Being a Brain

The last six hundred years has seen a succession of discoveries, great and small. At each stage of this process of discovery, we humans have been challenged to think and rethink about the nature of the world, the nature of the human self, and the interrelationship between these two. People either had to reconceptualize their worldview, or simply try to ignore the new facts about the world. Most then, and many still today, choose this later strategy.

There is a term, cognitive dissonance, which describes the process of confronting new information that radically challenges one’s existing views. We might call this period of discovery between the end of the Middle-ages and our current period “the epoch of cognitive dissonance.” But to the extent that humans have worked through their cognitive dissonance about what these discoveries have revealed, the reward has been to realize a more incredible universe, one affording greater possibilities, than had previously been  imagined. 

In previous articles here, I’ve discussed my effort to work through the cognitive dissonance that thinking about the enormity of geological time and vastness of astronomical space created in me. Here, I am writing about my struggle to come to grips with the findings of modern neuro-science, and what these findings tell us about the human self.

What neuroscience is telling us about the nature of the self is that virtually everything that Western culture has believed about it in the past is questionable. Most particularly, the dualism that was posited in various ways that the mind, and the self that supposedly ruled that mind, were of two separate realms. One corollary of this was that the mind could not be understood by natural science. Another, that since the mind was immaterial, it was not determined by material causality – the mind had a unique form of freedom.

I will not go into all the evidence that neuroscience has collected to demonstrate that all aspects of the mind are dependent on and determined by physical events happening in the nervous system. I suspect that most readers here are familiar with much of it. I will just mention one finding that I think is particularly telling. According to a Wikipedia article titled “Neuroscience of Free Will”:

One significant finding of modern studies is that a person’s brain seems to commit to certain decisions before the person becomes aware of having made them. Researchers have found a delay of about half a second or more. With contemporary brain scanning technology, scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether 12 subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice

It clearly seems that our consciousness, our self, is an effect caused by something outside of and other than consciousness; that the self is an effect whose cause is elsewhere.

When I was first confronted by these ideas of neuroscience, I felt them as a kind of attack. My inner world seemed so rich and so immaterial. How could “I” be just a kind of epiphenomenon of blobs of matter? But I couldn’t deny the evidence. 

I first started practicing meditation when I was 17 and had developed a regular meditation by the time I was 18. It was partly because of what I was experiencing in meditation that I found my inner world so rich and immaterial. But it was also meditation that helped me work through the cognitive dissonance that neuroscience had created for me. 

In my 20s, I often practiced a form of insight meditation where I would just observe the workings of my mind. My undergraduate degree was in anthropology, and I had studied the methodology of the cultural anthropologist. As I observed the workings of my mind, I tried to be like a good anthropologist and simply observe without judgment. 

One of the things that I quickly realized as I observed the workings of my mind was that the very activity that I was doing didn’t quite make sense. How could I be both the self that was observing and the self that was being observed? And yet I was. 

As I struggled with the cognitive dissonance caused by the findings of neuroscience, I realized that there was a connection between what neuroscience was saying and what I was experiencing through insight meditation. The self that I was observing, I had to surmise, was the product of my “subconscious,” and that the subconscious is really just different parts of my brain. 

But that left the question of what was the part of me that was observing this rising and falling. This observing part, I noted, was utterly passive. It could only observe by being quiet. It seemed to be awareness in its most essential form. Just what awareness is remains a mystery for neuroscience, but that it is a product of the brain, and not some free floating “ghost in the machine” is obvious.

I have been put under anesthesia a few times in my life. Anesthesia works on the brain, but it can shut off awareness in a moment. If awareness were independent of the brain, it would be free of the purely physical causality of the chemistry of anesthetics. The effectiveness of anesthesia is all the evidence I needed to convince me that awareness, this ghost in the machine, is really just a part of the machine – albeit a complex and mysterious part.

The Self as Otherness
Putting together the direct insights I gathered from meditation with the insights that neuroscientists were gaining through their research, I came to the following conclusion: “The self is all otherness.” 

As I have written previously, this statement has two parts; one, the self is. This is why the sense of self is the most direct and obvious of all our experiences. The second is that what this self is is otherness. The self does not create itself. The self is created elsewhere, and that elsewhere is clearly parts of the brain of which we are not conscious.

Above I give a different formulation of this same idea: “The self is an effect whose cause is elsewhere.” Again the self is, but it is utterly contingent on something other than the self. The self is caused. If this is true, and I think both the findings of neuroscience and the direct experience of insight meditation are strong evidence that it is, the notion of a free will, a will free from causality, is out the window. (This does not mean that we lack free will in any sense – I see no contradiction in the possibility that we are free because we are caused. That our freedom is in the totality of causality. But that is gist for another article altogether.)

This idea, however did not completely work out the cognitive dissonance all of these ideas and observations stirred up. It was another idea that came to me while meditating that did that. This is the very simple reality that “I am what I am.” That I am, in the end, is what is important to me. How it is that I am is really not important. Being is what it is regardless of how it is that such being exists. If my being were created out of the breath of God, hallelujah, if it is created by complex neurology, hallelujah; being is being either way. Sometimes ideas just confuse the issue. 

In many ways, though, I am still working out the full realization of what it means that my inner world is entirely the product of the brain. After all, if the self is an effect whose cause is the brain, the brain, too, is an effect whose cause is elsewhere – its cause is in the long history of evolution; but the evolution of life is also an effect whose cause is elsewhere – its cause lies in the rich variety of chemicals that comprised the earth. Yet chemistry also is a effect whose cause is elsewhere – its cause is the fundamental physics of the world; but the fundamental physics of the world must also be an effect whose cause is elsewhere – its cause lies in the great elsewhere – the mystery of ultimate origins.

Each of us IS. and what we are is an effect the cause of which includes the whole process of Nature’s unfolding and the great mystery that is prior to that unfolding.  Thou Art That.

* * * * *

In many ways the findings of neuroscience are one more way that modern science shows the falseness of much religious belief. 

Yet, at the same time, this finding about the true nature of the self provides a deep affirmation of a profound spiritual experience. This is the experience behind the Hindu idea of maya, that the self is an illusion. Also the experience behind the Buddhist idea of anatta, that there is no substantial reality to the self.

It is also the experience described by many Christian mystics and saints when they talk about turning one’s life entirely over to God. St. Catherine of Genoa articulates this as: “My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God Himself.”

While the religious usually interpret this experience of otherness in relation to their local idea of the divine, I am suggesting that behind that experience is the truth of the otherness of the self that is now demonstrated by science. Yet, it should be noted, it is only the spiritual traditions that have worked out how this revelation about the self can lead to wholeness and liberation.

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4 thoughts on “Being a Brain”

  1. Yes. It was several experiences of general anesthesia that impressed on me the essential physicality of self. Thanks for a well written essay that really frames out the “hard problem”, as Owen Flanagan puts it.

  2. Thanks for writing this deep reflection.
    Hmm…dealing with ultimate questions about Reality is so difficult. I’ve also been studying, seeking, questioning on these questions since about 1966. But back then, when I was studying Asian religions–and their claim that “I” my self doesn’t exist, i was also trying to figure out about whether or not to support the Vietnam War. I had started meditating, etc.

    When I got my draft notice, I visited a Hindu priest in Los Angeles, seeking his guidance. As a follower of MLK and Gandhi, I was shocked when he told me that I ought to go kill. I suppose he was, basically, referencing when Krishna told Arjuna that he ought to go to war and kill his relatives. After all, no selves really exist.
    And this came up again back in the 2000’s when an American Hindu leader claimed that it was really Reality that had caused 9-11, not humans.Etc.

    Then you responded to my comment several days ago on Gronbacher’s Christian Naturalism with this :Living things appear to value there own lives, and many humans certainly do value their lives. Is that not a form of inherent value?”

    How does all these statements square with the view that myself “I” and billions of others are illusions, that there are no selves?

    If my “self” that opposed the slaughter of the Vietnam War and now oppose rightwing American extremism, isn’t real, nor are the millions of Trumpites who exist here in California and Putin and the invading Russians are illusions, does that mean that ultimately its only Reality clashing repeatedly for millions of years with itself, because we “selves” are illusions?

    Why couldn’t it be that each of our human primate “selves” are real, but each of us “I”s are processes, not substances? It’s true that we are caused by the Cosmos, but it appears to be true to that each of us isn’t only caused, but that we–through our thinking and reflecting on moral questions–can also make creative choices?


    • In my article, I state very clearly that the self “is.” The isness of the self is the basis for the golden rule and why we should respect others. But while the self is real, it is also entirely contingent. It is an effect the cause of which is other than the self. So what I say is precisely that the self is real, but it is the effect of processes other than itself and not a self-existing substance. Humans make creative choices, but in a certain sense it is the whole process of being that makes those choices.

      • Thank you for correcting my misunderstanding! I apologize. Also, I agree that the self isn’t a “self-existing substance.”


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