No Self?

I find it helpful rather than to say, there is no self, to understand my existence as consciousness itself, enmeshed WITHIN a biological system, as opposed to OWNING one, with complete visibility and control. The latter being empirically untrue – further falsified by science.

The mind and body seem like allies and collaborators, not our slaves – nor ‘us’.

Some necessary context:

Part 1 – Philosopher and scholar Jay Garfield echoes a 2000-year-old proposition – there is no self. Consider his book, or more rapidly, listen to this or this podcast.

Part 2 – Author Frank S. Robinson (The Rational Optimist) writes a short response to Garfield’s thesis, wondering openly, how can anyone possibly convince themselves this is true?


I admire both viewpoints, the first being an exhaustive, provocative, time-worn idea, the second demonstrating what it’s like grapple with – even if it cannot be fully accepted. I am convinced this grappling is a valuable endeavor for humanity – as it can precipitate ease, understanding, and gratitude. While either perspective might not make perfect conceptual sense at first glance, they reliably open a door to crucial questions, ringing a bell in the mind that cannot be un-rung.

After considering this topic for nearly two years myself, and more recently digesting these viewpoints above, I offer the following perspective. I hope this partially bridges and highlights value within both. I consider these ideas and other proximate ones to be a hugely important part of understanding the human condition.

An Open Reply to Frank, the Rational Optimist

(posted as comment on his article, revised and expanded-upon here)

I really enjoyed this post – as well as Garfield’s characterization of our circumstance. Trying to settle on my own understanding.

Personally, I find it helpful rather than to say, there is no self, to understand my existence as consciousness itself, enmeshed WITHIN a biological system, as opposed to the default feeling – being an “owner” OF a biological system, with complete visibility and control of it. I think you offer a proposal along the same lines:

“I would actually say that ultimately we exist only as consciousnesses in the workings of our brains”

Perhaps the one tweak I would make is to the words “of our”. Do we really own our brains, or, are they more like the community we live in, as consciousness? That aside, this nails it for me.

Along with understanding “me” as consciousness, I can understand that the things appearing in consciousness might be distorted and aligned with some biological agenda. Not to suggest these distortions or agendas are malicious – merely that they are the product of low-level biological intelligence, which is continually organizing and optimizing “best-guesses” to stay alive and spread genes.

Of course this agenda helps us survive – overall, great! Sometimes these drives may be “optimal”, in the sense of maximum wellbeing for myself and world. Other times not.

In sum, a thought, feeling, or emotion, can be looked at curiously before it is acted upon. Very basic stuff. Further, understanding everyone else as enmeshed within this circumstance, and more broadly, that everyone is enmeshed within a vast physical and psychological network with everyone else, fosters a sense of compassion. In other words, observing others who act purely on what they “feel”, and have not yet cultivated some meta-cognitive wisdom on top of it, I have empathy for them, since emotions can feel so true! However, upon further reflection, they may just be conditioned responses that aren’t actually worthwhile – in the broadest sense. Without trying to make this sound “transcendent” or “enlightened” or “mystical” – it’s simply an absence of metacognitive governance… which I do not fault anyone for not having. To foster this capacity for governance and reflection is pure luck.

I am attempting a dangerous act, to map this out more, here:

Anyhow – enjoyed this post – thank you.


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