Zombie Meditations

Consciousness (VI) — The Fire That Cannot Burn Itself


In entry (IV), I identified three central aspects of the nature of consciousness: “The first: phenomenal experience—which is private, subjective and qualitative (and suffuses absolutely everything contained in and expressed by the first–person perspective of conscious awareness); the second: intentionality—the ‘world–reflective’ nature of thought as well as the ability of representational symbols such as the words composing this page to possess “meaning” (derivative of the fact that thoughts contain and represent intrinsic meaning); and the third: the uniqueness of our personal identities (over time) as conscious beings—consciousness entails a referent for the indexical “I” which is unique from all other “I”s in a way that physical entities as ordinarily understood are not unique from each other. In consciousness as we in this world know it, each of these separate aspects tie together at once to create a singular unity of all of these in one phenomena; and we can only get an attempt at ‘pointing at’ the unified phenomena of consciousness as a whole indirectly, by attempting to ‘point at’ each of these elements of the phenomena separately in turn (and each, once again, even more indirectly).”

I save the third aspect for last because it is, argumentatively, the weakest, and I believe acceptance of it hinges on acceptance first and foremost of the other two aspects first (or at least of the first of them). If we can accept that consciousness itself is a subjective, first–person phenomena—that consciousness is the very appearance of subjective phenomenal experiences to the first–person perspective—that “subjectivity is precisely the form in which [consciousness] has its existence”—and that the very mystery of consciousness is that the subjective phenomena presenting to my first–person conscious awareness cannot be seen in third–person by peering inside my physical brain (whereas there is nothing about any physical object, force, or event as ordinarily understood which cannot in principle be seen from an outside, third–person perspective)—then it is hardly unreasonable to accept that some further aspects of what consciousness is can only be known from first–person observation of it, in principle.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

“Introspection” has become a dirty word—and for perfectly good reason: psychology has proven nothing for the past hundred years if not that we do not always accurately know the true reasons why we do the things that we do or desire the things we desire or like the things that we like simply by ‘glancing inside of ourselves.’ Subconscious motivations affecting the course of one’s entire lifetime pattern of behavior can sometimes become uncovered only by the use of extensive psychotherapy to draw them out into an individual’s conscious awareness, and the whole myriad of biases we all hold without having awareness of them further identified by years of psychological study have most definitely deepened the problem profoundly. To take just one of the million possible examples, “In a classic study, college students watched a video interview with a university instructor who had an unfamiliar foreign accent. In one version of the video, his responses were warm and likable; in the other, they were cold and unlikable. Students who saw the warm and likable version later rated the instructor’s accent as more pleasant than did those who saw the other version. However, they were unaware that his likability influenced how they perceived his accent and even confidently claimed that the reverse had occurred—that his accent made them like (or dislike) him. This experiment … suggests people’s false confidence in [introspection’s] reliability.” Furthermore, we all seem to weigh our observations of others’ behavior far more highly than we do their own ‘introspective’ reports of themselves when trying to analyze their motives (“Even when one is privileged enough to have access to others’ introspections, such as when those others share their thoughts about a particular judgment, that access is of an indirect sort. Consequently, one may value it less—e.g., ‘I know you think his cold personality didn’t affect your perception of him, but I have to weigh that against how harsh you were about his accent.’”) even while giving our own acts of introspection a rating of infallibility we refuse to extend to others (Source: The Introspective Illusion (pdf), Emily Pronin).

We must carefully try to distinguish, however, between what are the direct datum of conscious experience, and what are theoretical attempts at explaining those datum. There really is a sense of the word “introspection” in which it is describes something that is, in principle, infallible. And there is also a sense of the word “introspection” in which it is as imprecise and fallible as using a paper towel ‘telescope’ to try to measure sunspots.

We use “introspection” in both senses of the word, interchangeably (call them observational “introspection1” and theoretical “introspection2”); and sometimes when we think we’re doing only the former type of “introspection1” we are nonetheless blending in elements of the latter—rendering what we might think are purely the former observational types of “introspection1” fallible in direct proportion to the amount of theoretical “introspection2” which we’ve unconsciously mixed and blended into the act. But “introspection1” itself can allow us to clarify when and where what we are doing is truly “introspection1” as opposed to “introspection2”—and indeed may even be absolutely instrumental for our doing so.

To see this simple point, suppose someone with schizophrenia suffers from severe auditory hallucinations. “Introspection1” would be utterly impotent at being able to reveal whether or not the statement that “the air vent believes I will drown on Tuesday” is true—the inference that the air vent actually does believe this would be a theoretical explanation to try to account for the direct data of observed experience, and it might not be the best one. It would, however, at exactly the same time, be every bit as true that “introspection1” would be absolutely infallible at revealing whether or not the statement that “I am having an experience as if of hearing the air vent tell me it believes that I will drown on Tuesday” is true—because this is the direct data of observed experience.

A science that took the former kind of “introspection2” as infallible and treated every such claim as unquestionable would never be able to get off the ground. But so, too, would a science that treated the latter kind of “introspection1” too lightly. If we did not take seriously peoples’ claims to know “by introspection1” that they are hearing voices, we would never even have identified schizophrenia as a real psychological disorder. It took a combination of both trusting “introspection1” and distrusting “introspection2” in order to both recognize schizophrenia as a real psychological disorder and begin trying to learn how to treat it. And all other reports of experience will be the same. In every case in which “introspection2” fails, there will be both elements of theoretical inference which are responsible for the error, as well as elements of infallible “introspection1” from which these inferences were made.

To return to the example quoted from The Introspective Bias above, the participants of this study were wrong when they made guesses about why they disliked the instructor’s accent—but they could not be wrong when they claimed that they disliked the instructor or his accent. The only reason we are even able to draw a contrast between the participants’ reports of why they believed they disliked the instructor’s accent and what the study gives us reason to believe actually happened is because we take for granted that they are giving us infallible information when they tell us  whether they did in fact like or dislike the instructor’s accent—because only once we grant from these “introspective1” reports that participants in the second case came to dislike the “cold” instructor’s accent while those in the first case had no dislike of the “warm” instructor’s identical accent can we infer that the proper explanation of what happened is that, contra “introspection2,” disliking the instructor is what caused dislike of his accent. But the accuracy of “introspection2” is only even capable of being challenged in this case to begin with because we take the accuracy of “introspection1” for granted.

In other words, it simply is not possible to even mount a challenge for “introspection2” of the theoretical–explanatory sort without absolutely granting the capacity of “introspection1” to have unquestionable access to at least some certain direct, immediately present contents of consciousness. The difficulty simply rests in clearly identifying which category given acts of “introspection” properly belong to, and in refining one’s ability to “introspect1” while keeping these acts clearly distinct from one’s theoretically “introspective2” fallible interpretations of what is thereby infallibly immediately and directly seen.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

Having—I believe—settled this background, I am prepared to open my argument. Language, evolved as it was to navigate the world revealed by the contents of consciousness, is as before and always a clumsy and inefficient tool for trying to discuss the nature of consciousness itself; but I can begin to gesture in the direction of the what I want to show by saying something like this: Revealed through “introspection1” as a direct and unmediated datum of subjective experience, we can become aware that the subjectivity of experience invariably brings along with it something worth calling subjecthood—and  the uniqueness of every conscious subject of experiences is absolutely uniquely unique to that particular subject.

It is striking to me that so many questions that children are known to frequently ask turn out to revolve around some of the deepest philosophical questions there are. One of these is a question that can be phrased variously either as: “Why am I me?” or as something like: “If I had been born to different parents, would I still have been me?” I think it can be demonstrated that this question is absolutely both meaningful and profound, and refers to yet another categorical difference between consciousness and physical objects—and I have an original thought experiment for helping to draw out more clearly for intuition just what it is that the question points us in the direction of.

A common response to a question like this is to attempt to “demystify it” into the much more trivial and uninteresting question, “Why is any particular thing the particular thing that it is?” As before in entry (IV)’s discussion of phenomenal experience and entry (V)’s discussion of intentionality, ‘purpose,’ and the ‘meaningful’ nature of conscious thought, arguments against the direct and immediate datum of conscious experience often proceed from the assumption that these data must not be true, because materialism is true—were materialism true, these data could not be what they appear to be; therefore, since materialism is true, these data just can’t be what they seem to be and we must dismiss them whether we can find independently justifiable grounds for doing so or not. It is this approach, however, which gets things ass–backwards.

The direct data of consciousness can’t be dismissed out of hand just because they conflict with what would have to be true if materialism were true. We do not know with any kind of automatic certainty that materialism is true—not even by following the premises of naturalism itself, as I have labored to argue across more than 30,000 words so far: even those very premises are perfectly compatible with the possibility of arriving at the conclusion that consciousness itself could be a unique, fundamental phenomena of its own—and as these are the very data which challenge the claim that materialist claims about the mind can be true, they cannot be dismissed simply by saying the equivalent of “that‘s false because materialism is true.”

Now, to be absolutely clear, I am not saying that anyone knows it to be true by sheer introspection alone that they actually ‘could’ have been born to different parents—really ‘could’ in the sense in which the Powerball lottery machine, when it turns on, really ‘could’ dispense their ticket’s number in a few moments. The deeper point lies in this: thinking about the nature of what is conceptually “possible” can, if not directly reveal truths to us about the world, reveal to us the direction in which certain kinds of truth will have to lie—truths which will have to exist in order to explain why that conceptual “possibility” does not in fact hold true.

The nature of an argument with this form shouldn’t be hard to understand; we all perform this kind of reasoning in obvious ways in everyday life, without thinking of it quite in these terms. I may very well reason starting with the premise that “I can conceive of the sky having been some other color than blue,” for example, and adapting this into the language of philosophy we could phrase the point by saying that there is no inherent logical contradiction in the possibility of there being an Earth in a possible world without a blue sky. Since I am correct in this—nothing logically requires a sky to be blue on principle—this means I can only be right that there must be some empirical answer to the question, “Why is it blue, then?” The answer turns out to lie, of course, in a combination of things like shorter wavelengths of light—such as blue—having a greater tendency to bounce around as well as the make–up of our eyes. But what matters for our purposes here is the fact that our ability to simply conceive of the sky having been a different color is a valid guide to help point us in the right direction to find the explanation for why it is, after all, the color that it is: eventually, we get an account in which we can’t conceive of—for example—shorter wavelengths of light not bouncing around more—and only then do we say that the reason the sky is the color that it is has been ‘explained.’  [1]

The argument in my entry (IV) revolves, without stating or presenting what is said there in these explicit terms, around the point made through what is known in modern philosophy as the “zombie argument.” To summarize the whole thing in brief, what the “zombie” in the zombie argument asks us to imagine is not the Hollywood brain–eater, but something much different: an entity with all the abstract, geometrical structural build and blind physical cause–and–effect dispositions of the human body and brain—who is without any internal conscious experiences. Since this is conceivable, the argument goes, internal conscious experience is something ‘extra’ to the ordinary “physical” properties just listed—and so, unless we can explain how it turns out to be the case that these physical concepts really do conceptually entail subjective conscious experience (despite appearances!) as I explain and refute even the conceptual possibility for in my discussion in entry (IV) of emergentism, then it really is something extra, and physicalism is false. [2]: Note on why I did not phrase my own argument in these terms.

The form followed by the “zombie argument” gives us a convenient way to draw out the precise sense in which that question absolutely does turn out to be profoundly meaningful. While it doesn’t in and of itself immediately reveal a truth to us, it unquestionably reveals to us the direction in which a certain kind of truth will have to lie in order to explain why what is conceptually “possible” turns out not, in fact, to be the actual truth. Just as the fact that a zombie world is conceivable demands that we give reasons why we turn out not to be in such a world, and the search for what those reasons would have to be leads us to see the necessity of rejecting physicalism itself (because further argument establishes that the types of facts which we ourselves have defined to be the nature of “the physical” facts—abstract geometric structure and blind cause and effect disposition—render it impossible by that very definition of what “physical” is conceptualized to mean that physical facts can account for what that difference is), so it is with the question, “Why am I me?

The question does not presuppose anything about the metaphysical nature of “the self.” The question refers first and foremost to something which we bloody well can conceive of as a conceptual possibility, and then asks us to consider what would have to be the case about reality as it actually is in order to account for the fact that that conceptual possibility is not an actual reality. If conclusions about the metaphysical nature of “the self” are finally entailed as a conclusion at this point, the mere fact that the physicalist does not want to accept such a conclusion does not mean that the argument “begs the question.” A fallaciously question–begging argument is not one that establishes a conclusion that its opponent does not want to accept; but one which includes that conclusion in its premises more or less explicitly. If it is in fact the case that I can conceive of a world where “I” was not “me” (or more properly, where “me” was not “I”—I’ll explain in a moment), and my ability to conceive of this compels me to refer to some kind of fact that would be capable of accounting for the fact that that conceptually possible outcome turned out not to be an actual one, and it turns out that the only kind of fact that could possibly hold together such an account is one which makes reference to something like a metaphysical “self”—then the mere fact that the argument entails conclusions which the physicalist wants to reject is simply not a fact that establishes that original premise to beg the question. It is, in fact, the physicalist who must find some way to reject those premises which does not beg the question in favor of physicalism.

As I said before, the common approach to ‘deflating’ and ‘demystifying’ this question is by making analogy with material objects: “Why is any particular object the particular object that it is? If it wasn’t that one, it would be a different one. So what?” But what the question actually attempts to hint at is a difference in the identity criteria for consciousness as contrasted with identity criteria for physical objects. Simply asking us to think of it as if the question when directed towards consciousness was no different from that question when directed towards physical objects is worse than begging the question—it doesn’t even form an argument with premises; it simply comes bald–faced and asks us to imagine there isn’t a problem.

Just as the “zombie argument” has us imagine a world containing all the geometric–structural and blind–cause–and–effect–dispositional properties of our world, and points out that it is conceivable that a world with only those kinds of properties could exist without containing any subjective experiences—in order to proceed from there—so a parallel adaptation of that argument establishes a similar point here: For any given physical object, to have the particular structural and causal–dispositional properties that that object has is just simply to be that object. I very clearly cannot even conceive of the world I am in right now as having been such that a particular atom inside my left finger right now could have taken an identical causal path throughout time as it did in this universe, and had exactly the same structural and dispositional properties as it had in this one, without its—simply by definition—thereby having been that same exact particular atom. What the “deflationist” of the question wants us to do is take the same attitude towards conscious experience which we would take towards those physical entities—summed up in essence as:

However, what I most absolutely can conceive of is this: a world identical to this one in both the physical and experiential events which it contains in which the man named “Aedon” writing this essay right now exists every bit as much as he does right now—and has an identical set of not only physical traits, but also an identical set of subjective experiences as “I” qua conscious subject of experiences have had in my life, and took a identical course through time as I have taken in this world—in which “I” qua conscious subject of experiences am not  the one who was the subject of those experiences. It is not even possible to conceive of this in reference to ordinary physical objects; it can’t even be imagined.

But I can conceive of it in reference to my–“self.” I can perfectly well conceive of a world in which all the facts about what physical cause–and–effect events occur and what experiences are had in which “I” did not have any experiences—indeed, whenever I imagine parallel universes or possible worlds in which “Aedon” exists, I am doing just exactly that: imagining a world containing “me” (as entity) in which “I” (as conscious subject) do not exist. I cannot conceive of this world having been such that a given atom traced an identical causal path through history without, by definition, conceiving of a world where “that atom” was just exactly that atom. But I can conceive of a world where a person who bore my name existed, did everything I did, and had every experience I ever had, without thereby simply by definition conceiving of a world where I as the conscious subject of those experiences came to be. The existence of “I” simply does not follow logically from the existence of “me;” and so the question of why “I” exist simply remains unmoved after a full explanation has been given for the existence of “me.”

A question directed towards a physical object along the lines of, “Why is that particular apple that particular apple?” can therefore be fully satisfied by a causal description of how those particular atoms arrived at the particular place in time and space they did. But a description of the physical formation of this body—and even a description of all the subjective experiential states of this mind—simply does not satisfy the question, “Why am I me?” and something more is undeniably needed. Something that could account for the existence of facts about identity which are not entailed by abstracted facts about experiences described in impersonal terms—something that could account for the fact that this “I” is something profoundly distinct from every other “I” that exists.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

Someone like David Chalmers will sometimes speak, as he does in Consciousness and its Place in Nature, of the “zombie argument” through the metaphor that “If God could have created a zombie world, then (as Kripke puts it) after creating the physical processes in our world, he had to do more work to ensure that it contained consciousness.” In putting the point in this way, Chalmers does not express belief in the existence of God—he uses the metaphor to emphasize a certain way of illustrating the relationship between physical processes and consciousness—to say that the relationship is such that something like this could have been how it would have worked in a different universe. Likewise, we can do something similar here. Just as I can imagine God creating possible worlds and use the metaphor to illustrate a conceptual relationship (without thereby committing one way or another with regards to the actual existence of God), so I can perfectly well imagine sitting outside of the Universe, looking on it as a collected series of every moment of time that ever passed within it, omniscient with regards to every impersonal physical event that takes place within that Universe and every impersonal fact about what experiences are ever felt or perceived by the subjects within that Universe.

Yet, even knowing these facts, if God tells me next that am going to be born into that world to experience the subjective flow of time as one of those subjects, I will simply have no basis within the facts that I know for guessing when and where or as whom I am going to be born—and wherever it is that I am born, it will end up being a surprise. Just as Chalmers’ metaphor indicates that the facts about experience are additional to the physical facts without committing us in any way to the literal truth or possibility of the truth of the metaphor, so this one illustrates that the facts about the identity of conscious subjects exist over and above even the facts about experiences themselves.

In fact, it seems as though even if we picture God creating a series of nonphysical angelic conscious minds, without even confounding the picture by imagining them in interaction with a physical plane, even after the creation of one of these particular streams of consciousness something more would still be needed to warrant that any particular angelic mind will be “me.” In other words, suppose God creates ten minds in a row: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j. What makes his creation of c any different from a, b, d, e, …  such that c in particular but not any of these others ends up being me? Why doesn’t c end up coming into existence without his existence being my existence in just exactly the same way that all the others do?

This argument doesn’t beg the question. We can conceive of a scenario like this with regards to the subject of conscious experiences; we cannot even conceive of a scenario like this with regards to ordinary ‘public’ physical objects. So something—some kind of fact—has to exist that has the capacity to explain why these possibilities do not hold. But in principle, whatever that fact is, it simply cannot rest in the ordinary physical facts—nor even the facts about qualitative experiences.

Subjective experiences simply do not come to exist without being “owned” by “subjects.” Whatever it might ultimately turn out to mean to be a ‘subject,’ subject–ivity intrinsically and invariably entails “subject–hood.” And this is not, ultimately, some new fact over and above the facts about those experiences themselves—it is entailed by the very concept of the existence of experiences, as the very notion of subjective experiences existing without a subject of those experiences existing is simply—on reflection—incoherent. The mystery of consciousness, therefore, is not just the mystery of why “experience” exists as a general phenomena, but is also the mystery of why “I” uniquely exist as the unique particular that I do.

Looking back, I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that this is one of the philosophical questions children are known to so frequently ask—it really does strike straight into the very core of the mystery of existence itself: “Why do I exist?” A causal account of the formation of a body and brain—and even one that explains how a mind came to be—simply won’t suffice to answer it, as I will always be able to fully coherently conceive of that mind coming to exist without it being mine—just as occurred for the millions of minds that came before me, and the millions that came to be at the same time mine did—and I will therefore always be perfectly well within my rights to ask and wonder, “Okay, but—why am I me?”

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

Much is often made by those who advocate reductionism towards the “self” of Hume’s application of his “bundle theory”—in which objects have no substance beyond the mere coincidences of their collected properties—to deconstruct the notion of the “self” by what Hume presented as nothing other than sheer introspection.

“There are some philosophers who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our self … [But f]or my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. … If any one, upon serious and unprejudiced reflection, thinks he has a different notion of himself,… [a]ll I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. … But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions….”

But what goes often ignored in discussion of Hume’s “bundle theory” is that Hume himself turns against his own conclusions in the appendix to that very chapter:

“Upon a more strict review of the section concerning personal identity, I find myself involv’d in such a labyrinth, that, I must confess, I neither know how to correct my former opinions, nor how to render them consistent. … In general, the following reasoning seems satisfactory. All ideas are borrow’d from preceding perceptions. … When I turn my reflection on myself, I never can perceive this self without some one or more perceptions; nor can I ever perceive any thing but the perceptions.

… So far I seem to be attended with sufficient evidence. But having thus loosen’d all our particular perceptions, when I proceed to explain the principle of connexion, which binds them together, and makes us attribute to them a real simplicity and identity; I am sensible, that my account is very defective, and that nothing but the seeming evidence of the precedent reasonings cou’d have induc’d me to receive it. If perceptions are distinct existences, they form a whole only by being connected together. But no connexions among distinct existences are ever discoverable by human understanding. We only feel a connexion or determination of the thought, to pass from one object to another. It follows, therefore, that the thought alone finds personal identity, when reflecting on the train of past perceptions, that compose a mind, the ideas of them are felt to be connected together, and naturally introduce each other. However extraordinary this conclusion may seem, it need not surprize us. Most philosophers seem inclin’d to think, that personal identity arises from consciousness; and consciousness is nothing but a reflected thought or perception. The present philosophy, therefore, has so far a promising aspect. But all my hopes vanish, when I come to explain the principles, that unite our successive perceptions in our thought or consciousness. I cannot discover any theory, which gives me satisfaction on this head.

In short there are two principles, which I cannot render consistent; nor is it in my power to renounce either of them, viz, that all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences, and that the mind never perceives any real connexion among distinct existences. Did our perceptions either inhere in something simple and individual, or did the mind perceive some real connexion among them, there wou’d be no difficulty in the case.”

What seems to have happened here is actually quite strikingly contrary to the popular “self”–eliminating reading of Hume. Rather than conclude on the basis of his bundle theory that the “self” does not exist, Hume seems to have in fact realized that the fact that we can even possess a concept of a “self” (whether that concept even accurately reflects reality or not) establishes a formidable modus tollens against the very empiricist epistemological view—that all ideas are derived from sensory impressions—that formed the basis for his entire bundle theory of substances in general, which he had just applied to the mind in particular, in the first place.

Notice that what Hume had challenged in his original argument was that anyone has “a different notion of himself” than the one which he had just described, in which the very concept of the “self” is composed of nothing but discrete, uncollected “perceptions.” Notice that in the appendix, he reiterates his underlying epistemological premise that “All ideas are borrow’d from preceding perceptions.” “Introspection1” seems to have resulted in Hume doubting his own account of knowledge, given the realization that it would predict that we could never even form an idea of the “self” at all which we manifestly do possess—and which even his own account—in fact—appealed to implicitly. The dilemma was this: Hume’s epistemology entails that no one can ever even have ideas which are not formed out of perceptions themselves. And yet, something must account for our tendency to even attribute the existence of a common owner to these successive perceptions: but “my account is very defective … all my hopes vanish, when I come to explain the principles, that unite our successive perceptions in our thought or consciousness.” And he even ends with the conclusion that “Did our perceptions either inhere in something simple and individual [e.g., an enduring self] … there wou’d be no difficulty in the case.”

Quoting from Wade L. Robison’s “Hume on Personal Identity,” “… we all think we have an idea of the self … [and] Hume has to explain this fact, [yet] … the sort of explanation he used [ends up appealing] to the existence of … [a] self distinct from any bundle of perceptions….” Quoting from Stephen Nathanson in “Hume’s Second Thoughts on the Self,”

“Since there are five distinct (though related) positions here, one may easily go wrong in specifying the part of Hume’s theory that is the source of his dissatisfaction. The five theses are (1) that the mind is no more than a collection of perceptions; (2) that the mind is not a simple entity possessing strict and proper identity; (3) that we have no notion of the mind distinct from our ideas of particular perceptions; (4) that our perceptions do not inhere in anything simple; and (5) that there are no real connections among perceptions. … If we look back at the sections of the Treatise where Hume explains the apparent unity of the mind, we find that his explanation committed him to the existence of persisting tendencies or dispositions of mind which, if acknowledged, give a meaning to the phrase “the mind” which is not exhausted by talk about bundles of perceptions. … Hume’s answer to the question of why we mistakenly believe in a single, persistent self is that there is a propensity of the mind to mistake instances of successive objects for instances of identity.

[Quoting Hume] “The feeling of contemplating a single object is so like the feeling of contemplating a succession of related ones that the resemblance Makes us substitute the notion of identity, instead of that of related objects. However at one instant we may consider the related succession as variable or interrupted. we are sure the next to ascribe to it a perfect identity … Our propensity to this mistake is so great … that we fall into it before we are aware; and tho’ we incessantly correct ourselves by reflexion, and return to a more accurate method of thinking, yet we cannot long sustain our philosophy, or take off this bias from the imagination.”

Hume stresses that the tendency to confuse successions of related objects is a deep one, which is not eradicable by philosophical reflection. This and other “seemingly trivial principles of the imagination” (2S4n) are basic, persistent features of the mind. … What Hume says here is no mere slip nor slight departure from his bundle theory, for in effect the basic theory of the Treatise is precisely a theory of the mental dispositions that constitute human understanding and which give rise to our beliefs about space, time, physical objects, causation and the self. The fundamental problem that Hurne begins to recognize in the appendix is the incompatibility between his analysis of the self and his central explanatory principles. If there are basic, persisting dispositions of mind, then the self is no mere bundle of perceptions.

… Hume’s explanatory apparatus gives content to the idea of self or mind in terms of its dispositions without requiring that there be a direct awareness or impression of the self. Dispositions are not introspectible items, and the idea of self (distinct from a perception–bundle) to which Hume is committed has its basis in theory, not immediate experience. We can at this point well appreciate Hume’s sense of frustration. His psychological theory generates an idea of the mind distinct from perceptions. This conflicts not only with his bundle analysis of the self, but also with his empiricist doctrine of the dependence of all ideas on prior impressions. The roots of the difficulty that Hume has stumbled on lie deep within his philosophy. … Hume’s problem arises because his theory requires that there be mental dispositions or propensities … [but] Propensities are not perceptions [and] To have an idea of a self with propensities is to have an idea of a self which is more than a bundle of perceptions.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

If we think of “the self” as merely a collection of discrete, frozen photo snapshots, then there is simply no way that these snapshots could reference each other. Only if we include a camera into the picture do we then have an object capable of taking a snapshot of any collected part of the preceding series of snapshots—but then we have an inevitable duality between the camera and its snapshots; and this duality helps to capture a strong metaphor for the duality between “the self” and Hume’s discrete ‘snapshot’ moments of perception.

Contra Hume’s original attempt at introspection, an awareness of something which is not itself subject to “perpetual flux and movement” is absolutely revealed to us by our awareness itself—and is the precondition of our even being able to perceive this flux at all. Experience does not just consist of isolated snapshots described as (awareness of a C chord) and then (awareness of a F chord) and then (awareness of a G chord), hanging discretely as isolated events—it consists of {awareness of the transition from (awareness of a C chord) into (awareness of an F chord)}; {awareness of the transition from (awareness of an F chord) into (awareness of a G chord)}; And it is in this absolutely continuous flow of awareness that awareness of the flux of change becomes the experience of melody instead of just singular notes and chords—and is why the experience of hearing a melody is different from the experience of hearing singular notes and chords. The very capacity for awareness of the flux itself is therefore exactly what presupposes and entails the existence of a continuous observer partially beyond that flux with the capacity to witness it.

The problem Hume faced is that the continuous observer simply can’t take itself as a direct object of its observations in the same way that it can all its other observations—just as (to quote Alan Watts) “you can’t look into your own eyes without a mirror, you can’t bite your own teeth, you can’t taste your own tongue and you can’t touch the end of one finger with the same finger,” even though eyes are nevertheless a precondition of vision, teeth a precondition of biting, tongues a precondition of tasting and fingers preconditions of touch—or as the camera required in my analogy to take snapshots of a collection of the preceding series of snapshots can’t capture a photograph of itself, but whose existence could only be inferred from the existence of snapshot photographs containing members of the previous set of photographs.

Or just as fire can’t, in principle, burn itself.

 _______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

 Physicalist accounts of the nature of identity therefore fail in principle to be capable of capturing something that is basic and fundamental and revealed directly and immediately by “introspection1” to each and every single one of us at every single moment of our existence. Inevitably, a physicalist attempt to account for the nature of identity must resort itself to ‘reducing’ identity to some purely causal relationship or physical resemblance or other. One of the most common criteria chosen for this purpose is physical storage of memory, and I will stick to this example alone for my illustration here because I do not think the essentials of the problem change in any way whatever purely physical relationship we might choose. In effect, what accounts like this end up with no way to avoid saying is that there simply no deep sense in which the person called “Aedon” at any given time–1 “is” the person called “Aedon” at time–2 and not the person called “John” at time–2 except that the person called “Aedon” at time–2 happens to possess some of the memories and some of the personality traits of the person called “Aedon” at time–1—that there is, in other words, merely a certain kind of ‘similarity’ or other which holds between the two.

Like attempts to reduce the phenomena of qualitative subjective experience to “a logical construct out of peoples’ judgments that they are having [experiences]” (where we pretend that these jugments about experiences are not being made because the experiences themselves actually exist) and to reduce the phenomena of intentionality to “a pragmatic matter of how best to talk, when talking metaphorically [about patterns of events]” (where the very existence of language itself presupposes the existence of intentionality in a very deep sense which this account shows no suggestion of being capable even in principle of accounting for at all), so accounts of this kind smuggle an illegitimate facade of seeming plausibility in for themselves by identifying something that typically comes along with the phenomena of identity itself while utterly ignoring the thing itself. Is there anything more obvious to anyone than that his “identity” consists in nothing other than the continued persistence of his experiences—in and of itself, regardless of what physical criteria might or might not covary with or follow from experiential persistence or contingently cause or allow the flowing stream of subjective experiences to continue to persist?

As with the absurdity of the solipsist who flagrantly denies that anyone else has any subjective experiences whatsoever besides himself, and the absurdity of the eliminative materialist who goes a whole step even further into lunacy from solipsism and denies the existence of even his own directly self–manifested subjective experiences as well, positions which flatly deny basic enough datum of observation simply can’t be refuted with any argument that isn’t technically ‘circular’ (however much this “circle” may only be a circle making, and asking the “skeptic” to return to making, contact with reality). Likewise here: I do not imagine the following example to form an “argument” that could possibly be sufficient to convince someone who denies the plain datum I hope to use it to help point attention to. I am limited by the principle of the case such that all I can say is that I think it points us to the truth of something that all of us can plainly and easily see for ourselves if only we look at it—and that anyone advocating for any alternative account is simply failing or refusing to ‘look at it.’

Suppose in a few years we come upon a newly invented device that appears to be something between a teleportation device and something that appears to produce either one or two physiological ‘clones’ of the teleportee during the act of apparent teleportation. I deliberately use the word “appears” here to emphasize that we will not know the objective truth about what the device actually does: all we actually know is that someone steps into the entry–device we’ll call T1, and then two people who appear in all respects to be physically and psychologically identical to the person who stepped in appear in two separate output terminals we’ll call T2 and T3 no less than a single Planck second later (the shortest conceivable duration of time), so that the relationship between the person who steps in at T1 and both the persons who appear at T2 and T3 is no different in any respect from the relationship that holds in everyday life between any past version and any future version of any given individual. Perhaps some type of quantum event even occurs, so that two different parallel universe “you”s branch off together in one universe.

On this scenario, any conceivable physical or psychological criterion of identity will have it the case that it is just trivially true that the “you” who steps out at T2 will be the same “you” as the “you” who stepped in at T1 no more and no less than the “you” who steps out at T3. And this is equally true no matter what particular relational criteria we might pick. Yet, isn’t it obvious that any such account must necessarily leave out the one singular core defining aspect of what we actually want to know? I’ve emphasized throughout these arguments that third–person approaches to categorizing consciousness will often miss central elements of its very essence given the fact that consciousness itself is a first–person phenomena. The same is true here: no matter what relational, physical, or psychological criteria you might give me, they will leave out the question of what happens to my first–person, subjective stream of experience as I step in at T1. 

Do my experiences come to an end? Is my experience one of stepping in at T1 and stepping out at T2, while a duplicate or quantum parallel of me faces me from T3? Is it one of stepping in at T1 and stepping out at T3, while a duplicate or quantum parallel of me faces me from T2? Is it something even more bizarre—say, of coming to receive sensory input from and direct intentional control over two bodies instead of one? Whatever might empirically hold true here, any relational criteria whatsoever will absolutely leave this question unanswered—will leave any answer to the question above still perfectly meaningful. Thus, no causal account of identity can capture the essence of identity—period. Personal identity depends on the continuance of the subjective stream of conscious experience itself to continue just as we know that it does in the ordinary course of life—period. While some physical, causal, or psychological criteria might reliable correlate with, covary with, or strongly indicate as a matter of fact—that is, a fact of the “so it happens to turn out” kind—what these criteria might be simply cannot be revealed by armchair philosophizing about the nature of identity. (Ironically, I’m the one insisting that ordinary philosophical accounts of the nature of identity—including materialistically motivated, reductionist ones—are pushing thought experiment beyond any reasonable limitations in terms of how much they can actually tell any of us about reality!)

Further, suppose the “you” who steps out at T2 receives a lifetime of luxury from the conductors of this experiment, while the “you” who steps out at T3 is harvested for horrific human medical experiments. Unless you are such a thoroughgoing utilitarian that you give no moral weight to rational self–interest over maximizing global pleasure over pain as a principle at all, the question of whether your experience ends, or else you become the “you” at T2 or the “you” at T3 (or some even more bizarre alternative) could not be of more central importance. Whichever might be the case, the idea that the people at both T2 and T3 will look like you and act like you might leave a quandary for third–person perspective–holding parties who may be able to reason that “identity for all practical intents and purposes” is as good as they’re going to get and thus treat both of the new clones exactly as if they were the same ‘real you,’ this simply has no reason to give you, the conscious subject stepping into the terminal, any reason for comfort. What are you going to experience when you step into T1?

It is a plain datum of experience itself that experience continues discretely across time and thus could in principle either persist or fail to persist regardless of any sort of physical or psychological continuity or discontinuity, you will be not just perfectly justified to wonder which scenario will actually happen—to wonder whether your experience persists at all, or ceases; and if it persists, in which of the two new subjects you will experience yourself persisting as—but absolutely irrational not to. Your life would literally depend on it. And if physicalist theories don’t allow for this option, then it’s too bad for physicalist theory. Physicalist accounts, if they leave out this fundamental feature of consciousness, simply prove themselves incomplete theories to account for the reality of what we are—and it is our theories which must expand to include capture of all of reality; reality will not always shrink to fit cramped boxes of theory. There is a fact about whether your experience ceases as you step into T1, or continues at T2 or T3 (or something else). Physicalist accounts literally cannot even account for the fact that there is a fact. 

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

Sad to say, this isn’t as hypothetical a thought experiment as it sounds—and should be. Large swaths of transhumanists advocate the idea of “mind uploading” as the secular equivalent to Christianity’s pre–tribulational rapture: the idea goes that immortality is soon going to be guaranteed—by science—perhaps as early as 2045, as soon as we develop the technology needed to duplicate brain functioning in computers.  An article by one Kenneth Hayworth, ironically titled “Killed by Bad Philosophy,”  gives us an example of the disturbing line of thought: “Our intuition tells us that being me (Ken) right now staring at these words on my laptop screen is fundamentally different from being another person, say my friend John, staring at these words on his laptop screen. Of course there is truth to this, … [b]ut our intuition also tells us that being Ken right now staring at these words is somehow fundamentally similar to being Ken driving in his car to work. … I submit that this intuition is wrong, and that it is fundamentally incompatible with our computational view of the brain’s functioning [See my previous entry (V) to this series for what I consider an absolutely decisive refutation of this “computational view of the brain”]. …

… The debate over mind uploading revolves around a central question, “What do you consider to be you?” … “You” [is nothing more than a] unique set of declarative memories (semantic and episodic), [a] unique set of procedural “memories” (memories for how to react both physically and mentally under particular circumstances), and [a] somewhat unique set of perceptual “memories” (circuits for how, for example, we recognize that this particular arrangement of spots on our retina is a straight line).” Therefore, any place whatsoever where these physical patterns are replicated would automatically qualify as “you” in the only sense that can even be talked about. Forget asking whether your experience will persist in this altered form—making any sense of that question would require a rejection of the premises of physicalism, and we absolutely can’t have that—indeed, the only reason anyone ever even considers it is because they have been “brainwashed by … religious belief systems … to reject … scientific materialism….” Hayworth continues: “[I] feel as protective of my future uploaded self as I do my future physical self. I look forward to … [being uploaded into]  a robotic body…. mind uploading is a … cure for death….”

Thus, to return to my teleportation example, I think anyone attending plainly to the facts of experience itself sees that it is most absolutely a question—and again, the most important question I could possibly ask, were I faced with the decision—whether my subjective stream of experiences would continue upon stepping into T1. On a view like Hayworth’s, however, there literally isn’t even a question: both the copies at T2 and T3 are “you” simply by trivial definition given the fact that they contain your “declarative memories, … procedural ‘memories’, … [and] perceptual ‘memories.’” Because those are all that exist—or at least all that the physicalist story can account for.

I’m not sure whether I will find it more terrifying or depressing once they actually do start blowing their brains out.

Sad as it may be for me as a non–theistic individual with a mild distaste for religion to say, I think it’s unquestionable that there really are times when many theistic philosophers turn out to have a hell of a lot more plain fucking sense than many atheists—and this is one of them. Quoting Richard Swinburne, “Using the word ‘experience’ for a brief moment in a wide sense, we may say that the succession of perceptions is itself a datum of experience; S experiences his experiences as overlapping in a stream of awareness. … It is in the unity of a stream that we primarily discern the identity of a subject.’” And what third–person detail empirically might happen to determine, or indicate, as a contingent matter that identity has continued is simply indeterminate in principle from the third–person perspective which physicalism by definition has to take—just as with the existence of subjective experiences and of thoughts with intrinsic “meaning,” as previous entries explored. The identity of a conscious subject rests in his consciousness itself. The implications of views like Hayworth’s provide a reductio ad absurdem of his own very premises—as so many of the physicalist proposals which we’ve explored do.

_______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

Sam Harris is one of many who invoke Buddhism in the process of telling is that what introspection really reveals is the lack of any “owner” of one’s conscious experiences at all—that it takes “look[ing] … with sufficient rigor” to realize “the illusoriness of the self.” Harris tells us that “… the Buddhist tradition, taken as a whole, represents the richest source of contemplative wisdom that any civilization has produced. … the ascendance of Buddhism would surely be a welcome development. …  the core insight into the illusoriness of the self can be found there … And cutting through this illusion does not require faith …. It’s disconfirmable through meditation … you can actually look for this thing you’re calling your “self” and fail to find it in a way that’s conclusive.…You can have the sense that there is a center of experience … drop away.”

He means to interpret this, of course, in a sense fully compatible with his own interpretation of the implications of neuroscience, and reductionistic (if not eliminative) materialism more generally. (And he hastens to add the caveat that “the continued identification of Buddhists with Buddhism lends tacit support to the religious differences in our world … [so] merely being a self-described “Buddhist” is to be complicit in the world’s violence…”). The problem is that people like Harris have probably gotten the basic doctrines of Buddhism profoundly distorted and confused.

Whether or not the doctrines of Buddhism are true, my interest in it here is entirely secondary to the question, “What do people generally come to feel about the nature of their experienced ‘self’–hood when they examine it deeply?” If Buddhism represented an unbroken stream of subjective realization by those setting the resolution to examine it with ‘rigor’ throughout centuries of human history that the entire notion of the persisting conscious subject is an illusion, then this would at least imply a deep divide within subjective phenomenology itself and weaken the case that “introspection” points towards the existence of an enduring ‘self.’ But people like Sam Harris, in making arguments like these about Buddhism, have—at the very least—tremendously oversimplified the picture. What follows will be disorganized, as my goal is less to establish my own linear thesis about what Buddhism says as to expose holes in the thesis espoused by the likes of Harris from a variety of angles (I honestly suggest anyone not familiar enough with Buddhism and the claims about Buddhism I am countering to follow me simply skip over this section—prefacing with the requisite background is simply beyond my scope here).

One of the most immediately obvious problems with nihilistic interpretation of Buddhism is this: Buddhist texts very clearly define the state of Nirvana as somethingBut if the perspective Buddhism encourages is there is no possibility for the continuation of experience whatsoever because there is no continuing subject of experiences in any sense, then how could the state of Nirvana mean anythingBuddhist texts even use a specific word—parinirvana—which literally translates “completed nirvana” to refer to the nirvana attained after death: “[L]ike all beings, [someone who has experienced nirvana in life] must die. But unlike other beings, who have not experienced ‘nirvāṇa,’ he or she will not be reborn into some new life … [I]nstead of being reborn, the person ‘parinirvāṇa-s’ … Modern Buddhist usage tends to restrict ‘nirvāṇa’ to the awakening experience and reserve ‘parinirvāṇa’ for the death experience” (Rupert Gethin, Foundations of Buddhism).

It seems perfectly reasonable to ask: if Buddhism (1) were as reductionist about the nature of the ‘self’ as someone like Sam Harris seems to believe, and (2) held as its ultimate goal the cessation of suffering through entrance into ‘parinirvana,’ why would there be no schools of Buddhism anywhere advocating mass suicide as the most direct possible route to that goal?

Introductions to Buddhism often state things like: “According to [the Buddha], [man] was merely a ‘bundle of perceptions’ (sankharapunja) or a group of aggregates (khandha)” (David Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy, p.39) and “What we call a ‘being’, or an ‘individual’, or ‘I’, is only a convenient name or a label given to the combination of these Žfive [khandha]” (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, p.51). If this were entirely true, and the achievement of nirvana were supposed to be the result of extinguishing attachment to these “khandhas”—behind which nothing (according to statements like these) exists—then what it does it mean when the Buddha speaks of those who have achieved parinirvana in experiential terms, as in the Samyutta Nikaya (22.87) where he says: “[T]hrough unestablished consciousness[,] Vakkali the clansman has become totally unbound”? And what does it mean when, in Udana (8.3), the Buddha is quoted saying: “There is, monks, [something] unborn [and] unfabricated. If there were not …, [it] would not be the case that emancipation … would be discerned. But precisely because there is [that which is] unborn [and] unfabricated, emancipation from the born [and] fabricated is discerned”?

The Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which tells the story of the Buddha Gotama’s own death, even quotes the Buddha as saying: “When I have taught non–Self, fools uphold the teaching that there is no Self. The wise know that such is conventional speech [vyavahara-vat] and they are free from doubts.” What could he have meant by that? Kosho Yamamoto, translator of the text, writes (in Mahayanism: A Critical Exposition of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra) that: “[The Buddha] says that the non–Self which he once taught is none but of expediency … He says that he is now ready to speak about… the affirmative attributes of nirvana, which are none other than the Eternal … [and] the Self….” He goes on: “the Buddha says: ‘O you bhiksus [monks]! Do not abide in the thought of the non–eternal [and the] non–Self … as in the case of those people who take the stones, wooden pieces and gravel for the true gem [e.g., who take lesser truths for the truly important one] ….” Tony Page, likewise tells us in Affirmation of Eternal Self in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra that the sutra’s claims are that: “The Self (atman) is reality (tattva), the Self is permanent (nitva), the Self is virtue (guna), the Self is eternal (sasvata), the Self is stable (dhruva), the Self is peace (siva).(Trans. Hodge, 2006) … You should know that all beings do have it, but it is not apparent, since those beings are enveloped by immeasurable klesas [defects of mind, morality, and character] … (Trans. Hodge, 2005).” And the Nirvana Sutra isn’t a special case: Michael Zimmerman, in his 2002 analysis of the Tathagatagarbha Sutra (A Buddha Within), tells us that “[T]he existence of an eternal, imperishable self, that is, buddhahood, is definitely the basic point of [the sutra] … [furthermore] the Mahaparinirvanasutra and the Lankavatarasutra characterize the tathagatagarbha explicitly as atman [an imperishable self]….” 

So what is the difference between “no Self” and “non–Self?” Miri Albahari writes (in Against No–Atman Theories of Anatta) that “It is notable that whenever the Buddha did warn against identiŽcation, it was invariably in connection with the conditioned khandhas [the group of physical and mental aggregates which are in a constant state of flux, none of which can be identified with a ‘self’]  … not the unconditioned Atman beyond name and concept.” The Girimananda Sutra offers a direct response to the question, “What is the perception of not–self?” And the answer which follows is:  “[A] monk — having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building — reflects thus: ‘The eye is not–self, forms are not–self; the ear is not–self, sounds are not–self; the nose is not–self,  aromas are not–self; the tongue is not–self, flavors are not–self; the body is not–self, tactile sensations are not–self; the intellect is not–self, ideas are not–self.’ Thus he remains focused on not–selfness with regard to the six inner & outer sense media. This is called the perception of not–self.” The implication seems to be that the doctrine the Buddha is promoting is to avoid identifying with things that are not ‘the self’ in order to escape suffering—not that there is not a ‘self’ in any sense at all.

Thus, in the Culamalunkya Sutra, we read of a disciple of the Buddha’s who comes to consider a number of “speculative views have been left undeclared by the Blessed One, set aside and rejected” and desire the Buddha’s answers. The Buddha’s response comes as so: “Suppose, Mālunkyāputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his kinsmen and relatives, brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say: ‘I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble or a brahmin or a merchant or a worker.’ … So too, Mālunkyāputta, if anyone should say thus: ‘I will not lead the holy life under the Blessed One until the Blessed One declares to me [these answers,] that would still remain undeclared by the Tathāgata and meanwhile that person would die. … Whether there is the view ‘the world is eternal’ or the view ‘the world is not eternal,’ there is birth, there is ageing, there is death, there are sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, the destruction of which I prescribe here and now. …

… Therefore, Mālunkyāputta, remember what I have left undeclared as undeclared, and remember what I have declared as declared. And what have I left undeclared? ‘… ‘The soul is the same as the body’—I have left undeclared. ‘The soul is one thing and the body another’—I have left undeclared. ‘After death a Tathāgata exists’—I have left undeclared. ‘After death a Tathāgata does not exist’—I have left undeclared. ‘After death a Tathāgata both exists and does not exist’—I have left undeclared. ‘After death a Tathāgata neither exists nor does not exist’—I have left undeclared. Why have I left that undeclared? Because it is unbeneficial, it does not belong to the fundamentals of the holy life, it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.”

Likewise, Hane Htut Maung, author of Consciousness: An Enquiry into the Metaphysics of the Self, writes: “it is apparent, on exploration of the Pali Canon, that the Buddha never denies the existence of the self. To the contrary, he very clearly rejects annihilationism. In the Alagaddupama Sutta, he states: “Speaking in this way, teaching in this way, I have been erroneously, vainly, falsely, unfactually misrepresented by some brahmans and contemplatives [who say], “Gotama the contemplative is one who misleads. He declares the annihilation, destruction, extermination of the existing being.” But as I am not that, as I do not say that, so I have been erroneously, vainly, falsely, unfactually misrepresented by those venerable brahmans and contemplatives [who say], “Gotama the contemplative is one who misleads. He declares the annihilation, destruction, extermination of the existing being.” (MN 22, trans. Thanissaro, 2004)”

Also striking is that in passages in which the Buddha’s words are read as denying the existence of the self or of existence beyond death, what he actually does is refuse to answer. As Thanissaro Bikkhu points out, “the one place [in the Pali canon] where the Buddha was asked point–blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible.” Thanissaro concludes: “In this sense, the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no–self, but a not–self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause … [until] questions of self, no–self, and not–self fall aside. Once there’s the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what’s experiencing it, or whether or not it’s a self?”

Another plausible answer also suggests itself: as the Tibetan Buddhist scholars and meditation masters Palden Sherab and Tsewang Dongyal write in Opening to Our Primordial Nature, “The true nature of mind is beyond conception, yet it is present in every object. The true nature is always there, but due to our temporary obscurations we do not recognize it … The primordial nature is beyond conceptions; it cannot be explained … cannot be encompassed by words. … you cannot see it or touch it; it is beyond expression.” Perhaps the Buddha believed that the nature of the true ‘self’ could not be grasped through concepts, and therefore any conceptual answer whatsoever would be misleading—leading him to respond to such questions at times with an attempt to throw the questioner out of the state of trying to conceptualize it at all. Perhaps the “not–self” strategy was comparable to the “neti neti” (translated, “not this, not that”) of Hinduism and the via negativa of Western theology in that the strategy was to try to encourage an experience of the ineffable by guiding the mind away from false concepts of what it is. The Wikipedia entry for via negativa notes that “An example can be found in the 9th-century theologian John Scotus Erigena‘s assertion: ‘We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.’” Certainly, Erigena’s purpose in making a statement like this was not to commit to atheism—however easy it might be to commit the mistake of reading him this way. “Our plight, on this reading, is that we perceive the conditioned world with a deeply rooted bias. We falsely project, both emotionally and intellectually, ideas of a ‘self’ qua I–permanent–non–suffering, upon what is inherently not–self, the khandhas.” (Miri Albahari)

 _______ ~.::[༒]::.~ _______

Those who argue against the notion of an enduring conscious self get the basic order of knowledge wrong—as with the denial of both qualitative/subjective experience and intentionality, they start with metaphysical theories extrapolated to explain their conscious experiences, rather than keeping their theories in reference to the plain data continually revealed directly by those experiences themselves, and they reason backwards from “the metaphysical theory is true; therefore, the data must be denied and rejected because the theory is true” even if we can find no independently reasonable justification for rejecting the offending premises to dismiss any problem–data which doesn’t seem to fit into the theory they’ve created about the ultimate nature of the world. On the contrary, any sane account of consciousness must account for the primary data which conscious experience reveals; and amongst the primary data revealed by conscious experience is that experience itself persists across time—and can either continue or fail to continue persisting.

At the same time as they get the basic order of knowledge itself backwards, they also further frequently misrepresent both Hume and Buddhism in support of the misguided claim that what “introspection” actually reveals is the lack of any common subject to one’s stream of subjective experiences. On the contrary, what introspection into the nature of conscious identity actually reveals is that the mystery of consciousness is not just how something so categorically and fundamentally different from ordinary physically described entities should exist in general, but of why I should exist as the absolutely unique particular conscious subject I unavoidably am at this particular point in all of time and space and no other.

The ultimate nature of the world quite simply has to be profoundly more bizarre than the physicalist is willing to consider for it to even be conceivable that things could be the way that they are. As before, reality won’t shrink to fit our theories about the nature of reality; it is our theories which will have to expand—and it is only the beginning of the necessary expansion to admit room for something strikingly close to the traditional notion of an enduring metaphysical “self.” And on my view, even if it does turn out to be the case that consideration of the evidence revealed to us by consciousness itself should push us towards some broadly “religious” vision of the world, the only appropriate response to that discovery is: “So be it.” Rejecting plain evidence simply because of where it leads is precisely the offending mistake that garners religion what contempt it does deserve—and it is a sad irony that atheists who oppose religion for this reason would commit the same mistake in so many fundamental ways.

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[1] We can always conceive of a different qualitative color being subjective experienced after the eye is stimulated by a particular quantitative wavelength of light (and even after this stimulation becomes activation of a particular region of the brain), but this just gets us back into the center of the mind–brain problem itself, and so I set it aside for my current purposes here. A future entry will explore the nature of perception in more detail.

[2] Crucially, note the point that, as I have presented this form of argument, the only premise needed for it to go through is mere conceptual “possibility.” If we can even coherently imagine it, then these arguments, as stated here, go through—without invoking any premise more than ‘what can we conceptually conceive?’ And then asking why what we can conceive is not the case. I avoided presenting my own argument in the terms established by the “zombie argument” in my own essay in (IV) because I don’t consider it the most effective way to illustrate the core of what the argument is actually trying to get at—it invites a debate over varying notions of “possibility,” “conceivability,” “necessity” and all the complex relations between them that simply are not needed in order to make the actual point: it is far more effective, I think, to phrase it along the lines that the premises of materialism deductively predict that we should in fact be in a so–called “zombie world”—and that those premises are therefore falsified by the plain fact that we are notWe don’t need to say that it is “conceivable” that a world containing all the geometric–structural and blind–cause–and–effect–dispositional properties possessed by our world “could” have contained zombies and invite some complicated debate about the nature of modal concepts and relationships between them; we can simply say that it is a straightforward prediction of the materialist premises that if these were true, then we would be in a “zombie world”—so these premises are falsified by the fact that we manifestly are not such zombies. In this, we can invoke the words of the “eliminative materialists” themselves—who thoroughly agree with the entailment, yet remain so committed to the abstract premises of materialism that rather than abandon them at this point, they prefer to conclude that they actually really are in fact zombies devoid of subjective experiences or intentionality of any kind themselves. And from there, we can point out the utterly incoherent equivocations inevitably involved in every possible “emergentist” or “reductivist” attempt to “have” the “cake” of consciousness kept intact by avoiding eliminativism while “eating it” by retaining the premises of materialism that inevitably lead to eliminativism whether they like it or not, too. This leaves us with the stark decision of either embracing pathetic, rank absurdity by eliminating the very basis from which we derived the concept of materialism itself in the first place through eradicating subjective experience and intentionality entirely as the eliminativists do, or else accepting that the very premises of physicalism have been falsified. Still, despite not being the most efficient way to make the point clear, I think that the argument does succeed. And while the form that the argument follows is not, in my estimation, the most efficient way to illustrate that point, I believe it can be adopted much more efficiently in the present context

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Further Bibliography on the Nature of Conscious “Selfhood”:
Indexical Thisness as a Basic Property — Kevin Vallier