Any time I’ve had the chance to look up at the stars on a clear night, I would start to lose my sense of self. There was something about appreciating where I was in the grand scheme of things to help feel like I was just part of the universe. After reading Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, I couldn’t help but understand why I felt that way. Within a 14 billion year old universe, for just a brief moment, the right amount of stardust mixed together in exactly the right away.. and here I am.
Since then I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about my sense of self. I may have stumbled upon a rather interesting understanding of how a sense of self exists within all life. I’m going to try and connect those dots here.
I suspect that the core programming of all life, is self-preservation. I also think that this programming manifests into different behaviors based on what we understand to be the ‘self’.
Consider the reptile, equipped with a reptilian brain. This brain is programmed to fight, flight, and f*ck. That is, it fights and flights to preserve its own life, and it f*cks to preserve the life of the species. Without this basic programming, survival of the individual self or of the species would not be possible. But the reptile brain isn’t very well equipped to understand the self as being more than the individual, hence why reptiles are more than capable of eating their own young.
Now consider the limbic brain, something that connects all mammals. This part of the brain developed on top of the reptilian brain as reptiles evolved into mammals. This likely had to do with mammals being responsible for raising their young while reptiles tend to hatch from eggs and make a mad dash for dear life. This means that the limbic brain had to develop a sense of self which included its off-spring. This programming is what motivates parents to put their lives on the line for their children… a sense of self that extends beyond the individual and to the family. I suspect that this sense of self can be extended as far as one’s entire tribe and may explain elements of today’s culture war.
Now consider the neo-cortex, or the brain that connects all humans. This is the part of the brain that lets us think logically and abstractly. I would suggest that these are the best tools for truly understanding one’s self and their surroundings.. And perhaps it’s through these tools that Buddhists arrived at this idea that there is no self. Or how Bill Clinton arrived at the quote that selfless and selfish are really the same thing when we understand how interconnected we all are.
There are more bacteria cells in my body than human cells. Does that make be more bacteria than human? Or are the bacteria cells in my body not part of my body? If so, could I survive without them? Drawing the line between what is you and what isn’t you, isn’t so easy when you actually understand what you are. And even if we did decide that everything that was within your physical body was the ‘self’, could that ‘self’ survive on its own? Without human contact, our minds tend to go. Without this ecosystem of life around us, our bodies wouldn’t survive. I think there is relevance and significance to the physical self, but the more I think about it, there’s a greater understanding available to us here.
A pattern that I see, is that the more capable we become of understanding ourselves and our surroundings, the more likely we are to expand the self beyond the individual self. That may suggest that the highest level of understanding, includes a definition of self which encompasses the entire universe. We’re all just stardust anyways, are we not?