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Does 'Self' Exist?

abracad, · Categories: buddhism, science and spirituality, spirituality

The Buddhist Perspective of Self

Buddha's assertion that the self does not exist was first described in the famous "Discourse on the Not-Self". It is a fundamental principle of Buddhist philosophy and is said to be the second sermon delivered by the Buddha after his enlightenment.

Buddha defined five "aggregates" that together constitute the entire person. These are: form (body), feelings (positive, negative, neutral), perception, mental formations (thought, emotion, will), and consciousness.

Buddha declared each aggregate in turn (like most of reality) to be impermanent, and therefore not identifiable with 'self'. This implies Buddha's concept of self has (a degree of) permanence.

Considering the aggregates again, he declared that each is not controllable (we cannot control the fate of our body, our emotions etc), and is therefore not self. This implies Buddha's concept of self is controllable.

Since the aggregates form the entire person, and they each lack the qualities of permanence and controllability, the person has no self. To emphasise the point, Buddha says of each aggregate: "this is not mine, this I am not, this is not myself."

Unlike the prevalence of suffering or the problem of attachment, many people find not-self to be counter-intuitive. With "I think, therefore I am" Descartes argued that the knowledge my own existence is my only certainty. We all feel like an entity that sits in our head, drives our body, receives and processes sensory input, and makes and acts on decisions. Non-self suggests that "I" do not exist, and yet who/what is contemplating the suggestion if not "I".

Modern Psychology and Self

Modern psychology is giving weight to Buddha’s prescience and casting doubt on the existence of the self, as traditionally and intuitively considered, eg:

Michael Gazzaniga’s experiments with split brain patients (those that have had the left and right hemispheres severed, usually as treatment for severe epilepsy) have shown they can exhibit characteristics of two independent “selves” within the same body.

The totality of our memory might be considered an essential and substantial part of the “self”. However, Elizabeth Loftus’s research casts doubt on the reliability of memory and indicates the ease with which we can be influenced to construct false memories.

Rob Kurzban has proposed a modular theory of the mind, in which various modules of different and competing specialities vie for control of the individual. In this theory there is no self in the form of a central CEO that makes ultimate decisions.

What is Self?

Obviously, whether or not 'self' exists depends on how 'self' is defined. Undoubtedly, for the duration of my life, “I” experience some “thing” that perceives, thinks, feels, eats, drinks etc, which by custom I refer to as self, quite possibly the product of natural selection’s singular goal of procreation. However; in light of Buddhist philosophy, psychological research, and numerous accounts of meditative insight (eg that of boundlessness between the mediator and the rest of the universe); it is likely that the true nature of my self is very different than how I perceive it. On closer examination it seems more than likely that the self as an independent, unified, consistent and controlling entity is just an illusion.

Inspired by Prof. Robert Wright's Coursera course Buddhism and Modern Psychology


Filed in: buddhism, science and spirituality, spirituality

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