If there's one thing I know after 62 years of living, it's I don't know who or what I am.
(Of course, I could be wrong about that also -- but I'd still be right about not knowing whether I was or wasn't.)
Now, this isn't so different from what I used to believe in my religious days. When I embraced a mystical meditation system known as Sant Mat, I assumed that some sort of maya/illusion stood between me and reality.
So I couldn't know myself or the cosmos as it really is until the veils were removed. However, the Sant Mat gurus assured their students that ultimate truth was out there to be caught. It was just a matter of finding the correct hunting procedure.
Over the years and decades my admiration for science kept bumping into my devotion to this supposedly "spiritual" practice. Eventually I realized that I had to make a choice: hard truth or comfortable belief?
Since my goal all along had been truth, this wasn't a tough decision. I traded in dogma for facts, blind faith for demonstrable experience, imagination for reality.
I've never regretted making this trade. Interestingly, what I used to look upon as "hard" truth has become a lot softer. More and more I'm able to cozy up to scientific findings which I used to push away.
Such as the pretty damn firm neuroscientific conclusion that our feeling of being a "self," a separate and distinct "I," a discrete conscious entity ("soul") inhabiting a physical body -- this is the central illusion which prevents us from knowing reality more fully.
I'll say it differently: believing that it's possible to know reality as it truly is keeps us from realizing that this isn't true.
Tonight my wife and I are going to host a get-together with some friends where we'll talk about recent advances in neuroscience. I didn't have to do much to prepare, since I've both read and written a lot on this subject.
I looked over my bookshelf and chose two favorites to talk about: "I Am a Strange Loop" by Douglas Hofstadter and "The Ego Tunnel" by Thomas Metzinger. My one sentence summary of what neuroscience says we are: a strange loop in an ego tunnel.
If that sounds disorienting, weird, and more than a little crazy -- it is! Our everyday sensation that a dependable "I" is in touch with objective reality is misguided, because evolution didn't care if we humans understood how our mind/brain works behind the scenes.
(Of course, evolution doesn't "care" about anything, just as gravity and other laws of nature don't; it's just a manner of speaking.)
Primeval humans who could see a tiger stalking them and take action to escape survived, passing on their genes. Daydreamers didn't. Being aware of the complex neurological processing that culminates in a wordless "Holy fuck! TIGER!" actually impedes one's ability to get away.
So the ego tunnel Metzinger describes is, in his words, transparent. Meaning, we have no sense that we view reality from within the confines of our brain, neurological processes, past experiences/conditioning, and such.
The world simply seems... as it should, from the perspective of Me. (Of course, other people have their own ego tunnels, from which mine often will appear amazingly deluded.)
Echoing Buddhist notions, Metzinger says there is nobody in the ego tunnel. So there's no need to get rid of the ego, because such doesn't exist. All we need to do is realize the neuroscientific reality: the self is an epiphenomenon -- something illusory that appears in the presence of something else that is real.
Douglas Hofstadter talks about this in his "I Am a Strange Loop" book. He wondered how a marble could be stuck inside a stack of envelopes, then discovered how the "marble" (like the self or soul) was an appearance, not reality.
Strange loops. Ego tunnels. That's what we are. Here's how Hofstadter ends his fascinating book:
In the end, we self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages are little miracles of self-reference. We believe in marbles that disintegrate when we search for them but that are as real as any genuine marble when we're not looking for them. Our very nature is such as to prevent us from fully understanding its very nature.
Poised midway between the unvisualizable cosmic vastness of curved spacetime and the dubious, shadowy flickerings of charged quanta, we human beings, more like rainbows and mirages than like raindrops or boulders, are unpredictable self-writing poems -- vague, metaphorical, ambiguous, and sometimes exceedingly beautiful.
To see ourselves in this way is probably not as comforting as believing in ineffable other-worldly wisps endowed with eternal existence, but it has its compensations. What one gives up is a childlike sense that things are exactly as they appear, and that our solid-seeming marble-like "I" is the realest thing in the world; what one acquires is an appreciation of how tenuous we are at our cores, and how wildly different we are from what we seem to be.
As Kurt Godel with his unexpected strange loops gave us a deeper and subtler vision of what mathematics is all about, so the strange-loop characterization of our essences gives us a deeper and subtler vision of what it is to be human. And to my mind, the loss is worth the gain.