The Ontology of Me

The Ontology of Me — Phenomenology Meets Neuroscience

Richard Curtis, PhD

Summer 2014

[Read as Digital Publication]

Non-philosophers are probably puzzled that we ask questions like: What is a thing?  There has been much disagreement about such questions.  Aristotle’s answer is that it is a substance and its particular accidents.  I will take that to be basic to thingness, what we call ontology (being).  Is the number four a thing?  No.  Plato thought so, but not us, not any longer.  If I say, dolphins are my absolute favorite things; am I talking about a thing?  No.  The language of things is useful, and it is this utility that causes confusion.  When I say, “I”, am I talking about a thing?  People often think so but the best answer is probably No.  Thing language is remarkably useful for talking about selves too.  Like other things that are not really things, “me” is an experience.  I do not mean what the census means when it counts selves.  I mean what I call myself, to myself.  The I that refers to itself and now understands itself to be typing.  That self is a not a thing, but we are very used to talking about it as if it (it is thing language) were a thing.

I was watching TV the other day and an ad came on for a pizza place that used images of “Tweets” and other social media forms, including – allegedly – “content” from real people.  There has been more and more of this lately.  My first reaction was to think it wasn’t worth the trouble.  The culture seems to want me to join in the whole social media phenomenon and I just am not interested.  A moment later, I felt like I really ought to because it would promote a feeling of belonging – which, of course, is what the marketers are intentionally trying to create.  But the feeling of belonging is real, even while it is manipulated by something out of sight, seemingly less real.

Consciousness and free will are like that.  What does that mean?  Well, it means that even when what we do isn’t really free the feelings involved are nonetheless important and real on their own terms.  This matters for many contexts but I would like here to describe my view of what a self is and how that self can be understood in the psychotherapeutic context.  These insights generalize to a number of different social contexts.

This paper seeks to describe the ontology of the self in terms of phenomenology but informed by the insights of modern neuroscience.  These two paradigms for thinking about psychological functioning are seemingly very divergent but I would like to suggest that they can be understood together if one comes at the understanding in a particular way.  The way I will describe is my own model for talking about these issues, which has developed over the course of my professional career as I occasionally come back to the question of free will.  That will be the focus for this paper and I think it provides an especially helpful lens for making this ontology relevant to the real world, and in particular psychotherapeutic/psychoanalytic practice.

Consider this speech (from Cher’s character Loretta in the movie “Moonstruck”):

A person can see where they messed up in life and they can change how they do things and they can even change their luck.  So maybe my nature does draw me to you.  I can take hold of myself and say “yes” to some things and “no” to some things.  I can do that.  Otherwise, you know what, what good is this stupid life god gave us?  For what?  Are you listening to me?!


It is a great speech and of course the whole point of the movie is that Loretta cannot help herself.  She does fall in love the person who makes life complicated, not the one she wanted to choose to make life easy.  But think about that language for a moment, “not the one she wanted to choose.”  Who is choosing and who is doing the wanting?  I submit that what matters in all of this is the experience of both wanting and of being swept away.  This is curious because it is normally the wanting that we think matters.  As in the speech, otherwise what is the point?  This is a profoundly important point, but not exactly what it seems.

In the early 1970’s a young philosopher named Judith Jarvis Thomson won the abortion debate with an article we now call the Famous Violinist Argument.[1]  Religious objections have not recognized this yet, but in the secular world it is a done deal (as reflected Roe v Wade).  That argument shows via a brilliant analogy that people naturally choose autonomy over life if those two principles are placed in conflict with each other.  The deep philosophy is a resolution of what is called “The Murderer at the Door Problem” from Immanuel Kant.  Kant held, in his last published work, that even little white lies are not permissible.[2]  He argued that in taking up a challenge that involves having to choose between lying and being unwillingly involved in a murder.  Kant was just digging in his heals, we hope, as it is not really clear what to do with what seems like such a bizarre conclusion.  But the point is the problem sets up a very basic problem for Deontological systems of ethics – how does one decided which principles trump which others?  Thomson showed that we spontaneously choose autonomy, as Loretta did in the speech.

Something vital seems to be lost if we lose our autonomy.  But ironically enough, something different seems to be lost if we are not also swept away from time to time, especially in love.  We want our emotions to move us almost as much as we want to be self-determining.  Can we have both?  Yes, as long as one understands that these are experiences we have, not realities with which we are in touch.  I believe we evolved to have and to value both of these sorts of experiences, so much so that we seek them out or act out when those desires are frustrated.

These sorts of conversations are philosophically difficult because it is easy to get confused about the subject.  Neuroscientists are accused of this all the time.  They will say things like, “the brain wants this…” or “the brain decided that….”  If you talk with people they will say, “I want this…” or “I decided that…,”  When the neuroscientist is talking this way they are trying to portray brain activity but have only anthropocentric language to do that.  So they say that brains do things and want things or presuppose things.  Are they confused about the subject?  I think some may but the language is just an unfortunate artifact of the culture that has built in limitations.  To say anything in the English language is to be subjected to its limitations, to work with the parameters of that language as I know it in my time.  I heard V.S Ramachandran on a TED Talk recently discussing paralysis and one pernicious problem that afflicts about half of people who have limbs amputated after a period of paralysis.  Because the patient’s brain has been sending signals to try to move a nerve damaged limb that does not respond the brain learns the paralysis.  It becomes a learned paralysis.  So when the limb is amputated in a misguided attempt to resolve pain, the surgeon creates phantom limb pain.  This does not always happen but does about half the time.  Ramachandran discovered that if he can show the patient an image as if the limb were functional (he discovered this can be done with mirrors as well virtual reality) that the pain often goes away.  It is as if the brain learned that the limb could move, at least briefly, and that allowed the felt spasm to resolve and the pain to disappear.

Is that difficult to follow?  Who is learning?  The patient in some sense is learning, but this learning is sub-conscious, they are not aware of it.  The effects are very real.  So who learned?  The patient did but did not know it.  To express this idea we say, “the brain learned.”  This way of talking is straightforward when we think about Pavlov and his dogs.  The dog does not have to consciously know that food is one the way.  The brain pathways fire on their own, that is what we mean by learning.  The brain has developed an awareness of a pattern and when the first part of the pattern is noticed (the stimulus, dogs hear bell) the brain anticipates the pattern (responds, the dogs salivate).

What people find most elusive and difficult to fit into a naturalistic account of self is the phenomenology of the recursive quality of thought.  My brain, essentially three pounds of jelly, can contemplate the meaning of infinity, and itself contemplating infinity, but not just that, it can write about itself contemplating itself contemplating infinity.  In that TED Talk Ramachandran says that the recursive quality of human thought is consciousness.  Phrased this way is it really so elusive?

Before I get back to Free Will and the main line of the conversation I would like to introduce one way to understand what is different about human consciousness.  Neuroscience has found that the Angular Gyrus is large in humans and smaller in related primates.  It is the place where synesthesia seems to occur (the experience of senses crossing, like numbers having specific colors).  Synesthesia is eight times more common in artists, writers and poets than the general public and it runs in families.  It is also known that patients who have damage to the angular gyrus lose the ability to understand metaphor.  Consider: “It is the east and Juliet is the sun.”  Normal functioning people can understand that Juliet is not being identified with a flaming ball of gas; that is literal interpretation.  Metaphor seems, then, to be very human.  We engage in art, where animals we teach to paint engage in a craft.  We want to see those elephants as intending art but that is anthropomorphizing them – in particular, it seems, it is assuming they too have a large angular gyrus, and they don’t  (taken from Ramachandran, his examples as well).  What makes humans human seems to be this combinational activity, which enables complex phenomenon like metaphor possible.  I submit that part of what gives the world its feeling of mattering to us is this mixing of senses that enriches experience and allows for poetic expression, even calls for it.

What I have in mind specifically is support for a version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s ontology of selves woven into conversation with a reductive neuroscience that seems, on the surface, to deny the plausibility of Sartre’s approach.  But that is just the surface.  If we peek below the surface a new, combined model becomes possible.  The model for this is Inside versus Outside what I will call “The Myth of Free Will.”  The phenomenology of the self is all about freedom, that experience of autonomy I discussed above.  The conclusions about the self from neuroscience are about experiences.  The self is experienced, is an experience and not a thing.  This part is most vital for any coherent understanding of human beings.  The experienced self is focused on freedom, while the brain producing that experience is bound by its materiality.  Thus what neuroscientists find must be included if we are to have a fully informed ontology.

For my purposes then I want to explore an understanding of what it would mean for existentialists and neuroscientists to both be right.  Let me start with an overview of the existentialists view.  Sartre famously says things like: “To act is to modify the shape of the world; it is to arrange means in view of an end.”[3]  This is an intention and specifically an intention of consciousness to bring about that which is not the case.  “Man is the being through whom nothingness comes into the world.”[4]  In this transformation of the world we see the activity of consciousness.  “Man’s relation to being is that he can modify it.”[5]  It is generally understood that he was saying that it is through our actions, intentional actions; that we become persons, we form selves.  We become not a consciousness-in-itself but a consciousness-for-itself through our choices, or decided actions in the world.

One criticism of this view is that it is not situated in the same way human beings are situated in a social context.  That social context is a facticity into which we are born and Sartre’s view, in his early work, say the social as inherently conflicting with the individual.  This is common to the existentialists, of course.  I think that critique is fair and in fact Sartre himself makes it explicit by going on to write his other major work.  For our purposes here though we are interested in his early and more pure existential thought.  This view is compelling but must also incorporate the social context and I think that much is not controversial and so there is no need to develop that line here.  The other criticism is the one that interests me especially.  Sartre’s view seems incompatible with modern science, and especially neuroscience.  I am here suggesting that this critique is not correct as one can bring them together, as I will.

The most intellectually challenging aspect of what science tells us about the brain is that it is a material system existing in a causally determined universe.  William James wrote about this in his psychology text book over a hundred years ago.  It is a deep challenge.  I want to suggest we meet that challenge head on and accept those findings.  For one example, there is a very famous study called the Lippet Experiment.[6]  The experiment appears to show that awareness of a decision to act follows the action.  The findings are disputed both scientifically and philosophically.  I think both types of challenges are expressions of wishful thinking.  We wish this was not the case but it is.  On the scientific side it seems to me that the evidence just is compelling.  On the philosophical side it seems to just be quibbling over words.  In the business, we (I am a philosopher by training) have two dominant models for Free Will.  The most popular is “Soft Determinism.”  This view holds that we do indeed live in a deterministic universe and so yes of course what we do and think is determined, but that is not what Free Will is really about.  What it “really” is about is a social conversation regarding ordinary and extra-ordinary determining factors.  A person is acting “freely” on this view is they are not being physically constrained or coerced.  This control could be exercised by an external agent, like a person compelling me to do something, or internal like a psychiatric conditioning.  This is the view of “free” that our legal system uses.  I am free and thereby culpable if I am not insane and not being otherwise forced to do something.

Defenders of Soft Determinism argue that this is what “Free Will” has always meant and in using this language we are simply confirming this historical usage.  Some will add that if we did not live in a deterministic universe we would have no basis for anticipating what anyone would ever do and so this determining model is necessary for any social actor to be understandable.  According to this view “Free Will” is a linguistic convention that refers to a lack of external control and ordinary cognitive functioning.  It is reportedly the most popular view among professional philosophers today.  I think it is mistaken, however.  The “Hard Determinist” position has been defended by people who simply say that Free Will is an illusion and that as a result all social rules are not legitimate and have to be eliminated.  This view is not social useful and so is rejected on those grounds.  But I think there is a more coherent way of explaining Hard Determinism.  That view says to Soft Determinism, if our society actually had a functional justice system then it might be the case that the Soft Determinist view was correct.  But as long as that view is only coherent inside complex philosophical models that never make it out to the world to influence policy then that model is itself useless.  Hard Determinism, reasonably defended, argues that we live in a deterministic universe and so our ordinary moral terms are problematic, but they can be rescued by reference to social ethics.  On the deterministic view it is unethical to put people in prison regardless of proof they committed the crime because the person was not free to do otherwise, in a full and complete sense.  (They are free to do otherwise on the Soft Determinist account because it says we mean was the person externally coerced; but that is not what people really mean so that language is confusing.)  The accused was not free to do otherwise in any meaningful sense of the English language, because s/he does not have a free will.  This seems to say that we cannot then do anything about crime and so we need Soft Determinism back.  But that is just laziness.  There is work to be done to integrate these understandings.  It starts with the observation that society has a fair basis to remove people from society, either permanently because they are dangerous to others, or temporarily to try to teach them to behavior differently.  What is not moral is treating those people badly, as we do currently.  Since our so-called justice system is anything but, this shows that we need to do the philosophical work of developing a system that is morally defensible, a system that honestly accepts conclusions from science it has not good reason to reject.

Well, why do people reject the science?  It has everything to do with The Famous Violinist Argument.  We value our sense of autonomy.  Ethics then must account for the fact that this is an apparent universal human value, yet it is scientifically unsupportable.  What is supportable is the observation that this autonomy is not really real but is really experienced.  We experience ourselves as free and we value that experience above all others, it seems.

I should immediately remind the reader that consciousness itself is an experience.  Ramachandran said it is the experience of the recursive nature of human thought in particular.  This is also the model proposed by my favorite Soft Determinist philosopher Dan Dennett.  Dennett’s model of consciousness is that it is like a narrative web of our thoughts and deeds as these happen over time.  Consciousness is awareness of the focus of these experiences being constructed around a central narrator.  We tell one story at a time as we go through life.  In fact the Lippet experiment shows that this is true at the neurological level.  Our brains, at a level below conscious awareness, are acting all the time.  They hear, taste, see, feel and smell the world all the time.  We have needs as well, some very natural others culturally conditioned and we act on those needs.  As we act our brains are telling a story to justify the actions.  I am doing this because…I wanted ice cream.  I discovered that I wanted ice cream in my acting to acquire it or in the growing awareness of thoughts directed towards planning how to get the ice cream.  I did not choose to want ice cream and I do not choose how to get it – although it seems to me that I am choosing how to get it.  The sense of autonomy that we are so keen to protect is the illusion that something called Me wants ice cream and it evaluates how to get it.  In truth a brain having a certain set of experiences, called Me in my case or you in your case, processes various desires and possibilities based on previous experience and inner states and that information processing ability sets about solving what is presented to it as a problem.  I want ice cream.  In thinking about solutions to this problem I become aware that thinking is happening and this thinking is organized such that what I call Me owns the thoughts.  They are my thoughts.  But are they free?  No, they just occur to me.  I have these thoughts.  One of them will be about how to get the ice cream and once that is figured out I will own it too.  I figured out how to get ice cream.  No, my brain figured it out and that brain is organized to experience all of that activity in the form of self-ownership.

“I” am always a second order phenomenon of what my brain, the brain my body carries around, constructs of what it experiences as being of a Me.  Perhaps this will help: I do not think of my cats as having free will.  I think they have desires and anxieties (both are rescues and quite neurotic) but they do not choose any of that, any more than I choose my anxieties.  When I watch them run around the house they seem in control, like when hunting.  The cat is scanning its environment and deciding what to do.  But then suddenly the dog (who is equally neurotic) notices one of them and a chase begins.  The cat does not then seem to be making any decisions.  It just runs and as it encounters obstacles it maneuvers around them and tries to use them to confuse the dog, the predator now chasing.  The cat does not decide that the couch is useful for this, it simply encounters the couch and scoots under it.  The cat’s brain is scanning its environment looking for things that it can fit under or over, both means of escape it already knows either from previous experience or its genetics (I don’t really know how much of either is involved).  My point here is that in full chase it seems clear that neither animal is acting on a free will, even it might seem that way when they are just exploring.  Well, we are the same, except our brains are organized such that the experiences have this unique first person perspective – they are my experiences.  For humans, though, the most interesting contexts are social and the ways in which our innate desires to be social and fit in run into contradictions in society making conformity the price, which challenges my autonomy.  We do not choose this but it is vital, and when it does not work well the creature, whether cat or human, become neurotic because normal functioning was frustrated somehow.  Or when I am in full flight I too am no longer aware of myself as decider, I simply do.  This is what martial arts training is about.  Deciding can drop away because the details are no stored in muscle memory.  But what is that?  It is the memory I am not aware of having.  When I get on a bike and can ride after many years of not, it is not that I decide how to do it from a storehouse of possibilities, no my brain just knows, the memory is there but not in the storied form of consciousness.  What I am saying is that even when things move slower and it seems to me that I am deciding, that this is just an illusion that slower movements allow.  What is really happening is just like when I am at full speed and not aware of the decisions; it is just that when things are calm there is time for the myth of that ownership to be created.  This is a very powerful illusion too as it makes possible all of higher culture.  It is in human culture that we seem to feel most free, because that is realm in which creativity is possible, novelty is possible (to get us back to Sartre).  In acting I experience myself as Sartre described; but we know from science that this experience is not the reality – it is an experience.

Even these examples are reminiscent of the complex interplay between free and unfree that we seem to value.  Like love taking me away, the memory of how to ride takes me away when I am on the bike again.  My drum teacher told me that when performers are really on and it is working they lose that first person and get swept away in the experience.  We lose the ego, in his language, and the music just comes through.  In fact, he said, when the ego is present the music does not flow.  His “ego” has qualities of “super-ego.”  Either way, my point here is that this is another example of ways in which we value losing that sense of being in control, but only in certain ways.  I do not seem able to control having those experiences at will, but I seem to cultivate them nonetheless.  I try to get to that place where the ego has faded to the background and I call that a pure consciousness.  Buddhism and Hinduism have made this a cosmic principle.  In ecstatic experiences of all types the self seems to drop away, and mystics have sought out these experiences for millennia.  Both are valued though they seem opposites.

All of that has been Outside the Myth of Free Will talk.  When I am inside the myth I sound like Sartre.  Here it might help to remind the reader of Camus’ position on Free Will.  He said that he doesn’t care because all he knows is the experience.  Well, I agree with that but I think if we just stop there that we have only have the story – the phenomena.  If we want to understand, let alone help or treat, then a deeper understanding is necessary, and available.


What I as narrator or author, I-A, calls the present is actually a slight fraction of second later than it happened – due to neural distances and processing time.  Curiously one of the things I-A is telling a story about is what I in a different sense did in that fraction of a second ago called now, what the behaving I did, I-B.  I-B does things and I-A is narrating the life of I-B while owning what I-B does because it is all I.  The recursive quality of thought is the author I, I-A, owning what the behaving I, I-B, does.  So to experience there is one I, but in the world there are two senses, two aspects to the ontology.  One tells the story and the other does stuff, including says stuff.  Most of the time the I-A is just about on top of the I-B and that is what we call in control.  Sometimes the I-A gets a bit behind and that can lead to a moment when the I-A does not like the story twist and scolds the I-B.  “I can’t believe I did that!”  Really, “I-A cannot believe I-B did that.”  That author seems very Super-Ego like and I suspect is part of what Freud was talking about.  The I is not self-made, and so what an I-A would judge one way or another is mostly culturally conditioned.  Id certainly seems very I-B, so that one is easy.  Ego itself is perhaps the experienced self, qua experienced self, the actual phenomenon.  Self is a happening, a phenomenon after all and not a thing, so it makes sense if we use these details to make Dennett’s theory useful.  That seems like it should be three aspects but in this model the narrator or author is evaluating, reacting as well.  For the sake of analysis that is three parts and so Freud’s model, curiously, still fits.

Taking another run at this – I encountered a philosophy text book that asked, Why bother with philosophy?  The answer was: “Perhaps because the unexamined life is not a life chosen freely in awareness of alternatives, but a furrow mindlessly plowed.”[7]  If free will really is just an illusion of sorts, a creation of how our brains experience the world and themselves, then a “life chosen freely” is only a sort of illusion, and a remarkably important one.  We think of ourselves as deciding and intending but all of the evidence suggests this is a constructed experience.  Clearly that experience of seeming to be free is central to our psychology, basic to ethics, and presumably evolutionarily advantageous.  It appears we can think more complicated thought, solve more complicated problems, if we have our selves in the thinking.  Creatures that pass psychological tests for self-consciousness have in common the ability to solve very complex problems.  One theory I encountered somewhere is that a key cognitive ability in this is mental time travel – the ability to project self into past or future.  We can learn more complex lessons from our experience as a result, and we can plan an imagined future.  All of this is vital to how we function.

We know that human brains have some built in habits and some basic primate needs.  We know that we narrate a story of our lives to ourselves as go along, apparently rationalizing what our behavior and even thoughts to ourselves based on past experience and current emotional state, which may or may not be clear to the individual.  What I mean is we can react emotionally and not really know what the feeling was, and this why we find psychotherapy useful.  The psychotherapist is in a position to interrogate our rationalizations.  What strikes me as useful for understanding these things is to go back to Freud.  In his scheme what is me?  I think me is what he called ego.  This me is torn by demands made by my id, my desires and emotions taken as raw data.  This me is managed by a superego that seems to be the product of primate evolution and how attachment patterns evolved.  I have to fit in social, to some significant degree, and so this super-ego keeps track of what are taken to be the demands of being social.  Now, of course, what the id wanted and what super-ego demands might be misunderstood by the ego, and that is neurosis.

Remember my goal here is not an updated understanding of Freud but an ontology of me.  I submit that this me is what Freud called ego, but it is not really mediating between id and super-ego, but as the narrator it seems to have that role.  In truth the ego is an after the fact story teller and so cannot be deciding, but as the record keeper it is in a position to tell the story such that it, ego, seemed to be mediating between id and super-ego; but this mediation is not happening prior to behavior but rather after and so it rationalizes behavior by telling the story of seeming to mediate between competing demands.  In my earlier language this ego is a happening, it is the experience of the storytelling, not the story teller.

[1] Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971).

[2] From “On the Supposed Right to Lie” which was an appendix to his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.

[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes, New York: Philosophical Library, 1956, 433.

[4] Sartre, 24.

[5] Sartre, 24.

[6] Benjamin Lippet, “Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action,” Behavior and Brain Sciences, Vol. 8, 529-566, 1985.

[7] Stephen Law, Forward to 30-Second Philosophies, Barry Locker, ed., NY: Metro Books, 2009, 6.