Friday, November 29, 2013

Steve Taylor Ph.D. - Does Your Self Exist?

In his Psychology Today blog, Out of the Darkness, Steve Taylor, Ph.D. recently argued that the claim made by neuroscience and some philosophers that we have no unique self - that it is an illusion created by our brains - is rubbish.

Taylor states, paraphrasing his misunderstanding of the science: "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?" This is not his argument - he is conflating consciousness with a unitary self. We are fully conscious beings (well, most of us), and we are also a collection of subpersonalities that our brain manages in such a way that without developing subject/object awareness, we are unable to distinguish the subpersonalities, so they appear to be one personality, one self.

He goes on to mention Vedanta and meditation, making this assertion about meditative experience:
It [consciousness] appears to be full of energy - a powerful energy which itself 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.

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 boundaried. It may feel a part of something greater than itself, but still has a sense of I-ness.
Again, he goes only part of the way in these statements. Spend some time in meditation, as the Buddhists suggest, trying to find the "I" of self - it's not there. The more you seek the self/I, the more one discovers vast emptiness, the emptiness filled with bliss.*

Does Your Self Exist?

Is there anyone there inside your mind? Of course there is!

Published on November 27, 2013 by Steve Taylor, Ph.D. in Out of the Darkness


If there is one concept which has been under constant attack by psychologists and philosophers over the last few decades, it is the idea of ‘you’—that you exist as a real entity or ‘self’ inside your own mental space.

Many modern philosophers and scientists suggest that this sense of being an 'I' is illusory, or just a simple product of brain activity. Somehow the billions of neurons in your brain work together to produce it, and all of the thoughts and feelings which it incorporates. The philosopher Daniel Dennett speaks of the illusion of the ‘Cartesian theatre,' the sense that there is ‘someone’ 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 there is no central place where all of these phenomena are organised. 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.

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’ 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 abilities and functions such as memory, concentration and attention. Whilst we might be able to understand these phenomena, the problem of how the brain might produce a conscious self 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’ - 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 research and theorisising, no-one has yet put forward an even slightly 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 the ‘self’ is illusory. They always feature a self trying to prove that it doesn’t exist. They are caught in a loop. If the self is an illusion to begin with, how can we trust its judgements? 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 confidence. Dennett and Blackmore are presuming that there is a kind of reliable, objective observer inside them which is able to pass judgement on consciousness - and that presumption contradicts their own arguments. That is the very thing whose existence they are trying to disprove.

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, you are caught in a loop. You can’t get outside consciousness. And so any ‘objective’ pronouncements you make about it are fallacious from the start.


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 analyse 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, with 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.

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 which itself 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.

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 boundaried. It may feel a part of something greater than itself, but still has 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 it develops into a modern city. 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 human beings from culture to culture have independently described experiences of it throughout history. Ultimately, however, the only real way to substantiate this is for you to try it out yourself - to reach a deep state of meditation, and see if your own experience accords with mine.

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~ 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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* Here is a Zen story and explication around the idea of "vast emptiness" and "I don't know," via The Story of Zen.

Bodhidharma

Vast emptiness, no merit




Bodhidharma's reputation as a Dhyana master was said to have preceded his arrival in China, and so the Chinese Emperor Wu, a devout Buddhist, called upon Bodhidharma to visit the Imperial Palace to teach. Having sponsored the construction of a great many Buddhist monasteries and temples and patronizing the teachers of the various Buddhist sects, Emperor Wu—in accordance with his understanding of their teachings—assumed that he would gain much 'merit' in the form of a happy and prosperous reign. And he assumed he was earning an auspicious rebirth in what some Buddhist schools called a 'Pure Land' where, unlike on earth, all the conditions of life would be conducive to his attainment of Enlightenment.
Emperor Wu: "I have built many temples, copied innumerable Sutras and ordained many monks since becoming Emperor. Therefore, I ask you, what is my merit?"

Bodhidharma: "None whatsoever!" answered Bodhidharma.

Emperor Wu: "Why no merit?"

Bodhidharma:: "Doing things for merit has an impure motive and will only bare the puny fruit of rebirth."

Emperor Wu, a little put out: "What then is the most important principle of Buddhism?"

Bodhidharma: "Vast emptiness. Nothing sacred."

Emperor Wu, by now bewildered, and not a little indignant: "Who is this that stands before me?"

Bodhidharma: "I do not know."
This legendary interchange, with Bodhidharma's inspiring directness and unsparing responses, became for later generations of Chan practitioners a model for telling things as they are, without pulling any punches.


No merit


No merit, Bodhidharma told the astounded emperor! No merit, no lack of merit. No giver of merit, no receiver. Although the emperor likely misunderstood the teaching as a rebuke, Bodhidharma was pointing to the true merit that derives from seeing one's own true nature, one's Buddha nature.
 

Vast emptiness


"Vast emptiness, nothing sacred." Right from "the beginning" we see Zen's spare uncompromising tone. And, as Peter Mathiessen points out, great mystery and power.

This "emptiness" was neither absence nor a void. . . Like the empty mirror on which all things pass, leaving no trace, this ku contains all forms and all phenomena, being a symbol of the universal emphasis. Thus this emptiness is also fullness, containing all forms and phenomena.

"I do not know."


And with "I do not know." Bodhidharma launches Zen with the supreme answer. As Peter Mathiessen observes, not-knowing:

. . . echoes "vast emptiness," yet goes still deeper to the unnameable source where there is noting-to-know, were nothing exists outside the doing and being of this present instant witout past and future. . . . Like emptiness, this not-knowing is very close to us, therefore hard to see. It is the source or essence of our life, and of Zen practice . . .
This "not-knowing" links Bodhidharma directly to the existing Taoist notion of wu-nien (no thought) and is an early example of Buddho-Taoist vocabulary.

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