Logical Criticism of Buddhist Doctrines

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

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7. Understanding the self


1.    The individual self in Monism

Granting the Monist thesis [briefly described in the preceding chapters], we can understand that our respective apparent individual selves, whether they are viewed as souls (entities with a spiritual substance distinct from mind and matter) or as something altogether non-substantial (as Buddhism suggests), have a relative mode of existence in comparison to the Soul of God (in Monotheistic religions), or to the underlying Original Ground of such being or the Tao (in competing doctrines).

If our selves are relative to some absolute Self (or a “Non-self”, in Buddhism), they are illusory. In what sense, illusory? We might say that the illusion consists in artificially differentiating the particular out of the Universal – i.e. it consists in a para-cognitive somewhat arbitrary act of individuation. Apparently, then, tiny fractions of the original Totality have given themselves the false impression of being cut off from their common Source. They (that is, we all) have lost touch with their true Identity, and become confused by their limited viewpoint into believing themselves to have a separate identity.[1]

To illustrate the illusoriness of individuation, we can point to waves in a body of water. A wave is evidently one with the body of water, yet we artificially mentally outline it and conventionally distinguish it, then we give it a name “the wave” and treat it as something else than the water. There is indeed a bump in the water; but in reality, the boundaries we assign it are arbitrary. Similarly, goes the argument, with all things material, mental or spiritual.

The Buddhist thesis on this topic is generally claimed to differ somewhat, considering that all empirical appearances of selfhood are phenomenal, and nothing but phenomenal. And since phenomena are impermanent like wisps of smoke – arising (we know not whence – thus, from nowhere), abiding only temporarily, all the while changing in many ways, and finally disappearing (we know not wither – thus, to nowhere) – we may not assume any constancy behind or beneath them. Our particular self is thus empty of any substance; and similarly, there is no universal Soul.

This thesis is of course sufficiently empirical with regard to the fact of impermanence of phenomena; but (in my view) there is a conceptual loophole in it. We can point out that it rejects any idea of underlying constancy without sufficient justification (i.e. by way of a non-sequitur); and we can advocate instead an underlying substance (material, mental or spiritual), with equally insufficient justification, or maybe more justification (namely, that this helps explain more things).[2]

Furthermore, we may, and I think logically must, admit that we are aware of our selves, not only through perception of outer and inner phenomena, but also through another direct kind of cognition, which we may call ‘intuition’, of non-phenomenal aspects. There is no reason to suppose offhand only phenomenal aspects exist and are directly cognizable. Indeed, we must admit intuition, to explain how we know what we have perceived, willed or valued in particular cases. Conceptual means cannot entirely explain such particulars; they can only yield generalities.

Thus, while understanding and respecting the Buddhist non-self doctrine, I personally prefer to believe in the spirituality of the individual self and in God. I may additionally propose the following arguments. To start with, these ideas (of soul and God) do not logically exclude, but include the notion of “emptiness”; i.e. it remains true that particular souls and the universal Soul cannot be reduced to phenomenal experiences.

Moreover, Monotheism is logically more convincing, because the Buddhist thesis takes for granted without further ado something that the God thesis makes an effort to explain. The manifest facts of consciousness, volition and valuation in us, i.e. in seemingly finite individuals, remain unexplained in Buddhism, whereas in the Monotheistic thesis the personal powers of individuals are thought to stem from the like powers of God. That is, since finite souls are (ultimately illusory) fractions of God, their powers of cognition, freewill, and valuing (though proportionately finite) derive from the same powers (on an infinitely grander scale) in the overall Soul, i.e. God.

In truth, Buddhists could retort that though this argument reduces the three human powers to the corresponding (greater) powers of God, it leaves unexplained the existence of these same powers in Him. They are derivatives in humans, all right, but still primaries in God.

Yes, but a distinction remains. Monotheism views the ultimate Source as having a personality, whereas for Buddhism, the Original Ground is impersonal. For the former, there is a “Who”, while for the latter, only a “What” if anything at all. It seems improbable (to me, at least) that a person would derive from a non-person. Rather, the particular soul has to have this sense of personal identity in the way of a reflection of the universal soul’s personality.

But in truth, we can still intellectually reconcile the two doctrines, if we admit that such arguments are finally just verbal differentiations and that we should rather stress their convergences and complementarities.[3]

In any case, the apparent meditative success of Buddhists does not logically exclude the logical possibility that their doctrine denying soul and God may well be an error of interpretation – since other religions also report meditative successes although they resorted to other interpretations. If we generously accept all or most such human claims at their face value, we logically have to conclude that correct interpretation is not necessary for meditative success.

This suggests that meditation is ultimately independent of doctrinal quarrels. Competing, even conflicting, doctrines may be equally helpful – depending on cultural or personal context. Therefore, meditation is ultimately a pragmatic issue; it does not need particular dogmas to yield its results. Whatever your religious preference, or lack of it, just add one ingredient – meditation; this single measure will over time naturally perform wonders anyway.

The modern Secularist denial of spiritual substance (a soul in humans and God) can be depicted as follows. We are in this case dealing with a materialist philosophy, which grants solid reality only to the phenomenal (and conceptual inferences from it). The material phenomenon is regarded as exclusive of any other, although if pressed secularists will acknowledge some sort of additional, mental substance, imagined as a sort of cloud of “consciousness” hovering in the heads of certain material entities (i.e. at least humans and possibly higher animals).

This substance is conceived as a sort of epiphenomenon of specific combinations of matter (namely, those making up a live human body, and in particular its neurological system). They effectively consider mind as a rarified sort of matter. The proponents of this thesis make no clear distinction between the stuff of memories, dreams and imaginings, on the one hand, and the one experiencing these inner phenomena and indeed (via the senses) outer phenomena, on the other. And therefore, they reject all notion of an additional spiritual substance or soul as the essence of self.

This philosophy can thus be doubted on two grounds. Firstly, it fails to clearly and honestly analyze mental experience and draw the necessary conclusions from such analysis. Notably missing is the distinction between the intuited “cognizing, willing and valuing self” and his (or her) “perceived mental (and sensory) experiences”, i.e. the distinction between soul and mind within the psyche. Secondly, while secularism does tend to monism in respect of matter, it refuses a similar monist extrapolation with respect to souls, and so denies God.

Today’s Secularists of course pose as “scientists”[4], and by this means give their doctrine prestige among non-philosophers and superficial philosophers. But this stance is not scientific, in the strict sense of the term. Physical science has to date not produced a single mathematical formula showing the reducibility of life, mind, consciousness, or spirit/soul to matter. Materialists just presume that such a universal reductive formula will “someday” be shown possible. Maybe so; but until that day, they cannot logically rely on their presumption as if it were established fact.

They think their materialism is “sure” to be eventually proved all-inclusive – but this expectation and hope of theirs has for the moment, to repeat, no scientific justification whatsoever! It is just a figment of their imagination, an act of faith, a mere hypothetical postulate. Secularism is thus just another religion, not an exclusive inference from Science.

“Science” is entirely defined by rigor in cognitive method, without prejudice. It demands all available data be taken into consideration by our theories, and duly explained by these theories. Genuine philosophers are not intimidated by the intellectual thuggery of those who pretend that science is exclusively materialist.

In the case of the Materialist theory, the evident data of life, mind, consciousness and spirit or soul has hardly even been acknowledged by its advocates, let alone taken into consideration. It has simply been ignored, swept under the carpet, by them. That is not science – it is sophistry. What is speculative must be admitted to be such. And two speculations that equally fit available data are on the same footing as regards the judgment of science.


2.    The impression of self

What do we mean by “the self”? This term refers primarily to that which seems to cognize, to will and to value at any given moment. That is, these functions seem to emanate, at any given time, from a single point or place, deep within “one’s own” bodily and mental experiences, which we each call “I” or “me” or “myself”.

The self is the one who is conscious, the one experiencing, the one sensing, the one feeling, the one imagining, the one conceiving and thinking, the one liking or desiring, wishing or hoping, the one taking action, etc.… or the one abstaining from such functions. Thus, the self is the Subject of consciousness, the Agent[5] of volitional acts and the Valuator of value judgments.

It is an error of observation to claim that cognitions, volitions and valuations can occur without a ‘person’ doing the cognizing, willing or valuing. Clear and honest observation recognizes that the distinctive nature of these events is to be relative to a self.

The self is an object of direct, subjective experience, or self-intuition, not to be confused with the phenomena due to sensation of matter or to mental experience. It is not something merely conceptually inferred from such experienced phenomena, but something non-phenomenal that is itself experienced.

Note well: our “I” is not a single phenomenon, or an aggregate of phenomena or even a mere abstraction from phenomenal experiences; it is an ongoing non-phenomenal experience. (It may well be, however, that the self would be transparent to itself, were it not subjected to phenomenal experiences that it has to cognize and deal with, through consciousness, volition and evaluation[6].)

The self, as here technically defined, exists for at least a moment of time. Logically, it does not necessarily follow from such punctual data that the selves intuited at different, even contiguous, moments of time are one and the same self. That is, the continuity of self is an additional, perhaps more conceptual idea – although we generally (all except Buddhists) subscribe to such subsistence.

This in turn, note well, does not logically necessarily imply eternity since the beginning or to the end of time – although again, many (but far from all) people subscribe to this additional idea. In addition to our punctual and continuous ideas of self, note also that we think of self as something cumulative – our past momentary selves seem to accrete over time, making us heavier with responsibilities as we grow older.

Self-consciousness, here, note well, simply means “consciousness of self” – i.e. with reference to any reflexive act of consciousness, in which the self is both the Subject and the object, which is assumably a direct and immediate cognitive (intuitive) act. Self-consciousness can also mean consciousness (i.e. intuition, here again) of any of the three functions of the self, viz. cognition, volition and valuation.[7]

These three functions, or ways of expression, of the self do not operate independently of each other but are interrelated in various ways. They may occur simultaneously or in complex chains. Cognition is the primary function, but may also occur after volition (e.g. acts of research) and valuation (e.g. deciding what to research). Volition usually implies prior cognition, but is sometimes “blind” (whimsical). Valuation is a particular sort of volition, since it implies choice; and it always implies cognition, if only the awareness of something to evaluate (but usually also awareness of various considerations).

The above proposed definition of the self refers to the essence of selfhood. In relation to this essential self, everything else is “the world out there”, “Object”, “other”. It is our deepest inside, deeper even than the mind and body. Aspects of mind and body are also often colloquially called self, but this is a misnomer. Self, as here understood, may therefore be equated to what we commonly call the “soul”, without prejudicing the issue as to what such assumed entity might be construed as.

One widespread theory is that the soul is composed of some non-material, call it ‘spiritual’, substance. This might be hypothesized as having spatial as well as temporal location and extension, or as somehow located and extended in time but not in space[8]. Another possible way to view it is as a special sort of ‘knot’ in the fabric of space-time, a knot with different properties than those of so-called material entities. Some philosophers (notably, Buddhist and Materialist ones) altogether deny the soul’s existence[9].

Whatever the theoretical differences between competing traditions, concerning the existence and nature of the self, they generally agree on the value and need in practice – i.e. during meditation – to forget, if not actually erase, oneself. This is of course no easy task. Certainly, at the earlier stages of meditation, when we are appalled to discover the mental storms in a teacup our ego concerns constantly produce, it seems like a mission impossible. But there are ways and means to gradually facilitate the required result.

At the deepest level, one has to eventually give up on the Subject-Object or self-other division. If Monism is considered as the ultimate philosophical truth, then there must indeed be a plane of reality where this duality noticeably dissolves. On a practical level, one undoubtedly cannot logically expect to reach the experience of oneness, until one has managed to surrender attachment to the common impression of duality between self and other, or Subject and Object.

Such surrender is not a psychological impossibility or an artificial mental acrobatic. This is made clear, if we reflect on the fact that the Subject-Object or self-other division constitutes ratiocination, i.e. a rational act[10].

Just as our ‘reason’ divides outer experiences into different sense-modalities, or each modality into different qualities and measures (e.g. in the visual field: colors and intensities, shapes and sizes); or again, just as it makes a distinction between outer and inner experiences (e.g. between physical sights and mental visions) – so, our rational faculty is responsible for the self-other impression. This does not have to be taken to mean that our reason is inventing a false division, producing an illusion; yet, it does mean that without the regard of a rational Subject, such distinction would never arise in the universe.

These insights imply that there is no need to epistemologically invalidate the Subject-Object distinction[11] to realize that we can still eventually (if only in the course of meditation) hope to be able to free ourselves in practice from this automatic reaction. We wish to at some stage give up the distinction, not because it is intrinsically wrong or bad, but because we wish to get beyond it, into the mental rest or peace of non-discriminative consciousness.

Sitting in meditation, one’s “self” usually seems to be an ever present and weighty experience, distinct from relatively external mental and material experiences. But if one realizes that such self-experience is a rational (i.e. ratiocinative) product, a mental subdivision of the natural unity of all experience at any given moment, one can indeed shake off – or more precisely just drop – this sense of self, and experience all one’s experience as a unity.[12]

Note well, the task at hand is not to ex post facto deconstruct the rational act of division, or reconstruct the lost unity of self and other by somehow mentally sticking or merging them together, or pretend that the Subject or the Object does not really exist. Rather, the meditator has to place his soul in the pre-ratiocinative position, where the cutting-up of experience has not yet occurred. It is not a place of counter-comments, but a place of no (verbal or non-verbal) comment. It is the position of pristine experience, where the mental reflex of sorting data out has not yet even begun.

All things are accepted as they appear. An impression of self appears, as against an impression of other? So well and good – it need not be emphasized or noted in any way. It is just experienced. If no distinctions are made, there are no distinctions. We remain observant, that’s all. We enjoy the scenery. Our awareness is phenomenological.

In pure experience, what we call “multiplicity” may well be manifest, but it is all part and parcel of the essential “unity”. Here, essence and manifestation are one and the same. Here, Subject and Object form a natural continuum. The totality is in harmony, bubbling with life. It is what it is, whatever it happens to be.

Before getting to this stage of integral experience, one may of course have to “work on oneself” long and hard.


3.    Distinguishing the ego

The self was above defined – from a philosophical perspective – as the apparent Subject of cognition and Agent of volition and valuation. But – in common parlance – most people identify themselves with much more than this minimal definition. To clarify things, it is therefore useful to distinguish two meanings of the term.

In its purest sense, the term self refers to what is usually called the soul or person. In a colloquial sense, the term is broader, including what intellectuals refer to as “the ego”. The latter term – again from a philosopher’s point of view – refers to the material and mental phenomena, which indeed seem rightly associated with our self, but which we wrongly tend to identify with it. Thus, by the term ego we shall mean all aspects of one’s larger self other than one’s soul; i.e. all extraneous aspects of experience, commonly misclassified as part of oneself.

This is just a way to recognize and emphasize that we commonly make errors of identification as to what constitutes the self[13]. If we try to develop a coherent philosophical system, looking at the issues with a phenomenological eye, we must admit the self in the sense of soul (i.e. Subject/Agent) as the core sense of the term. The latter is a non-phenomenal entity, quite distinct from any of the material and mental phenomena people commonly regard as themselves.

We tend to regard our body, including its sensory and motor faculties, as our self, or at least as part of it. But many parts of our body can be incapacitated or detached, and we still remain present. And, conversely, our nervous system may be alive and well, but we are absent from it. So, it is inaccurate to identify our self with our body.

Nevertheless, we are justified in associating our self with our body, because we evidently have a special relationship to it: we have more input from it and more power over it than we do in relation to any other body. Our life takes shape within the context of this body. For this reason, we call it ‘our’ body, implying possession or delimitation.

With regard to the mind, a similar analysis leads to the same conclusion. By ‘mind’, note well, I mean only the apparent mental phenomena of memory and imagination (reshufflings of memories), which seem to resemble and emerge from the material phenomena apparently experienced through the body (including the body itself, of course). Mind is not a Subject, but a mere (non-physical) Object; a mind has no consciousness of its own, only a Subject has consciousness.

This limited sense of mind is not to be confused with a larger sense commonly intended by the term, which would include what we have here called soul. I consider this clarification of the word mind very important, because philosophies “of mind” in which this term is loosely and ambiguously used are bound to be incoherent[14].

The term I use for the conjunction of soul and mind is ‘psyche’. Of course, below the psyche, at an unconscious level, lies the brain or central nervous system, which plays a strong role in the production of mental events, although it is not classed as part of the psyche but as part of the body. Some of the items we refer to as ‘mind’ should properly be called brain.

The term “unconscious mind”, note well, refers to potential (but not currently actual) items of consciousness stored in the brain (and possibly the wider nervous system); for example, potential memories. Such items are called mind, only insofar as they might eventually appear as mental objects of consciousness; but strictly speaking, they ought not be called mind. The term “unconscious mind” is moreover an imprecision of language in that the mind is never conscious of anything – it is we, the Subjects, who are conscious of mental items (mental equivalents of sensory phenomena, as well as ideas and emotions).

Thus, mind refers to a collection of evanescent phenomena, without direct connection between them, which succeed each other in our ‘mind’s eye’ (and/or ‘mind’s ear’) but which lack mental continuity, their only continuity being presumably their emergence from the same underlying material brain. The mind cannot be identified with the self, simply because mental events are experienced as mere objects of consciousness and will, and not as the Subject and Agent of such psychical events. Moreover, the mind may momentarily stop displaying sights or sounds without our sense of self disappearing.

Nevertheless, our mind is ours alone. Only we directly experience what goes on in it and only we have direct power over its fantasies. Even if someday scientists manage to look into other people’s private minds and find ways to affect their contents, one person remains in a privileged relationship to each mind. It is therefore proper to call our minds ‘ours’, just as we call our bodies ‘ours’.

Thus, the self, in the colloquial sense, is a collection of three things: soul, mind and body – i.e. spiritual, mental and material experiences. But upon reflection, only the soul counts as self proper – the ego, comprising mind and body, is indeed during our whole lifetime “associated with” our strict self (that is, soul), but it should not be “identified with” that self. The ego is merely an appendage to the self or soul, something ‘accidental’ (or at best ‘incidental’) to it.

However, this should not be taken to mean that the soul has no share in the ego. Many of the physical and mental traits that comprise the ego are at least in part due to past choices and actions of the soul. The soul is thus somewhat responsible for much of the ego; the latter is in effect a cumulative expression of the former. Some people have big, mean egos, to their discredit; others have smaller, nicer egos, to their credit. Moreover, the soul tends to function in the context of the ego or what it perceives as the ego.

In narrower psychological terms, the ego is a particular self-image one finds motives for constructing and clinging onto. It is a mental construct composed of images selectively drawn from one’s body and mind – some based on fact, some imaginary. Compared to the real state of affairs, this self-image might be inflationary (flattering, pretentious) or it might be depreciative (undemanding, self-pitying). Ideally, of course, one’s self-image ought to be realistic; i.e. one must at all times strive to be lucid.


Drawn from Meditations (2006), chapters 8-9, 12.



[1]              Rather than suggest like Bishop Berkeley that we are ideas in the mind of God, the viewpoint here advocated is that we are, as it were, ideas in our own minds. God invented us, yes, and allowed for our seeming individuation; but He has no illusions about our separateness. It is we, in our limited and therefore warped perspective, who misperceive ourselves as individuals.

[2]              We shall further debate the issue of impermanence later on.

[3]              Needless to say, I do not intend this statement as a blanket approval, condoning all beliefs and practices included in practice under the heading of Buddhism. I have in past works for instance voiced my reserves regarding the worship directed at statues (idolatry). Even from a Buddhist point of view, this is a weird and spiritually obstructive practice (since it involves mental projection of “selfhood” into purely physical bodies). Moreover, I do not see how this can be an improvement on the worship of God. If devotion is a good thing, surely the latter is its best expression.

[4]              Some are indeed scientists – in their specific field, such as Physics. But this does not entitle them to a free ride in the general field of Philosophy. I am thinking here of Hubert Reeves, who appears on TV claiming atheism as incontrovertible fact, as if any other view is simply unthinkable. Laypersons should not confuse his prestige and media-presence with logical confirmation of his view. The underlying fallacy is ad hominem argument.

[5]              Note well, the word Agent as used here simply refers to ‘the one who acts’ – the actor of action, the doer of the deed. Agency here implies volition – a machine (or any other deterministic entity) is not considered an agent of its actions, except in a metaphorical way. Moreover, the colloquial connotation of agency as ‘acting on behalf of someone else’ is not intended here, though such instrumentality is logically subsumed under volitional action.

[6]              The self may, in this sense, be said to be ‘relative’ – not meaning that (once and so long as it occurs) its existence is not ‘independent’, but that its own awareness of its own existence is dependent on external stimuli.

[7]              The phrase “self-consciousness” is additionally sometimes used, in philosophy and science, to refer to consciousness that one is conscious of some other object – i.e. to “consciousness of consciousness”. The latter might be an instant event, made possible by the Subject’s dividing his attention, partly on some object and partly on his consciousness of that object; or it might involve a time-lag, assuming that the Subject is first conscious of some object, and a bit later retrospectively conscious of that first consciousness (either directly while it is still “echoing” in his mind, or indirectly through longer-term memory). Another, more colloquial and pejorative, sense of the term “self-consciousness” refers to the awareness we may have of some other person (or persons) observing us, which causes us to behave in a more awkward manner, i.e. without our customary spontaneity or naturalness, because we use our will to make sure the observer gets a certain “favorable” (in whatever sense) image of us.

[8]              Or again, we might like the poet Khalil Gibran consider the soul as “a sea boundless and measureless.”

[9]              But in my opinion, they fail to adequately explain the peculiarities of cognition, volition and valuation.

[10]            See my Ruminations, chapter 9.

[11]            The Buddhists regard it invalid – but I would minimally argue that it has some credibility, like any appearance has until it is found to lead to antinomy. Indeed, I would go further and argue that any attempt at such invalidation is unjustifiable, and even logically impossible.

[12]            This would of course be one aspect of overall “integration” (what is called Samadhi in Sanskrit, Wu in Chinese, Satori in Japanese).

[13]            The word ‘ego’ originally, in Latin, meant ‘I’. Nowadays, in English, it is commonly understood in the pejorative sense used by me in the present essay. I do not subscribe to the sense used in psychoanalytic theory, which presents the ego as a segment of the psyche “mediating between the person and reality”. Such a notion is to me conceptually incoherent, since it ascribes a separate personality (i.e. selfhood) to this alleged segment, since to “mediate” anything implies having cognitive, volitional and evaluative powers. The ego of psychoanalysts involves a circularity, since it raises the question: who or what is mediating between the person and reality, and on what basis? The common sense of ‘ego’ is, I would say, closer semantically to the ‘id’ of psychoanalysis.

[14]            Equivocal use of the term mind leads some philosophers into syllogistic reasoning involving the Fallacy of Four Terms, in which the middle term has different senses in the major and minor premises, so that the conclusion is invalid.

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