Comments on “Selflessness”

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The link between nebulosity of the self and selflessness

LPalmer's picture

Hi David. I hope you get around to expanding this section soon. This issue is one of the most interesting to me; meaning and selfhood seem especially connected. At times, the most strongly connected of all. Which is possibly why few, if any, of the various Buddhist chatter around this has made much sense to me. I still can't quite see why seeing yourself and everyone else as illusory is meant to have any kind of positive effect on anything, but maybe I'm being simplistic and misinterpreting.

I'm embarrassed to admit my bog-standard conception of self used to be - like, I suspect, many non-religious people - 'biological unit governed by a brain', something objective, with the definite boundaries that entailed, and that the amount of popular science books saying this is an illusion - like the Bruce Hood one - were just overcomplicating the plot.

Then, of course, came the acknowledgement of nebulosity: organisms without brains and without conceptions of self, all the different cells in bodies that make up a whole, that kind of thing. The problem then became more about defining life and non-life, let alone self and no-self.

Should something like many organisms' appearing to lack self-consciousness mean a jump to 'there are no selves and never have been'? Or: is the human experience of having a self enough for it to 'really exist in the world', as a thing?

I suspect this might be another issue where your characterisation of meaning as crossing the subject/object boundary might come into play...?

What sort of self don't we have?

Thank you very much—to choose were to expend effort next, it's useful to know which parts of the book are most wanted!

In the mean time, I recommend highly Kevin Simler's two connected essays:

meaning as crossing the subject/object boundary might come into play?

Yes, very much so. (See Kevin's "Oddly Shaped Mind.")

I've come to think the Buddhist ideas about selflessness are confused, unhelpful, and/or wrong. Explaining that in detail would/will be a big job, and maybe not really worthwhile—because who cares about Buddhism now? It's over.

One major confusion, in both Buddhism and Western philosophy and psychology, is that most discussions of "self" fail to explain what they mean by the word. We shouldn't expect or demand perfectly precise definitions, but just assuming "everyone knows" what the word means causes great confusion, because there seem to be several pretty different conceptions. It's probably not that one of them is right and the others are wrong, it's that they're all vaguely waving at a diverse constellation of semi-related phenomena, in murky and unhelpful ways.

I don't know the Bruce Hood book. I did read Thomas Metzinger's, which I gather is similar. Metzinger's argument—I hope I am not misrepresenting this—is:

  1. Representations are real, physical things in the brain.
  2. The self is the brain's representation of some aspects of itself.
  3. Therefore, the self does not exist.

All parts of this are wrong.

(1) The representational theory of mind failed, and is pretty well discredited among analytic philosophers of mind (who came up with it in collaboration with AI guys in the 1970s). No one could explain, even in principle, how a thing-in-the-head could represent anything by itself. Representations are necessarily interactions, depending causally on things outside the head.

(2) There are probably representations of brain activity involved in selfness somehow, but they are probably not the central point.

(3) Most spectacularly, proposition #3 not only doesn't follow from #1 and #2, it's directly contradicted by them. He says representations are real things, the self is a representation, therefore it is not a real thing. WTF?

I think, implicitly, that he's contrasting two different concepts of self. What he's trying to say in #3 is that some other concept of self is wrong and doesn't point to anything in the real world. But he not only doesn't say what the other concept is, he doesn't even say that there's two different concepts involved. (As far as I recall—it's been several years since I read this.)

The representational theory of mind was invented as an attempt at resolving the mind/body problem in favor of materialism (the doctrine that mental things are all just physical things). To do that, it tried to eliminate "the homunculus," which is the supposed seat of experience. That is, in fact, his second concept of self, which he wants to argue doesn't exist.

I'm quite sympathetic to attempts to kill the homunculus—I'm inclined to agree that it probably doesn't exist, although it's not clear what that would imply, or how we'd know—but this one failed.

Thanks for the links. They're

LPalmer's picture

Thanks for the links. They're very interesting.

I didn't mention Metzinger by name, as I hesitate to categorise him as 'pop science' given that his stuff seems to carry a degree of academic clout (amongst philosophers anyway). But he was lurking in the background.

Having properly re-read your other page about 'selfness' I now realise the suffix is the key, and the demands that something be clear and well-defined in order to (really) exist is what seems to generate the disagreements.

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