“THE GREATEST OF ALL THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF 20TH-CENTURY SCIENCE has been the discovery of human ignorance.” Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell. “OUR IGNORANCE, OF COURSE, HAS ALWAYS BEEN WITH US, AND ALWAYS WILL BE. What is new is our awareness of it, our awakening to its fathomless dimensions, and it is this, more than anything else, that marks the coming of age of our species.” Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way.

Monday, March 10, 2014

'Self' Emerges

What does it mean to say "self" is an emergent phenomenon? Here's an explanatory excerpt from my novel "Orchard of My Eye":

“Neuroscientists tend to think of ‘self’ as an emergent phenomenon, like team spirit. Let’s say a group of guys get together to play soccer. They pool their talent and skills, enthusiasm and so forth—they interact—and team spirit emerges. Follow me?”


“So the experience of team spirit is real enough while it appears—it’s felt by all the team members and even by others—but team spirit has no vital essence that survives the breakup of the team. Team spirit has no ‘soul.’ As soon as the team disbands—poof!—the phenomenon, or process, called team spirit no longer exists.”


“Now, did team spirit go somewhere? North, South, East, West? Off to heaven?” he asked. “No. It just stopped arising. Another specimen of it will emerge whenever the necessary ingredients come together.”

“Two guys, a football game, and a six-pack of beer,” Aria said.

“In the same way, the self—the sense of ‘yourself’ as an independent entity—is an emergent process. The self emerges from the synergism of the senses, language, memories, and so forth. These simpler parts interact to give rise to a working sense of selfhood. But the self has no essence that exists independently of these senses and thoughts and all the little algorithms busy making something wonderfully complex out of simple parts.”

“What about the soul?”

“No such entity.”

“So you’re saying the self is just an illusion. This is Buddhism you’re throwing at me, Nat.”

“Actually, this is neuroscience I’m throwing at you. And no, I did not say the self is an illusion. Like ‘team spirit,’ it’s very real when it exists, even though it isn’t eternally real at all.”

“I’m not sure I follow you.”

“In other words, it’s real enough to say, ‘I feel angry,’ and ‘I am an American,’ and ‘I blew my driver’s test,’ and ‘I can’t stand licorice.’  It’s also correct to say, ‘do not exist aside from a temporary, emergent phenomenon. There is no abiding substance that is self.”

“Yep. Zen Buddhism. Thought so.”

“Not just Zen. Others have said the same thing. The Greek philosopher Epicurus said, ‘Death is nothing to us, because when we exist there is no death, and when there is death we do not exist.’”

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