We are all quite certain that we have a self. When you say “I like chocolate” or “I vote progressive,” no one asks what you mean by “I.” That task was left for centuries to philosophers and theologians. “Know thyself” is an axiom worth heeding, but what is there to know? If one camp of modern science has its way, the answer is “nothing.” The self, we are told, is an illusion created by the complexity of brain functions. As thousands of inputs bombard each other every second, forming an almost infinite tangle of neural messages, a ghost was created whose name is “I.”
Thus in one stroke the problem that has intrigued humanity’s greatest minds ‘ “Who am I?” – is reduced to a mirage or fairy tale. The search for the self has proved fruitless when brain scans are consulted. There is no known location for “I” in the brain, and this lack leads one of two ways: either the self is pervasive or it doesn’t exist. Claiming that “I” is an illusion would seem like a cheap way to shrug off a very difficult problem. Yet there is some backing for this position in the Buddhist concept of “emptiness,” which holds that all transitory events, including all of our personal experience, are fabricated by the ego-personality. If we give up our cherished clinging to “I, me, and mine,” freedom lies in the realization that there is no fixed self, no fixed mind, not even such a thing as consciousness.
Yet when they combine their efforts, Buddhism and neuroscience can’t convince the ordinary person that “I” is a ghost, and there’s another tradition that considers the self the richest part of who we are, the source of unlimited potential for creativity, intelligence, and evolution. In short, there’s a contest between the higher self and no self. Until a small band of scientific skeptics and atheists stepped forward, waving the banner of absolute materialism, the no-self camp was decidedly in the minority. But materialists see an advantage in denying that “I” exists. For them it isn’t an exotic minority position with little bearing on daily life. No-self falls in with a larger notion that consciousness is just a byproduct of chemical reactions in the brain.
How did chemicals learn to think? Why is the sugar that feeds brain cells capable of writing Shakespeare while the sugar cubes in a coffee bar are not? Materialists have no answer. They assume, with religious conviction, that chemicals learned to think somewhere in the long evolution of the human brain. This is really a form of animism, like worshiping the spirit in a rock or tree. It seems like a nice trick to go a step farther and call consciousness an illusion, since that strips all metaphysics and spirituality of any validity. But no one has remotely come close to explaining how chemicals create the illusion of thought, which is not very different from “real” thought.
I think the higher self position is the valid one, but it’s not monolithic. There are unambiguous claims among devout Christians that everyone has a soul that will be redeemed by God; this is the higher self as a person’s true core, the part made by God. But in the Indian tradition, there is room for ambiguity. The Buddhist position that the ego-personality is the cause of suffering is echoed in Vedanta by the doctrine of Maya, which holds that “I” is trapped in an illusion of its own making, the illusion that the material world is the ultimate reality and that we are defined by all kinds of external things: money, status, possessions, job, family ties. These props keep the everyday “I” going, but they are actually like waves in the ocean. A wave looks separate and individual when in reality it is nothing but an event in the ocean; its true nature is nothing but ocean.
This search to find our true nature raises the mystery of “I” above arcane arguments among philosophers and neuroscientists. Matters of suffering are at stake, not to mention psychological disorders, relationships, crime, and anything else where the self either goes wrong or behaves in inexplicable ways. If we are machines that harbor the delusion of personal dignity, why not sweep away “I” and treat criminals, the depressed, and anyone else with a problem by injecting different, better chemicals into their brains? That goal has become standard practice in medicine, yet more and more we are witnessing the dire effects of re-engineering the brain chemically. The alternate is to find out who this “I” really is, because that knowledge, which seems pretty important to begin with, leads to a redefinition of what crime, suffering, mental disorders, and relationship problems actually mean. It’s the most fascinating mystery anyone can face, standing at the very start of the spiritual quest.