Geez, I'm so philosophically minded, I can't even enjoy a birthday without questioning whether "I" am having one.
Over on my other blog I mused yesterday about the Beatles' When I'm 64 and the positive side of craziness. Hopefully this will shut up the folks who, after reading my thoughtful ponderings about religion/spirituality, accuse me of being a left-brained rationalist who only lives in my big fat intellectual cranium.
Fire up your skateboard, accustory dudes, and join me on a four mile longboarding jaunt up and down (mild) hills here in Salem's Minto Brown Island Park. Then you'll see another side of me.
Is there really a "me"? If you've been reading my churchless blog posts the past few months, you know this is my current Big Question.
Heck, maybe it always has been. I just haven't been so aware of the Big Question as I am now.
After all, a whole lot of religious, spiritual, mystical, and philosophical thinking/beliefs/dogmas get flushed down the reality toilet if there's no such thing as an enduring soul, self, atman, or whatever else we might call an "I" which exists apart from the goings-on in the human brain.
This morning I read another chapter in one of the birthday gifts I gave myself, Jan Westerhoff's "Reality: A Very Short Introduction." This is the book that echoes what Westerhoff said in his New Scientist cover story about the nature of reality that I blogged about recently.
His "Are persons real?" chapter is a creatively fresh overview of arguments I've read about before in both the neuroscientific and Buddhist'y literature.
Interestingly -- since for most of my life I've really hated the prospect of not existing after I die -- I'm becoming not only comfortable with this whole "there is no self" thing, I'm actually beginning to embrace it with gusto.
I think the reason has something to do with this:
If I feel that I've lost something important to me, that's deeply troubling. But if I were to learn that the thing never was mine, and indeed never even existed in the way I thought it did, then the "loss" is no big deal, because I really haven't lost anything.
Westerhoff makes a number of fascinating observations which undermine a persons are real assumption. Here's several which I found particularly persusasive and interesting. The first involves a thought experiment; the second, a "flight simulator" in which not only the flight but also the pilot are simulated.
We can address this problem by assuming that our self is something more fundamental, something constant that has all these changing properties but remains itself what it is. Like a thread running through every single one of a string of pearls, 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 have most of the properties we usually think make me me. 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 we usually accord to our self. If practically everything that is going on in our mental lives leaves the self untouched, what is the use of such a self?'
To put the point in a different way, suppose someone offered you a drug that completely destroyed your self while leaving all your beliefs, desires, preferences, and so on intact. Would there be anything wrong with taking it? It would certainly be preferable to a drug that destroyed all our beliefs, desires, preferences etc. and left our self intact.
This might give rise to the suspicion that the self understood in this way is not what we care about, but the content of our mental lives is. Furthermore, given that you cannot tell the difference between having taken the drug and not having taken the drug from the inside, could it be the case that you have actually been given the drug and so don't have any self any more. Should you worry about this?
According to this [Buddhist] theory, we consist of a body and four psychological components, corresponding to different cognitive functions. The self cannot be identified with any one of them (since all of them change frequently, while the self is supposed to be continuous), nor can it just be the collection of all of them (since the self is a unified, single thing, not a coalition of shifting elements).
Nor is the self a separately existent thing, distinct from the four components. This does not imply that talk of selves and persons should be eliminated; these form an important part of how we conceptualize the world. But the self has nothing more than a strictly nominal existence. It is superimposed on our physical and mental constituents for purely practical purposes.
It allows us to locate ourselves in the world, rather like the pointer of our mouse allows us to locate ourselves within the interface of our computer. But like the pointer that is neither "in" the computer, nor a continuous object (when we switch off the computer, there is no pointer), nor constituting the substantial centre of the computer's workings, the self is not what it appears to be.
When we say that the self is superimposed on the constituents, the question arises: 'Who does the superimposing?' When considering the self as the unifier of our experiential world, it makes sense to understand it along the lines of a pilot in a flight simulator.
From a range of perceptual input, our brain creates the image of the world in which the self operates. We cannot step outside of our brain, so we have no way of finding out what the world beyond the intracranial simulation is like. To us, it does not even feel like a simulation.
But the problems with the Cartesian theatre suggest that there is no pilot, no self, for whose benefit the simulation is put on. Rather, the collection of our physical and mental constituents acts like a total flight simulator that not only simulates the information received in the cockpit, but simulates the pilot as well.
The self as the unifier of our perceptual input is a simulation or illusion, yet there is no non-simulated or non-illusory someone experiencing the simulation or having the illusion.
Like I said, this notion -- which to both neuroscience and Buddhism is darn close to fact -- is strangely pleasing to me.
Of course, there's no "me" to be pleased.
Just a simulated me who is having a simulated sense of pleasure from reading the simulated words I just copied from Westerhoff's book. But since this is what reality is, it's good enough for me. Whoever I am, or am not.