Buddhism and the (No-)Self

Buddhism and the (No-)Self August 2, 2018

As I have expressed many times before on this blog, I am a conceptual nominalist. This means that I deny the ontic existence of abstract ideas – they exist only in the minds of conceivers. Of course, one of the great abstract ideas is the self. Personal identity is a fascinating area of philosophy. Indeed, I deny the continuous “I”. What is the “Jonathan MS Pearce” who maintains over time? After all, I am not the same person I was five minutes ago, five years ago, 30 years ago, or when I was a blastocyst. The label “Jonathan MS Pearce” is one I (heh!) give the collection of properties that we humans generally attribute to a personal identity and, as a result, it is one that others give to this the same collection of properties (although they will actually actually ascribe that label to a different set of perceived properties as I do). However, those properties change over time. It’s a kind of Ship of Theseus problem.

It’s very similar to Buddhist philosophy. In reading a chapter called “Buddhist Philosophical Traditions“, John D. Dunne states:

The Buddha shared much with the philosophical style of those who asserted the existence of this ultimately real, unchanging Self. In particular, he too taught that one must seek out the true nature of one’s identity. Other philosophers from the Buddha’s time claimed that, at the end of the search, one would finally discover that one’s true identity consisted in this unchanging Self. In contrast, the Buddha came to a radically different conclusion: in the end, one will find no Self at all. This is the Buddhist philosophical stance known as no-Self (anātman).

The Buddhist philosophy of no-Self can be confusing because it seems to suggest that people do not exist at all, but this would be a serious error. Instead, no-Self specifically means that we do not have a fixed, unchanging, essential identity, even though our ignorance prompts us to believe that we do have that kind of Self. From the perspective of ignorance, when a person says, “I exist” or “I am walking,” these statements seem to suggest that there is some single, real thing to which I refers. Likewise, ignorance prompts us to feel that the I that existed yesterday is precisely the I that exists today. The Buddhist position is that, when one performs a careful analysis, one discovers that this sense of a single, unchanging, real I is actually a delusion. And when we are caught up in trying to obtain pleasure and avoid pain, we are doing so because we feel that this I will receive the pleasure and be spared the pain. Since, however, no such I actually exists, all attempts at bringing pleasure to the I and sheltering it from suffering inevitably fail. After all, how could a nonexistent thing be made happy or be freed from suffering?

I can’t say that I have done an awful lot of analysis of Buddhists philosophical thought, but this certainly rings true with me. We have a very pragmatic approach to personal identity but when you drill down at some of the finer philosophical details, it is clearly a problematic concept.

He continues:

At this point, it becomes clear why the Abhidharma philosophers were so concerned with the basic constituents or elements of mind, body, and world. In brief, to eliminate the ignorance that would prompt us to feel that our true identity exists in an unchanging, singular Self, their method was to develop a systematic account of all these constituents, and they then used that account to search for the Self. For example, suppose that I am troubled by the belief that there is a monster that lives permanently in my closet. A friend helps me first to recognize that, if such a monster exists, we should be able to find it. To perform the search properly, however, we need a systematic account of all the locations in the closet
where the monster might be. With that detailed map in hand, my friend and I can perform a thorough search and conclude that, in fact, there is no such monster. Likewise, with a thorough map of all the elements of mind, body, and world, one can perform a thorough search and conclude that there is no unchanging, single Self to be found.

On the basis of their systematic analysis of the constituents of mind, body, and world, Abhidharma philosophers deployed various arguments to demonstrate that an unchanging, singular Self could not exist. Ignorance suggests to us that the Self is not to be found in the elements of the world, but rather in the elements of our mind–body system. According to one argument, an empirical analysis demonstrates that all of that system’s constituents are produced through causes and conditions, and as causally conditioned things, those elements are necessarily impermanent. The Self thus cannot be identified with one of those elements (e.g., consciousness), because the Self is thought to be unchanging.

There is a recognition, both with myself and Buddhist philosophers, that is we create conceptual labels and ideas for pragmatic use. We navigate the world by creating conceptual maps but we must not confuse the map with the terrain. We symbolise and conceptualise and in this sense translate real properties into things that we can understand and use.

One might respond, however, that when one says, “I exist,” the term I actually refers to the entire collection of all the mind–body elements; in other words, when we say I, we are referring to some single whole that these elements constitute. The Buddhist response to this position involves a key notion of all Buddhist philosophical schools: the distinction between the “ultimately real” and the “conventionally real.” For Abhidharma philosophers, for something to be ultimately real, it must be irreducible: it cannot be broken down into more basic components, whether physical or mental. A thing that is composed of more basic elements can still be said to exist, but only in a conventional sense. According to Abhidharma philosophers, when a chair, for example, is analyzed, it is shown to actually consist of many irreducible particles of matter. Those particles ultimately exist because they are irreducible. The chair, however, does not ultimately exist because it is reducible to the particles. However, we can still use the term chair as a convenient designation that enables us to speak about the  causal interaction of those particles, and in this sense, the chair is conventionally real.

For more on this topic, read my linked articles below.


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