A few days ago I wrote about how there's no need to find your self, because you don't have one. That's the central message of Jay Garfield's book, "Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self."
Sounds good to me. One of my favorite humorous pieces from The Onion is Search For Self Called Off After 38 Years.
Here's how it starts off.
CHICAGO—The longtime search for self conducted by area man Andrew Speth was called off this week, the 38-year-old said Monday.
"I always thought that if I kept searching and exploring, I'd discover who I truly was," said Speth from his Wrigleyville efficiency. "Well, I looked deep into the innermost recesses of my soul, I plumbed the depths of my subconscious, and you know what I found? An empty, windowless room the size of an aircraft hangar. From now on, if anybody needs me, I'll be sprawled out on this couch drinking black-cherry soda and watching Law & Order like everybody else."
"Fuck it," he added.
My sentiments exactly, though I don't like black-cherry soda or Law & Order.
The passages below from Garfield's book are considerably more philosophical than The Onion piece, but they share the same message. Stop looking for your self. It's an illusion.
Here Garfield is talking about a minimal approach to the self. By minimal, he means something that isn't a full-blown transcendent self/soul such as the Atman in Hinduism, the whole ground of being thing where the self/soul is a drop of the ocean of Brahman/God.
Instead, the minimal self is essentially the subject of experience, a view held by Galen Strawson, Evan Thompson, and Dan Zahavi. Strawson puts it this way.
I propose to take the unchallengeable, ontologically non-committal notion of the subject of experience in a minimal or 'thin' way... I mean the subject considered specifically as something 'inner', something mental, the 'self', if you like, the inner 'locus' of consciousness considered just as such.
Well, Garfield finds that notion eminently challengeable. Here's how he describes his challenge, which makes a lot of sense to me. Simply put, there can be thoughts without a thinker, perceptions without a perceiver, and awareness without a singular self that is aware.
To say that awareness is necessarily a property of a subject of awareness, while perhaps seeming to be an innocent grammatical point, in fact commits the very fallacy of reification that we addressed in chapter 2. That is the fallacy of going from the mere fact of awareness to the existence of a subject of awareness.
To draw this inference is kind of like going from the claim that it is raining to the claim that there is something that is the agent of raining, that is doing the raining. To presume that the very fact of awareness entails the existence of a subject -- in the strong sense that Strawson and other friends of the self have in mind -- is to assume that which is to be proven, viz., that awareness presupposes a self.
The parallel to the failure of Descartes's cogito argument in which he goes from the mere fact of thinking to the existence of a substantial subject of thought is striking.
...Awareness is most plausibly an umbrella property that reflects an extremely complex set of underlying properties and relations. If this is the case, awareness can be present -- a person can be aware -- without there being any single thing that is aware, just as a nation or corporation can act without there being a singular entity that performs that action.
Now, we might say that if there is awareness, something is aware, e.g., a person, just as we can say that when a corporation sells a product, something, e.g., the corporation, is the seller. But it is plain in that case that we do not thereby implicate a localizable single thing that is a subject or an agent, only a broad set of processes and events.
So even if we grant that awareness always has a subject-object structure, the defender of the reality of the self is not entitled to the premise that the subject is singular, and so cannot presume that it is a self.
But there is also a second, deeper problem with this argument.
The first premise, as we have just noted, presupposes that awareness must have a subject-object structure. We granted that premise for the sake of argument, and we saw that even then we do not get a good argument for the reality of a self. But we can also question the presupposition.
The idea that awareness always has a subject-object structure -- with a subject characterized by a kind of interiority, as opposed to the exterior object that is somehow brought into awareness in that interior space -- might well be an illusion of consciousness.
That is, it might be a fabrication, not a basic reality.
To put the point more precisely, the conviction that awareness is fundamentally a relation between an independent subject and a substantially distinct object may be the result of a cognitive illusion, just as the conviction that we are selves is not the consequence of looking inside and simply finding a self, but of cognitive illusion.
...It makes a great deal of biological, psychological, and ecological sense instead to think of awareness as a constant modulation of the open interaction between an organism and its environment, of the adjustment of the state of the organism and attunement of the posture and goals of the organism as its senses and movements interact with the world it inhabits.
In other words, we can think of awareness as a mode of embedding of the organism in its world, instead of the relation between an interior subject and an exterior object, even if that is how it appears to us in introspection.
To think of awareness in this way is to take seriously the idea that we don't stand against the world as subjects that detect its properties or agents that act on it, but instead are part of the world, and that awareness is more an attunement to our environment than a recording in our minds of what is going on outside.
This approach to cognition, which is called the "embedded, embodied, enactive" model of cognition, is gaining wide acceptance among philosophers and cognitive scientists.
The view that introspection may be wildly deceptive, called "illusionism," is also gaining currency in the philosophy of mind today, inspired in part by the analysis of human existence developed by twentieth- and twenty-first-century existential phenomenologists.
But it is very old in India, and underlies the idea of the nonduality of consciousness articulated both in the Vedanta school and in Buddhism. Philosophers in each of these traditions argued that we are subject to pervasive confusion not only regarding the external world, but also regarding our own nature and regarding the structure of our experience.
So we shold treat Strawson's first premise with suspicion. This suspicion, we have seen, is justified for two reasons: first, our existence may well be that of a complex set of subjective processes as opposed to that of a single self; second, the subject-object structure of awareness that he takes for granted may well be illusory.