Here's some good news, and some even better news, from the current special issue of New Scientist: "The Great Illusion of the Self."
You're being tricked by an expert! And who doesn't like amazing tricks? Even better, the trickster is your own mind! You're your own magician.
Well, you would be if you existed. But almost certainly you don't. At least, not in any way close to how you feel that you do.
In 10 pages, several New Scientist stories -- "Who Are You?," What Are You?," "When Are You?," "Where Are You?," "Why Are You?" -- persuasively present evidence that an enduring detached self isn't who we are, even though this is how it seems to us.
Here's an excerpt from Jan Westerhoff's What Are You?
THERE appear to be few things more certain to us than the existence of our selves. We might be sceptical about the existence of the world around us, but how could we be in doubt about the existence of us? Isn't doubt made impossible by the fact that there is somebody who is doubting something? Who, if not us, would this somebody be?
While it seems irrefutable that we must exist in some sense, things get a lot more puzzling once we try to get a better grip of what having a self actually amounts to.
Three beliefs about the self are absolutely fundamental for our belief of who we are. First, we regard ourselves as unchanging and continuous. This is not to say that we remain forever the same, but that among all this change there is something that remains constant and that makes the "me" today the same person I was five years ago and will be five years in the future.
Second, we see our self as the unifier that brings it all together. The world presents itself to us as a cacophony of sights, sounds, smells, mental images, recollections and so forth. In the self, these are all integrated and an image of a single, unified world emerges.
Finally, the self is an agent. It is the thinker of our thoughts and the doer of our deeds. It is where the representation of the world, unified into one coherent whole, is used so we can act on this world.
All of these beliefs appear to be blindingly obvious and as certain as can be. But as we look at them more closely, they become less and less self-evident.
It would seem obvious that we exist continuously from our first moments in our mother's womb up to our death. Yet during the time that our self exists, it undergoes substantial changes in beliefs, abilities, desires and moods. The happy self of yesterday cannot be exactly the same as the grief-stricken self of today, for example. But we surely still have the same self today that we had yesterday.
There are two different models of the self we can use to explore this issue: a string of pearls and a rope. According to the first model, our self is something constant that has all the changing properties but remains itself unchanged. Like a thread running through every pearl on a string, our self runs through every single moment of our lives, providing a core and a unity for them. The difficulty with this view of the self is that it cannot be most of the things we usually think define us. Being happy or sad, being able to speak Chinese, preferring cherries to strawberries, even being conscious – all these are changeable states, the disappearance of which should not affect the self, as a disappearance of individual pearls should not affect the thread. But it then becomes unclear why such a minimal self should have the central status in our lives that we usually accord to it.
The second model is based on the fact that a rope holds together even though there is no single fibre running through the entire rope, just a sequence of overlapping shorter fibres. Similarly, our self might just be the continuity of overlapping mental events. While this view has a certain plausibility, it has problems of its own. We usually assume that when we think of something or make a decision, it is the whole of us doing it, not just some specific part. Yet, according to the rope view, our self is never completely present at any point, just like a rope's threads do not run its entire length.
It seems then as if we are left with the unattractive choice between a continuous self so far removed from everything constituting us that its absence would scarcely be noticeable, and a self that actually consists of components of our mental life, but contains no constant part we could identify with. The empirical evidence we have so far points towards the rope view, but it is by no means settled.
Here's the introduction to the special issue:
As you wake up each morning, hazy and disoriented, you gradually become aware of the rustling of the sheets, sense their texture and squint at the light. One aspect of your self has reassembled: the first-person observer of reality, inhabiting a human body.
As wakefulness grows, so does your sense of having a past, a personality and motivations. Your self is complete, as both witness of the world and bearer of your consciousness and identity. You.
This intuitive sense of self is an effortless and fundamental human experience. But it is nothing more than an elaborate illusion. Under scrutiny, many common-sense beliefs about selfhood begin to unravel. Some thinkers even go so far as claiming that there is no such thing as the self.
Not only neuroscientific thinkers. Philosophical and spiritual thinkers also. Psychologist Susan Blackmore does a good job of presenting this selfless perspective in her book, "Ten Zen Questions." I'm fine with it. Actually, more than fine.
I love the notion that "I" don't exist. Takes the pressure off me to know that I'm an illusion. Like Janis Joplin sang, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Like salvation. Life after death. Hell or heaven.
But what about me and my conscious experiences? Where do I fit into this integrated system of inputs, outputs and multiple parallel processing systems?
The strange thing is that I feel as if I am in the middle of all this activity, experiencing what comes in through the senses, and deciding what to do in response, when in fact the brain seems to have no need of me.
There is no central place or process where I could be, and the brain seems capable of doing everything it does without any supervisor, decider or inner experiencer.
...The temptation to fall into dualism is so strong that escaping from it, and from the popular idea that we have a spirit or soul, has been a rare insight in human history. This insight is not confined to modern science and philosophy, but can be found at the heart of Christian mysticism, Sufism, Advaita, Taoism, and Buddhism.
All these traditions claim that the apparent duality of the world is an illusion, and that underlying the illusion everything is one.
Along with this often goes the idea that there is no separate self who acts, so that realizing nonduality also means giving up the sense of personal action or of being the "doer" of what happens. This is rather hard to accept, which is probably why such traditions are so much less popular than the great theistic religions, or those that promise heaven and hell to reward the actions of individual souls.
...There's some stupid bastard doing a U-turn in the middle of the road right in front of my bike. I am angry and want to shout "You idiot -- what do you think you're doing? You nearly knocked me off!" Can the sight of that idiotic man be me?
Yes. Of course.
If I stop, calm down, and search for the me who is looking at him I will find only him, and his car, and the road. If I search for the me who is angry with him I will find only the anger bubbling up. It's the same with everything I experience; there is not a separate me as well as the experience.
It is hard to accept that I am all those people walking down the street; that I am, at least in this fleeting moment, that Muslim woman with her stupid veil, that annoying child with the ice cream, that crowd of giggling school girls.
Yet somehow or other this way of looking makes it easier to be kind.