I am under the impression that in western culture, it is quite common to conceive the Self as an illusion — probably as an import from eastern religions, and in particular from Buddhism, and in connection with the widespread practice of meditation.

That is, to see the Self as a collection of psychological dispositions, and so on, and in particular to conceive of reality as a continuum where nothing starts and nothing ends, and nothing exists separated — I think that in Buddhism it is called dependent arising.

People often speak about having had a spiritual experience in which they realized that everything is One and all distinctions are an illusion.

It seems to me that people are disposed to accept that without much issue.

But I also have the opposite impression about Free Will — that people have a lot more trouble letting go of that concept and of conceiving it as an illusion.

What is that which has Free Will, if the Self is an illusion?

What is that which merits praise or blame, or bears moral responsibility, if all arises dependently?

How can we let go of one (the Self) and not the other (Free Will)?

Have any philosophers discussed this last question?

Note — Naturally these questions dissolve within the framework of compatibilist Free Will, and therefore, to clarify, I am concerned with how this problem is dealt with within a layperson or libertarian view of Free Will.

Note #2 — I realize this is not a purely philosophical question. One might say that it is a scientific question. I'd say it is both. That a question cannot be solved a priori from one's couch does not mean that it is not philosophical. See for example Dennett's Consciousness Explained which is a 500 pages long scientifically informed influential philosophy book.

  • This question changes completely depending on whether you are asking about compatibilist freewill or metaphysical freewill. Also this question has already been asked and you commented on it :-) Dec 29 '15 at 7:07
  • Right, I had no memory of it. Nevertheless, I think the questions are related, but not duplicates. I made an edit to the question in the hope of clarifying this.
    – nir
    Dec 29 '15 at 7:43
  • 1
    One question per question
    – Joseph Weissman
    Dec 29 '15 at 15:56
  • But it is one question! It would have been three questions per question had I posted the same question three times with a different question at the end!
    – nir
    Dec 29 '15 at 20:52
  • 2
    Sorry, I really didn't mean to sound curt. I think this is a good question, but it might be good here to try to ensure it's as clear as possible what specific thing you want an explanation about. (A headline without a question and multiple sentences with questions marks may sometimes indicate that a question might be a bit too broad.)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Dec 30 '15 at 0:11

It seems to me that people are disposed to accept that [i.e. loss of self and oneness with the world] without much issue — is that a fair impression?

Most of the people in the West (or I should specify in the US) I have met who subscribe to some form of Eastern mysticism seem to interpret "loss of self" as "loss of selfishness" and "loss of pride", not as a metaphysical loss of self.

Similarly the feeling of oneness you mention that results from meditation is more of an acceptance of the world as it is, a willingness to "go with the flow", a loss of the distinction between good and bad and a letting go of anger, and an ability to no longer judge people, more so than a phenomenological "oneness" with their surroundings or some sort of ontological connection with the trees and the birds, etc....

As you mention further in your question, they are usually philosophical laymen/laywomen who don't really bother to study the full philosophical implications of whatever buddhist/hindu/sufi/kabalistic teaching they picked up in yoga class.

Why are people happy to let go of one (the Self) and not of the other (Free Will)?

As I mentioned above, the loss of self in question isn't a true metaphysical loss of self, and so it doesn't really scare them the way the loss of free will does.

Also as mentioned above, many are philosophical laymen, and they don't investigate the full philosophical implications of the positions they adopt. Most "lay atheists" I know for example are happy to brandish their materialist/physicalist worldview until confronted with the fact that this implies that they have no selves and likely no free will either, at which point they either withdraw into paradox or start to have their "atheistic faith" shaken (Full disclosure, I am such a shaken atheist myself).

The prospect of a true loss of self truly does scare people, and they are not willing to give it up so easily, that's probably why dualsim remains a popular position among otherwise atheistically and materialistically minded philosophers (Searle, Chalmers, Nagel, etc...).

Daniel Dennett mentions in this interview, among other places, that the implied loss of free will is the main reason why people attribute so much importance to qualia and the hard problem of consciousness, despite what he thinks is the very thin ground on which qualia based defenses of dualism stand.

What is that which merits desert or bears moral responsibility, if all arises dependently?

I personally have always marveled at this central contradiction in Buddhism: If there is no self, then what entity exactly is losing or gaining karma points? And more importantly, what exactly is being copied over from one life to another in the cycle of reincarnation?

Here I think lies a contradiction similar to the problem of evil in Abrahamic religions. The answers won't be pretty, but maybe we might find something in approaches to solving the ship of theseus paradox, or maybe even borrow from the ideas of structural realism in philosophy of science.

But what is a non-compatibilist Free Will without a Self? And what is a non-compatibilist Free Will in a reality of dependent arising? What is that which has non-compatibilist Free Will, if the Self is an illusion?

As I mentioned in the comments, there are some good answers in my previous post. James, Kane, and somehow Kant (I've yet to completely comprehend Kant's approach, or if Mozibur's mention of Kant is relevant at all, but the possibility is intriguing), all provide possible approaches to this question.

In the months since I posted that question, my thinking has evolved on the question. Here a couple of comments:

  • For a materialist who also believes in non-compatibilist free will, the question can get turned around: To "what is a non-compatibilist Free Will without a Self or in a reality of dependent arising?" they can answer that you have the order wrong: The self is the free will that binds the thoughts and perceptions together into an illusion of consciousness. A sort of "self-of-the-gaps" that lives in, or actually is, the space between the microscopic determinism of neural processes and the macroscopic indeterminism of conscious agents.
  • Emergentism: In the Dennett interview I mentioned above, despite himself being a compatibilist, he provides an interesting avenue for a non-compatibilist materialist free will as an emergent property, the way color is an emergent property of light waves and particles none of which have the property of color themselves. He also mentions Buddhism somewhere in passing, but you will have to listen to the whole interview, since I can't remember exactly where he mentions it.
  • Thanks for a clear answer! (1) It did not occur to me that people might be interpreting oneness and the illusion of the Self so much differently than I do. I'll talk with people about it and see what I come up with. (2) I think you are wrong about Chalmers and Searle, but I would to like keep it as an I Owe You an explanation for the moment. (3) I think Dennett does not express what you wrote anywhere in the interview, but it is nevertheless interesting. He does come to the vicinity around mark 50m and Younger even compares him to a Buddhist around mark 55m.
    – nir
    Dec 30 '15 at 9:15
  • (4) I did not find the answers given to your OP satisfying. Pointing in the general direction of Kant, is like saying the answer is in the wind, or the answer is in the bible — that is no answer at all. (5) I do not understand your final two comments.
    – nir
    Dec 30 '15 at 9:23

Freewill is actually most commonly discussed with regard to the Self. Freewill is the defining attribute of an entity that has "agency" over their actions. The exact meaning of this concept is one which has not been fully resolved, creating disagreement among philosophers. It doesn't even always cross cultural barriers, for Eastern philosophers often have very different things to say about the Self than Western philosophers do.

If one has experienced a spiritual experience which has lead one to believe all is connected and that the Self is an illusion, then is it not unreasonable to presume that agency is also an illusion, at least as the layman's version we consider today. However, this would only be half of the story, for the meaning of freewill, self, and agency are not universally agreed upon. One who has had such a Oneness event would most likely find the most valuable questions and resounding statements of truth be made with respect to universal concepts within that Oneness, not simply human words which have highly divisive meanings.

In other words, it is not unreasonable to surmise that those who have such spiritual experiences find these questions to simply be the wrong questions. They may be useful in the lesser scheme of things to further one towards the right questions, but such spiritual individuals often advise against becoming attached to them.

As for many specifics in your questions, they show a tendency to refer to Buddhist philosophy. You may be able to ask a similar, more narrowly phrased, question or questions on Buddhism.SE address the particular attributes of Buddhist philosophy rather than that of philosophy in general.

Edit: One approach seen in Western philosophy which is close to what you describe is to use deeper and wider selves to explore these scenarios. One I can think of is Arne Naess's "Ecological Self:" "The Ecological Self is that with which the Self relates to." This does not remove Self completely from the equation, but it does explore alternatives to the layman's approaches.

  • I am interested in how this is dealt with in the context of philosophy in general.
    – nir
    Dec 29 '15 at 7:49
  • This does not fit in well with the rest of the answers, but one potential reason Westerners may be more accepting of the idea of Oneness but not the idea of illusionary Freewill is that it is we are comfortable with the idea of distinct discrete entities being connected into a fabric, like springs and levers in a watch. We're used to the idea of sharing. The completness and totality of the statements which lead to the conclusion that freewill is an illusion is often avoided with these interconnected pieces metaphors.
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 29 '15 at 7:51
  • And also consider that any thought deriving from Descarte's "I think therefore I am" is poisoned because such a statement is used to assume one's non-illusionary existence. Lots of philosophy derives from that.
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 29 '15 at 7:52
  • I disagree - I think it is possible to interpret Descartes' use of the "I" in the cogito as meant to point out the subjective or private aspect of the irrefutable existence, not to establish the existence of a Self - to say "there is existence" does not capture the essence of the thing. one can say there exists a watching without a watcher
    – nir
    Dec 29 '15 at 7:57
  • @nir That's an interesting interpretation. Is it an accepted one I can research? Also, I edited in a partial approach provided by Arne Naess. It leads to Oneness in a way that does not immediately strike me as identical to the concept of the Self as an illusion.
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 29 '15 at 7:59

In the Western tradition, there is the scepticism of Hume; and Kants response - the self at one level, being a stream of raw impressions from sense and concepts from the intellect; but this is bound into a unity - the unity of apperception - through synthesis.

To put it differently - and maybe allegorically, the surface of the coffee, in this cup of coffee is a flat unitary surface, but looking more closely it's unitary surface dissolves into a stream of molecules in thermal equilibrium with the air above it, and the coffee below it; this in one view, is the more 'fundamental'; from another view, both obtain.

This view appears to be consonant in some ways with Buddhism; if one takes into account, as you say, of dependent arising (pratitya samutpada); then Nagarjuna, wrote in his Verses on the Centre (Madhyamaka):

Whatever arises dependently is explained as nothing

Thus dependent attribution is the middle way

Since there is nothing whatever that is not dependently existent

For that reason there is nothing whatsoever that is not empty

Emptiness, or sunyata, is roughly not to have svabhava, existence that is its own ground.

Dignana, the Buddhist logician, given dependent arising, inferred that atoms must be momentary: they come to be - are - and pass away; this is unlike the atomism of Democritus, where atoms are permanent.

Intriguingly this does rather sound like the virtual particle swarms in QFT...!

Free will is a Western concept; and Kant, I take it, fits it somehow into his architecture of the self - but I'm not sure of the details; perhaps some scholar knowing Kant more, may come along and fill in this sketch.

I'm not sure, either, how it fits into Buddhist notions of the self.

  • I don't understand how this answers the 3 questions at the end of my post. Can you explain?
    – nir
    Dec 29 '15 at 8:18
  • @nir: well, it's difficult understanding the way you've 'mixed' Western and Buddhist philosophy: free-will is a Western concept, there's possibly a Buddhist analogue - but I don't know it; the main thing I'm addressing here, is your assumption that the self is illusionary is solely an eastern concept; I'm pointing out that theres Humean 'psychological dispositions'; Kant answers him, and addresses free-will in his response. Most of my response is to sketch out how there is a unitary self even when dissolved. Dec 29 '15 at 9:15
  • It's really a commentary on your question - than a response to the three questions at the end; given what I say above - I find them a little 'ill-formed'; though I appreciate what you're driving at. Dec 29 '15 at 9:23

From Buddhist perspective,

What is that which has Free Will, if the Self is an illusion?

In absence of Self, free will could be separate phenomenon in itself. It's act of free-will to have free will. (Sort of like adverbialism.) And let's define free-will phenomenon further, as will which is intentional (as opposed to involuntary or unconscious act). This will is caused by other phenomena to arise.

What is that which merits praise or blame, or bears moral responsibility, if all arises dependently?

  1. Person. As long as person's will is not suppressed she is free willing.
  2. Action itself. Any voluntary, conscious action is free-willed. (And action could be blamed or praised.) By causality action will bring consequences as type of responsibility.
  3. And on deeper level, conscious attitude towards action. (Consciousness which is arranged in a way to be supportive of producing wrong actions, is in same time supporting arising of consequences for such actions.)

How can we let go of one (the Self) and not the other (Free Will)?

Free will is already misattributed to Self. Thus, destruction of wrong concept of Self does not affect free-will at all.

Who has free will in the absence of a Self?

On a conventional level, it's Person. On phenomenological level, 'who' is not a question, if there is no Self as phenomenon. There will be will, which is characterized as being free, and which is worked out by other consciousness phenomena.

  • what is a person?
    – nir
    Dec 30 '15 at 9:23
  • Person could be thought as complex sum of characteristics of individual. (Including social ones.) This notion in conventional in Buddhism, i.e. it's conceptual generalization, like in nominalism, and not some real entity.
    – catpnosis
    Dec 30 '15 at 12:39
  • what is an individual?
    – nir
    Dec 30 '15 at 12:45
  • Separate human, with such name, who born there, etc. What is a 'human'? You may be implying these are circular definitions, but they aren't. As I noted, these terms are of conventional nature, as opposed to a Self, which is supposed to be philosophically defined real entity, but actually lacks substance.
    – catpnosis
    Dec 30 '15 at 23:57

The answer to your question is that you cannot give up self and cling to will. Relinquishing will is part of no-self in Buddhism, e.g.

"But when one doesn't intend, arrange, or obsess [about anything], there is no support for the stationing of consciousness. ... Such is the cessation of this entire mass of suffering & stress."

SN 12.38 Cetana Sutta: Intention

"For a dispassionate person, there is no need for an act of will, 'May I realize the knowledge & vision of release.'"

AN 11.2 Cetana Sutta: An Act of Will

  • It seems to me that you are speaking of letting go of Free Will in the sense of ceasing to act intentionally or out of passion - as a goal in search of enlightenment, while I mean it in the sense of realizing that Free Will is an illusion. These are two different senses.
    – nir
    Dec 30 '15 at 20:22

We should not let go of either of these, we should let go of the notion of dichotomy that infects the idea of illusion.

We tend to badly overuse the notion of illusion, and the answer to questions like this depend very heavily on what is really meant by the word illusion in particular circumstances.

You seem to have oversimplified our grasp of Self from one kind of partial reality into 'an illusion' and translated that into 'a mere convention', then jumped to the conclusion that anything contingent on a mere convention must also be a mere convention.

But you give no 1) argument against the Self being some more stable form of partial reality. And give no 2) consideration of consider whether mere conventions can have real effects.

You need to address those two things, before your complaint makes any sense. Because both of them are highly debatable.

There are many forms of partial reality

In some sense, language is always deceptive, and anything with a name is therefore an illusion. There is no rule for deciding which molecules make up any given supposed 'chair' or 'brain'. But you are still using words, so you are obviously not put off by the fact of that 'illusion'. Because we see how it is simply a simplification, and a convention for coping.

If we are going to address questions like this, we need to refine our notions of relative reality much more closely, and discard the ones that are childishly dismissive, like the notion of 'illusion' itself.

How is a collection of psychological dispositions not at thing? It has effects, it makes the world more predictable, and in order to do so, it has to exist in some sense. If that is what the Self is, then, how is that an illusion? That is not an illusion, it is an epiphenomenon: It has reality and arises from things that have reality, but we misunderstand the direction of causation (or imagine a direction in a case of mutual causation). How does that make the concept less useful, or the pattern less effective?

If reality is a continuum, instead of a collection of isolated entities, again, how does that make any of it an illusion? Each thing is an unattained approximation, but that does not, again, make the concept less useful, or the pattern less effective. Newton's use of the calculus as a basis for physics has shown us very well how unattained approximations have enough reality to base a metaphysics that works.

If all is one and distinctions are conventions, how does that make those conventions into illusions? Our language and our culture is a set of conventions, but they are negotiated conventions and hardly arbitrary. We know our culture, we hold it and use it, as a repository of earlier thinking negotiated by relative survival, the trials of politics, and a shared group aesthetic.

There is a huge distinction between "Human understanding of the world is never perfect and endlessly incomplete" and "All is illusion". The former is an obvious deduction from the modernist enterprise, the latter is a pointless canard, meant to forestall real philosophical inquiry (and protect religions from unwanted challenges.)

The notion of 'illusion' itself is as much of an illusion as anything you might try to label an illusion.

Things like 'optical illusions' are the closest meaningful use, but they are themselves useful features of sensation that do not reconcile with our overall model of space and its features. So they are gaps between two levels of multiple realization of the same emergent continuum, which have evolved quirks for different local goals. They are neither wrong nor misleading when used together in context. And when observed out of context, historically, they have guided most of us to the notion that neither the data, nor the model is paramount and uncorrupted, but both are real.

Given this range of options Free Will is unlikely to be mere convention, and more likely to be, like almost everything else, an epiphenomenon, an unattained approximation, an apparent inconsistency between multiple realizations of an emergent phenomenon, a simplification of some real effect by negotiated convention, or some other aspect of reality that does not fit well with our intuitive presumptions. But none of those things is just an illusion, each is partially illusory, but still real.

Less real things can create more real things

Traffic laws, a fiction of convenience, create delays in real time, and occasional tragedies in real lives -- you miss your court date and lose custody, you end up stuck on bridge in an earthquake and die.

Religions generate wars that obliterate millions of lives.

To the extent that personalities are epiphenomena of mental traits derived from physical systems shaped by social development, and ... Human pairing, and which actual children are born, is decided by things with a very limited claim to independent reality.


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