Who are we? Is there an essential "me"? Am I an unchanging self? I'm fascinated by these sorts of questions. Ever since I started practicing yoga and meditation more than forty years ago, I've been trying to understand who or what I am.
For much of that time I believed in the adage, "self-realization before God-realization." Yet as I said in a blog post, Religions are wrong about self-realization:
But the fact remains that whatever our "self" may be, it isn't something simple, obvious, supernatural, or transparently evident to awareness.
So this makes traditional religious/spiritual notions of self-realization laughably out of touch with reality. Whatever we are, it isn't what we intuitively consider ourselves to be -- often with ridiculously excessive confidence.
If somebody claims to be self-realized, or says he knows how this can be achieved, ask him to show you a "self." He won't be able to do it, just as no supposedly God-realized person ever has been able to demonstrate the existence of a "God."
Julian Baggini's new book, "The Ego Trick," casts fresh philosophical and neuroscientific light on the nature of our human self. It's very much in line with what I wrote above. Our sense of being, or having, an unchanging self isn't supported by an ever-increasing body of evidence.
Yet, Baggini says, the self isn't an illusion. It just isn't what most people believe it to be: a solid pearl of consciousness which remains unaltered as we go through the many changes of life.
The Ego Trick should be seen in this way. There is no single thing which comprises the self, but we need to function as if there were. As it happens, the mind, thanks to the brain and body, has all sorts of tricks up its sleeve that enable us to do this.
Because it succeeds, selves really do exist. We only go wrong if we're too impressed by this unity and assume that it means that underlying it is a single thing. But the self is not a substance or thing. It is a function of what a certain collection of stuff does.
I'll be saying more about how and why the bundle theory is true in the rest of this chapter. But if it does seem a strange, implausible idea, it's worth remembering just how much of reality is bundle-like.
Atoms are not solid objects but bundles of electrons, neutrons and protons. A planet is a complicated system, not a simple thing. Cars only exist as an assemblage of parts. The internet is a network, not an object that can be pinned down in time and space.
If it seems odd to think of ourselves as 'bundles' then perhaps that is only because we do not notice the extent to which all other entities are bundles too.
...The unity of experience does not therefore demonstrate that there is a unified thing having those experiences. Indeed, the evidence is that there is no such thing. There is no place in the brain where it all comes together and there is no immaterial soul which is the seat of consciousness.
The unity we experience, which allows us legitimately to talk of 'I', is a result of the Ego Trick -- the remarkable way in which a complicated bundle of mental events, made possible by the brain, creates a singular self, without there being a singular thing underlying it.
It seems as though there is some pearl at the self's core, but in fact there is no core at all. Generations of thinkers have gone wrong in thinking that we need to postulate a unified core self to account for the unity of self-experience.
In fact, unity is not a cause: it is an effect of a remarkably disunified, bundle-like system.
Wow. There's a lot to mentally digest in these passages from Baggini's book. His last sentence is particularly striking to me. Unity is not a cause: it is an effect.
I've read a lot of writings about Buddhism, Vedanta, Advaita, Nondualism, and other mystical teachings. Most, if not all, assume that our intuition of some sort of "pure awareness," "core consciousness," "elemental I-ness," or such is the real us.
But here comes neuroscience, ably popularized and explained by philosopher Julian Baggini, saying that this sense of an unchanging self, which perhaps is part of some sort of cosmic consciousness ("Atman is Brahman"), is an ego trick.
I love it. And it rings true to me.
All those gurus, mystics, yogis, masters, and so on who have taught that one's divine Self is beyond the Ego -- they've been captivated by a trick of the ego. This idea that there is an unchanging essence or "pearl" within us, something which isn't affected by mind or matter -- that's the ego trick.
For me, there's nothing better than a movie which, right at the end, overturns all of our assumptions about what's been going on in a dramatic fashion. This is what modern research about how the brain works is doing: overturning the most cherished assumptions of ancient spiritual wisdom.
Or rather, supposed spiritual wisdom. I'll probably share more insights from "The Ego Trick" in other blog posts.
Here's a good summary of Baggini's views. Here's a link to a page on Baggini's web site about his book. And here's a You Tube video where he talks about the book. (The first seven minutes or so are the most interesting.)