yet we experience unity among them. Also, we grow older, gain and lose weight, change locations, and exist in different times; yet with all of this and more, our life’s experiences have continuity. We per- ceive ourselves as the same person from moment to moment, from day to day, and from year to year even though little about us remains the same. The question is, what accounts for the unity and con- tinuity of our experience? Through the centuries, entities such as a soul or a mind have been proposed. More recently, the self has been the most popular proposed organizer of experience.


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The self has often been viewed as having a separate existence of its own, as is implied by the phrase “I said to myself.” Besides organizing one’s experiences and providing a sense of continuity over time, the self has often been endowed with other attributes, such as being the instigator and evaluator of action. Other experiences that con- tribute to the belief in an autonomous self include the feeling of intentionality or purpose in one’s thoughts and behavior; the awareness of being aware; the ability to selectively direct one’s atten- tion; and moments of highly emotional, insightful experiences. As we will see, to postulate a self with autonomous powers creates a number of problems that psychology has struggled with through the years and still does. Clearly, whether an autono- mous self or mind is proposed as the organizer of experience or as the instigator of behavior, one is confronted with the mind–body problem.

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