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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Living Religion II: The Self

In my last Living Religion post, I discussed belief, and offered that the only defense for having beliefs, however weak, was as a comfort for the believer:
...[beliefs] are perhaps a comfort, a reassurance that one is not pitched into the sea of chaos without at least a hand on the tiller handle, and an eye on the North Star....

And so, I discuss the "believer" here, or more properly, the "self." It is important to understand this fundamental fiction in order to blow wide open the fallacies which get us into this predicament whereas "comfort" is sought.

Really, what is the self? It is important that you, the reader, think along with me and not merely read these words. Ask your"self", as it were, what does the self mean to you? Where precisely is it located, for example? While we first jump to exclaim the "obvious" fact that it is "contained" within at least the bounds of our skin, to me the first serious attempt seems to locate it front an center in the head, about two inches behind the eyes. Is this common? Is it so for you?

Again, it is important for you to do this mental exercise along with me. Right now. Because the next point I would like to stress is that we now are creating an image of the self, an image that really has no relationship to the actual mystery of this self thing. And this is where most thinking stops (as we are all not very serious philosophers) - there is no effort to probe this more deeply, if only because acknowledging that we have only an "idea" of the self brings us a little too uncomfortably close to the fact that we have no direct knowledge of the self. We then can (if we are at least marginally honest) defensively acknowledge that, OK, it is just an idea but, as Descartes famously said, "Cogito, ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am" or, in his original French, "Je pense, donc je suis"). That seems to have put the matter at rest for most classic Western philosophers.

But we are hungry for a bit more, aren't we, reader? So let's move further, and we may assure ourselves that while we may get seemingly radical here, we may also note that I am not stitching together something that is particularly original. Other thinkers whom I admire have done the heavy lifting well ahead of me, and I am merely an acolyte of sorts. I will say, however, that following the meditations of these individuals is not as pat an exercise as settling the matter with a pithy "Cogito, ergo sum." I repeat, you have to think along.

We have established thus far that what we "know" directly about the self is merely an idea of it (if not, we have read too quickly and should go back two paragraphs and steep ourselves in that proposition.)

(Aside: I feel inclined to do a little preemptive work regarding those who wish to argue with the above. First, if one feels that they have an argument with this, I submit that it is because one has a competing idea which is just as ethereal as the "idea of self" which is proposed here. I therefore dismiss it out of hand and am not interested into getting into the weeds of another's dogma issues. Second, if anyone even tries to bring up the sophomoric point that I am refuting my own arguments since I am talking about "ourselves" refuting the fact of the "self", well, it will be all I can do not to burst into tears of frustration. Let's move past that pedantic canard, shall we?)

Now, what if this "idea" of the self is actually all there is to it? Read that carefully. Yes, I am flat out saying that there actually is nothing behind it. I am saying that the self is a construct of thought, and nothing more. Nothing, nada, zip.

Now if you accept that this is true - and it is a fact! - we may proceed. If not, then I invite you to return to more important matters, and leave us crazy people to our silly discussion.

To return to the "comfort" argument which marginally justifies "belief," I ask - who then, is comforted after all? And is this truly necessary, once the "self" as a fact vanishes under our careful scrutiny? What is it that is afraid, what is it that requires protection and security? Well - again - nothing, actually. As a starting point for the readers' own continuing investigation into this matter (as it is important for one to see this for oneself, and not just use the "ideas" I have introduced here as some sort of building block for another precious dogma which I may or may not hold) I will, here, offer only this little bit of knowledge - that thought is a quite aware of its ethereal non-reality and is by nature fundamentally insecure and, as we habitually mistake "thought" for the self, we reflexively identify with this insecurity, and thus begins the subsequent thrashing about for "security." And security, just like the self, is merely an idea and is just as unattainable.

I hope to successfully tie these observations to my "Living Religion" series in coming posts, where I will discuss Good, sacred urgency, practical religious living, and the immediate ecstacy available to the daring philosopher. Among other things.

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