The Buddhist doctrine of no-self: a Western analysis

The following is an articulation of Thomas Metzinger’s rejection of the concept of a self in the Western philosophical tradition, and a comparison of this with rejection with the implications Buddhists think obtain from it.

When we speak of human subjectivity, we are not speaking about a classical” subject a la Descartes, that is a substance that possesses an essence that endures throughout time, but an internal depiction of choice components of reality by a bio-system, on levels that are both conscious and unconscious, and the reason different organisms select distinct sense-perceptions and cognitions from their environment rather than others, is for because these pieces of information are advantageous from an evolutionary perspective (deliberately guided attention, cognitive reference and selective control of action in avoiding predators, finding food and mates, seeking reward that is advantageous to the mind and body for the purpose of survival, status and passing on of genes, and avoiding punishment that is harmful to the mind and body and which might impede status, survival and passing on of genes, etc.).

Humans experience the “self” as a kind of island of temporal presence within the continuous flow of physical time. This self, however, is a representational construct which serves a specific evolutionary purpose rather than isomorphically corresponding to a metaphysically real entity.

The causal mechanisms that generate this representational illusion are not themselves directly accessible to subjective experience, namely, the representational nature of the contents of conscious experience (i.e., we don’t experience our selves or our representations as representations, we just experience them as presumably “the way things are,” naive realism).

Because of the evolutionary usefulness of the self, it is not adaptive (and potentially maladaptive) to be aware of its illusory nature. It is simply one of the cognitive biases and perceptual illusions to which we are naturally subject (and there are quite a few).

Like many such illusions, the illusory nature of the phenomenal self-model (hereafter PSM) does not resolve itself even if we become intellectually convinced that such a philosophical anthropology is true. That is, even if we believe the PSM is an illusion, it’s still going to feel like we have or are a self.

Ultimately, we store representations and apply them once we learn or memorize them, to present problems with an aim to the future. The external world is a simulation created by our brains and is not isomorphic with reality (although such a mind-independent reality certainly does exist).

The experience of the PSM’s substantiality involves illusion of being an independent entity that transcends the body, of possessing an essence or an innermost core that is basically unchangeable, or an invariant set of intrinsic properties, uniqueness, persistence and indivisibility. But our phenomenal experience merely consists of a set of reactions to external stimuli for adaptive purposes, and they are complex brain states rather than simple souls.

What I think makes Buddhism unique is its claim that it offers a method (Vipassana meditation and associated practices) that actually does cause a resolution of this illusion, and the reason this is desirable is because Buddhists see suffering as caused by attachment to ultimately transient pleasures that keep one in a cycle of suffering (the tension-resolution cycle of pleasure and suffering).

Insults and injuries are experienced by an alleged “self,” and it is (according to Buddhists) precisely the folk essentialism that perpetuates belief in such a self that must be eradicated through certain practices if suffering is to be eliminated. During meditation, the idea is to enter a trance-like state and observe all feelings, thoughts and sensations without attributing either positive or negative value to them.

Their importance to the “self” dissipates, and you gradually chip away at its psychic hold. If I am upset because of what someone thinks of me, I can be mindful of this feeling of “conceit” in my trance-like state, allow it to vanish, and this will further strengthen my resolve against the idea that there is something like a “self” (rather than a pragmatically useful but ultimately illusory model) that can bear such insults. You are basically gradually training yourself to resolve a kind of sensory and perceptual illusion because this illusion produces suffering.

What makes this “self” unique is that, as a special kind of representational content, the PSM cannot be recognized as a model by the very system that is employing it. The dynamic content of this phenomenal self-model, in Buddhism, is included in the Five Aggregates, and is the content of the conscious (and unconscious) self, consisting of sense-perceptions, emotions and cognitions.

The reason the phenomenal property of selfhood as a representational construct is useful from the perspective of natural selection is because it provides us with a concrete set of emotional incentives, tools and rules for solving problems. If I am made to feel inferior, my mind signals to my body that adjustments should be made to ensure survival, status and reproductive success. As with anything, the ultimate cause subtending these proximate causes is to pass on my genes.

The PSM is programmed to function as a kind of locus that functions as a magnet for emotional salience, a kind of sacred idol that must be defended from pain at all costs, and which must secure tribute and pleasure from the external and internal world at all costs. But as we gradually chip away at the allure of these pleasures, and of the reity of the self, suffering gradually dissolves as well, as we begin to exit the tension-resolution cycle once there is no longer an illusion of a substantial “self” that can suffer from tension and then enjoy its resolution.

When the Pali Cannon teaches the concept of anatta (no-self), the main point is that the phenomenal self-model is a fiction whose perpetuation causes suffering, and whose elimination removes suffering. Whether or not there is something beyond the phenomenal self-model that endures or subtends the body, is controversial among its different denominations. this difficulty predictably stems from the Pali Cannon’s firm commitment to via negativa concerning the self, since the idea is to chip away at everything bundled in the phenomenal self-model, which is cause of our suffering because it is the locus of emotional and volitional salience as an evolutionarily pragmatic motor.

Experienced psychology writer and practitioner of psi abilities. Looking forward to contributing to a worldwide awakening to the reality of psi phenomena.