031-Self

Is Self Real or an Illusion?

During a conversation with a close friend, she intimated that I seem to be more than one person; sometimes quiet and peaceful, and at others animated and excited. She was of the opinion that this was abnormal in some manner, however I am quite accustom to the shifts in behavior. She, like many others, believe that we are all individuals making our own decisions and should remain true to our self with only one personality or behavior. But, is this possible?

I am reminded of a book that I read not too long ago, "The Self Illusion - How the Social Brain Creates Identity1" in which the author writes that most of us believe that we are an independent, coherent self--an individual inside our head who thinks, watches, wonders, dreams, and makes plans for the future. This sense of our self may seem incredibly real but a wealth of recent scientific evidence reveals that it is not what it seems--it is all an illusion.

He revealed how the self emerges during childhood and how the architecture of the developing brain enables us to become social animals dependent on each other. Humans spend proportionally the greatest amount of time in childhood compared to any other animal. It's not only to learn from others, he noted, but also to learn to become like others. We learn to become our self. Even as adults we are continually developing and elaborating this story, learning to become different selves in different situations--the work self, the home self, the parent self. Moreover, the author shows that this already fluid process--the construction of self--has dramatically changed in recent years. Social networking activities - such as blogging, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter--are fast becoming socialization on steroids. The speed and ease at which we can form alliances and relationships are outstripping the same selection processes that shaped our self prior to the internet era. Things will never be the same again in the online social world. The author offered a glimpse into this unchartered territory.

Who we are is, in short, a story of our self--a narrative that our brain creates. Like the science fiction movie, we are living in a matrix that is our mind. But he concluded that though the self is an illusion, it is an illusion we must continue to embrace to live happily in human society.

Are we so familiar and comfortable with the experience of our self that for us to question it might imply that we may be suffering some incoherent illness? It is in reality as if we are asking if we are real or not. Or perhaps more aptly, is our life real or is it a figment of our own intent. The question we often ask, or should ask, is there a single self inside each of us? Or, are we all mistaken when it comes to knowing who we are?

How many, wake up each morning in a haze of our dreams and for the moment, are unsure of where we are - remaining in our dream world or awakening to leave behind our dreams and become who we are? However, think about that moment when we first awake, right before we actually open our eyes. As that moment of recognition overcomes the dream world and we begin to recall our memories to form a consciousness. Do these memories that are brought forward in our consciousness - the belief of who we were when we retired the evening before - shape who we are to be with the dawning of a new day? Or, as some do, relish the beginning of a new day to alter our past and make the most of the opportunities that a new day brings? Do we become a new person or do we simply remain the person that we recall from our past?

As we lie there in that moment, we each make a conscious decision to do one or the other. Or do we? Is it fate that attracts us toward what we will be as we arise from our sleep? As most do, we stumble into the bathroom to relieve ourselves and as we past the mirror we see our reflection. We see that we are the same person that we were when we retired the evening before and thus we are either forced to accept that nothing has changed or we become aware that we are aging. In doing so, some of us begin making decisions to spend a bit more time exercising and perhaps altering our diet to become healther and extend our lifespan.

It what we see in the mirror our true self, or simply an illusion of what we want to see? Psychologist Susan Blackmore, the English psychologist and physiologist, who wrote "Conversations on Consciousness2" among many other books, has made the point that...

"The word 'illusion' does not mean that it does not exist—rather, an illusion is not what it seems. We all certainly experience some form of self, but what we experience is a powerful deception generated by our brains for our own benefit."

But there is a real difficulty in discussing the self illusion. We use words to describe and discuss the self, such the terms I, me, my, mine, you, yours, our, us, and we are used, to refer to the human existence. It would seem that our use of these terms imply the existence of a self or multiple selves. This might lead you to believe that self as an illusion is false simply because these terms seem to acknowledge the existence of the self in the first place. However, these are just descriptive words used to communicate our thoughts and do not necessarily imply existence of self.

Yes, the self seems real enough, but many aspects of our experiences are not what they seem. Throughout each day, we are forced to admit that our perceptions of time and space were incorrect, such as when we state, "I thought I would have arrived on time," when we are late for an appointment. The same deception is true for all human experience, from the immediacy of our perception to the contemplation of inner thoughts, and that includes the self. As it turns out the self is nothing more than the sum of our thoughts and actions.

The findings of studies in contemporary brain science have enlightened the nature of the self, and refer to self as the ego, the "pearl view" of the self, as defined by philosopher Galen Strawson3. This pearl view is the common notion that our self is an essential entity at the core of our existence that holds steady throughout our life. This ego experiences life as a conscious, thinking person with a unique historical background that defines who he or she is. This is the “I” that looks back in the bathroom mirror and reflects upon who is the “me.”

Who we are is a story of our self - a constructed narrative that our brain creates. Some of that simulation is experienced as conscious awareness that corresponds to the self illusion that the average person comes to believes. At present, we do not know how a physical system like the brain could ever produce those nonphysical experiences, like the conscious self. In fact, it is turning out to be a very hard problem to solve. We may never find an answer, and some philosophers believe the question is misguided in the first place.

The self illusion makes the fundamental attribution error an easy fallacy to accept. Also, putting all the blame on the individual self is tantamount to excusing all the policies that create inequality in our society. Maybe it’s time to redress this imbalance by rethinking success or failure not so much as issues of the self alone, but more of society in general.

Knowing that the self is an illusion cannot stop you thinking that it exists, and, even if you succeed, as Buddha4 and Hume5 did, then maybe it is best not to try in the first place. But knowledge is power. Understanding that the self is an illusion will help to reconcile the daily inconsistencies that you may experience in the way you think and behave. We are all too quick to notice how others can be manipulated, but we rarely appreciate how our own self is equally under the influence and control of others. That is something worth knowing and watching out for.

References:

1. "The Self Illusion - How the Social Brain Creates Identity", Bruce Hood, ISBN-13: 978-0199988785

2. "Conversations on Consciousness", Susan Blackmore, ISBN-13: 978-0195179590

3. Galen Strawson - a British analytic philosopher and literary critic who works primarily on philosophy of mind, metaphysics, John Locke, David Hume and Immanuel Kant.

4. Gautama Budda - also known as Siddhārtha Gautama, Shakyamuni, or simply the Buddha, was a sage on whose teachings Buddhism was founded. He is believed to have lived and taught mostly in eastern India sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE.

5. David Hume - (1711-1776) - a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, who is best known today for his highly influential and cohesive system of radical philosophical empiricism, skepticism, and naturalism.

 

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