What is a “self”? There are many definitions, but none are definitive. Yet we know fairly clearly what it feels like to be a self, though it is hard to put this feeling into words. Two things that most people likely would say about the self, however, are that it is what is aware and that it can make choices. Because it is aware, it can experience pleasure and pain and has preferences about these. And it can make choices based on these preferences -- it can explore a set of options, select one, and act on it. Here I will call the ability to be aware “consciousness” and the ability to make choices “intentionality.”
From a naturalistic perspective, there are overwhelming reasons to believe that consciousness and intentionality are the results of something that happens in the nervous system, and intentionality must at least in part be due to a mechanism present in the brain **. Indeed, it is the view of naturalism that the self, however we care to define it, is the result of neural mechanisms.
Some people find this view troubling. That which we experience our self to be, they might say, seems in every possible sense different from a cold, hard mechanism. But here we have to be careful of the way words can trick us. Rather than thinking that “neural mechanism” diminishes what we are, we can recognize that if we are the result of neural mechanism, than the definition and sense of the word “mechanism” is very different from what we had thought it to be. We had used the word “mechanism” in such a way that it excluded items that have awareness, feelings, creative thoughts, intentionality, and regard themselves as ends rather than means. Now we are using the word in a way that includes such items. Neither the world nor our self has changed; the only change is in the set of things classified by words we use. The self in no way has lost its awareness, feelings, creative thoughts, intentionality, or its being an end rather than a means in being found to emerge from the processes of a neural mechanism.
The health sciences have shown that biological organs, including the brain, are each quite similar to one another within a species. If my consciousness and intentionality are the result of neural mechanisms residing in such an organ, then it is reasonable to conclude that in regard to these attributes, my “self” is quite similar to the “selfs” of other people, including people who lived and died in the past, those still to come in the future, and others with whom I currently share this planet. So if I identify my fundamental self with that which is conscious and that which can intend, than that with which I identify is something that was here long before me and will continue long after me – for at least as long as humans continue to exist.
Now for a person brought up in the humanistic and individualistic culture of the West, this thought probably brings little consolation. In our tradition, it is precisely the continuation of what is individual and particular that counts – the self with a name and an address. But for one who accepts the idea that the self resides in neural mechanisms, the idea that mystics of all ages have proclaimed – i.e that the self is but a part of a greater Self and to live from an awareness of this greater Self brings a deep joy and peace to life -- should start to make sense. While traditions such as Hinduism, Taoism, and mystical Christianity tend to consider the “greater Self” a metaphysical and supernatural entity, to view it as neural mechanism has the same spiritual consequence: that which we truly are, that which forms our essence, is that which endures beyond the death of the individual.
We may want to see ourselves as unique individuals (and to a limited extent we are). But the consequences of naturalism are quite clear in this regard: we are so only inconsequentially. From the naturalistic perspective, we arise from and return to the process of nature – and not even for a moment are we out of that process.
The individual self is a little wave blown by the great winds of that process; it soon breaks upon the shore. The Great Self is the ocean upon which through the ages similar waves endlessly arise and break. We can identify our life with the wave or the ocean. Every wave is an epitome of ocean; every self is an epitome of Self. That the metaphoric Self is actually the sum total of the great neurological mechanism of the natural world does no damage to the metaphor nor to the mystic’s experience: it still reveals Thou Art That.
** I make the qualification “in part” because intentionality is partly a learned ability. Using the analogy of a computer, we might say that there are both hardware and software components of intentionality. As a matter of speculation, I would suggest that one of the roles of religion has been to store and download this “software”: to help people learn how to become more intentional in their behavior, particularly in regard to the self-governance of their lives.