Part II – Chapter 11
Not an essence, but an entity.
Buddhist philosophers have stressed the idea of impermanence, with a view to deny the existence of “essences” in both the objective and subjective domains. However, an impermanent essence is not a contradiction in terms. This means that the question of essences is more complex than merely an issue of impermanence. Several epistemological and ontological issues are involved in this question. We have indicated some of these issues in the preceding chapters.
With regard to the objective domain, comprising the material and mental objects of experience, i.e. the phenomena apparently experienced through the senses or in the mind – their reasoning is that we never perceive firm “essences” but only constantly changing phenomena; whence, they conclude, the objects we refer to are “empty”.
In reply, I would say that it is true that many people seem to imagine that the “entities” we refer to in thought (e.g. a dog) have some unchanging core (call it “dog-ness”), which remains constant while the superficial changes and movements we observe occur, and which allow us to classify a number of particulars under a common heading (i.e. all particular dogs as “dogs”).
But of course, if we examine our thought processes more carefully, we have to modify this viewpoint somewhat. We do “define” a particular object by referring to some seemingly constant property (or conjunction of properties) in it – which is preferably actual and static, though (by the way) it might even be a habitual action or repetitive motion or a mere potential.
Note too, there may be more than one property eligible for use as a definition – so long as each property is constant throughout the existence of that object and is exclusive to it. The defining property does not shine out as special in some way, and in some cases we might well arbitrarily choose one candidate among many.
However, defining is never as direct and simple an insight as it may at times seem. It requires a complex rational activity, involving comparison and contrast between different aspects and phases of the individual object, and between this object and others that seem similar to it in some respects though different from it in others, and between that class of object and all others. Thus, the property used as definition is knowable only through complex conceptual means.
Therefore, our mental separation of one property from the whole object or set of objects is an artifice. And, moreover, our referring to all apparently similar occurrences of that property as “one” property gives the impression of objective unity, when in fact the one-ness is only in the mind of the beholder (though this does not make it unreal). In short, the definition is only an abstraction. It indeed in a sense exists in the object as a whole, but it is only distinguishable from the whole through cognition and ratiocination.
The material and mental objects we perceive are, therefore, in fact nothing other than more or less arbitrary collections of phenomena, among which one or more is/are selected by us on various grounds as “essential”. The “essence” is a potential that can only be actualized relative to a rational observer; it has no independent actual existence when no observer is present. Definition gives us a mental “handle” on objects, but it is not a substitute for them.
An entity is not only its definition. An entity is the sum total of innumerable qualities and events related to it; some of these are applicable to it throughout its existence (be that existence transient or eternal) and some of them are applicable to it during only part(s) of its existence (i.e. have a shorter duration). Although the defining property must be general (and exclusive) to the object defined, it does not follow that properties that are not or cannot be used for definition cease to equally “belong to” the object.
It is inexcusably naïve to imagine the essence of an entity as some sort of ghost of the object coterminous with it. In fact, the entity is one – whatever collection of circumstances happens to constitute it. The distinction of an essence in it is a pragmatic measure needed for purposes of knowledge – it does not imply the property concerned to have a separate existence in fact. The property selected is necessarily one aspect among many; it may be just a tiny corner of the whole entity.
We may thus readily agree with Buddhists that named or thought-of objects are “empty”; i.e. that it is inaccurate to consider each object as really having some defining constant core, whether phenomenal or non-phenomenal. But the Buddhists go on from there are apply the same reasoning to the Subject (or soul) – and this is where we may more radically disagree.
They imply that the Subject of cognitions is itself cognized by way of phenomena, i.e. like any other object. This idea of theirs has some apparent credibility due to the fact that they confuse the Subject with his ‘inner’, mental phenomena. But though such phenomena are indeed internal in comparison to physical phenomena sensed in the body or further out beyond it, they are strictly speaking external in comparison to the “soul”.
Anyone who reflects a little would not regard, say, the stuff of a dream he had as himself. His self-awareness is the consciousness of something more inward still than the stuff of imaginations. He is the one experiencing and generating the imaginations. The soul is not a phenomenon – it has no smell, taste, solidity, tune or color; it is something non-phenomenal.
The self is not perceived as an object in the way of mental phenomena (as the Buddhists suggest), but is intuited directly in the way of a Subject apperceiving itself (at least when it perceives other things, or when it expresses itself through volition or valuation). Our soul is not a presumed “essence” of our mental phenomenal experiences; it is an entirely different sort of experience.
Of course, it could still be argued that – even granting that acts of cognition, volition and valuation are non-phenomenal events, known by self-intuition – such acts are mere momentary events, which do not necessarily imply an underlying non-phenomenal continuity (an abiding self). Admittedly, the fact that we cannot physically or mentally see, hear, smell, taste or touch the acts of the self does not logically imply that the self is abiding.
However, note that this last is an argument in favor of the possibility that the self may be impermanent – it does not constitute an argument against the existence of a self (whether lasting or short-lived) underlying each act of cognition, volition or valuation. That is, these functions are inconceivable without someone experiencing, willing and choosing, even if it is conceivable that the one doing so does not abide for longer than that moment.
To deny that cognition, volition and valuation necessarily involve a self is to place these apparent events under an aetiological régime of natural determinism or spontaneity. That subsumes willing under mechanistic causation or chance happenstance – i.e. it effectively denies the existence of freewill.
Similarly, it implies that there is no more to knowing than the storing of symbols in a machine (as if the “information” stored in a computer has any knowledge value without humans to cognize and understand it, i.e. as if a computer can ever at all know). And again, it implies that valuing or disvaluing is no more relevant to a living (and in particular sentient) being than it is to a stone.
The effective elimination of these three categories (i.e. knowing, willing and valuing) by Buddhists (and extreme Materialists, by the way) is without logical justification, because in total disaccord with common experience.
The confusion may in part be caused or perpetuated by equivocation. Because we often use the word “mind” – or alternatively, sometimes, “consciousness” – in a loose, large sense, including the soul, it might be assumed that the soul is similar to mental phenomena in its substance. But the soul and mind are only proximate in a spatial sense, if at all. The soul is not made of mental stuff or of consciousness – the soul uses consciousness to observe mental and physical events (and, indeed, its intimate self).
The self or soul is not an abstraction from mental or physical phenomena. It receives and cognizes mental and material information (and it indirectly chooses and wills mental and material events) – but it is not identical with such information (or events).
Only intuited events of cognition, volition and valuation can be considered as truly parts of, and direct responsibilities of, the soul. And even here, it would be inaccurate to necessarily equate the soul to these functions. Such a positivistic approach is a hypothesis to be adopted inductively only if we find no good reason to adopt the alternative hypothesis that the soul is more than the evidence of its functioning.
Thus, the inevitable impermanence of the phenomenal world cannot be construed as necessarily implying a similar impermanence for the self. Even granting that material and mental objects are “empty”, it does not follow that the self is a non-entity, i.e. non-existent as a distinct unit. The self is not a material or mental substance or entity – but it is a non-phenomenal substance and entity. We may legitimately label that distinct substance ‘spiritual’ and that entity ‘soul’.
Note well that such labeling does not preclude the idea, previously presented, that the individual soul’s individuation out from the universal spiritual substance or universal soul is ultimately illusory. We may thus well consider the soul as impermanent in its individuality, while regarding its spiritual substance as eternal.
Upon reflection, this is pretty much the way we view the phenomenal realm, too – as consisting of impermanent illusory individual entities emerging in a permanent real universal substratum. Their illusoriness is mainly due to the conventionality of their individual boundaries.
At this stage, then, we find ourselves with two ‘monistic’ domains – the one giving rise to material and mental phenomena and the other giving rise to spiritual entities (souls). Obviously, such double ‘monism’ is not logically coherent! We therefore must assume that these two apparently overlapping domains are really ultimately somehow one and the same.
So, we have perhaps come full circle, and our opinions end up pretty much coinciding with the Buddhists’ after all. We ought perhaps to lay the stress, instead, on our difference with regard to continuity.
According to Buddhist theory, the self has no continuity, i.e. our self of today is not the same person as our self of yesterday or of tomorrow. In this perspective, they are causatively connected, in the sense that earlier conglomerations of phenomena constituting a self ‘cause’ later ones – but there is no thread of constancy that can be identified as the underlying one and the same entity. It is not a case of mere succession of totally discrete events; but there is no essential identity between the events, either.
However, many (myself included) object to this theory on various grounds. While we may admit that one can logically regard selfhood (i.e. being a Subject and Agent) as punctual at every instant without having to assume its extension over a lifetime, we must realize that such an assumption removes all logical possibility of a concept of moral responsibility for past actions.
If one is no longer ever the same person as the person committing a past virtuous or vicious act, then no good deed may be claimed by anyone or rewarded, and no crime may be blamed on anyone or punished. Ex post facto, strictly speaking, the doer of any deed no longer exists. Similarly, looking forward, there is nothing to be gained or lost by any Agent in doing anything, since by the time any consequences of action emerge the Agent has already disappeared.
In such a framework, all personal morality and social harmony would be completely destroyed. There would be no justification for abstaining from vice or for pursuing virtue. Even the pursuit of spiritual realization would be absurd. Of course, some people do not mind such a prospect, which releases them from all moral obligations or responsibility and lets them go wild.
It is very doubtful that Buddhism (given its overall concerns and aims) supports such a nihilist thesis. In any case, such a viewpoint cannot be considered credible, in the light of all the above observations and arguments.
 See the Buddhist doctrine of the Five Component-Groups. In this doctrine, the fourth and fifth groups, comprising the “determinants” and the “cognitive faculty”, are particularly misleading, in that cognition, volition and valuation, the three functions of the self, are there presented without mention of the self, as ordinary phenomenal events. That is, the doctrine commits a petitio principii, by depicting psychic events in a manner that deliberately omits verbal acknowledgment of the underlying self, so as to seem to arrive at the (foregone) conclusion that there is no self. No explanation is given, for instance, as to how we tell the difference between two phenomenally identical actions, considering one as really willed by oneself, and the other as a reactive or accidental event – for such differentiation (which is necessary to gauge degrees of responsibility) is only possible by means of self-knowledge, i.e. introspection into one’s non-phenomenal self, and they have dogmatically resolved in advance not to accept the existence of a cognizing, willing and valuing self.
 Note well that I am careful to say the possibility that the self is impermanent; which does not exclude the equal possibility that the self is permanent. The mere fact that the cognitions, volitions and valuations of the self are impermanent does not by itself allow us to draw any conclusion either way about the permanence or impermanence of the self. Additional considerations are needed to draw the latter conclusion.
 Although the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna seems to relish it.