Skip to content

Our Modular Selves: Science and the Philosophy of Self

One of the most enduring themes in western thought is the idea of The Self. Who am “I” and what does it mean “to be,” many philosophers have asked over the centuries. Thought provoking questions indeed, but most discussions of The Self make the mistake of assuming that it is something. The reality is that many modules that are constantly in conflict influence human beings. As prominent evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban explains, “the very constitution of the human mind makes us massively inconsistent.” We think that there is an “I” behind all of our cognition – a ghost in the machine – but this is largely a delusion.

Take our moral intuitions. Sometimes we are morally sound. In one experiment, researchers found that deliberately dropped envelopes were stamped and mailed one fifth of the time by complete strangers. Psychologist Jenifer Kunz found that when people receive a Christmas card from a family they do not know, they usually send one back in return. And in the famous Ultimatum experiment in which people are given $20 and the choice to either take all of it, split it $18/$2, or split it $10/$10, most split it evenly. Moreover, moral psychologists are demonstrating that babies as young as five to six months old have a “moral sense” towards people and objects outside of their kin.

On the other hand, consider Douglas Kenrick’s infamous study, which asked participants how often they thought about killing other people. Partnering with Virgil Sheets, Kenrick polled 760 Arizona State University students and found that “the majority of those smiling, well-adjusted, all-American students were willing to admit to having had homicidal fantasies. In fact 76 percent of the men reported such fantasies… [and] 62 percent of the so-called gentler sex had also contemplated murder at least once.” Furthermore, as Kenrick explains, “when David Buss and Josh Duntley later surveyed a sample of students at the University of Texas, they found similarly high percentages of men (79 percent) and women (58) percent admitting to homicidal fantasies.”

These findings aren’t surprising. Devil-angel, heaven-hell, and good cop-bad cop dichotomies have illustrated our inner conflicts for centuries. But isn’t it strange that these divisions occur inside of something we consider singular and unified? Of course, we are far from being singular or unified. As Jonathan Haidt says, “we assume that there is one person in each body, but in some ways we are each more like a committee whose members have been thrown together working at cross purposes” This should also seem obvious. Just think about weighing the short-term with the long-term: Should I eat Pizza now or go for a run? Should I keep drinking or go home to avoid the hangover? Should I continue working this job even though I don’t like it? Should I stay in this relationship even though it isn’t what it once was? To borrow an example from Kurzban, think of a few verbs to complete the sentence, I really like to ______ but afterwards I wish I hadn’t, and compare them to verbs that could complete the sentence, I don’t like to _______ but afterwards I’m glad I did. The first set of verbs sharply contrasts with the second set with the former illustrating the “impatient modules” and the latter the “patient modules.”

Why the inconsistencies? Put simply, we speak to ourselves, not ourself, and these inner dialogues depend on context and current states. For example, would you pay 30 dollars for a slice of pizza? Probably not. But what if you were starving on the African savannah and you happened to have 30 dollars? Or, to put it in more relatable terms, what if you were on one of those long-haul flights across the Pacific when after not eating for hours the person next to you pulls out a delicious slice of warm pizza and starts eating it. Suddenly, 30 dollars doesn’t seem so bad. Context and circumstance matter, duh. But what’s important is that the more specific our understanding of ourselves gets, the less general we can be in our explanations.

For example, let’s say you asked me if I liked coffee or beer. It depends. If it’s 9am I would say coffee and if it’s 9pm I would say beer. However, if I was cramming for a final exam, a 9pm coffee would sound very appealing. But let’s say I just got a bout of food poisoning and anything I put in my stomach was coming right back up. Now, both sound horrible. Ok, let’s say it’s Friday at 9pm and I don’t have to study for a test and I don’t have food poisoning but I am eating dinner with my girlfriend’s family and they look down upon alcohol. I would avoid beer like the plague. So I like beer as long as it’s 9pm, I don’t have a final exam to study for, I don’t have food poisoning and I’m not eating dinner with my girlfriend’s anti-alcohol family. I admit, I’m exaggerating. But there is an important point in drawing out these hypotheticals. And it is that, “the more we specify the context… the less we can generalize… [but] the less we specify… the more likely we are to miss something about how [we] decide.” This is one dilemma of economic theory in a nutshell: we say that humans are rational to understand how we decide as consumers but we know that this isn’t entirely true. However, we don’t sacrifice the entire theory just because it doesn’t apply universally.

Back to The Self.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume once again got it right long before the science by realizing Kurzban’s and Haidt’s points exactly. Hume held that The Self was more like a commonwealth, which upheld an identity not through some sort of essence or soul, as Plato would have said, but through different yet related elements. As Hume explained, “we are never intimately conscious of anything but a particular perception; man is a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement.”  This is not to deny the importance of the self. As Daniel Dennett argues, the idea of the self, though delusional, acts as a convenient fiction. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world and our place in it; many times this is a good thing even though it is scientifically wishy-washy. But let’s at least keep in mind that The Self isn’t actually a thing the next time we think about our identities from the armchair.


Güth, W., Schmittberger, R., & Schwarze, B. (1982). An experimental analysis of ultimatum bargaining Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 3 (4), 367-388 DOI: 10.1016/0167-2681(82)90011-7

Kunz J (2000). Social class difference in response to Christmas cards. Perceptual and motor skills, 90 (2), 573-6 PMID: 10833755
Kenrick, D., & Sheets, V. (1993). Homicidal fantasies Ethology and Sociobiology, 14 (4), 231-246 DOI: 10.1016/0162-3095(93)90019-E

30 Comments Post a comment
  1. Self is a legal concept, like free will (uncoerced action) that gets undue metaphysical attention.

    October 31, 2011
  2. sammcnerney #
    November 1, 2011
  3. laz #

    …I cannot figure out is sleeprunning is ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ philo ideology…as for truth that predicts, well, ‘the world is’ and yet the prediction seems pretty useless…unless one is simply a chemical cauldron without a reason to care…

    November 5, 2011
  4. I think that Walt Whitman perhaps nailed it most clearly when he wrote, “I contain multitudes.” To suggest that the concept of self is a useful tool, is I think somehow misleading. I think that the problem you identify…that western philosophy has created this false idea of an “I”…simply doesn’t exist in the way that you’re trying to describe. (I see it more as a word game.)

    Few people, I think, would suggest that they even know themselves fully, or can explain themselves fully as one sort of simple, unified self…hell our memories are fleeting and unreliable, we cannot be conscious of everything and we know it, we change our minds, we are impulsive, we learn, we grow, we get sudden moments of insight and inspiration. Still we are concretely and definitely an “I” in the sense that we are a mind (conscious and unconscious) within one body…whether or not the mind is consistent, whether or not the mind contains various opinions, moods, personalities etc at different times doesn’t mean it doesn’t comprise an “I”.

    I guess I’m saying that I don’t think you identify a genuine misconception about our sense of selves….

    You quoted Hume saying, “we are never intimately conscious of anything but a particular perception; man is a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement.”

    But this fails to account for our ability to reflect…for our ability to look back on previous perceptions and recognize them as wrong, or even as correct at that moment but incorrect now…

    I don’t think the idea of a self (as confusing and fluctuating and incomprehensible as it is) is simply a “useful” misconception….I think we ca account account for the difficulties in knowing our self….and maintain a true conception of self.

    November 6, 2011
    • What should I read to understand where you are coming from?
      Is this about the need to build a collectivist society? Or a different field entirely?
      Who is the we?

      I can’t help saying that the “silly delusion of self” often feels quite terrible…but I’ll save that argument for after I understand what framework of thought you’re coming from. Maybe I’ll change my mind!

      November 6, 2011
  5. This is another time that children can help, because they will sometimes
    be aware that the object is either what you
    have been looking for, or that it would be “neat” in that particular place in the
    house. After you’ve gathered items in one spot, sit down and pick out a weekend to
    run your sale. * Disadvantage 3- If you have several items that you want to sell on
    Craigslist, it could take a great deal of time to get the post
    written.

    October 18, 2012
  6. I hardly comment, but i did a few searching and wound up here Our Modular Selves: Science and the Philosophy of Self | Why We Reason.
    And I do have a couple of questions for you if it’s allright. Is it just me or does it look like some of the comments look like they are coming from brain dead people? 😛 And, if you are writing at additional online sites, I would like to follow everything fresh you have to post. Would you list of all of your community pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

    November 13, 2012
  7. Hiya very nice blog!! Guy .. Excellent .. Wonderful .
    . I will bookmark your site and take the feeds also?
    I’m satisfied to find a lot of helpful information here within the publish, we’d like develop extra techniques
    on this regard, thank you for sharing. . . . . .

    November 14, 2012
  8. A different type of bonus will be the variable extra, this implies you gat some percent with the sum anyone deposit. The percentage differs from the others for every single site – it may be 20% as well as 50%. Some casinos even offer a 100% casino bonus. That is a way to obtain people back in the digital game areas, but an online casino bonus means that you must play by some guidelines especially when you’d like to redraw your hard earned money. This can be difficult because if you get an online casino bonus you have to meet several conditions which can be not simply accomplished. On the other hand, your efforts are going to be rewarded.

    February 1, 2013
  9. Really had to tell you I am just thrilled that i came on your site!

    August 8, 2013
  10. If I could clone myself ten times the will do all other SEO business the want by hand.

    I cannot therefore I personally use Ultimate Demon in place

    August 10, 2013
  11. After I originally left a comment I seem to have clicked
    on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on each time a comment is added I
    recieve 4 emails with the exact same comment. There has to be a way you can remove me from that service?
    Kudos!

    August 11, 2013
  12. Paul Rone-Clarke is the affiliate marketing expert
    and their particular skill with Ultimate Demon is superior to anyone else

    August 11, 2013
  13. Please explain about the viodnieg of the race. I noticed 2 different cameras focused on Michelle. Why was that? Did her parents hire someone to video tape their daughter for prosperity? None of the other runners were video taped. How did the taping come to be edited and plubished to the web? I am just curious of the process.Sincerely,Mike

    August 31, 2013
  14. Hi, and sorry if my english is bad. I wish to ask. What can I do to revicee your autographed photo? If I have to send a fanletter to you, will you let me know an address for you in Australia. Please, it will make me so proud if I’m the lucky one.Have a nice day michelleYours sincerelyAnni Pia Jensen

    August 31, 2013
  15. Yeah I get it already, She’s fsanattic. and she certainly is but could you please post some of the races she’s won or her trophy (& medal) collection. Can you show her some respect for all the training she’s been doing instead of just ooogeling at her? thanks Man, DarrylHarrisburg, PA

    October 23, 2013
  16. A wonderful job. Super helpful information.

    October 25, 2013
  17. Recently, fashion clothes brand Enaco Ai Nige shop grand opening in Yancheng, Jiangsu, witnessed by the majority of consumers, stores charge a speech, even though blessing Enaco Aini Ge brand efficiency flourishing. Online business is booming. (Aini Ge) clothing market leader status. Designer French romantic, Italian Mediterranean-style classic, American unrestrained, Indias attractive, straightforward integration into Japan, South Koreas five thousand years of Chinese cultural influence women introverted character, style effortless style embodies the ultimate in fashionable [url=http://www.aaphilippines.org/canadagoosejakke.asp]canada goose jakke tilbud[/url] females grade, novel imported fabric embodies urban females luxury grade, exquisite workmanship reflects a mature female elegance, all of which have lived for the majority of franchisees and consumers seek and love. Enaco (Aini Ge) brand together with the energy of capital to lead the rapid improvement of enterprises, Enaco (Aini Ge) has set [url=http://vvgassel.nl/uggssale.asp]uggs kopen[/url] sail aboard the aircraft carrier. “To meet the shoppers maximum demand, the greatest value in the pursuit of service to create gorgeous, win-win Fortune” is Enaco (Aini Ge) Apparels core values. Enaco persons to “pragmatic innovation, unity and victory” slogan into action, and frequently adhere for the “integrity, win-win development” company philosophy, and resolutely implement the “service is guaranteed, would be the basis of equality and mutual benefit” business enterprise purposes, the firm adhering towards the “interests on the sharing, danger I am worried, typical development “spirit of cooperation, we warmly welcome sincere cooperation with clients nationwide, develop a cause. Enaco Aini Ge brand women Merchants Page URL: http://vip.china-ef.com/web/hzenaco/ 2013 retailer opening theme: http://www.china-ef.com/zhuanti/2013business/

    http://boss858.net/home.php?mod=space&uid=13676&do=blog&quickforward=1&id=23680

    November 27, 2013
  18. I enjoy what you guys are usually up too. Such clever work and reporting!

    Keep up the fantastic works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to blogroll.

    November 28, 2013
  19. Thanks for any other excellent post. The place else could
    anyone get that type of information in such an ideal means of writing?
    I’ve a presentation next week, and I’m at the search for such info.

    May 4, 2014
  20. Very good article. I absolutely appreciate this website.
    Thanks!

    May 8, 2014
    • the fact is that the Western cultural myths/beliefs about how the brain > behavior work are very wrong. Subjective experience appears to be trivial – as it is for all other animals.

      May 8, 2014
  21. Fascinating blog! Is your theme custom made or
    did you download it from somewhere? A design like yours with
    a few simple adjustements would really make my blog jump out.
    Please let me know where you got your design. Bless you

    May 29, 2014
  22. Hi, I think your site might be having browser compatibility issues.

    When I look at your blog site in Ie, it looks fine but when opening in Internet
    Explorer, it has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads
    up! Other then that, excellent blog!

    June 3, 2014
  23. What’s up to all, how is everything, I think every one is
    getting more from this web site, and your views are nice designed for
    new people.

    July 11, 2014
  24. Woah! I’m really digging the template/theme of this
    website. It’s simple, yet effective. A lot of times it’s very difficult to get that “perfect balance” between superb usability and visual appearance.
    I must say you’ve done a very good job with this. In addition, the blog loads very fast for me
    on Firefox. Exceptional Blog!

    July 14, 2014
  25. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though
    you relied on the video to make your point. You clearly know
    what youre talking about, why waste your intelligence on just posting videos to
    your blog when you could be giving us something enlightening to read?

    August 7, 2014
  26. あなたのテーマ/デザイン|本当に楽しん愛する | 私は私は ブログ。あなたがこれまでの任意に実行することができませんWebブラウザ 問題?私のブログカップルの 読者は Explorerで正常に| 作業動作するが、素晴らしいですね なく、私の不満がオペラで。 問題を修正するのに役立つために何かを持っていますか?
    セール対象商品 国内最大級の品数

    January 7, 2016

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Stone Philosophy Links - NYTimes.com
  2. joe's new balance outlet coupon

Leave a Reply, Be Constructive, and Let's Debate

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: