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Deep Down is there a Stable Non-Illusory Self?

[If the self is non-illusory, is some particular self, say Bill Clinton, identical with a specific brain and body, or with a specific organization of any adequate quantity of matter, or with a spiritual entity or principle?]

All sane men believe that there is such a thing as a self or ego, which is continuous. There is not an inch of my brain matter the same as it was ten years ago. But if I have saved a man in battle ten years ago, I am proud; if I have run away, I am ashamed. That there is such a paramount “I” is unproved and unprovable. But it is more than unproved and unprovable; it is definitely disputed by many metaphysicians.

G. K. Chesterton

What we call a mind is nothing but a heap or collection of different perceptions.

David Hume

Classical Buddhism teaches that there is no death because there is no self. The personal self or ego—with all its memories, desires, anxieties, attachments, and ambitions—is an intoxicating mirage that blinds us and distracts us from the unperturbed reality of pure consciousness—our “Buddha nature.”

Effort of any kind is enough to create a beginning of personality.

Ernest Dimnet

[In his book The Anarchy of Feeling, 1963, psychologist Alexander Schneiders illustrates the dethronement of reason by anarchic feeling by quoting one of his patients, an eighteen-year-old girl with an I.Q. of 146.]

I know what I should do. I know that what I am doing is immoral and indecent. I know that I am acting contrary to all of the laws and principles of society and religion. All of this my reason tells me, and all of this I have heard time and time again from my parents, teachers, and friends. But I don’t want to do what is good and right. I find this kind of life extremely boring. When I act the way I feel like acting, I am myself, and not some caricature created by the demands of my parents, the rules of society, or the Commandments of God. Only when I act the way I feel like acting do I feel that I am really existing. And I don’t really care whether I become psychotic, derelict, or damned.

Be yourself is about the worst advice you can give to some people.

J. B. Priestley

[The following passages are from The Interior Castle, written by the Spanish mystic St Teresa of Avila in 1577.]

In the prayer of union the soul is fully awake as regards God, but wholly asleep as regards things of this world and in respect of herself. During the short time the union lasts, she is as it were deprived of every feeling, and even if she would, she could not think of any single thing. Thus she needs to employ no artifice in order to arrest the use of her understanding: it remains so stricken with inactivity that she neither knows what she loves, nor in what manner she loves, nor what she wills. In short, she is utterly dead to the things of the world and lives solely in God... Her intellect would fain understand something of what is going on within her, but it has so little force now that it can act in no way whatsoever... Thus does God, when he raises a soul to union with himself, suspend the natural action of all her faculties. She neither sees, hears, nor understands, so long as she is united with God. “But how, you will repeat, can one have such certainty in respect to what one does not see? This question, I am powerless to answer. These are secrets of God’s omnipotence which it does not appertain to me to penetrate. All that I know is that I tell the truth; and I shall never believe that any soul who does not possess this certainty has ever been really united to God.

The mind or soul, as we personally experience it, is perhaps the most satisfactory clue to God, to the existence of an intelligent, creative, purposeful power in the universe. At least this is what has been believed, almost unanimously, by the greatest poets, philosophers, mystics and sages.

Those who think the human mind is nonalgorithmic should consider the hubris presupposed by that conviction. If Darwin’s dangerous idea is right, an algorithmic process is powerful enough to design a nightingale and a tree. Should it be that much harder for an algorithmic process to write an ode to a nightingale or a poem as lovely as a tree? Surely [Leslie] Orgel’s Second Rule is correct: Evolution is cleverer than you are.

Daniel Dennett

According to strong AI [the view that artifical intelligence can be achieved by a computer because mind is ultimately an algorithmic process, a form of computation], it is simply the algorithm that counts. It makes no difference whether that algorithm is being effected by a brain, an electronic computer, a mechanical device of wheels and cogs, or a system of water pipes. The viewpoint is that it is simply the logical structure of the algorithm that is significant for the ‘mental state’ it is supposed to represent, the particular physical embodiment of that algorithm being entirely irrelevant. As [John] Searle points out, this actually entails a form of ‘dualism’... The mind-stuff of strong AI is the logical structure of an algorithm.

Roger Penrose

When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.

David Hume

The real self is as hard to arrive at as the real table, and does not seem to have that absolute, convincing certainty that belongs to particular experiences.

Bertrand Russell

Every system of explanation must include at least some fundamentals which are not themselves explained. However far you rise in a hierarchy of explanations—particular events in terms of general laws, laws in terms of theories, theories in terms of wider and more comprehensive theories, and maybe even further—still there has to be at every stage, including the last stage, some element or some elements in terms of which whatever is explained at that stage is explained.

Anthony Flew

Whatever we do when we understand something is different from computing in any form. The rigourous argument comes from the famous theorem of Kurt Godel which shows that formalized mathematical reasoning doesn’t encompass all mathematical understanding.

Roger Penrose

Thoughts about the Soul, the Self & the Mind

I am not the captain of my soul; I am only its noisiest passenger.

Aldous Huxley

One of the first results of self-awareness is to begin to wonder whether you are yet, in any full sense, a person at all; whether you are entitled to call yourself ‘I.’ You find that what you called yourself is only a thin film on the surface of an unsounded and dangerous sea.

C. S. Lewis

I do not know myself, and God forbid that I should.


The Canadian poet Al Purdy declared at the end of his memoirs his outright hostility to the idea of increased self-awareness: “If human beings ever know fully all their own meanings and motives and hidden-to-themselves feelings, it would be a sad day.”

Just walking along the road we lived in when I was a child I would find myself wondering, with a poignancy I find it difficult now to convey, who I was and how I came to be in that place.

Malcolm Muggeridge

One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star.

G. K. Chesterton

Maturity is when you’re no longer taken in by yourself.

Sometimes I give myself excellent advice, but I’m incapable of taking it.

The mind is what the brain does.

There is not the slightest reason to doubt that brains are anything other than machines with enormous numbers of parts that work in perfect accord with physical laws.

Marvin Minsky

Ordinary riches can be stolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you.

Oscar Wilde

How is a man the better for it, if he gains the whole world at the cost of losing his own soul? For a man’s soul, what price can be high enough?

Matt 16:25-27

Pantheism denies the separateness of things, which is to deny love. There must be a strict division between self and not self for love to exist at all.

You cannot think if you are not separate from the subject of thought. Descartes said, “I think; therefore I am.” The philosophic evolutionist reverses and negatives the epigram. He says, “I am not; therefore I cannot think.”

G. K. Chesterton

The false self is not just the self of the more visible instincts and passions, but all those compulsions that push us to seek our own glory and spiritual success.

Jean Vanier

All spiritual masters speak of dying to the false self so that the real self may emerge.

The hardest thing to understand is how we can understand anything at all.

Albert Einstein

Computers don’t have any understanding of what they’re doing. To say they understood anything of what they did, I think, would be a travesty of the word understanding.

Roger Penrose

The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.


Only the shallow know themselves.

Oscar Wilde

The self is more like an unruly crowd than a serene sovereign.

Man who man would be,
Must rule the empire of himself.

P. B. Shelley

True guilt is guilt at the obligation one owes to oneself to be oneself.

R. D. Laing

The problem of how to be one’s self is ultimately a moral problem, that is, how to make the best use of one’s faculties.

Ernest Dimnet

We are all serving a life-sentence in the dungeon of self.

Cyril Connolly

Ecstasy comes from a sense of identification, whether with another individual, or with a community, or with the whole of life. It is an escape from separate existence; from the savage misery of the imprisoned ego.

Malcolm Muggeridge

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