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A Concrete Self

The following is a portion of a book review of Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright.

I’ve tackled some of the problems related to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta–which posits that there is no self–in my review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up. Is the self a thing? Is it a mental function or a process? Depending on how we define the self, we may or may not find a self. In Why Buddhism is True, in order to prove that there is no-self, Wright limits discussion of the self to “the conscious self”, not the body, not the whole self, which reminds me of Cosma Raimondi’s argument about taking into consideration the whole of the human being. When the author speaks of the self as a “rational charioteer”–presumably meaning “conscious”?–, we are expected to accept that emotions or feelings are perceived as unconscious insofar as they are irrational, and that therefore there is no self, only nature acting as a puppeteer.

Another error in attempting to prove the doctrine of anatta goes back all the way to Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, and appears to be tied to the original Vedic and Hindu context. In the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu scriptures, we find a defense of the idea of atman (the soul, in Sanskrit) as “the eternal aspect” of our self. This atman is sometimes described, interestingly, as an atomic particle. If Buddha could prove that there was nothing eternal in the sentient being, he could refute the doctrine of atman with a doctrine of anatta (no-self, in Pali). But what if the self, like all else, was real, just temporary? Why does the temporary conglomeration of certain conditions imply non-existence or non-reality? This does not follow, and so the arguments for the doctrine of anatta were, from the onset, flawed, because there is no atman to speak of in the first place. Selfhood does not need to be eternal in order to exist and be experienced as real by sentient beings. If the doctrine of anatta is reinterpreted to say that the self does not exist as_we_imagine_it_to_exist, then there is much more merit to the doctrine.

Now, in nature we see that even seemingly stable things like stones and mountains undergo geological processes over the aeons. We see that the trees can not exist without seeds sprouting, without solar light, without water, soil, and other elements, and that all things inter-exist. We see that, like all animals, we have millions of micro-organisms in our bellies without which we would not be able to properly digest our food: nothing exists in a vacuum. We are constantly exchanging particles with the rest of nature via breathing, acting, and eating. This recycling of particles between all things is poetically detailed early in the first book of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, inferring from phenomena like how the sea is replenished by rains, rivers, and other sources of water, and concluding that–since “nothing comes from nothing”–all things must deteriorate into the primal “germs” (that is, particles) that will make up new things:

Whence may the water-springs, beneath the sea,
Or inland rivers, far and wide away,
Keep the unfathomable ocean full?

And out of what does Ether feed the stars?
For lapsed years and infinite age must else
Have eat all shapes of mortal stock away:
But be it the Long Ago contained those germs,
By which this sum of things recruited lives,
Those same infallibly can never die,
Nor nothing to nothing evermore return.

If all other things in nature exist as processes, ever-changing, why must a member of the homo sapiens species exist as a Platonic essence, an eternal soul, an abstraction, an idea? Why can’t the self also be a process, just like the body and embedded within it, ever-changing from birth to death? Why can’t there be a concrete self, rather than an abstract self? What if, rather than a noun (self), we started referring to a process of ever becoming, which would more aptly describe what we are referring to–and yet doesn’t deny its reality as a felt experience of the sentient being?

The reason why Buddhists have not found a self is because they are not LOOKING for a CONCRETE self. They are looking for an abstraction, a Platonic “essence”, a Hindu atman. I believe that, with the help of Epicurean and Lucretian descriptions, and drawing strictly from the study of nature, it is possible for contemporary materialists to posit a theory of self that is corporeal, scientific, satisfying, and dynamic, to counter the Buddhist, nihilist, and other theories out there.

For the sake of clarity, Epicurean philosophy finds itself in the realist camp of this discussion–our position is pragmatic: we argue that the reality of the self matters. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the Buddhists are on the anti-realist side of the debate.

To my knowledge, at least one scientific theory of concrete self has been advanced, and it has some of the features of the Buddhist doctrine of the aggregates (here described as “five dimensions”). It posits that the self is multitudinous and multi-disciplinary. Şerife Tekin presented her theory in an Aeon essay titled Self-Evident:

According to this model, the self is a dynamic, complex, relational and multi-aspectual mechanism of capacities, processes, states and traits that support a degree of agency. The multitudinous self has five distinct but functionally complementary dimensions: ecological, intersubjective, conceptual, private, and temporally extended. These dimensions work together to connect the individual to her body, her social world, her psychological world, and her environment.

Notice that Tekin mentions the feature of agency. Agency, or the ability to act over matter, is one of the attributes that proves the existence of a self Epicurean writings: a void can only be acted upon and has no agency. In other words, agency implies corporeal existence. In the Letter to Herotodus, Epicurus argues that the soul is made up of atoms, that it exists fully embedded into the body and provides it with sentience. As proof that it is corporeal, Epicurus cites how–unlike empty space–it can act and be acted upon.

There is the further point to be considered, what the incorporeal can be, if, I mean, according to current usage the term is applied to what can be conceived as self-existent. But it is impossible to conceive anything that is incorporeal as self-existent except empty space. And empty space cannot itself either act or be acted upon, but simply allows body to move through it. Hence those who call soul incorporeal speak foolishly. For if it were so, it could neither act nor be acted upon. But, as it is, both these properties, you see, plainly belong to soul.

What else does Epicurean tradition have to say regarding the concrete soul? In the Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus argues:

Next, keeping in view our perceptions and feelings (for so shall we have the surest grounds for belief), we must recognize generally that the soul is a corporeal thing, composed of fine particles, dispersed all over the frame … Still, it would not have had sensation, had it not been somehow confined within the rest of the frame.

Epicurus believed that the “soul” particles were finer or more subtle than other particles in the body. Contemporary science, instead, gives us the neurological system which, like the Epicurean soul, is entirely embedded into the body. It runs through the nervous system and is concentrated in two main organs: the brain, and the stomach–which contains enough neurons to be about the size of the brain of a small dog or cat. The Letter to Herodotus says that it is the soul that gives the body sentience.

But the rest of the frame, though it provides this indispensable conditions for the soul, itself also has a share, derived from the soul, of the said quality; and yet does not possess all the qualities of soul. Hence on the departure of the soul it loses sentience. For it had not this power in itself; but something else, congenital with the body, supplied it to body: which other thing, through the potentiality actualized in it by means of motion, at once acquired for itself a quality of sentience, and, in virtue of the neighborhood and interconnection between them, imparted it (as I said) to the body also.

Hence, so long as the soul is in the body, it never loses sentience through the removal of some other part. The containing sheaths may be dislocated in whole or in part, and portions of the soul may thereby be lost; yet in spite of this the soul, if it manage to survive, will have sentience. But the rest of the frame, whether the whole of it survives or only a part, no longer has sensation, when once those atoms have departed, which, however few in number, are required to constitute the nature of soul.

That the soul is corporeal and mortal, and leaves the body at the moment of death, is also argued by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura. There are other materialist theories of self that do not contradict, but in fact may add support to, the theories here presented. In a previous essay, I echoed a materialist conception of identity based on habitual behavior, which not only recognizes the concrete and changing self, but allows for the possibility of cultivation or sculpting of an ethically better self, that is, moral development–a subject that is very in tune with natural philosophy:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” –Will Durant

To the extent that habitual behavior is unconscious or subconscious, it can be said to be a crystallized–even if capable of change or evolution–part of the self. This is a different way of thinking about identity, and yet it does not contradict Tekin’s model.


In Why Buddhism is True, feelings are explained as **the** value-setting faculty. The author is really a champion of the primacy of feelings over reason in human behavior, arguing that the cognitive and effective / emotional functions are very intertwined. This is the premise behind Epicurean cognitive therapy: that reason and feeling can coach each other.

Feelings are, among other things, your brain’s way of labeling the importance of thoughts, and importance (in natural selection’s somewhat crude sense of the term) determines which thoughts enter consciousness. – Why Buddhism is True (p. 119)

Feelings tell us what to think about, and after all the thinking is done, they tell us what to do. – Why Buddhism is True (p. 124)

Read the rest of the review here.

Reasonings About Neuroscience

The following considerations are based on my reading of Buddha’s Brain, a book by neuroscientists Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius.

The book Buddha’s Brain adds much flesh to the bones of Epicurean notions of a science of happiness. It teaches how to scientifically and methodically cultivate a happy and healthy brain. It also substantiates and helps to understand the neuroscientific theories behind the practices that early Epicureans used to engage in (repetition, memorization, gratitude, etc.) as part of their regimen of abiding pleasures. These practices create and strengthen healthy neural connections in the tissue of our brain that are experienced, over the long term, as happiness.

The book also reminds us constantly of the physicality of the soul and all soul phenomena, of how each and every soul experience is rooted in some way in hormonal changes, bodily organs, neurons, etc. This is one of the crucial, central insights of our materialist philosophy, and the main reason why we utilize medicinal language when referring to the health of the soul just as mainstream culture does with the body. Like our own wisdom tradition, this book demonstrates a strong tendency to make applied, therapeutic philosophy tangible and concrete.

The Hedonic Tone

One of the first things the book does is to give us a theory, and new words, by which we may refer to the important knowledge being imparted. Much of the beginning portion of the book consists of establishing this framework.

The feeling tone, or hedonic tone, is defined as the quality of whether something is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The hedonic tone is produced by the amygdala.

On the Importance of Mindfulness

As with all therapy, contemplation and meditation help us to identify suffering in its initial stages and to see how it arises in the mind. With this insight, we can stop the suffering process and lead the mind in a new direction.

People given to frivolous mental exercises might have a habit of avoiding mindfulness and attention, aware (or maybe unaware?) of the fact that once you observe pleasant activities, you burst the bubble and they cease being enjoyable. It is important to challenge this habit of mindlessness. Without attention and patient, non-judgemental mindfulness, it’s impossible to bring into awareness the issues that we must work through in order to cultivate a progressively happier mind.

There are many references to Buddhist teachings and techniques to educate the mind. The book frequently goes back to the first and second darts, a reference to the things outside of ourselves that generate suffering (loss of a loved one, insult, loss of a job, accidentally hurting ourselves, etc.), which constitute examples of the first dart, versus our REACTIONS to these things (anger, hatred, obsession with vengeance, vindictiveness, annoyance, etc) which are examples of the second dart. As you probably imagine, we have control usually only over the second dart, and so a great part of the training that we must undertake if we make a resolution to be happy, is to avoid throwing the second dart.

The authors speak of a progression from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, and later on to conscious competence, and finally to unconscious competence. In the first stage, we are easily annoyed and affected by things with no conscious acknowledgement of it. In the second stage, we become aware of our reaction to events and how these reactions generate suffering, but we have not yet developed the wherewithal to discipline ourselves with prudence. The third stage is the beginning of discipline: we begin making conscious efforts to avoid throwing the second dart, and finally when we reach the fourth stage, we have become wise enough and gained enough insight to understand that our serenity, our ataraxia and tranquility, is worth too much to be sacrificed at the altar of vindictiveness, anger, or annoyance.

Implicit Memory

Notice that mindfulness, resolution, and discipline are all necessary in the cultivation of a steady, happy mind that habitually abides in pleasure.

The authors speak of implicit memory. It consists of the unconscious expectations, outlook, values, emotional states, relationships that are built around our experiences and result in our sense of self, our very identity, “what it feels like to be you”.

Going back to the learning process mentioned previously, the idea is to generate sufficient momentum for the happy and wholesome memories and experiences to become unconsciously competent. It is here that the daily practice of gratitude and other Epicurean disciplines of abiding (katastemic) pleasure gain a theoretical foundation in neurology.

Some piles of these implicit memories harm us, others help us, and so the idea is to increase the ones that help us. Part of the task of a good Epicurean has to do with wholesome memory-building. We are reminded of our sages’ advise to practice reminiscing about the good times frequently. The Epicurean Garden was provided as a place where practitioners built fond memories of virtuous friendship and affection. By allowing good times to settle into our memory banks as implicit memory and to become part of our very identities, we are nurturing a habitually happy, blessed state of being.

Dan Gilbert speaks about how happy memories are formed, insisting that his research leads to the understanding that people do not derive happiness from things. They derive happiness from experiences and relationships. Fond memories come from living, not having or thinking. Elsewhere in the book, the authors argue that we must turn happy facts into happy experiences.

It’s clear that happiness and abiding pleasure do not take place at the level of the intellect so much as at the level of being, of existing; that the entire being must be turned over to the experience of the good.

We buy things which give us some pleasure (clothes, cars, art, etc.), but we quickly forget the newness of these things. However, a night out with friends, weekly dinners with family, vacations with one’s partner, these are the things that fond memories are built from. They are experienced, they are lived.

Negativity Bias of the Brain

Since during our evolutionary history so much of our chances of survival depended on whether we were able to identify and avoid or confront dangers and threats in our environment, humans (like all animals) have a fairly developed fight-or-flight system of instincts which is coordinated, to a great extent, by the SNS (sympathetic nervous system).

In this way, we can understand how normal levels of anxiety and of threat response are natural and necessary, helping us to be more vigilant and pay attention. However, the necessity of the fight-or-flight instinct produces a brain that has a strong tendency to pay attention to the negative stimuli in our environment, those that are not particularly pleasant. Our brain is good at reminding us of what to avoid, and in this manner it believes that it’s constantly doing something good and important for us, for which we should be grateful.

The Cool-Head and the Hot-Head

The SNS produces instances where one must be hot-headed: angry, alert, ready for battle, impervious to pain. In contrast to this system, we also have the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system), which balances the fight-or-flight tendencies with tendencies that the authors of Buddha’s Brain call the rest and digest reflex.

This rest and digest reflex is the cooling, steadying tendency of the mind that we associate with ataraxia (imperturbability) and with abiding pleasure, which facilitates practices of gratitude and contemplation. It is here that (as in the case of Dan Gilbert’s science of happiness discourse) we begin to clearly see Epicurean theory by another name, even delving into the canon. In our tradition, we refer to these two tendencies as the pleasure and aversion principles.

Considering the fact that Epicureanism often gets called a philosophy of the stomach, it’s curious that the authors chose to include digestion into their notion of steady, cooling states of being, or the rest and digest reflex.

Buddha’s Brain refers frequently to notions of heat / hot-headedness and coolness. The book also makes mention of how awareness of the body suppresses chatter when one is attempting to meditate because chatter and body-awareness are tackled by two different hemispheres of the brain. This is all reminiscent to Yoruba lore and other traditional African wisdom traditions with their references to the physicality of the soul, which refer to the heat or coolness of the head and which were explored a bit in the piece On the Importance of Protecting One’s Head.

“Taking In the Good” and the Practice of Abiding Pleasure

The above is the framework within we can understand the importance of internalizing the good, the pleasant, of gratitude and of reminiscing about fond experiences. But what are the best techniques for this art of living, this art of abiding in pleasure?

In addition to the traditional Epicurean techniques known from our sources, there is in Buddhism the technique of taking refuge. Buddhist liturgy tells people to take refuge in the three jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (or teaching) and the Sangha (the brotherhood of people who seek enlightenment).

Philodemus, on the other hand, accentuated the importance of personal choice in his oath where he spoke of “choosing to live according to Epicurus”. Many humanists today have difficulty with the idea of allegiance to a sage or Master, and when I wrote Tending the Epicurean Garden, my book editor encouraged me instead to articulate a modern version of Philodemus’ oath where we choose to live according to Epicureanism (the teaching) instead of according to Epicurus.

Perhaps a modern evolution of this refuge-taking remedy for abiding pleasure might be a simple liturgy along the lines of this one:

I choose to think good and wholesome thoughts
I choose to speak good and wholesome words
I choose to engage in good and wholesome activities
I choose good and wholesome association

In this manner, we choose the good actively rather than taking refuge in the good, which is a more passive choice. I am not saying refuge-taking is wrong or useless as a practice, merely offering an alternative liturgy for humanists and Epicureans to carry out experiments in their practice of abiding pleasure. In fact, Buddha’s Brain also speaks in an active voice with regards to how we must build our refuge through nurturing wholesome memories; and how this is not a denial of the bad or a mask for the prosaic. We must see it as a place within our very identity and experience where we can always go for safety. We must choose our anchors for refuge.

The notion of building our refuge, and the insights behind it, also vindicate the way in which our sages encouraged the development of an Epicurean identity rather than just allegiance to the teachings or concordance with the doctrine. An identity is a more visceral thing than an ideology and it is strengthened through association, through affiliation.

The above liturgy may be recited together with and prior to our daily practice of gratitude, which is required to have the disposition that is necessary for the practice Epicureanism. Our sages, in unison, teach that it’s impossible for an ungrateful person to be a true Epicurean.

A Natural Measure of Self

Among many life-denying faiths, the term ego has acquired a negative connotation. For that reason, I will stick to the use of the word self here in lieu of ego, but I wish to make a note of the fact that we have learned to speak of ego either as a bastion of weakness and vulnerability or as a crest of arrogance, almost invariably attaching a negative tone to any reference to ego and never considering that there is a natural measure of self that it is healthy to recognize and respect.

Buddha’s Brain draws from the wisdom tradition of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) and assumes many of its doctrines. One key distinction between Buddhism and Epicureanism is the doctrine of anatta, or no-self, which is one the the three marks of existence in Buddhism. Gautama Buddha believed that, because all beings are transitory and impermanent, they therefore do not exist as atman in the way Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas believe them to exist (as eternal beings composed of soul).

Buddha further argues that suffering arises because of our illusion about the existence of a self. The “me” is hurt, the “me” is betrayed, the “me” suffers injustice, the “me” lacks basic needs and suffers misfortunes.

In the book, at one point the authors go as far as to compare the self to a unicorn because it’s nowhere to be seen, only to later admit that the self is useful. But usefulness does not go far enough in explaining the phenomena that appear as the self, even if it’s an accurate assertion.

The self is not just useful: it’s necessary and natural. Need breeds invention, and the varieties of experience tied to this body which appear as self are all inventions of nature that arise from the needs of the natural beings.

If we are perplexed by the varieties of experience that we think of as self (memory, personal historical narratives, possession of things and of people, jealousy, self as subject and object of perception, etc.) and which do not appear to be composed of atoms, and if we are perplexed by the fact that the self appears to be hidden from view and immaterial, then perhaps we can use terms that many English-speaking Buddhists use such as presence, or maybe mindstreams, to refer to the chain or currents of thoughts, memories and experiences that characterize each living being. All of these minstreams are impermanent, but they compose unique expressions of collective and individual self which is experienced as very real.

Do I form a desire, or does a desire form an I? – Buddha’s Brain

In Epicureanism, we do acknowledge that there is no self that is separate from the body and the conditional experiences of the natural being, and we do recognize the impermanence of it, but we do not deny the existence of self.

We also acknowledge that the self carries within it the potential for suffering, but we consider it madness to attempt to escape our natural condition into fantasies about selflessness. Self is context. We cannot operate efficiently in the world selflessly, and in fact the recognition of the self and of the self in another being is the very foundation of ethics and of compassion, kindness, and a plethora of other virtues which become unnecessary and make no sense without the self.

Many central concepts in our ethics require individual selves. Natural justice, for instance, is based on the social contract: an agreement that can only be entered into by independent agents who exhibit volition.

And so there is a way in which we exist as natural beings: a natural and necessary self which is anchored in the material experience of the human body.

If we fail to acknowledge the natural needs of the self, we risk generating even more suffering than when we attach ourselves obsessively to the self. We must, therefore, find a happy and healthy medium where we respect the self.

New Verbiage:

Hedonic Tone
Implicit memory
Natural measure of self
Refuge (-building)
Rest and digest reflex

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