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KyaryPamyu

Is your self an illusion?

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What is the self?

The standard line of reasoning in eastern philosophy looks somewhat like this:
1. People associate themselves with their ego, a conglomeration of their beliefs, tastes, ideas, wishes, fears, self-evaluations.
2. The ego, with all of its constituent elements can itself become an object of consciousness. Therefore, the ego is not actually the subject, the observing self.
3. The real self is the pure faculty of awareness which observes the ego and perceptions, unadultered by any other property.

The japanese animation film Ghost in the Shell famously tackles this problem without providing a solution. If your faculty of awareness remains intact, but is transfered to a completely diferent (prosthetic) body, your old memories being erased and new fake memories being implanted, are you still yourself considering that the ground (the faculty of awareness) is still exactly the same?

Ayn Rand defined the self as:

Quote

A man’s self is his mind—the faculty that perceives reality, forms judgments, chooses values. 

“Selfishness Without a Self,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 50

(Note: by perception of reality, she means perception through rational appraisal, not mere observance)

Quote

The self you have betrayed is your mind; self-esteem is reliance on one’s power to think. The ego you seek, that essential “you” which you cannot express or define, is not your emotions or inarticulate dreams, but your intellect, that judge of your supreme tribunal whom you’ve impeached in order to drift at the mercy of any stray shyster you describe as your “feeling.”

Galt’s Speech, For the New Intellectual, p. 177

Quite a different approach. While buddhists refer to the process of thinking as "monkey mind" (which never stops chattering and giving opinions), Ayn Rand sees the ego or self as one and the same with the process of thinking. Which interestingly, is not the same thing as one's feelings or dreams.

That being said, my objections to the eastern view are as follows:
1. It assumes that the faculty of awareness is not tainted by any nature, being featureless and infinite. The empirical ground of this claim is the meditative state, where all thoughts and external perceptions are removed from consciousness and one feels as though the faculty of awareness is at root infinite, limited simply by the brain of whomever that eternal self manifests as (billions of living beings that have this faculty). But actually, the pure faculty itself definitely has a nature, dictated by physiological factors: the integrity of the brain and its qualities, since practices like meditation can improve the sharpness of awareness and focus via physically changing the brain, and other factors can weaken it.
2. It claims that since awareness is our sole contact with anything at all (such as internal thoughts, extenal things), and because the contents of our consciousness are subject to change (self-appraisals can change, our perspective can become broader, perception of external things can itself be muffled through voluntary yogic techniques), only the eternal Self (the subject) exists. The phenomenal world is in constant flux, a mere illusion, but the underlying, observing Self, is the one thing that remains constant, similar to Kant's transcendental apperception. Again, this conclusion implies that pure awareness is not mediated by any material or external factors, which it clearly is. 
3. Critics of the primacy of existence sometimes bring out the argument that your sense of self is dependent upon neural networks and structures in the physical brain, which can suffer changes (for example, in an accident), therefore your self-image can't truly be the self. This assumes that since our image of ourselves is a mental appraisal (subject to errors, inaccuracies or accidents), the self is an illusion. This fails to take into consideration that self-appraisals can point to facts of reality.
4. It claims that the self, to be a self, must be a perfect unity. It can not be made of component parts, such as habits, tastes, goals. This is akin to saying that if my body is made of several limbs, organs and cells, it is not a body at all.

What surprises me is that Rand's view, while obviously different from the Buddhist view, shares some features with it. For starters, it aknowledges that the self is not your emotions, since emotions are fluid and change according to your appraisal of things. The self is also not your dreams, because what you dream about depends on your values and philosophy, and that aspect is subject to change. 

But what about memories? Are you still the same person if your memories get replaced? Well, think of it in the following manner. The faculty of awareness is like an organ in your body. If you replaced it but kept the rest of the structure intact - degree of intelligence, memories, tastes, reflexes etc. - You would still be yourself. This is a sort of reversal of the Ghost in the Shell dillema. Rand is ultimately completely correct: your essence does not lie in your accumulated knowledge, skills, beliefs. Those are merely your achievements. It actually lies in the distinct way you are using your mind, which is at the root and cause of any reflexes you might form. So:

  • If you transplanted someone else's faculty of awareness into your brain, but preserved your formed habits including the attitude toward reason, you would be the same person, just as you would be the same even if you got a kidney transpant. Awareness is simply a physiological faculty. Your reflexes are a fact, which will condition that other person's awareness into becoming a replacement part for your own consciousness, like a replacement wheel for a car.
  • If you transplanted your own awareness into a prosthetic body that holds different memories, values and reflexes, it would stop being a part of you immediately. The other person's mental makeup will simply assume it as its own.

This is my personal view. What are your thoughts about the self? What is it, and is it real?

In closing, just before you think eastern thinkers are weird:
According to Fichte,

  • Thesis: When you are aware of yourself, that which has self-awareness (the subject) is identical with the object that's being perceived (the object). 
  • Antithesis: But we're talking about two different things here. Subject and object are two different things. But they're the same. But distinct. What is going on?
  • Synthesis: The self and the act of being aware of oneself are one and the same thing. When you are thinking the self, you are not observing it, you are bringing it into existence. The self which you bring into existence is self-aware, so it's also bringing you into existence. You are born from the world and the world is born from you, and that world gives birth to you and you give birth to the world in a neverending loop. This is why subject and object are the same thing, even though they appear to be distinct from each other. 
Edited by KyaryPamyu

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Before I get into your post, what do you mean by Eastern philosophy? Your first three propositions don't resemble what I know about Eastern philosophy. But when I think Eastern philosophy, I think of Hindu philosophy and the branches of it and similar things, like Buddhism. If you're describing a type of Confucianism or Taoism, I'm not familiar with it.

But this isn't the sort of argument that a Buddhist or Hindu would make. 1 is fine. The first clause in 2 is fine. The second clause in 2 is not correct. 3 is simply Cartesian. As far as I understood, Ghost in the Shell deals more with Western philosophy because it takes a look at dualism. If it is also Eastern, then it's not the type of Eastern philosophy that I know of. If anything, Eastern philosophy promotes integration of mind and body by denying that there is a such thing as an observing self. If there is an apparent observing self, that precisely is the illusion. But as far as describing what the illusion is, it's pretty much the conception of consciousness that you and I would use in the context of Objectivism. 
 

Edited by Eiuol

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For this thread, my focus is on denominations (predominantly Hindu, such as the Advaita school within Vedanta) that declare the ego to be a subjective construct and the Witness/Seer to be grounded in (or identical to) Atman or the universal Self. The non-self (Anatta) doctrine of Buddhism isn't of particular debating appeal to Objectivists - after all, if no subject exists, who made the claim that there is no subject? But the ego-self distinction is sightly closer to home given Rand's views. Eastern philosophy is a rich field, so you might disagree with the propositions depending on what you are familiar with. GITS's influences also include elements of eastern philosophy. In particular for this discussion, what defines one's identity/individuality? Just how important is that individuality to which we cling to?

Edited by KyaryPamyu

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I may not have much to contribute here, as I've only approached Eastern philosophy through some books written to popularize it to Western audiences, or which have used it as a framework (e.g. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the works of Hermann Hesse, Ram Dass, various self-help books, etc.). I did read the Bhagavad Gita, actually, but that was long, long ago, and while I was still investigating religion (en route to philosophy proper).

Anyways, while there is often surface disagreement with Objectivism, or my take on it, I've found that there's potential for compatibility underneath. Or perhaps there is no formal compatibility, as yet, but I look to try to gain what insights I can for myself.

It's interesting -- a few weeks ago, I finally decided to try to read Barbara Branden's biography of Rand, after years of it staring at me from my bookshelf. What with all of the controversy surrounding it, I'll make no claim as to its accuracy, but Branden's early description of Rand living so much in the future that she rarely truly enjoyed the present moment has stuck with me: I think it's a problem I've suffered, too, and I have found some relief over the years in eastern-inspired practices, such as meditation/mindfulness/yoga.

As directly regards the thread's topic, I do think there's a self (and it may be "illusory" in some respect, perhaps, depending on how one sees it initially, but never completely so: I think that "self" has real meaning). If there is an "essential self," it is that which focuses, perhaps; though whatever the "essential self" is, that is not equal to the self, in total. The self does also contain emotions and dreams and everything which that entity I am is. I am all of it, everything I am. Aspects of me may change, yet I am still myself, because that essential self, aware and focusing and experiencing, remains.

We've recently touched on a similar topic here, and accordingly, I'm not entirely certain what would be involved in "transferring someone else's faculty of awareness into your brain," (which sounds a bit to me like "transferring someone else's brain into your brain"), but I tend to believe that would result in you becoming someone else. Or more precisely, you ceasing to exist.

I am the thing experiencing this world, which (to reflect that part of Eastern philosophy I'm probably getting wrong) includes the contents of my own mind. When I am no longer the thing experiencing this world -- when that window of consciousness or perception or awareness closes -- then I am gone, and no longer myself, regardless of the disposition of my body/brain/etc., and regardless of how the rest of the world perceives me.

Edited by DonAthos

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On 12/24/2018 at 4:19 AM, KyaryPamyu said:

The non-self (Anatta) doctrine of Buddhism isn't of particular debating appeal to Objectivists - after all, if no subject exists, who made the claim that there is no subject?

Nothing made the claim. That's exactly it. Something unreal made the claim, when in fact there was nothing there at all. That's why I would avoid the idea of a real self. There was simply no real self. There was no ego either. We might talk about a universality, but this is an anything like the self you were I think of. Moving on, I get where you're coming from now.

On 12/23/2018 at 5:17 PM, KyaryPamyu said:

buddhists refer to the process of thinking as "monkey mind"

Not really. Monkey mind refers to the nonstop chattering of thoughts you want to diminish, avoid, or not have. This is similar to ruminating, obsessing, or thinking when you want to fall asleep. In other words, it's a type of thinking. It's called a monkey mind because it reflects a lack of control over your behavior and thinking. It isn't necessarily a lack of control, such as when trying to meditate, but if you let your thoughts run wild without putting them in check with rationality (to use Objectivist language), you might as well be a monkey.
 

1: I don't know what you're talking about. The faculty of awareness in these belief systems is bounded by your body in nature, it is finite, and investigated in a slow and deliberate manner. It's just that a Buddhist would call this very awareness an awareness of something illusory. It isn't metaphysically "there". The thing that is infinite is reality, not bounded by our limited brains. Some meditation practices are about the removal of thoughts and perceptions and replacing them with some transcendental feeling. Others, especially Buddhists, are aiming for control over thoughts (choosing what to think abstractly about) and perceptions (through certain sitting positions). Actually, what you're saying might be true of Hindu beliefs, but it isn't quite true of Buddhist beliefs. It's like comparing a Platonist to an Aristotelian: both deal with similar philosophical issues, but come up with different conclusions.


2: I mostly agree with this, but I think you're trying to relate to Kantian philosophy too much. As soon as you start talking about pure awareness, I think you start dealing with a different argument.

3: At least for Buddhists, it doesn't have to do with the potential for error. Any and all concepts aren't "really there", because our mind created them through divisions and identification. It's somewhat like how Nietzsche thought any concept is a story or narrative, that since it was created, there is no "absolute" truth to concepts. Buddhists just take it a step further to say that not only there is no absolute truth, there isn't anything there in the first place. Just because we identify illusions well doesn't mean that we are identifying anything real.

4: Are you sure? I always thought of the belief as all of reality is a perfect unity. Anything that splits your thinking (conceptual identification especially) takes you away from unity, and therefore causes suffering.

I appreciate this discussion. I think it's important to see the similarities and differences from Rand. It isn't simply mysticism, or at least not any more mystical than Kant or sometimes Aristotle even.

On 12/23/2018 at 5:17 PM, KyaryPamyu said:

But what about memories? Are you still the same person if your memories get replaced?

How would you define memory? Is an implanted memory not a "real" memory? Must memories have identical content to count as a real memory? If I add something to a memory because you told me something about an event that I didn't know, is this not a completely real memory? 
 

For what it's worth, some of my understanding is learning meditation from a Buddhist monk, and also discussing some Buddhist ideas with that monk. I don't agree with the metaphysical beliefs, but it helped me understand what the positions actually are.

Edited by Eiuol

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46 minutes ago, Eiuol said:

1: I don't know what you're talking about...Actually, what you're saying might be true of Hindu beliefs, but it isn't quite true of Buddhist beliefs.

Yeah, as I said my focus is not on Anatta (non-self) because it's radically different from Advaita or Objectivist approaches. It blows my mind how sophisticated schools like Advaita were, since they precede classical german philosophy by more than a millenium. Buddhism is on my list of study though, so I might form my objections to Anatta later, though what you describe seems to be the kind of stuff that would drive any follower of Oist epistemology insane 😂

 

46 minutes ago, Eiuol said:

How would you define memory?

Well, let's say that a man is born in the US, spends his childhood there and then moves to France to study painting. He gets kidnapped by some mind-hackers and has his memories replaced with memories of spending his childhood in France, having completely different french parents, french friends etc. Would he still be the same person?

Edited by KyaryPamyu

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1 hour ago, KyaryPamyu said:

Well, let's say that a man is born in the US, spends his childhood there and then moves to France to study painting. He gets kidnapped by some mind-hackers and has his memories replaced with memories of spending his childhood in France, having completely different french parents, french friends etc. Would he still be the same person?

Metaphysically, yes. Functionally, maybe not, depending on how important his childhood was to the development of his current self.

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6 hours ago, KyaryPamyu said:

though what you describe seems to be the kind of stuff that would drive any follower of Oist epistemology insane 

The interesting thing is that reading up on Buddhist epistemology makes Oist epistemology easier to understand. We might all agree what conceptual consciousness is, whether Hindu, Buddhist, or Objectivist. The very obvious difference is the moral value of conceptual consciousness. A Buddhist or Hindu philosopher would have the objective to eliminate or minimize conceptual consciousness. One second you might be impressed by the insight they have, and then the next moment you will be surprised at how they go on to say this is a barrier to happiness. Understanding the Buddhist argument helps sharpen your mind to explain the connection between ethics and epistemology.

6 hours ago, KyaryPamyu said:

Would he still be the same person?

He would be a different person. Same body, different person. I agree with your reasoning, and also that a Buddhist might reach similar conclusions. The self isn't an illusion so much as it is in identification. Moreover, what you are is more about your manner of thinking more so than anything else. Memories play a role, insofar as they help establish your manner of thinking. In this case, although the memories are implanted, the memories are real as any other. There is no hidden psychology repressing the truth, as Freud might have it. We have our thoughts, and these are distinct from emotions.

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On 12/23/2018 at 2:17 PM, KyaryPamyu said:

 If your faculty of awareness remains intact, but is transfered to a completely diferent (prosthetic) body, your old memories being erased and new fake memories being implanted, are you still yourself considering that the ground (the faculty of awareness) is still exactly the same? 

No, for essentially the same reasons I point to in the Transporter Problem thread; the Law of Identity and the mind/body dichotomy.  Easter philosophy and fake memories aside, this remains essentially the function of a particular body creating a particular mind.  Resurrection or transportation constitute a closed loop (or zero sum game), whereas the introduction of new material, e.g. cloning, prosthetic bodies create duplication or additions to the original and therefore create a fundamentally different self.

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On 12/25/2018 at 2:52 PM, KyaryPamyu said:

I said my focus is not on Anatta (non-self) because it's radically different from Advaita or Objectivist approaches.

I thought about this more, and actually anatman (I just prefer using the Sanskrit word) is more like an Objectivist approach. It is basically the denial that there is some eternal soul that exists within you. This is not unlike how Objectivism rejects metaphysical essence. If anything is a self, it is a set of behaviors and attitudes, which you endorse. A Buddhist would agree, because it is consistent with anatman - the difference is that he would add that this type of self is illusory as a concept (i.e., created by our mind), and couldn't be the focus of moral action. The agreement is that the soul is not a thing, unlike other Indian beliefs about the soul.

Edited by Eiuol

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