In what sense is the self an illusion?
For me, an illusion is a subjective experience that is not what it seems. Illusions are experiences in the mind, but they are not out there in nature. Rather, they are events generated by the brain. Most of us have an experience of a self. I certainly have one, and I do not doubt that others do as well – an autonomous individual with a coherent identity and sense of free will. But that experience is an illusion – it does not exist independently of the person having the experience, and it is certainly not what it seems. That’s not to say that the illusion is pointless. Experiencing a self illusion may have tangible functional benefits in the way we think and act, but that does not mean that it exists as an entity.
If the self is not what it seems, then what is it?
For most of us, the sense of our self is as an integrated individual inhabiting a body. I think it is helpful to distinguish between the two ways of thinking about the self that William James talked about. There is conscious awareness of the present moment that he called the “I,” but there is also a self that reflects upon who we are in terms of our history, our current activities and our future plans. James called this aspect of the self, “me” which most of us would recognize as our personal identity—who we think we are. However, I think that both the “I” and the “me” are actually ever-changing narratives generated by our brain to provide a coherent framework to organize the output of all the factors that contribute to our thoughts and behaviors.
I think it helps to compare the experience of self to subjective contours – illusions such as theKanizsa pattern where you see an invisible shape that is really defined entirely by the surrounding context. People understand that it is a trick of the mind but what they may not appreciate is that the brain is actually generating the neural activation as if the illusory shape was really there. In other words, the brain is hallucinating the experience. There are now many studies revealing that illusions generate brain activity as if they existed. They are not real but the brain treats them as if they were.
Now that line of reasoning could be applied to all perception except that not all perception is an illusion. There are real shapes out there in the world and other physical regularities that generate reliable states in the minds of others. The reason that the status of reality cannot be applied to the self, is that it does not exist independently of my brain alone that is having the experience. It may appear to have a consistency of regularity and stability that makes it seem real, but those properties alone do not make it so.
Similar ideas about the self can be found in Buddhism and the writings of Hume and Spinoza. The difference is that there is now good psychological and physiological evidence to support these ideas that I cover in the book in a way that I hope is accessible for the general reader.
Read more in the hyperlink. It’s pretty fascinating stuff, though I’m not sure if humans could ever remain conscious of it during their day-to-day lives.