The other day I referred to the following bit of dialogue from the new HBO series, True Detective, as sophistry. Now I will explain why I think it to be such. Here is the part I want to focus on. The words are put in the mouth of the anti-natalist Rustin Cohle. I've ommitted the responses of the Woody Harrelson character.
I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self aware; nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody. I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.
Sorting through this crap is as painful as reading the typical student paper. Where does one start with such a farrago of Unsinn? But here goes. The main points made above are these:
1. The emergence of consciousness and self-consciousness in human animals is an accident, a fluke of evolution.
2. We are each under the illusion of having, or being, a self when in fact there are no selves.
3. We have been programmed by nature to suffer from this illusion.
4. The honorable thing to do is to deny our programming, refuse to procreate, and embrace our extinction as a species.
Each of these theses is either extremely dubious or demonstrably incoherent, taken singly, not to mention the dubiousness of the 'is'-'ought' inference from (3) to (4). But in this entry I will address (2) alone.
'There are no selves' is what our anti-natalist means when he say that everybody is nobody. For it is a Moorean fact, undeniable even by our anti-natalist, that every living human body is some living human body or other. He is not denying that plain fact but that these living human bodies are selves.
Now 'There are no selves,' if asserted by a being who understands what he says and means what he says, is asserted by a conscious and self-conscious being. But that is just what a self is. A self is a conscious being capable of expressing explicit self-consciousness by the use of the first-person singular pronoun, 'I.' Therefore, a self that asserts that there are no selves falls into performative inconsistency. The very act or performance of asserting that there are no selves or that one is not a self falsifies the content of the assertion. For that performance is a performance of a self.
The claim that there are no selves is therefore self-refuting.
Assertion is a speech act. But we get the same result if one merely thinks the thought that one is not a self without expressing it via an assertive utterance. If I think the thought *I am not a self,* then that thought is falsified by the act of thinking it since the act is the act of a self.
The point can also be made as follows. If there are no selves, then I am not a self. But if I am not a self, then I do not exist. Perhaps some living human body exists, but that body cannot be my body if I do not exist. What makes this body my body is its connection with me. So I must exist for some body to be my body. My body is my body and not my body's body. So I am not identical to my body. I have a body. 'This body is this body' is a tautology. 'I am this body' is not a tautology. If I exist, then I am distinct from my body and from any body.
So if I am not a self, then I do not exist. But the thought that I do not exist is unthinkable as true. Only I can think this thought, and my thinking of the thought falsifies its content, and this is so even if 'I' picks out merely a momentary self. (I am not committed by this line of reasoning to a substantial self that remains numerically the same over time.) So we have performative inconsistency.
This reasoning does not show that I am a necessary being, or that I have or am an immortal soul, or even that I am a res cogitans in Descartes' sense. What it shows is that the self cannot be an illusion. It shows that anyone who carefully considers whether or not he is a self can attain the certain insight that he is at least as long as he is thinking these thoughts.
Soviel Schein, soviel Sein
There is another way of looking at it. If each of us is under the illusion of having a self or being a self, then who is being fooled? To whom does this false seeming appear? There cannot be illusions in a world without conscious beings. An illusion by its very nature is an illusion to consciousness. So if consciousness is an illusion, then it is not an illusion. The same holds for the self. If the self is an illusion, then the self is not an illusion.
There cannot be Schein (illusion) without Sein (being). "So much seeming, so much being."
Can I assuage my feelings of guilt over a long past misdeed by telling myself that I was a different person then? Not very well. I was different all right, but not numerically.
One could try to soften strict numerical identity of a person over time by adopting a bundle theory of diachronic personal identity. (Roughly, a person at a time is a bundle of mental data; a person over time is a bundle of these bundles.) But even if such a theory were otherwise in the clear it is difficult to square such a theory with what appears to be a non-negotiable datum: I and no one else did such-and-such 30, 40, 50 years ago; I am the source of that misdeed; I could have, and should have, done otherwise. We convict ourselves in memory knowing that the one who remembers is strictly the same as the one who did the deed.
Nicholas Rescher cites this example from Buridan. The proposition is false, but not self-refuting. If every proposition is affirmative, then of course *Every proposition is affirmative* is affirmative. The self-reference seems innocuous, a case of self-instantiation. But *Every proposition is affirmative* has as a logical consequence *No proposition is negative.* This follows by Obversion, assuming that a proposition is negative if and only if it is not affirmative.
Paradoxically, however, the negative proposition, unlike its obverse, is self-refuting. For if no proposition is negative then *No proposition is negative* is not negative. So if it is, it isn't. Plainly it is. Ergo, it isn't.
Rescher leaves the matter here, and I'm not sure I have anything useful to add.
It is strange, though, that here we have two logically equivalent propositions one of which is self-refuting and the other of which is not. The second is necessarily false. If true, then false; if false, then false; ergo, necessarily false. But then the first must also be necessarily false. After all, they are logically equivalent: each entails the other across all logically possible worlds.
What is curious, though, is that the ground of the logical necessity seems different in the two cases. In the second case, the necessity is grounded in logical self-contradiction. In the first case, there does not appear to be any self-contradiction.
It is impossible that every proposition be affirmative. And it is impossible that no proposition be negative. But whereas the impossibility of the second is the impossibility of self-referential inconsistency, the impossibility of the first is not. (That is the 'of' of apposition.)
Can I make an aporetic polyad out of this? Why not?
1. Logically equivalent logically impossible propositions have the same ground of their logical impossibility.
2. The ground of the logical impossibility of *Every proposition is affirmative* is not in self-reference.
3. The ground of the logical impossibility of *No proposition is negative* is in self-reference.
The limbs of this antilogism are individually plausible but collectively inconsistent.
Nicholas Rescher, Paradoxes: Their Roots, Range, and Resolution, Open Court, 2001, pp. 21-22.
G. E. Hughes, John Buridan on Self-Reference, Cambidge UP, 1982, p. 34. Cited by Rescher.
In your recent post criticizing Harris' argument against the self (which is already present in Hume) you point out that the argument against the self is lacking. It is lacking, you argue, because from the mere fact that the self is not revealed in certain types of introspective experiences it does not follow that the self does not exist. I agree.
But a stronger complaint can be advanced. Harris (and Hume) must answer the following question: Who (what) is doing the introspection (meditation) which allegedly reveals no experience of the self? I suggest that there is no reasonable candidate for such a role other than the self. And so now an explanation can be given to the puzzle how come introspection does not reveal the self; it fails to do so because the self is inevitably absent from the introspective field in order to perform the introspective function. But the self leaves its own recognizable trail behind; it is the trail of a conscious subject which unifies the various experiences encountered by the introspective self as belonging to the same person. If it were not for this trail, the introspective self would have no reason to think that this toothache and that memory or desire belong to one and the same subject.
I think your searching-for-my-glasses-on-my-nose example illustrates well the point.
It is a pleasure to have Peter as a sort of philosophical alter ego who sees many matters as I do. Here are the main points and I think we agree on all of them.
1. The nonexistence of what one fails to find does not logically follow from one's failing to find it. So the failure to find in experience an object called 'self' does not entail the nonexistence of the self.
2. So failure to find the self as an object of experience is at least logically consistent with the existence of a self.
3. What's more, the positing of a self seems rationally required even though the self is not experienceable. For someone or something is doing the searching and coming up 'empty-handed.'
4. There are also considerations re: diachronic personal identity. Suppose I decide to investigate the question of the self. A moment later I begin the investigation by carefully examining the objects of inner and outer experience to see if any one of them is the self. After some searching I come to the conclusion that the self is not to be located among the objects of experience. I then entertain the thought that perhaps there is no self. But then it occurs to me that failure to find X is not proof of X's nonexistence. I then consider whether it is perhaps the very nature of the subject of experience to be unobjectifiable. And so I conclude that the self exists but is not objectifiable.
This reasoning may or may not be sound. The point, however, is that the reasoning, which plays out over a period of time, would not be possible at all if there were no one self -- no one unity of consciousness and self-consciousness -- that maintained its strict numerical identity over the period of time in question. For what we have in the reasoning process is not merely a succession of conscious states, but also a consciousness of their succession in one and the same conscious subject. Without the consciousness of succession, without the retention of the earlier states in the present state, no conclusion could be arrived at.
All reasoning presupposes the diachronic unity of consciousness. Or do you think that the task of thinking through a syllogism could be divided up? Suppose Manny says, All men are mortal! Moe then pipes up, Socrates is a man! Could Jack conclude that Socrates is mortal? No. He could say it but not conclude it. (This assumes that Jack does not hear what the other two Pep Boys say. Imagine each in a separate room.)
The hearing of a melody supplies a second example.
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, or that of inferring a conclusion from premises.) 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.
The unitary self is phenomenologically given, but not as a separate object. Therein, perhaps, resides the error of Hume and some Buddhists: they think that if there is a self, it must exist as a separate object of experience.
London Karl brings to my attention an article by Sam Harris touching upon themes dear to my heart. Harris is an impressive fellow, an excellent public speaker, a crusader of sorts who has some important and true things to say, but who is sometimes out beyond his depth, like many public intellectuals who make bold to speak about philosophical topics. (But Harris is surely right clearly and courageously to point out that, among the ideologies extant at the present time, radical Islam is the most dangerous.)
In Rational Mysticism, Harris responds to critic Tom Flynn and in doing so offers characterizations of secularism, religion, and rational mysticism:
I used the words spirituality and mysticism affirmatively, in an attempt to put the range of human experience signified by these terms on a rational footing. It seems to me that the difficulty Flynn had with this enterprise is not a problem with my book, or merely with Flynn, but a larger problem with secularism itself.
As a worldview, secularism has defined itself in opposition to the whirling absurdity of religion. Like atheism (with which it is more or less interchangeable), secularism is a negative dispensation. Being secular is not a positive virtue like being reasonable, wise, or loving. To be secular, one need do nothing more than live in perpetual opposition to the unsubstantiated claims of religious dogmatists. Consequently, secularism has negligible appeal to the culture at large (a practical concern) and negligible content (an intellectual concern). There is, in fact, not much to secularism that should be of interest to anyone, apart from the fact that it is all that stands between sensible people like ourselves and the mad hordes of religious imbeciles who have balkanized our world, impeded the progress of science, and now place civilization itself in jeopardy. Criticizing religious irrationality is absolutely essential. But secularism, being nothing more than the totality of such criticism, can lead its practitioners to reject important features of human experience simply because they have been traditionally associated with religious practice.
The above can be distilled into three propositions:
1. Secularism is wholly defined by what it opposes, religion.
2. Religion is irrational, anti-science, and anti-civilization.
3. It would be a mistake to dismiss mysticism because of its traditional association with religious practice.
The final chapter of my book, which gave Flynn the most trouble, is devoted to the subject of meditation. Meditation, in the sense that I use the term, is nothing more than a method of paying extraordinarily close attention to one’s moment-to-moment experience of the world. There is nothing irrational about doing this (and Flynn admits as much). In fact, such a practice constitutes the only rational basis for making detailed (first-person) claims about the nature of human subjectivity. Difficulties arise for secularists like Flynn, however, once we begin speaking about the kinds of experiences that diligent practitioners of meditation are apt to have. It is an empirical fact that sustained meditation can result in a variety of insights that intelligent people regularly find intellectually credible and personally transformative. The problem, however, is that these insights are almost always sought and expressed in a religious context. One such insight is that the feeling we call “I”—the sense that there is a thinker giving rise to our thoughts, an experiencer distinct from the mere flow of experience—can disappear when looked for in a rigorous way. Our conventional sense of “self” is, in fact, nothing more than a cognitive illusion, and dispelling this illusion opens the mind to extraordinary experiences of happiness. This is not a proposition to be accepted on faith; it is an empirical observation, analogous to the discovery of one’s optic blind spots.
To continue with the distillation:
4. Meditation, defined as careful attention to conscious experience, is the only basis for sustainable claims about subjectivity. There is nothing irrational about it.
5. Deep meditation gives rise to unusual, and sometimes personally transformative, experiences or "insights."
6. One such "insight" is that the "sense of self" or the "feeling called 'I'" can disappear when carefully searched for.
7. The sense of "self" is a cognitive illusion, and can be seen to be such by empirical observation: it is not a proposition to be accepted on faith.
There is much to agree with here. Indeed, I wholeheartedly accept propositions (1), (3), (4), and (5). Of course, I don't accept (2), but that is not what I want to discuss. My present concerns are (6) and (7).
Let me say first that, for me, 'insight' is a noun of success, and in this regard it is like 'knowledge.' There cannot be false knowledge; there cannot be false insights. Now does deep meditation disclose that there is, in truth, no self, no ego, no I, no subject of experience? Harris does not say flat-out that the self is an illusion; he says that the "sense of self" is an illusion. But I don't think he means that there is a self but that there is no sense of it in deep meditation. I take him to be saying something quite familiar from (the religion?) Pali Buddhism, namely, that there is no self, period. Anatta, you will recall, is one of the pillars of Pali and later Buddhism, along with anicca and dukkha.
So I will assume that Harris means to deny the the existence of the self as the subject of experience and to deny it on empirical grounds: there is no self because no self is encountered when we carefully examine, in deep meditation, our conscious experience.
It seems to me, however, that the nonexistence of what I fail to find does not logically follow from my failing to find it.
It may be that the self is the sort of thing that cannot turn up as an object of experience precisely because it is the subject of experience.
Here is an analogy. An absent-minded old man went in search of his eyeglasses. He searched high and low, from morning til night. Failing to find them after such a protracted effort, he concluded that he never had any in the first place. His search, however, was made possible by the glasses sitting upon his nose!
The analogy works with the eyes as well. From the fact that my eyes do not appear in my visual field (apart from mirrors), it does not follow that I have no eyes. My eyes are a necessary condition of my having a visual field in the first place. Their nonappearance in said field is no argument against them.
It could be something like that (though not exactly like that) with the self. It could be that the self cannot, by its very nature, turn up as an object of experience, for the simple reason that it is the subject of experience, that which is experiencing.
It is simply false to say what Harris says in (7), namely that one empirically observes that there is no self. That is not an observation but an inference from the failure to encounter the self as an object of experience. It is an inference that is valid only in the presence of an auxiliary premise:
Only that which can be experienced as an object exists. The self cannot be experienced as an object. Therefore The self does not exist.
This argument is valid, but is it sound? The second premise is empirical: nothing we encounter in experience (inner or outer) counts as the subject of experience. True for the standard Humean and Buddhist reasons. But we cannot validly move from the second premise to the conclusion. We need the help of the auxiliary premise, which is not empirical. How then do we know that it is true? Must we take it on faith? Whose faith? Harris's?
My point, then, is that (7) is false and that Harris is operating with a dogmatic, non-empirical assumption, the just-mentioned auxiliary premise.
Harris needs to be careful that in his war against "absurd religious certainties" he does not rely on absurd dogmatic certainties of his own.
My living body will become a dead body; I will never become a dead body; therefore, I am not identical to a living body.
It seems to me that if "becoming" means the same thing in both the first and the second premises, then one must say that both Bill and his living body will become a dead body, or that neither will. It seems that where a living body used to be, a dead body will begin to be. So also, it seems that where Bill used to be, a dead body will begin to be.
I don't see that the reader has refuted the argument. Yes, 'becomes' means the same in both premises.
Now the first premise is true: It is clear that one day my living body will undergo a radical change and become a dead body: the same body that today is alive will on a future date no longer have the property of being alive but will instead have the property of being dead. (I am assuming some 'normal' way of dying, as opposed to being instantaneously annihilated in a nuclear blast. More on this in a moment.) This is an alterational change: one and the same body will exist at different times in different states, first alive, then dead. So it is not the case, as the reader claims, that "where a living body used to be, a dead body will begin to be." That would be an existential change, not an alterational one. It is not the case that a dead body will begin to be; one and the same body will go from being alive to being dead.
The second premise is also true. When my body dies, I will cease to exist; but when my body dies it won't cease to exist: it will continue to exist for a while as a corpse. This is an existential change in me, not an alterational change: I will cease to exist. It is not the case that I will change in respect of the property of being alive.
Therefore, I cannot be identical to my living body. 'Will no longer exist' is true of me, but not true of my body.
"But what if you are annihilated in an explosion so that there is no corpse?" At this point the argument takes a modal turn. Even if my body does not continue to exist after I cease to exist, it could; but it is not possible that I continue to exist after I cease to exist. So again we have a difference in properties and non-identity.
I have been assuming mortalism, the doctrine that I cease to exist when my body dies. If mortalism is false, and I exist even after the death of my body, then a fortiori I am not identical to my living body.
In his latest and last book, Mortality, Christopher Hitchens writes, "I don't have a body, I am a body." (86) He goes on to observe that he has "consciously and regularly acted as if this was [sic] not true." It is a curious fact that mortalists are among the worst abusers of the fleshly vehicle. But that is not my theme.
Is a person just his body? The meditation is best conducted in the first person: Am I just my body? Am I identical to my body? Am I one and the same with my body, where body includes brain? Am I such that, whatever is true of my body is true of me, and vice versa? Let's start with some 'Moorean facts,' some undeniable platitudes.
1. I am not now identical to a dead body, a corpse. There is, no doubt, a dead body in my future, one with my name on it. But that lifeless object won't be me. I will never become a corpse. I will never be buried or cremated. I am not now and never will be identical to a dead body. For when the corpse with my name on it comes to exist, I will have ceased to exist; and when I cease to exist, it will still exist. This property difference via the Indiscernibility of Identicals entails the non-identity of me and 'my' corpse.
'My' corpse is the corpse that will come into existence when I cease to exist, or, if mortalism is false, when I am separated from my body. Strictly speaking, no corpse is my corpse: hence the scare quotes around 'my.' But I can speak strictly of my body: my body is the body that is either identical to me, or is related to me in some 'looser' way.
2. I am obviously not identical to a dead body. And I have just argued that I will never become identical to a dead body. Am I then identical to a living body? Not if the following syllogism is sound: My living body will become a dead body; I will never become a dead body; therefore, I am not identical to a living body.
This argument assumes that if x = y, then whatever is true of x is true of y, and vice versa. Little is self-evident, but surely this principle is self-evident. There is something true of my living body that is not true of me, namely 'will become a dead body.' Therefore, I am not identical to a living body. And since the only living body I could be identical to if I were identical to a living body would be my living body, I am not identical to my living body. Of course, I have a living body in some to-be-explored sense of 'have'; the point is that I am not identical to it.
3. Consider now the following rather more plausible identity claim: I am (identically) a self-conscious animal. Let's unpack this. I am a living human animal that says 'I' and means it; I am a thinker of I-thoughts, an example of which is the thought *I am just a self-conscious animal.* I am self-aware: aware of myself as an object, both as a physical object, a body, through the five outer senses, and as psychological object, a mind, through inner sense or introspection. Both my body and my mind are objects for me as subject. As such a self-aware animal, I am aware of being different from my body. In some sense I must be different from my body (and my mind) if they are my objects. 'My objects' means 'objects for me as subject.'
Now if you were paying attention you noticed that I made an inferential move the validity of which demands scrutiny. I moved from
a. I am aware of being different from my body
b. I am different from my body.
The materialist is bound to resist this inference. He will ask how we know that the awareness mentioned in (a) is veridical. Only if it is, is the inference valid. He will suggest that it is possible that I have an non-veridical, an illusory, awareness of being different from my body. I can't credit that suggestion, however. It cannot be an illusion that I am different from anything I take as object of awareness including my brain or any part of my brain. That is a primary and indubitable givenness. Awareness is by its very nature awareness of something: it implies a difference between that which is aware, the subject of awareness, and the object of awareness. Without that difference there could be no awareness of anything. If the self-aware subject were identical to that object which is its animal body, then the subject would not be aware of the body.
4. Will you say that the body is aware of itself? Then I will ask you which part of the body is the subject of awareness. Is it the brain, or a proper part of the brain? When I am aware of my weight or the cut on my arm, is it the brain or some proper part of the brain that is aware of these things? This makes no sense. My brain is no more the subject of awareness than my glasses are. My glasses don't see the wound; I see the wound by the instrumentality of the glasses. Similarly, my brain doesn't see the wound; I see the wound by the instrumentality of the brain (and the visual cortex, and the optic nerves, and the glasses, etc.) The fact that my visual awareness is causally dependent on my having a functioning brain does not show that my brain or any part of it is the subject of awareness. I am not identical to my brain or to any bodily thing.
5. Who or what asks the question: Am I identical to this body here? Does the body ask this question? Some proper part of the body such as the brain? Some proper part of this proper part? How could anything physical ask a question?
"Look, there are are certain physical objects that ask themselves whether they are identical to the physical objects they are, and entertain the (illusory) thought that they might not be identical to the physical objects they are."
This little materialist speech is absurd by my lights since no physical object -- as we are given to understand 'physical object' by physics -- could do such a thing. If you insist that some physical objects can, then you have inflated 'physical' so that it no longer contrasts with 'mental.'
So with all due respect to the late Mr Hitchens, brilliant talker about ideas whose depth he never plumbed, I think there are very good reasons to deny that one is identically one's body.
Further questions: If I am not identical to any physical thing, can it be inferred that I am identical to some spiritual thing? If I am not identical to my body or any part thereof, do I then have a body, and what exactly does that mean?
In other posts I have sketched the Buddhist doctrine of 'No Self.' I now consider an early Buddhist argument for it. Here are the words of Buddha according to the Anattalakkhana Sutta, his second discourse, the Sermon on the Mark of Not-Self:
The body [rupa], monks, is not self. If the body were the self, this body would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible (to say) with regard to the body, 'Let my body be thus. Let my body be not thus.' But precisely because the body is not self, the body lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible (to say) with regard to the body, 'Let my body be thus. Let my body not be thus.'
Buddha then goes on to argue similarly with respect to the rest of the five aggregates or categories of personality-constituents (khandhas, Sanskrit: skandhas), namely, feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), consciousness (vinnana), and mental formations (sankharas). All are claimed to be not-self. Thus we are told that feeling afflicts us and is not amenable to our control, whence it is inferred that feeling is not one's self, not one's own inner substance. The tacit premise of this enthymematic argument is that one's self would have to be something over which one would have complete control. The tacit premise is that the self is something wholly active and spontaneous and self-regulating. And it is clear that something wholly active will not suffer: to suffer is precisely to be afflicted by something external over which one has no control. To suffer is to be passive. An agent in excelsis is an impassible agent. (In the West, impassibility became one of the divine attributes.)
After arguing that each of the personality-constituents is outside of our control and brings suffering, Buddha argues that each of the constituents is impermanent and for this reason as well is lacking in self-nature. The over-all argument of the Anattalakkhana Sutta may therefore be reconstructed in a generalized form as follows:
1. If anything were the self, then it would have two properties: it would not be liable to disease, decay, destruction or change generally, and it would be self-determining, i.e., it would have complete control over itself. 2. But nothing in our experience has either of these two properties, not the body, or feeling, or perception, or consciousness, etc. Therefore 3. Nothing in our experience can be identified as the self.
I have structured the argument so that it is not only valid in point of logical form, but also has plausible premises. (A charitable reconstruction can aim at nothing less.) Thus the addition of 'in our experience' in premise (2) makes this premise more plausible than without the addition. But this gain in plausibility exacts a price: the conclusion (3) cannot then amount to the unrestricted anatta doctrine according to which nothing at all is a self or has self-nature. It is one thing to say that nothing in our experience can be identified (veridically) as a self, and quite another to say that there is no self.
The Pali Buddhist, of course, wants to arrive at the conclusion that there is no self at all, that nothing at all has self-nature. I would insist, however, that one cannot validly move directly from (3) to
4. Nothing can be identified as the self: there is no self at all.
For it may well be that the existence of a (transcendental) self that is not experienced is a necessary condition of establishing that whatever is experienced is not a self. After all, if I come to see that my body, feelings, perceptions, and so on cannot be identified as my very self, then it is presumably I myself who come to this insight. If I come to reject body-identification, feeling- identification, etc. as false self-identifications, then presumably there must be at least the possibility of a true self-identification, even if only of the tautological form, 'I am I.' If every self-identification were false, then 'I am I' would be false. But that is either a contradiction, or implies that there is nothing that body, feelings, etc. are distinct from, which is again incoherent. For if 'I am not this body' is true, then in some sense I must exist as that from which my body is distinct. The first-person singular pronoun cannot be wholly referenceless if it is to be true, as it is true, that I am not my body, my feelings, my thoughts, the pain in my neck, etc.
Furthermore, if anyone needs and desires liberation, it is presumably in every case I myself who needs and desires it, and I myself who, if all goes well, achieves it, and indeed achieves it on the basis of my own insight into my non-identity with any of the five khandhas or with the psychophysical complex composed of them. The self who needs, desires, and possibly attains liberation is obviously distinct from each of the khandhas and from the psychophysical complex. My body, obviously enough, cannot come to realize its non-identity with itself, for the simple reason that it is not distinct from itself. The same holds for each of the khandhas, and for the lot of them taken together.
And to suppose that no one desires, needs, or attains liberation would appear to make hash of the whole Buddhist system of soteriology. Buddhism is an existentialist system in roughly Kierkegaard's sense: it is the salvation of the "existing individual" that is the unum necessarium and sole desideratum. It is therefore arguable that the existence of a transcendental self is a cognitive and soteriological presupposition: it is presupposed if there is to be the insight that no object of experience is veridically identifiable as one's very self, and it is presupposed if there is to be something that is saved from the samsaric predicament.
The gist of the control argument is this. There is no evidence of a self since nothing with which we are acquainted is immutable, and nothing with which we are acquainted is something over which we have complete control.
But this raises an obvious question: Isn't the standard for selfhood being set unattainably high? The argument isd tantamount tosaying that if I am not God or a god, then I am not a self. Arguably, God to be God must be impassible; but must a self to be a self be impassible?
For a richer and more rigorous development of this theme, see W. F. Vallicella, "No Self? A Look at a Buddhist Argument," International Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 4 (December 2002), pp. 453-466
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.
To what extent is it a sign of self-importance that one regularly draws attention to one's own insignificance? I am thinking of Simone Weil. In self-effacement the ego may find a way to assert itself. "Do you see how pure and penetrating is my love of truth that I am able to realize and admit my own personal nothingness face to face with Truth?"
The ego, wily 'structure' that it is, usually (always?) finds a way to affirm itself.
0. Am I identical to my (living) body, or to the objectively specifiable person who rejoices under the name 'BV'? Earlier I resoundingly denied this identity, in (rare) agreement with London Ed, but admitted that argument is needed. This post begins the argument. We start with the problem of first-person identity sentences.
1. 'I am I' and 'BV is BV' are logical truths. They have the logical form a = a. They are not particularly puzzling. But 'I am BV' presents a puzzle, one reminiscent of Frege's puzzle concerning informative identity statements. 'I am BV' is not true as a matter of logic, any more than it is true as a matter of logic that the morning star is the evening star. And yet it is presumably true that I am BV where 'am' expresses strict numerical identity. It is not as if 'I' and 'BV' refer to two different entities. Or at least this is not a view we ought to begin by assuming. The proper procedure is to see if we can make sense of 'I am BV' construed as an identity statement. Dualism comes later if it comes at all.
2. Here is a theory. When I say 'I am BV' I am referring to one and the same thing in two different ways, just as, when I say 'The morning star is the evening star' I am referring to one and the same thing (the planet Venus) in two different ways. Expressions have sense and they have reference. Difference of sense is compatible with sameness of reference. The difference in sense of 'morning star' and 'evening star' explains why the identity statement composed of them is informative; the sameness of reference explains the identity statement's truth.
In Frege's famous example, the common referent is the planet Venus. What is the common referent of 'I' and 'BV'? Presumably the common referent is the publicly identifiable person BV. But when BV designates himself by means of the thought or utterance of 'I, he designates BV under the aspect, or via the sense, expressed by 'I,' a semantically irreducible sense that cannot be captured by any expression not containing 'I.'
Here then we seem to have a solution to our problem. In general, one can refer to the same thing in different ways, via different modes of presentation (Darstellungsweisen, in Frege's German). So apply that to the special case of the self. What I refer to when I say 'I' is the same entity that I refer to when I say 'BV' and the same entity that Peter refers to when he says 'BV.' It is just that I refer to the same thing in different ways, a first-person way and third-person way. There is no need to suppose that 'I and 'BV' have numerically distinct referents. There is no need to deny the numerical identity of me and BV. Unfortunately, this Fregean solution is a pseudo-solution. I have two arguments. I'll give one today.
3. Consider the sentence 'I am this body here' uttered by the speaker while pointing to his body. If, in this sentence, 'I' refers to this body here (the body of the speaker), albeit via a Fregean sense distinct from that of 'this body here,' then the sense of 'I,' whatever it might be, must be the sense of a physical thing inasmuch as it must be the mode of presentation of a physical thing. Note that the 'of' in the italicized phrases is a genitivus objectivus. Somehow this 'I'-sense must determine a reference to a physical thing, this body here. But that it is the sense of a physical thing is no part of the sense of 'I.' We understand fully the sense of this term without understanding it to be the sense of a physical thing, a sense that presents or mediates reference to a physical thing. Indeed, considerations adduced by Anscombe and Castaneda show that the 'I'-sense cannot be the sense of a physical thing. For if the sense of 'I' cannot be captured by 'this body here,' then a fortiori it cannot be captured by any other expression designating a physical thing.
The analogy with the morning star/evening star case breaks down. One cannot use 'morning star' and 'evening star' with understanding unless one understands that they refer to physical things, if they refer at all. It is understood a priori that these terms designate physical things if they designate at all; the only question is whether they designate the same physical thing. But one can use the first-person singular pronoun with understanding without knowing whether or not it refers to a physical thing.
In other words, there is nothing in the sense of 'I' to exclude the possibility that it refer to a nonphysical thing, a res cogitans, for example. Descartes' use of 'ego' to refer to a thinking substance did not violate the semantic rules for the use of this term. What's more, if 'I' is a referring term and refers via a Fregean sense, then that sense cannot be the sense of a physical thing.
So that's my first argument against the Fregean approach to the problem of first-person identity sentences. The argument rests on the assumption that 'I' is a referring term. That assumption has been denied by Wittgenstein, and more rigorously, by Anscombe. That denial deserves a separate post. And in that post we ought to rehearse the reasons why 'I' cannot be replaced salva significatione by any such word or phase as 'the person who is now speaking.'