The Self Isn’t Where, It’s When

They say the self is an illusion and by way of proof they ask: “Where is the actual you?

In truth this is hard to answer. Is it in the skull, behind the eyes? We know that isn’t specific enough. No region of the brain can be identified as the physical you. No snip-snip of grey matter extracts the essential you nor is consciousness a necessary component of the essential functions of the brain.

We presume ourselves to be an emergent phenomenon of neurons networked by synapses but brains are common to a plethora of species, many not sentient let alone conscious. We have no idea how or why the light of consciousness switches on. Identity is self-evident – it is the “something is happening” at the base of all conscious experience yet it doesn’t emerge fully-formed when we’re born. Potential only becomes “something” over time but even meditation shows this is susceptible to dissolution and chemical-altering drugs show it can be changed beyond recognition. And still, none of these phenomenon can be pinpointed to a single locus in physical space.

But perhaps “Where is the actual you?” presumes too much. It may be a misleading question in and of itself.

What if the conscious self that identifies as you isn’t a thing in any three dimensional spatial sense. What if “something is happening” is only objectively true in that moment without reference to the past or the future. This would make consciousness and identity a product of cause and effect: an event, more or less predictable under prescribed conditions but not necessarily a physical thing that itself persists. It becomes the sum of disparate parts that needn’t exhibit coherent continuity to satisfy its own definition.

Consciousness need not be a where. It only needs must be a when.