“Everybody is a genius. but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid” – – Albert Einstein

All the notes were taken directly from the source mentioned.

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The ideas that I will develop are inspired by my long engagement with two philosophers, one Indian and one Scottish: Candrakirti (c. 600-650 CE) and David Hume (1711-1776 CE). Candrakirti was a Buddhist scholar and a partisan of the Middle Way School of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy.

I think that a central part of the human project-as Socrates and Plato emphasized in classical Greece, and as the authors of the Upanishads emphasized in classical India-is to know ourselves.

The idea that the atman lies at the core of our being is ubiquitous in orthodox Indian philosophy, and it was a principal target of Buddhist critique. In the Vedas, and in particular, the Upanishads-the texts that ground many of the orthodox Indian philosophical schools-it is characterized as unitary, as the witness of all that we perceive, as the agent of our actions, and as the enjoyer of our aesthetic experience.

Each day you might put on a new set of clothes, but you are still you, the bearer of those clothes; you are not in any sense identical to them, and you are the same individual who put on different clothes yesterday and who may put on new ones tomorrow. Just so, according to the Gita, you, the atman, put on a new mind and body in each life, but are never identical to any mind or body;

Our minds and bodies, they concede, change from day to day, violating the condition of identity. So, neither mind nor body, they conclude, is a candidate for the self; the self must be something that stands behind both mind and body as the locus of our identity.

The Buddhist position, and indeed any no-self position, must assume the burden of explaining both the apparent integration of consciousness at each moment and our perceived identity over time in the absence of a unitary subject and agent.

St. Augustine (354-430) also argues that it is immediately available to us in introspection and that it has the distinctive property of freedom, of exemption from causation in its active role, a property he deems necessary for moral responsibility.

For our purposes, the Indian atman and the Christian psyche are close enough in content, and are defended on similar enough grounds, that we can often treat them as manifestations of the same broad idea.

Reserving the word person to denote the complex, constructed, socially embedded psychophysical complexes in which I will argue we really consist.

Descartes (1596-1650) famously argues in his Meditations on First Philosophy that we can be certain of our existence as res cogitans, or as thinking things, identical not with our bodies, or our perceptual faculties, but with our faculty of abstract reason. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), defending a position very much like that of many of the orthodox Indian schools, argues in the Critique of Pure Reason that the self is a noumenon, a transcendental object existing outside of space and time, a pure subject or perceptual, conceptual, and aesthetic experience and agent of action, transcendentally free of the causal order.

I will tell you whose body I would like to have: Usain Bolt’s (in his racing prime). I only want it for 9.6 seconds. I want to feel what it is like to run that fast. Now, in developing this desire, I do not want to be Usain Bolt. Usain Bolt has already achieved that, and it does me no good. I want to be me, Jay, with Usain Bolt’s body, so that I can enjoy what Usain Bolt experiences.

I do not consider myself to be identical to my body, but rather to be something that has this body, and that could in principle have another one.

I take the possibility of my forming this desire to show that I take myself, at least pre-reflectively, to be a self that is distinct from my body,

I would love to have Stephen Hawking’s mind for long enough to understand general relativity and quantum gravity, but once again, this is not a desire to be Stephen Hawking, but to be me, enjoying his mind.

Somebody else was already that other person, and that does nothing for you. You want to be you, with their mind. And, just as in the case of the body, the very possibility of formulating this desire, or imagining this situation shows that-correctly or incorrectly-you do not consider yourself to be your mind, but rather to be something that has that mind.

I suspect that the explanation of the self-illusion is not cognitive, but is instead emotional, or even simply biological.

Shantideva also argues that the idea that we are selves arises primarily in emotionally charged situations, as when we perceive that we have been harmed, or when pride is aroused.

David Hume adopts a similar view. He argues that the thought that we are selves is a product of the passions-that we posit the self as the object of pride and humility, and then reify it in thought.

I take this task to be important, and not simply an abstract metaphysical inquiry. This is because the self illusion matters. It matters in part because it obscures our own identities from us, leading to a profound misunderstanding of who and what we are, and of the degree to which our own identities and existence are bound up with those of others. And it matters because it generates a perverse moral vision that engenders an instinctive attitude of self-interest and egoism that none of us can rationally endorse, and from which we would happily free ourselves.

The King grants that he did ride a chariot, and so that the chariot he rode exists. But what, Nagasena asks, is that chariot, really? He points out that the chariot is neither identical to its wheels, nor to its axles, nor to its poles, and so on. It cannot, he argues, be identical to any of its parts, for that would be to leave some others out; to select one part as the real chariot would be arbitrary, as well as clearly false.

Nagasena immediately points out to the King that the chariot cannot simply be the sum of those pieces. After all, a pile of chariot pieces on the ground, delivered fresh from the chariot factory, but not yet assembled, is not a chariot.

We could replace a wheel or an axle, and we would still have the same chariot,

After all, we began by granting its reality. Instead, the author of the dialogue suggests, while the chariot exists, it does not exist as some singular entity that is either identical to or distinct from its parts. Its mode of existence is merely conventional, determined by our customs regarding the application of words like this chariot.

If we are not selves, the King might as well have asked, what makes me the same individual now that I was when I was a small child, or even ten minutes ago, and that I will be when I am a much older man, or even ten minutes from now?

These are questions about continuity, or diachronic identity-identity over time. The second issue concerns synchronic identity, or identity at a single time.

Given that I am ten minutes older now than I was ten minutes ago, and will be a further ten minutes older ten minutes from now, these three stages of me differ from one another in at least one respect (age), and certainly more besides (different memories, and even different cells in the body).

In one obvious sense, the flame of last night and the flame of this morning are different from one another: different oil is being consumed; the flames are burning on distinct clay lamps. But in another equally obvious sense, they are the same: they are each stages of a single causal continuum, an uninterrupted sequence of illumination by florescent gas.

So, in one obvious sense, I am not identical to the person called by my name yesterday. We are alike, causally related, but numerically distinct. In another sense, though, we are the same person. We share a name, many properties, a causal history, and a social role; and that, while not involving a self, is enough.

No one of these processes by itself captures who we are; none persist unchanged over time; none are independent of the others. Together, they constitute our conventional identity, an identity we can now see to be very robust indeed.

Candrakirti reminds me that when I look inside, all I find are psychophysical processes, not some ghostly owner hiding behind the curtains.

Candrakirti argues that we are not selves, but persons (the Sanskrit term is pudgala). And the person, he argues, is neither identical to nor different from the psychophysical processes; but unlike the self, which is supposed to be an independently existent entity, there is no reason to believe that a person needs to exist in one of these ways. It is instead a socially constructed designation, posited on the bases of those processes, but not reducible to them

There are lots of ways to have a dollar. You might have a dollar bill, a dollar coin, ten dimes, or an electronic record. Your dollar, however, is neither identical to nor different from any of these ways that it might be instantiated.

Societies can do without money (at least up to a certain level of social complexity), but they can’t do without mutual recognition as persons. Without this recognition we couldn’t construct social orders at all, orders that are necessary to our own survival.

Shantideva endorses this analysis in How to Lead an Awakened Life, and he draws ethical consequences from it. He argues that the dualism of self and other underlies egocentricity. That egocentricity, in turn, leads to a strong sense of self-identity, which causes us to see ourselves as standing at the center of our own moral universes, and so as objects of special regard. He argues that this dualism derives in turn from self-grasping, from seeing the world in terms of the “I and mine” framework that derives from reifying ourselves as selves. He also argues that this is the source of the illusion that others are independent agents.

Hume invites us to introspect carefully and honestly. He claims that when we do so, we find sensations, perceptions, affect, cognitive states (all of the collections of phenomena identified by Buddhist philosophers, we might note), but nothing more than that.

The parishioners are different; the minister is different; the bodies in the churchyard are different; the building is different. Nonetheless, since it makes sense to say, “This church is fifty years old,” in the most important sense, the church remains the same. So, while it is not some entity different from its parishioners, minister, building, etc., nor is it identical to them, it exists conventionally, and that is enough for it to be a real, functioning church.

We have encountered four principle conceptual ingredients to the idea of self: priority, unity, subject-object duality, and agency. That is, a self is meant to have a kind of existence prior to, or more fundamental than, that of body and mind; it is meant to be a unitary entity, not a multiplicity; it is that which is the subject of our cognitive objects, and so distinct from them; and it is the agent of action and the locus of responsibility.

The self is conceived as primordial. That is, it is understood to exist prior to and independent of the world we experience, and to be unitary. Let me explain. First, when we think of ourselves as selves, we assume that our existence is independent of that of our objects, and that we know ourselves more directly, more clearly, more immediately than we know other objects. That is, when I think of myself as a self, I can imagine that even if the entire world outside of me disappeared, I could remain as a center of subjectivity. I take my self to be the basis of my ability to experience the world, not as a part of that world.

We take ourselves to be to the unseen seer, the reality known immediately in experience, the interior in which the external world is replicated and revealed in perception and in thought.

When we experience external objects, we naturally take ourselves to perceive them just as they are, our experience functioning as an accurate representation of just what things look, sound, smell, taste, and feel like

Perception, as all of us know, involves the transformation of information impinging on our sensory apparatus into neural impulses, and the transmission of those impulses along the sensory nerves to diverse areas of the brain, where further neural activity occurs, together constituting our experience of external objects.

What we construct in response to the causal interaction with our sense organs depends not only on what impinges on them, but on the kinds of sense organs we have, and the kinds of processing that occurs in our nervous system. Animals with different sensory apparatus, or different cognitive architecture may construct very different lived worlds in response to similar sensory stimulation.

Birds and sharks, for instance, are sensitive to magnetic fields of which we are oblivious. Insects and many birds perceive light in the ultraviolet and infrared ranges, giving them a much more colorful world than the one we inhabit. Dogs’ worlds reflect their enormous olfactory bulbs and complex noses; theirs is a world of volumes of smell that might also be seen and heard, not of chunks of visible matter that might also be heard or smelled. Each of these worlds is a construction, not a replication of a preexisting reality.

So, the world we inhabit-just like the worlds of dogs, birds, and bees-is not a world we encounter, but a world in which we participate and which we co-construct.

The illusory duality of subject and object is matched by an illusion of agent causation, that is, by the illusion that we are the free, uncaused agents of our actions, acting on the world, but causally unconstrained by it. Once again, a moment’s serious reflection tells us that this cannot be the case, as we know that we are physically realized biological organisms in a natural world governed by causal laws.

This is because we are free when our desires and intentions cause our behavior, when our desires and intentions are caused by our values and beliefs, and so forth. Uncaused action, or random intentions are not only impossible, but also undesirable.

To my mind, that natural attitude of taking ourselves to be selves is a symptom of a profound instinct for self-alienation, and is the deepest form of what Buddhist philosophers call primal confusion, the root of suffering. We are, that is, wired to misunderstand our own mode of existence.

Neuroscience does not reveal a central ego in the brain that marks who we are, as opposed to what we experience or do. There is no single place in the brain where it all “comes together” or where consciousness is seated. Instead, neuroscientists focus on the patterns of activity that enable us to bind our experience into an experienced unity, patterns that allow us to self-identify, and that locate us in a spatiotemporal manifold along with our objects of experience. These processes are widely distributed in the brain, drawing on networks associated with perception, motor control, affect, conation,

All of this is to say that we are many, not one; we are collections of collections of processes, not unities; we are more like hives than bees in that respect. We are of the world, not over and against it. We are dynamic and constantly changing causally interdependent systems of processes, not independent, enduring objects or agents.

The term derives from the Latin persona, literally denoting a mask of the kind worn in the theatre, and metonymically denoting a role.

Instead, our identity is forged only partly by the actors who perform the roles in which our identities consist: we are not performed by solo actors in a stand-up club, but in a vast improv group including friends, family, colleagues, and fellow citizens. Who we are reflects the way our role fits into this indefinitely large, unbounded human drama.

That is, as Candrakirti put it, we are neither identical to nor different from the facts that ground our existence. After all, it would be wrong to say that Hamlet is identical to the words in Shakespeare’s script, or to the series of performances of his role, or to the critical literature on the play, or even to all of these things put together, just as the chariot in Candrakirti’s deployment is neither identical to any of its parts, nor to their assembly, etc.

The reason that we care about the self in the first place is that it is what Buddhist philosophers call “the object of self-grasping,” that which we na√Øvely take ourselves to be, and which grounds many of our instinctive affective and moral responses.

The person is constructed; the person is dependent on the psychophysical and social network in which it is realized; the person is complex, embodied and embedded. That is the difference between the actor and the role. We are roles, not actors.

While we can celebrate the ways that our loved ones and social structures support us in our growth and aspirations, it is equally true that oppressive social structures or abusive individuals often craft scripts and sculpt characters in deeply harmful ways. This is in part why racism, sexism, gender oppression, income inequality, and structural violence are so devastating at so many levels, destroying even the sense of who we are. Interdependence can thus be a source of misery as well as of joy; of despair as well as of gratitude.

Proponents of the existence of the self who adduce transcendental arguments for its reality (Kant included) argue that the reality of the self is necessary to explain one or all of the following phenomena: (1) the synchronic unity of consciousness and of its objects; (2) the diachronic unity of personal identity;5 (3) the sense of oneself in agency and subjectivity; (4) the possibility of individuating and distinguishing obviously distinct individual persons.

Moreover, they argued, all of our experiences are present in a single subjectivity. That is, I do not take my visual experience to be experienced by one subject, my auditory experience by another, and my awareness of my puzzlement about the self by yet another.

Even that great proponent of the impartial viewpoint, the philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002), takes egoistic concern as the basis of rational deliberation in his magisterial account of justice.1 On this view, only extremely weighty considerations should ever override egoistic concern, and egoistic reasons are default justifiers for action.

Egoism is motivated by seeing ourselves at the center of that landscape, and then locating others on a kind of polar coordinate system by distance and direction from us.

To see oneself that way is to locate oneself in a decentered universe, with no special moral point of origin, and in which one’s own location is no more special than that of anyone else. That is to see oneself as a character in a play with no special protagonists, a play performed and written on the fly by a vast improv collective.

Four divine states (brahmaviharas) as friendliness, care, sympathetic joy, and impartiality.

An attitude of friendliness is one in which we wish well for others and strive to benefit them. It is an attitude of wishing well for their sake, not because their happiness gives us any particular pleasure. That is to say, it is a disinterested benevolence. It must therefore be distinguished not only from its obvious antithesis-hostility-but also from what the Indian Buddhist philosopher Buddhaghosa (c. 370-450 CE) felicitously calls its near enemy, partial affection. To adopt this latter attitude-in which one is a good friend to those one likes, but not to others, or in which one’s motivation for wishing

Just as to be friendly is to wish for good things for others, to be caring is to act to alleviate others’ pain and suffering.

Sympathetic joy is the ability to take pleasure in the success of others.

To be impartial is to adopt the same moral attitude, and to extend the same level of friendship, care, and sympathetic joy to all in one’s environment, regardless of their relation to oneself, regardless of whether one sees them as close to one, or distant, supportive or hostile.

Together these attitudes are valorized as divine in the Buddhist tradition.

When we recognize that we are part of the causal order, the fact that all of our perceptions, thoughts, and actions are caused seems just obvious.

Philosopher Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE). He introduced the idea in order to absolve God of moral responsibility for the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Augustine was worried that if God is really omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient, as Church doctrine would have it, then he could have prevented Adam and Eve from sinning.

An act that is harmful to me may, Shantideva argues, be caused by pathologies that are as painful to the actor as the actions are to me, pathologies that are hardly chosen by that agent.

Who we think we are determines in part who we eventually become.

Persons are poised between the biological, the psychological, and the social, and they live on the cusp of fact and fiction.

Money and the value of banknotes are not part of the fundamental or primordial world; they do not exist prior to our human practices and conventions, awaiting our discovery; we created them.

Chess moves are therefore neither identical with nor reducible to the movements of wooden pieces on a board, even though they may be instantiated by those movements. Nor could we replace a theory of chess with a theory of wooden objects and their movements. The money in my wallet, as we have seen, is neither identical with nor reducible to the banknotes, even though they instantiate it.

How we think, what our goals are, how we behave, and what gives us pleasure and pain are to a large part determined by our social context.

Biology alone would tell us very little about what is going on; we therefore need the social level of explanation even to understand the biological facts on which that social level supervenes.

Those who are socially and psychologically successful-those who play well with others-will have better reproductive outcomes.


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