Phantom Self at SAND 2012

On October 27, 2012, I spoke at the SAND (Science and Non-Duality) conference, in sunny San Rafael, California. The theme of this year’s conference: The Nature of the Self.  It was an eclectic and illuminating time. What follows is the abstract of my presentation, The Phantom Self: The Illusion of Survival. And here’s the video trailer.

People attach great importance to personal survival. Each of us is strongly inclined to believe that to be destroyed and replaced by a ‘mere replica’—someone very similar to oneself—is a lot different from continuing to live oneself, and not nearly as good. To die seems like losing everything. Yet this hugely-motivating idea of our own continued experience does not stand up to scientific scrutiny. Empiricist principles support Derek Parfit’s claim that ordinary survival is no better than being destroyed and replaced by a replica.

Neuroscience has revealed much about our self-representations. Our brains model the world we inhabit, and ourselves within that world. When the self-model gets out of sync with reality, it is described as a phantom. Many amputees suffer pain and paralysis in an arm or leg that no longer exists. VS Ramachandran invented an effective treatment for phantom limb paralysis, using a mirror to trick the brain into changing its own body image.

Animals need a self-model, or 3-D body simulation, in order to navigate their environment safely. The self-model is tightly connected to the emotional centres of the brain, which motivate the animal to protect its body, feed itself, and strive for social dominance. Humans also have a highly developed prefrontal cortex which we use to visualize the future and ourselves in the future. We extend our self-models, our phantoms, into the scenes we imagine, where they have a compelling motivational effect on us. Learning to picture ourselves in the future was like developing a thermonuclear bomb in the evolutionary arms race. It made us the undisputed alpha species on this planet.

Although the human self-model boosted our evolutionary fitness, it is not an accurate model of reality. It fosters illusions which can be as hard to shake as the amputee’s sensation of his missing arm. One illusion is that consciousness is in charge. Another is that our experience is private, making us profoundly separate. A third is that caring about what happens to ourselves in the future is rationally required in a way that caring about others is not. The third—which I call the illusion of survival—is the hardest to overcome.


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