Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What is the nature of the self?

The physician and neuroscientist Vilayannur Ramachandran explores this fundamental, still unsolved philosophical conundrum in the last chapter of his book Phantoms in the Brain (co-written in the late 1990s with Sandra Blakeslee). This is how the chapter begins:
In the first half of the next century science will confront its greatest challenge in trying to answer a question that has been steeped in mysticism and metaphysics for millennia. What is the true nature of self? As someone who was born in Indian and raised in the Hindu tradition, I was taught that the concept of the self – the “I” within me that is aloof from the universe and engages in lofty inspection of the world around me – is an illusion, a veil called maya. The search for enlightenment, I was told, consists of lifting this veil and realizing that you are really “One with the cosmos.” Ironically, after extensive training in Western medicine and more than fifteen years of research on neurological patients and visual illusions, I have come to realize that there is much truth in this view – that the notion of a single unified self “inhabiting” the brain may indeed be an illusion. Everything I have learned from the intensive study of both normal people and patients who have sustained damage to various parts of their brains points to an unsettling notion: that you create your own “reality” from mere fragments of information, that what you “see” is a reliable – but not always accurate – representation of what exists in the world, that you are completely unaware of the vast majority of events going on in your brain. Indeed, most of your actions are carried out by a host of unconscious zombies who exist in peaceful harmony along with you (the “person”) inside your body!
Nevertheless, many people find it disturbing that all the richness of our mental life – all our thoughts, feelings, emotions, even what we regard as our intimate selves – arises entirely from the activity of little wisps of protoplasm in the brain. How is this possible? How could something as deeply mysterious as consciousness emerge from a chunk of meant inside the skull? The problem of mind and matter, substance and spirit, illusion and reality, has been a major preoccupation of both Western and Eastern philosophy for millennia, but very little of lasting value has emerged. As the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland has said, “Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.”

Why this post suddenly? Because I've been thinking about the idea of "soul", and whether we are more than just an aggregation of the the physical body, the brain and its interior functions. This soul or, less metaphysically, "consciousness" is what marks us out, but how is it linked to the body? Some scientists are beginning to tackle that question, which is what prompted this post.


conrius said...

From perspective of the western philosophy, consider three points.

1. The uneasiness the fact that you are not actively in control of m(any)things can cause.
2. The notion of I, the importance of purpose to anything that exists, and the nature of an object that exits.
3. The monolithic nature of western religion. There is a unification of realities under one umbrella. There cannot be multiple realities.

I then invite you to read (if you haven't previously) about Samkhya Philosophy, especially about the interactions between Prakriti and Purusha. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samkhya

Hari said...

Thank you very much, conrius. I am just beginning to learn of the differences in Eastern and Western conceptions of self, matter, and consciousness. I have heard of Samkhya but have not read about it well enough -- thanks for the link. On a related note: Chandradhar Sharma's A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy provides an excellent comparative study of the different schools of Indian philosophy.

kennady said...

Nice post.....The self, the essence of every living being... the only real thing present within a human being and all other forms of life is the only subtle truth in the cosmic system. The self never relates to the physical self of every Jiva...if you learn tamil language means i like Tamil alphabets 1 is one of the best i Phone app. Its very useful for all the age groups to learn Tamil in an easy way...