The Buddhist contribution to the role of selfhood in our lives appears originally to have been a purely pragmatic one. The historical Buddha of the first millennium BCE appears to have rejected philosophical or metaphysical speculation. His approach appears to have had more that of a medical practitioner who outlined (in his case) the causes of human suffering and proposed a route for their alleviation.
Yet the self has through the ages held a fascination for thinkers and philosophers, and no less so for those who in the period after around 100 years BCE inherited the tradition that the Buddha had originated.
One of their principal concerns was the notion of self-consciousness. The Buddha had taught that the self was unreal, a fiction, or a mere conventional term, referring only to the presence of a person or speaker, and certainly not to any ‘inner’ substance or reality belonging to that person. But these practitioners and thinkers came up with an interesting question. Why do we have the sense of being selves in the first place? Is the sense of being selves inherent in the way our minds work, perhaps some fundamental aspect of how our consciousness functions? Modern observers might dismiss this question. We now have in neo-Darwinian theory a compelling explanation for why we have experience of an inner self; natural selection has simply favoured the survival and replication of creatures that manifest selfhood, and where those creatures are sentient like us, selfhood features strongly in our inner awareness. When we look inward, or when our attention wanders, we typically find a self.
But the question is nonetheless of some interest for it led Buddhist philosophy to speculate that consciousness itself might be ‘reflexive’, so that when I see an external object, say a white cloud in the sky, I am simultaneously aware of a self or subject that sees the cloud, that seeing intimates an ‘I’ that sees, that ‘seeing’ and ‘my seeing’ go together. If you try to work this out through introspection, you might end up going round in circles, or feeling queasy, or both. When I look at an object in the room, do I simultaneously have the sense of being a self or subject that looks at it? Of course, I can introspect and think about my looking, but this is obvious and not what interests philosophers now or for that matter two thousand years ago. What is at issue is whether in the innocent act of looking, and therefore before conceptual thought has been engaged, do I have a sense of a self that is performing the act of looking? I, at least for one, do not. As long as I attend to it, there is just the object.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that a creature is conscious if there is something-it-is-like to be like that creature, if that creature has subjective experience. This puts consciousness at the heart of self-consciousness, at the heart of the feeling or intuition that we are selves that look out upon the world. In turn, subjective experience might be defined as the phenomenal character of an experience, its ‘what-it-is-like-ness’, what it is like to see the cloud or the sky beyond it. Many would go on to argue that such ‘what-it-is-like-ness’ must imply a ‘what-it-is-like-for’, and if this is correct it implies that there must be a subject or at the very least a witness of that experience. In this account consciousness is ‘self-reflexive’; being aware of anything involves being aware (somehow, and perhaps dimly) of yourself. Yet this argument still leaves a great deal of possible variation in what this self might be, ranging from a stable and substantial immaterial entity that endures for as long as my body endures to a highly unstable, transient, fragmentary, one that is generated by bodily processes for each separate act of awareness that arises.
Just because the subjective consciousness gives rise to a sense of self it does not necessarily follow that there is a self which exists in an autonomous or enduring sense. Of course, we can always cite the existence of our long-term memory, and our sense of being the same continuing entity throughout our lives, as proof that this self is stable and enduring. But the problem here is that we may have strayed away from the narrow concept of selfhood, of what we are in the most intimate sense, into the realm of persons or what we are by dint of our memories, our socialisation, and the narratives we create about ourselves and others. Persons are certainly legitimate constructions, and we will have good reason to discuss them in more detail later, but they imply the existence of something much broader than selfhood, where selfhood is seen and defined in terms of intimacy, what lies closest, what I want to see preserved and cherished, what lies at the heart of my experience.
We have already seen that the embodied self is a real entity- albeit in my view it is no more than those physical and psychological processes that have been established by virtue of their adaptive qualities. This view (minus the bit about evolutionary adaptation) lay at the heart of the Buddha’s own view of selfhood, of the view that the self is just a loose combination of physical and psychological components. It seems probable then that this minimal or embodied self, this physical inheritance that we all share, is the origin of our sense of self. But it may be a grave error to treat this sense or imitation of selfhood as what we truly are.
For one thing, as we saw in an earlier post, this sense of being a self comes and goes. In particular, when we are absorbed in a task it disappears from view, and if we could consolidate our powers of attention the self would scarcely get a look in. A sense of selfhood as something ‘real’ or ‘substantial’ only appears when we reflect on an experience, when we ask silently, ‘What’s in this for me?’. Of course, we manifest selfish behaviour because we are designed by nature to so do, but the physical traits which underlie that behaviour scarcely define us, nor mean that we could not, if we chose, exhibit other aspects of our inheritance, for example, empathy or compassion.
I think the error we make is to treat the embodied self as something which endures, which has substance over time; rather it is the physical origin of a set of behaviours which manifest themselves from time to time. It is not a unified, enduring and unconditioned entity that has the same identity throughout the life of a conscious subject. It is transient. When the Buddha referred to this ‘self’, or this ‘you’, he is reported to have said, ‘From moment to moment you are born, decay and die.’
Of course, this might in turn give rise to thoughts, not so much of a self, but of a subject, something that endures and to which all experience arises. In this sense, selfhood or subjectivity might be what it is that lies on ‘this side of experience’, what it is that links the body of the subject to the world beyond that body. This subject is situated within the stream of consciousness and allows the experiencer to account for the unity of experience that arises, thereby enabling the experiencer to ascribe past, present and future experiences to an enduring entity. But even so why would such a subject amount to anything more than a body and brain, a physical agent, which is one aspect of that body’s functioning? There is undoubtedly something highly significant about consciousness or the way in which the presence of the world is manifest in our experience (and we shall look at this in more detail later). But we do not need an immaterial self or subject to lie at the source of our conscious experience; we just need a normally-functioning body and a brain.
This may not dispense with the self entirely though. The contemporary philosopher Mark Johnston has an interesting take on what selves are, or at least on what they appear to be. According to Johnston, when I think of the self or subject that will one day cease to be I am referring not to my body, nor even to my psychological character, but to the centre that appears in my arena of presence, the apparent centre of my consciousness. This sense of mineness lies in the fundamental structure of our phenomenal awareness. I experience myself as lying at the centre of ‘an arena of presence and action’. Each one of us is so structured, a being HERE (somewhere in this body) rather than a being there (outside this body). It is a unity that appears when I turn my attention to myself and ‘my’ inner condition.
Time and time again when I awake I am there. I value this presence more than mere personality. I would willingly give up the whole of my psychological character if this presence could survive death. When I think of my death I have to think of the obliteration of the arena of presence and action that is me. But just because awareness appears to constitute an arena of presence it does not necessarily follow that there is a centre in this arena or that there is someone or something, self, subject or person, at that centre. In Johnston’s analysis there never is or was such a centre, only the appearance of one. Arenas and centres are 'mere intentional objects, answering to nothing in the world.’
Even so, fear of or concern surrounding death derives from the thought of the end of this centre of presence, the very property of being me, and hence the end of what is worthy in my self-concern. Thus, there is a fundamental difference between my physical and my subjective death. If I could survive the demise of the body, death would be of lesser or little concern. I would still occupy the centre of my arena of presence. But from the contemplation of my subjective death comes the thought that a world without me is a valueless world, however irrational such a thought might be, because what I value most, what I am closest to, is this centre of presence.
(See Mark Johnston, in Chapter Two of Surviving Death (2010))
Such thoughts help to consolidate the transition from the embodied self, the self that we possess by virtue of our physical endowment and which causes us amongst other things to have recurring thoughts of and preference toward our bodies, to something rather more elusive, an arena of presence that appears to be negated by death. Perhaps it is here that meditation can help us to see the error that we make? When thinking and perception slow in meditation and eventually cease there remains the sense of an experiential space, but there is nothing occupying it, and certainly no centre which it could be said to manifest, or at which ‘I’ might be located. As a result, all room for the thought of my ownmost death (as opposed to the future biological demise of the body and embodied self) has, on rational reflection, disappeared.
In this view it is presence itself, transparent experience, which lies closest. What truly lies closest is not an object out there in the world, nor a thought in the mind, nor even a phenomenal subject, rather it is a transparency, a presence, our unmediated phenomenal view. Are we then clinging for dear life to a persisting self or subject, or to our capacity for experience? Perhaps I am attached to both, or perhaps they are the same phenomenon? Or is it simply that I cannot distinguish one from the other? ‘My consciousness’, my capacity for presence, is what I am, or at least what I appear be, and I want it to continue ideally forever. If so, would we not be better to regard our capacity for experience as what lies closest? Just at the point when the notion of an enduring subject becomes yet more elusive, the irreducible reality of our transparent experience becomes all the more real.