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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 3. In Defense of Aristotle’s Laws of Thought

Chapter 16. Buddhist denial of the soul

The same analysis as above can be applied to humans, but only to some extent. If we identify ourselves with our bodily and mental experiences, we come to the conclusion that we are likewise composites empty of essence! Most Buddhists stop there and declare that therefore we have no self. But here they are committing an error, for it is wrong to limit our experience of humans to their material and mental manifestations[1]; we are evidently aware of more than that. Our spiritual experiences must also be taken into consideration – and in that case we must admit that we can become (by a mode of experience we may call apperception or intuition) aware of our “self” (or spirit or soul).

In truth, Buddhists agree with this viewpoint when they admit that we are potentially or ultimately all Buddhas[2] – this is effectively an admission of soul, although most would dogmatically refuse that inference. Some say pointblank that there is no soul; but others, prefer to be more cryptic, and say: “there is and is not; and there neither is nor is not”[3]. But logically, these two (or more) postures must be considered equivalent, as their intent is simply that it is wrong to claim that soul exists.

But let us insist – our bodies and minds are composites and impermanent, like cars or dreams, but we differ in that we have a relatively abiding self. (I say “relatively abiding” to stress that the individual soul need not be considered absolutely eternal, although the common source of all spiritual substance – which many of us identify with God[4] – is necessarily absolutely eternal.)

By self (or spirit or soul), we mean the Subject of consciousness (i.e. the “person” experiencing, cognizing, perceiving, conceiving, knowing, etc.) and the Agent of volition and valuation (i.e. the “person” who wishes, wills, values, etc.). Note well this definition, which is often ignored by those who deny the self’s existence.

A machine, computer or robot has no self – we (humans, and at least higher animals) evidently do: we all well know that we do. This self that we know is not our ego (a collection of aspects of our body and mind), though most of us do tend to confuse our self with our ego.

The self we know is manifest in our every act of cognition, volition or valuation, as the one engaged in that act. Although it is non-phenomenal, we are quite able to be aware of it. Although non-phenomenal, the self relates to phenomena (to those of its own body and mind, as well as to those further afield) either as their witness (i.e. through cognition), or by being affected by them or (when cognizing them) influenced by them, or by affecting them (through volition). But, though thus related to phenomena to various degrees, it is not identical with them and not to be identified with them.

The Buddhist denial of self is presented as empirical: one’s own bodily and mental experience is carefully examined, and nothing but passing phenomena are observed in it. But my contention is that such analysis is based on incomplete data – it does not take into account the intuitive self-awareness of the Subject and Agent. The self is willfully ignored in the way of a prejudice, rather than denied as a result of dispassionate observation. The non-self is not here a conclusion, but a premise – a dogma, an ideology.

Moreover, it must be stressed that the negation of any term (whether the term ‘self’ or any other) cannot logically be purely empirical. We never perceive a negative, we only search for and fail to perceive the corresponding positive, and thence inductively ‘infer’ that the thing negated is absent. This conclusion is not necessarily final – it is a hypothesis that may be later overturned if new data is encountered that belies it, or even if an alternative hypothesis is found more frequently supported by the evidence.

Thus, the non-self cannot be – as Buddhism presents it – a purely empirical product of deep meditation; according to logic, its negativity makes it necessarily a rational construct. It is therefore not an absolute truth of any sort – but a mere generalization from “I diligently searched, but did not so far find a self” to “no self was there to be found”. It is not perceptual, but conceptual – it is a thesis like any other open to doubt and debate, and requiring proof (in the inductive sense, at least). If no inconsistency is found in its counter-thesis, the idea of a self may also legitimately be upheld.

Thus, even though we may admit that the body and mind are devoid of essence(s), we can still claim that there is a soul. The soul is not meant to be the essence of the phenomena of body and mind, but a distinct non-phenomenal entity housed in, intersecting or housing[5] these phenomena in some way. Body and mind merely constitute the soul’s mundane playground, i.e. a particular domain of the world over which that individual soul[6] has special powers of consciousness and volition.

This view agrees with the proponents of emptiness at least in the insight that the self is not to be confused with body and mind. Also, the fact that the soul is non-phenomenal, i.e. neither a material nor a mental entity, does not logically exclude that it too be “empty” of essence, of course. But, whereas they go on to claim that the self does not exist, we would insist that even if (or even though) the individual soul is empty, it evidently exists – just as body and mind evidently exist whatever we say about them.[7]

It is in any case patently absurd to say or imply, as the Buddhists do, that a non-existent can think that it exists and (upon enlightenment) realize that it does not exist! A non-existent cannot think or realize anything; it is not an entity or a thing – it is nothing at all, it is not. An existent, on the other hand, can well (as these existing Buddhists do) think that it does not exist and other such nonsense! There is no logic in the no-self viewpoint.

The non-self idea may be viewed as supportive of materialism (in a large sense of the term, which includes mental phenomena as within the domain of matter). That is why many people today find it appealing: eager to reject the demands and constraints of the ethics of monotheistic religion, yet wishing to retain or introduce some spirituality in their lives, they embrace soul denial.

All this is not intended to deny the crucial importance of self-effacement in meditation and more broadly in the course of spiritual development. I would certainly agree with Buddhist teaching that the self at some stage becomes an impediment to enlightenment and must be effectively forgotten to contemplate things as they are.[8]

But to my mind, the non-self thesis need not be taken literally. I think Buddhists formulated it as an upaya, a skillful means[9], to facilitate forgetting the self. It is easier to forget what one believes does not exist, than to forget what one believes does exist. As far as I see (at my present stage of development), though disbelief in the self has some practical advantages, there is insufficient theoretical justification for such a doctrine.

We colloquially say that our mind is “empty” when our mind-space is for a while without feelings or thoughts, as occasionally happens quite naturally. In that state of mind, we are generally less distracted, and can observe whatever presents itself to us without interfering in the presentation. Sometimes, that commonplace empty-mindedness is experienced rather as a sort of momentary detachment or even alienation from the world around us, as when our eyes become unfocused and just stare out without seeing anything.

The Buddhist sense of the word emptiness is of course much more complex than that, though not totally unrelated. When applied objectively, to things beyond or within the mind, it signifies that they are viewed without recourse to superimposed categories or hypotheses. Applied subjectively, the implication of the term is that the self is an illusion of consciousness, i.e. that our apperception of a cognizing soul is likewise a merely superimposed idea.

But is this Buddhist claim to be taken on faith, or do they manage to prove it incontrovertibly in any way? The mere fact that this doctrine was once proclaimed, and is claimed again by many authorities throughout the centuries, does not in itself make it a certain truth. We must be permitted to doubt it, and ask questions about it, and raise objections to it – without being accused of being heretics or morons.

[1] As previously pointed out: in Phenomenology, chapter V, and in Meditations, chapter 12, the terms “self”, “consciousness” and “mind” are in Buddhism sometimes treated as equivalent, and yet sometimes used with slightly different senses. As a result of such vagueness, wrong theories are proposed and many inconsistencies remain invisible.

[2] I give you one example (though I have come across many). S. Suzuki writes: “So it is absolutely necessary for everyone to believe in nothing. But I do not mean voidness… This is called Buddha nature, or Buddha himself” (p. 117.)

[3] To be fair, see Mu Soeng p. 125. According to that (excellent) commentator, the anatman doctrine was never intended as “a metaphysical statement” but as “a therapeutic device”. As he tells it: “The Buddha responded to the Brahmanical formulation of a permanent entity, the self or atman, with silence, without taking a position either for or against.” Logically, this would imply Buddhism to consider the issue of self to be merely problematic, neither affirming nor denying such a thing. However, in my own readings of Buddhist texts, I have more often than not read an assertoric denial of self, or a “both yes and no, and/or neither yes nor no” salad, rather than merely an avoidance of the issue of self. Another comment worth my making here: the idea of a self ought not to be identified with the Brahmanical idea of a permanent self; the latter is a more specific idea than the former, and denial of the latter does not logically entail denial of the former. I support the idea of an impermanent individual self, assigning permanence only to the universal self (i.e. the transcendent, or God). These (and many other) nuances should not be glossed over.

[4] See reasons for this in my Meditations, chapter 8.

[5] We tend to view the soul as a small thing, something somewhere in the body or at best coextensive with it. But we should at least conceive the possibility of the opposite idea – viz. that the soul is enormous in comparison with the body, i.e. that the body is a small mark within the soul or a minor appendage to it. Our view of their relative size is, in truth, a function of the relative importance we attach to them, i.e. how frequently we focus our interest on the one or the other.

[6] Or individuated soul. I say this to stress that the individual soul may be considered as artificial subdivision of the universal soul (or God, in Judaic terms).

[7] In my view, whatever even just but appears to exist does indeed exist (if only in the way of appearance). Is it real or illusory, though? Those characterizations are open to discussion, and depend on a great many logical factors.

[8] Judaism agrees with this epistemological and ethical posture, as evidenced for instance by this statement of the Baal Shem Tov: “Before you can find God, you must lose yourself”. (From A Treasury of Jewish Quotations.)

[9] Ultimately, Buddhism is not interested in descriptive philosophy; what concerns it is to liberate us spiritually. If an idea is effective as a means to that end, it is taught.

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