11. Self or soul.
Nagarjuna, together with other Buddhists, denies the existence of a real “self” in man, i.e. that the “I” of each person is a soul or spiritual entity distinct from his physical body. This concept, referred to as the “atman”, was regarded in Indian (Hindu) tradition as “the feeler of sensations, thinker of thoughts, and receiver of rewards and punishments for actions good and bad”, something that “persists through physical changes, exists before birth and after death, and remains from one life to the other”, something “constant and eternal” and “self-subsistent”, which was ultimately “ontologically identical with Brahman, the essential reality underlying the universe” (i.e. God). The atman, or at least the ultimate Brahman essence of every atman, was considered as the most “real” of existents, because unlike the transient phenomena of experience, it was “permanent, unchanging and independent.”
(a) Nagarjuna attacks this view, arguing that if to be “real” means to be “permanent, unchanging and independent”, then the phenomena apparent to us would have to be regarded as “illusions”, since they are transient, changing and dependent. It would follow that transience, change and dependence – being only manifested by phenomena – are also not “real”. To Nagarjuna this seems “absurd”, because “moral disciplines would lose their significance and spiritual effort would be in vain.”
(b) Furthermore, he asks whether or not “changing phenomena”, i.e. “our bodies or physical appearances”, are “characteristics of the atman”, and if so, what the relation between the atman and its characteristics might be, are they “identical” or “different”? If they were “identical”, then atman would be subject to birth and death (and so forth) like the body, in contradiction to the definition of atman. If they are “different”, then the atman “would be perceived without characteristics”, which “it is not”, because “nothing can be perceived without characteristics”. On the other hand, if the atman is “without any characteristic”, it would be “in principle, indefinable and hence inconceivable”.
(c) Moreover, to the argument that “although the atman differs from the characteristics and cannot be perceived directly, its existence can be inferred”, Nagarjuna replies that “inference and analogy are inapplicable in the case of knowing the atman” because they are only “applicable among directly perceivable phenomena”. He therefore considers that “it is unintelligible to say that atman exists behind changing appearances.”
Nagarjuna thus comes to the conclusion that “nothing has selfhood” and “atman is empty”. This does not constitute a rejection on his part of a “conventional” idea of the self, as a mere “collection of different states or characteristics” such that “the self and characteristics are mutually dependent”. This artificial construct of a self, being entirely identified with the perceivable phenomena we attribute to it, is not “permanent, unchanging and independent”. Allow me now to debate the issues.
Let us start with argument (a). I would agree with Nagarjuna here, that reality and illusion should not be defined as his predecessors do with reference to eternity, constancy and causal independence or their negations. As explained earlier, “reality” and “illusion” are epistemological judgments applied to “appearances”. These two concepts arise first in relation to phenomena. Phenomena (perceived things) are considered, in practice and in theory, to be prima facie “real”, and then demoted to the temporary status of “problematic” if contradictions are apparent between two of them, until either or both of these phenomena is/are dumped into the category of “illusion”, on either deductive or inductive grounds. There is no concept of “reality” or “illusion” apart from appearance; they merely refer to subcategories of appearances.
At a later stage, these concepts are enlarged from perceptual appearances to conceptual and intuitive appearances. Both the latter appearances similarly have, as soon as and however vaguely they are conceived or intuited, an initial credibility, which we call the status of reality. But being less evident, more hypothetical, their effective status is closer to problematic, and they have to be immediately and repeatedly thereafter further defined, and tested for internal consistency, for consistency with empirical data, and by comparison to alternative theses. The answers to these questions determine the degree of probability we assign to concepts or intuitions. Eventually, if they are found contrary to experience, or inconsistent with themselves or a larger conceptual context, or less credible than their alternatives, they are relegated to the status of the illusory.
For us, then, all appearances are equally ‘real’ in the primary sense that it is a fact that they exist and are objects of consciousness. Moreover, as earlier explained, with reference to inductive and deductive issues, pure percepts (concrete appearances, phenomena) are always ‘real’; but concepts (abstract appearances), including the conceptual admixtures in percepts, may be regarded as to various degrees ‘real’ (or inversely, ‘illusory’).
This analysis of reality and illusion as ontological qualifications based on epistemological considerations, shows that there is no basis for Hindu philosophy’s identification of them with eternity, constancy and causal independence or their negations. The latter seems to be a poetic drift, an expression of devotion to God: the presumed common ground of all selves is hailed as the only “real” thing, in contrast to which everything else is mere “illusion”. “Real” in that context means significant to the world, worthy of attention and pursuit – it is a value judgment of another sort.
If we look to the epistemological status of the concept of God, we would say that it is conceivable to some degree; but not to an extreme degree, because there are considerable vagueness and uncertainty in it (see the previous topic of the present essay). An appeal to revelation is not a solution, because revelations to prophets are for the rest of us mere hearsay; and anyway different prophets have conflicting visions, so that even if we grant that they had the visions, we have to regard some (and therefore possibly all) of them as having misinterpreted their respective visions. Faith is always involved and required with reference to God. But even supposing God is admitted to exist, and that He is one, eternal, invariant and completely independent, it does not follow that this is a definition of reality. The universe, which evidently exists, is also still real, even if it is but a figment of God’s imagination, even if it and all its constituents are transient, changing and dependent. A short-lived event may still be real; a flux may still have continuity, a caused event may still have occurred.
Thus, we may confidently agree with Nagarjuna’s rejection of the Hindu definition of reality. We may, nevertheless, doubt his argument in favor of that rejection, namely that “no evil person could be transformed” if the phenomenal world were illusory in the Hindu sense. Even agreeing with him that people can morally improve, we have to consider that concepts of morality, or of good and evil, come much later in the development of knowledge than the concepts of reality and illusion, and so cannot logically be used to define or justify them. Furthermore, concepts of morality depend for their meaning on an assumption of volition operating in a world subject to time, change and causality; morality has no meaning in a world with only determinism or chance, or in a static multiplicity or unity.
Let us move on to argument (b). The question asked here is what the relation between a soul and “its” body and other perceivable phenomena (such as imaginations and emotions) might be. In my view, and I think the view of many ordinary people and philosophers, the soul is a spiritual entity (i.e. one of some stuff other than that of the material body or of mental projections), who is at once the Subject of consciousness (i.e. the one who is cognizing phenomena and other appearances – i.e. the “feeler of sensations and thinker of thoughts” mentioned above) and the Agent of volition (i.e. the one who evaluates, who makes choices and decisions, who puts in motion acts of will, who has attitudes and tendencies, and who is within certain parameters free of determinism, though not unaffected by influences and motives – i.e. the “receiver of rewards and punishments for actions good and bad” mentioned above).
Thus, the relation of soul to other existents within the universe, according to this view, is that the soul is capable (as Subject) of cognizing to some extent concrete and abstract appearances, and (as Agent) of interfering to some extent in the course of natural events, influenced and motivated by them through his cognition of them, but still free to impose his will on some of them. To affirm powers of cognition and will to the soul does not, note well, imply such powers to be unlimited or invariable; one may be free to act within certain parameters and these parameters may under various circumstances widen or narrow in scope. By ‘influence’, I mean that the events external to the soul may facilitate or make more difficult its actions, to degrees below 100% (such extreme degree being the limiting case of deterministic causality, i.e. causation). This view leaves open the issue as to whether the soul is of limited duration (i.e. bounded by the lifetime of the body, which it would be if it is an epiphenomenon of matter clustered in living cells and the complex organisms they compose), or eternal (which it would be if it is a spark of God).
Returning now to Nagarjuna’s argument, we would say that soul is not “identical” with its perceptible “characteristics”. The soul may inhabit or be an epiphenomenon of the body, but is in either case something other than the body. The soul perceives and conceives the body (including visceral sentiments) and matter beyond it and mental phenomena within it (i.e. imaginations), through sensory and brain processes, but these processes are not identical with its cognition of their results. The soul acts on the body (or at least, the brain), and through it on the matter beyond it and on the projection of mental images, but this action (that we call will, a power of spirit over matter) is a special sort of causality neither the same as mechanical causation nor mere happenstance. The “characteristics” of the soul are thus merely perceptible manifestations (sensations, movements, emotions) of deeper events (consciousness, will) occurring at the interface of matter and spirit and more deeply still within spirit.
This theory of the soul differs from the Indian, in that it does not imply that the soul is imperishable or that it does not undergo internal changes or that it is entirely causally independent. Nor does it imply that the soul is separable (though distinguishable) from the body, existing before or after or without its biological activity, in the way of a disembodied ghost. So Nagarjuna’s criticism that birth and death are contradictory to a concept of soul is irrelevant to this theory; for his criticism only applies to the specific Indian definition of “atman”. But even if the soul is granted to be eternal, I do not think Nagarjuna’s criticism is valid; for even an eternal spiritual entity may conceivably have momentary effects – as in the case of God, as we conceive Him, creating or interfering in the world. Note that we commonly regard the human soul, too, as acting on (the rest of) the natural world, without considering it necessarily eternal.
With regard to the second alternative of Nagarjuna’s argument, considering the possibility that soul be “different” from its perceivable “characteristics”, our reply would be, not only that they are distinct (though related as cause and effect, remember), but that we need not accept his claim that the soul’s imperceptibility implies it to be “inconceivable” and “indefinable”. We agree that the soul cannot be perceived, i.e. does not itself display perceptible qualities, i.e. is not a phenomenon with sense-modalities like shape and color, sound, smell, taste or touch aspects. But we may nevertheless to a considerable extent conceive and define it. The proof is that we have just done so, above; furthermore, if Nagarjuna did not have a concept and definition, however vague and open to doubt, of soul to work with, he would have been unable to discuss the issue at all. There is no epistemological principle that the imperceptible is inconceivable and indefinable; if there were, no concept or definition would be admissible, not even those that Nagarjuna himself uses, not even those involved in the statement of that alleged principle. Concepts are precisely tools for going beyond perception. Complex concepts are not mere summaries of percepts, but imaginative departures from and additions to perceptual knowledge, nevertheless bound to the latter by logical and adductive rules. Even simple concepts, purporting to be summaries, are in fact regulated by these same rules.
Which brings us to argument (c). Here, Nagarjuna contends that inferences and analogies from experience may be valid in specific cases, but not in the case of soul. He claims that we can for example infer fire indirectly from smoke, because we have previously seen fire directly in conjunction with smoke, whereas in the case of soul, we have never perceived it so we cannot infer it from perceptible “characteristics”. We can reply that, though fire and smoke provide a valid example of inference, this is a selective example. Many other examples can be brought to bear, where we infer something never perceived from something perceived. For example, no one has ever directly sensed a magnetic ‘field of force’, but if you hold two magnets opposite each other, you feel the pull or push between them; you can also see a nail moving while a magnet is held close to it without touching it. The concept of force or field is constructed in relation to an experience, but is not itself an object of experience.
Nagarjuna’s discourse is itself replete with such ‘indirect’ concepts. For instance, consciousness is imperceptible, perception is imperceptible, and so on. One of his favorites, namely “emptiness”, is per se without perceptible qualities. So he is using a double standard when he denies such concepts, in support of his denial that soul is intelligible. Such concepts are constructed by imaginative analogy (e.g. I may draw a magnetic force as a line or arrow) and by verbal definitions and descriptions (using words referring to relations first conceived with reference to empirical events – for instance, “whatever causes this motion, call it a force” or “force equals mass times acceleration caused”). Such creative construction is merely a first stage; it does not in itself validate a concept. The proposed concept must thereafter be tested and tested again, with reference to the totality of other empirical knowledge and theory, before it can be considered as valid. Its validity is also a function of its utility, i.e. the extent to which it helps us to better understand and order our experience of the world.
I personally do not regard that the concept of soul can be entirely based on such construction from experience. It seems evident to me that consciousness implies someone who is being conscious, a Subject-soul, as well as something one is conscious of, an Object. But I am sensitive to the objections by many philosophers, including Buddhist ones, that this thought may just be a prejudice incited by grammatical habit. And, as already admitted, if one introspects and looks for phenomenal manifestations of a self being aware, one finds none. Some, including Nagarjuna, would say that the concept of consciousness is itself in doubt, that all one can empirically claim is appearance. As for the concept of volition, let alone that of soul as the Agent of will, many doubt or deny it, in view of the difficulties in its definition and proof.
But I think it is very important to realize that all Buddhist accounts (at least all those I have encountered) of how an illusion of selfhood might conceivably be constructed by a non-person fail to avoid begging the question. A theory is required, which answers all possible questions, before such a revolutionary idea as that of denial of real self in man can be posited with confidence; and no theory without holes or inconsistencies has to my knowledge been proposed. We may readily admit the existence of an illusory self (or ‘ego’), constructed and suffered by a stupid or misguided real self. But an aberration or delusion with no one constructing it or subject to it, seems like an absurd concept to me. It implies mere happenstance, determinism, without any consciousness, volition, values or responsibility.
Indeed, if you examine attempted such theories they always (overtly or covertly) describe an effective person (the pronoun ‘he’) constructing a false self. They never manage to escape from the sentence structure with a personal subject; typically: ‘he gradually deludes himself into thinking he has a self’. They do not provide a credibly detailed and consistent scenario of how unconscious and impersonal elements and processes (Nagarjuna’s “characteristics”) could possibly aggregate into something that has the impression (however false) it is someone! A machine (or robot with artificial intelligence) may ‘detect’ things (for us) but it has no consciousness; it may ‘do’ things (for us) but it has no volition; it may loudly proclaim ‘I’ but it has no soul.
There is also to consider the reverse process of deconstruction, how an ultimately impersonal artificial self (non-self) would or could go about freeing itself from illusion. Why would a non-self have any problem with remaining deluded (assuming it could be), and how if it has no personal powers would it intelligently choose to put in motion the prescribed process of liberation from delusion. A simple sentence like ‘to realize you have no self, make an effort to meditate daily’ is already a contradiction in terms, in my view.
For this topic, see Cheng, pp. 74-76. He
there refers to MT IX, XVIII:1a,1b,6, XXVII:4-8, and to HT II.
He there refers to MT IX, XVIII:1a,1b,6, XXVII:4-8, and to HT II.
 Some might say, exist as objects of consciousness – but even that is existence.
 This characteristic of God, one-ness, is not mentioned by Cheng, but philosophical Brahmanism is ultimately monotheistic, even though many Hindus are in practice polytheistic. It should be mentioned, however, that one-ness is not logically implied by eternity, invariance and independence; i.e. one could conceive two or more entities with these characteristics (certainly the first two, at least – independence would be open to debate). Perhaps Zoroastrianism is a case in point?
 Granting the universality of law of conservation of energy, we would have to presume that spirit’s will somehow releases energy locked in matter, rather than inputting new energy into it. Perhaps volition affects the wave-form of energy without affecting its magnitude.