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, 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 related to the ‘hard problem’ of how the brain might give rise to conscious experience. 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 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 judgments? 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 judgment 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 are fallacious from the start.
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 from 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 that 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 of 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.
I am a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK, and the author of Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of the Human Mind; more information at stevenmtaylor.com.