It is important to me personally in that a main tenet of my religion--which up until a few years ago (not sure how I would describe it today...perhaps progressive Christian) would be described as evangelical protestant--was that one needed to be "born again." Also, obviously, having a belief in the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Other creedal beliefs were also thrown in (the Bible being inspired by God, the miracles of Jesus, the virginity of Mary, the belief in scripture).
So that was "me." But what if "me" were not me? What was the "me" of me? If anything? If I could not answer that question, then in what sense could I say, for instance, that I was an evangelical Christian? That I was born again, that I was destined for union with God? If I could not answer that question, it seems to me, then these questions all became moot. And so the idea of Self is of particular importance...for anyone who holds certain faith questions near and dear.
First: Can I say what I am not? I think so; I am not a chair, not that hat hung on a post, not that cat linking its paws. I sense things, and this gives me a pretty good idea that I am a something that can be said to be not-that. (Maybe Hume and some others would disagree.)
Second: My idea of Self is mental. If I lose a leg, or both, or an arm or a finger, heck, a gall bladder too, I still can consider myself a self. This is a mental thing, the self. Unless we are transferring to the mind (whatever that is) merely the actionability of the brain, which can be considered just another organ, albeit one that houses the self. Is the mind merely the brain's activity or is it something else? Who knows? Let's assume it is the brain's activity since how in the heck are we going to prove otherwise?
Third: The self is my mind. But...the mind varies. And from what I read it varies quite a bit, that a "unified experience" only lasts a few seconds in the human being [Galen Strawson 1997]. We shouldn't assume that we are only one self; we might be multiple selves, even if these multiple selves are so closely related to one another that they blend continuously into one another (or seem to). From this it seems clear to me that we are indeed multiple selves. Certainly the "I" of my tenth year is different than the "I" of my twentieth year. It is very likely that each minute of each day of our existence has within it multiple selves. I doubt very much if the "I" of ten minutes ago is the "I" of my now.
Fourth: We are contingent beings. By this I mean that we can consider ourselves to be "what we desire to be" or even "what we desire to believe" or we can consider ourselves the net result of our decisions: we are the self of an act of decision. So we could say that that gentleman was the guy who decided on that occasion to sign up for the army and eventually become a veteran. Also, since employment is another popularly held view of our "self" he could be considered the gentleman who got his degree in electrical engineering while on a G.I. bill. Any decision we make really could work. But here is the rub: our decisions are contingent on many factors, pressures, that one day to the next change (and remember that we are probably different selves moment to moment). That would make our idea of self contingent. We become agents of chance, of our environment (and our natural tendencies, which though genetic, can still be agents of chance since we are from our birth chance creations through the machinations of DNA).
It is also important, too, to see ourselves as within a group, especially as within a religious group or cultural group. A Stanford encyclopedia article (to be read here if you wish) points out that there is new literature on the societal pressures that go into making one's idea of self. This seems common sense to me: the groups we belong to pressure us to conform to an identity; this pressure causes us to make decisions and to create in consequence a view of our "self" though it is only contingent on something outside ourselves (whatever "our self" can constitute).
The same article cites Velleman (1989) that shows that our desire to act in a certain way is influenced by how we predict we wish to act. Here:
Our desire to understand what we are doing, at the moment we are doing it, is usually satisfied, since our predictions about how we will act are themselves intentions to act, and hence our beliefs about what we will do are “self-fulfilling expectations”.Thus we are what we wish ourselves to be. We want to be that hero depicted in some book and we base our expectations of our self on the prediction that this is to be our fate.
All this is to say that we are not what we seem. We live our lives pretending to be someone. Pretending to be part of one's chosen group, but that choosing itself was a result of some contingency. In the end we are fluid. The Tao Te Ching, in its first chapter:
The Way - cannot be told.The Name - cannot be named.The nameless is the Way of Heaven and Earth.The named is Matrix of the Myriad Creatures.Eliminate desire to find the Way.Embrace desire to know the Creature.The two are identical,But differ in name as they arise.Identical they are called mysterious,Mystery on mystery,The gate of many secrets. [A.S. Kline tranlator]
Could not this be speaking of the Self? Matrix of the Myriad Creatures?
But, so what? This question: When can I say I have achieved Myself? When can I say "I believe this!" or "I am born again!" We are acting, pretending, that we are making rational decisions that create our own being, and that this being is unchanging somehow (though we all recognize the mutable nature of being).
Am I born again? Do I believe in Jesus, the Christ? Am I the person who chose to wear a blue shirt this morning? But differ in name as they arise. Identical they are called mysterious.
We ask questions of people, spiritual questions, that no one can answer honestly. So we should stop asking these questions. Or, asking them, expect no answer, and if an answer does come, expect it to float away. What is there but to look into the eyes of another, and try to see oneself? Isn't that what Jesus meant when he tasked us to love one another? Another non-self, mysterious, a gate of many secrets.