Searching for The Self, Coming Up Empty

        In a post from last summer, I took stock of where the blog had found itself philosophically (The Picture So Far). In it, I suggested several directions of inquiry that my exploration of the free will debate had pointed towards. This post pulls on one of those threads, the concept of the self.
        The connection first emerged in considering that all too familiar notion from traditional discussions of free will, the ability to do otherwise (see The Freedom to Do Otherwise for an extended discussion). One formulation of this concept is the following: you are free to choose otherwise if, were you to desire to choose otherwise, you would in fact choose otherwise. So according to this formulation, our choices are free in that they originate in our desires. But what about our desires? Are we free to choose those? If so, our choices of desires must themselves originate in desires – let’s call these meta-desires. Are these meta-desires freely chosen? If so, they must… you get the picture. This direction seems to lead to an infinite regress – not so conclusive, or satisfying. What if we cut the analysis off at some juncture, as Locke and Hobbes did? Let’s declare it nonsensical to ask whether we can freely choose our desires (at this particular point, the motivation for or legitimacy of this logical move needn’t concern us much here). So my free will resides in my desires dictating my choices. There is a sense then in which the agent doing the willing, me, is identified with my desires. When I make a choice, the freedom of that choice, what makes that choice seem human, lies entirely with my desires – I am my desires. Is this a conception of the self that we can accept? I must say I have a reflexive aversion to this idea.
        Harry Frankfurt offers a slightly more fleshed out account (Recurring Themes). We have first-order desires to act, and these can often conflict. One desire prevails, leading to action – this is our effective first-order desire, and it constitutes our will. We can also have second-order desires, concerning which first-order desire becomes our will. We have free will when our will (our effective first-order desire, our action) corresponds to our second-order desire. To me, this framework still seems to suffer from the drawbacks above. Is our second-order desire freely chosen? If so, it would need a corresponding third-order desire, and we’re back in infinite regress territory. If not, the seat of agency would in some sense be identified with second-order desires. Does this seem right? Again, I don’t really think so. When I claim I have free will, I think the “I” there stands for more than just my second-order desires.
        To my mind, what is going on in these accounts is a kind of inability to adequately define the boundaries of the self. Let me explain. In each formulation of freedom, we locate the source of our agency within some psychological concept – for the ability to do otherwise formulation it’s generic desires, for Frankfurt’s formulation it’s second-order desires. Next, in order to ward off any infinite explanatory regress, we have to say that applying the formulation to the psychological concept itself is somehow illegitimate. You can’t ask if your desires or second-order desires are freely chosen – it just doesn’t make sense. But this restriction then seems to force upon us a particular conception of the self and its agency. We are our desires (or second-order desires) and our freedom does not extend beyond them. This conception of the self can appear limited, its freedom inadequate. But try to expand it and our conception of freedom breaks down, yielding nonsensical infinite regress. Either way, it seems hard to strike the right balance between freedom and the self.
        This conundrum comes up in Galen Strawson’s work as well (Freedom and Belief). In formulating his free will skepticism, a central premise is that
there is a clear and fundamental sense in which no being can be truly self-determining in respect of its character and motivation in such a way as to be truly responsible for how it is in respect of character and motivation. (273)
The reason this is the case is that to be truly responsible for how you currently are (in terms of character and motivation), you would have had to consciously choose to be that way (or strive to be that way). This conscious choice would have been based on some set of principles of choice: preferences, desires, values, etc. To be truly responsible for how you are on account of having chosen, by some principles, to be that way, you would need to also be responsible for those principles, and so would have needed to consciously choose them as well. But this second choice itself requires further principles of choice. This logic sets up an infinite regress that requires you to be truly responsible for (and consciously choosing) states of affairs occurring even before your birth, pulling the rug out from under true self-determination. But note the interplay between freedom and the self here. If you define the boundaries of the self (in time) too restrictively, you can’t be truly responsible for how you are (and hence not free, according to Strawson). But expand those temporal boundaries, trying to include the conscious choices that led to how you are, and you get caught in an infinite chain of choices and principles of choice, an infinite regress that the concept of the self just can’t contain, can’t support. Freedom and the self are once again at odds.
        I tried digging into the philosophy of self-identity to help me make some sense of these issues (see my reading list), but that literature didn’t really seem to address what I’m trying to grapple with here. Perhaps I’m not looking in the right place, but nonetheless, I find Strawson’s own work to best address these issues. Particularly relevant is his determinism thought experiment and the ensuing discussion (see The Phenomenology of Freedom for an extended discussion). The thought experiment is to “think rapidly of every smallest action one performs or movement one makes – or indeed everything whatsoever that happens, so far as one is oneself concerned – as determined”. The result, Strawson claims, is the realization that our everyday conception of the self as an agent is a kind of illusion – “there is simply no role for such an ‘I’ to play” because “determinism gobbles up everything” (83-4). The discussion is brilliant. It really must be read to appreciate the force of the point. It’s depressing sounding, but it’s balanced out by pragmatic concerns. No human can walk around with such an alienated conception of themselves and get through the day. We just seem psychologically incapable of it, so don’t worry if that’s what you run into. And remember to not draw the fatalistic conclusion from the thought experiment. After all, “one cannot decide not to decide anything on the grounds that one cannot decide anything” (88).
        I see Strawson’s thought experiment as the key to understanding the tension between freedom and the self in the free will discussions above. We’re trying to locate the self, the seat of our agency, in these conceptions of freedom. And we’re running into trouble because neither true, responsibility bearing agency, nor a self that supports such agency, really exist. And yet we can’t help but feel both, and feel both as absolutely central to who we are. Absurd, really.