Usually we consider that being "selfless" means acting altruistically. This casts the word in a moral sense, which is how most religions see it. We're supposed to put God and others before ourselves.
But there's a scientific side to selflessness that I'm finding increasingly intriguing: the notion that nobody has a self, so we're all selfless -- including the greediest, most egotistical, and me-centered among us.
Recently I wrote about a book where noted thinkers talk about what they believe, but cannot prove. I quoted psychologist Susan Blackmore:
It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will. As Samuel Johnson said "All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience is for it." With recent developments in neuroscience and theories of consciousness, theory is even more against it than it was in his time, more than 200 years ago. So I long ago set about systematically changing the experience. I now have no feeling of acting with free will, although the feeling took many years to ebb away.
...When the feeling is gone, decisions just happen with no sense of anyone making them, but then a new question arises—will the decisions be morally acceptable? Here I have made a great leap of faith (or the memes and genes and world have done so). It seems that when people throw out the illusion of an inner self who acts, as many mystics and Buddhist practitioners have done, they generally do behave in ways that we think of as moral or good. So perhaps giving up free will is not as dangerous as it sounds—but this too I cannot prove.
Free will is closely connected with having (or being) a self that is unchanging. Where, though, is the evidence for a self, soul, or whatever which stands apart from all of the ever-altering processes in the brain and nervous system?
There isn't any.
So I agree with Blackmore that recognizing or realizing the absence of a self is something that may not ever be able to be proven, yet is perhaps an absolutely real experiential phenomenon.
In another book by Blackmore, "Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction," she delves more into this fascinating scientific and philosophical subject.
Blackmore shows one of those familiar optical "illusions" (not quite the right word) where a drawing of a three-dimensional box looks at first glance like it is facing one way. However, if you stare at it for a while, the box will suddenly look like it is facing another way.
Nothing has changed, except the brain's interpretation of the drawing. In my experience, the jump from one appearance to another can't be forced.
It seems to happen on its own. Even when I know there is another way of perceiving the box, because I've seen it before, I can't will my brain to shift into another way of seeing. It just happens, which is how Buddhism and other like-minded spiritual traditions say enlightenment occurs.
If Blackmore is correct about us being selfless, and neuroscience points to the fact that she is, then enlightenment may be nothing more than seeing through the illusion of "I" created by the brain/mind for evolutionary reasons we may never be able to fully grasp.
This morning my wife either did, or didn't, take some medication that she's supposed to swallow twice a day. She'd opened the refrigerator where it is kept, rummaged around in the contents, and then, a few minutes later, couldn't remember whether she'd taken the pill.
Whether she did, or didn't, some fairly complex brain-body activities were going on. These are akin to an example Blackmore talks about in her "Consciousness" book: driving along in a car and finding yourself at your destination without much, if any, memory of having driven there.
The driving just happened automatically, while the driver's attention was occupied elsewhere. Thinking about other stuff, listening to music, a host of possibilities.
This shows that consciousness, and conscious actions, can occur just fine without a "self" being aware of them. I can't tell you how many times I've driven halfway to town (about ten minutes from our house) and suddenly thought, "Geez, did I turn off the burner after I cooked the vegiburger?"
I can't recall rotating the switch. But having gotten older and wiser, after turning around several times and always finding the burner off, I've learned that I do many things correctly during a typical day without being aware that I'm doing them.
Where am "I" at these moments? Somebody is taking the medication, driving along, or turning the burner off. However, this likely isn't an enduring "self" -- just a collection of brain processes.
It seems we have some tough choices in thinking about our own precious self. We can hang on to the way it feels and assume that a persisting self or soul or spirit exists, even though it cannot be found and leads to deep philosophical troubles.
We can equate it with some kind of brain process and shelve the problem of why this brain process should have conscious experiences at all, or we can reject any persistihg entity that corresponds to our feeling of being a self.
I think that intellectually we have to take this last path. The trouble is that it is very hard to accept in one's personal life. It means taking a radically different view of every experience. It means accepting that there is no one who is having these experiences.
It means accepting that every time I seem to exist, this is just a temporary fiction and not the same "me" who seemed to exist a moment before, or last week, or last year. This is tough, but I think it gets easier with practice.