The Self

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

header photo

8. Ideas on the Soul


1.     The Self or Soul

As we saw in the examples of Hume’s psychological theories of generalization as habit and of causation as association of ideas, he tended in practice to engage in faulty induction (and of course, faulty deduction).

He synthesized from a little data or a superficial analysis, without paying heed to information or arguments that would have delimited or belied his foregone conclusions. He would focus on or select positive aspects of an issue, those that confirmed his theses, and blithely ignore or discard negative aspects, those that weakened his positions.

Such faulty practices on his part are not surprising, in view of his theoretical opposition to induction, i.e. his belief that induction has an intrinsic problem. If one has a general failure of logical understanding, this will inevitably eventually translate into errors of practice. Conversely, the theoretical error is itself due a practical failure. Of course, such error is never ubiquitous; else the person committing it could not at all engage in discourse.

The same tendency of faulty induction is to be found in Hume’s treatment of the human soul and of freedom of the will. Rejecting offhand the Cartesian inference “cogito, ergo sum”, Hume denied the existence or knowability of a human self or soul, conceiving our common belief in such a thing as due to nothing but the “bundling or collection” of our various perceptions:

“It must be some one impression, that gives rise to every real idea. But self or person is not any one impression, but that to which our several impressions and ideas are supposed to have a reference. If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same, through the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time. It cannot, therefore, be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that the idea of self is derived; and consequently there is no such idea.”[1]

Though his thinking on this important issue, as on many others, is clearly based on personal observation and insight, showing Hume to be a real philosopher, worthy of considerable respect, his reasoning is here again faulty. He argues that we would need to experience a single “impression”, one permeating our whole experience, to justify the idea of a self. By this, he seems to mean a concrete mental phenomenon of some distinct sort. Not finding such a core experience, he reduces our personal identity to at best the sum total of the mass of fleeting impressions of all sorts that we obviously have. But we may disagree with this viewpoint on several counts.

First, on what ground does Hume demand at the outset that the self be configured in the way of a single permanent “impression” underlying all inner experience? That must be seen to be a hypothesis of his, one that needs to be inductively proven, and not necessarily as he assumes the only possible way of conceiving the issue. The self might not be as phenomenal an entity as he projects (i.e. an impression), and it may be wiser to define it by referring to its functions (cognition, volition and valuation) rather than to its substance.

With regard to Hume’s condition of singularity of impression: it would not be inductively erroneous to claim that the self is the sum total of all impressions. This might be taken to mean that all our impressions are indicative of or even actually cause an underlying entity, which though never perceptible is assumed to endure through time. In other words, the whole is more than the parts. Such assumption would simply constitute a conceptual hypothesis, like for example the hypothesis of electrons in physics as entities underlying electrical phenomena. An abstraction does not have to be identical with the experiential data that supports it.

With regard to Hume’s condition of permanence of impression: to demand as he does that we be conscious of the self full time, or even part time, before we believe in it, is not in accord with inductive logic. The latter allows us to extrapolate from occasional apparent self-awareness to an assumption of permanent presence of a real self – this would just be generalization. We might even postulate a self without any direct impression of it, in the way of an adductive hypothesis to be supported by various other experiences and considerations. Either approach would be in accord with inductive logic, provided we obeyed the usual rules of induction (especially, that no contrary evidence or inconsistency be found).

Secondly, Hume is arguing in a circular manner when he says (in the above quotation): “It cannot, therefore, be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that the idea of self is derived”. Even if we accepted (which I do not, as just explained) his contention that the self cannot be inferred from impressions other than that of the self, it does not follow that we do not in fact have impressions of the self. When he says: “or from any other”, he means to categorically exclude this special experience, which he claims never to have.

We need to seriously consider the empirical and inductive status of Hume’s claim to have no self-awareness. It is important to note that this claim is negative, which means that it reports an unsuccessful search for something (an impression he can identify with the self). How much introspective observation is this claim actually based on? Did he meditate with great effort an hour a day for five years, say, in search of his self? Or did he, as I suspect, casually look into his mind for five seconds of so, a couple of times, and conclude what he had already decided to assert as true, viz. that he had no self?[2]

Moreover, whether proposed prejudicially or casually, or after very conscientious investigation, a negative statement like that always and necessarily involves a generalization. We generalize from “I looked everywhere in me for a long time, and did not find what I sought” to “there’s no such thing as the thing sought, in me or anyone else”. This to repeat is a generalization, and there is no way for us to arrive at an empirical negative statement in any other way.

Hume generalizes: from the few moments when he perceived no self, to all his temporal existence; and from his own inner life to the same condition in all other persons. Yet Hume does not officially believe in generalization! Is he exempt? Are we to suppose that he is allowed to generalize (and indeed to do so from very tenuous data, his doubtful introspection), but no one else is? This is clearly either a double standard or a self-contradiction on Hume’s part. He postures as an empiricist[3], and is widely so regarded, but his empiricism is clearly very superficial and make-believe.

Thirdly, there is an alternative position (which I adhere to), which is fully in accord with the principles of inductive logic. It is that we all do experience our own self quite often, though such experience may vary in degree and depend on circumstances. The self is always implied and present, in every moment of cognition, volition or valuation. But to be aware of it, or sufficiently aware of it to declare it present with surety, an effort of ‘self-consciousness’ is needed.

Moreover, such self-consciousness is not a perception, but an intuition, because the self is not a phenomenal entity (i.e. one with visible, audible, or other sensible qualities), but a non-phenomenal one. To experience it, one must aim one’s awareness ‘inward’, i.e. towards the sought-for subject, and not outward in the direction of mental or physical objects.

A lot of meditation practice is needed to pacify, silence and still the mind sufficiently to contemplate the self with some clarity and confidence. If there is a stage at which the self effectively disappears, or is seen to be ‘empty’, as some advanced meditators claim, that stage is much deeper than Hume ever evidently went. So Eastern philosophy cannot be appealed to in support of Hume.

If one expects to find the self in gross sensory or mental “impressions” of the sort Hume had in mind, one will of course be disappointed. But if one realizes that the self is a much more subtle appearance than those, to be apperceived rather than perceived, one can well claim to experience the soul directly.[4]

It appears more readily in the way of a ‘presence’ inherent in all intentions and acts of consciousness, will and valuing, than as an isolated object. But there are suggestions that, at a deeper level, the self can be contemplated ‘in itself’, and further on (more mystically) as a part or aspect of a universal Self.

Additionally, we have a justifiable concept of self. We could accept the self as no more than a conceptual construct – this would logically be an acceptable position. We are logically allowed and even recommended to propose hypotheses that unify and explain empirical data.

We could well argue that events like consciousness, volition and valuation imply a self. They are incomprehensible without the assumption of a self. To be conscious is to have a self; to will is to have a self; to desire or dislike is to have a self. The brain and other sense and motor organs are not themselves conscious or in possession of the power of will; these are not a subject or agent, but mere channels or instruments.

But in my view, this narrow, constructivist position would not explain all the facts of experience. For how would we then claim to know specific particulars about our own individual mental workings from such a general abstraction? To overcome this difficulty, we have to adhere to an intuitionist postulate.

For instance, if I have a thought right now, I can intimately tell whether that thought is my own will, or occurring without or against my will. I am quite able to distinguish between my own beliefs, wills and values – and those imposed on me by my brain or external influences. If I had no direct intuition of myself, or at least of my own inner acts, no such distinction would be feasible.

No theoretical knowledge of the self can produce such intimate certainties. Therefore, we must admit we do experience the self itself – if only occasionally, e.g. when we specifically make the effort to do so. It is not merely a concept for us, but also a direct experience.

A difficulty in self-awareness is perhaps due to our inability, except possibly in deep meditation, to detect the self as such. Ordinarily, we experience our self through its actual functioning, i.e. when we are involved in particular acts of cognition, volition or valuation. When the self does not ‘express’ itself in any such acts, it is transparent like space is to our eyes, except perhaps (to repeat) in meditation. Although intuition of self is also an act of the self, there seems to be a requirement that the self first express itself otherwise than through intuition, before intuition can detect it!

Hume refused to acknowledge such appearances of self-consciousness as valid data. He engaged in introspection, but clearly not enough of it; perhaps he was too impatient, and drew a premature conclusion. He generalized – from his own non-experience of self at some time(s) to all persons forever. For these reasons, his negative conclusion cannot be considered an undeniable fact (as many take it to be). It is just a theory, one with very little and inconclusive evidence going for it.

For my part, I insist: there is non-phenomenal experiential data from which a concrete idea of self can legitimately be drawn. That momentary self can then be generalized and reasonably claimed more permanent, at least to the earthly lifetime of the individual. We can further speculate that the self exists before and after death; but that is another issue, much harder to establish inductively if at all.

We can furthermore, on the basis of the said subtle data as well as with reference to phenomenal impressions, adductively posit a concept of self, an abstract self. Such adduction is even possible without reference to the intuitive data, but merely on the basis of the grosser data that Hume acknowledges. The abstraction so begun then provides support for the intuitive data, and the intuitive data in turn serves to further confirm and enlarge the abstraction.

Thus, to conclude, Hume’s skeptical posture towards the self is mainly due to his personal difficulties with introspection and with inductive procedure. He sets wrong theoretical standards of observation and of judgment, and moreover fails in practice to adhere to his own rules and restrictions.


2.     Descartes’ Mind-Body Dichotomy

David Hume’s skepticism was in part due to the ‘mind versus body’ dualism that Descartes’ philosophy produced in Western thinking more than a century earlier. Indeed, its roots are much deeper than that, traceable to Christian thought and earlier still to Greek thought. But within modern philosophy, Descartes was certainly a source of much (unintended) confusion and contention, as well as of (intended) enlightenment in a true sense.

René Descartes[5] considered his mind to be the most knowable of his beliefs, and sought to infer an external world including matter from such introspection. Using reasoning similar to St. Anselm’s ontological argument, he first inferred God from his own mental existence; and then inferred the rest of the apparent world from God. God, being necessarily an honest broker, was to be the guarantor that human knowledge could extend out to the external material world.

Descartes’ motive in this tortuous construct was primarily epistemological: he wished to establish the validity in principle of human cognition. However, this particular way of looking at things became a problem for subsequent philosophers – for it seemed to imply an ontological radical chasm between mind and body. One could know mind directly and certainly, but body only indirectly and uncertainly. Some philosophers began to doubt that mind and body could be claimed to have any causal relation whatever. ‘Being so substantially different, how could either domain be said to cause changes in the other?’ – so they argued.

Now, this whole problem, or set of problems, is a figment of these philosophers’ imaginations. It is a mystification, a fanciful complication. It is safe to say that it was not Descartes intention to set up a dichotomy between mind and body; he was on the contrary attempting to harmonize them, first epistemologically and thence ontologically. His presentation of the issues was not perfect; but it was an honest try that can be improved.

Phenomenology. Descartes first mistake was to effectively start with the commonsense distinction between mind and body, or a mental domain and a bodily one. The mind-body distinction cannot reasonably be used as a starting point, for it is only an assumption, a construct. Armed with this awareness, the apparent difficulty is easily resolved…

If we take a phenomenological approach to the issues involved, we realize that to begin with we have a mass of appearances, some of which may seem essentially different from others. We may then, as a hypothetical way of ordering the data, well assume that the seeming difference is significant, and label one set of appearances ‘mental’ and the other ‘material’ (or ‘physical’).

This is not done arbitrarily – but so as to organize our experiences, and explain why some are clearer than others, or why some behave somewhat more erratically than others, or why some seem to us more under our control than others, and so forth. So long as this hypothesis of substantial difference serves its useful purposes, it is maintained; but were it found logically or experientially inadequate, it would soon be replaced.

Such cognitive behavior is in accord with the principle of induction, which allows us, and indeed enjoins us, to rely on the suggestions of appearance unless or until they are specifically shown to be illusory.

Had Descartes proceeded thus, in a more phenomenological manner than he did, he would not have given ab initio precedence to mind over matter, or alternatively to matter over mind, but he would have treated both domains as appearances of equal initial status to be later sorted out, and no dichotomy would have arisen in the first place. Descartes was in fact trying to proceed in a phenomenological manner; but his meditation did not begin far back enough.

Were it not for this natural, inductive approach, the opponents of Descartes would have a hard time explaining how come they manage to at all discuss both mind and body. How do those who believe only in the mind know about or understand claims to the body? How do those who believe only in the body know about or understand claims to the mind? Obviously, both groups start with the appearances of both body and mind, and it is due to this that they can communicate and debate.

The self. Moreover, to speak of a mind-body dichotomy is inaccurate and misleading in other respects. Our experience apparently covers three domains, not two. In addition to the physical phenomena we seem to outwardly perceive through the senses, and the mental phenomena we seem to inwardly perceive, which we call memories and imaginations (the latter being reshuffled memories), we believe in a third factor.

This is the self – that within us which perceives and thinks about the other two domains. This self – which we most identify with, rather than the mental and physical phenomena that surround it – is also experienced. It is known not merely by conceptual means, but primarily by a direct cognitive means we call intuition (or self-knowledge – i.e. knowledge of the self by the self).

The self (or soul or spirit) may be defined as that which is conscious in various ways, exercises will and makes value judgments. Such acts or functions of the self are also known by intuition. The difference between objects of intuition (i.e. the self and its functions) and all mental and material objects of perception is that the latter are phenomenal (they have phenomenal appearances like color, shape, sound, touch, smell, taste), whereas the former are non-phenomenal.

We do colloquially lump together the soul and its functions (spiritual appearances[6]), mental phenomena (memories, imaginations – and derivatively, conceptual constructs), and some bodily phenomena (the nervous system, including the brain and all sensory and motor functions) – as “the mind” (or, I prefer to say: “the psyche”). But such unification is a simplification and should not be taken literally in the present context.

Indeed, if we go back to Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” statement, we find in it three factors: “I” (the self), “think” (mental phenomena, supposedly observed by the self) and “am” (the inferred existence). Logically, the “being” inferred is just that of the self (and, though he does not say it, the mental phenomena of thought); but Descartes’ tacitly intended implication is that there is a physical substratum to such existence, i.e. a body and more broadly a physical world.

Anyway, this is how the argument is usually understood, as an inference of body and matter from self and thought (mind). The reason being that only such physical existence is regarded as ‘true’ existence, while mental and all the more so spiritual existence are regarded as a merely ‘virtual’ sorts of being. At least, this is the opinion implied by the proponents of a dichotomy between mind and body who have a materialist preference.

Those with more mentalist or spiritual propensities interpret the dichotomy as disproof of a material world. That is, they point out that Descartes’ premise (“I think”) does not logically imply any conclusion other than “I and my thought exist” – so that the usual inference that body and matter therefore exist is a non-sequitur (it does not follow). Their error, of course, is to accept Descartes’ approach – whereas, as already shown above, the correct phenomenological procedure is not quite as he proposed.

Causality. As for the “law of causality” which some critics propose, that the domains of mind and body are so ‘substantially’ different that they cannot conceivably impinge on each other – this too is a figment of biased imagination. What do they base this alleged law of causality on? If we consider the concepts of causation (deterministic causality) and volition (causality through will)[7], we find no basis for a ‘law’ that the substances of cause and effect must be the same. Such a law might conceivably be proposed as a hypothesis; but why do so, if such a hypothesis gives rise to intractable difficulties?

Causation can be formally defined with reference to terms of unspecified substance. For instance, the strongest form of causation between two items C and E can be defined as “if C, then E; and if not C, then not E”. Such a formal statement can be applied to any pair of items, even if one is mental and the other is material or vice versa. There is no justification refusing to apply the definition to cases where the terms refer to different substances.

With regard to volition, it is important to clarify the issues and not lump everything together. We can (in a first phase, at least) refer to our common-sense beliefs for guidance, again on the basis of the earlier mentioned principle of induction.

These include that the self (soul) can will some mental events (e.g. some imaginations) and some material events (e.g. some physical movements of the body)[8]. It can do so (as introspectively evident) in its own mind and body – and also indirectly, in other minds and bodies (at least through its physical acts, if not in some cases through its mental acts).

Conversely, the self might be influenced in such mental or physical acts of will by mental and/or physical things of which it is conscious, or it might be causatively affected by such things (i.e. they might deterministically limit or widen its power to act).

An ‘influence’ functions through consciousness, and increases or decreases the ease or difficulty of a volitional act, but does not determine it; the act remains free, if the agent of it (the willing self) puts sufficient energy (will) into it. A ‘causative’, on the other hand, functions even if unbeknownst to the self, and does not affect the volition as such, but either delimits or enlarges its scope. All this is quite consistent, and no logical objection can be raised against it as an aetiological hypothesis.

Thus, in the direction from body to mind, we believe that mental objects (like sensations and memories) can arise from material causes; and that either (in some cases) through the influence of those objects when perceived or (in other cases) more directly through causation, the self’s acts of will and other aspects of behavior may be affected.

Conversely, in the direction from mind to body, we believe that the self has a power we call ‘will’ that can affect the body, either indirectly via events it produces in the mind that in turn causatively affect the body, or directly by producing changes in the body. Such effects of the will can in turn affect other bodies and minds.

We certainly have much introspective data on which to base these beliefs. These have the phenomenological status of appearances, i.e. the minimal credibility granted to all appearances initially. We are free, according to inductive logic, to use this database to build up a consistent intelligent theory of what is going on, provided we do not thereby create unsolvable problems.

Inversely, critics of this commonsense view of events must provide equally or more credible evidence and arguments in support of their contention. They must not only, as they tend to do, merely deny – but must also explain by what means and on what basis they are able to at all discuss the issue and take the intellectual positions they take.

Materialism. Now, there is one problem that some consider especially unsolvable. It is that the commonsense theory of a self, with consciousness and volition, interacting with a world of matter, is inconsistent with the exclusively materialist thesis that there is nothing but matter in the world and that matter can only move within a deterministic framework.

People who adhere to the latter thesis, who flatteringly call themselves scientists, are willing to accept indeterminism to some extent, in the sense that this is understood within quantum mechanics or in the Big Bang theory – but they refuse any possible impact of a non-material soul on material processes. That, to them, would imply a breach in the universality of modern physical laws.

This problem is easily solved. The solution is simply that all the so-called ‘laws’ of physics are known by inductive means – through generalizations or through theories based on adductive arguments. Such general propositions or ideas are undoubtedly based on empirical observations; but they also add to these observations, and such additions might well in time turn out to be unjustified by further observations. True scientific propositions are not exclusively empirical – they also depend on reasoning.

This being the case, it is absurd to argue that, since these ‘laws’ do not allow for non-physical things having any impact on physical things, any suggestion of volition is invalid. That is simply a circular argument – it begs the question. They do not prove in any way that spiritual entities (our self or soul) cannot affect (not even via mental events) physical events; they just assert that it is so.

It is not a conclusion of theirs; it is a premise. It is not a conclusion of any experimental or mathematical proof, but a prejudice (proposed so as to simplify the world for their simple minds). It is a modern dogma, as closed-minded as past religious dogmas that science was supposed to replace.

What is evident to any lucid observer and honest thinker is that the apparent universality of all these physical laws is made possible because their proponents do not address the introspective data at all. They ignore (i.e. discard, refuse to even consider) data that does not fit into their materialist way of looking at the world, and they call this ‘science’.

But science strictly means using stringent cognitive methodology: i.e. logic, inductive and deductive; it is not reserved to a materialist thesis. No such dogmatic reservation is philosophically ever justified or justifiable.


3.     Buddhist Denial of the Soul

The same analysis … [for phenomena in general] can be applied to humans, but only to some extent. If we identify ourselves with our bodily and mental experiences, we come to the conclusion that we are likewise composites empty of essence! Most Buddhists stop there and declare that therefore we have no self. But here they are committing an error, for it is wrong to limit our experience of humans to their material and mental manifestations[9]; we are evidently aware of more than that. Our spiritual experiences must also be taken into consideration – and in that case, we must admit that we can become (by a mode of experience we may call apperception or intuition) aware of our “self” (or spirit or soul).

In truth, Buddhists agree with this viewpoint when they admit that we are potentially or ultimately all Buddhas[10] – this is effectively an admission of soul, although most would dogmatically refuse that inference. Some say pointblank that there is no soul; but others, prefer to be more cryptic, and say: “there is and is not; and there neither is nor is not”[11]. But logically, these two (or more) postures must be considered equivalent, as their intent is simply that it is wrong to claim that soul exists.

But let us insist – our bodies and minds are composites and impermanent, like cars or dreams, but we differ in that we have a relatively abiding self. (I say: “relatively abiding” to stress that the individual soul need not be considered absolutely eternal, although the common source of all spiritual substance – which many of us identify with God[12] – is necessarily absolutely eternal.)

By self (or spirit or soul), we mean the Subject of consciousness (i.e. the “person” experiencing, cognizing, perceiving, conceiving, knowing, etc.) and the Agent of volition and valuation (i.e. the “person” who wishes, wills, values, etc.). Note well this definition, which is often ignored by those who deny the self’s existence.

A machine, computer or robot has no self – we (humans, and at least higher animals) evidently do: we all well know that we do. This self that we know is not our ego (a collection of aspects of our body and mind), though most of us do tend to confuse our self with our ego.

The self we know is manifest in our every act of cognition, volition or valuation, as the one engaged in that act. Although it is non-phenomenal, we are quite able to be aware of it. Although non-phenomenal, the self relates to phenomena (to those of its own body and mind, as well as to those further afield) either as their witness (i.e. through cognition), or by being affected by them or (when cognizing them) influenced by them, or by affecting them (through volition). But, though thus related to phenomena to various degrees, it is not identical with them and not to be identified with them.

The Buddhist denial of self is presented as empirical: one’s own bodily and mental experience is carefully examined, and nothing but passing phenomena are observed in it. But my contention is that such analysis is based on incomplete data – it does not take into account the intuitive self-awareness of the Subject and Agent. The self is willfully ignored in the way of a prejudice, rather than denied as a result of dispassionate observation. The non-self is not here a conclusion, but a premise – a dogma, an ideology.

Moreover, it must be stressed that the negation of any term (whether the term ‘self’ or any other) cannot logically be purely empirical. We never perceive a negative, we only search for and fail to perceive the corresponding positive, and thence inductively ‘infer’ that the thing negated is absent. This conclusion is not necessarily final – it is a hypothesis that may be later overturned if new data is encountered that belies it, or even if an alternative hypothesis is found more frequently supported by the evidence.

Thus, the non-self cannot be – as Buddhism presents it – a purely empirical product of deep meditation; according to logic, its negativity makes it necessarily a rational construct. It is therefore not an absolute truth of any sort – but a mere generalization from “I diligently searched, but did not so far find a self” to “no self was there to be found”. It is not perceptual, but conceptual – it is a thesis like any other open to doubt and debate, and requiring proof (in the inductive sense, at least). If no inconsistency is found in its counter-thesis, the idea of a self may also legitimately be upheld.

Thus, even though we may admit that the body and mind are devoid of essence(s), we can still claim that there is a soul. The soul is not meant to be the essence of the phenomena of body and mind, but a distinct non-phenomenal entity housed in, intersecting or housing[13] these phenomena in some way. Body and mind merely constitute the soul’s mundane playground, i.e. a particular domain of the world over which that individual soul[14] has special powers of consciousness and volition.

This view agrees with the proponents of emptiness at least in the insight that the self is not to be confused with body and mind. Also, the fact that the soul is non-phenomenal, i.e. neither a material nor a mental entity, does not logically exclude that it too be “empty” of essence, of course. But, whereas they go on to claim that the self does not exist, we would insist that even if (or even though) the individual soul is empty, it evidently exists – just as body and mind evidently exist whatever we say about them.[15]

It is in any case patently absurd to say or imply, as the Buddhists do, that a non-existent can think that it exists and (upon enlightenment) realize that it does not exist! A non-existent cannot think or realize anything; it is not an entity or a thing – it is nothing at all, it is not. An existent, on the other hand, can well (as these existing Buddhists do) think that it does not exist and other such nonsense! There is no logic in the no-self viewpoint.

The non-self idea may be viewed as supportive of materialism (in a large sense of the term, which includes mental phenomena as within the domain of matter). That is why many people today find it appealing: eager to reject the demands and constraints of the ethics of monotheistic religion, yet wishing to retain or introduce some spirituality in their lives, they embrace soul denial.

All this is not intended to deny the crucial importance of self-effacement in meditation and more broadly in the course of spiritual development. I would certainly agree with Buddhist teaching that the self at some stage becomes an impediment to enlightenment and must be effectively forgotten to contemplate things as they are.[16]

But to my mind, the non-self thesis need not be taken literally. I think Buddhists formulated it as an upaya, a skillful means[17], to facilitate forgetting the self. It is easier to forget what one believes does not exist, than to forget what one believes does exist. As far as I see (at my present stage of development), though disbelief in the self has some practical advantages, there is insufficient theoretical justification for such a doctrine.

We colloquially say that our mind is “empty” when our mind-space is for a while without feelings or thoughts, as occasionally happens quite naturally. In that state of mind, we are generally less distracted, and can observe whatever presents itself to us without interfering in the presentation. Sometimes, that commonplace empty-mindedness is experienced rather as a sort of momentary detachment or even alienation from the world around us, as when our eyes become unfocused and just stare out without seeing anything.

The Buddhist sense of the word emptiness is of course much more complex than that, though not totally unrelated. When applied objectively, to things beyond or within the mind, it signifies that they are viewed without recourse to superimposed categories or hypotheses. Applied subjectively, the implication of the term is that the self is an illusion of consciousness, i.e. that our apperception of a cognizing soul is likewise a merely superimposed idea.

But is this Buddhist claim to be taken on faith, or do they manage to prove it incontrovertibly in any way? The mere fact that this doctrine was once proclaimed, and is claimed again by many authorities throughout the centuries, does not in itself make it a certain truth. We must be permitted to doubt it, and ask questions about it, and raise objections to it – without being accused of being heretics or morons.


Drawn from Logical and Spiritual Reflections (2008), Book 1, Chapters 5 & 11; Book 3, Chapter 16.


[1]           Treatise, Book I, Part IV, Sect. VI.

[2]           I do not mean to say that had Hume meditated sufficiently, he would necessarily have affirmed the self. Many presumably major meditators deny the self’s existence (e.g. the Buddhist anatman doctrine), or at least its knowability (e.g. in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: “Nobody can know the atman inasmuch as the atman is the knower of all things”) – not that I always agree with their logic. But the word of a casual observer like Hume is not comparable to that of such meditators. In any case, we are still faced with mere hearsay, which must be empirically and rationally weighed. The said meditators might well be right, but other people cannot take them on faith and abstain from meditation. To claim the knowledge for oneself, one must personally meditate like those meditators did. After that, one must also judge their theoretical claims, and not just assume they were infallible geniuses.

[3]           Even as an extreme empiricist, in the sense of modern “logical positivism”.

[4]           If we try to tell a blind man about color, he may ask us whether it is loud or smells nice or tastes good or feels rough. But we cannot answer his question with reference to such phenomenal qualities, because the answer is a completely other sort of experience. He may then say: there’s no such thing as color! But that is just because he cannot see it. Similarly, to experience the self, one needs to intuit it – one cannot perceive it, for it has no phenomenal characteristics.

[5]           France, 1596-1650.

[6]           I use the word ‘spiritual’ in a very simple sense, meaning ‘pertaining to the spirit’. Note also that the terms self, soul and spirit are to me identical – although some people believe in a self without a soul or spirit, namely Buddhists (on the one hand, who regard the self as ‘empty’) and Behaviorists (on the other hand, who identify the self entirely with the perceptible phenomena that most people consider as its mere effects).

[7]           See my works The Logic of Causation and Volition and Allied Causal Concepts for detailed treatments of those concepts.

[8]           I say ‘some’ mental and physical events, to stress that some (other) mental events are not caused by volition but by the brain (or whatever other means), and likewise for some (other) bodily events. The ‘mind’ and ‘body’ are domains affected by various causalities, and not by volition only or by causation only. There is no reserved domain either way.

[9]           As previously pointed out: in Phenomenology, chapter V, and in Meditations, chapter 12, the terms “self”, “consciousness” and “mind” are in Buddhism sometimes treated as equivalent, and yet sometimes used with slightly different senses. As a result of such vagueness, wrong theories are proposed and many inconsistencies remain invisible.

[10]          I give you one example (though I have come across many). S. Suzuki writes: “So it is absolutely necessary for everyone to believe in nothing. But I do not mean voidness… This is called Buddha nature, or Buddha himself” (p. 117.)

[11]          To be fair, see Mu Soeng p. 125. According to that (excellent) commentator, the anatman doctrine was never intended as “a metaphysical statement” but as “a therapeutic device”. As he tells it: “The Buddha responded to the Brahmanical formulation of a permanent entity, the self or atman, with silence, without taking a position either for or against.” Logically, this would imply Buddhism to consider the issue of self to be merely problematic, neither affirming nor denying such a thing. However, in my own readings of Buddhist texts, I have more often than not read an assertoric denial of self, or a “both yes and no, and/or neither yes nor no” salad, rather than merely an avoidance of the issue of self. Another comment worth my making here: the idea of a self ought not to be identified with the Brahmanical idea of a permanent self; the latter is a more specific idea than the former, and denial of the latter does not logically entail denial of the former. I support the idea of an impermanent individual self, assigning permanence only to the universal self (i.e. the transcendent, or God). These (and many other) nuances should not be glossed over.

[12]          See reasons for this in my Meditations, chapter 8.

[13]          We tend to view the soul as a small thing, something somewhere in the body or at best coextensive with it. But we should at least conceive the possibility of the opposite idea – viz. that the soul is enormous in comparison with the body, i.e. that the body is a small mark within the soul or a minor appendage to it. Our view of their relative size is, in truth, a function of the relative importance we attach to them, i.e. how frequently we focus our interest on the one or the other.

[14]          Or individuated soul. I say this to stress that the individual soul may be considered as artificial subdivision of the universal soul (or God, in Judaic terms).

[15]          In my view, whatever even just but appears to exist does indeed exist (if only in the way of appearance). Is it real or illusory, though? Those characterizations are open to discussion, and depend on a great many logical factors.

[16]          Judaism agrees with this epistemological and ethical posture, as evidenced for instance by this statement of the Baal Shem Tov: “Before you can find God, you must lose yourself”. (From A Treasury of Jewish Quotations.)

[17]          Ultimately, Buddhism is not interested in descriptive philosophy; what concerns it is to liberate us spiritually. If an idea is effective as a means to that end, it is taught.

Go Back


Blog Search

Blog Archive


There are currently no blog comments.