Is there a self?

I’ve been following Robert Wright’s MOOC on Buddhism and Modern Psychology. One of the most interesting ideas at the heart of this course frames Buddhism as a rebellion against natural selection. Wright investigates whether by helping us to see the world more clearly, Buddhism, and particularly meditation, irons out some of the perceptual and affective distortions caused in us by the selection process, and so alleviates suffering.

Wright asks us to imagine that we are walking a trail where a hiker was recently bitten by a snake. If out of the corner of an eye we see a coiled up rope on the edge of the trail, we’d probably jump out of ‘striking distance’ of the rope. Despite colouring our perception of the world, the low-level fear that caused us to see a snake in a rope is adaptive. Even if it causes a false positive 99 times out of 100, the misperception still would have helped us to pass our genes on in 1 case out of 100. The downside for us is that our experience of the world has been clouded by fear. He sees meditation at least partly as a way of ‘reprogramming’ ourselves.

Aside from meditation, one of the radical ways in which Buddhism challenges the strategies of natural selection (which often encourages us to act out of a perceived self-interest) is by questioning the existence of a self at all. When the Buddha said, ‘this is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself’ of consciousness, the body, mental qualities, feelings and perceptions, he may have been denying the existence of a self altogether. Alternatively, as I think Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests, his aim might have been to loosen his audience’s (monks) attachment to their own existences and not to rule out selfhood altogether.

I’ll paraphrase the Buddha’s arguments for there being no self as:

  1. a self should persist over time, while what we actually observe is continual change;
  2. if we isolate the components of our being, we see that no individual component houses a self.*

Both arguments remind me of the Ship of Theseus†, a part-versus-whole problem recorded in Plutarch. Over the years, every plank, rope sail and instrument of a ship is replaced. At the end of this transformation, the ship bears the same name… but is it the same ship?

You could view the name of the ship as another component, one which has not changed, but I don’t know whether that would help you to make sense of what’s occurred. The Ship of Theseus strikes me as being a problem of language and specifically the ultimate futility of labelling things. Though it is useful to categorise the world using distinctions and descriptors, the world is harder to divide than we imagine. Perhaps to point to ourselves and claim ‘this is me’ is naïve.



*(It’s worth noting that this is held as an experientially derived truth, rather than one derived from logic. Logic is used here more as a pedagogical tool.)
†See Mitch Green’s Engaging Philosophy.

Things as they are

Last night I read a fascinating essay in the LA Review of Books on Donald Richie, an expatriate writer in Japan. I was struck in particular by this quote from Richie’s The Inland Sea:

The innocent does not look for reasons behind reasons. He, secure in the animal nature that all of us have and only half of us admit, is able to see that all reality is what the West finds merely ostensible reality. Reality is skin deep because there is only skin. The ostensible is the truth.

Whether he’s right or not, that’s a profound thought in our age of explanations. It reminded me of the scene in Zen in the Art of Archery where another expatriate, Eugen Herrigel is struggling to allow his bow to ‘shoot itself’. His vocation, philosophy, seems to be a major hindrance:

He had, so Mr. Komachiya told me later, tried to work through
a Japanese introduction to philosophy in order to find out how he
could help me from a side I already knew. But in the end he had
laid the book down with a cross face, remarking that he could
now understand that a person who interested himself in such
things would naturally find the art of archery uncommonly
difficult to learn.

Philosophising The Stanley Parable

stanley parable 1

I spent all of last night exploring The Stanley Parable. If you haven’t played it, I’d recommend doing so before reading on.

The Stanley Parable is a computer game that does something no other artistic medium could do so well. Early in the game, you are presented with two identical doorways. Before you can decide whether to choose the door on the left or the door on the right, the narrator tells you (in the past tense) that Stanley walked through the door on the left. Wary of authority, I took the door on the right and the narrator began hours of cajoling and threatening as he tried to persuade me to follow the game’s storyline as he envisaged it. Of course, you soon realise that defying the narrator is the narrative of the game.

There are a few philosophical concepts that The Stanley Parable evoked for me. I’ll list them here.

Free Will

The Stanley Parable raises interesting questions about free will. Whereas most games provide the illusion of free will and shepherd the player’s progress, this one  makes your lack of free will explicit. The game gives you no choice  but to violate its narrative if the meta-story is to progress. Perhaps the only way we can exercise free will within the game is in the order we choose to explore its narrative branches and various endings. This is a troubling question:

Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors. But there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notion of freedom – for what would influence the influences? More influences? None of these adventitious mental states are the real you. You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

— Harris, S. (2012) Free Will. New York: Free Press.

(As it happens, I think Sam Harris overstates the requirements of free will. No one would reasonably argue that having acted according to one’s own will depends on total knowledge of everything that has ever influenced you).

The Eternal Return

Nietzsche said that a successful life is one that you’d be happy to live over and over again, even if that meant living with the consequences of your choices for all eternity.

“What, if some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life, as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh… must return to you—all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again—and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine!’”

— Nietzsche, F. The Gay Science.

The game restarts in Stanley’s office no matter how you die or how the previous storyline ended. Even though Stanley and the narrator are doomed to repeat the story ad nauseum, you can make different choices and a strange sense of progress emerges between dead ends. 


In Buddhist metaphysics, samsara is the cycle of suffering, death and rebirth that ensnares all beings. The Buddha’s achievement was to release himself from samsara by attaining nirvana (which literally means blown out, as a candle is blown out). Nirvana is said to be beyond all concepts, including life and death, being and non-being. After treading and retreading Stanley’s maze, I was desperate to find a way to break the cycle so that the game could reach a definitive end. Even death is no release, because progress in exploring the narrative often depends on dying and restarting. The need to achieve nirvana – both freedom from control and freedom from freedom itself – seemed urgent and appealing. In hindsight, I could have turned the computer off at that point.

In the narrative branch known as The Zending (presumably a reference to Zen Buddhism) we arrive at a starfield where blissful lights dance. The narrator begs us to stay here rather than continue in the endless hamster wheel that has become Stanley’s life. He says that he, the narrator, finally feels happy. We soon realise that however pleasant this might be, it is not a true release. The situation is set up so that the player will inevitably choose to restart the game by grimly jumping from a staircase several times.

Consider the following lines from The Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s teachings, in light of the narrator’s exhortations for Stanley to let go of his narrow worldview.

“If you want to reach the other shore of existence,

give up what is before, behind, and in between. Set

your mind free, and go beyond birth and death.”

— The Dhammapada (2007) Translated by E. Easwaran. 2nd edn. Berkeley: Nilgiri Press.

The narrator’s promise to show Stanley something beautiful if he (you) would only follow instructions reminded me of these lines of Rumi:

“One of the marvels of the world

is the sight of a soul sitting in prison

with the key in its hand.”

the stanley parable

Jumping out of the system

Without spoiling too much, the narrator realises that a human is controlling Stanley when Stanley makes a choice where none was offered. Here’s Douglas Hofstadter talking about intelligence as an ability to observe patterns and step outside of a task.

“Now let me be very explicit about what I meant by saying this shows a difference between people and machines. I meant that it is possible to program a machine to do a routine task in such a way that the machine will never notice even the most obvious facts about what it is doing; but it is inherent in human consciousness to notice some facts about the things one is doing, But you knew this all along. If you punch ‘1’ into an adding machine, and then add 1 to it, and then add 1 again, and again, and again, and continue doing so for hours and hours, the machine will never learn to anticipate you, and do it itself, although any person would pick up the repetitive behaviour very quickly…

It is an inherent property of intelligence that it can jump out of the task which it is performing, and survey what it has done; it is always looking for, and often finding, patterns. Now I said that an intelligence can jump out of its task, but that does not mean that it always will. However, a little prompting will often suffice… Of course, there are cases where only a rare individual will have the vision to perceive a system which governs many peoples’ lives, a system which had never before even been recognized as a system.”

— Hofstadter, D. R. (2000) Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. 20th-anniversary edn. London: Penguin.

This is what, I think, zen koans try to achieve: they prompt an ‘exit from the system’ of logic and conceptual thought. On that note, I’m about to put my feet up and exit this blog-system but I have a question before I do. Is it intentional that the one ending in which the player loses control of Stanley is referred to as The Freedom Ending?

Something to think about. Or not. The choice is yours.