I struggle with the Buddhist concept of non-self. I am not sure whether I accept it. But I am confident that Buddhists are able to demolish one of the more influential Western accounts of the self, that of René Descartes.
Descartes, recall, is worried that he cannot be certain of anything. Like Plato before him, he knows his senses are often wrong; he could be dreaming, he could be in the Matrix. Unlike Plato, he is not satisfied to take even mathematics as a certain foundation. It could be that an evil demon (or the creators of the Matrix) had deceived him such that there was no shape or place, and the real world was far stranger. Geometry isn’t certain enough. Arithmetic? Here he comes to real uncertainty:
I sometimes think that others go wrong even when they think they have the most perfect knowledge; so how do I know that I myself don’t go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square?
I think Descartes’s reasoning is right up to this point (as many Buddhists would not). But where he makes his fatal mistake is where he turns next, to the point that he thinks he can be certain of. He says: he cannot doubt that he is doubting. For the very fact of such doubt establishes for certain that there is doubt, and there must be an agent, “I”, doing the doubting.
But are we so sure that the agent of doubt is “I”? Descartes asks what the “I” could be, refusing to identify it with body or sense-perception, but only with “thought! This is the one thing that can’t be separated from me” – me, the agent of doubt. So whatever else I might happen to be, I am a thing that thinks. But:
What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wants, refuses, and also imagines and senses. That is a long list of attributes for me to have—and it really is I who have them all. Why should it not be? Isn’t it one and the same ‘I’ who now doubts almost everything, understands some things, affirms this one thing—namely, that I exist and think—denies everything else, wants to know more, refuses to be deceived, imagines many things involuntarily, and is aware of others that seem to come from the senses? Isn’t all this just as true as the fact that I exist, even if I am in a perpetual dream, and even if my creator is doing his best to deceive me? Which of all these activities is distinct from my thinking? Which of them can be said to be separate from myself?
The trick is: to many of these rhetorical questions one can simply answer No. And that No answer is not merely a rhetorical game one can play for the sake of argument (as Mill thinks is being played by one who denies that happiness is desirable). For thousands of years’ worth of Buddhist tradition has asserted it with all seriousness.
The Buddha of the Pali suttas already asserts that any entity we might identify with the self (the reflexive pronoun, atta or Sanskrit ātman) is unreal. There are five aggregates (khandhas) – roughly matter, subconscious impressions, cognition, feeling and discernment – that form parts of what we normally identify as a self, but there is nothing holding them together beyond the erroneous and harmful way we identify them with the self. The Abhidhamma texts would later provide a more elaborate and systematic description of the aggregates.
So “isn’t it one and the same I” that doubts, understands, affirms, imagines? No, say the Buddhists, it isn’t. These are different and separate processes that happen incidentally to be close to one another in the chain of causation. Identifying them with a singular “I” is the deadly mistake that traps us in suffering. A Cartesian process of doubt cannot take us back to a certain “I think, therefore I am.” At best, it will take us only to “There is thinking, therefore there is being.”
We can go even further beyond this Buddhist deconstruction of the self, by applying the reasoning that Descartes himself applies to arithmetic. As he notes, others seem to go wrong “even when they think they have the most perfect knowledge”. One can reason wrongly. So our reasoning that there is thinking or there is being could itself be wrong. And since we no longer have Descartes’s assurance that there is an I-entity doing the thinking, we can no longer take that as our step back into certainty after recognizing that others were wrong.
If we do all this, we are dropped back to the point of uncertainty where Descartes began his reasoning. Where should we go from there? I think there is a clear answer (and not necessarily a Buddhist one): reject certainty! Could it be the case that everything I know is the deception of an evil demon? Well, I can’t entirely rule it out – but I have no reason whatsoever to think it is actually the case, and that is good enough. Let us accept that strong confidence in the truth of our ideas is the best that we can do – and that, given the nature of our existence as flawed and finite humans, that is good enough. It is enough to allow us to live and live well, as far as we can tell. And just as important, this acceptance is the beginning of a salutary humility – we are far readier to listen when we realize we might be wrong.