855 The issue of the Self revisited

Finally I have found a philosopher who puts nicely into words what I have grappled with ... the concept that adhering to the idea of the existence of the Self - in fact the existence of duality - being illusionary. I’ve written about this issue in my blog 411.

In this episode of Waking Up, Sam Harris speaks with Thomas Metzinger about the Self, how it may be a hallucination, yet not an illusion. By all means listen to the whole thing, but the juicy bit I talk about above starts at about 00:48:45 minutes.

Philosopher-speak is tricky ... I hope I can unpack it for you satisfactorily:

Says Metzinger, “As regards the Self, the illusion-talk (Buddhism: The Self is an illusion) in popular writings of course is conceptual nonsense, because as a term illusion means that there is a sensory misrepresentation of something, where an outside stimulus actually exists; whereas a hallucination is something where there is no stimulus and you still have a misrepresentation.

"But the sense of selfhood is only partly a sensory experience ... so while there obviously is no space in the brain with a scientific & biologic immortal soul or self - we don’t find anything like that in the brain - then how does this robust sense of selfhood emerge? Because that is really counter-intuitive … imagine people would try to believe that there is no such thing as a self. You cannot believe this, even if you want to believe this ... nobody can believe this.”

This presents a very real disagreement with Harris, who says, “I don’t only believe this, I experience it” and he refers again to the Buddhist claim of the Self as an illusion; it seems Harris denies himself the experience of Self as an intuitive entity, above his scientific knowledge of there not being (a physical) self. 

This is where it gets interesting for me. I keep making the point that the Self (or Soul etc.) is very real for us on a practical "real life", intuitive level, yet ... it is mind construed (as is all philosophy and religion). 

Or - as Metzinger says - a hallucination. 

So in his book, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity, he says, 

“… no such things as selves exist ... nobody ever had or was a self. All that exists are phenomenal selves, as they appear in conscious experience. The phenomenal self, however, is not a thing but an ongoing process …”

Which brings me back to the notion that while the self has no foundation in science ... it is very real in my experiences; and I must say, I find it bemusing that such a big deal is made of the fact that scientifically (& in Buddhism) there is no self. Ho-hum.

This talk is fascinating stuff.

Thomas K. Metzinger is professor and director of the theoretical philosophy group and the research group on neuroethics/neurophilosophy at the department of philosophy, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany. He is the founder and director of the MIND group and Adjunct Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute of Advanced Studies, Germany. His research centers on analytic philosophy of mind, applied ethics, philosophy of cognitive science, and philosophy of mind. He is the editor of Neural Correlates of Consciousness and the author of Being No One and The Ego Tunnel.