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Is There Really A Self? (& 10 PM Explorations of Being)

What if, as Plato said in his allegory of the cave, we only see shadows of reality, and that is because of the frailty that is our humanity?

“Connecting Time”, an exhibition by Daniel Arsham. Taken at the MOCO Museum in Amsterdam, October 2019

A few years back, right after I graduated from college, I had to be confined because of depression.

In the facility, our days were regimented. We (the other patients and I) woke up at 6 in the morning, stretched for a bit, ate breakfast, did a morning activity that lasted for an hour or so, had lunch, then took a break. We had another activity in the afternoon, and then a quick snack, then a break before dinner. At 9 pm, they would turn off the lights.

During that period of confinement, I got to meet another patient, who was reading a book on Buddhism, which I ended up reading because I was bored with the routines. I remember being engrossed with the part about anattā, which is the Buddhist concept of non-self.

I could only vaguely remember fragments of the chapter, but basically it asked: if the writer cuts his leg, does a part of himself disappear? If he cuts his finger, does he remain the same? The hand? The arm? Where does the “self” reside?

It was a curious thought exercise, comprehending where this “self” truly is. When I was in college I used to say, I wasn’t a “man of many“. By that I meant, I would try to live, to the extent of what is possible, by my own terms, without the influence of others.

I was young and I was stupid then for believing that it was possible, as if identities existed in a vacuum. What was I anyway, if not the product of natural selection and cultural evolution? The desire to be free from one’s history and the influence of prevailing cultures is virtually impossible.

The Good Place“, a series which I was avidly following that ended recently, wonderfully explored this and other philosophical ideas. If you haven’t seen it yet (spoiler alert!), the show presented a concept of the heaven (somewhat alike to the Christian myth) which they called “The Good Place”. The entry to this place was gained through merits earned during one’s earthly life.

The four seasons were a discussion on how moral purity was a flawed prerequisite to an eternity of happiness. It also interestingly wove into its story how each of the characters became better people through their interactions with one another, which busts the essentialist idea of people’s goodness or evilness. We are all works in progress, it argued.

I take that concept as this: there is no fixed Self, but permutations brought about by reactions and interactions.

It’s fascinating as well that the latest book I’ve read, Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Deus“, had posited the possibility that organisms (like people) are merely algorithms, and now that we’re seeing how intelligence is decoupling from consciousness (as shown by the rise of supercomputers that are able to process data without being conscious like us), our hemming and hawing about the Self is but a pointless thought exercise over an illusion that we’ve entertained for thousands of years.

It terrifies me to think that. But at the same time, maybe it is true. What if, as the book said, we are but biological data processing machines–and consciousness (with all the emotions and prejudices that come along with being human) an evolutionary wall that prevents us from seeing the true nature of things? What if, as Plato said in his allegory of the cave, we only see shadows of reality, and that is because of the frailty that is our humanity?

I’m excited and at the same time afraid of what the future holds for us. I still think the only thing that has objective value is life, but I am now unsure if this life has to be merely confined within our biological definition of it. We’ve seen how other beings experience the world in a unique but equal way to us (the reason why I’m vegan, but that’s another blog post altogether.) What I’m keen to find out is if my exploration of the concept of Self, and if the primacy of biological life, will be rendered moot as we alter our own selves to the point where it’s no longer recognizable as the human form we currently have.

By Evan Tan

Evan Tan is a writer & communications professional based in Manila, Philippines. www.writerinmanila.com

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