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Fr. 710

January 29, 2016

The brain sciences have found a point of conjunction with the humanities in a number of disciplines and on a range of questions among which we might count the search for self. A recent Institute of Art and Ideas panel, moderated by Robert Rowland Smith, puts just such a topic forward for discussion. Indeed, “self” marks a point of contention between the three participants, neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, philosopher Simon Blackburn, and author Mary Midgley; indeed, their differences may provide much in the way of instructive and perspicuous contrast between approaches to the self.

The three participants begin by brief introductions of their takes on self before expanding, in part one of three, on these preliminary descriptions. 1.) Blakemore provides the opening salvo from a strongly empirical approach to self: science, and neuroscience in particular, has found little in the way of evidence for a free-floating entity behind consciousness as people most often conceive the agent. The floor then passes to 2.) Midgley who backs what might be termed a more humanist approach to self, namely, that certain conceptions of self are indispensable for organizing actions and mediating between individuals. Finally, the turn comes to 3.) Blackburn, whose approach is more measured or circumspect and falls between 1.) and 2.): the philosopher, a neo-Humean, recognizes that certain conceptions of self are useful for organizing action but holds that to a certain strain of functionalism. More specifically, contemporary conceptions self should be open to change and should perhaps hew closer to the functions which we can readily identity with the help of the brain sciences.

With preliminaries out of the way, the moderator invites the panelists to describe what they see in his person, whether that be a self or something other. So, question 1.) “What is self?” is now at issue.

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