Who Am I and What Are We? The Latest Lessons of Neuroscience

Like many people, for most of my life I’ve equated who I am with what goes on between my ears. Then I began reading the work of Eckhart Tolle and others and became aware that much of what passes for thought is counterproductive and automatic, and frequently negative.

As I’ve tried to “make sense” of my experience I’ve come to realize more and more that “who” I have assumed was “me” was really the result of a jumble of thoughts, emotions, sensations and experiences that are always changing—so who am I?

In fact, Eckhart Tolle suggests using this phrase as a mantra during meditation to attempt to locate the one indivisible “I” inside oneself that one believes that one is—to discover literally that there is no one or nothing there. It can be a hard notion to get one’s head around—because one’s head doesn’t want to believe it.

Again, many people identify themselves with their minds or the activity of their brain, so I’ve become very interested in the science behind what we often call consciousness.

With my own background in philosophy, and specifically phenomenology, I received a first jolt in college from a different perspective—that being is prior to identity—the converse of Descartes “I think therefore I am”—which Eckhart Tolle also disputes as putting the cart before the horse.

Not surprisingly the very branch of philosophy that fascinated me runs counter to conventional science, and my teacher was denied tenure for running afoul the norm in academia – logical positivism. This philosophy only discusses what it can know for certain – I said, “good luck with that.”

So it was with great interest that I recently watched another video on YouTube by a noted philosopher:  Julian Baggin – Is there a Real You?

In this piece he makes many of the points Tolle makes in his books; namely that it is our mind that imposes its structure on a world that has no such definitions. Interestingly he uses PowerPoint slides to evoke a sense that the concepts we impose on the world through language is not part of the natural world at all, but exist only between our ears.

His example is a schematic of a simple water molecule with two circles to represent H (hydrogen) and one for O (oxygen) and the word “Water” superimposed on their connected state.

Removing the word “water” still leaves the molecule and its reality unchanged, and obviously our description of water is not a part of its true nature at all—it exists only within us.

Eckhart Tolle makes the same point with respect to “clock time”—which is useful for making appointments but does not exist in the world. He says that for a bird, for example, the time is always “Now.”

Similarly there are no borders within any continental land mass—humans have superimposed their grid on nature to carve up property that, for example, a Martian may not respect (nor a Native American, for that matter).

Baggin goes on to state that the notion of one’s identity – the “I” that one is – is similarly imposed on a collection of organs and cells that innately are not truly a “person” or even a “human being”—both human definitions. He traces this notion to ancient belief systems like Buddhism and Hinduism, and perhaps even earlier.

Then in neuroscience, it turns out that this apparent function of sense making, which results in one’s seeing oneself as a “Self”, is the result of a critical mass of complexity in neural network creation that results from an incredible confluence of electrical signals that work in harmony.

In his book Self Comes to Mind, Antonio Damasio states that this miraculous harmonious functioning which results in a sense of self emerges for evolutionary reasons—for the same reason that a microbe will gravitate toward nourishment and away from toxins—for “homeostasis” or basically to maintain its being—it is programmed to survive.

On the human level, with the development of advanced brains, this is merely far more complex, but Damasio asserts that the concept of a Self is merely the result of when this newly evolved brain bonded with the organic systems from the previous eons, forming one new complete extremely complex system = the Mind/Body or what we call “human.”

He adds that out of this emerged the “Autobiographical Self” as conductor of a symphony who does not exist until the orchestra begins to play [harmoniously]. And this is the result of the underlying nature of life itself – he says, “Managing and safekeeping life is the fundamental premise of biological value.” (page 25)

“Consciousness came into being because of biological value, as contributor to more effective value management. [natural selection] But consciousness did not invent biological value or the process of valuation. Eventually, in human minds, consciousness revealed biological value and allowed the development of new ways and means of managing it.” (page 28)

In other words, what we deem intelligence and more significantly who we are is the result of a far higher intelligence that preceded the development of our own brains to notice our “selves” and begin to comprehend nature itself, all for our continued survival.

So who are “we” individually? Basically we’re a collection of stories that come together out of experiences formed electrically through the firing of neural networks and stored in the soft tissue of the brain’s “hard drives” or what we call memory.

According to neuroscientists like Damasio, the Self “emerges” from a level of cognitive complexity that yields consciousness – similar to the critical mass attained in a computer network – such as the Internet.

Having now experienced the reality of how inanimate systems (like the Internet) can mimic our own inner mental functioning and even defeat us at Jeopardy, can we now open up to the possibility that our own fascination with our own “uniqueness” as sentient beings is a fantasy?

Just as our egocentric cosmology of the earth being the center of the universe has now given way to the reality that we exist on the periphery of an average galaxy literally in the middle of nowhere, so too maybe we need to come to terms with the fact that what we deem to be us, and what we think is “conscious”, is a mere tip of an enormous iceberg of sensory capacity of which we are just barely aware.

Bear in mind that “primitive” cultures have known this for years. Our science scoffs at their sense of the sacred and worship of the sun, moon, stars, seasons, rain, and other natural forces as intelligences beyond their control and complete comprehension.

And where has our narrow focus led us with our non-sacred science? To the edge of an abyss of extinction –first for the other naturally created creatures we exterminate daily and ultimately for our “selves” – those same magical beings that apparently exist only in our own minds.

As George Carlin once said when commenting on the notion of “Saving the Planet “– “don’t worry, the planet will do just fine. It will be here long after we’re gone.”

Can we say the same for “human kind” – or the selves we think we are—an intelligent creature at the apex of evolution and in control of our destiny and environment.

It may be high time we woke up to the reality of our own delusion.

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