I’ve never believed that “The Self” is a fixed, concrete attribute of a person – rather that it’s a fluid, ever changing construct, created in order to facilitate social interaction and bonding.
We act in one way in certain company and social situations, differently in others. While there are those that believe that beneath these personas, is some innate, unchangeable “True Self” this is not something to which I’ve ever subscribed.
Up until a few years ago however, I had never questioned the notion of the existence of “A Self”. I had always accepted the notion that I was myself, separate and distinct from all the other people and things our there in the universe.
I was me, the rest of the world was the rest of the world. Other people were very similar to me, but other people.
Animals were fairly similar in many ways, but also very separate different beings.
A tree was a tree, important to my survival, as it contributes to the conversion of CO2 to O2 in this world in which we share a place, but an entirely separate entity.
It was only upon reading “The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts, that I began to question this concept, so taken for granted in Western thought.
The traditional view of the self goes something like this:
I am me. I live in this world. So does a stray dog roaming an isolated town somewhere in Australia on the opposite side of the earth. I go about my business, make my decisions and live my life. The dog goes about its doggy business. Perhaps it is possible by some long and complex chain of events, one of us does something, which somehow affects the life of the other. Perhaps throughout our lives, it’s possible we consume, or integrate into our bodies, some of the same atoms. We are however, very separate, and defined entities, doing our own thing.
It seems fairly obvious, to categorise a dog on the other side of the planet, whom you have not, and probably never will, meet or interact with on any level, as entirely separate and independent from “you”.
At the opposite extreme, however, how do we define what exactly constitutes the self. Where do “you” end, and everything else begin?
The skin is the traditional boundary, for defining where we end and everything else begins.
In the west “We” generally think of “Ourselves” as skin bags full of flesh and bone, with a consciousness roughly located in the head region, which is responsible for the flesh bag’s actions. Sounds reasonable.
Is the part of the flesh bag knows as the foot part of the self? What happens if you cut off the foot? Now the self is what remains of the flesh bag, and the foot is just a dismembered piece of meat?
Is the blood circulating through your arteries and veins you? When you get cut and bleed, does it instantly cease being part of you as soon as it leaves the boundary of the skin? If you replace this blood with a transfusion, does this blood, formerly of someone else’s self, become part of yours?
Is a steak on your plate part of yourself? How about after you’ve chewed and digested it, and the proteins, fatty acids and minerals within have been assimilated into your tissues and bodily structures?
You have never seen the Ozzy Mutt, nor do you have any knowledge of what it does, nor can you have any influence over what it does. It is clearly other.
But have you ever seen your pancreas? Do you know what it is doing right now? Can you influence what it does or how it behaves?
Is it all in your head?
Well perhaps we are our brains? We are our thoughts, our beliefs, our emotions, which are created in the mushy bit of meat inside the skull? Work out a way to remove the brain, feed it nutrients and keep it alive, and this is our core self. This is where resides our personality, our agency, our “self”.
But perhaps not – many of our actions and behaviours have been shown to come not from the brain but from elsewhere. Perhaps further down the the spinal column, so let’s keep that attached.
The guts, also, have been identified as critical to dictating our behaviour. It is in the intestines where many hormones are produced which influence our moods, disposition and behaviour. So let’s keep the brain, the spinal chord and the digestive system. The rest of us is really just a vehicle to move these essential parts around, and enable us to interact with everything else which is other…
Again, however, more research has shown this to be incorrect. Posture has been shown to affect the way we act and think – simply holding a confident posture for a few seconds may make us feel and act differently than were we to cower in a submissive posture. Equally, while we smile when we are happy, if we force ourselves to smile, this can feed-backwards and improve our mood.
If a self exists, it certainly can’t be quarantined to one specific location within the meat-sack, but again we are back to this bag of flesh, separated from the rest of the universe by our skin.
We define ourselves as separate from the universe because we are free to move around within it – everything which is physically bonded to us, our head, limbs, internal organs etc, is us. That to which we are not physically bonded, is other.
But how about the microbes in our stomach? The microbiome is a pioneering field of research, which I find deeply fascinating. In addition to being essential for the digestion of our food, and proper functioning of our immune system, research has found that these microbes living in our guts (the number of which can outnumber the cells in our own body by 10:1), can also affect our mood and behaviour, affecting how we feel, what we want to eat, and how we react to stressful situations.
Perhaps our body isn’t a vehicle for our brains at all, but a fleshy combine harvester, collecting food for our single celled passengers?
But are these microbes just passengers, or are they us?
They are not physically joined to us, they can come and go, but without them we would be as dead as if we were to lose a kidney or our liver.
Our blood cells are not physically joined to us either. They circulate around with us, transporting nutrients from our lungs and intestines around the body, and taking away toxins to be expelled.
What if blood cells were conscious?
Would they realise that they were part of a human being? Would they understand that they were all working together as part of a larger system?
Or would they think, I am a blood cell, surrounded by other separate blood cells, along with white blood cells, lipoproteins and plasma, all of us living with these arterial walls of this weird and wonderful, but altogether separate from us, world?
Just how different is the human body, with its hard bones with liquid cores, covered in soft flesh, playing host to millions of free ranging cells and micro-organisms, different from the planet – a solid crust with molten core, covered in soft earth and plant matter, home to millions of free ranging multi-celled organisms?
Perhaps the difference is our agency? Whereas blood cells whiz around the body seemingly indiscriminately, pumped by the heart, with no choice over the path which they follow, or to which organs they are transported, human beings make decisions.
We choose where we go and what we do. We are the masters of our own fate. This is surely what sets us apart?
But just how much agency do we really have?
Many studies into decision making indicate that perhaps we don’t have as much conscious input into the decisions we make as we think we do.
Research into “confabulation” shows that in fact, at least in some instances, we make choices by instinct, then unconsciously fabricate an explanation for ourselves as to why we made that decision.
A trivial example, but when people in a shopping mall were asked to choose their favourite socks from a selection, then give their reasons, people came up with many different explanations – the material, the feel, the shade of colour. In fact, all the socks were the same, but 80% of people chose the same pair due to their position on the display, albeit totally unaware of what influenced their decision.
Experiments in “Priming” – that is the influencing of behaviour through the placement of signs, objects and the like also demonstrate that many of the decisions we make are in fact strongly influenced by factors well out of our conscious awareness.
Things such as the colour of the walls of a room, the furniture inside, the clothes we or others are wearing, all have huge influences on our ultimate decisions or actions, though rarely, if ever, feature in the narratives we tell ourselves to justify or explain said behaviour.
Do we really have any greater control or agency over what roles we occupy in society, than a blood cell does over which organs it transports oxygen to within the body?
Perhaps what we consider the self, would be better thought of as a point of consciousness.
Being focused in one area, and having limited scope, this point of consciousness is prone to making the error that it is a separate entity from the rest of the universe.
This error is then further compounded by the fact we consistently tell each other from birth, that we are separate, distinct, special individuals, thus further reinforcing the myth.
This is all that the self is, however, an error in perception, a myth constantly repeated and upheld due to an inability to recognise that we are just a point of consciousness in a much greater whole.
The next time you feel your pulse racing, remember those blood cells surging through your arteries, and wonder if they too are creating their own stories to explain their existence and journey through their space in reality.