Is the Self an Illusion? What can that even mean?

Jay Garfield’s book, Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self, argues that the “self” is an illusion, and letting it go enables living better, more moral lives. He discussed this with James Shaheen (editor of Tricycle: a Buddhist Review) in a podcast. (Here, with a transcript:

Transcending the self is a Buddhist idea. My wife, who’s been exploring Buddhist philosophy, pointed me to the podcast, knowing my own perspective differs.

The self is a key philosophical problem. We know much about how the brain works, in terms of neuron functioning, processing information, and so on. Which must be the generator of consciousness. But how, exactly? Science doesn’t (yet) have a clear explanation. And while we know consciousness is a real phenomenon, the self is more problematic still. A “meta-consciousness” by which we experience the contents of consciousness. What makes one feel there’s a self in there, a captain at the helm, making choices and decisions, experiencing things? What is experiencing, really?

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio casts a perception as a representation constructed by the brain, with another representation of your self perceiving that representation. And yet a further one of “you” knowing you perceive it. An endless recursion? This does lead some thinkers to posit the self being an illusion. That when you drill down there’s no “there” there. But what exactly does this mean? Even if the self is not really there in some concrete explainable sense, that we can put a finger on, nevertheless our experience of living, with a self at its core, also is a real phenomenon. Something we do experience, even if we can’t explain how.

If you see a ghost, that may be an illusion. But your seeing it is a real event; something that happened in your brain. You can convince yourself there was no ghost, but not that the experience wasn’t real. Similarly, can you convince yourself you have no self?

After all, who or what would do the convincing? Who or what would now hold the belief that the self is an illusion? Saying “I have no self” makes no sense because if true, there would be no “I.”

Yet Garfield, in denying the reality of selves, says “we’re more like roles than we are like actors.” An interesting formulation — however, actors perform roles, following a script. And much of our behavior is actually like that, almost robotic even. Garfield may, if anything, be understating that when he says “we do have these moments of nonegocentric consciousness.” Implying at least moments when an “egocentric” self is in operation.

He also says, “You want your intentions to be caused by your beliefs and your values.” And: “we need to free ourselves from the illusion of transcendental freedom in order to appreciate the kind of freedom that we do have, namely, the ability, very often (my emphasis!), to act in accordance with our intentions and values.”

That doesn’t sound like an absence of self. It’s not fully engaged all the time; we’re often on automatic pilot (probably necessary for sanity). Yet the self is often fully engaged, and that is crucial to one’s lived experience.

While Garfield does, as quoted above, recognize we sometimes act with intentionality, he sees that as a problem: “we focus on the self, and that self is this independent substantial thing different from everything else, free from causality and all that stuff, and that allows us permission to take our own narrow self-interest as motivating. And that’s permission to ignore the demands of morality.”

Wait — what? Sure, having a self does entail motivation to serve its own interests. But that does not trump everything else, and morality is a separate realm of consideration. And it’s precisely because you have a sense of self, and understand what that’s like, that you understand other people have it too, and hence have their own rightful interests. While Garfield says your self puts you at the center of the moral universe, and others at the periphery, that doesn’t make them count for nothing. And evolution imbued us with basic instincts for justice and empathy — constituent parts of our sense of self. Indeed, for most people, acting ethically is actually self-serving because it makes them feel good. So the self is not antithetical to morality.

Garfield’s morality argument fails for another basic reason. Morality is of course all about how one treats others. But if nobody has a self, then who cares how they’re treated? Why would it matter? Without selves, the whole idea of morality is meaningless.

More fundamentally still, without a self, why even bother to live? Garfield intones, “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Saying “we don’t have a self that we have to protect . . . that we have to be afraid of losing. And that is freedom from illusion.”

People do fear loss-of-self — that is, dying — because the self is ultimately all we’ve got. There can be no sort of meaning to life except as experienced via the self. It evolved to make creatures care what happens to them, so they’ll strive to avoid injury, pain, and death. That’s a very real fact of life, an evolutionary adaptation. Calling it an illusion seems a meaningless semantic exercise.

It does appear Garfield is hung up semantically on the word “self.” Because he does advocate a conception of “personhood” — urging readers “to reject the notion that their identity is that of a self and to accept that it’s the identity of a person.” And how do those two concepts differ? “Personhood” he characterizes as embedded in a “very vast and complex and often invisible web of conventions that brings us into existence, not some kind of prior metaphysical fact” (whatever that might mean). Or: an “ever evolving set of psychophysical processes in constant open interaction with the world . . . we exist only as nodes in this interdependent web.”

All true except for the word “only.” We are indeed enmeshed deeply in society and the world, but I would actually say that ultimately we exist only as consciousnesses in the workings of our brains. Without that we might exist in a bare physical sense, but wouldn’t know it. Put differently, we have both interior lives and exterior ones, and through former we experience the latter. All the embeddedness Garfield talks about could not be navigated and negotiated without a self to do it with.

He deems somehow relevant here an analogy to a woman wanting to see his college. He shows her various buildings, facilities, lawns, etc. She responds, “No, I didn’t want to see buildings and lawns. I wanted to see the college.” But there is no such thing, Garfield comments; “And if you think there is such a thing, you have a profound misunderstanding of what a college is.” He elaborates what constitutes a “college,” and says “it’s just like that with the person and the self.” But even if you cannot point to a concrete thing and say, that’s a college, still the word has a clear meaning, it’s a concept word. Surely Garfield’s college analogy does nothing to demonstrate that the word “person” denotes something real while “self” does not — even if those concepts differ. Which is doubtful. More semantic games here.

And there’s another fundamental problem. Buddhism vaunts the supposed benefits when you transcend your self. But what “you” are they talking about? The only “you” that can perform this supposedly beneficial mental jiu-jitsu is your self. And it’s only your self that can experience the desirable state of being that you’re supposed to thereby attain. If the self is illusory, wouldn’t that desirable state be likewise illusory (if not doubly so)? The very idea of happiness or contentment makes no sense without a self.

And suppose you actually could somehow eliminate your self? It would seem like a lobotomy. What would be left? You might be quiet and peaceful — like lobotomized people. But the “you” would be gone.

Freedom from illusion is central to my own outlook. Only on the basis of reality can one live an authentically meaningful life. Free from illusions — like God, and immortality. But if you truly posit that you have no self, how can anything about life matter to you? If nobody has a self, then nothing can matter at all.

5 Responses to “Is the Self an Illusion? What can that even mean?”

  1. Don Bronkema Says:

    Respondent is obliged to repeat his many animadversions on this topic. The vaunted self is a phantom. As demo’d by Ben Libet in 1984 [& subsequently by N others]: mentation & volition are 20-khz sweeper-wave consensae of brain operations. All decisions are made by pre-conscious circuits from 1.2 – 6.9 seconds before the so-called conscious mind is aware that choice is imminent, available or required. Our species is a bio-automaton: not an autarky of will separate from the catenus of causation–let alone the kosmos where everything resides in perpetuity. Ergo mortis mensae. In his 900-page L’etre et Le Neant [Paris, 1943], JP Sartre reminds us that Being can have neither origin nor end. There was never Nothingness; there has always been Somethingness [perpetual in all dimensions of space & time]. The question is ‘what to do ante-Messor’? Rebut at hazard.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    As noted, most decisions are unconsciously made. I think we know LITTLE of how the brain works. Despite developing knowledge, much more is unknown and recondite, than understood. Identity and personhood; establishing a value system and a construct for trying to live a meaningful life (eudaimonia is subjective) is different from and not mutually exclusive from the concept of “not self” in Buddhist philosophy. Not self can be complicated to grasp initially, but it is worth exploring and understanding. The Buddha taught a doctrine called anatta, often defined as “no-self,” or the teaching that being is impermanent; there is no unchanging, permanent self.
    (For a western take read Hume’s essay “On Personal Identity.”)
    Anatta is but one aspect of the larger paradigm. The Three Marks of Existence are important as they can help Buddhists to alleviate suffering. They are called dukkha, anatta and anicca.

    Not self simply means we are not immutable, we are in “flux” just like the cosmos; entropy. So unlike many religions, no soul… (no afterlife fairytale in heaven with your aunt Betsy and favorite pets = nonsense) Heaven in itself is desiring/craving something unattainable and NONEXISTANT>>>  Or as Freud would call it… The future of an illusion!
    Do some reading on Buddhist philosophy: it is very pragmatic, compassionate and unselfish: there is suffering and a remedy(avoid craving/wanting things to be a certain way)… it’s not incompatible with stoic philosophy.
    Impermanence (constant change)… accept it!
    We are not immutable(but death should not be feared ~ part of life and natural progression.)
    Grasping these insights can lead to clear thinking, vipassana, and seeing things as they really are; then we can confront all things in life with equanimity.

    “sabbe dhamma anatta”

  3. Anonymous Says:

    DB >>> “Nothingness”

    Consider that as we currently understand (in theory) the cosmos began some 13.8 billion years ago as a singular point smaller than an atom. And TODAY, our entire universe is just that very quantum world… INFLATED many, many times. Think about it… Dasein!

    Fear not caducity.

  4. Don Bronkema Says:

    You know far more thanidu about the 8-fold way: it’s sui generis & utile for many, but not for respondent: a quintessential Westerner who can neither meditate nor sleep nor relax nor be hypnotized or fooled. He knows he is an automaton & relishes it per Spengler [amor fati]. Malheureusement, mon ami: on peut demander: where is Siddartha’s ontology? Universe originated in quantum flux 13.8 BN y/a & will evaporate back to substrate at some remove [e.g., 100 TN years], but the enveloping kosmos of all universae [aka Being writ-large] is immortal by definition: there was never a ‘state’ of ‘unstate’ [nothingness] or we woodent be here, Greeks & Christians notw/standing [viz. Sartre]. The brain flinches from a stubbornly persisting omega, but Somethingness is forever. The reward of sanctity, sacrifice & genius? Oubliance & oblivion.

  5. Says:

    I really enjoyed this post – as well as enjoying Garfield’s characterization of our circumstance. Trying to settle on my own understanding.

    Personally, I find it helpful rather than to say, there is no self, to understand myself as consciousness itself, enmeshed within a biological system, as opposed to the default feeling – an “owner” with complete visibility and control of the system. I think you offer a proposal along the same lines:

    “I would actually say that ultimately we exist only as consciousnesses in the workings of our brains”

    Along with understanding myself as consciousness, I can understand that the things appearing in consciousness might be distorted and aligned with some biological agenda. Of course this agenda helps us survive – overall, great! And sometimes the survival drives may be “optimal”, in the sense of maximum wellbeing for myself and world. Other times not.

    In sum, a thought, feeling, or emotion, can be looked at curiously before it is acted upon. Very basic stuff. Further, understanding everyone else as enmeshed within this circumstance, and more broadly, that everyone is enmeshed in a vast physical and psychological networks, fosters a sense of compassion. In other words, observing others who act purely on what they “feel”, and have not yet cultivated some meta-cognitive wisdom on top of it, I have empathy for them, without trying to make it sound “transcendent” or “enlightened” or “mystical”. It’s simply an absence of metacognitive wisdom… which I do not fault them for. To have metacognitive wisdom is pure luck.

    I am attempting a dangerous act, to map this out more, here:

    Anyhow – enjoyed this post – thank you.


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