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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Self as the Unifier

The main obstacole to be overcome if one wants to prove the existence of a self is that of putting together scattered elements. No one but the sceptic would doubt the existence of a memory, a desire, an action, a thought. But it is only when one is justified to say that "I remembered how good that ice cream tasted and hence decided to buy one and went to the seller", that a good case for the existence of a self is done.
It might be the case that the Mīmāṃsaka (and particularly, Prābhākara) insistence on action and desire as characteristics of a subject points exactly to the result of highlighting two things which cannot but go together and, hence, inductively prove that there is a unitary substance to which all the scattered elements listed above belong.

16 comments:

ombhurbhuva said...

As long as you hold that the fact of memory displays the presence of a subject you are fine but when you claim for memory, as did Hume, the magical power of creating its own subject, you are in trouble and chasing your tail. Self-awareness is not the result of an inference, it requires no evidence. Think of the scenario where you remember an action. Do you then survey that memory and discover - oh yes it was I who did that? No I think that if you remember the action and it was you who did it then that knowledge is simultaneous with the memory of the action.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Ombhurbhuva,
thanks for your interesting comment. As far as I know, Hume did not claim that memory creates a subject, insofar as for him such a subject is never seized, not even through memory. It is, rather, a habitude.
I agree with your scenario, but I guess one could oppose it as follows: whenever a memory arises, it is followed by an automatic, unconscious inference for the fact that the subject active in that memory must be the same one who is recollecting it now. Such an inference might be so rapid that one does not notice it.

michael reidy said...

Hume in Bk1.Section VI ATreatise of Human Naturesays: (re memory, resemblance and personal identity):

"In this particular, then, the memory not only discovers the identity , but also contributes to its production, by producing the relation of resemblance among the perceptions. The case is the same whether we consider ourselves or others."

This sounds like to me as though he is saying - 'mine' creates a 'me' (memory contributes to its production).

elisa freschi said...

The passage seems to me about a faked identity, crafted by memory, but not corresponding to our 'genuine' identity (which remains unknowable to us). Cf., some lines later, section VI:
"The whole of this doctrine leads us to a conclusion, which is of great importance in the present affair, viz. that ALL THE NICE AND SUBTLE QUESTIONS CONCERNING PERSONAL IDENTITY CAN NEVER POSSIBLY BE DECIDED, and are to be regarded rather as gramatical than as philosophical difficulties. Identity depends on the relations of ideas; and these relations produce identity, by means of that easy transition they occasion. But as the relations, and the easiness of the transition may diminish by insensible degrees, we have no just standard, by which we can decide any dispute concerning the time, when they acquire or lose a title to the name of identity. All the disputes concerning the identity of connected objects are merely verbal, except so fax as the relation of parts gives rise to some fiction or imaginary principle of union, as we have already observed". (my emphasis)
More in general, the point is: Hume might well be right and his account seems convincing. But why should one choose his account in place of the common-sensical assumption of a lasting personal identity?

michael reidy said...

It is probably true to say that Hume's incoherence and vacillation on the issue is due to the inadequacy of the great division of propositions into 'relations of ideas' and 'matters of fact'. For him the idea of the self-evident or 'kuthasta' (atman) was not possible outside the analytical. If there was a knowledge of the self it had to evidential in nature. He even assimilated our own case with the case of others. "The case is the same whether we consider ourselves or others."

In the appendix he admits his inability to resolve his difficulties.

"But upon a more strict review of the section concerning personal identity, I find myself involv'd in such a labyrinth, that I must confess, I neither know how to correct my former opinions, nor how to render them consistent."

If Prabhakara thought of the atman as inert then the notion of a self could only come from the interaction with objects. This is a mystery as it seems to imply that objects create a subject or the sense of self. And of course the very notion of an object drops away. A case I think of obscuram per obscuris. But my knowledge of P. is limited to the notes in Hiriyanna's 'Outlines'.

elisa freschi said...

Yes, it has to be evidential in nature. But there must be some further presuppositions, maybe not explicit, since one could also claim that one's self identity is also evident (as, again, claims Chisholm). In fact, Hume acknowledges as evident only the content of perceptul acts, maybe because his notion of 'evident' requires a component of external data?
As for Prabhākara, I would rather disagree with you (I will go bak to Hiriyanna, though). As hinted at in a few previous posts, I would rather argue that the Prābhākara ātman is active and desiring. In this sense, it is crucial for the appraisal and apprehension of objects.

Anonymous said...

If I remembered enjoying an ice-cream and went to the seller to buy another one, this is a cause-effect relationship, why calling it self? If I shared the memory of the ice-cream with you and YOU decided to buy one (or two, if you wanted to thank me…), would you and I be one self? Memory is a relationship that occurs in time (the me of yesterday with the me of today, etc.), just as verbal communication does through time and space. This relationship is not necessarily a "lasting personal identity": your taste for ice-cream may change…
Giuliano (ciao!)

elisa freschi said...

Hi Giuliano! Welcome to you and to the first comment supporting the Buddhist view. Thanks for making me (and possibly other readers) consider a different point of view.
Still, I cannot fully understand your point. If you had a great ice cream and do not speak about it, I will never come to the idea that I want one, too. You are right, my tastes may change (I might remember a great ice cream I had as a young girl and sadly discover that it now tastes too sweet for my today's taste) but I can still feel some continuity, as against with your tastes. That is, I can remember both experiences and I can say "MY tastes changed". I might assume that a cause-effect relationship is the unique reason for this continuity-feeling, but this explanation would be 1. counter-intuitive, 2. cumbersome. Hence, why go for it?

Anonymous said...

Hi Elisa. Thank you for the kind hospitality! I may have been too concise… I will try to clarify my points by asking you: if tastes change, who/what is lasting? 2) if memory is the sign of a lasting identity, what about the moments of my life that I don’t remember at all? Were they lived by a different self?
About your objection: what you call continuity-feeling has no self-evidence and may easily be called “continuity-delusion” (as it’s actually defined in Buddhism) and, as a consequence, what you call counter-intuitive may just be counter-deceptive. Also: if you have that continuity-feeling and I don’t, are you everlasting whilst I am merely ephemeral?
Giuliano

elisa freschi said...

Dear Giuliano,
thank for the defence of the Buddhist position (by the way, as hinted at in yesterday's post, such discussions are exactly the reason for writing a multi-authored blog –what do you think? It is fun to argue!;-)).
As for your points,
1. what lasts is the substratum of the changed taste. I am sorry to sound so aristotelian.
2. although we forget much of what we lived, forgetting can still be regarded as the exception (since we forget what we believe to be non relevant). Apart from clinical cases (but then, there are clinical cases of people who do not forget anything at all, too), we do not forget our parents/best friends/job/language/…

I am curious about your last statement. Why should the continuity-feeling have no evidence at all? We may think that the evidence delivered by memory is deceptive, but it is not no-evidence at all. In order to argue against it, I think, one needs powerful counter-evidences. And I am sure you do feel continuity, too (else, you would not have remembered me!).
Or do you think that, in order to accept a statement, we need positive, external evidences? If so, than I guess we are all lost in infinite uncertainty about whatever is around us.

Anonymous said...

Dear Elisa, I suspect that, if we are investigating the existence of a lasting identity, it is not logical to say that the evidence for it is the substratum… exactly what I am questioning!
On memory: yes, I remember you, but I do not remember what happened before I was born: from this perspective, memory cannot be considered as the proof of a lasting self… at least it seems to be limited by my span of life (but to be honest, I don’t remember very well the first two or three years of my life). Furthermore, if we mostly remember what we esteem to be relevant, is the self limited to major facts? I guess that in this sense the word “lasting” vacillates a bit…
Your last question is worthy a lifetime enquiry… or more! What is the difference between a deluded feeling and a genuine insight? Does knowledge need external corroboration? Who knows, perhaps it is not so scaring to be lost in uncertainty, I see a sort of spacious, light-hearted enjoyment in it (well, if you are so Aristotelian, I’m probably too Socratic…).
Giuliano
PS: yes, arguing is fun… if something comes to my mind I’d be glad to send it for a post here

elisa freschi said...

Dear Giuliano,
then, I look forward to read more of you in the future.
Just a couple of points:
–You wrote "'I do not remember what happened before I was born: from this perspective, memory cannot be considered as the proof of a lasting self"
Well, I do not think the self is everlasting either! I was just arguing in favour of our common-sense one-lifespan-lasting self.
–As for the substratum, you are right, I am begging the question. But what about the fact that there are substances (say, gold) and that these substances may appear in different shapes? How would you distinguish gold in a necklace from the same gold now melted?

Anonymous said...

Well, yours here is the position of the Buddhist Golden Lion school. I would reply: is there any “gold-ness”? Is gold an ultimate substratum or rather a temporary combination of particles? About the “one-lifespan-lasting self”, mmmhhh… sounds like an oxymoron…
Giuliano

elisa freschi said...

suvarṇasiṃhavāda? Could you tell me more about it? Are they a sort of sarvāstivādins?
Why should a subject be either eternal or non-existing? Our common experience shows us subjects lasting for a while, say 70 years, and then disappearing (at least: as far as we can tell). To argue against the eternality of the self does NOT imply arguing against a self whatsoever. I discusses this subject once with (Dr.) Chiara Neri, and we somehow agreed that the Buddhist Canonical rejection of a self could be meant only against the former and not necessarily against the latter.
Lastly, if gold were just a combination of particles, my position would just be rephrased as follows: gold is a mode of the particles, which are its substratum.

Anonymous said...

I was referring to the Fazang’s treatise of the Golden Lion, belonging to the Chinese Huayan tradition (e.g. Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, 2009: 141ff). In Buddhism the self is conventional, i.e. a product, the result of different conditions combined together for a limited span. When those conditions are absent or, better, combined in a different way, what we call self stops to be. Just like the dictionary on my desk is the result of listing and translating terms, printing and binding sheets, and me using it as for the purpose it was made. But once pages are ripped off or the book burns or it is simply dismissed and not used any more, what we conventionally agree to be a dictionary ceases. There may be a self lasting 70 years (or 120, in my case…) and we call him/her with the name that he/she was given at its early stages, but there is also a self that lasts for ten, twelve years (a baby), another that lasts for six years (a teen-ager), one for five (a college student), and so on. In Buddhism, none of these ‘formations’ have a solid, unchanging core, not even for an instant. That is, at least, how I understand anattā/anatman…
Bye, Giuliano

elisa freschi said...

Well, but any student knows she has been a teen-ager and a child and will (hopefully) become something else, whereas thinking of "oneself" outside the precincts of our present condition (our life, which is closely dependent on our body) is just non conceivable. If it is all a superimposition, a vikalpa, then why is this particular vikalpa the one which determines us all the time? I cannot resist thinking that it has some sort of reality, at least a phenomenological one.

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