Recently, I was scrolling through old pictures and I found a picture from when I was a little kid. I took the picture and held it up to my face in front of a mirror and I realized... wow, I look nothing like that kid in that picture.
We don’t have the same physical properties. Our thoughts, ideas, and beliefs are different. And we certainly don’t have the same memories. But still, I know it’s me. My brain sees the picture and creates a storyline that I was there, I am here, and I will be somewhere else in the future, looking back doing the same exact thing.
This is the idea of self. The idea that there’s something deep within us that remains fundamentally the same even when everything else changes.
It’s the idea that we can grow bigger, create new memories, lose old memories, change our thoughts and beliefs, but deep down there’s still something that fundamentally remains unchanged.
The idea of self is one that has baffled pretty much everyone, scientists and philosophers alike, for centuries. Because as easy as it is to describe, understanding why or how it works sits on the opposite end of the spectrum.
As humans, we experience a lot of different senses. We feel things, we see things, and we hear things. We have thoughts, we have feelings, and we have the ability to learn new things. But all of these things are separate experiences.
So, at one point, do they come together to form a coherent consistent being? At what point do all of these sentient properties become - you?
As I continued scrolling through the photos, I came across pictures from elementary, middle school, high school, and everything after. All of these photos looked completely different. When I think back to those times and the decisions I made, I would never make most of them right now. Yet, without a shadow of a doubt, my brain convinces me that I am still that me.
The words “I” and “Me” are more than just pronouns. They are the two ways we describe self. When we say “I”, we talk about a being who is consciously aware of the present moment. So, “I am reading this line on a script right now.”
On the other hand, when we describe self using the word “me”, we’re usually referring to a personal identity, who we think we are. Me usually reflects who we are through the lens of our past, present, and plans for the future. But we color our memories based on what we need to be in the present, and our plans for the future are always changing. How can there be a consistent being if everything that forms it changes?
We like to think of memories as simply playing back a video in our head of what happened in the past, but that’s not what memories are. Memories are our brain’s reconstruction of past experiences. We create these memories to fit the present narrative based on what we know now, how we describe “me” now, as well as our present needs and goals.
So if you now think of yourself as a kind person, you’re more likely to remember all the times you’ve been kind to people, rather than the times you’ve been unkind. We form narratives about ourselves around how we want to be seen by others. We convince ourselves that we’ll act and behave a certain way to fit that narrative, even when we are often mistaken.
If this is true and we can’t trust our memories to give an accurate description of who we were in the past, then how can we have a self that exists through time? Aren’t we just creating new “selves” every time this narrative completely changes? Think about it. It’s not that the narrative continues down a different path. It changes completely such that what was no longer is. And if what was can no longer be, then we cannot say there is a self that persists through time.
Rather, the idea of self is one that is constantly recreated by our brains when the need arises. This is what we refer to as the illusion of self.
Contrary to what you might be thinking, this does not mean that we don’t have a “self.” It simply means that it does not exist the way we think it does.
Our bodies are made up of a bundle of perceptions, sensations, and thoughts. Our brains try to make sense of the randomized nature of our being by creating a linear storyline. You were there. Now you’re here. It is this storyline of sorts that we describe as self.
It’s just the brain's way of making sense of the randomness that is human existence. This is why the idea of self that we have now cannot be true.
When most people think of a “self,” they think of something that can exist outside of the brain. But that’s just not possible. The “self” is a sensation of continuity and unity of self that is created by the brain. Without it, there is no self.
Anything other than this is just wishful thinking that humans are more than just a sentient bunch of molecules. The idea that deep down we have a soul. An immaterial essence, the driving force of individual existence.
And in most religions of the world, this is true. But not Buddhism.
Anatta is the Buddhist doctrine that teaches against the idea of a self. It teaches that there’s no underlying permanent substance. There’s no soul. Rather, everything we experience is simply perceived by our senses, not by I or Me.
It teaches that since there is no I, material wealth can’t belong to me. So we shouldn’t crave these things or hold onto them like they’re worth more than just a few good sensations.
Dropping all the other pictures I was flipping through, I picked up the picture from when I was a kid again. I held it up in front of my face and stared at the mirror again.
And as the existential crisis flooded my mind, I couldn’t help but ask.
If I wasn’t told that that was me, would I have known? If I had seen this picture randomly without any context, would I have been able to tell it was me? Definitely not. So then how can I say there’s a “self” that existed in that kid that still exists in me? How can I say our experiences are linear? That we’re the same person?
The truth is, you’re not the same person that existed before, and you’re not the same person that will exist in the future… or at least there’s no evidence to prove it.
This thought is both terrifying and exciting.
It’s terrifying because it is fundamentally against everything we know about ourselves. If there’s no self, then there’s no self will, and if there’s no self will, there’s no morality. There’s no right or wrong, good or evil, just a bunch of molecules interacting to the stimuli they are presented with.
But on the other hand, it’s exciting because it liberates you. Now you don’t have to think “it’s me against the world,” because there is no you to begin with. You’ll no longer think life is unfair because bad things happen to you. You’ll see “bad things happening to you” simply as things just happening. Whether it’s good or bad, it doesn’t really matter, does it?
You’ll no longer be scared of death. Because nothing can die that never was. You’ll understand that death is simply a natural occurrence.
The illusion of self is one of the most powerful and consistent illusions we experience. It’s there right from when we’re toddlers up until the day we die. If it isn’t real, why then do our brains create these storylines? Why does this illusion exist?
As living things, our goal is to survive and thrive. We learn, we adapt, we grow. And one of the most important building blocks of survival is competition. Without competition, we’ll all be satisfied with where we are and have no desire to strive for anything at all.
Without the illusion of self, there is no competition. Competition is built on the idea of a single entity outdoing another. If there is no single entity and just sentient chemical reactions, there will be no competition, and without competition, things just don’t really work the way they do now.
If you’re still not convinced that the need for competition alone is the reason our brains makeup the idea of a unified and persistent being in all of us, you’re not alone. Not everyone believes in the idea of a lack of self.
Some people who meditate can sometimes get to a state of complete quietness and emptiness. Described as a “pure consciousness event,” this is an empty state of consciousness.
There are no thoughts, no technical mental processes going, just a deep-seated sense of “I-ness.” An independent identity. Many people use this state as an argument for the existence of self.
But there are two things wrong with this school of thought. One, there is no scientific evidence to back it up. We cannot determine what is what simply by judging based on people’s personal experiences, unfortunately.
Two, the feeling of emptiness is a mental process. That in itself is your brain telling you that you’re free of thoughts. It’s still a brain activity.
Some people argue that if there is no self, then how can we trust the judgments of anyone? If a ghost came out today to tell us there are no ghosts, how do we believe them? For you to be able to pass judgment on consciousness, you need to be an objective observer. But being an objective observer means you need to have a self who observes all, like you’re a god or something, so that negates almost every argument you’re trying to defend.
But in truth, the illusion of self is not just a ghost telling us that there are no ghosts. It’s a figure that we call a ghost telling us that they can feel, touch, and smell. They can interact with living things, so they cannot be ghosts. It’s not just postulating the absence of a self. It’s showing the reality of its absence through scientific research.
We don’t need a self to tell us there is no self. We only need the evidence.
And the evidence is clear when I hold up the picture of when I was a kid to my face. It’s clear that everything has changed. I know that I am casually related to who that kid was, but there is no evidence to prove that there’s something in that kid that is still in me and has persisted through time.
At this point I was having an existential crisis, so I put down my own pictures and picked up pictures of my grandma. She’s much older now. She doesn’t really speak much, but she still talks. She still remembers what the world was like when she was younger.
But what about people her age who suffer from advanced Alzheimer’s? People who can’t recognize their own loved ones, who can’t remember anything from their past. Do they still have a self?
When does a person stop being a self? If you no longer have any memories of the past or plans for the future, what then is self? What does the word “me” refer to? If the very components that make the self can easily be altered or wiped away completely, then the idea of a persistent existence through time is not possible.
Only when we disregard the idea of self can we begin to understand why people seem to go completely off script. We often judge people by the idea of them we have created in our head. When in reality, we are all just a bunch of competing impulses and urges, swaying us one way and then the other.
The idea that there is no self that exists through time explains why we sometimes act in ways that are inconsistent with the story we tell both to ourselves and to others.
The truth is, the illusion of self is simply a collection of our memories of the past, desires in the present, and plans for the future. It’s our psychological profile. It’s not a supernatural entity that exists independently. It does not transcend death. It does not exist through time.
We were not and we won’t be. We simply are.
- EE, MM