The persistence of the self

As usual I have been reading about Eastern and Western philosophy and psychology. I am reading right now John Welwood’s “Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation.” One of the central concepts in Western psychology is the ego, and it’s treatment in Buddhism is completely at odds with our current thinking.

Psychoanalysts often speak of two domains of the ego: the functional – its capacity to organize and manage both internal functioning … as well as external functioning in the world – and the self-presentational – its capacity to synthesize a consistent self -concept out of various images of itself…. In everyday life, we are familiar with a part of us that is geared toward worldly functioning. And we have a consistent sense of I-ness. Yet if we look more closely we find that the familiar I consists mostly of thoughts or images… Our experience of ourselves is not fresh, immediate or direct, but is filtered through concepts or images of who we are.

This past week I read Against Naive Uploadism: Memory, Consciousness and Synaptic Homeostasis, by Seth Weisberg in h+ online magazine. Weisberg’s thesis is simply that the computer is not a good model for the mind and uploading in a computer-like substrate may take much more compute power than we currently think. My problem with the Singularity’s concept of transcendence within our own bodies, minds and selves is different.

The immortality projects of singularity science bring with it a serious question of what it will be to continue to exist as a self.

There have of course been various immortality projects of the ages – from the Biblical myth and allegory of the Tree of Life:

Then the Lord God said, “Look, the human beings have become like us, knowing both good and evil. What if they reach out, take fruit from the tree of life, and eat it? Then they will live forever!” So the Lord God banished them from the Garden of Eden, and he sent Adam out to cultivate the ground from which he had been made. After sending them out, the Lord God stationed mighty cherubim to the east of the Garden of Eden. And he placed a flaming sword that flashed back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

Genesis 3:22-24, New Living Translation

This often strikes post-modern readers as a affront to the freedom, rights and dignity of humans. An act of a jealous and capricious God. Many singularity proponents are atheistic, scientific, perhaps even a bit Prometheus-like in assailing the prerogatives of God. But perhaps we should read the allegory as a warning: the immortality project must deal with non-material forces (cherubim) which have life threatening power (flaming swords).

One of the forces that will need to be confronted will be our own human natures. If we are to live together in eternity as these selves that we possess now, would we want to? Would we want to take our neuroses, wounds, tendency to violence and emotional upheavals into eternity?

Some may think perhaps eternity will teach us a better way. If at some future point in eternity you could transcend these limitations of the self, why can’t you do it right now? That is of course the project of enlightenment in this life in the here and now. But it is a bit dismaying to me that the science of the immortality project seems divorced from the enlightenment project.

To me to work towards the persistence of self without working toward enlightenment is a foolish path.To quote Welwood once again:

Meditation experience reveals a vast expanse of being and awareness that is egoless, that is, not owned or controlled by this bounded, controlling sense of self. The core of Buddha’s teaching is that meditation provides a way to uncover the jewel of our authentic nature by cutting through the habitual concepts of self that obscure it like a film of dust.

Or as Jesus said:

Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?

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