Julian Baggini: Is there a real you? (TED talk of the week)

This week’s TED talk comes from Julian Baggini, a philosopher, writer, and the cofounder and editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. The talk (Is there a real you?) was given at the TEDxYouth@Manchester 2011 event. I thought the presentation was clear and even though it was somewhat elementary (on purpose), the analogies were both spot-on and thought-provoking.

In this talk, Baggini claims that there is no real you, in the sense that you are a separate thing. There is a you in that you are a collection of your experiences and thus change with time and new encounters. Without using the terminology, he is saying that there is no dualism. There is no separate “you”, “you” are your brain and the experiences you have. Baggini finds this idea freeing as you no longer need to seek and struggle to find out who the static you is, but that, to quote the army (my quote), “you can be all you can be.” With the constraints that genetics imparts, of course.

He doesn’t really address why we all tend to think there is a separate, or in his language, “real” you, but I suppose that would be for another talk. Is the “real” you epiphenomenal? Is it an illusion created by your brain?  Is it something that through our environment we have been trained to create? Is the matrix real? Okay, maybe not that one…

I’m not willing to give up on a “real” you at this point and am not sure that the evidence necessitates it at this point anyway. Even if neuroscience and genetics play a limiting role in our “you-ness” that doesn’t mean these disciplines eliminate it. I don’t see how science can remove the possibility of a separate you that isn’t material (even if I disagree with it), since science wouldn’t be able to test it. More likely, could this “real” you emerge out of the properties of the materials as in his watch and waterfall examples? Wouldn’t this you still be “real”? It could be a simple issue of competing definitions as well. Perhaps Baggini would say that this emergent you is legitimate but not defined as “real” because it’s similar to what we label and attribute to other objects and phenomena?

Clearly, this talk did it’s job and stimulated the creative juices. I’ve got to commend Baggini for that. Whether you agree with him or not, he made his point well and memorable for his intended audience and he also raised more questions than answers for this viewer (and likely many others). It’s very hard to do both in a 12 minute talk. Bravo.

I’ll leave you with a screenshot of his closing quote. Are you fashioning yourself?

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About justintopp

Biology professor/mentor who loves sports, laughter, science & religion/theology (especially mind, evolution, soul, and what it means to be human), and most of all, his bride and baby girl.
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3 Responses to Julian Baggini: Is there a real you? (TED talk of the week)

  1. dopderbeck@gmail.com says:

    There is a “real you” that isn’t “material” — or better stated, that includes and transcends the “material.” To even ask a question like “is there a real you” is to wade into metaphysics — and by definition that puts us beyond, meta, the physical. The question itself is meaningless unless the answer is, “of course there is.” While the notion of the “soul” doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) stated in crudely Cartesian terms, it does indeed reflect Christian theological grammar for that “beyond” aspect. Recent efforts to do away with that notion through non-reductive physicalism, IMHO, though somewhat attractive, fail.

    From the perspective of Christian theology, the “real you” is actually found “in Christ” — it is a participation in the Triune life of God (who is “spirit”) enabled by the Holy Spirit (who is by definition “spirit”) proceeding from the incarnate Christ, who proceeds from the Father. If the “real you” is located in God through Christ by the Spirit, then it is necessarily not reducible to the “material.”

  2. justintopp says:


    How does this real you come into contact with the body then if it isn’t, in part, material? Doesn’t the real you depend on sensory perceptions?


  3. I needed to thank you for this excellent read!! I absolutely loved every
    bit of it. I have got you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post…

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