Saturday, 17 December 2011

What does it mean to be you?

This is a response to this video presentation, by the philospher, Julian Baggini for Julian's presentation, is in relation to his book “The Ego Trick”. Watch the video first here:

or... here is the link

Then I will add a few cents to his discussion.

0:00 – 7:11

Julian's presentation is bang on the money so far, I cannot fault a word that he says.

7:11 – 7:16

This sentence he uses the term “we are the aggregates of mental life”. Now for us to assume that there is no mental life would be untrue, of course. We are aware of thinking happening, imagination, memory and so forth. In this part Julian identifies the “we” as the mental life. 
Now, it would be absurd for me to say there is no “we”, because in language, semantically speaking, we have a useful tool for distinguishing a group of people, I cannot even communicate with you without using the term “we”! 

So, there is nothing wrong with what he says here or anything but the fault in his thinking, is the unquestioned assumption of there being a self. Here he uses the assumption that “we” is an identity for the mental life. 
Here, he is backing up his preconceived notion of the self, which he believes exists and takes as a truth or a priori.(existing in the mind prior to and independent of experience, in the same way we know 2+2=4, it is a fundamental knowledge).

Here Julian is rightly questioning the assumptions made by Descartes, who of course came up with the famous Cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am. I will mention this, because the world view of Cartesian dualism, is still rife today. 
We are still using 17th Century ideas that form the basis of our understanding of reality. We just always assumed that “I” refers to a subjective entity, separate from the world. 

Unfortunately, Julian uses Descartes same flawed assumption, that there is a self in the first place, despite the fact that he concedes it is not what we think it is. The investigation in to no self, will lead you to question these assumptions.

Exactly right! People do not generally take the view it as an illusion, since our existential experience dictates to us that it 'must' be a real thing. Preceding this, Susan's statement on the projector and Julian's analysis is that Buddha was saying there is a self in certain contexts and we will clear this conundrum up shortly.

Julian's view is that the self does not exist, is nonsense, because... Well lets look at the validity of his reasoning here.

Firstly lets look at the definition of illusion. 
Susan Blackmore states “An illusion is basically something that is not what it seems to be, or is in some way misleading, intellectually or perceptually”. This definition is important, this will become apparent later.

Julian's reason is “because of the water and all those other things”. We have to question what exactly he is offering, as his reasoning? He is very vague unfortunately but we can take his position so far as his reasoning and do some thought experiments, to see if we can ascertain what he is saying.

Lets just say we saw a puddle of water on the floor. It would be natural to assume that it was water, or maybe even dog piss, or even a spilt drink. Lets just say the puddle is too big, to be anything else, our label of water applies. 
We can reasonably see that it is water, it conforms to our knowledge of water, we would have no reason to think any differently. We could even test it by slurping it up out of the puddle! 

As that is disgusting, we decide to collect a sample and take it to a lab for analysis. Upon testing it, we would see that it weighs more than water, so we assume it has a higher mass. When we freeze it and place it in normal H2O, it actually sinks, rather than floats. 
We can rule out it is salt water, because it freezes. We test its radiation absorption properties and find these are higher. Then we conduct various tests with other reagents and yet it still conforms to the properties of water, in chemical reactions.

We use a mass spectrometer finally and then we deduce that the water is made up of Deuterium or what is known as heavy water = D2O. What had happened, was a tanker containing D2O, came past and leaked some of its contents outside. 
 In actuality, what we had presumed to be water was D2O and this accounted for its slightly different properties. We would conclude, that it was actually heavy water D2O and not H2O, our problem appears to be solved.

The H2O was actually non existent, since it no longer conformed to our expectations of H2O. If we use Julian's idea that the self is not what it seems to be, we can draw the conclusion that the water on the floor was an illusion. We were tricked in to thinking that it was H2O but because of our empirical methods and logic, we were able to see that really, it was not what we originally thought it was.

To use Julian and Susan's definition of illusion:
An illusion is basically something that is not what it seems to be, or is in some way misleading, intellectually or perceptually”.

The idea that the H2O was there, was an illusion.

So this simple idea of our illusion, is easy to grasp, now we can use another analogy to emphasise our point. However, we are dealing with a tricky subjective view of a self and we have to introduce a relevant conundrum. 
Suppose we are in the desert and in the distance we see a mirage. We both know that we can see what looks like water. This mirage conforms to my expectations, where heat rising from the ground, interferes with the light particles (or waves :)), which in turn produces an observable optical phenomena that looks like water in the distance. You turn round to me and say “LOOK, water!”

I turn around and say “But how do you know its water?”

Now in this situation, as you have not been subject to this illusion of a mirage before, you could not be sure what the substance is, you see in the distance. As it looks like water from your point of view, you assert that it is water, because experience tells you that it is unlikely that any other substance would appear, in a naturally occurring oasis.

Now here, you have choices of what it could be, and possibly we could also introduce other clear liquids but again, we rule these out, because experience tells us that it is very likely to be water, that you are seeing. It is naturally occurring, it looks like water and it is very unlikely to be anything else, even though we are in the desert.

At this point I decide to compare the spectrography of the light reflected in the mirage with our portable apparatus. From this, we could deduce that the properties of the mirage, were in fact like that of D2O and not H2O
We had been mistaken the whole time, that we had said a mirage propagates the illusion of water but actually propagates the illusion of heavy water. Now to some, this is quite a limb to go out on, we are trying to conclude a fact here, that we had just assumed to be true.

However, this is not really a big deal. It makes no difference to you or me whether the illusion was actually water, saline, heavy water, nor, a combination of the three. It doesn't make the blind bit of difference to anyone, what it actually is that appears in the mirage, since we are equating it with a clear liquid, that for useful purposes, is easy enough to call water. This allows us to derive a clear and convenient label, for the purposes of communicating.

Nevertheless, we find ourselves in a situation, where you have failed to see that the D2O does not really exist and it never did, we were just examining the properties of the illusionary mirage and how it conformed to our empirical measurements. 
You failed to see that the liquid was not even really there. Only by running off in to the distance, to experience “no water”, could we actually derive any useful conclusions from this illusion. It is here that Julian Baggini's argument falls short.

So lets break down what he is saying and compare it to our analogy.

Of course, we can actually look at the properties that make up the mirage. There is real heat, real photons and a real perception of the illusion. These are all real phenomena that can be directly experienced and conforms with our understanding. 
The only way we can empirically test if the mirage is real, is to actually go and LOOK to see if it is, unless we have seen one before and know this to be an illusion. Now of course, you may be thinking that the unreality of a mirage, in no way equates with the unreality of self but I will show here that we can indeed draw parallels.

There are real thoughts, which we can perceive and validate experientially. By the use of MRI scanning, it is reasonable to assume that as a result of brain activity and neurons firing, a thought is produced in such a way. 
Each thought arises in response to the environment. Consequently, our knowledge is accessed when an event demands it. A memory is recalled when an event demands it, even if this event does not appear to us on the level of consciousness. Our desires also arise in response to a stimulus, such as a hunger pang, seeing food, or even the thought of food.

Our beliefs shape our thinking, as our beliefs are the construct of a subjective map that we make of the world. Through these beliefs, we frame a position in relation to a perception and as such, beliefs influence how we react to certain things. This mechanism I have outlined in detail before but to many, it is self evident and requires no further explanation.

(If you want this outline: )

All of these processes are completely real. Like the heat, the photons, the sand, the air, these mental phenomena we discussed are all real. Our experience tells us, they definitely exist in real life. 
Yet despite all of this, the sum total of these things all propagate an illusion, which is by dictionary definition “a mistaken perception”. We mistakenly believe we are an abiding “self”, we mistakenly perceive the water in a mirage to be real.

The self and the water in the mirage are not real, yet the components that propagate the illusion, are completely real, this is not in question. To illustrate here, we use Julian and Susan's definition of illusion:

An illusion is basically something that is not what it seems to be, or is in some way misleading, intellectually or perceptually”.

Breaking this further down we get:

1. Basically the self, or the water in the mirage is not what it seems to be. It seems to be 'real', but it is not.

2. It is misleading intellectually, because we think it is real.

3. Perceptually, we only have experiences to go from, therefore, it conforms to our best guess from past experiences.

From this we can see the self is plausibly false, however, Julian uses this definition to mean a watered down version of illusion, where if it is not what it seems to be, it must be something else. Here he has taken this to mean, it is something else that really exists, when in actual fact, there is no self and we can experientially validate this, if we actually look. 
In our metaphor we were looking at D2O and H2O as the contents of the mirage and Julian is simply identifying the bundles of thoughts and feelings etc... as something else to identify a self with. He has not looked to see if the mirage, or indeed the self, is real.

He did admit there is no abiding self but he failed to logically conclude that the self is not real, since logic can NEVER bring us to this conclusion. It is naturally an illogical conclusion, to say “there is no self”, since we were ALL born with the assumption that the self exists. 
Having a self to us, is a priori. It is just the way we have constructed the world, our beliefs dictate to us that we see the world, with a frame of reference of 'self'. Just as it used to be obvious that we used to take the fact that the earth was flat as a priori, because it conformed to what we could reasonably deduce from our direct experience.

This is why 'no self' cannot be explained in a coherent manner and we are forced to use this LOOK maxim. On an empirical basis we mistakenly perceive a self but in reality it is not there at all, “I” refers to nothing. We can only know this by looking in real life, which Julian has not done, so he would obviously derive the conclusion that there is a self, since he has never had need to question this 'a priori', and neither has anyone else.

Even when David Hume presented the bundle theory of self, again he took the self as an a priori, even though he couldn't perceive it. He pointed to the components that made the self and labelled the self as the bundle but by his own admission, he couldn't crack it. Julian has made little more progress than Hume did. Hume's notion of self, represents the brick wall of understanding, for 99% of philosophy students, that there has been since.


Now, the next stage is reliant on the assumption that there is a self there. My comments at 7:11, indeed highlighted the assumption he makes. Now we are talking about the sum of its parts. Julian goes on to assert that:“we don't discover that something doesn't exist, just because we discover it is a collection of parts”
This premise is true. Just because we find a car is made of parts, it is unreasonable to say that there is no car. His error is in this a priori of there being a self there, which we unquestioningly take as a given.

However, we have to look at the label that we assign to an object. Of course, if I suggest 'unicorn', we know what it is; a mythical horse with a horn sticking out of its head. Of course, a unicorn has no basis in reality, it is a made up fiction for the purposes of story telling. 
As with our 'self' it is actually a fiction for the purposes of communicating. Naturally, when things are observed, it is apparent that for the purposes of functionality, we attribute a label to them. If we suppose that we evolved from a primate and one day the first spark of self awareness flickered to life, which in turn eventually led us to develop language, this would lead us to a structural requirement of self, as Kant suggested.

Whilst this structural requirement of language, tricks us in to believing that “I” is real, it makes sense that we use the label “I”, “you”, “myself”, “themselves”, “ghost”, or whatever. These are structural components in our language and without these structural components, communication would never be facilitated. 
Whilst some languages do not use obvious pronouns, there is ALWAYS reference to another subject in some capacity, even in sign language. We just take the fact that communication is ongoing with another, to assume that they are also an abiding self. We just assumed that “self” actually referred to something real, when in reality, it is a useful structural requirement of language, nothing more.

Going back to Susan and Julian's idea, that Buddha talks about the self as being real, this is just a total misunderstanding. We cannot communicate without invoking this structural requirement of self, therefore they have misinterpreted Buddha. 
Because he mentions the self, they take it to mean he is referring to something real. If you read any of the blogs here, you will also see that we speak of a self in such terms but just because we do, we are not stating it is real and neither was Buddha. Anatta or no self IS the core teaching of Buddha. To try and deny this is nonsensical, although to be fair Julian thinks it doesn't follow because there must be a self. Here lies his mistake.

Now finally, we have the idea that because of this structural requirement, we have psychological phenomena and since this illusion of self exists, then the illusion is a real illusion, therefore this makes the self a real thing. 
Now this seems to be true on our first look. We believe we experience the self, it is necessary as a structural requirement and it would be reasonable to infer that since the phenomena exists, the illusion lies in what we think it to be, as Julian suggests and therefore; it seems logical to conclude that the self exists.

However, the clear absurdity, lies in the fact that we are trying to establish. Were you to say that the water in a mirage over there was real, I would no sooner tell you to grab your speedo's and go for a swim. 
No matter how hard you wished there to be water there, no matter what your previous experience told you, the net result is “no water”. The phenomena exists but the content of the illusion is false, whichever way we look at it.

It is no more absurd for me to suggest that Harry Potter exists in real life. Of course the phenomena exists as a fiction, it is something tangible in the world as a real fiction. As with the self though, they are both fictitious, therefore they don't exist on the level we know as real life.


Here Julian comes to the conclusion that the problem of Personal Identity as originally formulated, is non existent. That would concur with there being no self.

13:57 – 16:00

Of course it doesn't make sense, you still take the self as a priori Julian!

Just because there is no self, it doesn't mean that there is no sense of self there. In order for this illusion to be effective, we have to believe it is true and we all have what we can term “a sense of self” as such. It just naturally feels true to us, this is indisputable.

Now if we take the idea that we are trying to escape from this sense of self, then here lies the absurdity. This sense of self does not disappear after liberation, it was never there in the first place. We can no more lose this, than we can lose our thoughts.

In coming to an intellectual understanding of no self, we can start to say we are more detached and so forth but the reality is nothing changes because we still identify with the “I” in our thoughts. Even if we know the self is not real, it makes no difference until we actually SEE it is not real and herein lies the difference between understanding logically and seeing.


Of course this is the truth, there is no need to sit in isolation to dissolve your ego, this is the most dangerous thing one can endeavour to do.

Well thats all, of course Julian has stopped short here but he deserves kudos for getting most of the intellectual understanding, by logic alone and he has raised some very pertinent issues here that we can explore.

But the main question as always, of course: Is there a self?


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