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Buddhism & The Self (Long Post, Sorry)

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Hi!

So this semester I have been taking an Eastern Philosophy class in order to fill the non-western “civilization” part of my general ed requirements. It occurred to me that this stuff really got me interested in talking about philosophy, something I stopped doing a long time ago even though I consider myself an Objectivist.

Lately we have been studying early Buddhism. I was asked to write a paper about Buddhism. Our professor likes us to examine arguments and argue for or against things. My main problem is that the only thing I could say about Buddhism is that it is obviously anti-life.

I said this because Buddhism does not believe that there is any part of the self that persists over a whole life time. Buddhists believe that people make the mistake of perceiving themselves a permanent ego and thus get wrapped up in desire. The Buddhist conception of desire is any value that would cause a strong negative emotion if not kept or gained. Now “desire” necessarily is the root of suffering. There solution is to give up desire and live rather passive lives. I would argue that this passivity would lead to the end of civilization if practiced consistently.

The problem is that a Buddhist wouldn’t care if this was the case. To really argue with a Buddhist I need to argue with their view of the self. The problem is that I have a hard time figuring out where their argument goes wrong.

In class our professor asked us what the self was, and I said “the mind”. He asked me what I meant. I couldn’t really thing of anything other than “well our mind has a logical structure, and our body attempts to maintain this structure over time”. He told me this is what makes us human, but that isn’t what make me an individual.

So I come to this forum of Objectivists to ask what they think the self is or where they think the Buddhists go wrong in their philosophy. So far I have this for their philosophy.

Metaphysics - Primitive form of materialism, primacy of existence.

Epistemology - Nominalism

Nature of Man - There is no permanent self, just many selves over time. Kind of like Hume’s bundle theory.

Ethics - Worrying about yourself is absurd because those will be different people in the future. More fundamentally suffering can be eliminated by ridding yourself of the illusion of the ego and renouncing desires (altruistic and egoistic)

In order to stay sane though, this usually ends up being a form of altruism.

Politics - Depends, they are usually medievalists, but their philosophy seems more consistent with Anarcho-Communism.

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I said this because Buddhism does not believe that there is any part of the self that persists over a whole life time.

Isn't this a special case of Heraclitus? There are no entities, only change. You can't step in the same stream twice, etc.

I think Ayn Rand once said of Heraclitus that change without that which changes is a stolen concept but don't quote me on that. That is, you only get the concept of change by observing entities changing in the first place, so you can't very well turn around and use that concept to argue against their existence.

Edited by philosopher
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Key ethical concept is "non-acting", especially so since, as with most religions, ethical concerns are front and center.

Lots of non-this and non-that thrown around, and most of it fairly gratuitous.

In practice, "non-acting" gets converted into "acting in harmony with one's surroundings", which is not, I would guess, what Buddha was getting at per se. I would guess, given the inclusion of some Taoist doctrine into Buddhism, that the idea of "non-acting" is properly more akin to "acting in accord with one's nature", but I don't mean to interpret the Buddha here.

Anyhow, FWIW, I have found Korean Buddhists to be among the easiest to convert to Objectivism ... (convert being the correct term for a change in philosophy, and religion being a primitive form of philosophy).

- ico

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You can say that the self is the volitional consciousness. One is able to engage in meditation to clear the mind because the self wills it. After the meditation, you will return to the self.

Although the proper function of meditation is to discipline the mind, creating focus. That is how I utilized it in martial arts.

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Key ethical concept is "non-acting", especially so since, as with most religions, ethical concerns are front and center.

Lots of non-this and non-that thrown around, and most of it fairly gratuitous.

In practice, "non-acting" gets converted into "acting in harmony with one's surroundings", which is not, I would guess, what Buddha was getting at per se. I would guess, given the inclusion of some Taoist doctrine into Buddhism, that the idea of "non-acting" is properly more akin to "acting in accord with one's nature", but I don't mean to interpret the Buddha here.

Anyhow, FWIW, I have found Korean Buddhists to be among the easiest to convert to Objectivism ... (convert being the correct term for a change in philosophy, and religion being a primitive form of philosophy).

- ico

Not quite, what you are describing is a lot more like Hinduism or Taoism. Hindus would like to renounce value and action altogether and erase the subject-object dichotomy. Taoists believe in acting through passivity. Buddhists believe in giving up strong desire and acting with detachment.

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Isn't this a special case of Heraclitus? There are no entities, only change. You can't step in the same stream twice, etc.

I think Ayn Rand once said of Heraclitus that change without that which changes is a stolen concept but don't quote me on that. That is, you only get the concept of change by observing entities changing in the first place, so you can't very well turn around and use that concept to argue against their existence.

I don't know if that is true. I think they would say that there are things that change, and there is cause and effect. The point is that the things that are changing are on a more fundamental level that what we see. So like there is a person, but what is really going on is that he made up of a whole bunch of interacting parts. These interacting parts change, so the nature of the aggregate is in constant flux.

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You can say that the self is the volitional consciousness. One is able to engage in meditation to clear the mind because the self wills it. After the meditation, you will return to the self.

I had a similar idea, although Buddhists argue that volition is impermeable because one's will changes. The argument goes like this...

1. I am sometimes dissatisfied with my body, so I seek to change it.

2. I am sometimes dissatisfied with my sensations so I seek to change it.

3. I am sometimes dissatisfied with my perceptions so I seek to change it.

4. I am sometimes dissatisfied with my volition so I seek to change it.

5. I am sometimes dissatisfied with my thoughts, so I seek to change it.

6. If there was a self it would be the master of these things.

7. But all these things can be shown to affect one another (violtion changes body, thoughts change sensations etc. (through action mostly)).

8. There is no self.

I pointed out to my professor that there was a logical structure to the mind, and that this rarely changes (like you have to go insane to see a circle square). So if this is the case there is a self. He told me that I wasn't describing a self, but Human nature, and that I didn't indicate anything that made me an individual.

All I could say, well that mind is in a different place and context, so that is what makes it individual. I wasn't sure if this really solved the problem.

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The content of one's will changes, but it can change because there is a host of that will that is in control of it in the first place. (That is, in control to the degree that one is able to control it.) There is always a host that experiences these things.

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The ego or self, Ayn Rand holds, is the mind. The independent man, therefore, is the only genuine egoist. The second-hander—whether he seeks to exploit others and/or to serve them—is an opposite breed. In placing people above reality, he renounces his ego. Whatever his goal or intended beneficiary, such a man is a literal altruist, he "places others above self" in the deepest sense and pays the price. The price is the fact that the selfless is the mindless.

Man's ego is his mind; the most crucial aspect of egoism is the sovereignty of one's own rational judgment and the right to live by its guidance.

Pg. 947

And that is precisely the goal of your morality, the duty that your code demands of you. Give to that which you do not enjoy, serve that which you do not admire, submit to that which you consider evil—surrender the world to the values of others, deny, reject, renounce your self. Your self is your mind; renounce it and you become a chunk of meat ready for any cannibal to swallow.

Pg. 972-973

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.' Then you drag yourself through a self-made night, in a desperate quest for a nameless fire, moved by some fading vision of a dawn you had seen and lost.

It has to begin with pride in self, with that which constitutes man—the reasoning mind. The rights or application of the mind is unlimited, except for the right to deny itself—if a mind denies itself, it cannot enjoy the rights which belong only to it. To deny itself means to deny the mind's essential [nature as] an individual entity. The mind can conclude anything it wishes—except that [it may] impose its will by force upon other minds.

<snip> Buddhists believe that people make the mistake of perceiving themselves a permanent ego and thus get wrapped up in desire. The Buddhist conception of desire is any value that would cause a strong negative emotion if not kept or gained. Now “desire” necessarily is the root of suffering. There solution is to give up desire and live rather passive lives. I would argue that this passivity would lead to the end of civilization if practiced consistently.<snip>

At the root of value is choice. To ask "What is of value?" is to imply "Of value, to whom?"

For the Buddhist to suppress "desire", is to suppress value, is to suppress choice, is to renounce the self, is to renounce the ego, is to renounce the intellect, is to renounce the mind. (I hope I have these in hierarchal order.)

Edited to add: The self is axiomatic. It can not be proven per se, only validated. It has to be accepted implicitly to be denied explicitly.

Edited by dream_weaver
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At the root of value is choice. To ask "What is of value?" is to imply "Of value, to whom?"

For the Buddhist to suppress "desire", is to suppress value, is to suppress choice, is to renounce the self, is to renounce the ego, is to renounce the intellect, is to renounce the mind. (I hope I have these in hierarchal order.)

Edited to add: The self is axiomatic. It can not be proven per se, only validated. It has to be accepted implicitly to be denied explicitly.

Well here is the thing, the whole argument of the Buddhists is that there is value without a valuer, and thought without a thinker.

Are you saying that thought and value necessitate a valuer and thinker? Is this different than Cogito Ergo Sum?

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Well here is the thing, the whole argument of the Buddhists is that there is value without a valuer, and thought without a thinker.

Are you saying that thought and value necessitate a valuer and thinker? Is this different than Cogito Ergo Sum?

Yes, thought presumes a thinker, and value presumes a valuer. Cogito Ergo Sum is the reversal of this perspective. For Decartes, the fact of his consciousness was the premise, and his existence was merely a conclusion. The Objectivist argument is that existence is the ultimate primary, and that the existence of any consciousness necessarily relies on something to be conscious of.

This issue here is subtly different; this isn't the question of whether consciousness or existence is more primary, but whether objects of consciousness always require a consciousness in order for them to exist. Values and thoughts can only be defined relative to living (and in the second case conscious) entities. There is simply no objective definition of either phenomenon which leaves any room for values or thoughts without an agent.

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To help with discussion:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_philosophy

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-zen/

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/buddha/

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/comparphil-chiwes/

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/taoism/

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mind-indian-buddhism/

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-indian-buddhism/

From the last one:

"The main goal of Buddhist practice is to reach freedom from suffering by coming to see the world as it actually is and abandoning the distorted projections that our thoughts and emotions create. A very important means to reach this goal is to refrain from destructive actions, since these actions cause harm to others and create mental disturbances in us that generate suffering and keep us from seeing things as they are. Moreover, according to Buddhist teachings, those who reach the goal of freedom thenceforward act in a loving and compassionate manner towards others, helping these others in turn to be more happy and free. Ethical action is thus both an important part of the Buddhist path and an important aspect of the results said to flow from that path."

Edited by CapitalistSwine
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Yes, thought presumes a thinker, and value presumes a valuer. Cogito Ergo Sum is the reversal of this perspective. For Decartes, the fact of his consciousness was the premise, and his existence was merely a conclusion. The Objectivist argument is that existence is the ultimate primary, and that the existence of any consciousness necessarily relies on something to be conscious of.

This issue here is subtly different; this isn't the question of whether consciousness or existence is more primary, but whether objects of consciousness always require a consciousness in order for them to exist. Values and thoughts can only be defined relative to living (and in the second case conscious) entities. There is simply no objective definition of either phenomenon which leaves any room for values or thoughts without an agent.

This is interesting.

So if we tried to define thought without a mind we would have trouble because it would go something like

Thought is an event which...

Yeah there doesn't seem to be an event based account for thought or value.

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"The main goal of Buddhist practice is to reach freedom from suffering by coming to see the world as it actually is and abandoning the distorted projections that our thoughts and emotions create. A very important means to reach this goal is to refrain from destructive actions, since these actions cause harm to others and create mental disturbances in us that generate suffering and keep us from seeing things as they are. Moreover, according to Buddhist teachings, those who reach the goal of freedom thenceforward act in a loving and compassionate manner towards others, helping these others in turn to be more happy and free. Ethical action is thus both an important part of the Buddhist path and an important aspect of the results said to flow from that path."

The logical flaw is the focus on "freedom from suffering". There is the standard. By contrast, the Objectivist standard is MY LIFE. Now, the two do overlap, but are NOT synonymous.

I think that's the root of the difference: different standard of value. As usual.

- ico

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The logical flaw is the focus on "freedom from suffering". There is the standard. By contrast, the Objectivist standard is MY LIFE. Now, the two do overlap, but are NOT synonymous.

I think that's the root of the difference: different standard of value. As usual.

- ico

Can it even be called a standard of value? All these people care about is avoiding suffering.

Objectivism and and certain forms of Buddhism do have some ethical similarities. An Objectivist would say that only irrational desires necessarily lead to suffering, and so you should only "detach" from those. But the Buddhist view of the self makes it an all or nothing proposition it seems.

Too bad for them. And no wonder Buddhist countries are hell holes.

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