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Society of Mind

4.2 one self or many?

One common image of the Self suggests that every mind contains some sort of Voyeur-Puppeteer inside — to feel and want and choose for us the things we feel, want, and choose. But if we had those kinds of Selves, what would be the use of having Minds? And, on the other hand, if Minds could do such things themselves, why have Selves? Is this concept of a Self of any real use at all? It is indeed — provided that we think of it not as a centralized and all-powerful entity, but as a society of ideas that include both our images of what the mind is and our ideals about what it ought to be.

Besides, we're often of two minds about ourselves. Sometimes we regard ourselves as single, self-coherent entities. Other times we feel decentralized or dispersed, as though we were made of many different parts with different tendencies. Contrast these views:

SINGLE-SELF VIEW. I think, I want, I feel. It's me, myself, who thinks my thoughts. It's not some nameless crowd or cloud of selfless parts.

MULTIPLE-SELF VIEW. One part of me wants this, another part wants that. I must get better control of myself.

We're never wholly satisfied with either view. We all sense feelings of disunity, conflicting motives, compulsions, internal tensions, and dissensions. We carry on negotiations in our head. We hear scary tales in which some person's mind becomes enslaved by compulsions and commands that seem to come from somewhere else. And the times we feel most reasonably unified can be just the times that others see us as the most confused.

But if there is no single, central, ruling Self inside the mind, what makes us feel so sure that one exists? What gives that myth its force and strength? A paradox: perhaps it's because there are no persons in our heads to make us do the things we want — nor even ones to make us want to want — that we construct the myth that we're inside ourselves.