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If I "zoom out" for a moment, then any deliberations I'm making (well, really any thoughts at all that I'm having) seem like part of a process to which I am just an observer. It is certainly true that these processes are occurring in MY brain, which is part of MY body, however thoughts either come to mind or they don't. I can't help but feel as if the only me that really exists is simply a collection of concurrent processes that, via consciousness, are at times able to observe themselves occurring. And furthermore, given what we know about the fallibility of memory and yet also memory's crucial role in the development of character/personality/identity, etc., I can't also help but feel that what I am is the product of a lengthly string of inaccuracies.

Pardon the confused language. It's quite difficult to speak about these matters without necessarily recurring to the very terms and concepts that are in question. What I'd like to know is how I can continue to think about these issues without becoming increasingly distant from the day to day reality of being a person living a life. Thank you very much.

December 6, 2012

Response from Stephen Maitzen on December 9, 2012

David Hume (1711-1776) famously sought to escape skeptical doubts of the sort you describe by distracting himself from them: "I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther" (Treatise 1.4.7).

But I don't think you have to seek distraction. My advice is to consider carefully (1) what it is you took yourself to be before you began "zooming out" and (2) whether the observations you make after zooming out really do cast doubt on (1). I think careful consideration of (1) and (2) may lead you to regard those observations as less threatening to (1) than they now seem to you.

In your question, you concede that you have a brain and a body. You observe that thoughts often come to you unbidden, but isn't it also true that you sometimes can control, to at least some extent, the thoughts that occur to you, such as when you try to remember where you left your keys and succeed in remembering? How much control over your thoughts does (1) in fact require?

Yes, memory is fallible, but that doesn't make it unreliable, as I argued in my answer to Question 4490. Indeed, the evidence we have that our memory is fallible itself depends on our memory's being reliable. So I think it's perhaps a poetic overstatement to conclude that "what I am is the product of a lengthy string of inaccuracies." How much accuracy in your recollections does (1) in fact require?

Let us know whether further thinking about (1) and (2) makes you more confident of (1) or not. (Or whether dining and backgammon did the trick instead.)


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