Is There a Self? Initial Thoughts

“What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that cannot be trusted?” –Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

This is Theo, in Tartt’s Pulitzer winning novel, at the end of a journey of Dickensian proportions. Suddenly in a place of relative calm, Theo is pining for the person who survived an explosion with him, instead of the safe comfort of his well-to-do wife. The grass is greener on the other side, though Theo seems to be of the opinion here that he should “love the one he’s with.” And yet the gnawing feeling, the desire, ushers him likely to his own destruction.

We read novels because we are of the opinion that our complexities as human beings are worth taking seriously. Adam was not tempted by Eve to eat the fruit, but rather has decided to go down with her together. What is paradise without your companion at your side? And Eve would reside elsewhere, while you find yourself embedded in Eden, a place so damp with overgrowth that to be alone in it is to be lost in another sense altogether.

Was the ghost of Hamlet’s father a verifiable phenomenon? Or was it the collective delusion of the old guard, ill-suited to Claudius’s usurpation?

In few of these great works of literature do we debate the foundations of character or personality. In few of these hundreds of years do we think that these great works, rather than provide a deep insight on the notions of free will, or individual dignity, instead turn out to be distractions to a horrifying truth.

That there is no “there” there.

There is also an epigraph at the beginning of The Goldfinch by Camus:

“The absurd does not liberate. It binds.”

The Ego Tunnel

I have recently started reading Thomas Metzinger’s book. After finishing the introduction, I am very excited.

He uses the phantom arm experiment as a jumping off point, which I have seen used before in other similar books like Hoffman’s The Case Against Reality. Imagine sitting in a chair in front of a table. Where your arm normally sits at rest underneath the table, now picture a rubber arm above the table, heading in the same direction.

A person takes an object like a spoon or chopstick, and begins to stroke up and down the rubber arm. Almost imperceptibly, after 30 to 60 seconds, your arm underneath begins to feel the stroking sensation! Without any touch at all, you still feel the sensations as if by osmosis. The rubber arm almost sends the sensation to you telepathically.

But we know that not to be the case.

So what’s going on here?

Metzinger’s theory of the “Ego Tunnel” is similar to Hoffman’s “Interface Theory of Perception” (and both are in debt to Kant), which is that our sense of self is not so much interested in seeing reality as it appears. There would be far too much information, and thinking is already hard enough on the body. Instead, all the body has to do is provide an operating system to help the genes in our body survive and carry on to the next generation. We are trained for fitness, not accuracy. And sometimes that system can be hijacked.

This provides plenty of great tricks. Sex is something that (hopefully) feels great and we want to keep on doing. Food tastes wonderful, and fattier foods taste even better. Our eyes respond to novelty and color, so that we can forage our way to a better living.

But in the 21st century, our systems play havoc in our high tech world.

Pornography can rob us, sometimes, of meaningful human connection. If left unchecked, obesity becomes a national epidemic, and our desires to forage leave us victim to the attention obliterating techniques of digital technology.

Far beyond this is the threat that our fitness has on scientific discovery. From simple aspects of light to the most complex of quantum theory, it’s becoming more clear just how unintuitive science is at the micro and macro levels. From atoms to the universe, we have had a hard time learning about the space we inhabit because of…well…because of us.

For a long time, the goal of fiction was to be the rubber arm. By stroking our empathy sensations, we could feel the experience of Russian farmers in Tolstoy’s novels, despite the fact that hundreds of years have passed.

Perhaps the goal of fiction now resides in understanding how consciousness, how our ideas of what a self is, pulls the wool over our eyes, and blinds us to the truth.

There may not be a self.

What Happens Now?

I think the minute I began to take meditation seriously, I had significant doubts about whether I had a self. Free will was already over. I could not for the life of me control my thoughts for longer than ten seconds. And the thoughts that did arrive? They were so disorderly and full of nonsense that I was not able to conclude that I liked myself.

I am very excited to dive into Metzinger’s book. Because while I have the feeling that I lack a self, it has been difficult articulating into words what that means. Much more than that, if I were to take the leap into that taboo space, and I were to renounce my belief, what would the implications be? How exactly would I carry myself in my marriage, with my friends? Does this say something dramatic about my experience in society?

As the lyrics to the musical Company put it, “everything’s different, nothing’s changed. Only, slowly, slightly rearranged.”

Or perhaps there is something far more profound waiting for me at the end of the ego tunnel, if I would just have the courage to let go.

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