Chapter 16. THE SELF

1. Ungluing the mind

2. Abstract vs. concrete self

3. Sundry reflections on the soul and God

We live at a time of cultural globalization, when East and West are meeting and enriching each other. They have of course intersected to some degree at various periods of history[1]. But the present may perhaps be compared in intensity to the period in the history of philosophy when the Arab or Moslem philosophers sought to assimilate and reassess Greek and Hellenistic philosophy. Many Western intellectuals today, myself among them, are impressed by some of the insights of Oriental psychology and philosophy, and seek to take them into consideration. In my view, however, while being duly receptive, we should not surrender our critical faculty. Monoculture is not the goal – but rather mutual enrichment through debate.


1. Ungluing the mind

The genius of Oriental psychology! The Treatise On Sitting Forgetting[2] recommends us to make the effort that “the mind does not stick to things”. According to this view, the ordinary mind needs some content to cling to, to actualize at all. Rather than giving thoughts free rein (abdication) or trying to rein them in (suppression), it recommends we repeatedly unglue our minds.

How true this description of mind is! It explains so much of our behavior! Consider how we ordinarily always have some mental content, be it some catchy musical tune, the face of someone one is infatuated with, the memory of some recent conversation, success or vexation, the anticipation of some event or the planning of some action, philosophical reflections or pious prayers, or any kind of thought or mental activity. Tempting random thoughts are constantly offered up to our conscious mind from the subconscious, so as to provide ‘fodder’ for rumination. Problems (psychological, familial, social, political, etc.) are subconsciously contrived, so as to have a problem to solve, something to think, emote, talk and act over.

We are never quiet, always fixated on or obsessed by some topic, always “mulling and musing”. We feel we need to fill the mind: whence our enslavement to newspapers and books, radio and television, and other ‘entertainments’[3], however tiring or enervating they may be. Sensuousness – whether in the form of sex or masturbation, of drugs or alcohol, of rock or techno music, or of porno, horror or action-packed movies – is also just a way to give content to mind, through more and more sensational sensory stimuli, whether pleasant or painful. Most of us cannot bear to be truly idle and quiescent for one minute, except in lazy sleep. And even then, our pastime consists of dreams. Even the meditation some of us resort to is used (mostly, at first) as just another way to ‘occupy’ our minds.

Like a pot of boiling soup, with gaseous bubbles rising up to the surface and bursting, the mind’s substratum seems constantly excited by sensory inputs, emotions, reminiscences, and more or less voluntary imaginings and verbal thoughts. A memory may at first just appear as a hint, a tempting loose thread; curious, I grab it, and am transported into the depths of the memory. Why did this memory beckon? Very often, by logical or incidental association with a preceding memory or sensation or emotion or imagination or cogitation. Trains of thought are formed, as we become increasingly entangled. Like monkeys swinging from branch to branch, we cling to one item then to a more or less associated item; and thus we wander endlessly through the forest of the mind!

The Treatise teaches: to free ourselves from such travail, we have to avoid the mind’s tendency to fixate on things. Our (subconscious or conscious) attention sticks to things, to whatever it finds. When we unglue it from one thing, it automatically finds another to stick to. It is analogous to a sucker or magnet, which you detach from one thing, and it immediately locks on to another. Thus, one is always ‘absorbed’ in something, as if terrified of having to face oneself alone. This image of human psychology is very powerful and instructive.

Practicing ‘no thought’, ‘no mind’, ‘empty-mindedness’ does not mean trying to be vacuous and inane all day long – but rather signifies having a light-footed consciousness, one that does not compulsively stick to just-anything merely for the sake of filling the mind, but is intelligently deployed. If awareness is truly required, it is flexibly provided. If there is no real requirement, one can effortlessly return to inner quiet and calm.

Of course, such smart practice implies giving up desires and habits one has long identified with! It is no use just thinking or talking about it; one has to do it! “Just say no” to all foolishness. Sitting meditation is a great help, developing the repose we need to see things in perspective and take the necessary steps.

I have found with practice that if, as soon as one awakens in the morning, one resists the mental temptation to ‘stir up’ one’s mind with extraneous thoughts, and in particular negative thoughts, one finds it easier to rest in serenity (and perhaps good cheer) thereafter, all day long. It is a shortcut: rather than allow scattered thoughts to proliferate, and then have to quiet the mind down later, it is smart to make a small effort of self-control from the start.

Negative thoughts may be stimulated by a diffuse negative feeling, as attempts to understand and rid oneself of such bad feeling; even so, one can resist the temptation to so respond, and give the feeling time to naturally subside. The ego tends to identify with such unpleasant emotion, and uses it as a springboard for thoughts of frustration, hatred, fear or despair, etc. But all these are mere excuses for mental activity, and one is wise to cultivate inner calm and equanimity.

Our ordinary way of confronting the world is very selfish, self-centered or conceited – every thing or event is related to oneself in one way or the other. We are affected by each and every presentation. In meditation, after a while, our self becomes transparent – more selfless, indifferent and humble. Sensations, emotions, memories, fantasies and thoughts come and go, but we do not attach ourselves to them, because we do not attach as much importance to them.


2. Abstract vs. concrete self

I finally managed to conceive (on a theoretical level, without making personal claims to the direct experience concerned) how the Buddhist idea of ‘emptiness’ of self (in subjects, and indeed in objects of consciousness) might be convincingly presented and consistently argued, when I read the following passage from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra[4]:

“A succession of consiousnesses, generating a vast array of distinctive perceptions, appear to consolidate into one individual consciousness” (IV, 5).

It occurred to me that the logical demands that every event of consciousness requires a subject (i.e. a soul being conscious) as well as an object (i.e. the content of consciousness), and that every event of volition requires an agent as well as an act, could still be met in the context of ‘emptiness’ of self, if we assume the schema in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2. How momentary subjects and objects give rise to abstractions

Note: This is a very rough illustration, to facilitate discussion. The self has no phenomenal qualities in our experience; so, all its spatial features here are merely symbolic. The drawing is not intended to assign a specific shape and size to the concrete or abstract soul (respectively, the successive circles and the virtual tube linking them together), since the self has no extension. Similarly, the space between the subject and object is not to be considered literal, since the self has no location or distance[5]. The black arrow signifies consciousness and volition, probing and changing objects external to the soul; while the red arrows are virtual representations of memory and anticipation reaching the past or future, respectively, through the continuity of the soul or at least the succession of soul moments (more on this further on).

As I have argued in Buddhist Illogic and in Phenomenology, consciousness has to be understood to signify a subject as well as an object. When something appears, it appears to someone. Otherwise, it merely exists – it does not ‘appear’. Patanjali seems to agree with the implied objectivist position, when he writes further on:

“But the object is not dependent on [people’s different] perceptions; if it were, what would happen to it when nobody was looking?” (IV, 16.)

Granting the existence of a subject of consciousness, and similarly of an agent of volition, – i.e. me in my case, you in yours – the issue arises: how is this entity known? It does not seem to manifest any phenomenal qualities, i.e. it is not perceivable by any of the material senses or in the analogous modes within the mind. Is it only, then, known by conceptual inference from perceived phenomena? No – I have argued in those works – this would not suffice to explain how we routinely experience self-knowledge, i.e. our awareness of our individual acts of perception and conception, logical insights, choices and volitions, preferences and feelings.

Therefore, we must have not just a general theoretical knowledge of the self, but direct access to it time after time. Since this direct access cannot be subsumed under ‘perception’ – having no phenomenal evidence to rely on – it must be called by another name, say ‘intuition’. Furthermore, since the self, as subject (or as agent), has none of the perceptible qualities of objects (including acts), it should be distinguished from them with regard to substance. Whereas concrete objects (or acts) are labeled ‘material’ if sensory or ‘mental’ if imaginary, concrete subjects (or agents) are to be labeled ‘spiritual’ (souls).

Now, until the above-mentioned insight generated in me by Patanjali’s text, I assumed all this to imply that the soul needs be an entity existing continuously for some extended duration of time. In such case, the Buddhist idea that the soul is ‘empty’ of substance could not be conceptually expressed and logically upheld. But now I realize that a compromise position is possible, which reduces the apparent conflict between theoretical construct and alleged mystical experience.

This reconciliation is possible if we clearly distinguish between the intuited momentary existence of concrete soul from the assumed continuous existence of abstract soul. The same distinction can be made for the object – i.e. perception only reveals the object’s moment by moment concrete existence, whereas the apparent unity between its momentary manifestations is a product of abstraction.

It suffices, for logical consistency, that we posit a momentary, concrete spiritual substance being conscious at that moment of a momentary, concrete material or mental substance; or likewise at that moment willing changes in matter or mind.

With regard to consciousness, the momentary soul may at the moment of its existence equally intuit itself, its own acts or tendencies (cognitions, volitions and evaluations), and also past moments of soul experiencing objects, self, etc. (insofar as such past is inscribed as memory in the present), as well as future such moments (by anticipation, i.e. by present imaginative projection). Similarly, with regard to volition, the momentary soul wills whatever it does at the present moment of its existence, and has no need of past or future moments to do so. All that is intended and hopefully made clear in the above drawing.

Each momentary self exists while in the present, but the next moment it is effectively another momentary self that exists. However, each momentary self, seeing at that moment its unity of form with the preceding and following momentary selves, gets the false impression that it is one with them, i.e. may identify itself with them as previous and later expressions or parts of itself. Thus, the illusory notion that it is spread over time arises – due to a confusion between the abstract self and the sum of the concrete selves. Similarly, mutadis mutandis, with regard to objects be they mental or material.

According to this viewpoint, we need only assume that traces of the past are carried over into the present through some sort of ‘memory’ inscribed in successive present concrete subjects or as objects somewhere in their environments. There is thus no logical necessity for us to assume that the different moments are bound together in one continuous concrete soul and in continuous concrete objects of consciousness. We can equally regard the apparent unities of subject (or of object) over time to be due to abstract commonalties between merely momentary concrete souls (or objects).

This is easy to grasp with reference to the image of a wave at sea. As ‘it’ rolls across the surface of the water, it visually seems like one continuous thing. But upon reflection, we know that the water composing the wave is constantly being replaced by water further on in its course. That is, contrary to appearance, the water constituting the wave does not travel along with the wave, but just bobs up and down. ‘The wave’ is thus just an abstraction, i.e. a mental projection by us based on perceived repetition of a certain shape over time.

But it should be pointed out that this analogy is not perfect. For, in the case of the wave of water, each successive water-content along the path of the wave exists before the wave passes through it and continues to exist after. Whereas, in the case of a subject or object in time, the present is the only position where existence is actual – the past having ceased to exist and the future being not-yet in existence.

Patanjali, in the initially quoted verse, seems to assume that time is actually divided into discrete ‘moments’ of some duration. This is apparently contrary to the assumption of modern physicists that time is an infinitely divisible continuum. The following verses seem to confirm that his position is that the continuity is illusory:

“The past and future are immanent in an object, existing as different sectors in the same flow of experiential substances” (IV, 12). “Their transformations tend to blur together, imbuing each new object with a quality of substantiality” (IV, 14).

And further on, more explicitly:

“One can see that the flow is actually a series of discrete events, each corresponding to the merest instant of time, in which one form becomes another” (IV, 33).

But I think it ultimately matters little in the present context whether we assume that time comprises a succession of separate events or a non-stop flow. For we can apply the above illustration and analysis in either case, i.e. whether we assume the series of circles or squares merely contiguous or infinitely overlapping. Perhaps we could explicate the ‘moment’ of Patanjali as the breadth of time that a given subject’s consciousness is able to span in one go. That is, perhaps time is continuous but our consciousness functions subjectively in discrete bits.

The important thing is that we may now accept two theses or theoretical constructs relative to the given data.

· One is that of ordinary consciousness, which presumes that underlying the abstract self is a continuous concrete entity (likewise, with regard to an abstract object).

· The other construct is that claimed by Buddhists with reference to deep meditation, namely that no concrete continuity (but only a succession of discrete events) underlies the abstract continuity; i.e. that the apparent continuity is not real but illusory. Or in other words, that the abstract self (or likewise, the abstract object) is ‘empty’.

We need not at this stage judge between these two theories. What interests us is that both are consistent with the demand that consciousness imply both a subject and an object.

But in either case, the concrete soul is not ‘empty’ – there is at least a momentary entity beneath it. In other words, the ‘momentary concrete soul’ is the common ground of both the ordinary mindset (which however unifies different moments into one ‘continuous concrete soul’) and the Buddhist claim (which rejects such unification, regarding the apparent continuity as merely abstract).[6]

Note well that no special logical doctrine needs to be conjured to explicate the claim that an abstract concept may not be underlain by a concrete unity. We have an example of this assumption in the ordinary view that a class concept or common name refers to a shared characteristic without implying (contrary to the Platonic idea) that it refers to an actual archetype suspended somewhere. This is by way of contrast to the individual concept or proper name, which is ordinarily taken to signify that all the objects it groups and labels are manifestations or facets in space and time of a single entity. The following is a more specific example:

If I think of ‘myself’ in the rougher sense, I include all the sensations felt at various times in different locations in my body, the sight of my skin, the sound of my voice, the thoughts in my head, etc. Although these factors are scattered in time and place, I regard them as ‘an individual’ called Avi Sion. Furthermore, each slice of my life is somewhat different from the previous: the air in my lungs, the food in my stomach, the blood in my veins, and so forth, are constantly on the move. Likewise, in space: no cross-section of me is comparable; organs differ, I move my arms and legs, etc. Even so, I ordinarily think of me as singular; i.e. the abstraction ‘Avi Sion’ is in this case considered as referring to a concrete ‘sausage’ in space-time. Similarly, if I think of another human being or your pet dog or my car.

In contrast, if I think of the ‘classes’ with the common names ‘human beings’ or ‘dogs’ or ‘cars’, there is no intention (again, except for Platonists) to unify all instances into one big meta-individual. Thus, we commonly readily admit that there are abstract concepts without a single concrete referent, i.e. which merely intend a similarity between two or more concrete referents. The Buddhist proposition is simply that this latter understanding is also applicable to the case of ‘individuals’.

The discussion becomes more complicated if we more carefully consider the time factor. Firstly, in our above illustration, the arrow symbolizing consciousness and volition is perpendicular to time’s arrow; but that implies synchronicity, i.e. that these relations take no time to relate subject and (external) object, or agent and (external) act. It would perhaps be more accurate to suppose a delay, so that consciousness currently observes what is already slightly in the past and volition eventually affects what is still slightly in the future; i.e. we have two diverging arrows. But such supposition is problematic, since the premise of discontinuity is that no intermediate time exists, no being in between the moments shown; i.e. that the present moment is an indivisibly unity.

Secondly, we have too easily assumed that memory and anticipation can somehow function across time, even while considering each moment of time as essentially independent of the previous or next one. The above illustration suggests the pathway of memory to go through cognition of the past when it was present, coupled with a transfer of information from past subject to now present subject. However, here again, with regard to retrospection, it would be inappropriate given the premise of discontinuity to propose that movement of information (communication) occurs from one moment to the next, with time’s arrow. Similarly, anticipation cannot be considered as prospective or advance vision of the future itself, and yet when we mentally project a prediction (e.g. when willing), we intend it into a not yet existent future; this is even more problematic, seeming to imply movement of information against time’s arrow.

In reply to such objections, some Buddhist philosophers would respond that there is no space and so no time delay between subject and object, since both are in one and the same “mind”; or again, that all moments of time are in fact one, being all illusions of that one and only “mind”. But less extreme Buddhist theorists would rather emphasize that the discontinuity thesis is not simply that concrete events (of subject or object) are in fact discrete, suggesting a succession of lawlessly spontaneous and unrelated happenings. No, there is still some sort of ‘continuity’ to take into account. It is the “karmic” component – the idea that each successive event in a series is causally determined by the preceding (and all environmental factors).

What this means exactly is open to discussion. It is debatable, for instance, whether freewill is allowed for or fatalism is implied. But more radically, if as Buddhists claim ‘everything is causally connected to everything’, the concept of causality loses all meaning, since no distinction between causes and non-causes, or between types and degrees of causality, remains. In short, while the idea seems plausible if we refer back to the image of a wave of water (where ‘energy’ – another abstraction, note well – is considered as passed on through the water), we are hard put to find a definition or develop a detailed understanding of causality that would correspond to the Buddhist viewpoint.[7]

Another issue to consider is epistemological. Granting we never experience anything other than the immediate present, i.e. that reminiscences and anticipations are events in the present that suck us in and give us the impression of transporting us into past or future, the question arises how do Buddhists know about karma, i.e. that the present is an effect of the past and the future a consequence of the present? It seems to me that they can only claim an adductive legitimacy to their karmic interpretation – in other words, not much more than the epistemological basis of the ordinary assumption of continuous essences and souls! By adductive, I mean given an empirical basis, to postulate a certain extrapolation from it, in the way of a coherent hypothesis to be compared to other hypotheses. That is to say, karmic theory is as much a ‘conceptual construct’ as the continuity theory it seeks to replace.

The thesis of discontinuity seems less credible to me than that of continuity, because it suggests that the whole universe (irrespective of its nature or size) instantly vanishes and then reemerges, or is destroyed and then recreated, at every moment. This means that instead of having to explain it once, we have to find a new explanation for it in every moment – and of course, we have no time for that in any one moment.

Moreover, we do not only need to explain the repeated existence of the universe, but its apparent similarity in any one moment to previous moments – for it always seems to contain traces of the past (e.g. footsteps in the snow, paleontological fossils, mental memories or photographic records) comparable to the present (e.g. you look like I remember you).

And finally, of course, comes the more complex issue of causality, to explain why similar entities in similar situations appear to behave similarly (regularity) and more difficult still, why some individual entities seem variously linked to individual events (responsibility). The thesis that there is some continuity across time thus requires less explanation; and being simpler, it is adductively preferable.

Thus, though all we experience of the self and the world is indeed momentary, the hypothesis of continuity remains conceivable and indeed more probable. The epistemological fact of transience of all phenomena and intuitions does not per se exclude the ontological possibility of certain continuities between them.

It is true that the ‘self’ especially has only a present existence, and no past or future within the present, since memories and imaginations (including projections of the future) are located outside of the soul, occurring in the mind and being stored in the brain. And indeed, even the soul’s present impressions of itself (by intuition), its mind (by inner perception) and its physical body and environment (by sensory perception), are open to considerable doubt, being often very transient and not always clear or memorable.

Also, since the soul has no information on itself or on the outside world within itself, there is some justification to regard past and future as essentially ‘illusory’, as the Buddhists do[8]. The latter term could be considered as somewhat hyperbolic, intending to stress the argument that they are at best inductive constructs. ‘The past’ so-called is constructed from present impressions of the present and apparent present ‘memories’ of some ‘past’ – but, judging by verification procedures in the present, the alleged past is often more fantasy and self-delusion than a fair estimate of what was. Similarly, and all the more so in the case of ‘the future’, which not only refers to the apparent past and present, but to incipient intentions of one’s own and others’ wills (which may or not be finally carried out).

However, such reasonable doubts that can be raised about the present, past and future of the self and its surrounds, cannot be reasonably be taken to an extreme, for the simple reason that that would make the statement of doubt logically self-contradictory. Therefore, we must admit that wherever consciousness occurs, it is based on some certainties, which does not necessarily mean total certainty. The inductive constructs that make up most of our ‘knowledge’ can indeed be erroneous, but it must be admitted (to remain consistent) that they progressively tend to truth.


3. Sundry reflections on the soul and God

The soul is what we regard as the essence of a person, the unitary substance that is both subject of consciousness and agent of volition. This soul need only be present during the life of the physical organism sustaining it, not before or after.

Ontologically, whether the soul is perishable or imperishable does not seem relevant to our study of its cognitive, volitional and evaluative capacities. Epistemologically, how would we know it as a fact either way? If there is no contradiction in either concept, and no evident immediate knowledge of it, we must revert to generalizations and hypotheses to establish it. From a philosophical point of view, the soul may be either short-lived or undying; equally. Some souls may be short-lived to different degrees (animals, humans), some undying (God’s at least). There is no law of causality, nor law of knowledge, requiring all subjects or agents to be imperishable or to age equally.

Mortality does seem more empirically justified – in that people and animals evidently are observed to physically die. If the soul is an epiphenomenon of matter, it is probably mortal. Immortality implies literally an eternity of existence, and not merely life after death for some time; this seems a very unlikely hypothesis, unless we refer to the religious thesis that the soul originates in God and eventually merges back into Him, or similar ideas. The issue remains forever (i.e. so long as we exist) open, speculative.[9]

I am not sure Judaism (at its Biblical core, at least) and allied religions ultimately believe in immortality, though they may believe in some transmigration, or at least in the ultimate resurrection of the dead. The ‘messianic age’ is projected as a period of happy existence for differentiated individuals, rather than as a nirvana wherein all will fuse with God. Just as at some past time, God was alone, so at some future time, He will again be alone: only He (or His Soul, pronoun and noun having one and the same referent) is Eternal. But on the other hand, logically, just as we came from God before we got to Eden, perhaps after the messianic age we shall indeed eventually return to Him.

The philosophical position concerning the soul adopted in this volume is that it is either directly intuited by itself, or at least implied by its functions of cognition, volition and valuation, some of which are certainly directly intuited (i.e. experienced, although not as concrete phenomena). We could refer this position to the Cartesian “cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), if we understand the term ‘thought’ broadly enough, as referring to the three functions. Epistemologically, I infer that I am, due to having experiences, using logic and forming concepts (cognition), intending or doing actions (volition) and expressing preferences (valuation). Ontology reverses this order, acknowledging the self as logically prior to any and all such ‘thoughts’, as their implied subject or agent.

The notion of a soul no doubt has a history. I do not claim to know it, can only roughly guess at it. The idea of a personal soul is thought by historians to be rather recent – dating apparently from the time humans started burying their dead, or otherwise ritually disposing of them. Much later, philosophers (notably Aristotle[10]) developed the hierarchical distinction between vegetative soul, animal soul and human soul. The first level of soul (involving birth, nutrition, reproduction, growth, decay, death) was found in plants, beasts and humans; the second level (involving locomotion and sensation), only in the latter two; and the third level (involving reason, and exceptional liberty), only in the last.

Buddhism (or at least some currents of it), distinctively, denied the real existence of a soul, considering the ‘self’ apparently at the center of the individual’s consciousness as an illusion[11]. According to the mentalist school (Yogacara), the apparent self is based on eight modes of consciousness – the five due to sensory perceptions; the mental faculty correlating and interpreting them (like the ‘common sense’ of Aristotle); and two more. The seventh mode (called manas) refers to the deluded impression of having a separate self, giving rise to conceit, selfishness, and similar afflictions. The eighth mode (called citta or alayavijnana) is considered the repository of ‘karma’, making possible the delays in consequences of actions.

Thus, the ‘seventh consciousness’ may roughly be equated to the ordinary concept of present soul, although it is declared illusory[12]; and the ‘eighth consciousness’ may be ultimately compared to the religious concept of a soul that passes on from body to body, although a carryover of potentiality is implied rather than perpetuation of actual existence. This series might be completed by the notion of the ‘original ground’ or ‘causal ground’ of consciousness and existence, the Nirvana of one-mind and no-mind – which could be considered as related to our concept of God. Although Buddhists would likely deny it, the analogy seems to be apposite, because it shows the recurrence and uniformity of certain concepts in all human cultures.

Another Indian culture, Hinduism, as well as other peoples and philosophies, consider God more frankly as the Soul of the universe, the common root of all particular souls. In Judaism and sister religions, God is projected as a conscious Presence overseeing (in a cognitive and volitional sense, and in the evaluative sense of lawgiver) the whole world, much as each of us has a soul reigning over his or her own little world. Some suggest, as already mentioned, that our own soul is but a spark[13] out of God’s.

Some consider God as transcendent, others as immanent. The latter end up equating God with Nature, in the way of pantheism (Baruch Spinoza comes to mind, here). The human belief in God may have historically developed out of animism, itself probably a generalization of the vague notion of a personal soul.

Peoples living close to Nature (the Indians of North America, for instance) tended to perceive an undifferentiated godliness in all life and indeed in all of nature. Everything had a soul—a bubbling stream or a roaring ocean, a majestically immovable mountain, a pebble rolling downhill, the Sun, the Moon, the vast sky, one day blue, one day grey and rainy, rolling clouds and thunder in the sky, the wind brushing though the forest, a bud flowering, a soaring eagle, a roaming cougar, field mice scattering, a fish jumping up. God was everywhere to be seen and encountered.

Such ideas may have in time become concretized, with the notion of discrete “spirits” residing in a stone or tree or river or mountain. Each thing was thought to have consciousness and volition, just as people intuited these powers within themselves (probably long before they named them). People might then seek to talk with bodies of inanimate matter as with animals; for instance, to respectfully ask permission to interact with them in some way. Or they might have to trick or fight them into doing what they wished them to. Eventually, these small, scattered “gods” were taken home or at least represented in stone or wooden idols (as apparently in Africa).

Some gods, like perhaps those of Nordic peoples, may of course have evolved out of historical persons – kings or heroes who were remembered in stories and eventually became larger-than-life myths. Later, as in Greece and Rome, more abstract gods evolved, who represented broad domains of the world (like the heavens or the sea) or of human activity (like love or war).

Eventually, apparently thanks to the Hebrews, monotheism was born, i.e. belief in a single and sole universal spiritual God. Founded by the patriarch Abraham, Judaism became a more organized national religion a few centuries later[14]. Eventually, through Christianity and Islam, both much later offshoots of Judaism, abstract monotheism gained ascendancy in large parts of the world. Christianity is closer to Judaism than Islam in some respects, further in others. The former is more explicitly rooted in Judaic textual details, whereas the latter uses them more as a tacit springboard. Christianity retains some concrete ideas and images relative to its founder Jesus, while Islam like Judaism eschews all such deification or representation.

Still today, in India for instance, the pantheon of gods and the ubiquity of images of them is striking. Although Hinduism has also long ago reached the idea of abstract monotheism, it has not made it exclusive. Buddhism, for its part, attained a high level of abstraction, but without personalizing it as God (at least not originally, although many Buddhist offshoots have in practice identified the founder Buddha with God). This is consistent with the Buddhist doctrine that even the human soul is ultimately “empty” of personality. However, Buddhists have remained influenced by ancient idolatry, in view of the statues of Buddha they worship (and thus mentally project ‘soul’ into, note)[15].

Jewish monotheism is not about God being the Soul of Nature. Nature (hateva) is sometimes said to be one of the ‘names’ of God – but this is taken to mean (e.g. by Maimonides) that Nature is in God’s power. In Judaism, God is absolutely abstract and without any concrete manifestation whatsoever – no incarnation in human or any other form, and nothing that can be represented by an image. Or more precisely, God is purely spiritual and never material. He is nevertheless the Creator of the world of nature, and remains all-knowing and all-powerful in it. Omniscient – not merely in the sense of knowing generalities (as Aristotle suggested), but also in the sense of knowing every particular; and thus able to exercise providence down to the last detail – as befits omnipotence.

This is analogous to the human soul, which has no phenomenal aspects[16] of its own, although it is capable of knowing and interacting with the phenomenal world. However, the analogy is not total, since Judaism teaches that the world is not God’s body, and moreover that humans did not create their own bodies but God created both their bodies and their souls (Genesis 2:7):

“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

So, it is conceivable to Jews that whereas God is eternal, humans are not; and it is also conceivable that God’s ‘breathing life’ into us was animating our bodies with a bit of His eternal Soul.

As these reflections show, the histories of the notion of soul and of that of God are closely intertwined. One of the functions of religion and/or metaphysics is to propose origins for soul and God, and explain how they are known.

Catholic Christians, to varying degrees, use material representations of Jesus in their homes, churches and processions. This may historically be an inheritance from the representation and worship of Roman emperors, which was widespread and seemed normal in the world Christianity took over. Protestants, later on and for various (political as well as spiritual) reasons, have for the most part eschewed three-dimensional sculptures and dolls, but they still resort to mental representations as well as to two-dimensional pictures. Hinduism and some forms of Buddhism similarly resort to incarnations of numerous divinities, giving them bodily form or thinking of them concretely.

These are perceptual ideas about divinity. Judaism, and later on Islam, on the basis of the narratives in their scriptures (the Torah and the Koran, respectively) ascribe perceptible behavior to God, in the way of manifest miracles (if only the sending of an angel or a prophetic vision, or the decree of a legal system), but they exclude any physical or mental representation of God, which they reprove as “idolatrous”. The idea(s) of God transmitted by their holy books, and later reinforced by interpretative commentaries, are essentially conceptual.

As philosophers we might ask: what is the rationale for the worship of statues or other representations? Does the worshipper consider that material (or mental) object itself to be what he or she is worshipping(fetishism), or to contain the divinity aimed at or be an emanation of it or a channel to it – or does the concrete object at hand merely serve as a mnemonic or as an expedient means to focus personal attention on a divinity far beyond it?

One would have to enter people’s minds to find out for sure (for their own introspections and oral reports are not necessarily reliable). I would suspect that there is a wide range of attitudes in different people, some imagining a more literal interpretation, others being more conscious of the possible distinctions. The spiritual issue is: does this practice ‘weigh down’ the soul, preventing it from ‘rising’ to the formless?[17]

I should add that I personally suspect that people who believe in some incarnation(s) of God, or in narrow gods or idols, and even atheists or agnostics, often or at least occasionally lift their eyes and prayers to the heavens, effectively intending to appeal to or thank God. That is to say, adherence in principle to some non- or not-quite monotheistic doctrine does not exclude the occasional intuition and practice of monotheism. The issue here is not the culturally specific name given to the Deity, or the theoretical constructions usually associated with that name, but the actual intention of the praying soul at the moment concerned. I think all or most humans have that understanding and reaction in common.

Philosophical theism or theology offers no narrative, no stories, concerning God; it is therefore, of course, free of any concrete representations. It consists of frank, changing speculations of a general sort, as to whether in the context of ordinary human cognitive faculties an abstract God can be definitely known to exist – or for that matter, not to exist.

Extraordinary forms of knowledge (allegedly attained, for instances, through prophecy or meditation) are not inconceivable, but hard to prove to us ordinary people; they therefore remain speculations. Honest philosophers have no prejudice on the subject, and freely admit room for doubt. Nevertheless, they find it possible to formulate consistent theories, which might be true about God and soul. On this basis, though no dogma is allowed, various personal faiths are possible.

In this way, without imposing any particular religious doctrine, philosophy may yet save the fact of religion from annihilation by pseudo-thinkers. Here, religion is denuded of all extraneous material (that which has made it disreputable), and limited to certain essential propositions given credence through philosophical discourse. The spiritual dimension of human existence is thus confirmed and reaffirmed.

[1] See for instance Yuen-Ting Lai.

[2] See Taoist Meditation, pp. 84-7. The Treatise is “a Tang dynasty text on meditation practice”.

[3] To the great profit and pleasure of those who provide us with the content. They know that however stupid or false it all is, we are hooked to the drug and will come back for more.

[4] This text is available at time of writing at

[5] We roughly locate the self or soul in our body (including head), because it seems at the center of all our sensory experiences (behind the eyes, between the ears, in the nose, under the tongue and the skin), and because our imaginations and verbal thoughts all seem to be going on inside the head.

[6] In either case, if we wish to support an ultimate monism, we can imagine all instances of subject and object, and the consciousness relating them, as ‘bubbles’ momentarily popping-up in an underlying unitary substrate of all existence.

[7] I discuss these issues in more detail in my The Logic of Causation, chapter 16.3.

[8] The contemplation of this illusoriness is, I believe, called samapatti.

[9] Note that my position concerning knowledge of the existence of God is that we can neither prove nor disprove it; on this topic, see my Judaic Logic, chapter 14. My views concerning how we ordinarily arrive at knowledge of the nature of God are expounded in Phenomenology, chapter 9. Note that I make no claim that anyone has attained to prophetic knowledge, though I keep an open mind relative to this notion.

[10] This distinction was later adopted by Jewish mystics, using the terms ruach, nefesh and neshamah (although they seem to interpret them in very divergent ways, however convenient – probably because the terms are not clearly defined, and seemingly interchangeable, in the Bible, from which they are drawn). Similar ideas are found in other cultures, but here again I can only guess the history.

[11] Although, if we examine some of the arguments put forward in support of the no-self claim, their illogic is glaring! This is particularly true of the pseudo-reasoning of the foremost philosopher of the Madhyamika school, the Indian Nagarjuna (2nd Cent. CE). To give an example I recently came across in a book by the Dalai Lama (pp. 54-5): “The Vaibhashikas therefore understand final nirvana in terms of the total cessation of the individual. A well-known objection by Nagarjuna… [if so] no one ever attains nirvana, because when nirvana is attained the individual ceases to exist.” Nagarjuna is a joker, who likes to play with words (see my Buddhist Illogic for many more examples). He here suggests that ‘attainment’ is only conceivable through alteration (where the subject remains essentially the same, while changing superficially). But it is logically quite conceivable that the individual disappears upon crossing over into nirvana: that would simply be a case of mutation (where the one-time subject becomes something else entirely at a later time). There is nothing absurd in the said Vaibhashika position. (Note incidentally that that position is analogous to the theistic idea of merging back into God, mentioned higher up.)

[12] The accusation of illusion is due to their considering the notion of self as a product of conception from mental and sensory perceptions (i.e. dharmas, phenomena), rather than as I propose as something known by direct self-intuition (i.e. experience with a non-phenomenal content).

[13] The idea of a ‘spark’ is drawn from Lurianic kabbalistic philosophy.

[14] A more concrete ‘monotheistic’ religion, consisting of worship of the Sun exclusively, appeared briefly in Egypt at about that time. But the question is, who inspired whom? It is certainly equally conceivable that a small foreign contingent (Hebrew slaves) culturally influenced the larger host (some of the Egyptians).

[15] To be fair, it may be that in the minds of some practitioners of meditation, statues and flat images are not objects of worship, but mere aids to achieving the depicted stillness, silence and concentration. One would have to ask individual practitioners what their real intentions are. All the same, it would seem likely that someone starting with imitation in mind, will develop an emotional attachment to the representative object and end up personifying it and bowing down to it. Which, to my mind, is silly, to say the least.

[16] In this respect, Judaism has similarities to Buddhism; although unlike the latter, the former recognizes a non-phenomenal ‘spiritual’ substance for soul. Another possible analogy is that between the “Ayin” (non-existence, nothingness) of Jewish kabbalah and the “Shunyata” (emptiness) of Buddhism.

[17] The essential purpose of idolatry, I would say, is to imprint people’s minds with alleged representations of gods or God. It is a powerful form of advertising, which produces psychic dependence on the idol, so that it is voluntarily or involuntarily recalled and appealed to in various circumstances. This incidentally benefits the clerical class tending and serving the idol; although, to be fair, the members of that class are rarely hypocritical, but themselves true (indeed, usually truer) believers.

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