There is the experience of consciousness. On the surface, it carries with it the assumption of individual agency. This assumption assumes that there is a self which experiences consciousness and that this self has some degree of agency or free-will.
In my last post I examined the “internal” experience of consciousness which consists of various kinds of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. This examination revealed to me that although the assumptions of self and agency seem obvious they tend to break down under scrutiny.
Say I have a creative idea and act on it (e.g., I write a novel, song or paint a picture). I implicitly want to take credit for this idea even though I do not know the process by which that idea came into being. Nor do I know that I am responsible for this process even on a subconscious level. The implicitness of this desire to take credit stems from the fact that the idea seemed to originate inside my head. My head is a part of my body and seemingly encasing the physical space where consciousness exists (i.e., behind the eyes and between the ears). Concurrent with this assumption of credit is the assumption that there is a “me” who is capable of taking credit. The implicitness of this assumption seems to primarily stem from the fact that I have a body which occupies physical space and that I have memories which form a continuous timeline of my experience. So there is a conflict that exists between my inability to control my internal experience and the assumption that I should nevertheless take credit for it.
I have been exposed to the idea of “no self” for some time but I cannot say that I totally understand it or feel it. The fact that thoughts occur and I want to take credit for them without understanding the process of their creation begins to shed light on this illusive concept. Not only do I not understand the process of thought creation but I cannot predict or control my thought creation. If I don’t understand the process by which something is created, nor can I predict or control that thing, can I really take credit for it? The self is intimately connected to my thoughts and internal experience, none of which I control. As such, can I really claim there is a self?
But still, the feeling of a self seems very strong and real most of the time especially when I do not directly place my attention on it. Perhaps I could say that there is a self but that this self does not control it’s thoughts and internal experience. In this respect, the self is more of a vessel for this experience. But the self I feel myself to be is not the vessel it is the internal experience. And much like my internal experience, I don’t control most of the functions of my body. I can control my breathing to an extent, but I don’t consciously control my pancreas (for example). If there is a self, I cannot define it as that which I control. It is really what I experience. But saying my self is my experience is different than thinking of my self as an autonomous, sovereign being.
Alan Watts talks about the self being an illusion and that there are only experiences without the need for a self to be the the one who experiences the experiences. This is a difficult idea to understand because as I said it feels like I exist and act autonomously. I have memories that connect my experiences into a life. I have a body etc. etc. I guess the best I can do is say that my self is my experience. This includes both internal and external experience (i.e., the world). Alan Watts says as much. If I am my heart beating then I am also the sun shining.
I recently listened to the audio book version of “Free Will” by Sam Harris. His basic premise is that human beings generally exist with the assumption that they have free will. That is, they believe they are to some degree consciously choosing the actions they take in life. Harris argues this assumption is incoherent in that thoughts appear in the human conscience out of nowhere and therefore the humans experiencing these thoughts cannot take credit for them. Moreover, human experience is shaped by external forces that are out of one’s control. For example, humans have no control over the family, social class and geographic location they are born into. To a large degree, the events in life are also out of one’s control and all of these external forces shape the decisions we make as humans. Curiously, Harris is a staunch atheist. But the idea of no self and no free will tends to tilt me more in the theist camp. After all, something is going on. The experience exists even though my self does not. Something has to be the beneficiary of this experience of consciousness.
The idea of no self can be disappointing because it goes against the implicit assumptions regarding the experience of consciousness. But if there is no me, then who is getting disappointed by the fact that there is no me? This is indeed difficult to wrap one’s head around. Perhaps the idea of the self is the wrong way to go about it. I do not claim to know the right way to go about it. Let us say for now, (1) there is consciousness, both internal and external, (2) there is experience of consciousness and (3) there is existence. Perhaps this is the implication of the statement “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). There is simply pure “am-ness” and maybe it is only God that has a self and can create thought. I will explore this in the next blog post.