A friend refers me to a rather poor article, "The Dalai Lama, the Pope, and Creation," in which the dubious claims of the Dalai Lama are ineptly rebutted by a Catholic journalist. We read:
Beyond the complex world of nature, Buddhism asserts a fundamental “nothingness.” Buddhist thought sees as illusory all distinction between beings. As the Dalai Lama writes in The Universe in a Single Atom, “According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is untenable. All things and events, whether material, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence.”
This is one of the central pillars of Buddhism, the doctrine of anatta (Pali), anatman (Sanskrit), 'no self.' The idea is that nothing, or at least nothing in the realm of samsara, has self-nature, substantiality, own-being, ontological independence, even relative ontological independence. And that includes persons (selves). You and I are not independent existents. The distinction between us is illusory. From the point of view of Christian metaphysics, this cannot be right. God is an uncreated self, and we are created selves. Although we depend for our existence on God, this fact is thought to be compatible with our genuine (though dependent) existence as self-same individuals numerically distinct from other such individuals.
It is not enough to pit worldviews against one another. You have to get down to the nitty-gritty of trying to resolve the dispute by careful analysis and argument. There is no reason to be sanguine about the success of such an enterprise, but you are no philosopher if you do not make the attempt.
I will now argue against the anatta doctrine by arguing that the conscious self cannot be a Heraclitean flux of instantaneous entities but must be an individual that remains self-same through the flux of its conscious states.
Suppose my mental state passes from one that is pleasurable to one that is painful. Observing a beautiful Arizona sunset, my reverie is suddenly broken by the piercing noise of a smoke detector. Not only is the painful state painful, the transition from the pleasurable state to the painful one is itself painful. The fact that the transition is painful shows that it is directly perceived. It is not as if
there is merely a succession of consciousnesses (conscious states); there is in addition a consciousness of their succession. For there is a consciousness of the transition from the pleasant state to the painful state, a consciousness that embraces both of the states, and so cannot be reductively analyzed into them. But a consciousness of their succession is a consciousness of their succession in one subject, in one unity of consciousness. It is a consciousness of the numerical identity of the self through the transition from the pleasurable state to the painful one. Passing from a pleasurable state to a painful one, there is not only an awareness of a pleasant state followed by an awareness of a painful one, but also an awareness that the one who was in a pleasurable state is strictly and numerically the same as the one who is now in a painful state. This sameness is phenomenologically given, although our access to this phenomenon is easily blocked by inappropriate models taken from the physical world. Without the consciousness of sameness, there would be no consciousness of transition.
What this argument shows is that the self cannot be a mere diachronic bundle or collection of states. The self is a transtemporal unity distinct from its states whether these are taken distributively or collectively.
Another example is provided by the hearing of a melody. To hear the melody Do-Re-Mi, it does not suffice that there be a hearing of Do, followed by a hearing of Re, followed by a hearing of
Mi. For those three acts of hearing could occur in that sequence in three distinct subjects, in which case they would not add up to the hearing of a melody. (Tom, Dick, and Harry can divide up the task of loading a truck, but not the ‘task’ of hearing a melody, or that of understanding a sentence.) But
now suppose the acts of hearing occur in the same subject, but that this subject is not a unitary and self-same individual but just the bundle of these three acts, call them A1, A2, and A3. When A1 ceases, A2 begins, and when A2 ceases, A3 begins: they do not overlap. In which act is the hearing of the melody? A3 is the only likely candidate, but surely it cannot be a hearing of the melody.
For the awareness of a melody involves the awareness of the (musical not temporal) intervals between the notes, and to apprehend these intervals there must be a retention (to use Husserl’s term) in the present act A3 of the past acts A2 and A1. Without this phenomenological presence of the past acts in the present act, there would be no awareness in the present of the melody. But this
implies that the self cannot be a mere bundle of perceptions externally related to each other, but must be a peculiarly intimate unity of perceptions in which the present perception A3 includes the immediately past ones A2 and A1 as temporally past but also as phenomenologically present in the mode of retention. The fact that we hear melodies thus shows that there must be a self-same and unitary self through the period of time between the onset of the melody and its completion. This unitary self is neither identical to the sum or collection of A1, A2, and A3, nor is it identical to something wholly distinct from them. Nor of course is it identical to any one of them or any two of
them. This unitary self is given whenever one hears a melody.
Now consider a synchronic example, the hearing of a chord. Hearing the major chord C-E-G, I hear that it is major, and hearing the minor chord C-E flat-G, I hear that it is minor. How is this possible? The hearing of the major chord cannot be analyzed without remainder into an act of hearing C, an act of hearing E, and an act of hearing G, even when all occur simultaneously. For to hear the three notes as a major chord, I must apprehend the 1-3-5 musical interval that they instantiate. But
this is possible only because the whole of my present consciousness is more than the sum of its parts. This whole is no doubt made up of the part-consciousnesses, but it is not exhausted by them. For it is also a consciousness of the relatedness of the notes. But this consciousness of relatedness is not something in addition to the other acts of consciousness: it includes them and embraces them without being reducible to them. Once again the unitary self is given: it is given whenever we hear a chord.
There is also this consideration. Phenomenologically, mental change is not existential change, but
alterational change, or in a word, alteration. Existential change, as when something comes into being or passes away, is not a change in something, or at least it is not a change in the thing that suffers the change: a thing that ceases to exist is no longer available to be that in which this change occurs, and a thing that comes to exist is not available prior to its coming to exist to be that in which this change occurs. We express this by saying that there is no substratum of existential change. Alteration, however, requires a substratum: alteration occurs when numerically one and the same individual is in different states at different times.
Pali Buddhism, with its interconnected doctrines of radical impermanence and universal selflessness,
implies that that ultimately there is no alteration, that all change is existential change. For alteration requires substrata of alteration, and substrata are incompatible with anatta. But if mental change were existential change, there could be no consciousness of it. If the pleasant visual sensation simply passes out of existence to be replaced by the painful auditory sensation, then there is a change all right – a change in the way things are – but not a change of which there could be any consciousness in the one in whom the change occurs. Furthermore, there would be no awareness of
dukkha – the starting point of Buddhist soteriology – because there would be no possibility of a perceived contrast of the dukkha-state with the earlier sukha-state (the pleasant awareness of the sunset).
To be aware of the change from the pleasurable state to the painful one, I must endure through the change. Therefore, since there is consciousness of mental change, mental change is alteration and thus requires a substratum that is numerically identical across the change. The point was appreciated by Kant, who wrote that “A coming to be or a ceasing to be . . . can never be a possible [object of] perception.” (CPR A 188 = B 231)
What this shows is that there is direct awareness of the self as that in which the two distinct states are united. The fact of experienced mental change refutes the anatta doctrine. There is not just an awareness of one state followed by an awareness of a second; I am aware of myself as the transtemporal unity of the two states. Unity, of course, is not identity: so talk of the unity of the pleasurable and painful states is consistent with their numerical distinctness. The self, therefore, is directly given in the experience of mental change; but it is of course not given as a separate object wholly distinct from its states. It is given in and through these states as their transtemporal unity. The self is not one of its states, nor the sum of all of them, nor something wholly distinct from all of them; the self is their self-unifying unity. Thus one must not think of the substratum of mental change as wholly distinct from its states. It is not like a pin cushion into which pins are stuck. A pin cushion without pins is conceivable; a self without conscious states is not. The self is not an unconscious something that supports consciousness; it itself has the nature of consciousness. Consciousness/self-consciousness is a sui generis reality that cannot be understood in terms of crude models from the physical world.