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Feeling 'Selfy' ? Regarding 'The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind, and the Myth of the Self' by Thomas Metzinger
October 14, 2009 12:15 PM   Subscribe

Natasha Mitchell: So it's not a little man or woman inside our heads...

Thomas Metzinger: ...that looks at pictures. But the experience of looking, of being directed to one's own feelings or to one's sensory perceptions of the outside world, this is itself an image. There is nobody looking at the image, it's like the camera is part of the picture or the viewing is itself a part of the process of viewing. This is how a first-person perspective emerges in our own case, the question is, okay, if it's not a thing, if it's not something in the brain, what kind of a process is it?
And I think it's a process, as philosophers say, of representing, that is of making an image, and that process is not there all the time. You know you have a conscious self in dreams, you have one in your waking life. During anaesthesia or during dreamless sleep there is no such thing as this process of self-ing, if I may call it like that.
You are not a self! Bodies, brains and the nature of consciousness

A review of Metzinger's The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind, and the Myth of the Self

From the review:
Metzinger believes strongly that it is possible to solve the philosophical puzzle of consciousness only if we come to understand that to the best of our current knowledge there is no thing, no indivisible entity that is us, neither in the brain nor in some metaphysical realm beyond this world. Thus, highlighting a series of groundbreaking experiments in neuroscience, virtual reality and robotics, and his own pioneering research into the phenomenon of the "out-of-body" experience, Metzinger reveals how our brains construct our reality. According to him, our deepest sense of self is completely dependent on our brain functioning.

The internal image of the person-as-a-whole is the phenomenal Ego, the "I" or "self" as it appears in conscious experience. The phenomenal Ego is not some mysterious thing or little man inside the head but the content of an inner image, namely, the conscious self-model. Metzinger claims that by placing the self-model within the world-model, a center, which we experience as ourselves, the Ego, is created. But, as Metzinger himself admits, one has to dissolve the problem of the subjectivity of consciousness if one wants to have the big picture. The ego tunnel is a consciousness tunnel that has evolved the additional property of creating a robust first person perspective, a subjective view of the world. It is a consciousness tunnel plus an apparent self. But, this is the challenge Metzinger takes in order to understand how a genuine sense of selfhood appears.
All In the Mind blog post on The Ego Tunnel

New Scientist review preview

via Mindhacks
posted by y2karl (56 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
This "ego tunnel," would it be the same thing as the "creative loop"described by Erich Harth in 1995?
posted by localroger at 12:28 PM on October 14, 2009


I am a buddhist, and it's fascinating to see modern science corroborate beliefs that have been around for a couple thousand years. I look forward to reading this when I have more itme.

Also, I'm impressed with your use of the title tag!
posted by desjardins at 12:28 PM on October 14, 2009 [6 favorites]


Can someone find a citation for his anecdote: "like almost 25% of children born without limbs, arms or legs, when they begin to talk, suddenly the parents ask, 'What are you doing there?' And they say, 'Well, we're learning how to calculate in school, I'm doing four plus three with my ghost fingers.' And they say, 'What? You've had ghost fingers all the time?'"
posted by muddgirl at 1:01 PM on October 14, 2009


My brain is telling me that I shouldn't give this theory too much credence.

I generally tend to listen to my brain, although there are occasions when I do what I want to instead.
posted by Aquaman at 1:12 PM on October 14, 2009


Oh man if you have not read Metzinger's Being No One you have not yet lived. A tremendously rewarding and fascinating book. If it weren't so goddamn expensive everyone in my life would have a copy.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:16 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


This "ego tunnel," would it be the same thing as the "creative loop"described by Erich Harth in 1995?
posted by localroger at 2:28 PM on October 14 [+] [!]


It made me instantly think of Hofstadter.
posted by erikgrande at 1:19 PM on October 14, 2009


I suspect that much of the fascination with this arcane area of investigation is motivated by the unexpressed hope that we are indeed "virtual selves in a virtual reality," and that if this can be proved, we need no longer heed our consciences, or regret the hurt we've caused, or lament our wasted lives.
posted by Faze at 1:28 PM on October 14, 2009


According to him, our deepest sense of self is completely dependent on our brain functioning.

Is this really what Buddhism suggests? I think the rhetoric of dissolving, etc, may be skewing the reading of Buddhists who think that this is science confirming Buddhist precepts. This seems much more materialist than any Buddhism I've ever read or talked about.
posted by OmieWise at 1:56 PM on October 14, 2009


But did he take into consideration the ontology of the ego underpass when developing his theory?
posted by rainy at 2:03 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


OmieWise, it's certainly open to interpretation. I should read the links before I assert an opinion, but as far as that specific passage goes, I do agree that the reason we sense a separate self is primarily due to brain functioning. Perhaps "completely" is too definite a qualifier. As I understand Buddhism (and I'm not saying I do), we think we have a separate self, because we think. Thinking is a product of the brain's functioning. It does not spring fully-formed out of nowhere; our thoughts are formed according to dependent origination. Our thoughts obscure reality and create the illusion of a separate self.
posted by desjardins at 2:42 PM on October 14, 2009


Is this really what Buddhism suggests?
Certainly doesn't seem at all incompatible - patterns arise as a result of the endless chain of cause-and-consequence links in the phenomenal world and this complexity can give rise to an agglomeration which may develop the illusion of selfhood. That the agglomeration has the way elements combine in atoms, how evolution has lead to out particular animality or takes the form of pathways in the brain etc. would seem in no way a contradiction.
posted by Abiezer at 2:49 PM on October 14, 2009


OmieWise: Is this really what Buddhism suggests? I think the rhetoric of dissolving, etc, may be skewing the reading of Buddhists who think that this is science confirming Buddhist precepts. This seems much more materialist than any Buddhism I've ever read or talked about.

I've been involved with Chan Buddhism (Chinese precursor of japanese and modern Zen) for a while through my martial arts practice and I think that, yes, that's basically what at least that particular school of Buddhism points to. The practice isn't much more than rigorous application of the scientific method to the mechanisms of subjective experience and perception. Initially it leads to the realization that everything we perceive around us is not real in the sense that when one becomes consciously aware of, say, a chair that chair is a state of our mind, not an actual chair "outside" of our mind. There may very well be a chair "outside" of our mind that triggered this state via sensory perception but the chair in our mind, the chair we "see" is not that chair. From there it's really only a small step (albeit a considerably more painful one) to the realization that the same applies to the perceived self. If a self perceives a consistent and continuous self than the latter can't be the same as the former. Claiming it is the same would be triggering von Neumann's catastrophe of infinite regress. No model can explain everything including itself. No thing can completely contain itself. No self can perceive itself. You always have to take one step back to perceive something in its entirety which introduces a new, bigger frame of reference that is not part of what you're looking at.
But maybe the infinite loop that is entered by falsely perceiving a self is generating some sort of self-propagating state, like a wave traveling through water (consistency of shape yet not the same stuff forming it, new agey analogy, blah...) that, combined with stored memories of past events, creates the illusion of a continuous and consistent self experiencing the flow of time.

However very clearly this sense of continuity can be easily disrupted. For example when people get "into the zone" they can loose all sense of self. Coming out of that state feels like waking up, as if awareness has just been reassembled. Meditation can do the same. And of course as mentioned in the post this can also be triggered by sleep, anaesthesia, blackout, shock, drugs etc.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:50 PM on October 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


"our particular! - abstruse and wrong enough as it was without the typos.
I should read the links before I assert an opinion
This false view posits a self who may undertake the normative obligations of our community and having transcended this pratyeka level I weigh in regardless :p
posted by Abiezer at 2:52 PM on October 14, 2009


OK, I've read the first link (the interview) and I don't see anything there that conflicts with my understanding of Buddhism. In fact, he directly namechecks Buddhism. I shouldn't have invoked "science" in my first comment; I read too quickly and read neurosciences instead of neuroethics.

I suspect that much of the fascination with this arcane area of investigation is motivated by the unexpressed hope that we are indeed "virtual selves in a virtual reality," and that if this can be proved, we need no longer heed our consciences, or regret the hurt we've caused, or lament our wasted lives.

We certainly don't connect the concept of "selflessness" with a lack of conscience, so I don't see why this would be. Even in a lucid dream, we can only do unspeakable things because we know it's a dream and we know there will be no consequences when we awake. In the waking world, pain and suffering are going to exist regardless of whether we see ourselves and the world as virtual or not. If someone acts as if they can only hurt others in this virtual world, and they themselves will not be hurt, well, good luck with that. You cannot escape the consequences of your actions. In Buddhism, the only way to really end suffering is to not be born.
posted by desjardins at 3:13 PM on October 14, 2009


muddgirl, I didn't find a cite for that exact story, but here's a really interesting book chapter that addresses similar phenomena: Out on a Limb: neglect and confabulation in the study of aplasic phantoms

Searching on "aplasic phantom" brings up many journal abstracts.
posted by desjardins at 3:22 PM on October 14, 2009


Excellent stuff, and for what it's worth, the notions that...

a) we habitually and unconsciously construct a sense of "self" in order to organize the perceptual data of our sense-impressions and give them their apparent unity (sometimes called the binding problem)
b) we conceptually and psychologically en-frame the world through the creation of subjective identities
c) language, being social, depends on an implicit descriptive metaphysics of discreet individuals

...are naturally very old notions in philosophy; one finds especially echoes of this way of thinking about the "self" in Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Fichte, James, Husserl, Freud, Heidegger, Churchland, and Dennett, among others.

Yet if the self is constructed, it does not follow that it does not exist. After all, money and marriage are also constructions, albeit of a different kind, yet no one argues that b/c they are constructed they do not "exist."

Likewise, the "self" is merely a pragmatic way of referring to, or thinking about, human beings as discreet agents (ourselves included). Without such an implicit agreement or minimal metaphysical commitment it's difficult to see how language (and think of how often in Buddhist literature, or for that matter in Heraclitus, language is shown to be deceptive--which it very much is, if we're speaking purely metaphysically) could have ever gotten off the ground. The self is a necessary construction, and if we were solitary animals lacking a language we probably would not have a concept for self at all.

posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 3:28 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks, desjardins. I am, of course, familiar with the concept of phantom limb, but had a lot of assumptions about the causes that would preclude "aplastic phantoms".
posted by muddgirl at 3:40 PM on October 14, 2009


I should have said "presumptions".
posted by muddgirl at 3:41 PM on October 14, 2009


The self is a necessary construction
As I understand it*, not so much necessary (which would imply purpose or the inevitably of human history as it happened to have unfolded, it seems) as a corollary of phenomenal existence, with the further posit that it can be transcended or abandoned and thus certain sensations of dis-ease arising as a consequence avoided.
* i.e. exceedingly dimly as the writings on this seem to dwarf the whole output of Jesuit casuistry in both volume and complexity
posted by Abiezer at 3:51 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


The self is a necessary construction, and if we were solitary animals lacking a language we probably would not have a concept for self at all.

That's kind of circular, though: The self is a necessary construction because language depends on it, but language is what constructs the self, which is necessary for language, etc.

Anyway, there's existence and then there's our perception of existence. People believe in all kinds of stuff that may or may not exist, or exists in one moment but not another, or exists in one form at one time, but another form another time. Aliens, ghosts, love, sadness. I had pizza for dinner last night but you don't want to know in what form it exists now.

I think we may have a difference in perspective over the word "exist" - to me, it connotes some contiguity, some fixed quality, and i would say that no, the self does not exist in that manner, and in fact nothing exists in perpetuity, not even the earth. Over a long enough span of time this is obvious (cf. the Grand Canyon, other planets, stars). You and I are changing with each passing moment, and we use the words "you" and "I" because they are a useful organizing convention (as you said), but nothing exists from moment to moment; no THING is carried over. Rather it's a process that continues (see dependent origination link above). My cells are continually dying and regenerating; I'm constantly breathing in new air and breathing out old; etc etc I'm not going to patronize you, you get what I'm saying.
posted by desjardins at 3:52 PM on October 14, 2009


it can be transcended or abandoned

yeah but what is there to transcend or abandon? (I'm not trying to be a dick)
posted by desjardins at 3:53 PM on October 14, 2009


muddgirl: I had no idea until today that aplasic phantoms existed, so this is kinda cool. I'm missing a finger, from birth, but I've never experienced this.
posted by desjardins at 3:55 PM on October 14, 2009


Even in a lucid dream, we can only do unspeakable things because we know it's a dream and we know there will be no consequences when we awake

Is this actually true? If you represented yourself and one other person in a lucid dream, and one of you tortured the other, is it necessarily the case that no suffering is occurring? Can you give a coherent explanation of why this would be the case in a dream but not in the "real world"?

Although I don't consider myself a Buddhist, I agree with others here that these ideas are interesting but still too materialist/reductionist
posted by crayz at 3:56 PM on October 14, 2009


There's another whole set of debates around that as I recall - suppose it would be what we might term the problem of agency now, which obviously gets side-swiped if you don't think there's an abiding agent. It was handled quite successfully I think, in those kind of deliberately dialectic statements like the Buddha asserting that he had already finished saving all beings - point being that, as I know you know, the various schools really did give these issues a very thorough working over and it's been one of the delights of my own encounter with Chinese Buddhist art and thinking to engage with that.
posted by Abiezer at 3:59 PM on October 14, 2009


I still don't think this understanding is the same, and this may well be my fault in understanding. But, to speak crudely*, Metzinger seems to be making an argument that tries to build an ethics around the concept that we are (again, crudely) robots made out of meat, robots that confuse ourselves into thinking that we contain spirit. Isn't Buddhism, on the other hand, arguing that we are beings made out of spirit who confuse ourselves into thinking that we're made out of meat? (I always understood the physical practices in Buddhism to be aimed at ultimately erasing the distinction we erroneously make between ourselves and spirit by fully inhabiting the body.) These are radically incommensurate notions that lead to quite different conclusions, or they should. To put this another way, The Illusion of Conscious Will by Daniel Wegner, which similarly argues that we mistake neuronal processes for conscious will, is not a Buddhist book, even if some aspects of the problem seem to echo Buddhist concerns.

* Both my understanding, and my illustration, are crude. I respect the nuance here, and don't want to dismiss it, except insofar as it helps to talk crudely to sketch out the big issues.
posted by OmieWise at 3:59 PM on October 14, 2009


I would say that sense of self is a consequence of theory of mind: the realization that others have a different experience than you do. Without the concept of "me" as a separate aspect of the world, how can I realize that "you" don't know what "I" do? Having the concept of "me" allows me to interact, as a body, with the rest of the world in a more effective manner.

The question of whether "I" am real, or simply a convenient construct, is moot.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 4:00 PM on October 14, 2009


Is this actually true? If you represented yourself and one other person in a lucid dream, and one of you tortured the other, is it necessarily the case that no suffering is occurring?

If it's me torturing the person I represent in the dream, then yes. (Unless it's part of a nightmare that's causing me suffering, but that's incidental.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:06 PM on October 14, 2009


According to him, our deepest sense of self is completely dependent on our brain functioning.

Um, yes? Unless there's spooks out there.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:07 PM on October 14, 2009


nothing exists from moment to moment; no THING is carried over.

Well ok David Lewis called this view perdurantism, as contrasted to endurantism, and it's arguably the oldest running debate in philosophy: the debate about the self-identity of objects over time, as seen in the famous "ship of Theseus" problem. Consider for instance the process philosophy of Heraclitus, and Wittgenstein's famous remarks on the famous Heraclitus fragment about never stepping in "the same river twice." For Wittgenstein, Heraclitus has confused the (Fregean) sense of the river with its (Fregean) referent. Unless we can come up with a language that changes like quicksilver every moment, we are bound to its conventions: for better or worse, we are bound to the phenomenological limits of time-consciousness that ordinary language provides. What language loses in metaphysical veracity, it gains in practical applicability. Long before Bergson or Whitehead, the first temporal atoms of experience were the "dharmas" of Buddhism: fleeting, instantly dissolving into themselves, these monadic entities were like Humean sense-data, and the tendency to see continuity in experience was/is merely an order we imposed/impose on them (as Hume thoght about causality generally) etc. Language is not fast enough for cognition of dharmic transience.

posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 4:11 PM on October 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


Isn't Buddhism, on the other hand, arguing that we are beings made out of spirit who confuse ourselves into thinking that we're made out of meat?

I admit to quite a bit of ignorance on the topic, but my understanding of Buddhism is closer to the idea that the distinction between spirit and meat is itself an illusion. Clearly one can alter the physical properties of the brain (via drugs, electrical/magnetic stimulation, or a good old-fashioned crowbar) in ways that temporarily or permanently alter a person's "spirit"
posted by crayz at 4:12 PM on October 14, 2009


The question of whether "I" am real, or simply a convenient construct, is moot.
That seems to me counter to the entirety of the Buddhist understanding and its liberatory intent - as the central dilemma of the human condition is this 'self' and its fears and fear of death etc.
There's the famous koan, 'What was your original face before you were born?' which seemed designed to remind practitioners that this sensation of being is temporary, not something that was there at a point in the past and something you will not have after death, coupled with the basic fact of what distinguishes humans from other animals seems to be this self-awareness and awareness of our own mortality. Certainly the latter seems to have driven all sorts of 'irrational' behaviour and practice down the centuries.
posted by Abiezer at 4:18 PM on October 14, 2009


So it's not a little man or woman inside our heads...that looks at pictures. But the experience of looking, of being directed to one's own feelings or to one's sensory perceptions of the outside world, this is itself an image.

This is neither deep nor accurate.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:18 PM on October 14, 2009


OmieWise: Isn't Buddhism, on the other hand, arguing that we are beings made out of spirit who confuse ourselves into thinking that we're made out of meat?

I am completely baffled by this. To what spirit are you referring? I have not heard reference to a spirit in buddhist readings and I would be interested in knowing why you think this.

Jaltcoh: If you represented yourself and one other person in a lucid dream, and one of you tortured the other, is it necessarily the case that no suffering is occurring?

I honestly have no idea. I tend to run around naked in my lucid dreams. Maybe I am causing the suffering of the dream-people observing me.

HP LaserJet P10006: Language is not fast enough for cognition of dharmic transience.

Right, and there's no problem with this as long as we don't mistake language for reality.
posted by desjardins at 4:22 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh man if you have not read Metzinger's Being No One you have not yet lived.

Shit, now I'm gonna have to read his book. Another brick on the pile. I mean, what if it really is a theory and not just another extended metaphor.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:27 PM on October 14, 2009


I am completely baffled by this. To what spirit are you referring? I have not heard reference to a spirit in buddhist readings and I would be interested in knowing why you think this.

I'm not sure why you're so baffled by this. While the esoterica is no doubt beyond the scope of my understanding, buddhism is a religion that is predicated on the idea of rebirth, enlightenment, and rejection of worldly pleasures and distractions. These are pursuits of the spirit. Rather than getting testy about my lack of knowledge, you could just answer my question about why a radically materialist philosophy should be understood to support the ideas of a radically spiritual religion.
posted by OmieWise at 4:35 PM on October 14, 2009


Rather than getting testy about my lack of knowledge

No no, that's not what I meant - I am sure there is a gap in MY knowledge and I was asking you to point it out to me. I am not testy in the least, unless you count watching the clock until I can go home from work. Certainly not at you or your words.

you could just answer my question about why a radically materialist philosophy should be understood to support the ideas of a radically spiritual religion.

I guess I do not see the two (material and spiritual) as separate in any way, yet I can't articulate exactly why.
posted by desjardins at 4:44 PM on October 14, 2009


buddhism is a religion that is predicated on the idea of rebirth, enlightenment, and rejection of worldly pleasures and distractions
That's your problem I think - certainly the (somewhat later in terms of the history of Buddhism) philosophical schools were founded on nothing of the sort and while it's a massive, various and complex history, the core of it seems to derive from certain realisations or insights of a Nepalese teacher (Gautama the sage from the Shakya people) concerning the human condition that could as well be deemed cognitive as spiritual.
There is indeed a whole other discourse of what we might call spiritual powers (tantra etc) but could easily make the case that these have been peripheral looking at the long course of Buddhist history.
posted by Abiezer at 4:52 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Right, we can easily get into a discussion about "what is Buddhism" which is about as useless as "what is Christianity" - do you mean today or historically? core beliefs or everything added to it? which sect/denominations? in theory or practice? etc.

I will say upfront that I know almost nothing about Tibetan buddhism, so my perspective does not come from that. My limited understanding is that it DOES contain more spiritual elements, powers, gods, demons, etc. and while I won't argue that it's not "real" buddhism (see no true scotsman), it's different from my experience.

In any case, yay, I'm off work and far less testy.
posted by desjardins at 5:00 PM on October 14, 2009


Ok, fair enough.

Perhaps it's just my prejudice, but I have a hard time seeing Buddhism as anything other than spiritual at its core. It certainly has all the trappings of religion where it is practiced. I'm not sure what to say about the spiritual/material distinction in buddhism, except to say that my understanding of Metzinger's point is that the spiritual is nothing but a side-effect of the material. Even if Buddhism collapses the two, this seems different, as it subordinates the spiritual to the material.

But, ultimately, I have no real knowledge of either pole in this debate (which I've created).
posted by OmieWise at 5:33 PM on October 14, 2009


[Buddhism] certainly has all the trappings of religion where it is practiced.

As a practice maybe, but one does not have to explicitly believe in either God or the existence of souls to be a Buddhist; it has even been suggested one can be an atheistic Buddhist, hence the frequent declaration that Buddhism is as much, if not more, a philosophy (or even psychology) than it is a religion.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 5:54 PM on October 14, 2009


I have a hard time seeing Buddhism as anything other than spiritual at its core.
Thinking on in the light of this discussion, I wouldn't want to gloss over definite 'spiritual'* elements in some early Buddhist writing - hiding from the eye of Mara, Lord of Death etc - but if you look back to very earliest context of the insights of Gautama being made within the context of an Indian debate, while the positions he set out were not necessarily materialist either in the modern sense what distinguished his thought from the Brahmans was such essentials as the denial of an abiding spiritual essence or soul (anatman) and a very practical concern with the mechanics of addressing what were perceived as problems with the human condition. It did seem to be setting itself apart from the more blatantly spiritual and ritualistic practices of other competing views in its milieu.

*scare-quoted only because as per usual with this sort of discussion the terminology carries its own burdens not necessarily identical with the religio-philosophical concerns of pre-BCE northern India.
posted by Abiezer at 5:59 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Lordy, that was a garbled mess of too many contexts.
I think you get the flavour of early Buddhism and how it saw itself in the parable of the poison arrow - you wouldn't quiz the doctor on his family background etc before allowing him to pull it out. This analogy to medicine highlights the Buddhist view that it offered a set of practices that would resolve problems for you, without asking that necessarily you subscribe to a set of articles of faith (constant exhortation to see for yourself if it was true) and not of the order of magical-type rituals that sought the intervention of supernatural powers (though of course as we've observed a lot of that got mixed in in later actual folk practice).
posted by Abiezer at 6:07 PM on October 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


As a practice maybe, but one does not have to explicitly believe in either God or the existence of souls to be a Buddhist...

Nor to be an observant Jew, for that matter, as I understand it, at least as a belief in a personal God is concerned, as many guides to religious practice--whether Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist--seem to suggest that a belief in God is not a necessary requirement for the observance of ritual. Not that all Jewish athiests are comfortable with the concept of observing religious practice, of course, and there are no athiest congregations affiliated with any of those branches, as far as I know.

But this is not the same as not believing in a self or a soul, and as such, is a bit of derail here.
posted by y2karl at 6:27 PM on October 14, 2009


For example: My Jewish Learning: Must a Jew Believe in God ?
posted by y2karl at 6:46 PM on October 14, 2009


I mean, what if it really is a theory and not just another extended metaphor.

Good luck escaping metaphor...
posted by kaspen at 8:52 PM on October 14, 2009


atheistic Buddhist

Yeah, I would definitely describe myself as such. I have a little trouble with the term "atheist," as it has come to be associated with some people who are vocally anti-religion, but that's my own hang-up. Some buddhists are vocally anti-God; I'm not one of those either, but I definitely don't think that you can be a theist and a buddhist; the two are incompatible.

This pretty much sums up what I think:
Buddhism has sometimes been called an atheistic teaching, either in an approving sense by freethinkers and rationalists, or in a derogatory sense by people of theistic persuasion. Only in one way can Buddhism be described as atheistic, namely, in so far as it denies the existence of an eternal, omnipotent God or godhead who is the creator and ordainer of the world. The word "atheism," however, like the word "godless," frequently carries a number of disparaging overtones or implications, which in no way apply to the Buddha's teaching.
OP, sorry for the massive derail.
posted by desjardins at 6:18 AM on October 15, 2009


Metafilter: I have no real knowledge of either pole in this debate (which I've created)
posted by Grangousier at 6:34 AM on October 15, 2009


It seems to me like the self, the soul, the mind, the person sneaks back in when you try to make it go away. "The self is an image." An image is only an *image* in being perceived, or potentially perceived. So who's perceiving? And if no one is perceiving, how is it meaningful to speak of "images"?

The same thing happens when you say "we construct a self" -- hold on. Who's "we," white man? The ones doing the constructing?

I'm not sure we're capable of not believing in selves/subjectivities/minds. We're capable of saying we don't, but if we really didn't, we couldn't say anything at all, because the foundations would collapse under our words.

Or maybe that's why mystics are so cryptic.
posted by edheil at 6:50 AM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


edheil, I just finished a book by Alan Watts and he basically says "Well, enlightenment can't be captured in words so don't think you're going to get anything out of reading this."

There's also the finger pointing at the moon analogy; we look at the finger, not the moon. (I stumbled on this parody while searching for a good quote. Hilarious. [NOT FINGERIST])
posted by desjardins at 8:00 AM on October 15, 2009


To me, the core Buddhist idea is that the apprehension of self is really what we would more typically think of as a phenomenon, rather than a thing. Of course, phenomena are real in a certain sense, but we tend to think of phenomena as distinct from physical objects in some peculiar way. For example: most people, I think, would tend to classify a coffee cup as a different category of thing, with a different quality of existence than a transitory phenomenon like say, a paper airplane crashing into the ground (not the airplane, not the ground, but the factual event of the crash).

Overall, it's probably more accurate to characterize the Buddhist metaphysics as "ideal" rather than spiritual: the sense of continuous self emerges as a function of the 5 phenomenal aggregates or Skandha . Crudely put, these include:

1) Form/Matter - Basically the world outside of your sense of intentional self, whatever it is. (Note, "matter" isn't a literal translation.)

2) Sensation - Raw sensations of hot, cold, bright, dark, etc.; basically, raw sensory phenomenon.

3) Perception/Discrimination - The conscious recognition and perception of sensations.

4) Impulses/Volition/Karmic Constituents - Variously translated, this basically refers to conscious ideas and intentional thought patterns, but it also encompasses the category of phenomenon (often translated as "karmic constituents") that most people would probably describe as spiritual (though I consider that an error).

5) Consciousness - The experience you have of all these phenomena that contribute to the sense of self being continuous and persisting over time--the binding that wraps all the different components of self together and gives them meaning, essentially.

The karmic constituents are the closest you get to anything spiritual in the core teachings (and these karmic constituents are the properties that come to bear in the cycle of rebirth, reincarnation, etc.), but they're really more akin to arithmetic or logical ideals than to anything you might talk about at a seance. It's a little hard to talk about physical/nonphysical distinctions, because Buddhism doesn't really see them as distinct categories to begin with. Even non-material phenomena are viewed as governed by the immutable laws of cause and effect, and are basically just another aspect of the causal world, not something beyond it. The only thing beyond the causal world is the big prize, non-existence (which, paradoxically, in some schools you already have but just don't know it yet). Note: non-existence arguably isn't the same thing as no-Self.

An example I usually offer of what I mean when I refer to "logical ideals" are mathematical properties like those of certain geometric forms. One such property of a triangle is that, no matter the specific physical dimensions or form of any particular real-world triangle, the sum of its interior angles always comes out to approximately 180 degrees. That's a real property of the triangle, but you can't touch that property or probe it except indirectly, through performing measurements of those physical properties you can touch and probe. It's a property that seems to exist in its own right because it's universal: It applies not just to one freak triangle that exhibits the property, but to all of them.

The spiritual elements of Buddhism, at least in the early core teachings, resemble logical ideals such as the mathematical properties of the triangle much more closely than they resemble the medieval images of tortured, disembodied souls floating around in the ether.

(Sorry this went long. Still didn't get around to my point, whatever it was. Gotta run now.)
posted by saulgoodman at 10:01 AM on October 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


I am totally stealing your triangle analogy.
posted by desjardins at 10:18 AM on October 15, 2009


Buddhist schools have always used the language of the time and the surrounding culture to express the concepts to its students. Sometimes people go ahead and take these texts literally and view their content as absolute truth similar to more conventional religious texts such as the bible. Other people get lost in the language trap and try to understand everything through language which is what has lead to the massive size of the Buddhist body of writings (the Tripitaka). However in the end these are dead ends. Buddhism is at its most effective in actual practice as the practice leads to experiences which shed doubt on the continuity of self and the reality of self.

The whole concept of death and rebirth is not to be taken as a replacement for other religion's concepts of life after death. It's a concept expressed in language people could follow at the time. If the self isn't continuous and not real beyond being a temporary illusion that serves as a focal point, a tool, to be able to function and survive then each instance of this temporary, non-real self is born one moment and dies the next. The sense of continuity arises from each temporary self having access to a seemingly uninterrupted chain of memories. So really, one dies and is reborn every moment!

Buddhist practice can lead to being able to become aware of this process as it is happening. (Reading the texts and believing or interpreting them literally does nothing of this sort.) When this occurs the self that observes itself in that moment begins to disintegrate, sort of like a short circuit. Actually it's somewhat like staring at the famous two vases and watch the image turn into two faces. The practitioner enters self-less states (somewhat similar to peak experiences on acid, shrooms, etc but more lasting and profound as it's connected to effort, practice and controlled clear minded observation). Once one begins to see and understand the internal processes that give rise to a sense of self, to perception and to emotional responses one quickly realizes that one is gradually gaining control over these processes and states and that you can remained centered and balanced even under difficult circumstances. As in one doesn't get riled up as easily or shocked or hysterical or whatever.

That's why I always say: Buddhist practice is in a way applying the scientific method to subjective perception and experience of being. You do things and see what happens. You experiment many times until recognizable patterns emerge and that way you learn about not how your mind works if observed from the outside (as in sciences like Neurology, Psychology, etc) but it works if observed from the inside, what it actually means to be you, who you are, and if in fact you have a consistent continuous self.

It seems that most people who actually put the effort into practice end up coming to the conclusion that they don't.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 10:43 AM on October 15, 2009 [10 favorites]


Hey, Hairy Lobster, you have 108 mefi comments. Better stop now. ;)
posted by desjardins at 10:54 AM on October 15, 2009


Moi, in all my brilliance: I mean, what if it really is a theory and not just another extended metaphor.

Toi, lacking it (I keed): Good luck escaping metaphor...

Did I say I wanted to escape metaphor? No, I did not. All communication is metaphor, but some metaphors are merely whimsy or art, others serve to function as theory with manipulable parts and predictive statements that can be used to validate them. I was distinguishing these two types of metaphors. But, snark away. I'm still interested in whether there is a theory here, and not just an extended metaphor that, while all deep and insightful and such, doesn't really have an impact beyond the aesthetic. I haven't read his book, so I am clueless, but the linked material makes me suspect it isn't a theory in the formal sense of the word.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:23 AM on October 15, 2009


Et vous: I concur, and I'm also very interested to read the new book and see how thorough is its rigour (snagged Being No One last night, so far so good). As far as metaphor goes (which is quite a ways), you did not initially posit the distinction you are now making, but seemed to be setting up a dichotomy of theory/metaphor, which of course now I can see you would see to be, as it is, laughable. Anyway, though I'll accept your distinction as valid, it still seems suspect to me, in that any theory is bound to be constructed metaphorically, and also as metaphor itself is inherently systematic and predictive. If there were not an underlying structure of relations which was coherent beneath a metaphor, it would cease to be such, becoming gibberish. Got a cite? Has anyone yet written about the role of metaphor in scientific theory?
posted by kaspen at 1:03 PM on October 15, 2009


I know this is late in the game, but all I can think of is:

Modified Solipsism? And thus not solipsism, I guess. But still. Solipsistic? Is that a word? I guess if I created it,

It Is.
posted by Splunge at 3:18 PM on October 24, 2009


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