Eastern philosophy says there is no "self." Science agrees

Hi, this should probably go somewhere else, but it can likely go manywhere elses. I am dropping it here, since when I searched anatta is D&D apparently this discussion has the most recent reference to it.

I follow Sakyadhita Canada Association of Buddhist Women on FB and they shared it with us followers.

I am still struggling to understand the real meaning of “not-self” in Buddhist teachings, especially with my background in philosophy, which, altough humble, seems to complicate things for me.

However, I have a strong hunch that science and Buddhism have very different things in mind when they speak of their respective concepts.

In natural science there seems to be no way around determinism, so even whithout ever having seen or analyzed a human brain, the determination of everything that happens, and therefore the lack of personality and free will, follows from the premises.

I don’t think Buddhism would go as far as to deny that a human being does and should perceive itself as an entity and individual person (who is responsible for his or her choices). I think with Buddhism, this concept is to deny a metaphysical entity like the soul, as well as showing the fruitlessness (and harm!) of tending to one’s ego.

Or at least that’s as far as I got. :wink: Unfortunately, many teachings on this matter seem to be a little unclear if not outright contradictory.


I recognise that. I believe it is not so bad to approach it like this:

All Buddha does is to let us see how mind becomes restricted and that its nature is not restricted.
What makes mind restricted? That is that grasping. When there is grasping the mind becomes involved in her own projections. It becomes like a dog chasing her own tail.

The Dhamma is to cure this. All these teachings about asava, anusaya, kilesa, tanha, are about the causes for becoming small-minded and a circling dog. Why and how do we loose our natural openess? That is what the Buddha explains.

Buddha used all kind of skillful means to guide us to this openess. He wants us to see our birthright, that is for free. Anicca, dukkha and anatta are, i believe, also skillful means to guide us to this openess. This openess is, i believe, the same as detachment. Openess is not burdened.

The real wonder is that the Buddha saw that this openess has no possessions and is unsupported but at the same time that is why it is an undefiled ground to manifest pure wisdom, pure love, pure compassion. Always afresh. Any wisdom, love, compassion that is grounded in or based upon disposition is not based upon openess but habits.

You can also notice the huge difference between habitual friendliness, habitual love and care, habitual empathy etc. and real friendliness etc. Immediately you can sense this. It has a very different quality and sphere. Not that habitual goodness is bad, but is very different from what is not yours.
I see Buddha makes this difference also all the time. That what arises in a habitual manner is mundane, not pure. I can lead to good fruits but not to end of suffering.

I believe the wisdom, love and compassion a Buddha shows is not due to his disposition but it is due to his openess that is very receptive and sensitive. This open mind is called a mind without limits (AN10.81).

Believe in a self creates a limited, a restricted mind. If this or that is grasped as me, mine, my self, mind becomes limited. It grasps at her own projections and becomes a dog chasing her own tail.

I do not think you must see anicca, dukkha and anatta as other then skillful means to guide us to this mind without limits and its ulimate receptivity and sensitivity.

One can also say, all knowledge in buddhism has as goal to become more and more empty of knowledge and open and receptive. That receptivity is like a ground for an immediate knowledge. A Buddha does no have to think or reflect to know things immediately. That knowledge comes immediatly and undistorted to him. Like mine, ehum :slight_smile:

. But if one lives as a possessor of wisdom, of love, or special knowledge, or realisation, etc. and draggs this all around the world, that is not truthful. It is not at all the goal of Dhamma to accumulate knowledge and build upon this a sense of being a Dhamma expert etc. Not at all. In fact one becomes more and more a not Dhamma expert because, most likely, ones does not become more open empty, receptive and sensitive. Most likely one starts to feel more and more a possessor and also other people might see this as your expertise in Dhamma, while in fact it is not true expertise. This does not mean that i think low about intellectual expertise but it is not the same as being an expert in Dhamma.

Just be open and abandon all that hinders openess.


Thanassiro Bhikkus articpe is very informative, ‘no self or not-self’? I will link it here.

The point is that many human beings take the sense of self or ‘I’ as a given and never come to question it. The historical Buddha did not deny a sense of self but encouraged one to investigate into what it is instead of simply believing in a fixed unchanging eternal self. He encouraged one to ‘look and see for themselves’, to question, and to see how phenomena originate.

The sense of self arises because of the feeling of being alive and because one conceives of oneself using the mental abstracting faculty ‘thought’ and so this ‘I’ arises in dependence on these, as well as consciousness, form and perception (I see a tree, I see myself in the mirror). Yet how many people ever question this ‘I’ which they take on a given, and how about working to understand the mechanisms by which the mind suffers?

All in all the historical Buddha encourages one to see how things originate through causation and to stick to the middle.

  1. There is a fixed eternal self. Wrong view.
  2. There is no self.
  3. When A comes into contact with B, C (a sense of self) comes to be. Right view.


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Namo Buddhaya!

It’s kind of like askinng whether the united states of america really exist. Does a bear crossing the state border think ‘i am entering Oregon state’?

Wonder what science thinks about that, i’ll ask if i meet him.


Not-self is the last one in the trio of the three characterists:

  1. impermanence, the fact that it is impermenent makes it
  2. unsatisfactory
    and it is these two combined that leads to the experience being
  3. not-self

Just like kamma only has to do with rebirth and how certain behaviour in body/speech/thoughts leads to a certain rebirth. In the same way we ought to look at Anicca, Dukkha & Anatta, only from the point of death and rebirth.

In right view we find ”there is mother there is father” - as one’s parents offspring one is now a being - because of two beings - mother and father - a being arises.

Even if the various experiences in one lifetime, for this being, are conditional: while conditions remain the experiences are real. Just because something is impermanent that doesn’t mean it is somehow unreal. The self is not unreal because the conditions are real no matter how long lasting or fleeting.

There is mother and father, there is a being having a life as a self due to this, there is death and there is rebirth. In that context we are a little more realistic about what is actually being experienced regarding calling something not-self.

All our previous existences are now not-self and since we know that our current existence shares the same destiny as the previous ones we ought to consider this current one as not-self and strive for an escape from the endless cycle of death and rebirth.

Saying there is ”no self at all” on the other hand is wrong and taken out of context bypassing right view (there is mother & father, result of good and bad actions) and whole chunk of other things.

How can a ”no self” remember previous lives as ”their own previous lives” if there is ”no self at all”?

Not only that, this ”no self” view can’t even be verified anywhere in any plane of existence.
And it is certainly not verified via Nibbāna either if Nibbāna equals extinction - which Nibbāna does to the proponents of ”no self”.

Making the ”no-self” view into a extreme view that can never be truly verified in any shape or form by anyone.

That is the difference between ”no self” and not-self.

There is a self-doer as the ”Attakārī Sutta: The Self-Doer” so eloquently describes it.

The Buddha:

“I tell you, monks, there are two people who are not easy to repay. Which two? Your mother & father. Even if you were to carry your mother on one shoulder & your father on the other shoulder for 100 years, and were to look after them by anointing, massaging, bathing, & rubbing their limbs, and they were to defecate & urinate right there [on your shoulders], you would not in that way pay or repay your parents. If you were to establish your mother & father in absolute sovereignty over this great earth, abounding in the seven treasures, you would not in that way pay or repay your parents. Why is that? Mother & father do much for their children. They care for them, they nourish them, they introduce them to this world. But anyone who rouses his unbelieving mother & father, settles & establishes them in conviction; rouses his unvirtuous mother & father, settles & establishes them in virtue; rouses his stingy mother & father, settles & establishes them in generosity; rouses his foolish mother & father, settles & establishes them in discernment: To this extent one pays & repays one’s mother & father.”

One’s parents permission is needed to ordain.

It doesn’t get any more real than that, and remember ”I tell you, monks,” Not laypeople, not brahmins but monks

To even view one’s parents as nothing more than selfless khandhas that concieved nothing more than ”selfless aggregates” as their offspring is such a ridiculous view… :thinking:

It seems a mistake to so easily sum up “science says” in the way you have. Much like the word buddhism, the word science does not universally convey the same meaning; there is a very long and rich tradition spanning more than a century of philosophical debate about what science is and what science is not.

Some ascribe an ontological commitment to science in a way that you seem to do above that isn’t universally recognized. Others may not consciously ascribe an ontological commitment, but nevertheless implicitly and unconsciously assume that science must have one even if it isn’t spelled out.

Quite a few working scientists consciously choose not to ascribe any kind of ontological commitment to what they do. This goes by the name of instrumentalism where science is understood more or less as an upaya or skillful means.

Here is how wikipedia describes it:

In philosophy of science and in epistemology, instrumentalism is a methodological view that ideas are useful instruments, and that the worth of an idea is based on how effective it is in explaining and predicting natural phenomena. According to instrumentalists, a successful scientific theory reveals nothing known either true or false about nature’s unobservable objects, properties or processes. Scientific theory is merely a tool whereby humans predict observations in a particular domain of nature by formulating laws, which state or summarize regularities, while theories themselves do not reveal supposedly hidden aspects of nature that somehow explain these laws. Instrumentalism is a perspective originally introduced by Pierre Duhem in 1906.

Determinism is more or less positing an affirmative ontological commitment that is simply not necessary in actually conducting science and understanding scientific results. To be clear, some people who self-describe as scientific instrumentalists also reify their views into ontological commitments, but this too is unnecessary.


These two conclusions:

  • Science says determinism is true
  • Science and buddhism say “there is no self”

Seem to me to be positive ontological commitments. By that I mean both of them are stating some positive affirmation about claims proven to be true.

Compare these two alternatives:

  • Determinism has not been proven true
  • A self has not been proven true

These latter don’t require any positive ontological commitments and should be understood as non-affirming negations. They don’t imply any positive proven truth of anything. They don’t imply that determinism has been affirmatively disproven. They don’t imply that the self has been affirmatively disproven. They don’t imply any positive affirmation of anything at all.

Neither science nor buddhism have proven either of the above.


What about SN1.25:
" “When a mendicant is perfected, proficient, with defilements ended, bearing the final body, would they say, ‘I speak’, Ahaṁ vadāmītipi so vadeyya, or even ‘they speak to me’?” Mamaṁ vadantītipi so vadeyyā”ti.

“When a mendicant is perfected, proficient, with defilements ended, bearing the final body, they would say, ‘I speak’, Ahaṁ vadāmītipi so vadeyya, and also ‘they speak to me’. Mamaṁ vadantītipi so vadeyya
Skillful, understanding the world’s conventions, they’d use these terms as no more than expressions.”

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”perfected, proficient, with defilements ended” = no more rebirth in Samsara and 100% certain of it. All ties to anyone or anything has been cut away completely, bearing the final body. It is the point of view of the arahant.

That doesn’t mean there is ”no self” among all the beings in all the planes of existence.

Attakārī Sutta: The Self-Doer makes this very clear.

From the scientific point of view Bell’s Theorem puts a final nail* in the coffin showing that quantum mechanics is truly non-deterministic. So the modern scientific picture of the world is not deterministic. It is not clear, of course, if the non-determinism at the microscopic level has any influence on the physics at the level of, let’s say, the brain, where the probabilities can be exceedingly close to a deterministic picture, but nonetheless from the fundamental point of view it is non-determinism at the very bottom.

*Bell’s theorem rules out “local” hidden variables, showing that quantum mechanics is truly random, but there is the so-called Superdeterminism loophole (which would be incredibly strange if true).

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My opinion:

From time without beginning we have never been what can get lost. We have always been beyond bhava. We have always been the empty openess in which everything is yet undetermined, signless, without desire, still meaningless. In endless lives we have failed to see this dimension. In all this endless lifes we lived in a filled in world, everything fixed, ordered determined.
We felt that all these labels were true, real. This was our delusion.

Now, in this life we think to know we are humans, delusion goes on. The idea that we are humans is only rooted in attachment and wrong view. Rooted in viewing the khandha’s as me and mine. It is rooted in not seeing the unestablished, the undetermined, the open skylike character of the mind. How can a detached mind be called human?

Again we fail to see the open sky-like character of the mind and again are obsessed with what arises and ceases in the mind, even in such an extreme way that we think there is nothing else but formations. We again ignore the asankhata element in our lifes, the unsupported, unestablised totally open dimension in our lifes.


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I do think it is opposite. What is really unsatisfactory? That nothing changes. If nothing is ever refreshed, renewed. Stagnation. Boring. Impermanence is not that bad, if you think about it.
Maybe not nice for the grasping mind who longs for order and likes to be in controll, but he must just stop his controlling desires.

Impermanence at least means there is some hope too, it can change for better. In a sense one can rely on impermanence. For example, that pains can end, sickness, suffering. Because of impermanence there is also hope, light.

I used to see impermanence and decay as problems. On a holiday in my youth i saw the rust eating away the boat while my friend were making fun and pleasure. I was depressed and not able to have fun, without a lot of liquer. I used to get sad and depressed by impermanence. But it has somewhat changed. It is not that bad that things are impermanent.

I am, i think, not a common buddhist, because i have always seen the Dhamma as a means to get full trust in life. That was gone for me. I have never seen it as an escape route. My task feels like…trust in life. Not that i have consciously made this decision but for me this feels as the right thing to do.

This life is not that bad. Yes there is suffering. It this bad? I never felt it this way.
For me a full trust in life is the same as dispassionate because due to lack of trust and anxiety one becomes passionate in seeking trust in this and that and then one starts to relie on some means.

My heart, to be honest, will, i think, not accept life is not holy. Life is not a problem that must be solved.
That is my gut-feeling. It is more like a school, to learn. To do good. To share goodness. To share purity. To share our hearts.

Now you finally know how it is :slight_smile:

Namo Buddhaya!

It is important to note the the question ‘Is there a self?’ Is not such that ought to be answered categorically.

It is a question that needs to be answered by counter questioning

Eg ‘what self?’ ‘What do you assume a self?’ ‘Can you pin it down for me?’

Alternatively one can give an analytical answer explaining that all things are not self and how a self can’t be pinned down as a truth & reality

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Well there is no suffering/pain/sorrow or anything distressing in the higher luminous form realms. Same with the formless realms; constant bliss/pleasure 24/7 - these realms are only dukkha due to impermanence - the actual experience in those realms has no dukkha whatsoever(!).

That life there in such a realm will come to end and one is forced to take rebirth in a new body (hence not-self) and start all over in a different plane of existence - is what makes it anicca, dukkha & anatta.

Heaven, where most of us here at this forum will end up is very pleasurable according to the buddha with a very long life span. What makes it unsatisfactory is that it will come to an end but during its phase one can experience a lot of happines/bliss beyond anything even close to this planet earth.

This pleasurable heavenly existence coming to an end is why impermanence is bad. The death there means rebirth. Rebirth is why we have not-self.

I believe you would have to be very optimistic to believe that a majority of scholars in any field today would be open to an epistemological argument. Most everyday publications (much like the one OP posted) seem to speak a totally different language.

I always wonder how people who are giants in their fields can at the same time have such a hard time understanding something as easy as the critical argument.

I do not believe that one can live with a perspective that this body and mind are totally not me, mine, my self. Why would one even care about a body that is not me, mine, my self? I believe that would lead to neglect and indifference.

It would become an absurd world in which people start to claim …“no it was not me who killed that person yesterday, that was another and old version of me. Now i have a totally new me and this new me has not killed that person and cannot be held responsible, that is unfair mister judge. Mister Judge i tell the truth. There is no constant me so how can you hold me responsible. Mister judge you are ignorant. You cling to a doctrine of self and you still belief there is a constant self. You are so naieve mister judge”.

“Euhhh…well mister Wise, happely for you, it is not you who become imprisoned. That is another you”. That other you get 30 years in prison. Oke, are you happy now?"

“Yes, this is really great mister judge, thanks”

Buddha forsaw that he would become tired when he started teachings and people would not understand him. He even did not want to teach expacting these problems. Impossible without any sense of self, me, mine, my self, i believe. Also, any claim of realisation is only possible because of a sense of me who has attained this or that.

Because it’s dukkha and nobody likes dukkha. Dukkha needs to be extinguished. It’s not extinguished by doing whatever. It’s extinguished by acting out a skillful strategy. The strategy might entail maintaining the body regardless of whether it is self or not.

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What was understood as “Not-Self” could just have been a counterargument against the Brahmin’s Atman and the Gnostic’s Pleroma (or any other such metaphysical postulate). As such it could have been more of a rule of neutrality than opposing metaphysical concept. It also makes sense that “Not-Self” seems to be the middle way between affirming and denying that life has a purpose and/or meaning. Both views will cause Karma and Nibbana can only be reached (or, if you want, life can only be beat) by the ceasing of all Karma.