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How would you reply to these arguments by a philosophy Professor against non-self?

I had an exchange a while ago with a philosphy professor who is critical of Buddhism’s teaching of non-self.
When I mentioned that you get real insight in non-self after attaining the jhanas, his rebuttal was:

The gist of one of my main criticisms of this jhanas argument (one can attain trance states in which one experiences no self, ergo there is no self) is that the logic is pathetic. By analogy, I can go so far away from St. Patrick’s Cathedral that I don’t see it, ergo…

He added

When I sleep there’s no reality, ergo… In dreamless sleep there’s no self, ergo… I take enough psychedelics & experience the dissolution of my sense of self, ergo… Ostrich buries head & cannot see, ergo… Peek-a-boo, ergo… No ergo’s here support the non-existence claim.

In a sense, one can see what he means in this argument. For example if you are under anaesthesia, you will not feel your body (your body disappears in a sense). But would this prove that the body is non-self, because temporarily you have lost all bodily feelings and bodily control?

Another problem: The ideology informing Buddhist practice prescribes attainment of the no-self state, biasing the expectations, experiences, & 1st-personal reports of practitioners, who are rewarded for attaining them as marks of spiritual advancement. Hindu ideology favors Self

And he also added

Another problem: All altered states are intrinsically dubious

I think that the argument against this last point is simply that because of the vipallasas all ‘normal’ states are dubious, and you need to abandon the hindrances to see things clearly. But what would the best arguments be for some of his other objections? I did not name the professor (who is also a meditator apparently, but nor a Buddhist obviously) but I can eventually ask him if it’s ok if I name him on this website, if anyone thinks this would useful.

PS All the statements I have quoted above were made publicly, so I am, of course, not reporting anything that was meant to remain private

Later edit. I contacted the professor and he does not mind at all being mentioned. So here’s a link to an article of his, in case you’re interested:

and he has a book on Buddhism too
https://www.amazon.com/Buddhism-Meditation-Free-Will-Repetti/dp/036758848X?asin=036758848X&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1

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Personally, I think this is a problem with the interpretation of no-self.

Contemplating if there is a self or no-self is one of the wrong view questions “Do I exist, Do I not exist?”

What the Buddha taught was

  1. Suffering IN Impermanence
  2. No-self IN Suffering

You don’t choose to suffer, you only suffer because you don’t know better (ignorance). If you could choose to not suffer, you wouldn’t. Therefore everyone employs the best strategy they know to escape dukkha, for the average person it’s sensual desires, for the ariya it’s the jhanas and Supermundane nibbana element.

As he is touched by that painful feeling, he is resistant. Any resistance-obsession with regard to that painful feeling obsesses him. Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure. As he is delighting in sensual pleasure, any passion-obsession with regard to that feeling of pleasure obsesses him. He does not discern, as it actually is present, the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, or escape from that feeling. As he does not discern the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, or escape from that feeling, then any ignorance-obsession with regard to that feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain obsesses him.

Remember, the dhamma is about stopping dukkha, not about metaphysics “is there a self”.

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But seriously, I don’t talk about (much less argue about) such deep Dhamma subjects to people outside of Buddhism who don’t understand the context of the teachings, don’t have respect for them and, most importantly, aren’t open to them. It’s just counterproductive.

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lol, the video is funny. He did write a book on Buddhism, and he is an academic (which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective :wink:), so I thought his arguments deserved consideration.

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But… who gets to define an “unaltered state”? This is where we get into an endless cycle of proliferation. Which is why I wholeheartedly agree with @MKoll that engaging such people is not productive. If someone has made up their mind, there’s no further discussion. And its probably quite risky for your own well-being because it may add fuel to the hinderance of doubt. Not because they’re right but because you can become convinced of literally anything if you proliferate far enough.

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For me, it is helpful to think of this Dhamma of not-self as that being that as all things are impermanent, in process, and changeable, then they cannot be a fixed self, or fixed entity that we cling to and allow the ensuing disappointment (dukkha). Of course, St. Patrick’s Cathedral exists, and it still exists in a mundane way even if you are 1000 km from it. That’s not the point of anatta and anicca. Jhana states arguably allow one to see and feel clearly (vipassana) this state of uncertain change, and awaken to this truth of not-self.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral exists in a conventional way, but it is slowly changing, slowly degrading, and is subject to change. It won’t exist, possibly, in 2000 years. Dublin landmark Saint Patrick's Cathedral is embarking on its biggest building project in 150 years

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It might be useful to make a distinction between ontology and epistemology.

Ontologically, non-self is a statement about the nature of the mind and body. Just like ‘my body is made of atoms’ is an ontological claim, so is ‘this is my body’. This body is “mine, my self” is an ontological claim that a certain physical object (the body) has the property of ‘me-ness’ or of ‘belonging to’ or ‘being owned by’.

The epistemological question is about how we can come to know whether some objects (like a body or thoughts or feelings) have the property of selfness or not.

It might also be good to recognize that non-self is a negative claim; it claims the absence of a property. “This is me, mine, my self” is the positive claim, that a property is present.

Keep removing bricks from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, when does it stop being St. Patrick’s Cathedral?

St. Patrick’s Cathedral is just a convention, a name. The bricks are just bricks, they do not have any property of “St. Patrick’s Cathedral”-ness.

Anything you could call a self can be picked apart in the same way. When you think about it, self is a very flimsy metaphysical claim that is easily picked apart, at least intellectually.

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that’s really good advice, thank you :pray: There are times when I tend to overthink and it does not lead anywhere.

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These are very interesting points. Concerning epistemology, I understand that the teaching of vipallasas and the hindrances in Buddhism imply that you get to see things the way they are after deep meditation.
On the other hand some philosophers and academics are suspicious of this (Paul Williams is one of them).

Concerning your argument on bricks, in the exchange I had with the philosopher I mention in the OP, he addressed something similar

Another (mereological) fallacy: if you can get yourself to only see atoms, then you have disproved the existence of molecules and larger molecular structures. That’s the “see only the micro-elements constituting the process” move.

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All you have to employ is Anathapindika’s simple retort:

When this had been said, Anathapindika the householder said to the wanderers, “As for the venerable one who says, ‘The cosmos is eternal. Only this is true; anything otherwise is worthless. This is the sort of view I have,’ his view arises from his own inappropriate attention or in dependence on the words of another. Now this view has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently originated. Whatever has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently originated, that is inconstant. Whatever is inconstant is stress. This venerable one thus adheres to that very stress, submits himself to that very stress.” (Similarly for the other positions.)

“Whatever has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently originated, that is inconstant. Whatever is inconstant is stress. Whatever is stress is not me, is not what I am, is not my self. This is the sort of view I have.”

So, householder, whatever has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently originated, that is inconstant. Whatever is inconstant is stress. You thus adhere to that very stress, submit yourself to that very stress.”

Venerable sirs, whatever has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently originated, that is inconstant. Whatever is inconstant is stress. Whatever is stress is not me, is not what I am, is not my self. Having seen this well with right discernment as it actually is present, I also discern the higher escape from it as it actually is present.”

  • An 10.93

The key takeaway is discerning the higher escape. If you don’t discern the higher escape, your beliefs aren’t practical. Without any practically, all views are just mental masturbation that lead nowhere and don’t matter.

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I think he is arguing if memory of a thing is considered proof of existence of the thing.

In my understanding about Buddha’s teaching, memory of a thing is not really the same as a thing exists.

Once church is beyond range, we can no longer assert the church exists or opposite. We discern the memory as it is, merely a thought.

Then the argument left with, if a self exists here and now. If it is directly perceivable, it can be pointed out. Then the professor has to articulate clearly what it is. Only thing he said so far is ‘a sense of self’.
It is a sense. I would go speculate a little, he meant ‘a feeling’. And he hinged everything on a feeling.

That’s the way I also understand it. In the Buddhist path meditation is like the telescope of the astronomer or microscope of the microbiologist, i.e. a tool for generating the appropriate knowledge.

The point is that the metaphysical claim “this is me, I am this” breaks down at both lower and higher levels. It’s nonsensical to claim to be carbon atoms or water molecules. It’s nonsensical to claim to be a social system or society.

The exercise shows that the idea selfhood doesn’t stand up very well under closer inspection.

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I would say that one will get better results from a reasoned argument in a situation like this than they will from simply asserting a mystical truth like “It’s something a person realizes in a deep jhana.”

Luckily, Buddhism has rational arguments that examine the things people typical try to identify as self and eliminate them as being possibly an unconditioned or eternal soul-type of self. The basic argument takes something like the physical body or the mind and points out that it’s impermanent and constantly changing. How can that be a real self? Buddhism does typically admit that, for communication’s sake, we can say there are temporary things that can be called selves. Thus, it’s not a problem to say, “I went to the store.”

This is the tack I would take with someone who wants reasoned arguments.

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In my experience, it’s best to first agree on a definition of what we all mean by “Self”. What are its qualities? Is it a thing, a process or a concept? Is it permanent/ unchanging/ eternal or not? Where is it to be found? How will we verify that what we have found is indeed “Self”?

99.9% of the times when there is a discussion about “Self” on the internet, each of the participants is talking about very different things.

When we don’t agree on what “Self” is, how can we reach any agreement on what isn’t it?
:thinking:

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The average person considers “Self” to be the source of intention, or the intention creator, and rightfully so, as the Buddha said

  • It’s better that people consider the body the self/permanent rather than the mind, because the mind moves so fast it’s impossible for a non arahant to see
  • Seeing the Impermanence of intention requires jhana mastery

So an average person has no way of seeing or knowing that what they consider the self (that which creates intention) is conditioned, fabricated, Impermanent, and no-self.

Even most of us on this forum only go by faith, and not directly seeing the impermanence of intention.

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I think the arguments the philosophy professor are based on presenting self view as “persisting” hence not self is interpreted as some trance or induced state that aims to deny or escape from the original, more persisting and main reference “self view”.

I would have asked him on what basis he equates persistence (if this is how experiences the world) as a proof of the existence of a self?

When Buddhists develop concentration, they know phenomena as it arises, persist and subside:

"And what is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to mindfulness & alertness? There is the case where feelings are known to the monk as they arise, known as they persist, known as they subside. Perceptions are known to him as they arise, known as they persist, known as they subside. Thoughts are known to him as they arise, known as they persist, known as they subside. This is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to mindfulness & alertness.

I see your point, however I wanted him to comment about some of the deeper teachings, specific to Buddhism (as I said, he has written a book on Buddhism). That’s why I mentioned the jhanas.
The rational arguments you mention, whilst very important, are also common to other traditions and philosophies and not specific to Buddhism and to the insights you get through meditation. For example I only just came across this article on impermanence and non-self

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Mortality of the body, is not quite effective in defeating Self-view imo. Most of us know it yet it doesn’t make a dent in their belief of a self.
Self can only be conceived. In the case of creator of intention - with intention, we conceive there is a creator. Without the intention, we don’t conceive a creator of intention. So creator relies on the appearing of product to be, not the other way around.

That is incorrect. Self is not a passion it is a result of wrong view which is corrected by insight:

"These two qualities have a share in clear knowing. Which two? Tranquillity (samatha) & insight (vipassana).

"When tranquillity is developed, what purpose does it serve? The mind is developed. And when the mind is developed, what purpose does it serve? Passion is abandoned.

"When insight is developed, what purpose does it serve? Discernment is developed. And when discernment is developed, what purpose does it serve? Ignorance is abandoned.

"Defiled by passion, the mind is not released. Defiled by ignorance, discernment does not develop. Thus from the fading of passion is there awareness-release. From the fading of ignorance is there discernment-release.”—-AN 2.30

The Buddha instructing Rahula:

"Develop the meditation of the perception of inconstancy. For when you are developing the meditation of the perception of inconstancy, the conceit ‘I am’ will be abandoned.”—-MN 62

The Buddha then goes on to recommend meditation on the breath and describe the four tetrads, the fourth beginning with the focus on inconstancy, that is insight.

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It is necessary to have a sense of self until the last stage of the path. This is in order to have the drive to implement the path, which is conditioned. This self attenuates, the first fetter to be abandoned is personality belief, the refined self being connected with the form and fine-material realms of the higher fetters. (DN 9)

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