Is the notion of self an adequate bridge between neuroscience and the philosophy of the person?

The concept of personhood is used with different meanings. However, the term originally developed in a theological context aimed to deepen our understanding of God’s nature as transmitted in the Christian revelation, and also designated the uniqueness of rational beings, as a limited image of God. Following these early discussions, and despite significant differences, the Western philosophical tradition gradually ripened and enriched the understanding of the human person as a subject with a rich internal life, open to the totality of being (to the world, to others and to God), called to a relational life, and endowed with dignity (Williams et al., 2014). Besides, the theological setting from which this notion of personhood grew, also underlined uniqueness as an equally constitutive aspect of persons, not only in the sense that human beings excel all other animal species, but also in the sense that each individual person is unique (Crosby, 1996; Spaemann, 20102). In this sense, the way we recognize persons is not by checking the fulfilment of certain parameters, but by a kind of behaviour or attitude we have towards them (Chappell, 2011; Stump, 2013). Our project assumes this conception of personhood and focuses on the openness of the human person to spirituality, since we think that, among the many aspects essential to personhood, this one characterizes it most distinctly.

Some of the abovementioned attributes of the person are also captured by the concept of self, which has been extensively studied by psychology and neuroscience mainly in two senses: as the possession of subjective experience and as the construction of a narrative that involves the relation to others (Damasio, 1999, 2010). The term self, however, designates a reflexive perception, whether experiential or narrative, not a subsisting individual. It therefore does not completely answer the ontological issue of who is the subject of experience or of the narrative, which is more appropriately addressed by the notion of personhood, as we understand it. Opinions differ on this point, probably due to terminological subtleties (Ricoeur, 1983, 1992; MacIntyre, 1985; Taylor, 1989; Polkinghorne, 1991; Spaemann, 20102), but the issue is relevant to our project, since a denial of a robust notion of personhood may have the rejection of a spiritual dimension as a consequence.

Besides, the modern conceptualization of the self often discloses an empiricist, and ultimately reductionist framework, which makes the self appear an elusive reality. This has led some authors to deny the very existence of a self, distinguishable from brain processes (Crick, 1995, Metzinger, 2003), and also to question the relevance of this notion, as well as that of personhood, in neuroscience (Farah-Heberlein, 2007).

Our straightforward hypothesis is that the existence of a personal self can be argued philosophically, but is also sustained by psychology and neuroscience. By personal self we mean that the subject of experience possesses all attributes of the person. This approach is important because a too strict distinction between the experiential and the narrative concepts of self (Zahavi, 2006) may imply the denial of personhood to human beings who for several reasons have difficulties in expressing some of those attributes. It is in this context that we will address the necessity of the second-person perspective in order to understand correctly the concept of personhood, lest it remains an abstract consideration of isolated individuals resembling objects rather than persons (Buber, 1923; Spaemann, 20102; Stump, 2013).

Although the philosophical discussion of the self in connection with cognitive science is abundant (Gallagher, 2000, 2011; Strawson, 1999), scarce bibliography relates the notion of personhood with neuroscientific research. Unfortunately, a significant academic exchange between a prestigious philosopher with a personalist inspiration and a renowned neuroscientist did not succeed in bridging the gap between disciplines, but probably widened it (Ricoeur-Changeux, 1998; Changeux, 2008). Other contributions avoid sterile confrontations and pursue an interdisciplinary understanding. There is a recent collective book dealing with person and neuroscience within the context of the problem of divine action (Russell et al., 2000), and a more recent publication that draws mainly from theological sources (Welker, 2014). A third one also deals with personhood, but focuses rather on the self (van Huyssteen-Wiebe, 2011).


Baker L. R. 2013. Naturalism and the First-Person Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Buber M. 1923. I and thou.

Changeux J.-P. 2008. Du vrai, du beau, du bien: Une nouvelle approche neuronale. Paris: Odille Jacob.

Chappell T. 2011. On the very idea of criteria for personhood. The Southern Journal of Philosophy 49(1): 1-27.

Crick F. 1995. The Astonishing Hypothesis: the Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Scribner.

Crosby J. 1996. The Selfhood of the Human Person. Washington D.C: CUA Press.

Damasio D. 1999. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Harcourt Brace.

Damasio D. 2010. Self Comes to Mind. Constructing the Conscious Mind. Pantheon Books: New York.

Farah M. J. and Herberlein A. S. 2007. Personhood and Neuroscience: Naturalizing or Nihilating? The American Journal of Bioethics 7(1): 37–48.

Gallagher S. 2000. Philosophical conceptions of the self: Implications for cognitive science. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(1), 14–21.

Gallagher S. 2011 (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of the Self. Oxford: OUP.

Genia V. 2014. Evaluation of the spiritual well-being scale in a sample of college students. Int J Psychol Religion 11:25-33.

Hobson R. P. 2011. Autism and the Self, in Gallagher S. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Self, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 571-591.

MacIntyre A. 1985. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. London: Duckworth.

Metzinger T. 2003. Being No-One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity, Cambridge (MA)-London: MIT Press.

Nahm M., Greyson B., Kelly E.W. and Haraldsson E. 2012. Terminal lucidity: a review and a case collection. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics 55:138-142.

Newberg A. 2010. Principles of Neurotheology. Farnham: Ashgate.

Noë A. 2009. Out of Our Heads. Why You Are Not Your Brain. New York: Hill and Wang.

Northoff G. 2004. Philosophy of the brain. The brain problem. Amsterdam, New York: John Benjamins Publisher.

Polkinghorne D.E. 1991. Narrative and Self-Concept. J Narr Lif Hist 1:135-153.

Ricoeur P. 1992. Oneself as Another. Trans. K. Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Ricoeur P. and Changeux J.-P. 1998. Ce qui nous fait penser. La nature et la règle. Paris: Odille Jacob.

Ricoeur P. 1984. Time and narrative (K. Mc Laughlin and D. Pellauer, Trans., Vol 1). Chicago, University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1983).

Risko E.F., Anderson N.C., Lanthier S. and Kingstone A. 2012. Curious eyes: Individual differences in personality predict eye movement behaviour in scene viewing. Cognition 122:86-90.

Russell R. J., Murphy N., Meyering T. C. and Arbib M. A. (eds.) 2000. Neuroscience and the Person: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action. Notre Dame University Press.

Sanguineti J. J. 2014. Neurociencia y filosofía del hombre. Madrid: Palabra.

Spaemann R. 20073. Personen. Versuch über den Unterschied zwischen etwas und jemand. Suttgart: Klett-Cotta (Spanish edition: Personas. Pamplona: EUNSA, 20102).

Strawson G. 1999. The Self and the SESMET. Journal of Consciousness Studies 6/4, 99-135.

Stump E. 2013. Narrative and the knowledge of persons. Euresis Journal 5:153-169.

Taylor C. 1989. Sources of the Self. Cambridge-MA: Harvard University Press.

Van Huyssteen J. W., Wiebe, E. P. 2011. In Search of Self: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Personhood. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Welker M. 2014. The Depth of the Human Person: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Williams T. D. and Bengtsson J. O. 2014. Personalism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Zahavi D. 2006. Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-person Perspective. Cambridge (MA)-London: MIT Press.