Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Does the self as opposed to a mere "sense of self" exist?

An interesting blog entry by someone regarding whether the self actually exists.

Can the Chariot take us to the land of no-self?

Here is the issue as I see it. It seems to me that materialists cannot believe in a self. This follows when we remember our bodies are in a constant state of change and hence our mental states too. There can be nothing permanent to which materialists could hang their hat on and call a self. And materialists sometimes approvingly speak of Buddhism as sharing their belief here.

But what does it mean to claim the self doesn't exist? Well first of all it certainly doesn't mean that they are claiming that we are not conscious. We know in a most immediate manner that we are conscious. Nor would they deny we have a sense of self. Thus from one minute to the next we feel we are the same self, or the same person, enduring during that time.

The materialists (and Buddhists) claim this is an illusion. In other words, although we have a sense of self, this does not correspond to a real self. This can most easily be seen when we compare ourselves now to when we were children when we had very different personality characteristics. If our intelligence, interests etc have changed so radically since then, then in what sense can we be claimed to be the same person?

But the materialist and Buddhist are claiming much more than this. They claim that even from one second to the next there is no actual enduring self. To understand what they mean by this we need to be aware of the distinction between alterational change and existential change. The author of the article expresses it in the following way:
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.
Let me put this in a more readily easily understood manner. Consider a table. We could paint it a different colour. That's alterational change. It's the same table, but has been altered slightly. But now consider destroying a table, and putting in it's place a table looking identical. That's existential change.

I take it that commonsense takes it for granted that, at least from one minute to the next, we undergo alterational change and emphatically not existential change. If the latter were true then, since we continuously change from one second to the next, then we would, from the commonsensical perspective, be effectively constantly "dying" from one second to the next. And this is precisely what materialists are obliged to believe. Hence both materialism and Buddhism entail a profound shift in the manner in which we view ourselves -- for one thing it would entail our fear of death is wholly misplaced!

In part one of the linked article we are presented with an argument for such existential change. I want to supplement the arguments there with my own. Imagine that in the future teleporting is possible. In the teleportation booth we scan a person, and simultaneously destroy (kill) that person, and create an identical person in the destination booth. That person will feel as if he has "jumped" from the original booth to the destination booth and will have the same memories etc and will feel that he is the same person that was killed.

So the teleported person will feel he is the same self i.e his sense of self will be intact. But in reality he has been killed and been replaced by a different self who looks exactly like him, shares the same memories and in every other way is psychologically identical to the original.

But -- so the materialist will argue -- the exact same position pertains in our everyday second by second existence. We have an almost identical physical appearance, almost identical memories and more generally an almost identical psychological state from one second to the next. However there's absolutely nothing persisting any more than a table does if we were to continually destroy the table and replace it with almost identical versions every second.

The author of the blog argues that this no-self hypothesis is untenable. As he puts it:

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.

If we are aware of not only a pleasurable state followed by a painful state but in addition an awareness that I have changed from a pleasurable state to a painful state, then there must be something enduring which persists through both states. So, in addition to mental states at specific instances in time, there is an underlying awareness of these mental states at specific instances in time. This underlying awareness plays the role of uniting these experiences. To wit:
 . . the self is experienced not as an object alongside objects, but as the conscious transtemporal unity of the pleasurable and painful states.
Has the author established that it is plausible to suppose the self exists? I certainly think the example of the self is very different to that of a chariot or any other physical object. The self or I seems to serve the purpose of demarcating one set of experiences from another. I do not experience your experiences, and you do not experience mine. The prospect of an enjoyable night out down town seems very different if I were to experience it rather than an identical twin of mine were to experience it. Simply because the self can neither be pointed to nor is discernible in isolated conscious experiences does not entail such a self does not exist. In short if the materialist or Buddhist is to assert that there is no persisting self then he needs to address this challenge of the "conscious transtemporal unity" of successive conscious states.

But what about the teleportation example? Indeed we can imagine the following scenario. Imagine that every infinitesimal fraction of a second you are getting teleported from place to place. Obviously if you keep your eyes open you'll just see a confusing blur. But you could close your eyes, and everything would seem to be normal. You could be thinking of a problem, daydreaming, or whatever. Nothing would seem different as compared to when you have your eyes closed normally, except in the teleportation scenario you are continuously being killed and spontaneously coming into being every infinitesimal fraction of a second!
 Does this then refute the notion there can be an enduring real self? Well, yes, but only if you believe that teleportation in the manner described is possible. And this possibility is dependent upon some materialist position being true. When the original body is scanned it is typically implicitly being supposed that a person is exhausted by the total sum of information constituting his body. But to suppose this is to assume that reductive materialism is true, or more specifically that human beings are nothing but their material bodies. But non-materialists will reject that either consciousness or selves are themselves material. More specifically they will deny the self or its conscious states can be constituted by information (for if they could why would they not by definition be material?). A weaker materialist position could be adopted which holds that even though conscious states are not the very same thing as the brain or its processes and hence cannot be scanned and reproduced, conscious states are nevertheless produced by a person's brain. In which case the teleported person's body will produce consciousness and teleportation will be possible after all, even if we reject strict materialism. 

None of this though says anything about the possibility of a persisting or enduring self should we reject all materialist positions. Perhaps the body doesn't produce either selves or their conscious states but only modifies conscious states whilst leaving an unchanging self intact. This might be compared to tinkering with the innards of a TV set and altering the picture quality being displayed, yet without altering in any way whatsoever the actual content of the programme being screened. It seems to me that if this is so then the implications for teleporting would be that it is impossible, at least in the manner described, and a mere corpse would appear in the destination booth.

Edited to add: For those who might be interested there's a paper on why Berkeley's conception of a real enduring self is not susceptible to David Hume's dismissal (I also talk about Berkeley's philosophy here: )

Berkeley's Refutation of Hume On the Self


  1. I'd be careful trusting materialist accounts of what Buddhism says. As noted in a recent Aeon article, the ideas of Buddhism aren't necessarily in accordance with bimodal logic used in Western Philosophy:


  2. Ian,

    Took a link to your blog from Sean Caroll's, and am hurriedly browsing through yours.

    I am not sure what your background is, and whether you are aware about ancient Indian positions other than Buddhism.

    In case not, then let me strongly recommend a quick glance/overview sort of a book. It is: "The Spiritual Heritage of India," by Swami Prabhavananda. The first edition is freely available off, here: The second edition then has a nice foreword written (in 1979) by Prof. Huston Smith of Uni. of Syracuse; he nicely articulates a Westerner's experience understanding such material. As to the book, I now gather, there already is a Wiki article!:

    Not all portions might be of immediate interest to you, but do go over the topics or chapters on the Upanishads, Vedanta and Jainism, too, in addition to Buddhism.

    If and once you go over this book, and would like some further pointers, I will be glad to help you with some. (That way, the literature on these topics is virtually infinite, but I think, after rapid browsing of your posts, I have got some sort of a sense of where you are coming from, e.g., Western world and culture, appreciation of science, philosophic inclination, and willingness to entertain ideas rationally, rather than get drowned in that flower-power sort of "spiritual" nonsense. If this sense is correct, the number of suitable books suddenly reduces by several orders---not factors---of magnitude. I will be happy to point out a few, depending on the direction you wish to pursue.

    But, yes, as a first reading, I think this book is just great.

    I was almost signing off, and then remembered why I started writing this comment: The concepts you could be exploring for the issue of this blog post are: soul vs. life (qua life-force, and not life-span) vs. consciousness. Indian literature has several levels within soul ("aatmaa") as well as consciousness (too many terms here), all of which are distinguished from life-force ("praaNa"), life-story ("jeevan"), and life-span ("aayushya").

    Of course, IMO, the whole literature is full of what I think are philosophic errors, too; one can't recommend "ancient Indian literature" without adding far too many qualifiers. ... Anyway, all that I wanted to point out here is that the persistent self that you are talking about is, roughly, the idea of "aatmaa" or individual soul.

    Ok. That's already far too much for a first reply from a more or less stranger, anyway. So, let me wind up here, but again, with a strong recommendation of that book.




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