There is no spoon


British psychologist Susan Blackmore’s answer to death anxiety is to deny the existence of that which fears death. Rather than fearing death, we extinguish the desire for an enduring existence, and that is accomplished by realizing the illusory nature of what we take to be an enduring reality, namely, the Self. There is no reason to fear death, Blackmore assures us, because there is no enduring Self that lives beyond the span of a nanosecond. What we take to be the enduring identity and significance of our lives is in fact a chain of stillborn selves, each of whom dies as quickly as it is born. Life – as we experience it – is one long chain of death (as much as it is anything else).

All our experiences, perceptions, beliefs, emotions, deliberations are simply a sequence of discrete slices, and any attempt to construe them as constituting a history of personal significance is illusory. After all, that would require a principle of unity higher than the discrete occasions it seeks to unify. Check out the first three minutes if that’s all you have time for. She nicely summarizes the bad news.

One should understand what is being said here. Not only is the Self an illusion, but all aesthetic perception and valuation is illusory, for these are by definition ‘narratives’ constructed by selves over time, and per Blackmore, all narratives are illusions because there is no enduring principle of unity sufficient to gather together the discrete temporal moments of a life into a meaningful whole – and the feelings, aesthetic perceptions and moral valuations of our lives are narratives.

Such an understanding of reality fails on its own terms. Forget special appeals to transcendence for the moment. Rationality itself, as well as moral valuations (even moral judgments made on a purely materialist basis), are only conceivable if our rational beliefs and moral judgments supervene truthfully upon a history (individual or social). But all beliefs and moral judgments are narratives, and as such are illusions on Blackmore’s view. So it is not just the self that is an illusion because it is a narrative (which Blackmore knows because of the non-illusory, socially constructed narrative of her scientific method), but so are all narratives illusions, for all narratives, like the self, are constructed narratives that supervene upon discrete, momentary events which in fact do not constitute an enduring anything. But if this applies to all narratives, it applies Blackmore’s own narrative that all narratives are illusions. Her view cannot escape the reach of its own criticisms.

Indeed, “science” (by which I mean the ‘scientific method’) is a (kind of) Self. It is a socially constructed narrative expressive of an identity (that is, a shared perspective on the truth and meaning of the world) that acts as a filter through which all things are interpreted. But – and this is crucial – the power to recognize illusion as illusion cannot itself be an illusion. Some enduring reality, immanent in every conscious act but not itself deriving from any temporal process within nature, must be responsible for unifying conscious experience in the transcendental ways we require to get the simplest thought off the ground.

What ways are those? Well, to begin with, I’m not suggesting the Self is its own enduring reality that grounds the rational/intelligible/narrative structure of consciousness. With Blackmore, I’m happy to deliver the bad news to those who believe otherwise that they’re believing a fantasy. But not everything is illusion, namely, our power to recognize illusion as such. So the transcendent structure of personal experience should lead us to avoid ending our search where Blackmore ends hers, that is, in illusion.

Two undeniable features of our experience have to be kept in mind: First, the illusory nature of the socially constructed self. Secondly, the transcendent power to perceive this about ourselves (and the conditions under which we exercise this power). In the first instance there is indeed an illusion to expose, namely, the illusion that any self constructed upon the proposition that nature is a closed, material system can serve as the principle of unity for a life. In the second instance, however, the power to recognize this illusion cannot itself be an illusion. It must transcend the conditions under which the self is rightly said to be an illusion. But notice, this recognition of transcendence is itself rational, is the judgment of some ‘self’ (namely, whoever thinks his way properly into the truth of the matter), and it unifies the flow of history in a meaningful narrative. So while it may be an illusion that my truest self, the core of my meaning, is my being a white, American male or a former Republican, or whatever identity I could lose contact with in the event of a stroke or a fall on the bathroom floor, what is not an illusion is that every self expresses an enduring, conscious power for meaning-making under certain transcendent conditions, namely, the longing or desire for rational/intelligible perception, aesthetic experience, and interpersonal relations. In classical terms, it is a power for the experience of truth, beauty and goodness. Any attempt to deny this, as far as I can tell, only manifests its truth. Not all is illusion.


3 comments on “There is no spoon

  1. Interesting post! I’m curious—how (if at all) would you distinguish Blackmore’s self-refuting materialist case against an enduring Self from the Buddhist no-self doctrine, which I confess I still can’t seem to fully wrap my head around…


    • Tom says:

      Great question. I’m not an authority on Eastern thought, but this might help:

      I found it helpful. I get the basic outlines of Buddhist and Hindu views, but not enough to satisfy your question. I think one difference between Blackmore and eastern thought is that Buddhists and Hindus are not materalists. A Buddhist would characterize egoistic self-construction as an illusion for reasons other than those a materialist like Blackmore would offer. Blackmore believes the Self to be an illusion because there literally is nothing transcendent of the material processes of the brain, whereas a Buddhist classifies the Self as an illusion only because it falsely reduces the transcendent reality of consciousness to the identities of the constructed Self. So for Blackmore the illusion is thinking there’s anything more than matter, while for a Buddhist the illusion is mistaking the transcendent something-more for the Self.



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