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The Nature of the Self: Experimental Philosopher Joshua Knobe on How We Know Who We Are | Brain Pickings

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Imagine what things are going to be like in 30 years. In 30 years, there’s going to be a person around who you might normally think of as you — but that person is actually going to be really, really different from you in a lot of ways. Chances are, a lot of the values you have, a lot of the emotions, a lot of the beliefs, a lot of the goals are not going to be shared by that person. So, in some sense you might think that person is you, but is that person really you? That person is like you in certain respects, but … you might think that person is kind of not me anymore.

So the question is, what is your essence? What is essentially you?

"We are the stories we tell ourselves."

What is essentially you when you strip away the stories? A spirit?

Isn't the spirit another story?

I was thinking it's the part of you left after you've lost your body and your memories.

The essential you.

So my essence must be absent my awareness of it.

Which would make sense. It has no way to separate itself while it has a mind and body; they are interconnected. 

According to Yoga the aatma (spirit) is hidden under the veils of ignorance, like e.g. that the mind & body constitute the Self. The awareness comes from a deeper understanding than from just the brain/mind complex. To say that the essence is unaware of itself is a contradiction in terms. The Self is fully aware, and Self-realization is what we aim for. 

If you are looking to get a better handle on all this, it is best not to use reductionist atomistic physics explanations - look instead to quantum physics, e.g. entanglement, non-local, spooky action, etc. The model which the Hindus have always had is called Indra's Net - where we are all independent jewels on this infinite web, each jewel reflecting all other jewels (and thereby recursively).

In this context, the Self is fully aware that it is not just a disconnected individual, but deeply interconnected to the rest of the Universe. And this is what gives it the awareness of its true nature. If we are all aware that we are truly inter-connected this would set right so many of the situations we face today.

So... The part of us that exists but is not part of the mind or body, is the universe itself? Wow!

Correct. When we talk of the Aatman (or the spirit/soul), the individuated one is the Jeev-aatma (living soul) and the universal one is the Param-atma (highest-soul). Note possible Sanskrit/Greek cognates for Jeeva (rejuvenate?) and Param (paramount?). Note also the Aatman/Atom cognates meaning imperishable/indestructable.

The basic level of illusion we suffer from is at the level of elementary physics - we think we are all matter, whereas we are in fact mostly space/energy-bodies. The deeper level of illusion is to think that we are atomized individuals each in our little containers, whereas we are in fact deeply inter-connected, which is in the realm of quantum physics.

It is not that the material world is unreal, or that we have no independent charter through life. Those are also real, but a very, very small part of the whole reality. 

Self-realization is when we realize this. This is experimental psychology at its finest. In fact, Aurobindo, a Rishi by all standards, made this statement that "Yoga is nothing but practical psychology". Check out for a consolidation of works, and research based on this.

I do love the statement that "Yoga is nothing but practical psychology."

Thank you for the notes, Srini; I will return to this page again in the future.

Very interesting.  Spirit=essence.  Makes sense.  So, during life it's about writing the life story?  When we move on we don't remember the plot line - only the theme and the theme from before and before?  Is our essence the summation of our life stories rolled up into a set of theme's?  And, as said above, our lifetime the stories we tell ourselves?  During life maybe we should not only remember our stories but also our life theme.  Maybe it would help us along....

This is exactly what Indians mean by a Rishi - a yogi who writes their own life story. They invite avatars (other aatma's) to take birth and play certain roles to educate humanity on timeless truths. To become a Rishi the yogi needs to be aware at the time of exit so that they make a conscious re-entry knowing the previous life's lessons - then you get to be the script writer in this new life!

Thank you.  What do you mean by, "the yogi needs to be aware at the time of exit"?  Is this the only way a person can know their lessons from previous lives?

According to quantum physics we are winking in & out of existence at all times, so in fact we are dying and being reborn every moment. To become aware of this we withdraw our senses inwards in a process called Pratyahara, i.e. we 'die' to our external reality. And then we observe our stream of thoughts (Dharana), then we focus on one object (Dhyana), then we merge with it (Samadhi). Generally this is lumped into what we call Meditation. In Samadhi we are become totally aware of whatever is the object, or even the subject (self) of our absorption. 

When we practice this throughout our daily life, and we do the final exit we are now prepared to make the right choices of where the Aatman should re-enter. Without experiencing the process of continuous death/birth in our daily lives, the final exit becomes extremely confusing as we are unbounded by Time & Space and it is such a huge rush of possibilities that we can re-enter. As a result we start up with a muddled state all over again, conditioned to repeat the same old mistakes. Unless of course we take up yoga :-)

In fact, we are Rishi's even now as we speak. Lack of coherence in our attention leads to a very diffused state of manifestation so we don't realize that we are masters of our universe at this moment. When we single-pointedly focus on a grand narrative, using the techniques of Yoga, then the intended story of our life can then manifest in this lifetime itself. Soon. In a matter of months even.

And this whole idea that Experimental Philosophy is barely 10 years old according to Joshua Knobe is incredibly disingenuous. The whole field of embodied knowing has been deeply studied and realized in India for thousands of years. Unfortunately, there seems to be a driving need among western social scientists to digest eastern techniques without acknowledgement of its sources. Read for more on this.

Srini, thank you for setting the record straight on this.

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