Reclaiming the Self: Does the ‘self’ exist? Of course it does!

Author: Steve Taylor

Can a Ghost prove its own non-existence?

If there is one concept, which has been under constant attack by psychologists and philosophers over the last few decades, it is the idea that you are ‘someone’, that you existing as a ‘self’ inside your mental space is an illusion.

Many modern philosophers and scientists suggest that our sense of being ‘someone’ is illusory, or just a simple product of the brain activity. The primary assumption of the materialistic paradigm of our culture is that only the physical is real. All is just matter - complex arrangements of particles, chemicals and molecules. The concept of a non-material ‘conscious self’ doesn’t fit comfortably into this paradigm. Consciousness has to be explained in physical terms - that is, as a product of brain activity. Somehow the billions of neurons in your brain work together to produce this sense of self, and all of the thoughts and feelings that it incorporates. This view was expressed very graphically by the scientist Francis Crick, who wrote that ‘You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.’

From a less biological perspective, the philosopher Daniel Dennett speaks of the illusion of the ‘Cartesian theatre’, the sense that there is ‘someone’ in our heads looking out at a world ‘out there’, and also watching our own thoughts pass by. In reality, says Dennett, there are only mental processes. There are streams of thoughts, sensations and perceptions passing through our brains, but no central place where all of these phenomena are organized. Similarly, the psychologist Susan Blackmore has suggested that the self is just a collection of what she calls ‘memes’ - units of cultural information such as ideas, beliefs and habits. We are born without a self, but slowly, as we are exposed to environmental influences, the self is ‘constructed’ out of the memes we absorb. Many modern cognitive scientists would similarly argue that the sense of ‘I’ is constructed out of unconscious mechanisms and processes.

Modern neuroscience seems to reinforce such views. Neuroscientists claim to be able to ‘locate’ the parts of the brain responsible for mental phenomena such as aesthetic appreciation, religious experience, love, depression and so on, but they haven’t found a part of the brain associated with our underlying sense of self. Therefore, they feel justified in concluding that this doesn’t exist.

‘Ghosts don’t exist’, says the Ghost

There are many problems with the attempt to ‘reduce’ consciousness (including our sense of self) to brain activity. This is what is sometimes called the ‘hard problem’, to distinguish it from the ‘easy problems’ of mental functions such as memory, concentration and attention. Whilst we might be able to understand these phenomena, the problem of how the brain might produce consciousness is on a completely different level. The brain is just a soggy clump of grey matter - how could that soggy mass possibly give rise to the richness and depth of consciousness? To think that it could is a ‘category error.’ In reality, the brain and consciousness are distinct phenomena, which can’t be explained in terms of each other. And on a more practical basis, after decades of intensive theorizing and research, no one has yet put forward any feasible explanation of how the brain might produce consciousness. The ‘hard problem’ seems completely insurmountable.

There is a basic absurdity in these attempts to show that consciousness is illusory. They always feature a consciousness trying to prove that it doesn’t exist. They are caught in a loop. When Daniel Dennett or Susan Blackmore argues that the ‘self’ is an illusion, who is actually making the argument? It is their own self, of course. So if the self is an illusion to begin with, how can it be trusted? It’s a bit like a ghost trying to prove that ghosts don’t exist. Perhaps it may be right, but its illusory nature doesn’t inspire much confidence. Dennett and Blackmore are presuming that there is a kind of reliable, objective observer inside them, which is able to pass judgment on consciousness - and that presumption contradicts their own arguments. That is the very thing whose existence they are trying to disprove.

This also applies to the attempt to explain consciousness in terms of brain processes. When Francis Crick says that thoughts and feelings are just the behavior of nerve cells and their associated molecules, this is also true of his own idea that thoughts and feelings are just...You get the picture. This thought is itself just a biological/physical process. If there is no consciousness ‘as such’ then there are no thoughts ‘as such.’ All thoughts and ideas are insubstantial and illusory just as consciousness itself is.

Related to this, there is a problem of subject/object confusion. All of these theories attempt to examine consciousness from the outside. They treat it like a botanist examining a flower, as an object to scrutinize and categorize. But of course, with consciousness there is no subject and no object. The subject is the object. You are consciousness. So it is fallacious to examine it as if it is something ‘other.’ Again, your are caught in a loop. You can’t get outside consciousness. And so any ‘objective’ pronouncements you make about are fallacious from the start.

Dennett and Blackmore are presuming that there is a kind of reliable, objective observer inside them, which is able to pass judgment on consciousness - and that presumption contradicts their own arguments. That is the very thing whose existence they are trying to disprove.

An interesting question to ponder here is: why do human beings invest so much energy into trying to prove that they don’t exist? Why do scientists and philosophers seem so intent on proving that they themselves are illusions?

Perhaps there is a kind of repressed suicidal impulse at work here. Perhaps (although I admit this is quite a wild hypothesis) the individuals in question experience a deep-rooted self-hatred and an impulse for self-destruction, which, at conscious level, has been translated into an impulse to negate their own identity and existence. More likely, though, these views are symptoms of the general nihilism of our culture, the collapse of values that has followed from materialistic science. The fact that these theories have become prevalent, despite being fallacious, shows how well they fit to the present ‘zeitgeist’.

Subjective Investigation

So does the self exist? Is there really anybody there inside your own mental space?

I think the best way to answer the question is to take a different approach. Rather than attempting to analyze consciousness from the outside as if it is an object, the best approach is to embrace subjectivity, and delve into your own consciousness.

Try meditation, for example. In deep meditation, you might find yourself in a state of complete mental quietness and emptiness. There may be no mental processes taking place at all - no thoughts, no perceptions, no information processing, and no concentration. In fact, this state can be seen as the ‘goal’ of meditation (at least according to some traditions). The philosopher Robert Forman has called it the ‘pure consciousness event’ - a state in which consciousness exists without content, and rests easefully within itself.

More likely, though, these views are symptoms of the general nihilism of our culture, the collapse of values that has followed from materialistic science. The fact that these theories have become prevalent, despite being fallacious, shows how well they fit to the present ‘zeitgeist’.

I have experienced this state myself. Paradoxically, although consciousness is empty, it has a quality of fullness too. It appears to be full of energy - a powerful energy that has a quality of well being, or even bliss. (This is what Indian Vedanta philosophy describes as satchitananda - being-consciousness-bliss.) There is also a quality of spaciousness - somehow my own consciousness seems to become wider and larger, to spread beyond my own brain or body. This can lead to a sense of connection or even oneness - a feeling that my consciousness is merging with a force or energy that somehow seems fundamental to the world, or the cosmos.

But most importantly in terms of my argument in this article, in these moments, one of the qualities of consciousness is a sense of ‘I’. There is still a sense of identity, even if this sense may be different to that of normal consciousness. This identity does not feel separate or bounded. It feels part of a greater unity, but there is still a sense of I-ness. You could compare it to a wave, which has a sense of its own existence as a wave but at the same time is aware of itself as a part of the sea. There is still an ‘I’ which has awareness of itself and of its situation.

From this point of view, it appears that consciousness or identity is not an illusion. In this state, there are no ‘memes’ and no streams of mental processes, but consciousness still appears to exist. I would therefore say that the sense of self is fundamental to us, from the deepest levels of our being. Of course, this fundamental sense of ‘I’ is acted on by all kinds environmental, social and psychological influences, and becomes ‘constructed’ to a large degree. You could compare it to how a Roman fort is built upon and expanded over centuries until eventually develops into a modern city (as happened to my home city of Manchester, England). But there is a fundamental kernel of ‘I-ness’, which is always there, underlying all of the activity and all the construction.

Of course, this is just my own subjective experience. I shouldn’t make any universal claims for it - although, as Robert Forman has pointed out, the ‘pure consciousness event’ seems to be universal in the sense that people from all cultures and all periods of history have independently described their experiences of it. But ultimately, perhaps the only way to substantiate this (or not) is to look into your own subjective experience, and see if it accords with mine.

From this point of view, it appears that consciousness or identity is not an illusion. In this state, there are no ‘memes’ and no streams of mental processes, but consciousness still appears to exist. I would therefore say that the sense of self is fundamental to us, from the deepest levels of our being.

Steve Taylor PhD is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of the Human Mind. stevenmtaylor.com

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