Why “No Self” Makes Sense

Angel gets a soul.

With a soul, Angel is good. Without a soul, he is evil.

Descartes is most famous for rooting modern thought in doubt.* He knew on an intuitive level that the default position of thinking is belief. We tend to believe what we experience is true before we have any good reasons for those beliefs. As Michael Shermer argues, much of this happens in the inner workings of the brain and is in service to the brain’s primary function: keeping us alive. For example, if I see bushes rustling around and I fear a bear might jump out kill me so I take shelter, there’s no harm in that even if there’s no bear at all. I might hurt my pride and feel a little foolish, but I can move on with my day unharmed. But that same fear might save my life if there truly is a bear looking for some easy lunch.

Belief by default also applies to who or what we believe we are. I can perceive my body. I can see myself in a reflection, I can see other bodies and objects outside of my own, and my senses tell me that there are things in the world that are outside of whatever it is that is doing the thinking. But what I can’t see is the inner workings of my brain that is doing all of the thinking and interpreting of what comes through my senses. It only feels like there is something inside of my body that is separate from my body. That separate thing I believe I feel is what I call my “self.”

Here’s the kicker. Even though I feel something inside of me that I call a “self” it is nothing more than the neurons firing inside of my brain. There is nothing inside of me that is not part of my biology and there is nothing in science or anything we’ve observed in the history of humankind to support the claim that there is an immaterial substance controlling my thinking and my body. What we call the “self” is actually just a tool to help us survive. It’s a way I describe how all the parts of my body are integrated into one experience. But at base that’s all there is, contrary to the intuitive beliefs we grow up accepting usually without question.

Buddhists solved the self problem by advancing the idea of anatta or anatman or “not self.” It was an idea that flew in the face of the religious constructs around the Buddha at the time which can be found in the varied halls of Hinduism today. Much like the big Abrahamic religions, the religions of Hinduism find the self located in the atman which is the eternal substance that persists after the body dies and is then reincarnated if one is not fortunate enough to have experienced liberation from these earthly moorings. Buddhists got rid of that idea, which incidentally struck a blow to the oppressive caste system, and needed to replace it with a different schema.  After all, there still feels like there is some thing that working inside of this thing I call “me.” What we called “self” is functionally replaced with the series of causes and effects that happen in the body and its interaction with the world which includes the brain. These are called the five aggregates or skandhas. What I call the “self” is really an integrated process of understanding how all the things that work in my body interact with all the things that I experience in the world. But that is all there is. There is no soul commanding my body or brain.

The idea of there not being a soul or permanent self might seem inherently wrong to us because it does not feel right and gives us a lot of anxiety. After all, even in humor and popular culture, we throw around the idea that having no soul makes us inherently evil. The vampires on Buffy the Vampire Slayer find their seat of morality in a soul. Who would you rather be, the champion, soul-bearing Angel who becomes a great hero and gets the girl, or the soulless Angelus who kills not because he needs to suck your blood but just because it’s fun. If Dr. Jekyll has a soul, Mr. Hyde most definitely does not.  It is better to believe in a soul and not be evil, isn’t it? That just feels right. What I’ve learned in the past few years is it what I feel isn’t necessarily true. Another way of saying this is my feelings aren’t facts.

At one point the idea of there being no soul, or that I am not fundamentally some spiritually grounded entity desiring union with God, seemed counter-intuitive and simply wrong at best, or heretical and deserving of hell at worst. Then I decided to suspend my belief that any of those ideas are true. Once I bracketed the emotional attachment to the notion that I am some sort of special “soul” God loves and let the facts direct my intuition, those beliefs began to erode. Here’s the unexpected part – I started to become more satisfied with the world, with who “I” am, and less desiring of being “special.” There is no soul or “self.” This idea seems very reasonable to me now and is where my beliefs are now grounded. All that stuff that I call “me” is just the chemistry and energy in my body working to survive.

So what happens if instead of taking our beliefs as facts we table all those beliefs and then discover the truth based on the actual evidence that we have of our experience? This is a task that requires bravery. There is a risk to suspending beliefs that is rooted in the most basic survival mechanisms of the brain. If you are one who believes in a soul and is reading this, you probably feel the tension already. There is a ton of negative and counter-productive emotional and social baggage you can drop once you suspend that belief. I won’t get into that here, but if you stay tuned I will come back to it.

What if we all started the task of understanding the truth from Descartes’ place of doubt? What if we stopped believing in the things of our experience that don’t really have any foundations in evidence? What if we took a long pause from assuming our beliefs are true because of what feels right? Would you be willing to give up your beliefs in order to get closer to the truth?

*From another angle it can be said that it was actually Augustine who planted this idea long before Descartes.

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One thought on “Why “No Self” Makes Sense

  1. What difference does it make what you call it or how you describe it? The soul/psyche, mind/nous, “self” and “I” = an integrated process of understanding how all the things that work in one’s body interact with all the things that one experiences in the world. For the West, this starts with the convicted “atheist” Socrates, who had no intention to create what came to be called a “metaphysics.” Neither did Aristotle, whose work on “Metaphysics” was more of a shelfmark than a title. Was Socrates being extremely literal when he spoke about his “daimon” — any more so than we are when we speak of “conscience?” Plato defined philosophy as a type of “theology” — a word he invented. He also portrays Socrates’ project as a skeptical critique of the religious superstitions of his day while also trying to preserve the healthy, order-giving insights of his culture. Has anything much changed of substance since then?

    If you are just saying that reified philosophical and theological concepts are socially problematic, personally oppressive, and very hard to replace — well yes, that is a major theme of modern philosophy and theology.

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