Monthly Archives: November 2019

how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives)

I. Buddhist arguments

A Buddhist argument for “no self” goes like this: Look inward–as hard as you want–for some unchanging “I” or “self.” You cannot find it. All you’ll find are physical sensations, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness, coming one after another, free from your control, and constantly changing. The Buddha himself says, “mind, intellect, consciousness, keeps up an incessant round by day and by night of perishing as one thing and springing up as another” (quoted in Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy, p. 41). This stream cannot be you if “you” means some durable, controlling thing. But since that is all that you can find within, there is no you.

The idea of a durable, independent, yet fragile self is evidently not “Western” or “modern,” because Buddhists have been working assiduously against it for more than two millennia. It seems to have been endemic in their various cultural contexts. Buddhagosa (a 5th-century thinker) implies that the sense of self arises automatically from having sensations.

When there is rupa [physical sensation], O monks, then through attachment to rupa, through engrossment in rupa, the persuasion arises, ‘This is mine; this am I; this is my self.’

When there is feeling … when there is perception … when there are volitions … when there is consciousness, O monks, then through attachment to consciousness, through engrossment in consciousness, the persuasion arises, ‘This is mine; this am I; this is my self.’

Buddhagosa, in Siderits, p. 37.

Even if this is a universal human phenomenon, it is still bad and worth trying to combat, according to Buddhists. We should not think, “This is mine; this am I; this is my self.’” That thought has two ethical drawbacks (where “ethical” is defined very broadly, to mean anything concerned with thinking and acting well and living a good life).

First, a theory of the self as real but fragile encourages selfishness and love or regard of self at the expense of compassion and altruism.

Second, this theory causes avoidable discomfort or even suffering. For me, a common example is nostalgia. I remember an earlier stage of life–say, being a young parent with a toddler in my arms. I experience a desire to be that person again, or to have that experience directly instead of as a memory. As a result, my memory is infused with loss. But this is a mistake. The memory is an experience, just like any other impression. I can have the memory now, which is a blessing. There is no “I” that could possibly possess the object of the experience more directly, transcending time. The past doesn’t exist; all experience is current. Recognizing that truth spares me loss.

The same is true of fears of death or great old-age. I can imagine those states, but there is no reason to tie them to my present state. I am not old or dying. The idea that those states attach to me is based on a false sense of the self.

A third example is a kind of envy. I see a person who is a young parent now, with a child in arms. I want to have that experience instead of just observing it. Envy is not very virtuous in any circumstance. In this case, it also reflects a metaphysical error. The young parent’s experience is real, and I can see it. But, as a logical matter, it cannot attach to me. I should be glad for the existence of the experience and drop the nonsensical idea that the experience should (or could) somehow be mine. The root of that mistake is a false view of self.

The crucial point is that a spiritual or ethical failing derives from a metaphysical error. Truly believing the metaphysical truth of no-self would prevent or cure the spiritual and ethical fault.

II. Kant’s defense of the self

Kant was aware of the argument that the self is not real, because we cannot find it when we introspect. All we find is a set of specific experiences. He got this from David Hume.

But Kant argued that experiences are logically structured. Consciousness is not like a big screen with lots of disconnected pixels that change color randomly. I perceive three-dimensional objects moving through space, interacting with each other, and having sounds, weight, and smell as well as shape. The fact that I perceive such things implies that I (= my self) must have categories like space, time, and causality. These categories are built into what Kant calls “reason,” which we might more comfortably call human cognition.

Kant calls his conclusion the “transcendental unity of apperception.” That phrase is certainly a mouthful, but we can break it down. “Apperception” means perception with an element of understanding and self-awareness. You apperceive something as a 3-D object moving toward you. That can be a true belief about the world. “Unity” refers to the fact that our apperceptions are coherent across time and space. And “transcendental,” in Kant’s specialized vocabulary, refers to something that is a necessary explanation of something that we know from direct experience.

Could a creature inhabit our universe and have different categories from ours? God might, or Michael on “The Good Place.” But to say that such a creature has different categories is basically empty, because we have no inkling of what that is like. For us, our categories are logical necessities. The best way to think about metaphysics is to begin by understanding what we must believe, and then believe that. We must believe in space, time, and the self, which is tantamount to saying that these things are real. That is a transcendental argument.

III. Should we try to shake the idea of the self?

One aspect of the question is empirical/psychological. Is it possible–by means of concerted introspection, philosophical argument, sudden enlightenment, practice, or some other means–to rid ourselves of the idea of the self as a durable, independent agent? I am not sure, but I am open to the possibility that this happens.

A different aspect of the question is metaphysical. By ridding ourselves of the idea of the self, are we coming closer to the truth? That is a central point of disagreement between some Buddhist thinkers and Kant. But maybe it’s not a gap between the Buddha and Kant, since it’s possible that the Buddha is only interested in the good life. (“Buddhism in both its classical and contemporary forms is first and foremost a theory of personal flourishing.” – Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, p. 122. MIT Press.)

That brings us to the third aspect of the question: Is it virtuous or ethical or otherwise a good idea to strive to rid ourselves of the idea of the self? Here I am inclined to a Middle Way.

On the one hand, Kant is right that the concept of the self is logically prior to many ordinary thoughts. At a minimum, it would be an arduous task to escape from this concept. That would take a lot of time and effort and probably involve a lot of wavering and backsliding. I am not convinced that it’s likely to accomplish the ethical goals of reducing selfishness and improving equanimity. There is a risk that it might promote narcissism (excessive interest in moulding one’s own cognition) or even avoidance of ethical responsibility. It is an empirical question how trying to attain non-self affects the character. Even if its net impact is positive, maybe there are better paths to virtue.

However, we should try to shake certain theories of the self that are not only false but also ethically problematic. It is wrong (both logically and ethically) to feel nostalgia, existential dread, or envy. These feelings are not only harmful but also reflect a mistaken theory of the self.

The mistake is not to believe in anything called a self. The mistake is to imagine that the self could time-travel or jump from one body to another. Reminding oneself of these mistakes might help to prevent or address certain spiritual ailments.

Kant tells us that time is a necessary aspect or component of cognition. But we don’t jump from an awareness of time to a possessive attitude toward time. We don’t think, “Time is mine; I want to hold it forever.” We do make that jump in the case of the self, and that’s our mistake. We move from relying on the concept of a self to loving the self possessively. This is something we could teach ourselves not to do.

IV. The relationship between ethics and metaphysics

An underlying issue here is how metaphysics should connect to ethics. Owen Flanagan writes (p. 116), “Buddhists claim a connection between understanding one’s own self, paradoxically as anatman—as no-self—and an ethic of compassion and lovingkindness. …. Diminishing the grip of the illusion of metaphysical egoism is causally connected to being good. What sort of connection is there—might there be?”

One answer is that we are obliged to believe whatever happens to be true. The truth is independent of our good,; and perhaps it is a virtue to recognize the truth whatever it may be.

Kant begins the section on the Transcendental Deduction with a legal analogy. He says that law professors distinguish “the question of right (quid juris) from the question of fact (quid facti).” They call a demonstration of right a “deduction.” In a similar way, we go around making lots of “empirical conceptions” without checking whether we have a right to them. Some of these are fine, but some are “usurped conceptions, such as fortune, fate.” Although these words are used by almost everyone, they “are occasionally challenged by the question, ‘quid juris?’” Kant wants to ask whether the concepts of space, time, causality, and self are used by right or are more like “fortune” and “fate”–unjustified ideas. (Critique of Pure Reason, trans J. M. D. Meiklejohn, A84=B116.) He concludes that they are in fact obligatory.

A Buddhist might respond that it’s actually a choice whether to remain wedded to standard conceptions of time and the self, or else to devote energy to trying to shake these conceptions. Kant says we “must” use these categories, and that is the basis for his claim that they are true or right. A Buddhist might challenge the ethical sense of that “must.” If it is possible–through concerted effort–not to think with the category of self, then Kant’s argument fails. It is then not necessary to use this category; and if it’s not necessary, it doesn’t have a transcendental basis for being true.

In the following passage, the Buddha moves from making a metaphysical claim (there is no self), to offering an existence-proof (a person can avoid believing in the self), to actually liberating his followers (they lose faith in the self and become free):

“the correct view in the light of the highest knowledge is as follows: “This is not mine; this am I not; this is not my self.”

“Perceiving this, O monks, the learned and noble disciple conceives an aversion for rupa, conceives an aversion for feeling, conceives an aversion for perception, conceives an aversion for volitions, conceives an aversion for consciousness.

“And in conceiving this aversion he becomes divested of passion, and by the absence of passion he becomes free, and when he is free he becomes aware that he is free; and he knows that rebirth is exhausted, that he has lived the holy life, that he has done what it behooved him to do, and that he is no more for this world.’”

Thus spoke The Blessed One, and the delighted band of five sramanas applauded the speech of The Blessed One. Now while this exposition was being delivered, the minds of the five sramanas became free from attachment and delivered from the depravities.

[Samyutta Nikaya III.66–68], in Siderits, pp. 38-9

This is a different way from Kant’s to put metaphysics together with ethics. But it depends on an existence-proof: actual examples of people who have become “free from attachment and delivered from the depravities.” The question is whether that happens.

See also: nostalgia for now; the grammar of the four Noble Truths; you have a right and a responsibility to attend to your own happiness; on philosophy as a way of life

judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view

  1. Judgment or practical reason (i.e., deciding what is right to do) means forming beliefs about facts, values, and strategies. It is sometimes worth trying to isolate the factual beliefs in order to test them empirically. But no claims are purely empirical, and the goal of distinguishing facts, values, and strategies is ultimately misplaced. (See right and true are deeply connected.)
  2. Individuals hold many opinions at once, and often some of our opinions are connected logically, causally, or in other ways. This means that we have structures of opinions. The form of our structures matters as well as their content. For instance, a structure can be too scattered or too centralized. These structures are better modeled as networks than as foundations plus superstructures. Only some networks of beliefs have nodes that function like foundations. (See an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory.)
  3. Individuals develop their opinions in constant interaction with other human beings, living or dead. We start with no explicit views of the social world and borrow most of what we think from other people. Whenever a person influences us, that reflects a link in a social network. And those who influence have their own networks of opinions that are linked by logic, causality, or in other ways. Therefore, developing judgments is a matter of participation in a network of people and their networked ideas. (See what makes conversation go well: a network model.)
  4. A culture is a name for a cluster of individuals with overlapping networks of ideas. It is a useful simplification for a world in which each individual at each moment has different ideas from the same individual at another time and from all other individuals. Some cultures hold foundational beliefs about some questions (e.g, monotheism is a foundational belief in a monotheistic culture); but in general, it is misleading to define a culture in terms of its foundations. (See everyone unique, all connected.)
  5. Often, we must judge institutions as opposed to concrete acts. (See Moral Foundations theory and political processes). For instance, we may need to assess the United States or marriage rather than an individual statement or action. Institutions also generate the material for our judgments, including most of what we take to be facts. (See decoding institutions.) Institutions exhibit patterns that are not intended or designed. (See the New Institutionalism.)
  6. Institutions are not best modeled as networks of individuals, because they have salient features–such as rules, incentives, and boundaries–that are not like nodes and links. (See a template for analyzing an institution.)
  7. The whole system of networked individuals, networked beliefs, and institutions is dynamic, not static. Individuals develop over their lives; institutions are founded, decay, and change; social networks form and shift; and networks of ideas change. (cf. Dewey’s pragmatism.)
  8. Power operates at all points in this system: e.g., when one individual influences another, when one person is put in contact with or separated from another person, when an institution is designed, and when its norms change. (See decoding institutions.) Power is not intrinsically bad; it just means that A can affect B. But some power is bad, and power shapes the materials of judgment.
  9. Liberty is a genuine value (see six types of freedom), but it should not be understood as freedom from others’ power or a right of epistemically free individuals to act according to their own judgments. Our judgments are formed by the communities we belong to (see the truth in Hayek).
  10. There are better and worse individuals, ideas, judgments, and institutions, but telling the difference between better and worse is a deeply social and iterative process. (See structured moral pluralism [a proposal].)

talking about gerrymandering and political reform on WCAI (Cape Cod and Islands)

I was on Mindy Todd’s show The Point yesterday, for a program on “Strengthening our Representative Democracy.” The other two guests were David Daley, author of Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy,” and Judy Zaunbrecher, co-president of the Massachusetts League of Women Voters. The audio is here. If you start at 42:00, you can hear Mindy ask Judy whether Massachusetts has been gerrymandered; Judy accurately summarizes the research by my colleagues at Tisch College. (Spoiler alert: not really, although it would still be better to use a nonpartisan districting commission.) I join shortly after that to discuss why our state government is so dominated by white men.

two important opportunities through APSA

The American Political Science Association’s Research Partnerships on Critical Issues program offers up to $20,000 for “proposals aimed at developing research-based projects that bring academics and practitioners together to tackle critical issues concerning citizens across the globe.” The first one, issued last year, was for a Congressional Reform Task Force that worked closely with Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. However, APSA is interested in a wide range of partnerships. A strong proposal might have nothing to do with the federal government or, indeed, American politics.

Also, please nominate people for the APSA Distinguished Award for Civic and Community Engagement. “This award honors significant civic or community engagement activity by a political scientist, alone or in collaboration with others, which explicitly merges knowledge and practice and goes beyond research to have an impact outside of the profession or the academy.”

These are both fruits of the APSA Task Force on New Partnerships.

discuss impeachment in high school–but not only impeachment

As impeachment dominates the headlines, many social studies teachers are assigning it as a topic of discussion and analysis in their classrooms. That is appropriate. Since students and their families are already discussing impeachment, it is a great “hook” for teaching about the US Constitution and the media.

Students should learn how to analyze the issues of the day, and impeachment is a leading current example. If young people learn to make sense of impeachment—to understand the rules and institutions, select reliable news sources, and assess diverse opinions—they will be able to process current events for years to come.

The impeachment debate is also an opportunity for discussion in classrooms. A moderated conversation can model respect for facts and alternative views much better than the polarized and often superficial debates in the national media. As such, it can impart skills and values that are in scarce supply today.

On the other hand, the immense attention given to impeachment reflects deficits in our civic life. Although impeachment may be one good topic of discussion in a social studies classroom, it should not be allowed to dominate or convey the impression that all politics is like impeachment.

Many Americans perceive politics as being a struggle between powerful politicians in Washington, DC. Impeachment is a perfect example of this kind of politics.

Local and state-level journalism is near collapse; about half as many people work in newspaper newsrooms today as in 2008. But the national news media still draws huge audiences, particularly for commentary on national issues. Impeachment is just the kind of issue that plays best on cable news.

Americans identify strongly with political parties and often seem to act like fans of one party against the other. Impeachment is polarized on partisan lines, with almost all Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

National political leaders increasingly resemble celebrities—none more so than the current president, who was a celebrity for forty years before he ran for office. He is at the heart of the impeachment case.

Finally, the issues that draw the most attention are often the ones that give ordinary citizens the least to do. Impeachment is basically a matter for 535 members of Congress and the President and his staff. For everyone else, impeachment might be one factor that influences their vote in 2020, but most voters have already made up their minds for or against Donald Trump.

My Tufts political science colleague Eitan Hersh describes “political hobbyism” as “consuming and participating in politics by obsessive news-following …,  by feeling the need to offer a hot take for each daily political flare-up, by emoting and arguing and debating.” He cites survey evidence that political hobbyism is extremely common, consuming two hours of every day for millions of Americans. Impeachment is a perfect issue for political hobbyists: every day’s headlines offer new fodder for opinions and emotions, but there is little actually to do. I would add that political hobbyists love to forecast elections and predict the results of today’s news, not to change the results by organizing. (I know this from personal experience, having some unfortunate hobbyist habits myself.)

The factors that make impeachment the dominant news story today—partisan polarization, a national storyline, celebrities, limited expectations for citizens, and appeal to political hobbyists—also prevent other issues from receiving the attention they deserve.

For example, last week, in the city where I live (Cambridge, MA), a new council was elected. The main issue was affordable housing, which had divided the previous council. This issue matters to students in Cambridge schools. Some come from families that face rising rents and could be forced out of town by gentrification; others could see their families’ wealth diminish if more affordable housing is built. Reasonable people who care about affordable housing disagree about the best solutions. The debate is heated and polarized, although not partisan in a city dominated by Democrats.

Each vote really matters in this local election with 22 candidates and only about 20,000 voters (about 24% of adult citizens). And there are other ways, apart from voting, for residents of all ages to influence the city’s housing stock. People can volunteer to build homes with Habitat for Humanity or bike to work instead of driving to address the parking shortage.

Yet the Cambridge council election received little coverage. No one has published an analysis of the impact of the recent election on the main issue, affordable housing. Even if social studies teachers in Cambridge Public School wanted to focus on the council election and the issues at stake, there would be no professional journalism they could assign as readings.

With these considerations in mind, I would make the following recommendations.

Social studies teachers should address impeachment, if only because teenagers will discuss it anyway, and students should be challenged to apply rigorous thinking and reliable information. But impeachment should not be the only issue they discuss during this academic year. It would be wise also to select other issues that are more local or otherwise offer more for students to do. These issues may also be less polarized or less partisan than impeachment.

While discussing impeachment, teachers should raise not only detailed issues about rules and processes in the US Congress but also broader and deeper questions: What is the rule of law? Why is power separated among branches of government? What does “due process” mean in a criminal trial, and should similar norms apply in impeachment?

An issue that interests me is the role of judgment in politics. Impeachment is not the straightforward application of law, because the Framers intentionally gave Congress the power to decide what should count as a “high crime or misdemeanor.” Cynics would say that if impeachment is not determined by law, then it is simply an exercise of power by partisan politicians, who will demonstrate bias and vote according to their political self-interest. But can responsible politicians exercise judgment (as opposed to bias), and what does that look like?

Impeachment is an opportunity to understand the intentional design of the US Constitution and the principles that undergird it, such as separation of powers. Studying impeachment may therefore increase appreciation for the Constitution. At the same time, an intellectually serious study of impeachment raises critical questions about our founding documents. What should we conclude from the fact that no president has ever been impeached in the House and convicted in the Senate? Or the fact that the last president to be impeached, Bill Clinton, saw his popularity rise and paid no tangible price? Is impeachment useful?

More generally, are checks and balances working now that the parties are fully polarized, with no conservative Southern Democrats or liberal northeastern Republicans ready to vote with the other party? The Framers objected to the very idea of parties and might have expected a polarized two-party system to destroy their design. As the late Juan José Linz of Yale noted, no other system with a separately elected president and legislature has survived when the branches belong to different parties. Are we heading for dysfunction?

Finally, impeachment is a topic for deliberative discussion in classrooms that can impart worthy values and skills. But whether and how it works for deliberation may depend on context.

Given the deep polarization of the American public, students in some classrooms may hold unanimous opinions either for or against impeachment. In those cases, teachers should introduce alternative perspectives through readings and other sources. One goal is to break down stereotypes about the other side in the national debate. Liberal students should understand that not all opponents of impeaching President Trump are his enthusiastic supporters; some have concerns about the process. And conservative students should learn that some proponents of impeachment are conservatives who are concerned about the rule of law.

In other classrooms, opinion may be split, and then it is important to create a context for thoughtful, respectful discussion—deliberation more than debate. As national leaders model point-scoring, name-calling, blatant partisanship and self-interest, selective application of facts and principles, and mutual disrespect, we should expect more from our students.