Baggini includes material derived from interviews with people who, in one way or another, shed light on what he is discussing. Rather than drawing mainly on professional philosophers he chooses contributors from neuroscience, Christian theology, and Buddhism; he also interviews someone who has undergone a sex change and Brooke Magnanti ('Belle de Jour'). This certainly adds interest and helps to lighten the tone.
About half-way through the book he summarises where he has got to so far, in four points. (1) There is no single part of you that contains your essence. (2) You have no immortal soul. (3) Your self is in some sense a construction. (4) You think of yourself as a unity, which is at least partly true although with qualifications.
Baggini favours the 'bundle view', according to which you are made up of a number of interacting psychophysical elements. It is contrasted with the 'pearl' view, which holds that there is an inner core to which the rest of your experience is attached. The bundle view has important implications for our understanding of character and of free will. Baggini does not want to reject these concepts out of hand, but they do have to be reinterpreted.
Of course, if there is no soul, there can be no life after death. This subject gets a chapter to itself, with discussions of Buddhist and Christian ideas of survival. Buddhists mostly accept the idea of reincarnation, which is particularly important for Tibetan Buddhists, who have a tradition of looking for the reincarnations of revered lamas. The Dalai Lama is the best-known example of this belief, although there are many others. Baggini interviews a lama who is supposed to be such a reincarnation, although he (the lama) does not seem to be entirely convinced.
Since Buddhism rejects the notion of a soul, it is difficult to explain what it is that reincarnates. In any case, Baggini rightly points to objections to the recognition test by which boys are identified as reincarnations. They are not expected to have memories of their previous lives but they are asked to identify objects that belonged to the former lama. Of course, the lamas who make up the selection committee know which are the 'right' objects, and it is likely that they will unconsciously communicate this to the boy who is making the selections.
As 'proof' of reincarnation, this is a flawed test; but Baggini does not mention the work of the late Professor Ian Stevenson, whose extensive research on reincarnation in different cultures was based on claims of remembered previous lives.
Christianity, of course, does not accept reincarnation but it does teach that there is life after death. But contrary to what many Christians believe, the orthodox position is not that the soul persists after death as a discarnate entity. As Baggini discovered to his surprise, the authentic view is that we will be resurrected, body and soul together. What happens to us in the interval between death and resurrection is unclear. Baggini has little difficulty in pointing to numerous problems in the idea of resurrection.
Baggini would not, I think, claim that he is putting forward a radically new theory here; in fact, he explcitly links it with David Hume as well as with Buddhist philosophy. It also draws on the ideas of Derek Parfit; Baggini modestly desribes his PhD thesis as having been 'really just a series of footnotes' to Parfit's work. But Baggini has done an excellent job of making this way of thinking accessible to a wide audience.
Whether the view of the self that Baggini puts forward here will be widely accepted is doubtful. It certainly requires a pretty radical reorientation of one's outlook. Even Parfit, who once was optimistic that this would happen, seems to be less so now. He wrote to Baggini saying 'I wouldn't expect acceptance of "the true view" to have great transformative powers, chiefly because the true view is so hard to accept'.
For those who do manage to accept it, Parfit says, it lessens the fear of death. Baggini is not convinced about this. 'I must admit that [the bundle view] seems to me less bad only in the way that having all but two of your teeth knocked out isn't as bad as being left with just one.'
29 May 2011
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