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August 30, 2009

8:03 AM

Two important criticisms of the Buddhist notion of non-self



I think it is very important to realize that all Buddhist accounts (at least all those I have encountered) of how an illusion of selfhood might conceivably be constructed by a non-person fail to avoid begging the question. A theory is required, which answers all possible questions, before such a revolutionary idea as that of denial of real self in man can be posited with confidence; and no theory without holes or inconsistencies has to my knowledge been proposed. We may readily admit the existence of an illusory self (or ‘ego’), constructed and suffered by a stupid or misguided real self. But an aberration or delusion with no one constructing it or subject to it, seems like an absurd concept to me. It implies mere happenstance, determinism, without any consciousness, volition, values or responsibility.

Indeed, if you examine attempted such theories they always (overtly or covertly) describe an effective person (the pronoun ‘he’) constructing a false self. They never manage to escape from the sentence structure with a personal subject; typically: ‘he gradually deludes himself into thinking he has a self’. They do not provide a credibly detailed and consistent scenario of how unconscious and impersonal elements and processes (Nagarjuna’s “characteristics”) could possibly aggregate into something that has the impression (however false) it is someone! A machine (or robot with artificial intelligence) may ‘detect’ things (for us) but it has no consciousness; it may ‘do’ things (for us) but it has no volition; it may loudly proclaim ‘I’ but it has no soul.

There is also to consider the reverse process of deconstruction, how an ultimately impersonal artificial self (non-self) would or could go about freeing itself from illusion. Why would a non-self have any problem with remaining deluded (assuming it could be), and how if it has no personal powers would it intelligently choose to put in motion the prescribed process of liberation from delusion. A simple sentence like ‘to realize you have no self, make an effort to meditate daily’ is already a contradiction in terms, in my view.




With regard to the identification of the self with an illusion of consciousness, which is found in some Buddhist texts and becoming more popular in the West today, it seems to me that a misuse of the term ‘consciousness’ is involved. Consciousness is not, as they seem to suggest, a sort of stuff, which can become ‘delusive’. The substance of ‘mind’ (in a large sense, i.e. all of the psyche) is two-fold, in my view, comprising the stuff of soul (spirit) and that of mental projections (memories, imaginations, and the like – the ‘mind’ in a more restricted sense). As for consciousness, it is a relation, between two terms, one called the subject (any soul) and the other called the object (be it spirit, mind or matter).

Consciousness has no consciousness of its own. The relation it constitutes is unequal, involving at one end something cognized and at the other end something cognizing. The former exists at least as appearance; the latter ‘apprehends’ or ‘comprehends’ this appearance as an ‘experience’ or an ‘abstraction from experience’. Consciousness is never the subject of the relation of consciousness; it is usually the relation, and occasionally (in the case ‘self-consciousness’, which is a misnomer because it is the soul that is conscious of its consciousness; i.e. one instance of consciousness by the soul turned on another instance of consciousness by the soul) additionally the object. Consciousness or awareness is a function of the soul (subject), and not identical with it. Consciousness may have as its object contents of mind, but that does not make the two the same.

Buddhist philosophers and their modern imitators tend to blur the distinction between the three terms: soul, consciousness and mind. This tacit equation or ambiguity serves to give certain of their pronouncements a semblance of psychological and philosophical depth and consistency. For it allows us to assume one meaning or the other as convenient to the context, without having to systematically harmonize the different meanings. From a formal logic point of view, this is a common expedient to conceal a breach of syllogistic rules – in particular the ‘fallacy of four terms’. Thanks to an ambiguity, predicates applicable to one subject are illicitly passed over to another. Such a ‘fuzzy logic’ approach is lazy (if not dishonest), and in the long run obstructs knowledge development in this field. We must admit that three terms are used because we are dealing with three distinct objects. It is not arbitrary hair-splitting, but objective precision. 

4 Comment(s).

Posted by Avi:

Hi Steve. I have little doubt that Sartre is somewhat influenced by Heidegger, who was somewhat influenced by Eastern philosophy, Zen Buddhism in particular. So all this is in the same playing field - that's why too I have been considering reading Being and Nothingness anew. Your comments add further incentive.
I think you would appreciate my book "The Self", on sale for just $10 (+pp) through my bookshop...
September 4, 2009 @ 5:52 AM

Posted by Stephen S:

Hi Avi,
I think your comments are good.I too am no expert on Sartre and have just started reading Being and Nothingness and am enjoying it immensely.
Kind regards
September 4, 2009 @ 5:14 AM

Posted by Avi:

Hi Steve. I am no connaisseur of Sartre, although I recently reread his "Reflexions sur la question juive" (which btw I found quite interesting, being now more mature than when I first read it). As for "Being and Nothingness", I owned it once and read parts of it (having at the time enjoyed a number of his other books), but again I was too young to make much sense of it; recently I debated buying it again and may do so. So I reply very offhand.
Looking at some comments on this in Wikipedia, I notice first the use of the word 'consciousness' in an ambiguous sense, as Buddhists do. Does he identify it with the subject, or view it as a function of the soul? I also do not like its identification as 'being for itself', tho he does acknowledge this as an abstraction. Sartre does support human freedom and distinctiveness from inanimate objects - there I concur. We share a phenomenological, non-Kantian approach. His analysis of negation as unfulfilled expectation is important (see my previous blog on this). He rightly denounces self-identification with social categories and other projections - this is the false self (Buddhists would agree). But as to your remark about 'the soul viewed as a negation in a Being' I see no clarification. Offhand, I would disagree with such a view, since to me negation is an abstraction, and concrete existents are positive phenomena. For me the soul or real self is something positive - something known not by mere negation or other rational ways of abstraction but directly by intuition, a kind of perception of something non-phenomenal but quite concrete.
September 4, 2009 @ 3:44 AM

Posted by Stephen S:

Hi Avi,
What do you think of the idea of the soul being viewed as a negation in a Being, as described by Sartre in "Being and Nothingness"?
September 4, 2009 @ 1:05 AM