Self... who am I? Will... who controls what I do? Being... do I continue on after death?
These are big questions. Humans have struggled to find answers to them from the beginning of recorded history, and surely long before that.
Most people accept a view that is common to most religions: I am something other than my physical body; call it soul or spirit. I have free will; so I am responsible for my actions. I possess, or am, a non-material essence that is unaffected by physical death.
But these answers go against the grain of modern science. Including, neuroscience. Granted, the answers are intuitively appealing. This doesn't make them correct, though.
In the final chapter of "The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why it Matters," psychologists Daniel Wegner and Kurt Gray address the question of The Self.
Interestingly, answering this question correctly makes the three questions I started with disappear. Or at least, appear much easier to answer. Why? Because if us humans don't have the sort of self we believe we do, what we are is pretty damn obvious:
A web without a spider.
Wegner and Gray don't venture into this far-out philosophical territory, but it is a valid conclusion given what science knows about big bang cosmology, evolution, quantum physics, relativity theory, ecology, biology, and many other disciplines.
Here's how The Self chapter of "The Mind Club", and thus the entire book, ends. Wegner and Gray echo the many other books I've read about modern neuroscience and psychology.
It's a beautiful way of looking at the world, once one gets over the resistance to not being a spider, and accepts being simply an integral part of the web.
Daniel Dennett makes an elegant analogy between the self and the center of gravity. Any object with mass -- whether a bowl, a piece of lumber, or even a brain -- has a mathematical center, a precise location that would allow you to balance that object if you were to put it on a pointed stake.
However, this center of gravity is not a "thing" that exists independently of all the stuff around it, and if you took apart the object, you would never find a separate little object that is the center of gravity.
The self is a lot like that -- it's just the theoretical point that lies at the center of all your mental experiences, memories, thoughts, feelings, sensations, goals, desires, and personal relationships.
"You" is like a web without a spider, a collection of memories, thoughts, desires, and feelings that is fragile and tenuous and yet still glimmers in the sunshine of perception.
Or perhaps a better, if less elegant, analogy is that the self is like particleboard, that mainstay of affordable furniture. To all appearances particleboard is hard and very real, and like the self, it can -- metaphorically -- bear the weight of other people, break if struck too hard, and has sharp points that can hurt others.
It is also fundamentally separate from other pieces of of particleboard. However, upon closer inspection you would see that this material is merely a collection of little fibers pressed together and bound with glue. If you placed separate pieces of particleboard in a pool of water, the glue would slowly dissolve until all the fibers separated and floated together, completely intermingling.
In the case of your mind, the glue that binds together your memories -- the fibers of your past experiences -- is the fact that they happened to the same body, the same collection of cells that looks back at you in the mirror every morning.
Despite the ultimate uncertainty surrounding the question of other minds, it is likely that everyone you know has the same powerful emotions and deep thoughts as you do.
Unfortunately, your own collection of memories, thoughts, and feelings -- your mind -- prevents you from truly appreciating that fact. Being one mind prevents you from truly appreciating the minds of others. This is perhaps the deepest of paradoxes from the mind club.
Being trapped in our own minds prevents us from fundamentally connecting with others, and there is no way to escape our own minds. We are forever a point of view: even if we lose our memories, meditate away our desires, and quiet our constant quest for mental control, we are still a source of perception.
But recognizing this fact provides the secret to transcending ourselves as much as we possibly can. By understanding that we perceive the world instead of understanding it directly, we can realize not only that the self is fragile and that free will is an illusion but also that other minds can be both more and less than they appear.
Through our odyssey of mysterious minds ranging from dogs to gods, we have seen that all the minds around us -- and our very self -- rest upon perception.
Nevertheless, these perceptions have the psychological force of raw reality and are what compel us to love and to hate, to harm and to protect. The idea of the "mind club" could be interpreted as meaning that these perceptions of mind are not objectively real, but we suggest that they are the only thing that is real.
We are perceivers, and from the perspective of perceivers, our perceptions are all we have, and that makes solid the ethereal. As the Buddha said, "Things are not as they are seen, nor are they otherwise." We couldn't agree more.