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« David Edmonds on Trolley Problems | Main | Philosophy Bites News »

September 14, 2013



It would be useful to distinguish between an empirical self and a transcendent self. Buddhists generally accept an empirical self, but deny a transcendent self. Though in fact Buddhists are not entirely homogeneous on this question.

Phrasing it as "the self is an illusion" is actually quite unhelpful. We experience selfhood, but like all experiences this experience is of indeterminate ontological status. Is any experience real or unreal? Obviously the language of real and unreal is not very helpful with respect to experiences. We all have experiences, but experiences are all ephemeral as our attention shifts around several times a second. This is certainly the early Buddhist position on self, though as Alison suggests the idea that self is an illusion is taken up in later Buddhism, but especially amongst Western translators of Buddhism (who one must still be a bit cautious of). Her citing of Nagasena (from a text called Milindapañha - The Questions of King Milinda) and Tsongkapa in the same breath without explaining that they are separated by more than a millennia in the development of Buddhist ideas is a little bit unhelpful as well. Buddhism is not a monolithic unchanging edifice!

The main idea, certainly from an early Buddhist point of view) is that one treats the experience of selfhood as like any other experience. And all experience is transitory, ultimately unsatisfying (in the sense that we always want more pleasure and less pain), and does not have an existence independent of the experience itself. Which is not the same as saying that the self is an illusion.

BTW the problem with Western interpreters of Buddhism increases exponentially as one goes back in time. 18th Jesuits were likely to be extremely poor witnesses regarding Buddhist belief. Thus to be entirely credible Alison would have to show that Dolu was an accurate informant on this subject. Having read some of these early accounts they do seem to have largely misunderstood Buddhism well into the 19th century and as a scholar of Buddhism I find myself still having to correct errors of interpretation from the 20th century as well! It's fair to say that many Buddhists still do not really understand the Buddhist approach to self or selfhood.

It's a shame you didn't get on to the neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio and Thomas Metzinger who talk about selfhood in much the same way. Metzinger in particular seems to have gone a long way down this road, and yet seems about as ignorant about the Buddha as whoever said that the Buddha was fat at the beginning of your podcast.

For the record the fat Chinese "Buddha" is a fertility god who was adopted into the Chinese Buddhist pantheon at a very late stage. The historical Buddha, if there was such a person, was most likely thin as he is portrayed as eating very little over most of his life.

Where Hume and Buddhism might differ even more strongly is that Buddhists implicitly accept causation without any further comment. Buddhist texts also reflect a rather uncritical attitude to miracles that Hume would have found rather credulous I suspect (see On Miracles).

Still all that said it is interesting to think that there might be some East-West influence again at this stage of history.


There is a world of difference between saying the self does not exist, and that the self does not exist inherently.Tsongkhapa, following Nagarjuna, specifically indicates that there is no inherently existing self, not that there is no self. The implication behind a self not existing inherently is that the self that does exist does so in dependence upon other conditions: food, oxygen, clean water, etc, and all the other non-inherently existing beings that provide her with these things. On the surface of it, this may seem trite, but the implications are profound in a way that the word "therapeutic" hardly fits. Without an inherently existing self, the person has nothing to defend, and can work towards benefiting all.

Jim Vaughan

I enjoyed this philo-bite very much,
I also want to say I am a great admirer of "The Philosophical Baby", and wondered how Hume's "bundle of perceptions" idea fitted with the developing mind of the "child as scientist" testing hypotheses about the world? The latter seems to point to a self as an organising entity with appetites, experiences, reason and curiosity, engaged in putting together an individual construct of the nature of reality, from that "bundle of perceptions".

I'm always a bit puzzled by Hume's problem, and the "self as illusion" idea, for it's a bit like saying "the eye is an illusion - I see not an eye when I look, but only a collection of other objects". The other comments above were very helpful here.

What I understand from Prof. Gopnik's take on Hume and his brush with Buddhism, is the idea that the "self" as consciousness, is universal. To use the metaphor of electricity, there are many individual circuits, which differ in character, but electricity is the same "process" everywhere. Thus, what we take as our most fundamental "self" (consciousness), is universal. There are not 7 billion selves in the world, but one self living 7 billion simultaneous, but differently embodied lives!

I don't know if that is what Buddhists believe, but it would be a powerful reason for taking ethics seriously. Anyway, thought provoking interview - thank you!

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