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Acceleration of Painted Dream
Acceleration of Painted Dream

A Reader Asks: Is It True That There Is No Self?

The assertion that self is an illusion is not even wrong — it’s self-refuting, like saying “I don’t exist” or “Misery is green”

Sir, I am confused after reading the view of materialist philosophers regarding the sense of self. One of them, Thomas Meitzinger, a German philosopher and expert in conciousness, said that “There is no self” in his book. He said that self is an illusion produced by modules of brain. Is it so? Please help me understand this view.

Thomas Meitzinger (pictured) is a prominent philosopher of mind who has a strong interest in artificial intelligence. I don’t know his work well, but what I do know of it, I find unintelligible. Perhaps it’s me, or perhaps he’s a sophist, or perhaps both.

But this much is clear: My self cannot be an illusion, because having an illusion presupposes a self. A rock, which has no self, cannot have illusions.

The assertion that self is an illusion is not even wrong — it’s self-refuting, which means it’s nonsense. It is like saying “I don’t exist” or “Misery is green.”

One can say such things poetically, but taken literally they make no sense. To say “My self is an illusion” isn’t to offer a proposition. The words are a sentence only in a grammatical sense. Intellectually, it’s just making a noise with your mouth and vocal cords.

That said, there is a sense in which “self” and “illusion” can rightly be juxtaposed. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951, pictured) is, in my view, the best modern philosopher of mind. His understanding of philosophy was profound. He pointed out that we must be very careful about our language when we contemplate and discuss these subtle topics.

He distinguishes knowledge from mental states. Here’s his famous aphorism:

“What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”

The aphorism can be understood as the assertion that to know something (and thus to speak of it) is not the same thing as to think something (where “think” means to experience a mental state).

To know something is to make a proposition about a state of affairs. To think is to experience—thinking is not propositional. A clear example is the difference between knowing about pain and having pain. To know about pain is to make a claim about it. To have pain is to experience it. Knowing pain doesn’t hurt. Having pain does hurt.

Ironically, this insight leads to an astonishing inference: I can know other people’s pain (if they tell me), but I can’t know my own pain (because experiencing pain is not a kind of knowledge). Of course, I can know about my pain — I can try to determine what is causing it, what to do about it, etc., but my having pain is not knowledge, it’s experience. Diagnosing the source of my pain doesn’t hurt. Having pain hurts.

Perhaps this is what Meitzinger is getting at when he claims that the self is an illusion. If he means that to understand “self” is to know something –- and that the knowledge is not a mental state –- then he has a point. But “self is an illusion” is not a clear way to make the point.

There is much to say on Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mind — many astonishing insights and many pitfalls. I’ll have more to say about that later.

Note: The portrait of Ludwig Wittgenstein, on being awarded a scholarship from Trinity College in 1929, is by Clara Sjögren from Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk (ISBN 978-1-448-11267-8)

You may also enjoy: A reader asks: Does neuroscience disprove free will? Materialists sometimes misrepresent the evidence for free will, especially Benjamin Libet’s work.


How much of neuroscience is an unwitting hoax? Michael Egnor: Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein saw that much materialist neuroscience was neither true, nor false, just nonsense. Physicist Alan Sokal hoaxed postmodern journals (the famous Sokal hoax) but materialists like Francis Crick (1916–2004) seem to hoax themselves.

Michael Egnor

Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics, State University of New York, Stony Brook
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and is an award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

A Reader Asks: Is It True That There Is No Self?