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1/6/06


Home_____Of Selves & Cars

In the 1 January 2006 article below, John Allen Paulos asserts that a major shift in society and culture would occur once the public widely understood that the self is non-existent. That is one view of the self. Only one.

For thousands of years Buddhists and Hindus have asserted that the self does not exist. Disciples are taught to look for the self. The simplest Zen koan can be, Who am I? Once the disciple learns that the question cannot be answered in terms of a locus for the "I," he is on the road to enlightenment. Basically, the finding is supposed to be that the "I" cannot be found. Instead, there are various forms of sense impressions--thoughts, feelings, perceptions. The absence of solid evidence for self becomes hitched to a belief--that if nothing can be found, the self is an illusion and does not exist.

Not necessarily so.

Consciousness research has determined that, yes, self cannot be located in a single place. It does appear, but not as an objective unity. Several areas of the brain can produce several events, none of which coalesce into a single objective presence on, say, an fMRI brain scan. Still, we feel only one.

The point: because a central, guiding self cannot be found does not mean that it is merely an illusion. When we look inwardly for the colonies of bacteria that digest our food we cannot find them. That does not mean they are illusory. Their presence is manifested by the fact of digestion. So, too, the self’s presence is manifested by its role in monitoring our activities. Even if we deny free will, we cannot deny the sense that something oversees our conscious affairs; this something can even participate in lucid dreaming.* We call it the self. It is part of the space that we call consciousness inside our head. Yet, if we looked inside the head, we would see only densely compacted grey matter, and no space. It and consciousness cannot be located but we believe both to be there.

Black holes provide an analogy. We cannot see them, but can infer their presence by their affects on nearby space.

As one example of the Eastern approach, advaita disciples learn that they cannot find the self by introspecting for it. Still, its absence does not imply that it is a creature of illusion. The inability to find it can be explained otherwise. It disappears under the flashlight of conscious focus. Try an experiment in perception. Stare at a blue dot lit against a yellow background. After a few minutes of focus the blue merges with the yellow. In Buddhist or Hindu meditation, the self dissolves into the background of consciousness. In Zen, this dissolution can initiate the experience of Big Mind, that one is a larger consciousness. But after the experience, self returns. Its earlier absence does not mean that it is illusory. In deep sleep, consciousness fades and self disappears but later returns.

Were self a tag-along phenomenon, a chimera, it would not have evolved through natural selection to play its prominent role in our minds. It has survival value, whether as a monitor of activities, their agent, or both. This does not mean it has independent "reality"--only that it has a function as do eyes, fingers, and orgasms.

Think of it this way. A tire is not a car. The steering wheel is not. Pistons are not. Put them all together and you have a car. You do not think of it as an illusion. Now imagine another situation. You sit on the couch. Drowsy, you dream a little. Then you awaken. You feel deep satisfaction at Mozart on the radio. You notice the cat purring on your lap. You think about a shopping list. You recall your boss's memo. With each of these, a different part of the brain "lights up," although if you had deliberately looked for a self you would not have found it. Yet you are aware of each event. Somehow, they harmonize into an "I" that is composed of them all. Although self is subjective, it gains explanations through comparison to a car. Even though the car is tangible as an object and self is intangible, the analogy is instructive once we allow that, for example, force at a distance (gravity) has an intangible "source," yet we recognize its affects.
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*(Yes, the word is "sense," and sensations do not prove reality. Nor do they disprove it. You can look at your chair. Your view, your skin, and the weight of your body against the chair are only perceptions/sensations which may be only that, with nothing "beyond" them, not even the chair, but you assume the chair to have shaped them. You can disclaim the objective reality of the chair if you want, but that is another argument.)

For thousands of years Buddhists and Hindus have asserted that the self does not exist. Disciples are taught to look for the self. The simplest Zen koan can be, Who am I? The disciple learns that the question cannot be answered in terms of a locus for the self.

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