Is there a self?

I’ve been following Robert Wright’s MOOC on Buddhism and Modern Psychology. One of the most interesting ideas at the heart of this course frames Buddhism as a rebellion against natural selection. Wright investigates whether by helping us to see the world more clearly, Buddhism, and particularly meditation, irons out some of the perceptual and affective distortions caused in us by the selection process, and so alleviates suffering.

Wright asks us to imagine that we are walking a trail where a hiker was recently bitten by a snake. If out of the corner of an eye we see a coiled up rope on the edge of the trail, we’d probably jump out of ‘striking distance’ of the rope. Despite colouring our perception of the world, the low-level fear that caused us to see a snake in a rope is adaptive. Even if it causes a false positive 99 times out of 100, the misperception still would have helped us to pass our genes on in 1 case out of 100. The downside for us is that our experience of the world has been clouded by fear. He sees meditation at least partly as a way of ‘reprogramming’ ourselves.

Aside from meditation, one of the radical ways in which Buddhism challenges the strategies of natural selection (which often encourages us to act out of a perceived self-interest) is by questioning the existence of a self at all. When the Buddha said, ‘this is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself’ of consciousness, the body, mental qualities, feelings and perceptions, he may have been denying the existence of a self altogether. Alternatively, as I think Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests, his aim might have been to loosen his audience’s (monks) attachment to their own existences and not to rule out selfhood altogether.

I’ll paraphrase the Buddha’s arguments for there being no self as:

  1. a self should persist over time, while what we actually observe is continual change;
  2. if we isolate the components of our being, we see that no individual component houses a self.*

Both arguments remind me of the Ship of Theseus†, a part-versus-whole problem recorded in Plutarch. Over the years, every plank, rope sail and instrument of a ship is replaced. At the end of this transformation, the ship bears the same name… but is it the same ship?

You could view the name of the ship as another component, one which has not changed, but I don’t know whether that would help you to make sense of what’s occurred. The Ship of Theseus strikes me as being a problem of language and specifically the ultimate futility of labelling things. Though it is useful to categorise the world using distinctions and descriptors, the world is harder to divide than we imagine. Perhaps to point to ourselves and claim ‘this is me’ is naïve.



*(It’s worth noting that this is held as an experientially derived truth, rather than one derived from logic. Logic is used here more as a pedagogical tool.)
†See Mitch Green’s Engaging Philosophy.