Lecture Two: Naturalism 2.4

2.4 Beyond illusions


Thompson’s discussion so far helped illustrate that the ordinary waking sense of a global Self is relatively fragile. Diachronic discontinuity shows that there is no entity that can be consistently identified as an enduring Self that remains unchanged across time. Synchronic discontinuity further illustrates that it is often not the case that there is a stable core of contents of experience, at any given time, that is consistently and uniquely identified as being ‘self’ or ‘belonging to (one)self.’ The way in which diachronic and synchronic continuities break down shows that they are the result of the coming together of complex and more fundamental processes. This is what it means for the self to be constructed. Many of the experiences discussed so far are subjectively felt with a vividness and cogency that largely outweigh that sense of importance and meaningfulness encountered in ordinary waking experience. These experiences are thus often met with an aura of value, which can encourage us to take them as more revealing about the nature of the subject than ordinary waking experience, and naturally leads to existential claims about what ‘truly exists.’

Building on these observations, one might take a step further and blatantly dismiss the reality of selfhood entirely. A reductionist or deflationary approach would contend that the global Self is nothing but an illusion. There is nothing to explain there, except how the illusion arises. Historically, some Buddhist schools seem to have taken this path, and contemporary neuroscience sometimes follows a similar line, which Thompson calls ‘neuronihilism.’ In his last chapter, he offers a good case for rejecting this option. His general strategy consists in providing an enactivist account for how the sense of self emerges in the interaction that a living being has with its environment. This means that the self should be regarded as a process, which is dependent on conditions, but that is real in its own way. Thompson’s account (chapter 10) can be summarized as follows.

The biological basis for the self is constituted by what can be called ‘self-specifying systems,’ namely, physical structures that both define their own autonomy with respect to their environment, and interact with the environment in order to sustain and preserve that autonomy. A living cell or a bacterium is the paradigm of this autopoietic account (to use Varela’s terminology). Self-specifying systems create meaning, since they have to discern within the environment what is relevant for their survival and what is detrimental, and then act accordingly. These systems are thus inherently teleological and poietic, in the sense that they work by creating and attributing meaning to events and objects. Sense-making is not just an accidental feature but is part and parcel of life.

Moreover, self-specifying systems operate in precarious conditions. Achieving the goal of self-preservation is not something done once and for all, it needs to be constantly enacted. At every moment the conditions that sustain the integrity of the system can break down and fall apart. Sense-making not only happens in precarious conditions, but it also aims at countering this precarity for as long and as much as possible. To use the terminology introduced in Lecture Zero, self-making is an attempt at mastering uncertainty. As Thompson notices, a significant step forward in this attempt occurs when self-specifying systems instantiate sensorimotor systems, which allow them to create a feedback circle between their way of acting in the environment and the results of this action on them. Sensorimotor systems are at the basis of neural structures that appear in animals.

While self-specifying systems endowed with a sensorimotor neural system constitute the biological condition of possibility for the arising of the sense of self, these conditions do not seem sufficient on their own, since they do not necessarily allow the system to designate itself as ‘self.’ In other words, they do not necessarily allow the system to take that sort of reflexive attitude that accompanies the self.[1] Hence, Thompson adds further social and emotional conditions in order to account for this form of reflexivity. He mentions two in particular: the ability to recognize oneself as a subject of experience, and the ability to self-project towards the past or the future. Self-recognition is what allows a living being not only to interact with the environment, but also to recognize itself as an agent in that environment, or in other words to fully take a first-person perspective. In human beings, self-recognition begins to arise in newborns around the nineth to the twelfth month, mostly in the dyadic interaction between infant and parents. This means that self-recognition is not merely a cognitive process, it is profoundly shaped by emotions, empathy, and social relations. Self-projection is associated with the capacity to fantasize and speculate about oneself in different times, both projecting back into the past, and forward onto the future. This process often takes place when no more urgent task is at stake and it provides the basis for what is often experienced as mind-wandering or day-dreaming. Self-projection is connected with the ability to formulate stories and narrations about oneself and use them to interpret or reevaluate experiences, making plans, or simply get absorbed in one’s own drama.

Building on these elements, Thompson concludes that the self is a self-designating and self-specifying process. This process in itself is real, as are the biological and social interactions that underpin it. In this respect, he argues:

To say that the sense of self is a mental construction—or rather that it’s a process under constant mental and bodily construction—doesn’t logically imply that there is no self or that the sense of self presents an illusion. […] Part of the issue here is whether, as some Buddhist and Western philosophers claim, thinking of a stream of consciousness as “mine” is an error, or in other words, whether experiencing the stream of consciousness from within as being “mine” is a delusion. I want to explain now why I think there’s a basic and natural sense of the “mineness” of experience that isn’t a delusion. […] What I mean by saying that the fantasizing feels mine is that it shows up as an event in my field of awareness and nowhere else. So too does the witnessing and the mental noting of both the fantasizing and the subsequent self-evaluation. All these mental events happen in this field of awareness here—the one that feels mine. (Thompson 2015, 359-360, original emphasis)

Thompson’s point is that there is no illusion in the way in which cognitive processes take place with respect to a certain living being (fantasizing, for instance) and in the way in which that living being experiences them as happening with respect to itself. When I feel pain in my knee, there is no illusion in the fact that the pain is felt in my field of experience (putting aside neuroscientific subtleties about how the brain makes maps of the body and so forth). If this self-recognition was an illusion, then two consequences would follow. First, there could be no way of linking cognitive processes to certain living beings, or in other words reflection would be impossible or at least consistently mistaken. Second, practicing for the sake of overcoming this illusion (as Buddhism urges us to do) would entail moving towards a domain of experience in which it is eventually impossible to associate cognitive states with a particular living being who enacts them. The first consequence seems falsified by experience: we can reliably associate cognitive processes to specific living beings and recognize when a process happens to ‘me’ as opposed to someone else. The second consequence is paradoxical. If one would undermine this ability for self-recognition, then it would be impossible to experience ‘what it feels like’ to have any particular experience, since there would be no subject that could recognize that experience from its own point of view (first-person perspective would be abolished). But if there is no possibility of knowing ‘what it feels like’ to have a certain experience (i.e., no phenomenal consciousness), then being in a certain state or in any other can no longer make any difference. Consequently, having fulfilled practice (being awakened) or not can also no longer make any difference. In fact, nothing would make any difference for anybody.

These considerations suggest that interpreting the self as a sheer illusion overshoots the target. Neuronihilists take the criticism against the self too far. Thompson suggests that the problem with the self should be found somewhere else:

The illusion—or delusion—is taking the self to have an independent existence, like taking the mirror image to be really in the mirror. Notice that the image as such isn’t an illusion; it’s the taking of the image to exist in the mirror that’s the illusion. Similarly, it’s not the appearance of the self as such that’s the illusion; it’s taking the self to exist independently that’s the illusion. Notice too that contrary to neuro-nihilism, the illusion isn’t that the self appears to be a self-substance. That view of the self is theoretical and doesn’t accurately describe our experience. The conception of the self as a substance isn’t a cognitive illusion; it’s a false belief that derives from philosophy (Descartes in the West and the Nyāya school in India), not from everyday experience. Neuro-nihilism mistakenly diagnoses our self-experience as being committed to a certain philosophical conception of the self and thereby overintellectualizes our experience. (Thompson 2015, 365)

Thompson’s positive proposal is to accept the natural experience of the self in the way in which it appears, while at the same time not being taken (and acting upon) by the semblance of real independent existence that it suggests. The paradigm he is looking at is similar to that of a lucid dream: enjoy the dream while also knowing that it is a dream, without having to wake up from it.

However, we can problematize this diagnosis further. Neuronihilism is a particularly strong form of reductionism, according to which the self is nothing but a sheer illusion and there is nothing in reality to which the self refers. This provides one extreme version of the immanentist pole of the spectrum of possible ways of conceiving of the self we sketched in Lecture Zero. Thompson wants to push back from this pole, and he does so by claiming that the self is not an illusion, but perhaps a delusion, a real phenomenon that entails some form of cognitive mistake. The cognitive mistake has to do with the ontologization of the self. The self is a process, but this process gives the impression that what appears is in fact something real, a self-standing entity. This is the error nestled in the experience of selfhood. We can reject this error without rejecting the self altogether. We can simply acknowledge that the self is not a self-standing entity, it is just a process. A processual view of the self can thus function as an antidote to a nihilist view that would simply dismiss the self tout court. But what does it mean, from an experiential point of view, not to ascribe inherent existence to what is perceived as self or belonging to the self? What does that feel like?

To explore this issue, we can briefly compare the account provided by Jonardon Ganeri in his The Self. Naturalism, Consciousness, and the First-Person Stance (2012). Ganeri’s project is based on a distinction between two forms of what he calls ‘naturalism.’ Hard naturalism is the attempt to reduce phenomena to explanations that can be derived or made compatible with those provided by the natural sciences. Hard naturalism provides an instantiation of the strong immanent pole of our spectrum of possible conceptions of the self. Neuronihilism would also fall into this camp. Ganeri differentiates hard naturalism from what he calls ‘liberal’ naturalism, which does not reduce all phenomena and explanations to those that can be offered by natural sciences, while still contending that all phenomena and explanations should be grounded within the natural world broadly construed. Liberal naturalism allows for phenomena that can be explained only by appealing to normative terms, values, reasons, and other notions that cannot be reduced to those handled by natural sciences. However, even liberal naturalism shares with hard naturalism its opposition to moving any further towards the opposite transcendent pole of the spectrum. The problem of the self becomes quickly paradoxical when treated from a hard naturalist point of view, but it is amenable to a more liberal approach.

Ganeri builds this account in a close dialogue between today’s Western analytical philosophy and ancient Indian thought. His contention is that important voices of the ancient Indian debate attempted to reject both transcendental solutions and hard naturalist ones, and hence they can be particularly insightful for developing a new form of liberal naturalism. In Ganeri’s reconstruction, Buddhist philosophers (especially in the first centuries of the common era), were keen to provide an account of experience that could explain the appearance of a first-person perspective, while they were also committed to show that this perspective entails some form of error. He summarizes:

All Buddhist philosophers, of whatever particular persuasion, claim that I‐thought involves an error. I have now identified two putative sources of error in object perception. One is the mistake involved when one takes what is in fact only a quasi‐object (an entity without determinate individuation criteria, such as a wave) as if it were the sort of object that falls under a sortal concept and so can be reidentified as the same again. The second candidate is the sort of mistake that is involved when one treats what is in fact relational as if it were intrinsic. […] Alternatively, a Buddhist philosopher might seek to base their thesis that a mistake is involved in states of self‐consciousness in the idea that I‐thought mistakes what is in fact a wave‐like flow of subjective awareness as if it were the consciousness of a single, continuous entity. All there really is to the flow of subjectivity is that each mental happening is reflexively self‐aware. (Ganeri 2012, 199)

This both rephrases and broadens Thompson’s diagnosis of the problem nestled in the self. But contrary to Thompson, Ganeri relativizes the Buddhist concern (Ganeri 2012, 319-320). In his view, the Buddhist claim that self involves some form of error is indexed to one specific way in which Buddhist philosophers conceived of ownership of mental states, namely, in terms of causal agency. To really be owner of a state is to be the agent who causally bring about that state. But according to Buddhist philosophers (Ganeri refers in particular to Vasubandhu, active in India in the fifth century of the common era), there is no self that is prior to and exists behind thoughts and intentions. However, ownership can also be conceived of in different terms:

If the only model of ownership available were a casual agency model, then the conclusion that there are no selves might indeed be a legitimate one to draw, and this indeed is what leads to a natural scientific suspicion of self. A different reaction to the argument, however, is to say that other notions of ownership are available. One possibility is that there is genuine immersed ownership, and so legitimate conceptions of an immersed self distinct from any idea of the causal agent doing the thinking. Indeed, Vasubandhu’s analysis of the phenomenal structure of self‐consciousness and Dignāga’s reflexivist self‐model theory actually provide non‐agentive analyses of the notion of an immersed sense of ownership, and I have argued that both are consistent with the rejection of the error‐theory they are associated with. (Ganeri 2012, 322)

By ‘immersed self’ Ganeri understands a model of ownership based on endorsement and commitment. I am immersed in a desire or a perception when I am fully committed to it, believe it, take it to be true, and act accordingly. This notion of ownership as endorsement does not presuppose that I am an agent that somehow exists behind these processes, and it is fully compatible with the idea of the self as an emergent and complex system of different processes. It is a naturalist account, but of a liberal variety, which entails no reductionism. If such an account is viable, then it is not true that any notion of self is inevitably bound to be mistaken. Only some account of selfhood is problematic, and one can take stock of the Buddhist analysis, without having to buy into their critique, since the error associated with the self can be actually dissociated from it, provided the right conceptual framework is available.[2]

One point on which both Thompson and Ganeri agree on is that the self is something to explain and understand, but this must be done without eliminating it and also without resorting to transcendent, non-naturalist accounts. Both authors provide fully embodied and relational accounts of the self. Thompson tries to re-interpret the traditional Buddhist criticism aimed at the self in terms of undue ontologization, but Ganeri shows that this critique itself has to be contextualized. Under appropriate changes in the theoretical framework (in the notion of ownership, for instance) the critique is no longer valid, and the ensuing view of the self is rescued from any inherent error or mistake. In trying to make sense of the Buddhist critique, Thompson shows why there is something mistaken in the enactment of the self. However, Ganeri’s discussion shows that this diagnosis does not necessarily follow from a relational conception of selfhood and ownership. Commenting on the alleged ‘error’ nestled in the self, he notices that ‘it [cannot] be right to describe it as an ‘error’ at all if it is not one from which human experience can be cured without the loss of its humanity’ (Ganeri 2012, 201).[3] Ganeri seems to suggest that, provided with the right theory, there is no problem with the self, and enacting the self is completely legitimate, something entirely humane.

Certain interpretations (hermeneutic constructions) of the self are untenable (for instance, they are based on undue assumptions), but this does not entail that any interpretation of selfhood must be necessarily untenable. The crucial issue thus becomes finding a way of constructing (interpreting) the self that does justice to the phenomenal experience of selfhood, but also allows one to take into account normative (soteriological) demands. We already touched upon the way in which Thompson’s account incorporates these demands by considering all living beings as self-making processes operating in precarious conditions. Ganeri presents a similar point by stressing the fact that the experience of selfhood entails an unavoidable normative dimension that cannot be reduced to physical hard facts. The experience of being a self is not just that of taking at face value whatever happens or appears, but it is also involves choosing and deciding how to react to it. As Ganeri argues:

among our resolutions, evaluations, and emotions, there are some from which we do want to distance ourselves. We achieve this by making them into objects of consciousness, and thereby ‘not self,’ opening them to the deliberative question ‘Shall I make them mine?’ […]. A tension between naturalism and the first‐person stance arises only when it is imagined that this distancing can be achieved with respect to the whole of our mental life at once. For then it begins to seem that one must either imagine that there is a pure or formal self standing behind all awareness, or else that it is possible to become impersonal, without a first‐person stance at all. The compatibility between naturalism and the first‐person stance ceases to seem mysterious when one abandons the idea that one becomes estranged from the entirety of one’s conscious life. Distancing oneself from one attitude always presupposes the avowal of others. One might indeed argue that it would be better to adopt the stance of merely witnessing one’s anger or betrayal rather than inhabiting it; but my point is that one can assume a spectatorial stance with regard to some of one’s states only if one is occupying a stance of endorsement with respect to others. (Ganeri 2012, 326-237)

Contents of experience advance normative demands, they ask whether I should endorse them or not. In Ganeri’s interpretation, understanding ownership as endorsement allows one to take into account these demands, without having to compulsively subscribe to whatever they present. Taking any attitude as an object, it would thus become ‘not self’ precisely because in distancing myself from that attitude I am assessing whether or not I should act upon it, hence there is no longer any automatic identification with that content of experience that becomes an object of assessment.

The sort of conundrum that Ganeri describes is important. Distancing from contents can be understood as moving in two extreme directions: one is distancing from the whole of one’s mental life (disavowing any endorsement to all contents), another is moving into the direction of a transcendental self that stands behind all experience. The former moves towards alienation, the latter towards metaphysical dissolution. Notice: both directions are ways of exercising a degree of mastery on contents, and both count (in our scheme at least) as ways of enacting a self. Ganeri’s view is that moving towards a transcendental disembodied self is not viable from a naturalist point of view, but this does not commit to wholesale distancing either. The latter is the view that results from hard naturalism, and Ganeri’s liberal alternative is that distancing can be selective, concerning only some contents. How does this work?

The two senses of ownership that Ganeri discusses, based on endorsement and causal agency, can be connected to one another. Endorsement is the attitude of avowal or disavowal towards contents that make their experience something that not only occurs to me, but in which I am also directly involved, in which I participate. Notice, this is not a diachronic account, in which first ‘I am’ here, while potential contents remain over there, and then it happens that I participate in them. Rather, the sense of ‘I am’ emerges in the process of participation with certain contents, in the same way the enaction of a character emerges when the actor steps on the stage and begins to play it. Ganeri’s account remains consistent with the basic intuition of enaction we discussed so far. But he adds important further nuances.

To quote Ganeri’s own scheme one last time:

There is an underself, the subpersonal monitoring of the mental states, autonomous or alienated, that one embodies, ‘ownership’ here implying a relation of unconscious access to the content of one’s states of mind. There is an immersed self, the element of first‐person presentation in the content of consciousness, ‘ownership’ now referring to a phenomenologically present sense of mineness. Finally, there is a participant self, the inhabitation of a first‐person stance, ‘ownership’ involving the relations of involvement, participation, and endorsement. Without an underself, one would have no mental life at all, and with only an underself, one’s existence would be nothing more than that of a self‐monitoring database. With an immersed but no participant self, one’s desires and commitments would be as if that of a virtual avatar or simulacrum, experienced ‘from the inside’ but without any normative pull or demand. With a participant but no immersed self, one would be as if afflicted by a disorder in which one’s occupation of a first‐person stance is devoid of phenomenal substance, and while one is not alienated from one’s commitments and desires, they do not feel alive to one. Fully first‐personal subjective consciousness is at once grounded (in ‘friction’ with the world and subject to its constraint), lived (in experiential openness and presence to the world), and engaged (with the pulls and demands of emotion and intention on the world). Therefore, a self is a unity of coordination, immersion, and participation. (Ganeri 2012, 328-329)

Here, the constructed nature of the self takes yet another declension, as Ganeri now articulates three levels (underself, immersed self, and participating self) that together form the more ordinary sense of self, while they are also each of them in turn a cognitive-emotional construction.

Since Ganeri grants that this liberal naturalism is compatible with normative demands, we can safely assume that it must be compatible with a purposiveness of this self and its enacted unity. What Ganeri provides is a template for understanding various ways in which the self can exercise its mastery over contents of experience (and exercising mastery always presuppose an acknowledgment that contents are uncertain, hence both susceptible to change and in need of being handled properly). Endorsement in particular plays a pivotal role in mastery, because mastery is a way of acting and dealing with contents, and this is possible only through participation (a detached witness is by definition someone who does not participate in what is observed, and hence does not do anything). But granting that endorsement and causal agency define two distinct ways of exercising ownership (mastery) over contents, they are not unrelated.

We can distinguish four broad scenarios: (i) there is an endorsement of contents that leads to causal mastery, in the sense that contents are endorsed in such a way that I conceive of myself as the agent behind them; (ii) there is an endorsement of contents that does not lead to causal mastery; (iii) there is a withdrawal of endorsement that leads to yet another form of causal mastery, in the sense that by experiencing contents as if I were just a pure spectator, I can pretend to be unaffected by them; (iv) there is a withdrawal of endorsement that does not lead to any form of causal mastery.

The first scenario can be envisaged as the main target of the critique advanced by traditional forms of Buddhist thought and practice, and also the one that both Ganeri and Thompson seem interested in avoiding. The third scenario is the way in which the hard naturalist project can be understood. It undermines any form of endorsement by denying that the self is anything real, but in doing so it establishes a form of mastery over contents of experience, precisely because having withdrawn endorsement contents can be neutralized and experienced as completely indifferent. This scenario also defines how ‘not-self’ is understood by modernist forms of Buddhism (and Buddhist meditation) discussed in Lecture One, which appear to be informed by a hard naturalist stance. From the point of view of our leading theme, both these views support a form of mastery, and hence they both count as a (paradoxical, if you like) enaction of a self. In the first case, the self is enacted explicitly, while in the second case it is enacted negatively, by reducing it to a pure observer.

Consider the fourth scenario. If some form of endorsement is a way of engaging with contents, then it must be something one does. Withdrawal counts as an action, and all actions must have a purpose. The core idea of the fourth scenario is not participating for the sake of not exercising mastery, which amounts to withdrawing endorsement for the sake of extinguishing the self at all. Since one is no longer participating in experience, one’s own disappearance as a self is also no longer experienced as my own disappearance. The resulting attitude is that of a pure inactivity: there is no longer any engagement with what happens or is experienced, and there is no attempt at doing anything at all with it. In this way, the soteriological problem of the self is solved by simply getting rid of the self in a form of metaphysical dissolution. As we shall see in Lecture Four and Six, this is a potential development of the quest for a transcendental Self, and something that in early Buddhist texts (e.g. Ud 3.10) is identified and rejected as the form of non-existence (Pāli vibhava).

This leaves us with the second option as a potential interpretation of the positive early Buddhist view, namely, what the early Buddhist training aims at achieving. The qualification early Buddhist is meant to stress that this interpretation might apply more specifically to the older and more practical-oriented formulations of Buddhist thought that we shall discuss in lectures Twelve and Thirteen, and perhaps less to the more sophisticated accounts that are discussed by Thompson and Ganeri (who draw mostly from classical Indian Buddhist philosophy in the fifth and sixth centuries of the common era). Anyway, insofar as it maintains a form of endorsement, this option keeps a form of participation in experience, and thus that sense of unity described by Ganeri as essential to human first-person experience. However, if this form of endorsement does not lead to mastery, it does not actually enact a self. Experience is grounded, lived, and engaged (to use Ganeri’s formula), but it is no longer appropriated as genuinely ‘mine.’ How this can be achieved will be the topic of our last two lectures.

Before moving in this direction, though, we need to explore the first option in greater depth. After all, why should we give up mastery and selfhood if there is a successful way to control uncertainty? To begin addressing this issue, we can move further in the spectrum of possible ways of conceiving of the self. So far, we discussed naturalist interpretations in which selfhood is closely related with an individual living body. But what if this connection is weakened to some extent? What sort of selfhood can emerge there? And what would be the problems connected with it? This is the topic of the next lecture.

  1. In taking this step, Thompson is clearly trying to navigate between a very broad conception of selfhood as pure autopoiesis (shared by all living beings) and a more restricted conception, specific of the human experience of selfhood, which is usually associated with higher cognitive skills like self-reflectivity. From a broad perspective of selfhood as just autopoiesis, any living being (including bacteria) would have their own rudimentary or more sophisticated form of selfhood, while from a stricter perspective, only complex animals, and perhaps only humans can properly have a self.
  2. For a synthetic presentation of Ganeri’s view of the self in the context of contemporary scholarship see J. Ganeri, ‘The Self Restated’ (2017). For a further development of his account, see also J. Ganeri, Attention, Not Self (2017).
  3. Contemporary Western psychology recognizes that states of depersonalization or derealization can occur as a result of trauma or other psychologically overwhelming conditions. As a result, the subject feels alienated from their experience, detached from oneself, their body, emotions, and surroundings. The sense of reality is altered and everything can seem less real. This experience is usually perceived painfully or as something wrong, so much so that the subject might seek treatment for it. From the point of view of the early discourses of the Buddha that we shall discuss in Lecture Twelve and Thirteen, the point made by Ganeri should be interpreted as being aimed at avoiding this sort of traumatic depersonalization, or else rejecting the view that the realization of ‘not-self’ amounts to such a state. However, the discourses (e.g. MN 72, SN 22.85, 22.89 and 44.1) do point to the state of awakening as entailing a particular kind of depersonalization, which is (i) deliberately and voluntary induced by training (vs. the traumatic ordinary form of depersonalization), and (ii) connected with the realization that whatever the subject as appropriated as belonging to is, their own being is in fact inherently impersonal: it can be used, it is at disposal, but it cannot be kept or held at once’s will. This second point shows that ‘awakened’ depersonalized experience can remain fully functional in the sense that the awakened one (take the Buddha as an example) is fully able to engage with whatever current experience might demand and react accordingly, swiftly, appropriately, and without trouble, while also knowing that nothing in this same experience belongs to anybody in particular.


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