Do We Actually Exist?

'I think, therefore I am' doesn't always hold true
By Mark Russell,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 21, 2011 4:30 AM CDT
Updated Mar 26, 2011 6:49 AM CDT
Do We Exist?
Modern neuroscience is changing the way we think of our sense of self.   (Shutterstock)

The fact that we exist is inarguable, right? After all, if the world were just a dream, we'd need to be dreaming to experience it, writes Julian Baggini for the Independent. Maybe not. Throughout the ages, people have claimed that the self actually doesn't exist—and such claims are gathering steam, and not just among meditators and mystics. Baggini looks at some of the scientific evidence being used to deny Descartes' famed "I think, therefore I am." Those suffering from Cotard's syndrome, for example, think they don't exist; some people with temporal lobe epilepsy see the world as real, but not themselves ("there is thought, but they have no idea whose thought it is").

And then there are people who, far from lacking a sense of self, have too many, and not just people with dissociative identity disorder—those who have had the hemispheres of their brain separated can end up with two centers of consciousness. What these pathologies show is that one's experience of the world does not have to be linked to a sense of a self at the center of it. "But that is not to say that the self doesn't exist." Baggini tries to illustrate this with a Buddhist analogy that likens a person to a cart. "There is no cart, only the wheel, the axle, the flat bed and so on. In the same way, there is no self, only experiences, thoughts, and sensations. But, of course, there is a cart—it's just that it is nothing other than the ordered collection of parts. In the same way, there is a self—it is simply no more than the ordered collection of all our experiences." (More Descartes stories.)

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