Thursday, 28 July 2011

No-Self and What It Really Means

There is no "I". We all know it (if you don't, check it out for yourself - can you find it anywhere in your experience?), but I've only just come to appreciate how far that goes.

When you realise that there is no self, all that is left over, all that's actually shown to be real, is the personality. Behaviour patterns. "Ego", according to some uses of the term.

Actually, even that is a fiction.

What is a human being? Just a set of patterns. A certain proportion of those patterns is physical, matter arranged in specific ways and interacting in specific ways. These patterns are organs, chemical exchanges, organ systems. Exactly where we draw the line between them is entirely subjective - for example, you could call the stomach a pattern, or you could separate it into its biological constituents, the various ways it interacts with other organs, and so on all the way down to individual subatomic particles.

It may seem strange to think of something physical as a pattern, but it works. Google gives one definition as "a regular and intelligible form or sequence discernible in certain actions or situations", and I think that's fair. At any rate, bear with me.

The essential thing is that although these patterns are interconnected, and some rely on others to exist or function at all, they have no inherent property of "being part of one thing" except insofar as we define them as constituting a single body. For example, suppose we introduce a pacemaker into the system. It is interconnected with the other patterns, and many will rely on it to function (the heart, for a start). We can even make a feedback loop so it relies on them as well (by having it detect the heart rate and adjust accordingly).

But this doesn't invest the pacemaker with a property of "body-ness". To take another example, try a dialysis machine. You could be hooked up to a big one outside your body, or we could somehow minimise it and make it ultra-efficient so it fitted inside you. It would effectively function as an extra organ either way, but we would not be magically making it cross a "you/not you" barrier just by making mechanical modifications.

We could even find out that a foetus had a lethal kidney problem, and implant our micro-dialysis machine in it before birth. There would still be no "you/not you" barrier being crossed.

The point I'm trying to make is that there is no objective criterion according to which the patterns which make up the human body constitute a single continuous thing. There is no "bodyness" attribute, any more than building a LEGO house gives a "houseness" attribute to the LEGO blocks. The decision to demarcate a certain combination of patterns as "Alexei", and to treat further alterations to that combination of patterns as "Alexei changing", is a mental one which doesn't reflect anything about actual reality.

Now we go from the hard part to the easy one. Behaviour patterns, that which we call "personality", work in exactly the same way. There is no fixed entity created by a particular combination of thought and behaviour patterns. There is no fixed "Alexei", only a load of tendencies encapsulated as neural patterns in the brain. Of these tendencies, only a few at a time are being expressed, and there is no inherent reason why those being expressed at one time should relate to those being expressed at another.

In other words, there is no such thing as "acting out of character". There is no objective reason why a person's thoughts or actions should be consistent. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't, depending on which patterns are being triggered when. If you know a person's dominant (i.e. most frequently triggering) patterns, and you know what their triggers are, you can predict their behaviour to a certain extent. But you're not actually predicting a person, you're predicting a pattern. There's no person there apart from the patterns that exist at any given moment.

Putting it another way, if a pattern is 1 and a person is 5, 5=1+1+1+1+1. There is no "fiveness", no special quality that makes the whole in any way WHATSOEVER more than the sum of the parts.

Yes, patterns interact, which is to say some trigger others and some rely on others to be triggered at all. The ways in which they do so are staggeringly complex - and remember, exactly where you draw the lines between different patterns is entirely subjective. But in the end, those patterns are all there is. The fact that a certain set of patterns is labelled "Alexei", and that a certain subset of them is labelled "Alexei's body", is just the activity of more patterns.


This is a Portuguese Man O' War jellyfish. It looks like a single living being. It's not. It's a colony of lots and lots of individual living beings called zooids. The zooids are highly specialised, and could not survive if they were detached from the colony, but they are very definitely individual creatures.

You look like a single living being. You're not. You are made of countless patterns. These patterns are highly specialised. Depending on where you draw the lines between them, most could not survive (or, in the case of non-physical ones, exist at all) apart from the rest. Yet they are very definitely individual patterns.

Sure, you could say "I am one very large pattern", and since the lines are subjective, that's a legitimate response. But it's no less subjective than the rest. Your thoughts are part of that pattern, right? But they're triggered by the environment, and could not exist without it. So is the environment part of the pattern too?

You would die without food. But food is just like thought - it might turn up or it might not, and this depends both on the actions of the organism and on the environment. So is food part of the "you" pattern?

And so on. The lines between the patterns are arbitrary. You can draw them around individual organs of the body, you can draw them around individual bodies, or you can draw one line that includes the totality of the universe. But no amount of drawing will change what's actually true.

And what's actually true is that there is an arbitrary number of individual patterns, interacting and interdependent, with nothing holding them together except those interactions and interdependencies. Some of these patterns give names and labels to other patterns, but that doesn't make the names and labels any more real.

A human being is a mental abstraction, a label given to a set of patterns. The patterns themselves are constantly changing, and the pretence of continuity or consistency is just that - a label that doesn't reflect reality.

Look again at the Portuguese Man O' War. That's what you are. A colony of patterns, a few of which are shouting "I exist as one distinct individual!"

There is no you. This is how deep it goes.

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3 comments:

David said...

While it is seen there is no centre relating to the organism there is however unity of the parts that contribute to or participate in the principle of that entity, other wise it would be a useless mess. The self reference is just a false lable for all this, as there is no ownership there is no separate source.

Velorien said...

Could I invite you to try a couple of experiments to clarify this issue?

Note that these won't work unless you actually do them.

First experiment:

Consider an atom. What is the criterion by which it is a distinct unity?

Consider a molecule. What is the criterion by which it is a distinct unity?

Consider a cell in the body. What is the criterion by which it is a distinct unity?

Consider a villus in the lining of the stomach. What is the criterion by which it is a distinct unity?

Consider the lining of the stomach. What is the criterion by which it is a distinct unity?

Consider the stomach. What is the criterion by which it is a distinct unity?

Consider the digestive system. What is the criterion by which it is a distinct unity?

Consider the human body. What is the criterion by which it is a distinct unity?

Consider the planet Earth. What is the criterion by which it is a distinct unity?

Consider the Solar System. What is the criterion by which it is a distinct unity?

Consider the Milky Way galaxy. What is the criterion by which it is a distinct unity?

Did you use the same criterion in each instance? If an ancient Greek philosopher, a scientist from the year 5000 and a visiting alien from the planet Zworkle were to design an analogous experiment, would they pick the same list of unities by the same criteria?

Second experiment:

Find a complex object to look at - something with several parts, like a computer mouse or a book cover. Look at all the individual parts of the object. Now look at the whole. Can you see an object distinct from the parts? Repeat this with three more objects.

Now go back to the original object. Try to see it and the surface it's resting on as one object. Now try to see that and the other things resting on the same surface as one object. Now try to see that and everything the surface itself is resting on (e.g. the floor if the surface is a desk) as one object. Now try to see that and everything else resting on the same bigger surface (e.g. everything resting on the floor) as one object. Now try to see the entire room as one object. Now try to see everything within your field of view as one object.

Now look at your body, and see if there is an object distinct from all the individual parts you can identify. Then try to see it and other things as one object. Then try to see everything within your field of view including your body as one object if you haven't already.

One said...

Thank you Alexie, valuable contribution. Explains much. Will steal the best bits, of course.
Elizabeth

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