Thomas Metzinger’s No-Self Model and the Doctrine of Anatta

A guest essay by R. Chandrasoma

no-selfBuddhism is unique among religions in that it denies the existence of a soul or spirit as the foundation of being. While beings – human and animal – possess individuality and display expressions of the mental in varying degrees, these attributes are believed to arise from dynamical processes in a collective called the Five Aggregates. The latter acts holistically and mimics the essential features of an organism battling for survival in a world that in mosts respects supports an alluring carnality – one that is inimical to the true interests of transcendence and absorption in the Ultimate (Nirvana). There is a deep religious aspect (involving ‘karma’ and the trans-generational catenation of lives) in such a Buddhist view of being which we shall not discuss because our explanatoty compass is strictly secular. Let us note first that a mind arises within a interactive dynamic assembly of elementary conscious states called ‘citta’ that are epiphenomenal manifestations of the Five Aggregates mentioned above. Their interplay constitutes personhood. Buddhism has much in common with Indian religions (such as Jainism) but stands out in human intellectual history as the first to advocate a modular-functional approach to personhood that, among other things, makes the notion of a soul meaningless .  This remarkable metaphysical stance has its epistemic rationale in the fundamental notion that ‘all is flux’ (anatta) and ‘being’ in a rigid ontological sense has no reality. Thus, ‘persons’ or ‘beings’ exist in a practical sense but the underlying truly dynamical collectives merely parade a specious individuality.

While modern neurophysiogical research has made the traditional concept of the soul a myth in the same class as ghosts and extracorporeal spirits, it cannot be doubted that selfhood and moral agency are difficult to explain in plain scientific terms. The great revolution in recent years is the resurrection of of an insight well known to Buddhist thinkers – the notion of ‘two truths’ – the apparent and the deep. The leading author of this two-sided approach to the contemporary study of the mind is a philosopher of great renown – Thomas Metzinger. Dr Metzinger  has been hailed as the New Immanuel Kant for his revolutionary thoughts on matters relating to philosophy of mind and its neuro-scientific underpinnings. His ‘ No Self Model of Subjectivity’ is a philosophical landmark that must, surely, be of great interest to Buddhist philosophers. While his arguments are based on psychology. neuroscience and analytical philosophy – there is no hint of the religious in his argumentation – he arrives at conclusions that resonate wonderfully well with fundamental concepts in Buddhism. In his early work entitled ‘The No-Self model of Subjectivity’ he amasses evidence to show that the ‘self’ (or ‘soul’ in more relgiously oriented accounts) is a functional artifact created through the dynamical complexity of material processes in the brain. Such ‘virtual machines’ are well known to computer scientists – they arise when great external complexity must be ‘represented’ as a virtual world that must be assessed and acted upon within set time-frames for some goal or purpose. In the case of a human self, this goal is that of manoeuvering in a simulated world so as to achieve survival and reproductive success in the actual world. Very abstractly, the ‘self’is like a pointer-device in a computer user-interface.

In his ground-breaking book called The Ego Tunnel he amplifies the no-self model to take into account the relentless flow of time in the universe of phenomenal things. He advocates views that ought to have a warm response from learned Buddhists. The leading concept is that of a specious being tunnellng through an unknown reality by the ceaseless operation of an ‘Ego Machine’. Buddhists call this dynamic ‘existence through thanha’. The ceaseless drive to move on in an unreal or misinterpreted world is the leitmotiv of this relentless motion of survival machines that are seen internally as persons with angst and purpose. The high abstraction of this model ought not to deter the earnest seeker of the truth from exploring its aptness in a Buddhist context.

A final comment of a different nature seems warranted. Buddhist scholarship in Sri Lanka ignores science – indeed, ignores the great world of learning beyond its shores in the tenaciously-held belief that the eternal and inviolable truth was ‘revealed’ by its revered founder at the commencement of his mission as the Compassionate Teacher of the Truth. The reality is that we have texts and recensions purported to be the authentic word of the Buddha. That many schools of Buddhism arose shortly after the demise of the Buddha is strong evidence that the Truth he revealed is deeply veiled and has the nature of a ‘hologram’ that needs continuous re-interpretation. This means that there are layers of meaning in his doctrine that need rephrasing in terms of the most advanced science of the day. It is a matter of great regret that this task is beyond the competence of those who are supposed to be the Buddhaputra in our ancient land.

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