Reflections on Self

Philosophical questions about the existence and the nature of “self” have troubled humans for many years. In many religions and in many philosophical schools of thoughts, the questions surrounding the concept of self were examined in great detail. Further, the questions about self are also addressed by modern sciences such as neurology, biology, chemistry, and physics.

Let’s forget about different philosophical theories and fall back to the everyday notion of self. Then, the “self” seem to be consisted of two related components. Firstly, the “body”, which is the collection of skin, bones, blood, kidneys, lungs, other organs and flesh, neatly bundled together as a single system. Secondly, the “mind”’ that seems to be the living essence that is housed within the aforementioned “body”. This everyday notion of “self”, as the sum of mind and body, immediately raises the question of how physical and mental things fit together.

Metaphysical dualists argue that there is a non-physical entity called “mind” which somehow interacts with the physical body. However, physicalists (materialists) argue that mind is a mere emergent phenomenon of brain activity, and thus the notion of non-physical mind or consciousness is sort of an “illusion” created by the complex interaction among different forms of matter in the brain, and in the body in general. Thus, physicalists conclude, mind is merely a product of matter and energy.

Within this short essay, I am not going to address all the philosophical problems about mind and matter. Loads of texts such as Rene Descartes’s Discourse on the Method and Meditations on first philosophy, Jeffrey Olen’s Persons and Their Worlds, Frank Jackson’s Epiphenomenal Qualia, and Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained have already been written, and physicalists and dualists have been engaged in a never ending debate where dualists are trying to prove that “mind” is a primordial essence of its own and physicalists saying that the only primordial building blocks that exist are matter and energy.

I agree with Sujeewa Kokawala’s argument that, in the final analysis, whether “mind” is a phenomenon on its own, or whether it is a complex emergence of other things, does not matter. For all practical purposes, giving an independent identity to “mind” makes things easy for everyday conversations and also helps to have a separate field of study pertaining to the mind. Just like the postulation that there is some object called center of gravity makes physics calculations easy, postulating the existence of mind makes our day-to-day communication easy.

In his article, Sujeewa use a fine analogy of macro-concept of “economy”. Economy is, it seems, an emergent phenomenon of smaller transactions within a large community. There is no point arguing if there is such thing called “economy”. Economy is a convenient concept that can be studied and controlled as a whole. I think, same can go for the “mind”.

Coming back to the topic of self, imagine yourself at the age of five. You will have some memories from that age. However, most memories have faded away. Some of the memories that you remember as crystal clear might also be an illusion. If you cross examine an incident that you seems to remember, you will realize that different people would remember it in different ways and thus you cannot really establish what happened for real. What you have now are memories of memories of memories and not a real account of what really happened. Your mind does not record things as if a rolling camera captures the images and sound. Your memory is much more elusive.

What about the body? Each cell in your top layer of skin gets washed away when you shower. Your skin cells are being replaced everyday. So are your cells of other organs such as liver, heart, lungs, and brain. In fact, every atom in your body from the age of 5 must have been replaced by now through the metabolic process in your body; thus, you are not even carrying any single atom that you used to have at age of five. Not to mention that atoms themselves are not the fundamental building blocks of matter.

Basically, the person you were at age of five is long gone. In a metaphorical sense, that child is long dead. There is nothing tangible that connects “you” to “him” or “her”. The connection that you have with your own self 20 or 30 years ago is nothing more than the connection that you have to your mother or father or other ancestors. You might have thought that there is some sort of “essence” which makes you “you”, that is carried through while the body changes. However, as far as scientific knowledge is concerned, there is no such thing. In fact, there is nothing essential that connect you to yourself one second ago. Thus, the very concept of “self” is an illusion or an emergent phenomenon.

Now, those of you who are coming from a Buddhist background may find that what I just said resembles the notion of “impermanence” in Buddhism. What I wrote might sound deeply “Buddhist” to some of you. However, I did nothing but reiterating ideas of Richard Dawkins.

So, by writing this, am I promoting Buddhism? In a way, yes, In my personal opinion, Buddhism has some profound philosophical ideas to reckon with. However, like any ancient knowledge system, Buddhism carries a lot of other baggage that makes it contradict itself at times. Also it may not be correct to attribute everything Buddhism has to offer to Gouthama like most Buddhists do. Certain ideas in Buddhism predate Gouthama Buddha and certain ideas in Buddhism might have been added or polished by various scholars that lived after Buddha.

My interest in Buddhism is purely academical. Accepting the idea that the concept of “self” is so illusionary and can get vanished in a puff of logic does not make me feel any more “enlightened” than other individuals. Hearing the cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss saying that universe must have begun from nothing does not “enlighten” me either.

Knowing that “mind” is an emergent phenomenon, and knowing that the “self” is a very tentative concept might help me to be less egoistic and more humble. However, at the end, it does not change anything for me. Life flows on.

Article by – Prasad Mapatuna

Edited by – Kumara Sankalpa

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1 Response to Reflections on Self

  1. Prabhanga says:

    That analogy based on economy has some serious flaws it seems, and hence could lead to an oversimplified understanding of things.

    The difference between ‘self’ and economy is not in the way the two concepts are synthesized, but with who invents them. Economy is not something created by economy and it neither has a self-awareness of its existence, but self has all those qualities. To be specific, it is correct that economy is an emergent phenomenon of smaller transactions within a large community (so is everything else) and it could also be correct to say that having the concept of economy could make things easy. However, that should not automatically warrant that other emergent phenomena (i.e. an identity made of smaller transactions within a large community) like self are also made with ‘convenience’ as the driving factor. Economy is an identity created by an entity outside economy for the convenience of that entity outside it, but self is a self-made identity and hence the whole idea of ‘convenience’ has no place in its origination.


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