Do you and I exist? The easiest way to answer would be to defer to the great minds that have been wrestling with this question for decades.
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’.
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. Some argue ‘you are your brain’.
I maybe still believe that theres 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. Surely there must be something more going on?
Experiments with computers have shown that if you start with simple building materials, 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 its conscious. The resultant ‘being’ appears uncanny, as if it must have been instituted by a supernatural creator.
Its the same with the brain, the materialists argue. Really complex complexity can even convince itself thats it is someone, a self, an entity which feels real and substantial and of intrinsic worth. Daniel Dennett has described the self as a ‘Centre 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 its 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.