Syed goes on:
Since we first learnt to use language we have regarded the first-person pronoun as referring to something that existed in childhood, exists today, will continue to exist in the future and -- for those of a religious persuasion -- will survive bodily death. We fondly think of this self as the subject of our experiences, the instigator of our actions and the custodian of our morality. We are lulled into this idea by the seeming unity of our consciousness: our various thoughts and perceptions all knitted into a seamless whole.
This cherished conception is, however, a cruel fiction. It has taken extreme cases, such as [multiple personalities], to ram the truth home....
While it is fair to say that Freud was plenty shocking when he claimed all this already a century ago, it is difficult to see why intellectuals would claim this sort of thing remains anything like shocking today. Frankly, even the ethicians of antiquity had a more sophisticated version of the self than the monolithic and perfectly self-controlled fantasy of self that is presumably being undermined here -- as witness their innumerable discussions of "the passions."
A more plausible theory is that which is emerging from both biology and artificial intelligence. As Daniel Dennett, the philosopher, puts it: "Complex systems can in fact function in what seems to be a thoroughly 'purposeful and integrated' way simply by having lots of subsystems doing their own thing without any central supervision." The self, then, is not what it seems to be. There is no soul, no spirit, no supervisor. There is just a brain, a dull grey collection of neurons and neural pathways -- going about its business. The illusion of self is merely a by-product of the brain's organisational sophistication.
Now, certainly we all should sensibly swallow the pill that we are not in fact omnipotent seamlessly continuous and perfectly willful "masters of our own houses" in the Freudian phrasing. But this hardly justifies any equally absurdly reductionist compensatory fantasies that would return us to a world red in tooth and claw.
It seems to me to be perfectly easy to be an antiessentialist about the self, that is to say to deny the self a soul, a spirit, or an omnipotent supervisor (except for certain metaphorical connotations these terms harmlessly sometimes take on for some perfectly reasonable people), but then to refuse the "conclusion" of some that the self without such paraphernalia is therefore somehow an "illusion."
So, the self is a fiction? Fine with me. A useful fiction it remains, nevertheless.
I have long held the view (also Dennettian), that the self is a center of narrative gravity. I feel the tug of the Nietzschean view of the self as a process of self-overcoming (or what Foucault called ethics as care of the self).
Richard Rorty wrote an essay back in 1987 called "Non-reductive Physicalism" that takes up Dennett's views (as they were back then) and concludes in a rather Humean fashion that good pragmatic materialists need not jettison the terms of folk-psychology on which so many of our moral intuitions depend -- for example, the idea of selves as subjects not objects, as agentic bearers of dignity and rights, as formers of intelligible texts -- but simply translate them into moral terms when we're trying to do and to be good and scientific terms when we're trying to predict and control our environments. This still seems good enough for me.
On an unrelated note, I can't help but imagine how Dennett's figural conguration of "[c]omplex systems [that] can in fact function in what seems to be a thoroughly 'purposeful and integrated' way simply by having lots of subsystems doing their own thing without any central supervision" will inevitably feel incontrovertibly plausible and ferociously appealing to the broadly market-libertarian, "evolutionary psychology"-leaning, cybernetic totalist, technophilic temperaments that so often drift into the Edge.org, "Brights," Butterflies and Wheels, transhumanish milieux.
The reason is that Dennett is offering up here the usual recourse to their favorite explanatory figure, the complacent self-congratulatory dream of "spontaneous order."
"Accepting the death of 'self' is both strange and traumatic," writes Syed, "bringing with it a profound a sense of bereavement. Except that there is nothing there to bereave."
The substantial "something" falsely promised by a priestly metaphysics, is reduced just as falsely into a "nothing" by a priestly science.
But of course one should bereave the loss of self, whether from the trauma of unnarrativisable violation, the eruption of organic pathology, the denial of rights, or the like.
The "stuff" of self isn't an essential metaphysical center angelic ensouled beings reverberate to in the presence of comparbly angelic beings. It is narrative, performative, phenomenological in character. The self is an ongoing process of self-creation: the cognitive and bodily processes Dennett is talking about, in the context of social and cultural and political and prosthetic personal practices.
Just because you can't find a supernatural thing to genuflect to doesn't mean the self isn't still the only game in town.