Friday, July 9, 2010

Is the Self just a Bundle of Perceptions?

The most well-known Western formulation of the “Bundle of perception” theory, is David Hume’s one:

we are never intimately conscious of anything but a particular perception; man is a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement (Hume, Treatise on the Human Nature, I.I.VI)

Which is, allegedly, proven through a sort of abhāvapramāṇa (argument for the fact of X through the absence of its counterpart):

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 perceptionm and never can observe anything but the perception.” (A Treatise of Human Nature.

Book I, Part IV, section VI (”Of Personal Identity”).

Already at first sight, Hume’s statement closely resembles many Buddhist statements to the same.

Do readers more familiar with Buddhism detect any important difference?


KoSa said...

Yes, I think there are several important differences.

First of all, the distinction between naama and ruupa: what Hume considers the possible basis for the 'I' would always remain within a small segment of what in Buddhist terms is called 'naama', while the possible bases of delusion are several more, according to Buddhist philosophy.

Secondly, the Buddhist theory of personal identity is more layered. In particular, there is a sense in which one can speak of the continuum of vijnaana alone (as opposed to the complex of naama and ruupa) as functioning as the correct basis of identification for identity between lives. Here identity of course means nothing more than causal connection - however it means that we can identify the proper basis of designation for the 'I' in different ways according to context.

Some discussion of this point can be found in the Abhidharmakoshabhaa.sya.

elisa freschi said...

But what is the difference as far as the deconstruction of the self is concerned? Don't both theories agree that there is nothing beyond a bundle of …?

KoSa said...

Both theories agree about the 'bundle' but not about the 'of...' and the causal relationships between the parts that make up the whole(s) we may, in different contexts, come to call a 'self' or 'person'. They may both agree about what is not there (a permanent core) but they surely disagree about what is there (a continuum of consciousness lasting many lives, becoming on occasion causally linked to entities with spacial extensions, ruupa).

Hence, although they agree on what cannot be the proper referent of the expression 'self', they disagree on what should constitute its proper referent.

In Buddhist terms it can refer to at least three different things:

1. the five aggregates in one lifetime;
2. the continuum of consciousness through many lifetimes;
3. consciousness as the locus of training in one's lifetimes (as in the expressions 'to know one-self').

As Candrakiirti puts it, although Caarvaakas and Buddhists resemble each other in their negations, there's a world of difference between them, due to what they accept conventionally. Indeed, the Caarvaaka position is considered even *worse* than the acceptance of a permanent self. Candrakiirti compares them to people who act as witnesses in a trial, saying that someone committed a crime, although they did not witness it. Even though the person may actually be guilty, they are not genuine witnesses - they are saying the right thing for the wrong reasons.

I think the difference between neuroscientists and Buddhist authors is very similar. From a Buddhist perspective, they are talking about an absence which they cannot in principle understand.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks, this seems quite clear and well-put. I also like the point you made in your previous post about Neuroscientists and hope to address it soon.
If I understand you rightly, a Buddhist may well *not* have the kind of *direct* experience Hume had. While "looking into herself", she would rather stumble on the illusory identity made of the 5 skandhas. Although, at a deeper level, she may well realise that these are not a permanent self. In this sense, it may seem odd to "keep" the skandhas in order to account for our commonly-felt notion of a self and at the same time deny them any ultimate reality. This implies a complex-layered structure of reality.

KoSa said...

That is part of the point, true. The other - most importantly - is the interdependence of naama and ruupa, or otherwise put, of graahaka and graahya. The understanding of selflessness coincides with the realization of this interdependence, while neuro-scientists reify the side of the graahya (hence falling into a sort of uccheda-vaada).

This close relationship between selflessness and pratiityasamutpaada (in terms of many births) is not clearly represented in secondary literature about Buddhism, in my opinion.

elisa freschi said...

Ucchedavāda seems a nice translation of "reductionism", thanks.
I'm afraid I might be missing the "close relationship", too. From an outsider point of view the pratītyasamutpāda is the enduring "part" (I am using the ambiguous term, since it is not a thing, but a process). Various births are just part of it, just like accidents occurring to a permanent self.;-)

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