By Damodar Prasad Das
It was a momentous winter’s day when Descartes sat down with the sole intention of demolishing all of his opinions. Descartes began by rejecting all knowledge gained from the senses, as the senses sometimes deceive. He concluded that whereas the empirical sciences can be classed as dubious, the abstract sciences such as arithmetic and geometry cannot. However, so determined was he to call into question all of his knowledge, that he conceived of a cunning and powerful demon, who was exerting all of his power to deceive him, even in matters related to the abstract sciences.
Descartes called into question the existence of his body, his senses, the external world, other people, and even God. But what of himself? Could he call his own existence into question? No. How could he? For even if he convinced himself that he did not exist, then he must exist. And if the all-powerful demon was deceiving him, then still he must exist. The conclusion was inescapable:
I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.
Srila Prabhupada often used the example of critical self reflection to describe the process of meditation. In Science of Self Realisation he described meditation as a process of questioning “What am I? Am I this body? No. Am I this finger? No, this is my finger.” The search for the “I” is called meditation, but, Srila Prabhupada adds, this process is very difficult, because the senses drag away one’s attention from the enquiry.
With respect to Descartes, he has since been criticised for not going far enough in his reasoning: that is, for not succeeding in seriously doubting his own existence. Others felt more competent to the task. David Hume, for example, famously raised the question regarding the self:
…from what impression cou’d this idea be deriv’d?
(Hume, T 188.8.131.52)
Hume claimed that all ideas emerge from some impression, and given that we have no impression or experience of the self, the self therefore could not be said to exist. He observed that when his perceptions ceased, as when in deep sleep, he was unaware of himself, and “may truly be said not to exist” (Hume T184.108.40.206), and concluded that at death, when all perceptions cease, he therefore would also cease to exist. He stated of mankind:
They are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement. (T220.127.116.11)
But it seems that Hume’s assertions are easily overturned, all we need do is ask the asserter “Who is making the observation?” The flaw is captured nicely by Bill Vallicella, the maverick philosopher: the very reason that the self does not present itself as the object of experience is because it is the subject of experience, that which is doing the experiencing (Vallicella, 2013).
Buddhists who hold to the doctrine of no-self make the same sort of mistake. Extrapolating from Lord Buddha’s argument that neither the body, nor feelings, nor perception, nor consciousness, nor mental formulations could be considered the self, because they are subject to change and may be experienced as dis-ease, they concluded that the self does not exist. Lord Buddha, however, made no such assertion. He concluded His argument thus:
Bhikkhus, when a noble follower who has heard (the truth) sees thus, he finds estrangement in form, he finds estrangement in feeling, he finds estrangement in perception, he finds estrangement in determinations, he finds estrangement in consciousness.
When he finds estrangement, passion fades out. With the fading of passion, he is liberated. When liberated, there is knowledge that he is liberated. He understands: ‘Birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what can be done is done, of this there is no more beyond.
That is what the Blessed One said. The bhikkhus were glad, and they approved his words.
Lord Buddha’s statements make it clear that the self by its very nature is not something experienced, but that which experiences, and so, Lord Buddha’s argument actually establishes the reality of the self by distinguishing it from that which it is not. Besides, if there is no self, then what is it that is liberated, and that moreover is aware that it is liberated? Rather, Lord Buddha’s argument, when properly understood, establishes that there is a self, and that its liberation consists in a proper self-identification. Srila Prabhupada has also stated that the sense of self exists in the liberated stage of self-realisation (Bg 13.12 Purport).
The identification of so many features which we take to be ourselves or our own, but which are changing and non-permanent are rightly rejected notions of self, but their very existence implies an unchanging self which is eternal. Lord Sri Krishna declares:
Those who are seers of the truth have concluded that of the nonexistent [the material body] there is no endurance and of the eternal [the soul] there is no change. This they have concluded by studying the nature of both. (Bg 2.16)
The changing can only take place in the context of the unchanging, and the non-permanent has no meaning without reference to the permanent. That eternality and changelessness should characterise the very nature of the self has been resolutely resisted by modern Western philosophy, which has to a large extent been engaged in the bizarre task of dissociating itself from its foundations in classical philosophy and faithful enquiry.
But why should Descartes have pressed his doubts? Why should we doubt the existence of that which is manifestly true, namely, our very selves? Perhaps the motivation for this hopeless project, which may be likened to building a house with no foundation, or sawing off the branch that one is sitting on, may be found in the implications which an acknowledgement of the self entails: The existence of the self implies the existence of God. In this regard, Srila Prabhupada states in the purport to the Bhagavad-gita verse quoted above:
One can understand the nature of the Supreme by thorough study of oneself, the difference between oneself and the Supreme being understood as the relationship between the part and the whole. (Bg 2. 16 Purport).
What startling implications lie in the simple admission: I am.
Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic. translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera (1993). (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.059.nymo.html) accessed February 19 2014)
Bhagavad Gita As It Is, translated by AC Bhaktivedanta Swami (Mumbai: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1986)
Bill Vallicella (2014). Sam Harris on Rational Mysticism and Whether the Self is an Illusion. Maverick Philosopher. (http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2013/06/sam-harris-on-rational-mysticism.html) accessed February 12 2014
David Hume (1739) A Treatise of Human Nature: Being An Attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects. London.
Srila Prabhupada. Attaining Perfection. Science of Self Realisation. (Sidney: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1997)