Kees Zoeteman

The science section in the Dutch newspaper NRC of 31 October & 1 November 2020 contained a provocative article about man’s self with the title ‘We have no self’. Because the Apocalypse is actually one big poem about the essential importance of the Self in man, I had to read the article. Earlier I had already noticed that in our time the struggle for the Self of man is getting more and more fierce.

Through the Self we as human beings can evolve to higher levels of consciousness. However, the forces in our souls that want to prevent that, are keen to deprive us of that self-awareness that has grown in man since the Greek cultural period. One of the ways is to alienate us of the Self as the most sacred aspect of our being, is substituting it by scientific models which make us doubt the meaning of this special quality. That is why it is particularly interesting to see which arguments a branch of neuroscience puts forward for the non-existence of the self and which spiritual arguments can be placed in opposition to it.

Virtual reality

The argumentation in the newspaper article, written by Hendrik Spiering, is based on the results of experiments on the role of virtual reality (VR) on our self-perception. VR is a computer technique in which it seems as if you are in another reality. Through special VR glasses the visible reality is replaced by computer generated images. The glasses contain a screen and close off your view of the outside world. Because your eyes each see their own image, which differs slightly from each other, you see depth (3D) in the virtual environment. A virtual reality can resemble the world as we know it, but it can also be a completely fictitious environment. Often you hear matching sound through headphones, but other senses are less often addressed by the illusion. A VR experience becomes even more realistic by, for example, experiencing smells and feeling air currents. Because sensors follow the movements of your head, the VR environment moves along in the same way. In this way you can look around in virtual reality. More advanced systems recognize it even when you walk around or bend down. They take the movements into virtual reality. With some VR systems you can also see your hands and pick up virtual things. For example, you hold a controller in your hand or put on special gloves.

Results of experiments

The NRC article, in short, describes relatively simple neurological VR experiments, which ‘show that a small push is already capable of unbalancing and temporarily changing the “self”, both physically and socially. Suddenly, for example, you feel like a small child, you have a different skin color, or you have six fingers. Are you still the old one? Even your personality could be experienced differently this way’, says Pawel Tacikowski of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. It turns out that identifications of ourselves can be manipulated, as has been demonstrated in the so-called ‘rubber hand experiment’. A rubber hand lies on the table and you keep your real hand under the table. If the rubber hand on the table is touched in the same way as your real invisible hand under the table, you perceive the rubber hand as belonging to your own body. This effect is called embodiment. Your brain permanently keeps track of what develops in the outside world and what is caused your own actions. We experience based on these signals a stable model of ourselves in the outside world. By letting our sensory perceptions take place in virtual reality, our image of ourselves is adjusted and we arrive at different perceptions of what our body is. According to researcher Lara Maister of the University of Bangor in Wales, such illusory experiences not only lead to a different experience of one’s own body, but also have consequences for our self-experience in a social group and for our philosophical considerations. On all three levels the brain constantly strives for updated coherence.

One step further goes Thomas Metzinger, philosopher at the Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, who in 2009 published the book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self (Basic Books). He does not understand the excitement about being able to move in another body, as indicated by embodiment. This is a normal thing in dancing, in sex, in marching, in empathizing with friends, and so on. Hendrik Spiering wonders what it actually is when the self stretches over so many levels, most of which are also unconscious. Thomas Metzinger knows the answer to that: ‘I have therefore been saying for thirty years that we do not have a self, but we do not listen to it. We don’t have a self now, we have a self-model. There is no ego, there is a multilevel process, which has to remain coherent at all levels. Our self is a self-representation of the body, but it is a concept, you can’t find it anywhere in the body’.

What is the self?

According to the researchers mentioned in the NRC article, the self is the stable model which we make of ourselves on the basis of what we perceive in the outside world and how the outside world reacts to our actions according to our perception. If we then replace the natural outside world with virtual reality this affects the earlier image of ourselves. Thomas Metzinger can therefore say that the self a mental construct that changes when you offer other perceptions and thus he comes to the proposition that there is no ego, let alone a higher Self. And he summarizes this image with the proposition that our self is a self presentation of our (observing) body that you cannot locate in a certain place of the body. In short, the self is itself virtual, according to Metzinger.

This definition of the self is entirely based on the physical and here it is shown how a person can become trapped by looking only at material phenomena. The idea that impulses can also originate in the self of a human being does not come up for discussion.

Funny is that Metzinger puts himself in a paradoxical situation with his statement ‘I have been saying this for thirty years etc.’ . Who is this ‘I say’? Is that an illusion? Does Metzinger see himself as an illusion? I asked Arie Bos, author of My brain doesn’t think, I do (in Dutch, Zeist: Christofoor, 2014) who pointed out that we have learned to use our senses in reality. All illusions you can present to them are always in an artificial or virtual reality, which mainly occurs in the visual sphere. Visual illusions are generated through images that resemble reality. The rubber hand illusion (also a visual illusion, just like the virtual reality glasses) only works if you put an object on the table that looks like a hand. If there is a slice of cake there, no one will withdraw their hand when it is hit with a hammer, which does happen when you exhibit a rubber hand. This is not well explained in Spiering’s article. A lot of research has been done into the effects of free will in the visual cortex, in the form of attention, motivation and intention. It turns out that the differentiation of objects can be found as a synchronization of neuronal activity between the different visual areas in the brain. It even seems that when something becomes conscious, the involved neurons show synchronous activity (A.K. Engel, 2006, ‘Neuronal Grundlagen der Merkmalsintegration’. Neuropsychology, Heidelberg: Springer Verlag, chapter 5). This synchronous activity is visible in an EEG. Does the brain do that by itself? Or does the attention (the controlled consciousness) take care of this synchronization? That has become clear by now. It is the attention and intention that take care of it. That is called the top-down effect. Attention and intention are an expression of our free will. Consciousness does play a role in our perception, is Bos’ conclusion.

By the way, the concept of ego or self is often used rather sloppily without defining it properly. If the concept ‘self’ is rejected, the first question to be asked is what is meant by it. Apparently, someone like Metzinger wants to puncture with it a widespread belief in the independence of the self . Something like: man thinks he can stand up to the world independently by using his consciousness, but that is an illusion. Everything is determined by the sensory impressions and if you change those then it changes the self as well. So, in his eyes the self is a model that the brain makes of itself on the basis of the reactions of the perceived world. It would not be something that exists independently of the perceived world. 

The vision from Christian mysticism and in particular anthroposophy

Whoever considers the self from the point of view of the spiritual sciences, will find a different approach which looks beyond experiences which are based exclusively on physical sensory perceptions. Here the self is not only built up from the impressions of the outer environment but also from the inner intuitions which the self receives. What is known about the self from the spiritual point of view?

In the Christian initiation schools the self is given great significance. Rudolf Steiner observes from his inner observations that the self represents the spiritual core of the human being which is embedded in the soul forces of the astral body (thinking, feeling and willing), in the vital forces of the ether body and in the physical body. These three lower bodies come together in the self, by the impressions of the senses, in actions and memories (GA 143, p.49). The self is always present in the background where these impressions appear or where the will of man expresses itself in an action. Thus, the self participates strongly in the movements of the legs, but, according to Steiner’s inner perceptions, takes less part in the processes which happen in the head (GA 205, p. 218).

The self is difficult to define because it is not, like the three lower bodies, created by higher divine beings in a completed form. It is a principle which has been given to man, but it was intended that man becomes the creator of his self. The I is a creative principle which develops through the various lives and which is also one with the whole, which cannot be demarcated. Steiner compares the I of men with a multitude of circles superimposed on each other, each reaching to infinity, but each having its own coloring and its own irreplaceable center in which infinity reflects itself in a unique way.  

From spiritual science an opposite image about the self emerges than from natural science. In the midst of transience the self is the only thing that remains, that has eternal value.

The self during life and after death

According to Rudolf Steiner, the self of man has many more aspects than the eternal character. During the life of a human being a child starts to say ‘I’ around the third year of life. At this age, however, the child does not yet have a real I-awareness. The I-birth only begins around the 21st year of life, but Steiner also calls this self, which is present the rest of one’s life, not the real self. He calls it a kind of mirror of the self or a provisional version of the true self to which we must gradually learn to gain access. That happens by living through and transforming the three lower bodies (astral, ether and physical body) in this and many lives to come.

In a certain way the true Self does not experience our stay on earth in a life, but remains still, remains in the spiritual world from the moment we start to say ‘I’ as a child. That is the moment to which our memory more or less reaches. If, after our death, we relive our life in reverse order, we find our true Self again when we reach this third year of the past life. Until that time, we experience the mirror image of the true Self as our I (GA 165, p.15).

We can have the impression with older people that their I has also grown older, but this is because the mirror device has grown older, with the aging physical body. But our astral body and I are out of time and cannot go under with the physical body (GA 226, p.14).

So, the true Self does not develop during life, it remains unchanged in the spiritual world. (GA 165, p.16). The development of the Self takes place between the different incarnations when the developments, that the lower bodies have experienced in the incarnations, are assembled in the Self.

Origin of the self

Man’s aptitude for self was given in Lemurian times by the Spirits of Form, the Elohim. By sacrificing their self to man, the spark of self in man could later be ignited. According to Rudolf Steiner the self in man was awakened during the death of Jesus Christ when he was crucified (GA 143, p.163). With his self, man is an individualized part of Christ, the Sun spirit. Every human self has its primal ground in the Christ being, which is the creative core of every human being (GA 13, p. 294). Man originated from a unity but the present earth’s phase of development has led to isolation of all these individual ego’s (GA 13, p. 294). With the self, man is given the freedom to choose for love or not. That is the great task of the earth’s development and of mankind. In Christ man finds the ideal which opposes all isolation and unites the I’s in a community again.

Can the self be localized in the body?

As mentioned earlier, Thomas Metzinger cannot identify a particular place in our body where the self could be located. Interestingly, Rudolf Steiner (GA 95, p. 154) does so on a spiritual level. Clairvoyantly a place in man’s aura can be found where the ‘I’ activity is carried: ‘that can be observed as a blue-violet-like shine stretched out in a bullet-like shaped at the nose root behind the forehead’.  Through this carrier of the self it can transform the lower bodies of our being, starting with the astral body when it is imbued with love for the other.

Place in the human aura where the I-activity is carried (Rudolf Steiner, GA 95, p.154)

Higher and lower itself

Steiner points out, that the person who paves the way to the spiritual world has to deal with inner spiritual images (GA 10, p.153). The Apocalypse testifies to this. ‘The disciple should not desire material realities but should see images as the right learning, for the reality underlying these images is in that person himself. And within this world of images, in the middle of this building of mirror images in his lower self, appears to man the true reality of the higher self. From the images of the lower personality the shape of the spiritual I becomes visible’.

The lower self is its, in pure egoism, hardened I, its ego; its higher self is the spiritualized astral body: the Manas (GA 145, p. 188).

Why does Buddhism see the self differently from Christianity?

In Christian mysticism the self plays a different role than in Buddhism. Buddhism calls on the disciple to eliminate his self, whereas Christianity sees the self as a means of spiritual development. How is this possible?  Of course, Rudolf Steiner has wondered this too and comes to the following explanation (GA 167, p. 281). As long as the self had not fully reached the development of mankind, before the life and death of Jesus Christ, the emerging self had to be ennobled by letting go of the self. That is where we have to place eastern wisdom. But now the situation is different. ‘When we speak like this now, it means seemingly pushing away from the self while behind us Lucifer grabs us and only really bumps us into selfishness, and that while we do not notice it!’

The self as a double-edged sword

In the image of the double-edged sword, as used in the Apocalypse, the higher and lower selve come together, according to Rudolf Steiner (GA 104, p.156). On the one hand it is the I who causes man to harden himself and put everything at the service of satisfying his own desires. This side of the self strives to make a part of the common property on earth his property and to chase away all other ego’s on earth from his territory. But at the same time this self is what gives man his independence and freedom and elevates man in a true sense. This other side of the self represents its value, it is the predisposition to the divine in man and the collateral for the highest purpose in man. If, however, man does not find love, then it is the I which will seduce him and plunge him into the abyss. In this way the self can lead to both the highest and the deepest. That is why the double-edged sword from the Son of Man’s mouth is sharp. It is one of the deepest symbols of the Apocalypse.

Comparison of the definitions of the self in mysticism and neuroscience

We may wonder whether the neuroscientific research mentioned, will ever find the spiritual transforming effect of the self. However, from neuroscience and spiritual science it can be concluded that man’s self is not somewhere in his physical body where it can be perceived with our instruments and physical senses. After all, according to Rudolf Steiner, the self cannot be observed directly and is located outside space and time. Thomas Metzinger’s assertion, that part of the self is a mental construct which changes when you offer other perceptions, is in itself a statement which Steiner could, I expect, endorse. To say that it does not exist because it cannot be located in the physical body is short sighted from the point of view of spiritual science. The image of the double-edged sword reflects the dual nature of the Self: the seducer leading to the abyss or the collateral leading to the highest goal of unification with the divine. With Metzinger’s observation that the self, thus referring to part of the lower self, does not exist, the essence of the role of the Self in the development of mankind is unfortunately completely missed and scientific indications for the role of consciousness in visual perception are brushed aside.