1: The self, if it exists, is a thing that receives and/or controls experience. Some aspects of experience it controls, other aspects it receives. But whether the experience is "controlled" or "received", the self as controller or receiver is external to the experience. It's simple...if X is controlling Y then X is not the same as Y. If X is receiving Y, then X is not the same as Y.

2: It follows from 1 that the self is not the same as any experience. In other words, the self cannot be experienced.

3: Something that is entirely outside of experience...well it basically does not exist. In other words, the self does not exist.

  • 3
    Please include what the argument is about in the title. Also 3 does not follow from 2: there are dozens of rocks on the hidden side of the moon I will never get an experience of and yet they exist.
    – armand
    Aug 28 at 4:13
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    "Self is not the same as any experience. In other words, the self cannot be experienced"??? A star is not the same as any color, in other words, a star cannot be colored. Light from distant stars is not the same as distant stars. Therefore, distant stars are entirely outside of experience and basically do not exist. Is that the gist?
    – Conifold
    Aug 28 at 5:11
  • Nothing much is experienced by being the experience, so self is in good company. Your second inference is spectacularly invalid. The first premise is too vague. Would sucking on your own finger count as "controlling" or "receiving" yourself? If so, it is false, if not, it is irrelevant for the self can similarly "receive" its own parts. The third inference is dubious too. Anything outside of our light cone is entirely outside of our experience according to relativity, but few doubt that the universe extends beyond it.
    – Conifold
    Aug 28 at 6:12
  • Your problem is purely linguistic. There are two members in an interaction (e.g. the subject and the object), which exchange two different things (e.g. a coin for an apple). Your formulation does not allow understanding what is what, and what is given and received; the language is not proper. Experience is not "received". And if the same "experience" is given an taken, that's like giving and taking an identical coin for no reason, just a loss of energy. You don't go to the bank to give and receive the same coin to the teller.
    – RodolfoAP
    Aug 29 at 8:36
  • @RodolfoAP No I don't give and take the same coin, but when I give the coin, the teller takes it. Aug 29 at 20:07

My own view is that your argument is probably deductively valid -- or at least it could be made deductively valid without making substantial changes to your apparent meaning -- but unsound. (That is, the conclusion follows from the premises, but one or more of the premises is not true.) Perhaps more importantly, my own opinion aside, I think that all of the premises of your argument need some substantial clarification and defense in order to make them compelling to someone who does not already agree with you. Analysis on why follows below.

The Argument: So, you list three (3) numbered steps here. But the contents of each step is a whole paragraph, each of which seems to contain multiple statements and some inferences. I'd offer a friendly recommendation to try to put the argument into standard form, in order to make it easier to evaluate.

Form: to put the argument in standard form, each numbered line should have one and only one proposition; premises should be marked off and inferences should indicate which premises they are drawn from. Typically, all of the premises are placed above inferences; the conclusion should be the last line of the argument. So, let's try your argument:

  1. [For any experience], "The self, if it exists, is a thing that receives and/or controls experience." (Pr. - ¶1)

  2. "If X is controlling Y then X is not the same as Y." (Pr. - ¶1)

  3. "If X is receiving Y then X is not the same as Y." (Pr. - ¶1)

  4. "Something that is entirely outside of experience [...] does not exist." (Pr. - ¶3)

  5. So, [for any experience], "whether the experience is 'controlled' or 'received', the self as controller or receiver is external to the experience." (from 2, 3)

  6. So, "the self is not the same as any experience." (from 1, 5)

  7. So, "the self cannot be experienced." (from 6)

  8. So, "the self does not exist." (from 4, 7)


As presented, I take this to be a deductive argument from four basic premises; is this a fair presentation of your argument as you understand it? If not, my apologies -- let me know if there's anywhere that you think I got the structure wrong. If so, great -- let's evaluate it for validity and soundness.

  • Validity: I'd be happy to spot you that the argument is either deductively valid as presented, or could easily be made so by sharpening up some of the terms without substantially changing your meaning.

    For example, I have taken it for granted that when you say in ¶3 that when you say "Something that is entirely outside of experience [...] basically does not exist" that the term "basically" isn't intended to weaken the claim that it does not exist, or to make it less literal.

    The only worry about validity might be that there are inferences that I think you understand to be relatively simple rewordings of the prior statement, but which might not be obvious to everyone. For example, when you move from step 6, "the self is not the same as any experience," to step 7, "the self cannot be experienced" -- depending on what you mean by these terms, this is probably a valid rewording. But you might add some implicit premises along the lines of, e.g. (4.5) if the self can be experienced, then the self must be the same as [identical with] some experience.

  • Soundness: If we accept that the argument is deductively valid, or can be made so without substantively changing its structure, then the question will be whether or not all of the premises are true. You have four (4) premises. But I think that all of these premises are likely to be controversial:

    1. Whether or not Premise 1 is true depends on whether this is a good, exhaustive account of all the possible relationships that a self may have to possible experience; a critic might want to suggest that there are other things a self may do with experience besides "controlling" or "receiving" it. (They're probably especially likely to want to insist on this if they agree with you, as per premises 2-3, that neither "controlling" nor "receiving" could properly describe experience of the self.)

    2. Premise 2 presents a strong claim that nothing can count as controlling itself -- that x controls y is an anti-reflexive relation. That claim seems not only controversial but really there's a prima facie case that it's simply false; if there is anything which is autonomous, then there are some things that control themselves. (Cars are controlled by drivers, but good drivers control themselves; etc.) Perhaps the specific kind of "controlling" that you mean when you talk about (1) a self (2) controlling (3) experiences or aspects of experience, is a different kind of controlling, which cannot be reflexive (unlike the kind that, say, people or dogs or self-driving cars might be said to exercise); but if so, what's the kind of "controlling" you have in mind, and why can't it be? Or maybe it's the same relation in both cases, and it's strictly incorrect to say (for example) that people or dogs or self-driving cars control themselves; but if so, then why? Is that a conceptual matter that you can determine simply from the concept of controlling, or is there some other reason?

    3. Premise 3 presents a parallel claim about the relation x receives y -- that nothing can count as receiving itself, that x receives y is always an anti-reflexive relation. I don't know that this is false; but I don't really know that it's true either. What's the reasoning behind this? Are there possible exceptions to this? I think it's likely that a philosopher who is inclined to argue that it is possible to have experience of the self, e.g. according to a doctrine of inner sense or of introspection, is going to be motivated for precisely that reason to deny premise 3.

    4. Premise 4, at least as stated, is going to be flatly denied by non-idealists. According to a common theory, the universe is full of all sorts of things that are not experienced by you or me or anyone else that still exist nevertheless -- stones on the far side of the moon, clouds of gas in distant galaxies, bursts of subatomic particles that nobody is watching or measuring, etc. Some of these things are things that we do not and cannot experience directly at all, although we know that they must exist in virtue of measurable effects on other things (hence theories of, e.g., dark matter); but mostly they are just fairly ordinary things that happen to be beyond the horizons of our experience in a great big universe full of stuff. There are certainly philosophical views -- the idealist ones -- that insist on a claim something like your claim in premise 4. But the question is how you would motivate the claim and defend it against the ordinary run of counter-examples (like the above) that a critic of idealism is going to introduce in response.

  • thanks for your very detailed reply Aug 30 at 5:47
  • “That nothing can count as controlling itself.. That claim seems not only controversial but really there's a prima facie case that it's simply false; if there is anything which is autonomous”... lack of selfhood in buddhism is often equated to (or at least said to be very similar to) lack of anything being autonomous. The self does imply something thats somehow sectioned off from the chain of causality. Otherwise choice is impossible. In what way self is independent and autonomous is not clear to me. Could be created by causes, but then robust to conditions, in some way,after that?
    – Al Brown
    Aug 31 at 1:44

This entire argument is problematic.

The most obvious problem is that your point 1 presumes that things which are not experience can exist, but then point three, without appropriate justification, rejects the presumption. This is a self-contradiction in your argument, plus unsupported claims.

Point 1 ties selfhood to perception/experience, but Hume's own writings show that is problematic, because of the high variability of perception, experience, and momentary thought. Selfhood describes a pragmatic stability of self, which is NOT based on perception, but on continuity of memory and personality, so you are addressing the wrong terms from the outset.

The second point makes the error of invalid deduction by leaping to a conclusion that is a possible consequence, but not logically demonstrated by the premises. The self not being IDENTICAL to experience, does not mean that one cannot experience self.

The third point makes several invalid assumptions. It denies the possibility of emergent structures (a pile of sticks is not any stick, but it exists none the less). And it presumes that only that which is perceived exists (we have very good reason to think that the universe existed long before any perceivers).

  • 1
    I said that the self, if it exists, is a thing that controls or receives experience. There's no contradiction in then going on to say that it doesn't exist. Like in a proof by contradiction, you postulate a largest prime number, and then show that it leads to an absurdity. Aug 29 at 20:11
  1. What do you mean by the 'self'? EDIT: The self can be defined as - amongst other things - an entity which persists across time, and/or as a phenomena which changes from moment to moment. It may me deemed a vessel (a receptacle) for deterministic processes/'experiences' over which it has no agency, or an identity/agent capable of freely authoring decisions and controlling or moderating experience. It may be deemed as a person, a merely biological entity, or a merely conscious entity. All of these definitions have relevance to notions of 'receiving' and 'controlling' experience.

  2. What do you mean by 'controls' experience? It can be reasonably argued that a self controls nothing.

  3. What do you mean by 'receives' experience? It might be argued that a self is precisely the reception of experience. It might also be argued that the self is merely the creation of experience.

  4. The self may be distinct from stimuli, but what is it about the self that leads you to think it is external to experience? If consciousness is an aspect of the self, we can experience at least one aspect of ourselves.

  5. The claim that the self is cannot be experienced because it is 'not the same' as any experience needs to be justified. It is possible that the self is nothing but the totality of what we experience at any given moment.

  • 1
    You are making a serious effort to argue rationally, so please take the following as constructive criticism. Numbers 1,2,3: Don't demand definitions for commonly understood terms or demand arguments for widely believed premises. That leads to infinite regress where no one can start a discussion. If you have a problem with such a term or premise, it is up to you to persuasively argue against it. Number 4: How is "distinct from stimuli" relevantly different from "external to experience"? Note: I'm asking for a difference relevant to the argument, not just any difference at all. Aug 28 at 17:10
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    Number 5: your first sentence is true, there was no justification for the claim that the self cannot experience itself. The second sentence is not relevant to the point. If the self is nothing but the totality of what we experience, then it may or may not be possible to experience the self. It makes no difference; it's just an additional point of contention that detracts from your main point. Take a look at Conifold's two comments. They are a good critique of the argument. Aug 28 at 17:18
  • 1
    Ask for definitions, especially about commonly understood terms where it's easy to insert ambiguity based on the fact that everyone will feel like they know what it's about even if they don't know what the other person meant by using it, is the very basis of any constructive and rigorous discussion. (It also can be abused, but that's not the case here)
    – armand
    Aug 28 at 22:38
  • 2
    Asking questions is not an answer to the Stack Exchange question. if there is not sufficient clarity in the OP, post suggestions for clarification in the top question comments. "Answers" are not the place for questions or clarification suggestions to the OP question.
    – Dcleve
    Aug 29 at 1:01
  • 1
    @Futilitarian -- Your questions would be useful feedback from a teacher reviewing this as an argument outline, and key on a variety of problems, but that sort of Socratic interaction is not how this site is set up to operate. Those sorts of questions DO belong in comments. The OP structure isn't a great question to ask, as it is actually effectively multiple questions but I try to be forgiving I keyed on some of the same concerns you did, in my more direct approach to providing an answer, to see an example of how I would try to do what you also tried.
    – Dcleve
    Aug 29 at 16:07

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