Hume invites us to introspect...in discussing the proposition but over by people like Descartes — that the existence of the self was the most certain thing in the universe — he kind of said, For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, and try to find this self, all I ever stumble across is a particular feeling, a particular thought, a particular memory, and so forth.
The people who study how the sense of self emerges through the brain are pretty much in agreement that there is certainly no one spot in the brain where it all comes together and also the very nature of subjective experience is much more fragmented than we kind of tell the story of it afterwards.
We basically do a lot of work tidying up experience to create a coherent sense of self and narrative, and that in experimental conditions and if you examine people with certain brain pathologies and so forth, it's not difficult to show that actually things are much messier than that — much more like Hume said, One thing after another, diferent bits of the brain not knowing what the others are doing, lots of unconscious processes and so forth.
The question that emerges fromt this, really, is whether or not that means that the self is an illusion. Susan Blackmore is a psychologist who likes to use the illusion theme, and she gives a good justification of it. She says,
An illusion is something that is not what it seems to be, or is in some way misleading, intellectually or perceptually. So when I say the self is an illusion, that's what I'm saying. I think that is what the Buddha was saying — not that there's no such thing as a self, because in many contexts he would say there is, but that the self is not what it seems to be.
But I think when you go around saying "the self is an illusion," I don't think that's generally how people take it. People take it to mean that the self doesn't really exist in some way and I think that's nonsense...You don't discover that something doesn't exist by discovering that it's just a collection of parts, because everything is just a collection of parts.
Full audio recording of presentation including audience Q&A
- Secular Buddhist Podcast #94: Skepticism, Meditation, and Consciousness, featuring professor Susan Blackmore
- What Disappears at Enlightenment
- Appreciating Nothing, my Pecha Kucha talk on nothingness as a dynamic activity rather than a static absence