The matter of the ‘self’ will probably always remain the field of philosophy rather than science. Sociology aside, the problem of the self is that it is wrapped up irretrievably with consciousness, and that is something that cannot be measured or examined. It is pure subjectivity.
Even though we know the structure of the neuron on an atomic level, still we have not found any ‘conscious element’. It is not just a remaining mystery for the physical sciences, because it has no physical counterpart.
Imagine the most beautiful, complex, intelligent robot – we would not allow it human rights, or even animal rights, because fundamentally it lacks some essence that we call life. And yet science views the human being as a material DNA replication machine.
Buddhism is sometimes criticised for the teaching on non-self, yet materialism is the non-self doctrine taken to the extreme. At least in Buddhism beside Earth, Wind, Fire and Water elements there is a fifth element called Consciousness.
The problem is not just philosophical. In the news recently was a man who had been in a non-responsive coma for 24 years. Yet he was in fact, fully conscious the whole time. Paralysed after an accident, he was simply unable to move.
“I became a witness to my own suffering as doctors and nurses tried to speak with me until they gave up all hope.
“I shall never forget the day when they discovered what was truly wrong with me – it was my second birth. All that time I just literally dreamed of a better life. Frustration is too small a word to describe what I felt.”
If there was some inkling of what consciousness is, perhaps it could have been measured, and this man, who is likely one of thousands, might not have suffered so much for so long. But until we think of consciousness in terms other than the behaviour it produces, there will not be much progress. This probably means we have to stop looking at the physical body as the source of all experience, and start to think in terms of mind that is not physical, however much it is tied to the body.
Tomorrows film shows some of the first steps to redefining what we interpret as ‘self’ and ‘consciousness’.
Guardian: Conscious man ‘in coma’ for 23 years