Why do humans feel that we have (or are) a Self/Soul that's distinct from the body/brain? Buddhism and neuroscience agree: there's no such thing, no self, no soul.
Yet it sure seems like there is. We look at the world with a consciousness that screams, "I'm floating above my mind and body! I'm in control of my physicality, not just material brain meat doing its thing."
A few weeks ago I blogged about Nicholas Humphrey's fascinating short book, "Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness." The passages I shared in that post showed how Humphrey starts with a description of seeing a red screen and, in persuasive logical steps, ends up with the viewer's sense of self.
But it wasn't until I got to the end of the book that I learned about Humphrey's equally persuasive theory of why evolution has provided humans with a feeling of Me that other animals lack. At least to the same degree.
It's such an interesting theory, I'll quote Humphrey at length.
In the wider world, there are two sorts of "illusion" -- accidental and contrived. There are cases where we get things wrong as the result of bad luck, and cases where we are the victims of deliberate trickery. When, for example, we see a stick in water as being bent, or when we think we are moving as the train beside us pulls away, it is a matter of bad luck. We are applyihg rules of inference in situations where our information is inaccurate or incomplete. But no one is trying to delude us.
When, however, we see a stage magician bending a metal spoon without touching it, or when we feel the table at a spiritualist seance lifting off the ground, it is a matter of intentional trickery. We may, again, be applying rules of inference in situations where our information is inaccurate or incomplete. But this time there is an illusionist who wants us to get it wrong.
Now, with belief in mind-body duality, which kind of illusion is it? The general view among materialist philosophers has always been that it is an illusion of the first kind, an honest -- if regrettable -- error. But how about if it is actually an illusion of the second kind, a deliberate trick?
Could it be? Only of course if there were to be an active agency behind it, playing the role of the illusionist. But who or what could possibly be doing this? And what interest would they have in encouraging individual humans to believe in a non-physical soul?
The immediate, but unhelpful answer, might be that, since it is a case of self-delusion, the illusionist must lie within the subject's own brain. The more interesting answer might be that, insofar as the brain is desgined by genes, the illusionist is the subject's own genes. But in that case, the ultimate answer must surely be that the illusionist is Nature herself, working through natural selection.
...Consciousness matters because it is its function to matter. It has been designed to create in human beings a Self whose life is worth pursuing.
To start with, the Self is there for us, phenomenally thick and substantial. And being there is a huge advance on not being there. A temporally-thick Self is something to build a rich subjective life on. But for human beings it may very well go further. For we now have a Self that, however we come to it, seems to inhabit a different universe of spiritual being. And this is something else.
My suggestion is that in the course of human evolution, our ancestors who thought of their own consciousness as metaphysically remarkable -- existing outside normal space and time -- would have taken themselves still more seriously as Selves.
The more mysterious and unworldly the qualities of consciousness, the more seriously significant the Self. And the more significant the Self, the greater the boost to human self-confidence and self-importance -- and the greater the value that individuals place on their own and others' lives.
In which case it is easy to see how the very qualities of consciousness that seem to render it so mysterious and magical would have been the occasion for consciousness's becoming a runaway evolutionary success. In fact, those qualities would soon have been designed in.
I love this way of looking at self, soul, spirituality, religion, and belief in other-worldliness. So cool! It fits wonderfully with my now-churchless outlook on religiosity, which evolved from more than thirty-five years of immersion in mystical/spiritual teachings, mostly of an Eastern/Indian meditative variety.
Eventually it struck me that the people who were the biggest believers in realizing their true Self seemed to have the largest Ego. Which included me at one time. Our main goal and interest in life was ourselves. Meaning, we thought we had (or were) a Soul which didn't belong to this world, but to God.
Humphrey's analysis seems right on: this sense of spiritual Self-dom is evolution's way of making humans feel, "I am so cool! So important! My life is the center of the cosmos, around which all else revolves!" In other words, the height of egocentricity, not selfless spirituality.
What a great joke! Such a grand illusion!
Religious fundamentalists who believe so strongly in an immortal soul, and generally deny the fact of evolution, are drawn to this belief and that denial by... ha-ha, evolution.
Reality always get the last laugh, because it is real.
And not depressing, though I understand why religious believers feel that something important is being taken away from them when the Self/Soul is shown to be nature's trickery.
Here's part of a letter Humphrey wrote to someone dying who worried about his impending death and hoped he could escape his failing body. I like it.
You ask whether I think consciousness can survive the death of the brain. It's the most natural of all questions to ask. I think we human beings are made to ask it. I even think that in asking it we become better people. But my straight answer, as a scientist, is: not a chance. Consciousness is something we do with our brains.
This is both good and bad news. The bad news is obvious. The good news is that each moment of consciousness is, as you already know it is, amazingly precious. Albert Camus wrote," The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man."
But Camus' "absurd man" is both heroic and wise. He recognizes that when we cannot travel the wide sea of eternity, the more significant is the island that we stand on now.