The Source of Self

Kenneth E. Nahigian

Neither Ghost nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves, by Jeremy Sherman, foreword by Dr. Terrence Deacon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0-231-17332-2). 312 pp. Hardcover, $90.00; softcover, $30.00.

It was not what I expected but something better. In this book, psychologist Jeremy Sherman turns a light on the mystery of goal-oriented behavior in a mechanistic world. What is the source of purpose? How do aims arise from aimlessness? Can brute causes produce Selves with active intentions? This is not the classic question of the origin of private experience (qualia), what philosopher David Chalmers called the Hard Problem. In Sherman’s glossary, a Self can be as simple and insensate as a bacterium. Standing well outside the magic lantern of consciousness, he looks at bodily behavior only. But this lay-presentation of a model developed by neuroscientist Terrence Deacon (who provided the book’s foreword) answers more practical questions—the question of life’s origin and why goal-behavior can even exist.

Of course, our mechanical world includes many goal-focused processes, and not all are mysteries. Water seeks its own level, free markets tend toward price equilibrium, and refracted light “chooses” the path of least time (Fermat’s principle of light). The goal-like behavior that engages Sherman is autonomous self-regeneration and self-preservation, the kind that’s intractably difficult to explain in terms of raw billiard-ball causality, nudging us almost irrevocably toward the vocabulary of “want” and “seek,” what Aristotle called telos. Decades of research in artificial intelligence and protocell development have not yet convincingly reduced telos to causality. And while formal papers in the hard natural sciences eschew verbs such as want, try, and choose as a sort of bastard mysticism, softer sciences such as economics, sociology, and psychiatry just can’t get by without them.

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