What Does It Mean to Be Me?
Smith (Barry C.), Broks (Paul), Kennedy (A.L.) & Evans (Jules)
Source: BBC Website
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Authors Citing this Paper: Millican (Peter)

BBC Summaries1

  1. BBC: What Does It Mean to Be Me? Introduction.
    • Each week Melvyn Bragg is joined by four guests with different backgrounds to discuss a really big question. he's asking 'What does it mean to be me?'
    • Helping him answer the question are philosopher Barry Smith, neuropsychologist Paul Broks, writer A L Kennedy and philosopher Jules Evans.
    • For the rest of the week Jules, Paul, Alison and Barry take us further into the history of ideas about the self with programmes of their own.
    • Between them they will:-
      1. Examine Descartes’ idea 'I think therefore I am',
      2. Ask what role memory plays in ideas of the self,
      3. Discover how stories and myths burrow into our unconscious, and
      4. Ask whether there's more to existentialism than wearing black and pondering deep thoughts.
  2. Talk 1: BBC: Paul Broks on John Locke and Personal Identity.
    • Neuropsychologist Paul Broks asks how we can be sure we're the same person as we were yesterday. The philosopher John Locke thought it depended on what we could remember: if we could remember something happening to us, then we were the same person as the person it happened to. But is that true?
    • What if our memories could be downloaded and then uploaded2 into another body? Would that new person be the same as us? And if so, how much would we care if the body we now inhabit was destroyed? These sci-fi philosophical thought experiments3 can make us rethink our concept of personal identity and maybe even our attitudes towards death. In the end, is there really a self at all, or are we just a bundle of mental states and events?
  3. Talk 2: BBC: Writer A.L. Kennedy on Sartre and the Individual.
    • Writer AL Kennedy on Existentialist ideas about the individual.
    • Jean Paul Sartre argued that, for humans, 'existence preceded essence'. This means that there is no blueprint or template from which to work - humans are free to make themselves up as they go along.
    • Being an individual comes from the way you negotiate this freedom and the choices you make in the face of it.
  4. Talk 3: BBC: Philosopher Jules Evans on Jung and the Mind.
    • Philosopher Jules Evans explores Jung and the shadow inside all of us.
    • With archive contributions from Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud; plus fantasy writer Juliet McKenna and Mark Vernon, author of Carl Jung: How to Believe.
  5. Talk 4: BBC: Philosopher Barry Smith on Descartes and Consciousness.
    • Rene Descartes, one of the most influential philosophers ever, thought the mind was like an open book that could be read by the light of reason. So there was nothing that we could not access or examine in our own minds.
    • In fact Descartes argued that consciousness was the mind - there was nothing beyond it. Now we see the mind as a labyrinthine cellar full of bric-a-brac and untapped rooms of which consciousness is merely one - and a small one at that.
    • Barry Smith charts this change and explains some of the contemporary thinking about consciousness.
  6. BBC: What Does It Mean to Be Me? Omnibus.
  7. Four Brief Animations
    1. BBC Animation: Know Thyself
    2. BBC Animation: Jean-Paul Sartre and Existential Choice
    3. BBC Animation: Erving Goffman and the Performing Self
    4. BBC Animation: Descartes – “I think, therefore I am”

  1. Introductory Seminar:
    • After a general introduction by Melvin Bragg, the four contributors give a brief resume of their talks-to-be4:-
      1. Barry Smith (Philosopher5):
        • His focus will be on the notion of the Self6: we are all “terribly aware of ourselves, almost all of the time”, so what is it, and what makes it different from everything else in the world?
        • Smith’s answer is that each of us has an inner life, and a “peculiar access” to our own thoughts and feelings. That’s what makes me “me”.
        • Rene Descartes latched on to this inner life as central to the Self, but Smith thinks we need to distinguish between The Self and A Sense of Self, because you can have one without the other.
        • Smith says that many have doubted that there’s a “continuous enduring unified sense7 of me”, but at any time you might still have a clear sense of self as the one acting, remembering and the like.
        • So, we should start with the inner life and ask what allows us to keep in touch with it.
      2. Paul Broks (Neuropsychologist8):
        • Is interested in how the Brain9 relates to the Mind10, and how the mind and the brain creates the sense of self.
        • We now know a lot about how mental capacities relate to brain systems, but we don’t really understand how it all comes together to create a unified11 sense of self.
        • This was John Locke’s problem – he thought that the self was not rooted in a substance but in continuity of consciousness (for him, memory) – it’s this that makes us the same thing across a lifetime.
        • Bragg asks where’s the mind (if it’s not the brain)? There’s a little altercation between Bragg and Broks – who says we won’t find the mind “in there” if we open up the skull, but “no brain, no mind”.
        • However, he adds that the brain – while necessary – might not be sufficient – we might need to live in a society with other minds and brains to construct a sense of self12.
        • But, if you remove or sufficiently damage the brain then “it’s not the same13 person, or not a person at all”.
      3. Alison Kennedy (Writer/Poet14):
        • Spends a lot of time creating Selves that are not ourselves – fictional characters – what we can “enter into”.
        • She grew up in a house full of psychologists. At age 6-7 you think you are an unchanging unified whole, but by age 10-12 you’re changing and not that unified.
        • At university – as “an intellectual” – I think therefore I am – if I think more I’ll “be” more.
        • Sartre and “authenticity” – if authentic, will be more human than others – terrible motivation for taking up Sartre; wearing black, looking as though pondering deep things all the time.
        • On-going, what she’s taken from Sartre is the horror that she (might be) a fake – there’s no-one there – and subsequently wanting to more fully inhabit the limited time she’s got. Anything that doesn’t give you that isn’t necessarily that helpful.
      4. Jules Evans (Philosopher15):
        • Is looking at the depth psychology of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and what they have to say on the Self.
        • What we normally consider the Self today – the rational conscious ego16 – is just a small part of us – an island (in) an ocean of unconsciousness, which is amoral and irrational and – if ignored – will trip us up (Jung’s “hobgoblin”), causing us suffering and phobias.
        • He had anxiety and post-traumatic stress as a teenager, and came to believe that you can come to terms with this hidden “undiscovered country17” through therapy, self-reflection and the arts.
        • Modern, rational cognitive therapy has moved on a bit from Freud & Jung, but what he wants to find out is how our unconscious uses myth and symbol (etc.) as ways of organising the unconscious.
    • Melvyn Bragg now steps in and
      1. First asks Jules Evans about Plato and the Soul18. Evans rehearses Plato’s19 account of the multi-partite soul whose parts war against one another. Also, no blank slate, but a history of ideas – even from a previous life.
      2. Barry Smith chips in – Plato is misleading us about the separation of the mind from the body, as have we all “as we went round the table”. Yet, what makes me “me” includes a lot of bodily awareness, and if any of it goes awry you get a very fragmented sense of self, and psychopathologies20 that are hard to understand – eg. disowning parts of your body, or denying they are controlling a moving limb.
      3. Paul Broks agrees, and comes up with another example: someone with a strong sense of self, but who believes he doesn’t exist – who believes he’s dead – called Cotard’s Delusion21. We are – he suggests – just getting to grips with the brain functioning that leads to such bizarre states.
      4. But, he thinks we’re “burdened” with a belief in the soul – even though we probably don’t have souls – and are living an illusion; but it’s a necessary illusion without which we couldn’t function as human beings – as human animals22.
      5. Jules Evans responds by saying we are most ourselves when we go beyond that little self and relate to others.
      6. Barry Smith agrees with the “self and other” aspect: our own self is very much affected by our dealings with others; right from the beginning, as when infants respond to attention.
      7. Melvyn Bragg then asks “just what is the self if it’s shaped by a million and one things”?
      8. Barry Smith responds by returning to the body, which structures our experience and puts limits on “what’s you and what’s not you”. He suggests – referring to Alison Kennedy – that fiction extends the mind and our on-line selves are extending the mind far beyond the limits of the body.
      9. Jules Evans: we can be possessed by fictional characters, and have our behaviour guided by them.
      10. Alison Kennedy: we don’t give enough weight to the self being affected by what it interacts with; cultures can steer people.
      11. Barry Smith: we take it as normal to get into the mind of another character, but it’s very strange.
      12. Paul Broks: We’re all fictional characters, from the first person perspective23.
      13. Jules Evans: KGB operatives influenced by James Bond, and gangsters influenced by gangster movies.
  2. Talk 1: BBC: Paul Broks on John Locke and Personal Identity.
    • How could I stop being me? Well, someone with Alzheimer’s who loses their memory almost stops being the same person. Memory seems to be crucial to personal identity.
    • Potted biography of John Locke. Like Descartes, Locke saw the mind and body as divided and the Self24 as the union of the two.
    • Peter Millican25:
      1. Locke’s interested in what makes someone the same person from one moment to another. Starts from identity generally. For particles of matter, follow their space-time path. But persons26 are more difficult because of TEs27: prince and the pauper. To make sense of that, we have to invoke continuity of consciousness28; essentially being aware – via memory – of being the same conscious person over time.
      2. The then universal belief in an afterlife29 caused a problem as we need an account of personal identity that can potentially allow us to survive bodily death30, and Locke identifies the solution as continuity of consciousness.
    • We now have a really interesting discussion of teletransportation31, one of the TEs Derek Parfit and others came up with in the 1960s that challenged Locke’s32 basic idea.
      1. Star Trek-like teleporters33 start to be used for long distance travel. Scanning, vaporisation (“discorporation”) … a stream of data … molecular reassembly34.
      2. Paul Broks and Peter Millican discuss the TE as so-far described, and Millican says that his initial thought – and I agree – is that “it’s a way to die”. But suppose that millions of people were doing this, and apparently not regretting it; there is no more air travel as it’s no longer financially viable … well, I might rethink things. “The evidence is” that people seem to be carrying on their (quasi-) lives happily enough, so maybe we’d come to the conclusion35 that people really are constituted36 by bundles of information that can be transmitted in the way envisaged.
      3. The “conceit” of the drama is of our hero using teleportation37 to get to his dying father’s bed-side. But, something goes wrong (the “branch line case”) where the vaporisation doesn’t happen, but the scanning38 and reassembly goes ahead as planned. Then a replica39 of our hero says goodbye to the dying father.
      4. So, says Broks40), we seem to have two people who are41 initially “absolutely identical42 memories”. So, for Locke, these two people are identical, which is a contradiction43.
      5. The twist – and maybe this is in Parfit44 – is that the vaporisation is still to take place once the fault is realised. The teletransportee is told this is about to happen and naturally doesn’t like the prospect – but should he, given that the transport worked fine and “he” (at least the reassembled “he”) got there in time?
      6. There’s an interesting altercation between the two selves – the one about to be vaporised and the teletransportee – in which the latter tries to persuade the former that the only issue is one of timing – he’d used teletransportation45 as a method of travel many times before and been perfectly happy with it – he’d believed that it was just a form of travel. There’s perfect continuity of memory, hopes and dreams, and “that’s what it is to be a person”. He claims that his former self knows and believes this – else why would he have agreed to use teletransportation46 in the first place?
      7. He has – it is said – been allowed to contact his former self only because he’s agreed to his “delayed vaporisation”.
      8. The one about to be vaporised is horrified – this is murder – considers the other “an imposter” and is (now, at least) naturally unconvinced47 by the logic of the argument.
    • There follows a discussion between48 Peter Millican and Paul Broks on the topic of teletransportation49 as dramatized above.
      1. It is suggested that we ought not to be concerned about dying. In response to the claim that “it’s hard to give rational grounds for it50”, it’s suggested that – in the context of the TE – the original himself wants to enjoy the good things that the duplicate51 ends up enjoying.
      2. The response is that it’s being assumed that there’s a definite point of fact whether “it’s you or not”. While rationally he thinks there isn’t, he has such a strong intuition that there is that that is what would worry him. He wants reassurance.
      3. Such reassurance wasn’t forthcoming, and the lesson of the TE is that personhood is a much more fluid concept than Locke would have imagined.
      4. There’s the interesting point that there’s an alleged parallel52 between the teletransportation53 case and our “reconstituting ourselves” by “pulling ourselves together” after a dreamless sleep54.
      5. So, “it doesn’t matter that – in a sense – entering the teletransportation55 booth is to commit suicide” because “there is complete psychological continuity56 from the moment the duplicate57 has been reconstituted”. There’s “nothing beyond58 that”.
      6. That’s why – for Broks – it’s such a good TE – such a shock to the system. When he first heard Parfit59 lecture on teletransportation60 in the 1980s, he thought he was either saying something essentially trivial or he was saying something profoundly important about what it is to be a person, and inclines towards the latter. But if you go along with this, you have to accept that you don’t really matter – what matters61 are the psychological continuities. There isn’t really a self, though that isn’t how it feels, and we’re really quite resistant to dying.
      7. So, the self is an illusion, but we can’t shake off the idea that it feels that there is this immutable self at my core. But “illusion” is the wrong term, because we can’t step outside of it and recognise it for what it is. Rather, we inhabit the illusion, and that’s fundamentally what we are62.
  3. Talk 2: BBC: Writer A.L. Kennedy on Sartre and the Individual
    • Life will be too short to pursue this.
  4. Talk 3: BBC: Philosopher Jules Evans on Jung and the Mind.
    • As above.
  5. Talk 4: BBC: Philosopher Barry Smith on Descartes and Consciousness.
    • There is something special about the individual mind as each of us has an inner life with which we are immediately acquainted. Whatever populates it – thoughts or feelings – plays a large part in constituting the Self63 and is what make me “me”.
    • But what explains the special access I have to my own mental life, and what is it I have special access to?
    • Potted introduction to Rene Descartes: Cogito64 ergo sum. Our own existence is all we can be sure of – all else is “mere perception”. The body is a machine and the mind non-material and outside the laws of nature. Mind and body are separate but inextricably linked and influence one another “hugely”; just how – the mind-body problem – remains the subject of philosophical debate.
    • Whatever might be my relation to my body, Descartes was convinced that I couldn’t be in doubt about the contents of my own mind, which I know in a way I know no-one else’s. It’s this special relationship with my own mental life that makes me “me”; it makes me feel the author of thoughts and the agent of actions. I know what I can do and when I’m about to do it. I can’t tickle myself because I anticipate what I’m about to do and expect the consequences.
    • Anita Avramides: rehearsal of the “Cogito”. Descartes can’t doubt that he’s doubting, and if he’s thinking, he must exist.
    • But (Smith) – if I’m the thinking thing, I still need some tools to say what that thing is.
    • Avramides: Descartes introduces the term Consciousness65 and this leads on to the “modern mess”
    • Smith: that is the mind-body problem – how to locate mind in the world of nature. This was’t a problem for Descartes, who located the mind outside the material world. How we address the problem depends on how we characterise the mind.
    • Avramides: it’s not clear just what’s to be incorporated in the term “Consciousness”. Michael Frede called this the “Cartesian shift”. What Descartes had in mid was something very wide-ranging – everything that goes on in the mind including feelings and emotions. My inner life is indubitable, incorrigible, infallible and – controversially – transparent to me.
    • Smith: Descartes’ view of the mind was radically new – but few would now accept this view of the mind as fully known and fully transparent. Some even doubt whether there is such a thing as the Self. But, what sustains the sense of Self, and what role does the body play in maintaining the continuous feeling of being ourselves? For this we need to understand the links between the brain and the body.
    • Chris Frith66: What’s the most relevant sense of self? Our sense of agency and control.
    • Smith: This can go missing following neurological damage. Eg. if to the left parietal area, patients may report that their left arm moves of its own accord. Some schizophrenics think the arm is operated by someone else.
    • Frith: I predict what’s going to happen when I move my hand, and if the sensations I get are what I predicted then I assume the movement is due to me, but otherwise I assume that something in the outside world is impinging on me. This predictability explains why I can’t tickle myself, and why – as has been found experimentally by Frith – some schizophrenics can tickle themselves, because they can’t predict the consequences of their own actions.
    • Smith: Descartes idea was that – while I might disown my body, I can’t disown my thoughts. So, is this the ultimate stopping point for our sense of self?
    • Frith: No – one of the most mysterious symptoms of schizophrenia is “thought insertion” – where patients say “these are not my thoughts”, even though they agree they are in their minds.
    • Smith: so is the issue less with things immediately going on but more to do with our predictions, which tend to be better in our own case than for others?
    • Frith: an interesting question. It’s certainly all about predicting what’s going to happen to us. Experiments with normal people shows that most of our experience is based on the prediction rather than on what actually happens, and only if what happens is very deviant do we become aware of it. Normal experience is mostly hallucination that most of the time corresponds with reality! Philosophers think that for our own actions we have privileged access: this is true because for other people’s actions – while we can see them we don’t get the proprioceptive feedback. But most of our cognitive processes go along at the sub-personal “unconscious” level.
    • Smith: Descartes assumed that it was always “I” that was having my thought. While familiar, this is not inevitable. But, when we look at pathological cases, are we moving too far away from the normal? It’s a mistake to think pathology67 cannot cast light on the normal case. Instead, pathological fragmentation of self shows just how many pieces have to be put together to orchestrate that single unified feeling of being “me”.


See BBC: A History of Ideas for the BBC home-page for this series of talks.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1:
  1. This is a series of 4 short talks (10 minutes or so) – one each by the main contributors – in the BBC Radio 4 Series A History of Ideas hosted by Melvyn Bragg.
  2. There is a short introductory seminar, which I think pre-empts the talks somewhat.
  3. The “omnibus” edition just concatenates the 5 sessions.
  4. This is the 9th of 12 weekly series. Some of the others look interesting. The other 11 (with links to the omnibus podcasts) are (in reverse order):-
    1. "Potter (Harry), Shears (Tara), Carlisle (Clare) & Broks (Paul) - How Can I Know Anything at All?",
    2. BBC: What is Love?
    3. BBC: How Should We Live Together?
    4. BBC: What Is Justice?
    5. BBC: How Do I Live a Good Life?
    6. BBC: How Has Technology Changed Us?
    7. BBC: What Makes Us Human?
    8. BBC: How Did Everything Begin?
    9. BBC: How Can I Tell Right from Wrong?
    10. BBC: Why Are Things Beautiful?
    11. BBC: What Does It Mean to be Free?
Footnote 4: But not in the same order as the talks will be delivered.

Footnote 5: Footnote 7: This seems a bit muddled – I think this is a slip, and that the contention is that many have doubted that there is any such thing as an enduring self, but we still feel that there is.

Footnote 8: Footnote 11: Presumably, this is a much deeper issue than the “Binding Problem” that asks how the various senses combine in perception. See Wikipedia: Binding problem, Link and many others.

Footnote 12: Footnote 13: Footnote 14: Footnote 15: See Jules Evans.

Footnote 17: This expression comes from Hamlet:-
    Who would Fardels bear,
    To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
    But that the dread of something after death,
    The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
    No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,
    And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
    Than fly to others that we know not of.
Footnote 19: Footnote 21: See Wikipedia - Wikipedia: Cotard delusion.

Footnote 22: So, can I add Paul Broks to my list of animalists?

Footnote 25: Footnote 32: Footnote 34: This doesn’t mean reassembly from the same molecules – indeed “reassembly” is a very tendentious description, as it assumes the very same individual is being reassembled, rather than a new one constructed from new molecules according to a template.

Footnote 35: Well, we might, but we ought not to – we’d just be following the crowd, when we know theoretically that there are other – and better – ways of explain the “evidence” – in terms of annihilation and replication.

Footnote 36: Footnote 38: It’s interesting to consider whether the scanning would be possible without the vaporisation.

Footnote 39: Footnote 40: Footnote 41: Note this – “are” … not “have”.

Footnote 42: Footnote 43: Footnote 44: I need to check this!

Footnote 47: Footnote 48: Footnote 50: Footnote 52: Footnote 58: I still think my distinction between forward and backward continuity is important. Click here for Note.

Footnote 64: This argument still seems to have legs. See "O'Brien (Lucy) - Ambulo Ergo Sum".

Footnote 66: Cognitive neuroscientist. See Christopher D. Frith

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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