The Ghost in the Machine

Students of human nature are understandably drawn to stories of feral children who grow up with little or no human contact.  How much of human nature is really nurture?  Can human qualities develop in isolation from human society?  European intellectuals were once enamored with the idea of the “noble savage” whose nature was uncorrupted by civilization.  However, as it turns out, those who are least corrupted by civilization are more savage than noble.

One of the best-documented cases of feral children was the so-called wild boy of Aveyron.  He was first spotted running naked in the French countrywide in 1797, then captured and taken to Paris for study.  When first observed, the boy, who was given the name Victor, resisted wearing clothing and occasionally walked about on all fours.  At first, he was capable only of making inarticulate animal sounds.  Like Helen Keller nearly a century later, he was put in the care of a teacher of the deaf who was determined to awaken his powers of mind.  However, although Victor eventually learned to dress himself and perform simple chores, he was never able to utter more than a few words.

One of the early accounts of Victor’s behavior noted that he liked to gaze “Narcissus-like” in the still waters of a pond.  Yet he did not seem to understand when shown his own reflection in a mirror that the image was his own.  He always looked for the person hiding in the glass.  The same observation was made about Kaspar Hauser, a boy found in Nuremburg in 1828 who had apparently been kept caged in darkness for years with little human contact.  Unlike Victor, he eventually learned to speak but initially referred to himself in the third person and only gradually learned to use the pronoun “I.”

Those of us who habitually refer to ourselves in the first-person singular may have trouble imagining the self as anything other than the bedrock of our existence.  Since we literally cannot think about ourselves any other way, we assume that the self always existed, at least in embryonic form.  However, psychologists will tell you the self is not something we are born with, and its normal development depends on interaction with others at critical stages in early life.  An autistic child’s impaired sense of self is directly related to his or her inability to relate to others; indeed, the two are opposite sides of the same coin.  The self is essentially a social construct.

If the self is not the bedrock of our existence, then what is?  The very fact that we are aware of ourselves at all makes the self the object of our awareness at such times rather than its subject, meaning that there must be something other than “I” that is the actual perceiver.  Normally my gaze is directed outward from the center of my being into the world.  If I turn my gaze inward, what do I see?  The philosopher David Hume observed long ago that there doesn’t appear to be anything other than our perceptions of the world.  I can’t actually catch sight of a self apart from thoughts that pop into my head with the pronoun “I” attached to them.  Descartes famously surmised that if thinking is going on, there must be a thinker lurking about somewhere (“I think, therefore I am”).  But where exactly?  The “I” that is supposedly doing all this thinking may be nothing more than a grammatical construction brought on by the need to put a subject in front of the predicate. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle dismissed Descartes’ whole notion of a thinking self existing apart from the world as “the ghost in the machine.”  The metaphor is apt.  Like any ghost, the self's essential nothingness stands revealed in the cold light of day, yet we continue to be haunted by it all the same.

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