Sunday, 19 April 2015

No Self and Death

Bond of Union - M. C. Escher
The question arises: Does becoming aware of the absence of a self make us more comfortable with the knowledge that we will one day die?

Shaun Nichols, a philosophy professor at the University of Arizona. has done research on the matter of how having a diminished (or absent) sense of self may impact how people think and what decisions they make. He was recently interviewed for an episode of the podcast series Philosophy Bites to discuss the result of some of his work as a leading experimental philosopher — that is, an expert who makes clever use of surveys to better understanding the underlying psychological processes of regular people and — in one case, that we will get to — the thinking of a group of Tibetan Buddhist meditators.

But first, definition of a term. “No self” [aka, anatta] is controversial among Buddhists and others. If you go to the Wikipedia page for anatta, you find a 1500-word article where there is a preface that says: “This article has multiple issues.” The article has undergone continual revisions by competing graduate students and other rather-expert persons, insistent that their understanding of the concept prevails and the thinking of others is wrongheaded. A 6600-word “talk” document, to thrash out the issues is ancillary to the primary Wikipedia page.

I think a rather straightforward definition of “no self” can be found at the old Access to Insight website. But, hey, I don't know anything! Follow me down this rabbit hole at your own risk! At Access to Insight, “no self” is defined, in part, thus:
Identification with whatever it is that we do and whatever it is that we have, be it possessions or people, is, so we believe, needed for our survival. "Self" survival. If we don't identify with this or that, we feel as if we are in limbo. ... 
Happiness, too, may be an identification. "I am happy." "I am unhappy." Because we are so keen on survival, we have got to keep on identifying. When this identification becomes a matter of the life or death of the ego, which it usually is, then the fear of loss becomes so great that we can be in a constant state of fear. Constantly afraid to lose either the possessions that make us what we are, or the people that make us what we are. ... Not a very peaceful state of living and what is it due to? Only one thing: ego, the craving to be. 
This identification results, of course, in craving for possessing. And this possessing results in attachment. ... That attachment, that clinging, makes it extremely difficult to have a free and open viewpoint. This kind of clinging, whatever it may be that we cling to — it may not be clinging to motor cars and houses, it may not even be clinging to people — but we certainly cling to views and opinions. We cling to our world view. ... Whatever it is we cling to, even how the government should run the country, all of that makes it extremely difficult to see things as they really are: To be open-minded. And it is only an open mind which can take in new ideas and understanding. 
Lord Buddha compared listeners to four different kinds of clay vessels. The first clay vessel is one that has holes at the bottom. If you pour water into it, it runs right out. In other words, whatever you teach that person is useless. The second clay vessel he compared to one that had cracks in it. If you pour water into it, the water seeps out. These people cannot remember. Cannot put two and two together. Cracks in the understanding. The third listener he compared to a vessel that was completely full. Water cannot be poured in for it's full to the brim. Such a person, so full of views he can't learn anything new! But hopefully, we are the fourth kind. The empty vessels without any holes or cracks. Completely empty. 
I dare say we are not. But may be empty enough to take in enough. To be empty like that, of views and opinions, means a lack of clinging. ... What is truly reality is completely fulfilling. If we aren't completely fulfilled, we aren't seeing complete reality. So, any view that we may have is either wrong or it is partial. 
Because it is wrong or partial, and bounded by the ego, we must look at it with suspicion. Anything we cling to keeps us bound to it. If I cling to a table-leg, I can't possibly get out the door. There is no way I can move. I am stuck. Not until I let go will I have the opportunity to get out. Any identification, any possession that is clung to, is what stops us from reaching transcendental reality. ... And for that seeing we need a fair bit of empty space apart from views and opinions.
There is also the view, by Christians and others, that there is some sort of substantial thing — a soul, or something consistent that is OURSELF through time — that tells us we are a "self" that has a catalogue of particulars that separates us as unique from other beings.

The podcast interviewer, David Edmonds, tells us that from the work of Philosophers David Hume and Derek Parfit "that if (one) comes to realize that the self is not an enduring thing, that you might actually change the way you navigate the world."

Shaun Nichols responds, enthusiastically, "This is suppose to have revolutionary implications. It's very clear in Buddhism. And it's also clear in Parfit, who starts out in [his book] "Reasons and Persons" [to say] he's a revisionary philosopher ..., it's suppose to make a difference."

Nichols explains the difference it makes in knowing there is no self from what is found in Buddhism and Parfit: "It should make you more generous towards other people, at least in the future, because you think that I'm not going to be the same in the future, so my self-interest should be diminished [since I won't be the me that I was]." One possibility for this, says Nichols, is that the gap between "me' and others narrows. Another possibility, he says, is that knowing the "me in the future" is not the me of today allows me to shift my compassion to others, right away, since I no longer envision myself as always-unique, apart from the mob.

Another element, here, has to do with responsibility. Knowing you're not the same person that you were a year ago, say, you gain the knowledge that you aren't really (fully?) responsible for things this "old, prior" you did.

And, finally, there is the issue of one's relationship with the prospect of one's own death. For Parfit, thinking that he might die in, say, twenty years, gives him the "comfort" of knowing that this future fellow who will die is distinctly different from the manifestation of himself that he experiences presently. Thus, the physical death that will occur is effectively experienced by someone else.

Nichols's experiments consisted, in part, in convincing groups of regular people that they either are a continuing self OR that the self is an illusion and then exploring their decision-making under those conditions. The experiments affirmed the thinking of Buddhists and Parfit that feeling there was no set, continuing self allows people to be more compassionate toward others AND it allows them to feel less responsible for their past actions.

Shaun Nichols
Feelings about Death, however, didn't change. People maintained their fears about dying.

The Tibetan monks, who easily and absolutely believe in the non-existence of self, much to Shaun Nichols's surprise, have a great fear of death — more than the ordinary people he surveyed.

Nichols's theory about why fear of death is not diminished by realization that there is no self? "When you're thinking about death, you're actually not thinking about your traits at all. You're projecting yourself into the future, in a kind of episodic way. You're just imagining 'I am in the future' and I'm going to die."

Why do the Tibetan monks have a heightened fear of death? Nichols guesses it may be because they are conditioned to think about death a lot. Thus, it is something that stays with them.


  1. It is a new way to see this matter. It is interesting as well. www,

  2. The peace I feel about my death comes from the Buddhist concept of rebirth, which I feel is integrally tied to anatta. In fact, I find the two to represent one thought: that "me" is nothing that can be nailed down permanently, but is in a constant state of flux. Hence, it's as silly to put much consideration into a permanent "me" as it is to put much consideration into "death" as it related to "me." The components that sometimes feel like they might be a "me" are changing and being replaced every moment.

  3. Daniel. It is hard for me to detach from my future self since my present "me" can make my future "me" a better person and with more money to retire on, potentially. I have obligations to him, somewhat like a father's responsibilities to a son. And, I confess, I do feel that my memories of being three years old FEEL like they represent the nearly-a-geezer me than I am today. I have a hard time with "no self."

  4. Fascinating post, Tom. Many thanks for this. I'm definitely one of those would-be experts trying to wrangle out the 'correct' understanding of no(n)/(t)-self. To my mind, Gombrich and Gethin, who disagree about plenty of things, agree pretty well here and are the most reliable sources in academia, and I should quickly add Bhikkhu Bodhi and I'm sure any number of other monks and nuns can give an excellent exposition on the topic.

    I found it very curious though that the Tibetan monks feared death; and I wonder if some work was done to flesh out what terms in Tibetan correspond to the word 'fear' and how that might change their answers. I could imagine Tibetan monks having great concern about death, even mindfulness (to use an all too overused word these days) of death that exceeds that of ordinary people, but fear?

  5. Does the knowledge of death (the real, visceral knowledge, meaning obliteration) bring to mind the conception of no-self? Self is not "me, mine" etc. it's deeper than that, isn't it? Or are we talking about a Western, individualistic concept vs an Oriental communal concept of "self"?