Saturday, October 27, 2012

What Do We Mean by "Self"? (Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch)


Over the past several days or more, I have been musing on where my current thinking is on the nature of the self. The public portion of this thinking (it's important for me to discuss ideas with others to get different points of view) began with a somewhat inflammatory comment on Facebook that generated a nice conversation, then was followed up with a post collecting podcasts by neuroscientists and philosophers on their conceptions of mind and self.

One of the podcasts (Brain Science Podcast #89) featured Evan Thompson (son of William Irwin Thompson) speaking about his recent book, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. He was also co-author with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch of The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1991), one of the seminal books in the move toward enactive and embodied views of mind and consciousness.

After listening to the podcast, I went back to The Embodied Mind, which I had read a decade ago. Their presentation of the experiential nature of the self matches my own (which means the book had a profound influence on my thinking, as did Varela's later books: Tree of Knowledge, 1992, written with Humberto R. Maturana, and The View from Within: First-person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness, 1999, written with Jonathan Shear).

Here are a few passages from The Embodied Mind that are relevant to the ideas about and experience of a self.

What Do We Mean by "Self"?


At every moment of our lives there is something going on, some experience. We see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think. We can be pleased, angry, afraid, tired, perplexed, interested, agonizingly selfconscious, or absorbed in a pursuit. I can feel that I am being overwhelmed by my own emotions, that I have greater worth when praised by another, that I am destroyed by a loss. What is this self, this ego-center, that appears and disappears, that seems so constant yet so fragile, so familiar and yet so elusive?

We are caught in a contradiction. On the one hand, even a cursory attention to experience shows us that our experience is always changing and, furthermore, is always dependent on a particular situation. To be human, indeed to be living, is always to be in a situation, a context, a world. We have no experience of anything that is permanent and independent of these situations. Yet most of us are convinced of our identities: we have a personality, memories and recollections, and plans and anticipations, which seem to come together in a coherent point of view, a center from which we survey the world, the ground on which we stand. How could such a point of view be possible if it were not rooted in a single, independent, truly existing self or ego?

This question is the meeting ground of everything in this book: cognitive science, philosophy, and the meditative tradition of mindfulness/awareness. We wish to make a sweeping claim: all of the reflective traditions in human history-philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, religion, meditation-have challenged the naive sense of self. No tradition has ever claimed to discover an independent, fixed, or unitary self within the world of experience. Let us give the voice for this to David Hume's famous passage: "For 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 anything but the perception."[l] Such an insight directly contradicts our ongoing sense of self.

It is this contradiction, the incommensurability of the outcome of reflection and experience, that has provoked us on the journey in this book. We believe that many non-Western (even contemplative) traditions, and all Western traditions, deal with this contradiction simply by turning away from it, refusing to confront it, a withdrawal that can take one of two forms. The usual way is simply to ignore it. Hume, for example, unable to find the self as he reflected in his study, chose to withdraw and immerse himself in a game of backgammon; he resigned himself to the separation of life and reflection. Jean-Paul Sartre expresses this by saying that we are "condemned" to a belief in the self. The second tactic is to postulate a transcendental self that can never be known to experience, such as the atman of the Upanishads or the transcendental ego of Kant.[2] (Noncontemplative traditions, of course, can just not notice the contradiction-for example, self-concept theory in psychology.)[3] The major-and perhaps onlytradition that we know that directly confronts this contradiction and that has spoken to it for a long time arose from the practice of mindfulness/awareness meditation.

We have already described mindfulness/awareness practice as a gradual development of the ability to be present with one's mind and body not only in formal meditation but in the experiences of everyday life. Beginning meditators are usually amazed at the tumultuous activity of their mind as perceptions, thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, and every other kind of mental content pursue each other endlessly like a cat chasing its tail. As the meditators develop some stability of mindfulness/awareness so that they have periods when they are not constantly (to use traditional images) sucked into the whirlpool or thrown from a horse, they begin to have insight into what the mind, as it is experienced, is really like. Experiences, they notice, are impermanent. This is not just the leaves-fall, maidens-wither, and kings-are-forgotten type of impermanence (traditionally called gross impermanence) with which all people are hauntingly familiar but a personal penetrating impermanence of the activity of the mind itself. Moment by moment new experiences happen and are gone. It is a rapidly shifting stream of momentary mental occurrences. Furthermore, the shiftiness includes the perceiver as much as the perceptions. There is no experiencer, just as Hume noticed, who remains constant to receive experiences, no landing platform for experience. This actual experiential sense of no one home is called selflessness or egolessness. Moment by moment the meditator also sees the mind pulling away from its sense of impermanence and lack of self, sees it grasping experiences as though they were permanent, commenting on experiences as though there were a constant perceiver to comment, seeking any mental entertainment that will disrupt mindfulness, and restlessly fleeing to the next preoccupation, all with a sense of constant struggle. This undercurrent of restlessness, grasping, anxiety, and unsatisfactoriness that pervades experience is called Dukkha, usually translated as suffering. Suffering arises quite naturally and then grows as the mind seeks to avoid its natural grounding in impermanence and lack of self.

The tension between the ongoing sense of self in ordinary experience and the failure to find that self in reflection is of central importance in Buddhism-the origin of human suffering is just this tendency to grasp onto and build a sense of self, an ego, where there is none. As meditators catch glimpses of impermanence, selflessness, and suffering (known as the three marks of existence) and some inkling that the pervasiveness of suffering (known as the First Noble Truth) may have its origin in their own self-grasping (known as the Second Noble Truth), they may develop some real motivation and urgency to persevere in their investigation of mind. They try to develop a strong and stable insight and inquisitiveness into the moment to moment arising of mind. They are encouraged to investigate: How does this moment arise? What are its conditions? What is the nature of "my" reactivity to it? Where does the experience of "I" occur?

The search for how the self arises is thus a way of asking, "What and where is mind?" in a direct and personal way. The initial spirit of inquisitiveness in these questions is actually not unlike Descartes's Meditations, though this statement might surprise some people since Descartes has received such bad press these days. Descartes's initial decision to rely not on the word of the Church fathers but rather on what his own mind could discern in reflection obviously partakes of the spirit of self-reliant investigation, as does phenomenology. Descartes, however, stopped short: His famous"l think, I am" simply leaves untouched the nature of the "1" that thinks. True, Descartes did infer that the "1" is fundamentally a thinking thing, but here he went too far: the only certainty that "1 am" carries is that of being a thought. If Descartes had been fully rigorous, mindful, and attentive, he would not have jumped to the conclusion that I am a thinking thing (res cogitans); rather he would have kept his attention on the very process of mind itself.

In mindfulness/awareness practice, the awareness of thinking, emotions, and bodily sensations becomes quite pronounced in the basic restlessness that we normally experience. To penetrate that experience, to discern what it is and how it arises, some types of mindfulness meditation direct the meditator to attend to experience as precisely and dispassionately as possible. It is only through a pragmatic, open-ended reflection that we can examine systematically and directly this restlessness that we usually ignore. As the contents of experience arise-discursive thoughts, emotional tonalities, bodily sensations-the meditator is attentive not by becoming concerned with the contents of the thoughts or with the sense of I thinking but rather by simply noting "thinking" and directing his attention to the never-ceasing process of that experience.

Just as the mindfulness meditator is amazed to discover how mindless he is in daily life, so the first insights of the meditator who begins to question the self are normally not egolessness but the discovery of total egomania. Constantly one thinks, feels, and acts as though one had a self to protect and preserve. The slightest encroachment on the self's territory (a splinter in the finger, a noisy neighbor) arouses fear and anger. The slightest hope of self-enhancement (gain, praise, fame, pleasure) arouses greed and grasping. Any hint that a situation is irrelevant to the self (waiting for a bus, meditating) arouses boredom. Such impulses are instinctual, automatic, pervasive, and powerful. They are completely taken for granted in daily life. The impulses are certainly there, constantly occurring, yet in the light of the questioning meditator, do they make any sense? What kind of self does he think he has to warrant such attitudes?

The Tibetan teacher Tsultrim Gyatso puts the dilemma this way:
To have any meaning such a self has to be lasting, for if it perished every moment one would not be so concerned about what was going to happen to it the next moment; it would not be one's "self" anymore. Again it has to be single. If one had no separate identity why should one worry about what happened to one's "self" any more than one worried about anyone else's? It has to be independent or there would be no sense in saying "I did this" or "1 have that." If one had no independent existence there would be no-one to claim the actions and experiences as its own . . . We all act as if we had lasting, separate, and independent selves that it is our constant preoccupation to protect and foster. It is an unthinking habit that most of us would normally be most unlikely to question or explain. However, all our suffering is associated with this pre-occupation. All loss and gain, pleasure and pain arise because we identify so closely with this vague feeling of selfness that we have. We are so emotionally involved with and attached to this "self" that we take it for granted .... The meditator does not speculate about this "self." He does not have theories about whether it does or does not exist. Instead he just trains himself to watch . . . how his mind clings to the idea of self and "mine" and how all his sufferings arise from this attachment. At the same time he looks carefully for that self. He tries to isolate it from all his other experiences. Since it is the culprit as far as all his suffering is concerned, he wants to find it and identify it. The irony is that however much he tries, he does not find anything that corresponds to the self.[4]
H there is no experienced self, then how is it that we think there is? What is the origin of our self-serving habits? What is it in experience that we take for a self?
[~ Pages 59-63]

Following this section, the authors went through the five aggregates and revealed that absence of an I or a Self behind or beneath them. Here is an explanation of why we spend time with the five aggregates:
What is the use of this analysis of personal experience in terms of the five aggregates? What is the use of this reduction of the apparent unity of personal experience into the various elements of form, feeling, perception, mental formation or volition, and consciousness? The purpose of this analysis is to create the wisdom of not-self. What we wish to achieve is to arrive at a way of experiencing the world which is not constructed upon and around the idea of a self. We want to see personal experience in terms of processes, in terms of impersonal functions rather than in terms of a self and what affects a self because this will create an attitude of equanimity, an attitude which will help us overcome the emotional disturbances of hope and fear.
The post above begins with an assessment of each of the five aggregates, and concludes with the offered passage on the realization of no-self. Varela, et al, offer a similar argument then offer some neuroscience research to support their assessment of the aggregates.

What made this book unique at the time, and has kept it in print for 20+ years, is that they were approaching questions usually addressed only through a third-person scientific examination from a first-person subjective perspective.

Here is some more.

The Aggregates without a Self


It might appear that in our search for a self in the aggregates we have come out empty handed. Everything that we tried to grasp seemed to slip through our fingers, leaving us with the sense that there is nothing to hold on to. At this point, it is important to pause and again remind ourselves of just what it was that we were unable to find.

We did not fail to find the physical body, though we had to admit that its designation as my body depends very much on how we choose to look at things. Nor did we fail to locate our feelings or sensations, and we also found our various perceptions. We found dispositions, volitions, motivations-in short, all those things that make up our personality and emotional sense of self. We also found all the various forms in which we can be aware-awareness of seeing and hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, even awareness of our own thought processes. So the only thing we didn't find was a truly existing self or ego. But notice that we did find experience. Indeed, we entered the very eye of the storm of experience, we just simply could discern there no self, no "I."

Why then do we feel empty handed? We feel this way because we tried to grasp something that was never there in the first place. This grasping goes on all the time; it is exactly the deep-rooted emotional response that conditions all of our behavior and shapes all of the situations in which we live. It is for this reason that the five aggregates are glossed as the "aggregates of grasping" (upadanaskandha). We - that is, our personality, which is largely dispositional formations - cling to the aggregates as if they were the self when, in fact, they are empty (sunya) of a self. And yet despite this emptiness of ego-self, the aggregates are full of experience. How is this possible?


The progressive development of insight enhances the experience of calm mindfulness and expands the space within which all experiential arisings occur. As this practice develops, one's immediate attitude (not simply one's after-the-fact reflections) becomes more and more focused on the awareness that these experiences--thoughts, dispositions, perceptions, feelings, and sensations - cannot be pinned down. Our habitual clinging to them is itself only another feeling, another dispositon of our mind.


This arising and subsiding, emergence and decay, is just that emptiness of self in the aggregates of experience. In other words, the very fact that the aggregates are full of experience is the same as the fact that they are empty of self. If there were a solid, really existing self hidden in or behind the aggregates, its unchangeableness would prevent any experience from occurring; its static nature would make the constant arising and subsiding of experience come to a screeching halt. (It is not surprising, therefore, that techniques of meditation that presuppose the existence of such a self proceed by closing off the senses and denying the world of experience.) But that circle of arising and decay of experience turns continuously, and it can do so only because it is empty of a self.
[~ Pages 79-80]

This is an exceptional book. Many of the ideas proposed then (written between 1986-1990, published in 1991), are now widely accepted among consciousness researchers and neuroscientists.

For example, here is a passage that highlights this idea:
The recent motivation to take a second look into self-organization was based on two widely acknowledged deficiencies of cognitivism. The first is that symbolic information processing is based on sequential rules, applied one at a time. This "von Neumann bottleneck" is a dramatic limitation when the task at hand requires large numbers of sequential operations (such as image analysis or weather forecasting). A continued search for parallel processing algorithms has met with little success because the entire computational orthodoxy seems to run precisely counter to it.

A second important limitation is that symbolic processing is localized: the loss or malfunction of any part of the symbols or rules of the system results in a serious malfunction. In contrast, a distributed operation is highly desirable, so that there is at least a relative equipotentiality and immunity to mutilations.
[~ Page 86]

It is now a given that the brain operates through parallel processing and that its function are distributed as networks. Most importantly, none of this happens without a body, without an intersubjective and interpersonal context, and without being embedded in a multifaceted environment.

And most interestingly, none of it requires a self.

Selfless Minds; Divided Agents


From a contemporary standpoint, then, Abhidharma appears as the study of the emergent formation of direct experience without the ground of an ego-self. It is remarkable how well the overall logical form of some Abhidharma formulations fits that of contemporary scientific concern with emergent properties and societies of mind. (Or perhaps we should state it the other way round.) These latter contemporary scientific concerns have, however, been pursued independently of any disciplined analysis and direct examination of human experience. Since the reader may still be skeptical that science and human experience are inseparable partners, we will now tum to consider in more detail what happens when this partnership is one-sided. What happens when the insight that mind is free of self is generated from within the very heart of science and yet is not connected to the rest of human experience?


Most working cognitive scientists, and even some cognitivist philosophers, are content to ignore this question. One of the virtues of both Minsky's Society of Mind and Jackendoff' s Consciousness and the Computational Mind is that each recognizes this question quite early on and takes it as a central theme. Minsky in particular distinguishes between the lowercase self, which refers "in a general sense to an entire person," and the uppercase Self, which refers to "that more mysterious sense of personal identity." He then asks, "Is this concept of a Self of any real use at all?" And he answers, "It is indeed-provided that we think of it not as a centralized and all-powerful entity, but as a society of ideas that include both our images of what the mind is and our ideals about what it ought to be."[23]

The distinctions that Minsky draws in these remarks are suggestive, especially in the context of our discussion. They are close to the Buddhist distinction between the coherent pattern of dependently originated habits that we recognize as a person and the ego-self that a person may believe she has and constantly grasps after but which does not actually exist. That is, the word self is a convenient way of referring to a series of mental and bodily events and formations, that have a degree of causal coherence and integrity through time. And the capitalized Self does exemplify our sense that hidden in these transitory formations is a real, unchanging essence that is the source of our identity and that we must protect. But as we have seen, this latter conviction may be unfounded and, as Minsky insightfully notes, can actually be harmful.

But equally interesting are the ways in which Minsky's distinctions - or those of other cognitive scientists concerned with the same issue, such as Jackendoff - do not match those of the Buddhist tradition. We believe that the lack of fit is ultimately rooted in two related issues. First, contemporary cognitive science does not distinguish between the idea or representation of a Self and the actual basis of that representation, which is an individual's grasping after an egoself. Cognitive science has challenged the idea that there is a real thing to which the fomer applies, but it has not even thought to consider the latter. Second, cognitive science does not yet take seriously its own findings of the lack of a Self.

Both of these stem from the lack of a disciplined method for examination and inclusion of human experience in cognitive science. The major result of this lack is the issue that has been with us since the beginning: cognitive science offers us a purely theoretical discovery, which remains remote from actual human experience, of mind without self.

For example Minsky, on the same page from which the previous quotations were taken, writes that "perhaps it's because there are no persons in our heads to make us do the things we want-nor even ones to make us want to want - that we construct the myth that we're inside ourselves." This remark confuses two features of mind without self that we have repeatedly seen to be distinct: one is the lack of an ego-self and the other is grasping for an ego-self. We construct the belief or inner discourse that there is an ego-self not because the mind is ultimately empty of such a self but because the everyday conditioned mind is full of grasping. Or to make the point in the vocabulary of mindfulness/awareness, the belief is rooted in the accumulated tendencies that from moment to moment give rise to the unwholesome mental factors that reinforce grasping and craving. It is not the lack of an ego-self per se that is the source of this ongoing belief and private internal conversation; it is the emotional response to that lack. Since we habitually assume that there is an ego-self, our immediate response is to feel a loss when we cannot inferentially find the object of our convictions. We feel as if we have lost something precious and familiar, and so we immediately try to fill that loss with the belief in a self. But how can we lose something that we (that is, our temporary, emergent "we"s) never had? And if we never had an ego-self in the first place, what is the point of continually trying to maintain one by telling ourselves we're inside ourselves? If it is to ourselves that we are talking in this conversation, why should we need to tell ourselves all of this in the first place?

This feeling of loss, though somewhat natural when one's investigation is still at an inferential stage, is heightened and prolonged when the discovery of the lack of self remains purely theoretical. In the tradition of a mindful, open-ended examination of experience, the initial conceptual realization of mind without self is deepened to the point where it is realized in a direct, personal way. The realization shifts from being merely inferential to being direct experience through a journey where the actual practice of mindfulness/awareness plays a central role. And as a form of direct experience, generations of meditators attest that the lack of an ego-self does not continue to be experienced as a loss that needs to be supplemented by a new belief or inner dialogue. On the contrary, it is the beginning of a feeling of freedom from fixed beliefs, for it makes apparent precisely the openness and space in which a transformation of what the subject itself is, or could be, becomes possible.

Minsky suggests, however, that we embrace the idea of Self because "so much of what our minds do is hidden from the parts of us that are involved with verbal consciousness."[24] Similarly, Jackendoff suggests that "awareness reflects a curious amalgam of the effects on the mind of both thought and the real world, while leaving totally opaque the means by which these effects come about."[25] There are two problems with this position. In the first place, the hypothesized mental processes of which we are unaware are just that-processes hypothesized by the cognitivist information-processing model of the mind. It is this model that requires a host of subpersonal hidden processes and activities, not our experiences of the mind itself. But surely it is not these ever-changing phantoms of cognitive science that we can blame for our belief that we personally have an ego-self; to think so would be a confusion of levels of discourse. In the second place, even if we did have many mental activities at the subpersonal level inherently hidden from awareness, how would that explain our belief in an ego-self? A glance at the complexity of Jackendoff' sand Minsky's models of the mind suggests that were a mind actually to have all of these mechanisms, awareness of them would not necessarily even be desirable. Lack of awareness is not in itself a problem.

What is a problem is the lack of discrimination and mindfulness of the habitual tendency to grasp, of which we can become aware. This type of mindfulness can be developed with great precision due to the fundamentally discontinuous--and hence unsolid-nature of our experience. (We have seen how some of this discontinuity and lack of solidity is quite consonant with modem cognitive science, and we are now even able to observe some of it from a neurophysiological standpoint.) The cultivation of such precision is possible not just in formal periods of practice but in our everyday lives. An entire tradition with numerous cultural variants and accessible methods testifies to the possibility and actuality of this human journey of investigation and experience.

As we can see from our discussion of both Minsky and Jackendoff, cognitive science basically ignores this possibility. This indifferent attitude generates two significant problems. First, by means of this ignoring, cognitive science denies itself the investigation of an entire domain of human experience. Even though the "plasticity" of experience, especially in its perceptual forms, has become something of a topic of debate among philosophers and cognitive scientists,[26] no one is investigating the ways in which conscious awareness can be transformed as a result of practices such as mindfulness/awareness. In the mindfulness/awareness tradition, in contrast, the possibility of such transformation is the cornerstone of the entire study of mind.[27]

The second problem is the one we have evoked from the very beginning of this book: science becomes remote from human experience and, in the case of cognitive science, generates a divided stance in which we are led to affirm consequences that we appear to be constitutionally incapable of accepting. Explicit attempts to heal this gap are broached only by a few, such as Gordon Globus, who asks the question, What is a neural network that it may be capable of supporting a Dasein, an embodied existence?[28] or Sherry Turkle, who has explored a possible bridge between cognitive science and psychoanalysis.[29] And yet, to the extent that research in cognitive science requires more and more that we revise our naive idea of what a cognizing subject is (its lack of solidity, its divided dynamics, and its generation from unconscious processes), the need for a bridge between cognitive science and an open-ended pragmatic approach to human experience will become only more inevitable. Indeed, cognitive science will be able to resist the need for such a bridge only by adopting an attitude that is inconsistent with its own theories and discoveries.

[~ Pages 123-127]

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