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On Self and Soul

Permanent, Semi-Permanent, or None of the Above?


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Imagine you are in an isolation tank. All you can sense (barely) is the lukewarm water in which you float. You hear nothing except the slightest movements of water against the side of the tank. You see nothing. You smell nothing. And you taste nothing but your own saliva.

Now imagine that a video screen is added to your isolation tank connected to a camera outside the tank that shows you an image of the world around your tank. And a microphone is added. Then, with some cool new technologies, scents are wafted to your nostrils. You begin to get an idea of what the outside world is like from the vantage point of your isolation tank.

Tam Hunt

Now imagine that your isolation tank is mobile – it is re-engineered to be small enough that you can walk around in a roughly body-shaped tank even though you remain immersed in water. Servos help move your massive limbs, which articulate your strange machine torso and limbs. The technologists add even niftier gadgets that allow you to feel the outside world from the “skin” of your isolation tank, based on contact with the outside of the tank. And a tube is added that allows food to enter your mouth from the outside and another tube for waste. You now have almost normal access to the outside world from within your isolation tank. You could remain perhaps indefinitely in this unnatural environment.

Now imagine that this scenario is real. In fact, little imagination is required. We do exist in biological isolation tanks that we call our bodies. Literally all we know about the external world comes from various sensory “windows” we have to the external world. The world we know is entirely a creation of our brains, our nervous systems, with its various perceptual abilities. We can never know what really is the cause of our perceptions. All we know directly are our perceptions.

We can only infer what reality is separate from our perceptions of reality, our individual experience. The fact that different people agree on so many things about the world outside our skins is strong evidence that we’re not totally clueless about what is really out there. This is known as “intersubjective” confirmation. This confirmation helps us avoid going entirely crazy because we have other people to help us construct models of reality – even if we realize that what we know directly of those other people and their constructed worlds is also entirely constructed by our own minds.

What do we really, I mean really, know?: This is not really new ground. Take away the technological aspects of my thought experiment and you have much the same insight that Descartes famously pursued in the 17th Century, leading to his famous statement: “I think, therefore I am.” He concluded, in other words, that the only thing he knew with certainty was that he existed, based on the simple fact of experience, of consciousness, of thought. This is the only fact any of us knows with certainty: There is some experience, right here, right now, and this flow of experience we can call a “self.”

But what is the self beyond this flow of experience?

Descartes’ logic on this particular issue is not quite impeccable. There is actually a more modest conclusion that we can draw from his approach. I cannot, if I am being entirely rigorous, conclude that “I” exist based solely on the fact of my experience. Rather, I should conclude only that my experience itself exists. The “I", the self, is an additional conceptual overlay. But definitions are important in this (and any) discussion. The self is generally thought to be a permanent or semi-permanent center of identity – and this is what I mean when I say that Descartes went a bit too far.

In the sense of a permanent identity, Descartes’ insight is no support at all. Why would we conclude that there is a permanent self based on the mere fact of experience? We have very limited evidence of permanence in our lives. We have memories going back only to our toddler years, as well as the undeniable fact that all other people we know have died at some point around 80-100 years old. We could quibble over what “permanent” means, but I don’t think any reasonable person would suggest that this very limited span of time should be called permanent.

So how “semi-permanent” is the sense of self? Is our direct experience good evidence for semi-permanence? I would argue that it is not because our experience changes literally in each moment, and sometimes dramatically.

The only thing my experience as a five-year-old self seems to have in common with my 40-year-old self is my name (not even that, technically, because I use a shortened version of my first name as an adult). My body, revealed through my direct experience, has changed dramatically and is literally changing in every moment. My memories and my preferences have changed dramatically. And my name could be changed as easily as asking people to use a different name (with or without resorting to any legal name change).

It seems clear that all aspects of our selves change regularly. What, then, is the argument for even a semi-permanent self?

The best argument is that there is obviously some degree of continuity moment to moment, year to year. Each of us can trace our own development backwards in time, sometimes for many generations. There is something that continues, a thread of selfhood. But this thread itself, while traceable, is itself constantly changing. There seems to be no thing, no substance, no essence, that we can point to as our self, permanent or semi-permanent.

My “self” seems to be a constantly changing pattern of experience, of awareness. And that’s it. As Derek Parfitt put it: “The self is like Paris.” That is, it is a generally useful term we apply for a loosely-defined collection of phenomena, the constituents of which are always changing, at different rates.

Soul? How does this relate to more mystical or religious notions of a soul, a type of permanent self? The closer we examine the idea of the soul, the more clear it becomes that the notion of an enduring self, either in the secular sense, or in the more religious sense of the soul, is little more than an illusion because change is inescapable in the actual world. This is a difficult idea for many to accept. And I recognize fully that whether one chooses to believe in an unchanging soul, or not, is a highly personal decision.

For me, however, it seems clear that the common view of one’s soul as unchanging essence is both an unnecessary concept and one that is hard to justify rationally. I can’t rule it out, of course, because I can never know the full extent of what I don’t know. The soul’s existence nevertheless seems quite unlikely. This is one of the basic teachings of Buddhism, and some other religious and spiritual traditions. It is a truth originally derived without the aid of modern science and its knowledge of atoms, molecules, and metabolism. Modern physics, chemistry, and biology have done much, however, to bolster the ancient teachings in this area.

In Buddhism, this idea is known as “no-self” or anatman. The atman is the Hindu version of what we call in the West the soul. Buddha contradicted the Hindu tradition of his day, which he grew up with in 5th Century BCE India. As with Jesus growing up in the Judaic tradition, Buddha was raised in an ancient tradition and eventually found good reasons to contradict many key teachings of the ancient tradition he was raised in. Buddha, contrary to the Hindu teachings, could find no reason to believe in atman, the permanent self. To the Buddha, all things are ultimately empty of any inherent nature. All things are relational – they arise through “dependent origination,” to use the common English translation of this doctrine. In Western terms, Buddha denied the reality of the soul. This is the anatman doctrine.

Was Buddha right, and does it really matter? Buddha, in his original teachings, avoided discussions of metaphysics because he thought such discussions were unfruitful and not helpful for the true goal of spiritual inquiry: liberation from the self. Later schools of Buddhist thought failed to heed Buddha’s example and many different schools have since developed detailed metaphysical views. Buddha didn’t have much to say about the Hindu Brahman, but he did talk about “emptiness.” As with the “vacuum” of modern physics, however, Buddha’s emptiness, now part of many Buddhist schools of thought, is not really empty. It is, in fact, everything.

So for Buddha even though all things are ultimately relational with respect to their existence, a concept which he called emptiness performs the same conceptual role as Brahman performs in Hinduism. Do Buddhism and Hinduism still disagree on this issue? If you asked ten Buddhists and ten Hindus this question, you would probably receive 20 different answers. I believe, however, that Buddha’s emptiness is equivalent to Brahman. Buddha’s real difference with Hinduism lies in his denial of the reality of the atman, the soul. And here is where I think Buddha’s departure from Hinduism is helpful and valid.

What does it mean for us to accept that the self as a permanent or even semi-permanent essence is invalid? For me, it means accepting that change is pervasive, that the now is all we have, that we can enjoy the world with a lighter step and less attachment, that I am a pattern of awareness associated with a particular pattern of matter and energy. These realizations are, it seems to me, good things that outweigh any negatives that come from denying the validity of a permanent self or soul.

Later columns will examine Western and Eastern notions of reincarnation and life after death within the framework I’ve sketched here, showing that accepting that there is no permanent self or soul doesn’t necessarily lead us to deny reincarnation all aspects of self or the possibility of some kind of survival after death – though not in any traditional sense.

A related question arises when contemplating the “self”: How do we draw the boundary for self, regardless of what concept of self we subscribe to? The next part in this series will explore how a larger sense of self may lead to a rational type of spirituality, with room enough for God(s) and a ground of being. We may indeed exist in biological isolation tanks (albeit constantly changing), but we may at the same time cultivate a larger sense of self that transcends this evolutionary isolation.

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