Tuesday, January 27, 2009

There is no self...

I want to muse a little about the doctrine of no self, since it's a central theme of Buddhism and what got me interested in the philosophy in the first place.

"I think, therefore, I am" is a well known quote; even the average layman will quote this famous line from Descartes without realizing the profound philosophical statement they are making. Called "Cartesian" philosophy, this idea that there is a centralized "I" somewhere deep within the brain, some sort of "ghost in the machine," is a foundational tenant of almost all Western thought. Certainly the idea of an indivisible soul is central to all Western religions.

The argument sounds convincing enough, on the surface. I thought it was quite brilliant, when I first studied Descartes. The idea is that, if one doubts one's own existence, the very fact that there is an "I" doing the doubting proves that "I" therefor exists. And I will grant that, in the conventional, everyday speech kind of way, it is true. If I don't exist, who's typing this right now? So there seems to be a built-in argument--a kind of obvious rebuttal--of the notion that the self is an illusion.

The Buddhist, however, would not argue against this subjective sense of self, though (nor would a naturalist, for that matter). The sense that there is an "I" sitting in the pilot's seat behind our eyes, thinking, pondering, making decisions, is very real. But it's a trick, an illusion.

The trick is what Douglas Hofstadter, in his book I Am a Strange Loop, compares to a feedback loop (hence the title); what happens when you point a camera at the TV it is feeding into. As the many sections of our brain register other sections registering stimuli (whether external or internal), there is this illusion created of self-awareness. Some of those portions of the registering are "visible" to us; they occur within our conscious awareness. But what we don't even realize is that some--or perhaps most--of those portions are unconscious; they happen too fast for us to "see," and they feed information directly into the conscious parts that do the "registering." (Don't believe me? Check out this fascinating article that shows how casually we rationalize reasons for actions that were unconsciously motivated)

The implications are troubling for anyone who clings to the notion of Free Will, but are quite profoundly empowering for someone who has moved beyond such Cartesian notions. The doctrine of no self is central to Buddhism because it is a powerful motivator of compassion and a reducer of suffering.

When we believe that every man is a Free Agent, that he has the power to make any choice he wants, it becomes easy--perhaps necessary--to condemn those who make "evil" decisions. "If the terrorist has Free Will, why didn't he just choose not to hurt anyone? I never choose to hurt anybody!" we tell ourselves.
But if we stop to consider that the terrorist is a product of his surroundings, his upbringing, his genetic dispositions, and so many millions of other influences, it is easy to realize "there but for circumstances I go."

When we believe that we are Free Agents, the ultimate cause in our line of causation, and we make choices that create suffering (in ourselves or others), we beat ourselves up, we become self-loathing.
But if we are able to consider the chain of causation (as much as we can see) that led to that decision, it does not absolve us of responsibility, but it empowers us to then influence that chain to create the influences we want--a feedback loop that we can direct. And the same goes for the above case of the terrorist--when we look at the causes, we find that you cannot beat someone into changing with violence; that path is ultimately self-defeating. We have to change the factors.

Our consciousness is a funny, paradoxical thing, and hopefully I'll blog more about it in the future. It's a huge subject and I find it intensely fascinating. In the meantime, here are some more fascinating articles on the strangeness of this ghost of a ghost in our machine:
Mindtricks: six ways to explore your brain
How your friends affect more than just your mood

1 comment:

  1. Buddha said there's a ghost in the cave in Dhammapada. I guess machine is another good metaphor for the body.