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Home_____Non-Duality’s No-Self & Antonio Damasio

Non-Duality is the term for a view of the world as not two, but one—not the duality of a person and the world outside him or her, but instead a totality which is wholly subjective and a unity. That is, everything is part of the subjectivity, with nothing outside. The view derives from Eastern belief, principally Hindu advaita, which literally means without duality. It also finds support in Buddhism (Zen, for example).

A central tenet of non-duality is that self—that which we call our self—does not exist. The evidence is offered by a methodology. The disciple is told to look for his self, and to do so relentlessly. Eventually, he concludes that he cannot find it. Only thoughts, feelings, and sensations are there. These are subjective—part of a world which is wholly conscious and without "external" objects. As for the chair in which he sits, all that is also subjective. The pressure of his body against the seat is sensation. His visual perception of it is also sensation. Etc.

The reader would be unwise to dismiss all this as so much balderdash. Quite able intellects, including philosphers George Berkeley and David Hume, have been unable to disregard conclusions they reached. Hume, for example, concluded as much about the self—that insufficient evidence can be found for its existence.

Speaking only about self, Antonio Damasio has a different take on the situation. Damasio, M.D., Ph.D., is Van Allen Professor of Neurology, and Head of the Neurology Department at the University of Iowa. In Descartes’ Error* he offers another way to look at the phenomenon of the self. (* Subtitled, Emotion, Reason, and The Human Brain) As an example of his point, he refers to neural signals from the elbow joint. Of these signals he says, they

  • “will happen in the early somatosensory cortices in the insular regions [of the brain].”

    Of them, he also states,

  • “Note again, that this is a collection of areas, rather than one center.”

    With this comment Damasio offers a point of view as to why the self cannot be found when we introspect for it, either through deliberate search or with meditation. We gain a simple inference from his remark. Introspection requires focus, and focus implies search for isolated neural phenomena. The self is not part of isolated phenomena. It is part of a collective. Picture the focused beam of a flashlight. Self cannot be found with such a search.

    By again referring to the early sensory cortices in the brain, he elaborates and makes an important observation regarding the self. First, the build-up to his comments on the self, then what he has to say about the self. In the build-up to his points, he explains that the early sensory cortices generate topographical representations. That is, the cortices represent sensory input to other areas of the brain. But if that were the end of it,

  • ”I doubt we would ever be conscious of them as images. How would we know they are our images? “

    He states that they would mean nothing to us, these representations. We would not know what to do with them. He says something would be missing, subjectivity—a subject to make meaning out of them. Something else is needed. Here is his first point:

  • “In essence, those neural representations must be correlated with those which, moment by moment, constitute the neural basis for the self. “

    That is, without a sense of self, they offer no utility for the organism, which must use them to survive in the moment or to plan ahead. It must make meaning out of them.

    He lays to rest the homunculus, the little man inside, the intermediary, which somehow bridged Descartes’ gap between mind and the world outside. His second point:

  • “Self is not the infamous homunculus, a little person inside our brain, perceiving and thinking about the images the brain forms. It is, rather, a perpetually re-created neurobiological state. Years of justified attack on the homunculus concept have made many theorists equally fearful of the concept of self. [Emphasis mine—he does not lend support to the no-self camp] But the neural self need not be homuncular at all. What should cause some fear, actually, is the idea of a selfless cognition.”

    In short, cognition cannot occur without a self to cognize things. Introspect, meditate, all you want but, according to Damasio, don’t use your findings as evidence of no-self. Given his explanation, the attempt to find a self implies cognition at work, with a self involved in the effort. Even though self cannot be found—because cognition involves focus and self is non-focused—the neural self is involved in the very attempt to find itself.

    An interesting article on self, by Carl Zimmer, can be found in the November 2005 Scientific American, and is titled “The Neurobiology of The Self.”

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