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4.7 out of 5 stars
The Ego Trick
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on March 22, 2011
This book is a 'must read' for anyone who has ever wondered who they really are!

Julian Baggini adds rigour and readability to what could easily be a dry and confusing subject. Having said that the first half of the book is devoted to what the self 'obviously' isn't and is perhaps overlong, but then things start to hot up.

The author makes a convincing case for his theory that '"I" is a verb dressed as a noun.' It is not a 'thing' but what brains and bodies 'do'.

So is self 'just an illusion'? No:

The self is really a 'bundle' of thoughts not a hard fixed 'pearl', but it is still 'real', just not what we generally assume it to be.

The self as 'no-thing' can't be destroyed by death but this doesn't mean it survives it! In as far as the self is real it will end in death! This is even less comforting than the often used non-dualist idea of 'how can something that was never born die?' But this isn't about comfort of course, neither is Stephen Batchelor's (Buddhist) idea that there is nothing (no-self) beyond the veil of appearances - all is impermanent and contingent. There is no 'transcendent' self.

Christine Korsgaard's theory of 'self-creation' is examined next: the sense in which the self is created from what is chosen and enacted. We are responsible because we are 'agents' and we 'are what we do'. This sounds very like existentialism to me. We are nothing beyond what we do and are condemned to freedom since we must do something.

This 'living without a soul' is explored further: according to Susan Blackmore bundle theory lends itself to determinism rather than free-will. This is quite convincingly explained. However having already given support to the idea of freedom and responsibility, Baggini suggests that rather than 'freedom' we use the compromised term of 'autonomy' whereby we can regulate our own behaviour based more on 'internal machinations' than on external events. But what are these internal machinations based on? and who is the regulator? This part of the book becomes rather vague and contradictory.

So has Baggini cast new light on the subject of self? Probably not, but he has clarified the terminology and linked the philosophical, scientific, religious and psychological ideas into a very thought-provoking whole. This considerable task alone merits the five stars.

Personally I don't think this investigation is radical enough in that it is undertaken within the context of the phenomenal world. It is to some extent about playing within boundaries rather than with boundaries (to borrow a James Carse expression). For example what if consciousness is the 'ground of all being' as proposed by non-dualist philosophers? (e.g as expressed by Jeff Foster (An Extraordinary Absence) or Tony Parsons (The Open Secret)). This would give a whole other starting point and resulting investigation.
However the case for the 'self' model that Baggini proposes sounds plausible, although his eloquence and clarity does not leave one thinking that we now have all the answers, but rather what new and greater implications these ideas may have. This is a good thing of course!

This is probably Baggini's best book to date and he stands virtually alone in being able to make incredibly complex and subtle philosophical ideas both accessible and entertaining.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on May 16, 2012
This is a very stimulating and enjoyable read by a philosopher who I always find to be well-written and thought provoking. It advances the philosophical understanding of the self and debunks a few arguments along the way, however there are some instances where I think it could have gone a lot farther.

Part one deals mostly with shredding once and for all the "pearl" view of the self. This view is the idea that somewhere there is a true core self of some kind. The view has taken the form of the idea of an underlying core personality as well as some sort of pure spirit that is attached to the body without being physically affected. It is a largely successful part with some weaknesses.

The first section of Part One deals with the idea that we are somehow separate from the body. To illustrate this, Julian uses stories of transgendered people who could not overcome the fact that their body did not correspond with their psychology. While this is an interesting idea, I think it makes a fairly weak argument. It leaves too many other possibilities open even if you include the theories presented in the rest of the book. It would be easy to say that one part of their brain or psychology was wrong for their body rather than their body being wrong for their psychology. This would effectively disconnect the body from the mind once again. I think this section would have been much better covered by a discussion on the clear and demonstrated impacts of biology on the mind, puberty for one. Fortunately this section is not the sum total of part one.

The second section of Part One deals with the self and the brain. This is a particularly strong section in which the relationship between self and brain is illustrated mostly via what happens when the brain fails and the self subsequently dismantles. This, however, is also the first instance where I think the major weakness of the book shows through. Julian advocates a bundle view of the self where the self is the body and the brain, however he maintains an argument where, despite that, we are more than the body and the brain. For some reason he then doesn't lend much focus towards really exploring the impact of body and brain on the self. This is demonstrated first in this section when he notes that neuroscientists are attempting to map the brain and its effects on the self but dismisses the point by saying, "All you get is more detail about the precise mechanisms by which self emerges from brains." He says this to note why he shouldn't go into more detail about the brain mechanisms that create self while, I think, demonstrating exactly why he should. It is still an excellent section and piece of reasoning despite that failing.

The third section covers the problem of memory and the self very well. He goes into detail on how much the existence of the self is based on memory and how much we can say a person who has lost their memory is still a person. He advocates a very positive view on the latter point which I agree with to an extent. I do not think a person without memory has anywhere near the potential of a person with memory, but I do agree that they are still people and not just empty shells.

The fourth and final section of Part One covers the soul. It's a very thorough dismantling of any remaining arguments that any sort of immaterial soul or spirit could actually exist.

Part One is a decently strong section with some interesting arguments. It's weak in the aspect I mentioned, but it paves the way for Part Two.

Part Two is the strongest part of the book. This is where Julian lays out his view of the self, and it's an exceptional piece of work.

The first section of Part Two on multiplication of the self is my favorite section. He discusses, and thoroughly dismantles, ideas of being able to count the self. Utilizing a range of ideas from disassociative identity disorder to performers putting on a persona, he logically argues that the self is more like milk. You can have a glass or two of it, but you can never have two "milks." You always just have "some milk." I agree entirely with his conclusions in this instance.

In the second section he addresses the social self covering the impact of other people on how we perceive ourselves. The subject is logically explored and well-argued.

The third section is what the book is named after. This is quite directly Julian's theory on the self where more or less everything else was just leading up to it. He opens with four points all of which I agree with: there is no specific part of you containing your essence, you have no immaterial soul, your sense of self must in some way be a construction, and the unity which enables you to think of yourself as the same person is in some ways fragile and in other ways robust. That's a brief summary, but it captures the essence of his argument which is quite complete.

He goes on, still in the third section, to advocate the bundle view of the self. This basically means we are the sum total of our collection of parts from both the brain and the body. The self is then created by certain of these parts working together and creating a perceived continuity. It's a brilliant theory and one that I entirely agree with, however before the third section ends Julian moves back into what I mentioned earlier I think is the major weakness of the book. He begins to advocate the view that, "We are no more than, but more than just, matter." I think he ends up shooting himself in the foot and creating a hazy argument out of what could have been an incredibly strong one.

As the third section continues, he says a person can't be described in a physical vocabulary. Perhaps our current physical vocabulary is inadequate, but he doesn't give any reason why we couldn't be described physically. He also says that thoughts and feelings are not strictly physical which doesn't make much sense to me as he goes on to say that everything is physics. He says that we cannot see thoughts and feelings under a microscope, but I cannot see the data on my hard drive under a microscope either. He also says we can only see the neural correlates of consciousness in an fMRI, but that assumes that an fMRI is giving us a complete picture. He advocates consciousness being an emergent phenomenon but doesn't give an argument for why it has to be. The underlying premise seems to be that what we perceive must be different from what it is, but I don't see any reason why. Ultimately the book is mired by attempting to distinguish between mental events and the brain, and this view of consciousness as emergent ends up confusing the issue more than exploring it.

The book could have been far stronger if he took his own conclusion to its logical end and had begun to develop an understanding of the self in tandem with the direct physical features he advocates it being apart of. Instead, neuroscience is left mostly unexplored, and biology and genetics are left completely unexplored. The book does an excellent job of lighting the way out of the pearl view into the bundle view, but then it falls victim to exactly the same sort of superstitions that created the pearl view in the first place. Because of this, it seems to me that what could have been a leap forward is instead reduced to a few steps in the right direction. Nonetheless the book is still very much worth reading simply for the quality of those steps.

The book does not end after that section, but it takes what I think is a pretty severe dip in quality.

The fourth section in Part Two asks if the self is an illusion. The question seems to be entirely unnecessary considering that it was already established that the self is a bundle created by physical features. The question of whether the self is an illusion is really one of the pearl view, not the bundle view.

The fifth section in Part Two is, I think, the only remaining strong section in the book. It covers creating character and, after some examples, presents a system of understanding people by organizing all of their traits into four categories: passive and variable, passive and consistent, active and variable, and active and consistent. The passive traits are ones that the person does not actively control, and the active ones are now self-explanatory. The general idea is we can control more of our character by translating more parts of ourselves into the active and consistent category. I don't fully agree with that conclusion, and I think the topic is again held down by not fully addressing the physical. It could have been explored what parts of the brain and body we have conscious control over and to what degree as well as what parts we can change. I do like the system of categorization as a starting point, but I think it needs to be expanded to accurately incorporate the physical.

Part Three deals with the future of the self and is by far the weakest part of the book.

The first section of Part Three deals with ideas of life after death. This could have been an interesting topic, but the entirety of Part Three I think is held back by Julian's unwillingness to address the self as being purely biological and neurological. This section focuses on the ideas of Buddhist Reincarnation and Christian Resurrection. Those two ideas have obvious arguments against them and are ripped apart entirely if you have already accepted the bundle view at that point. More interesting ideas of "life after death" such as the continuation of consciousness via quantum entanglement are not explored. It seems the arguments for life after death that were picked for this section are the ones with the easiest arguments against them. I'm not saying I advocate for any view of life after death, but there are far more interesting ideas out there than those two.

The second section covers transhumanism and ideas of the singularity or virtual consciousness. Unfortunately it provides only a cursory overview of those ideas without exploring substantial arguments for or against them. Questions such as whether non-biological material can support biological consciousness, whether a body or brain are still necessary in the virtual world, and whether any computer could ever be powerful enough to process all of that information are not even raised.

Also covered in that section is the idea of free will. It fails to articulate coherent definitions of either free will or determinism, completely ignoring the fact that a "sort-of determinism" is not actually a determinism and would fundamentally change the nature of the universe from a determinist one. The arguments presented are entirely anecdotal with one direct appeal to majority that I was surprised to see in this book.

The final section of the book covers the idea of self as other as well as an extended self. It fails to note that there is no reason to assume that one bundle could ever process genuine information from any other bundle, and thereby our experiences of other people are facets of ourselves. The reason this is important here is because it means the extended self is only in our minds, not the real world.

The end of the final section covers death and mortality in only a few pages. It feels rather tacked on and doesn't really say anything that wasn't already said elsewhere.

Overall the book is an enjoyable read. I found it to be thought-provoking and would recommend it. The steps in the right direction that it takes are such that I think it merits a four star rating despite the weaknesses. My only disappointment is in the five star book that could have been written by really taking the plunge into the physical: proving the bundle view and then exploring how the brain and body create it.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on March 11, 2011
What are we if not just the body we inhabit? That is the question Baggini explores in this fascinating book about the essence of our identity - what makes us, us. He examines the two broad schools of thought, the "Pearl" school in which the hypothesis seems to be that each of has has a clear separable self that is distinct from our bodies - ie, our "soul", and the "Bundle" school of thought that postulates that our thoughts are a bundle of consciousness, passion, thought, and emotion. He concludes that all that are merely activity and not material matter and so they (and we) die when our bodies die. Follow his arguments and the rational way he dismantles the arguments of those who believe that we have an invisible self that possibly survives our death. It is a balanced book in that Baggini interviews and presents comparative views from Buddhists, Christians and religious philosophers. This is Baggini's best book by far (so far).
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
The Ego Trick is an engaging and approachable introduction to the trickiest of subjects and the blindest of blind spots: Who is this "I" person anyway?

As a Buddhist, I am familiar with how Buddhists challenge the idea of the self. I lazily assumed the Buddhist way was the only way to take it apart - how very wrong of me. Baggini carefully examines the Buddhist view, with the help of Stephen Batchelor, the beloved "atheist Buddhist" renegade, and he finds much that is useful - and much that is unnecessary.

The book is enlivened by discussions with transgendered persons, theologians, transhumanists, psychologists, prostitutes and neuroscientists. That he manages to include all these people in a way that seemed to me both a propos and respectful seemed to me a remarkable feat of both writing and sensitivity. (That said, I would be especially interested to hear the response of transgendered persons to this book.)

This book is so lively and readable that it would serve as good company even at the end of a very long day, as you drink a glass of red wine and look to revive your weary mind. Only the most crucial chapter, chapter 7, "The Ego Trick", will require a clear head, a bright morning, and a strong cup of coffee. Or maybe just a few re-readings. But that is no problem at all, not for this, the trickiest of investigations!

I remember being a young man, sitting in a Buddhist monastery, listening to discussions about the nature of the self. I felt like I sat there for years before I understood anything at all! Baggini is a wizard of clarity - though, unlike a wizard, he endeavors to show you each part of the trick.

It is delightful to find a work of popular philosophy that is so graceful, respectful and convincing. I can't imagine a clearer introduction to this subject, nor one as fun to read.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
I have rated this with 5-STARS not because I love it - I hate it. It is just TRUE. I have had to re-adjust my beliefs as to who or what I am. But I wanted to know what is real. If you also want to know, read this book despite the fact that you will be sorry. It doesn't take readers through all that is. It just examiners various philosophical opinions of personal identity. I found this to be very unsettling.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 18, 2012
We are more than JUST our parts, but we are no more than our parts.

That is the basic message of Julian Baggini's Ego Trick. Now, let's flesh out the details a bit. Baggini uses evidence from neuroscience, arguments from philosophy, and even interviews with various folks (relatives of those with dementia, etc) to take square aim at the pearl theory of self. This 'common sense' view is that there is some core, or essence, that is us, around which our thoghts, memories, and parts are attached. When we say things like "she is not being herself," talk about finding our authentic selves, or believe in souls, we are taking something of the 'pearl theory' view.

Baggini's view, taking his cue from Hume, is the bundle theory of the self. There is no core self that all of our thoughts, memories, and parts are attached to (there is no 'real you' inside you). We ARE our thoughts, memories, and parts. But Baggini is no reductionist who says that we are JUST our parts; he believes very much the the whole is, in a way, 'greater' than the sum of its parts. Nor are selves illusions who don't exist even though we think we do. In some ways, I AM the same person I was yesterday, and the belief that I am is true. (I woke up in the same bed, work at the same job, have memories of years before, etc; all of that is real). But in other ways, I am not the same person I was in years earlier (when I see videos of me in younger years, I find it hard to identify with that person; many of my traits - physically behaviorally - are different than the 'me' of years earlier, and had I no memories of my past, It wouldn't be a stretch to say that I would cease to be 'me'). The "me" I am now is similar in some ways to the "me" I was before, but different in many ways. Therefore, it makes little sense to think that there is some solid "me" at my core.

Half of this book are chapters of very engaging interviews with people - philosophers, transsexuals, relatives of those with dementia, neuroscientists, theologians - on their ideas of what selves are. In the neuroscience community, we learn, the pearl theory and its variants have been dead for some time, crushed by the weight of evidence that there is no master-module in the brain that is the conscious self. (For more on this, see Michael Gazzaniga's Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.) Theologians arguments regarding souls, reincarnation, etc (all involving the pearl theory) are dealt with. And transsexuals' and relatives of dementia sufferers' somewhat conflicting claims on whether they (or their relatives) are still the same person they were before are given in all their conflicting and ambiguous detail.

We also have in the second half of the book some deeply philosophical chapters about everything from why the bundle theory is more viable than the pearl theory to the bundle theory's implications for virtue ethics (which relies on the idea that there is a thing called character that is relatively circumstance-independent). (For recent challenges to the idea that character is much more variable and circumstance-sensitive than we'd like to think, see Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior and Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us).

If there is one area I really wish the author would have talked about - I was sure he would! - it is biology and genetics. Now, I can ascertain from his arguments that while he accepts that the genome is certainly a steady part of who we are (it doesn't change, and it informs a large part of who we become), he would deny that there is any great reason to identify the self in terms of the genome. But there is quite a bit of evidence that our genomes play a large role in who we become and that the traits with strong genetic correlations don't vary as much, perhaps, as Baggini gives credit for (or seems to). While Baggini certainly doesn't suggest that the self is infinitely malleable, I wonder if evidence from biology would lead Baggini to be a bit less optimistic in assessing how malleable the self actually is. I don't know, because that chapter wasn't there. It should have been.

Of course, that is a minor point. The book is a really fun and interesting read, and Baggini has the 'popular philosophy' thing down very, very well. The Ego Trick can probably be read by a popular audience (CERTAINLY the first half) with a modest amount of effort, but the book does not sacrifice depth for all that. Really good read!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2012
I bought this book primarily because Tom Hiddleston spoke so highly of it during an interview a few weeks ago, though I should add that the content did sound very interesting on its own merits. Not only was I quite impressed with the insights this book had to offer, I even found myself taking notes and marking passages - something which, previously, I had only done somewhat begrudgingly for university courses. It has a flow which makes it easy to follow, and a pull which actually makes it quite difficult to put down. I definitely would recommend this to anyone interested in matters of philosophy and what it means to refer to one's sense of self.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This is a very good book. The author takes a philosophical approach rather than a neuroscience view that a lot of recent books have taken. What results is an immensely thoughtful book. This is a very difficult subject and one that I struggle with but after having read this book I certainly feel more informed if not satisfied.

The author discusses ideas and interviews with philosophers, scientists, multiple personalites, transgenders, and others and mixes it all up with his own viewpoint to argue rather persuasively that the self is not what it seems - the singular unifying core that remains relatively unchanged in each individual.

Highly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 24, 2014
We are not the same person in old age as we were in middle age, as young adults, and when we were born. This excellent book helps explain why, and other reviewers go into the specifics of the subjects described therein. It is a depressing book if you like to think there is a soul that somehow vanishes into the ether after death, and remains whole, perhaps to reincarnate into another being, but those details are up to whatever religious beliefs you hold. This is an empiric approach to who we are. The present is what we are, and that is what counts.
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on August 9, 2011
A wonderful book. Profound and yet a relatively easy read.

His question: "What are we and on what does our continued existence over
time depend?" is obviously a rather broad question.

But through the book he manage to get some good points across, as well as
answering the question. At least, to some extent.

He starts out by describing that in the brain - the self is "No central
system, but different brain systems working together - with no central,
top-down control".
Then we get some very memorable examples on how the self can fall apart. How
memories are just one component in what makes a self. A section about mind and body, goes into Descartes "cogito ergo sum" argument. And how Antonio Damasio have picked that apart by showing that our bodies are actually quite important in thinking also. Just as emotions are necessary ingredients in rational thought....

Baggini concludes that our "selves" change over time, rather than stay the
time. It follows rather neatly from his argumentation that a self is not
"one thing", but rather a bundle of things. That selves changes over time
obviously have some rather dramatic consequences for our thinking about our
future. All of which is nicely explored in the book.

Finally, Baggini lets Susan Greenfield tell us a little about what selves
will be like in the future. She sketches three scnearios - someones, anyones
and no-ones. Rather unnerving she thinks that we will all be noones in the

Great book. Important stuff.

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