Is the self an illusion?
This article is a follow-up to The Folly of Modern Neuroscience. Please note that here, when I use the terms neuroscience or neuroscientists, I am referring to the current trend towards materialism and naturalistic explanations, as outlined there, where examples can be found of the type of thing I’m talking about. I am aware that not all neuroscientists think this way — some examples can be found at the bottom of that article. It would be clumsy, however, to keep repeating this each time I use these terms.
The position of neuroscience is that our sense of personal identity, the self, is an illusion. I assume that neuroscientists think this because they can’t see a self when they look at a brain down a microscope, or when examining a brain scan. From my viewpoint, they have been led astray by their materialist assumptions, and therefore cannot contemplate the possibility that the self might be non-material, thus is not generated by the brain.
The existence of consciousness has been described as the most difficult problem confronting modern science and philosophy. It is also known as the “hard problem”; it is hard because no one can explain how a material organ, the brain, can be responsible for things which appear to be non-material — thoughts and the self.
When a problem seems insoluble, the possibility has to be contemplated that the wrong question is being asked. Perhaps the brain does not create the self. I’ll just mention in passing that the spiritual explanation for the self is that of a soul (or consciousness, if you prefer) incarnating into a body. I’ll put that thought to one side, however, and consider hypothetically the possibility that these neuroscientists may have got it right, and that the self is indeed an illusion.
Let’s consider meditation from this perspective, an activity practised by humans for thousands of years. Put simply, the goal of meditation is for the conscious self to control and silence all thought, in order to reach a higher state of consciousness. From the neuroscientific perspective, however, this conscious self is an illusion created by the brain. Yet this conscious self has the desire to silence thoughts, the contents of the mind, which are presumably created by the brain. So the brain has created an illusory entity which wants to stop one of the main activities of the brain, the production of thoughts. Therefore one part of the brain is in conflict with another, even though the first one does not really exist. How would neuroscience explain this?
I’ll turn now to transgender issues. The self is said to be an illusion, yet this self, which has emerged from a body born biologically as either male or female, and must therefore be genetically, psychologically, and logically either a male or female self, nevertheless feels somehow uncomfortable in its body, and feels that it is “really” a self of the other gender, which would also be an illusion. How can neuroscience explain this?
It is interesting to note that on this issue society completely ignores the opinions of neuroscientists. The logical neuroscientific response would be to tell people with transgender feelings that what they are experiencing is nonsense, that their self is an illusion, so there would be no point in transferring to a different gender, since that self would also be an illusion. Society completely ignores this approach, however, and takes the concerns of these people seriously, offering them counselling, surgical procedures, and hormone therapy.
I’ll now consider the arts, specifically music. Neuroscience invites us to believe that works of sublime genius like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and Bach’s B minor Mass, are the creations of an entity which does not really exist. We are therefore led to assume that it must actually be the brain which creates these works. This suggests that an organ which has evolved through a process of genetic mutation and natural selection without any sense of purpose, according to neo-Darwinian theory to which I assume neuroscientists subscribe, has the desire to create and the capability of producing such works. How does neuroscience explain this?
I hope that these three examples have persuaded you of the ridiculousness of the neuroscientific position. So it is reasonable to ask whether neuroscientists have really considered the implications of their views. Do they not need to get out more, and study real life in the outside world, instead of studying brains in laboratories?
In each of the above examples a spiritual explanation is more credible. In the case of meditation, it is the spiritual consciousness (the soul) which wants to silence all thoughts (thus the mind), and return to its higher state of being. It is not clear to me what exactly is happening spiritually in the case of a transgender person. One possible explanation is that the soul has spent several incarnations in bodies of one gender, and unconscious memories remain which suggest to the person that they ‘really’ belong in a body of the other gender. I suggest that the musical examples would be explained more satisfactorily by a real consciousness trying to communicate and express something profound. Neuroscientists are unwilling to contemplate such explanations, because they are addicted to materialism, and their statements can therefore seem absurd to reasonable people.
I’ll conclude by quoting the words of an extraordinary scientist, Sir John Eccles. He was one of the leading brain scientists of the twentieth century, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1963. There is therefore no doubt about his credentials (or his sanity). In 1977, with Karl Popper, he published a book with an extraordinary title, in the light of the current discussion, The Self and Its Brain¹. A few years later, with Daniel N. Robinson, he wrote The Wonder of Being Human². He says that he was primarily responsible for chapter 3, and there, having discussed consciousness, identity, thus the “hard problem” and other alternative theories, he concluded: “Since materialist solutions fail to account for our experienced uniqueness, we are constrained to attribute the uniqueness of the psyche or soul to a supernatural spiritual creation… It is the certainty of the inner core of unique individuality that necessitates the ‘Divine creation.’ We submit that no other explanation is tenable (all my emphases); neither the genetic uniqueness with its fantastically impossible lottery nor the environmental differentiations, which do not determine (his emphasis) one’s uniqueness but merely modify it”.
This is one of the bravest statements that I have ever come across by a modern scientist. No wonder materialist neuroscientists are at such a loss to explain the self!
1. Publisher Springer-Verlag
2. The Free Press, 1984, the quote is on p43
Originally published at spiritualityinpolitics.com.