The self has been a concept that has been discussed in many fields and theories within philosophy and psychology. In ancient Greek, the soul was given the name ‘psyche’, after the goddess psyche. The soul was the part of the self that was not physical, and defined a thing as being the spiritual, mental ‘you’. Buddhists though that there was no actual self, purely the combination of the parts of the world that come together to make you. Descartes developed a theory wherein every individual is split up into a physical and mental part, both being completely different matter. These cannot interact with each other, but both are needed for an individual, substance being our physical world and the mental, which is the part of us that thinks, the only thing that substance cannot do. This started its own whole train of discussions, debates and wonderful literature, resulting in many metaphysical theories. In recent history, psychologists like, for example, Freud have divided the self into several parts: the ego, id and super-ego, which all work together in order to define our behaviour in the world. Currently, we have reduced the self to a bio-mechanical system of neural activities that interprets stimuli and responds in a semi-automatic matter. The current view seems to imply a determinism, a lack of free will, yet we, individually, have a clear view of the self. In a system such as this, the question arises how and why we are able to have a complete, consistent self image in this a world such as this?
This question can be answered in a few ways,yet they all seem to rely on inference. By experiencing how the material world responds to our responses to stimuli, we can infer personal characteristics about our self and create a self-image. By seeing that, whenever I respond to many situations angrily, I can infer that I am probably a hot tempered individual. If, however, I see many people responding angrily, yet I witness my own behavior being different, calmer and more rational, I can infer that I am calmer than most individuals and I would describe myself as a calm person. This reasoning follows from a psychological theory which states that our cognitions concerning a certain situation are the result of our witnessing of the situation and our own bodily responses. There is a sort of ‘external being’ which observes the body, surroundings and the relation between the two, and uses that information to create a set of predictive responses to new situations, and this set of predictions, these personal expectations, these traits are what then consists our image of the self. It is no more than the name implies: it is an image, not the actual thing, like the image of an apple is fundamentally different than the apple, by virtue of it not being the apple.
The fact that we have a clear self-image is evidence that the previously described theory is occurring. There is a problem however. Who is this person observing the body and the surrounding, and which has this image? It must be a non-material being, if this theory were to be true. If it were a material being, it would be a part of the observed. This is not possible, as another observer would then be necessary.
Is this being the self? Surely not, otherwise it would not have to discover so much information without any previous knowledge. The fact that we can shock ourselves with our own, uncontrolled responses, like sudden, explosive anger or happiness, shows that we do not have a clear, innate idea of our self. What is the thing that is discovering facts about the self and creating this image? In other words, who are our inferences about our self describing if we are the observer? If there is an observing thing witnessing our responses, then it should be a distinct, different being to the person executing said responses. If we would be the observed, we would have no self-image, we would merely be machines. We must, then, be the observer.
Does this go against the whole idea of a self? If the ‘self’ would be made up of several entities, one executing and one observing, it would not fit the idea of a self, namely a single, consistent entity, you. Is there then no self?Then, why and how are we creating this self image throughout our lives? We try to develop our selves by witnessing new experiences and environments, and broadening our range of responses. We seek to establish and define a self, so it surely cannot be that there is no self, can it?
Is there than a problem with a purely materialistic world view? Possibly, there is a certain non-materialistic someone assigned to a body when its born, and this someone is learning how the material world works by observing the relations and interactions that things in this world have with each other, and learns that the constant thing throughout this all is the physical body; your physical body. Then, however, this entity is no more than an observer. It is not an agent in your actions, it merely tries to understand what the material you is doing and what its tendencies and traits are. Then what is the function of this self? Possibly, this self has some influence on the body, and can steer it into certain directions through experience. This could explain how we, by training our cognitions, can overcome our tendencies and act in a manner that we previously would not have. This, however, does not play well with a purely materialistic world view. This view was, however, the point where this theory started. There are many questions to be asked concerning our self, and many answers have been posed throughout history.
The fact that so many answers throughout history contradict each other about the very same phenomenon, and all seem plausible, is a beautiful demonstration of how infinitely complex our self, and even our existence is.