Running from Zombie Buddhas

A primary concern of speculative non-buddhism is how we might think new thoughts with and about x-buddhist materials.

As the following essay by Tom Pepper shows, thinking new thoughts with and about, in this case no-self and buddhanature, requires radical reconstructions of those affective and cognitive frameworks through which we make sense of self and world. But thinking for Pepper doesn’t mean tinkering with an idea to make it fit our cozy, already-existing ideological system. He means, rather, the sustained forceful action of considering a matter, like no-self, and of not flinching before thought’s logical conclusions. That that latter demand of thought proved to be too much for as a great thinker as David Hume should give us pause.  Why did Hume, and many others since, flinch before no-self? Pepper suggests that one reason might be that thought sometimes presents us with truths so unwelcome that we simply refuse to accept them. Perhaps the hardest truths for x-buddhism to face are the ones that oblige us “to change our social and economic systems, instead of simply adjusting our ‘selves’ to the world as it is.” But what happens when we begin to think anew with x-buddhist axioms? (Glenn Wallis)

Running from Zombie Buddhas

Tom Pepper

To each human animal is given, several times in its brief existence, the chance to incorporate itself into the existing subjectivity of a truth.  To all, and in multiple types of procedures, is granted the grace to live for an idea, therefore the grace to live at all.

–Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds

“You can’t handle the truth!”

–Col. Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson), A Few Good Men

Why do we so often blink at the truth?

If it is the case, and I will argue that it is, that we are repeatedly offered the opportunity to see through our illusions and grasp truth, why do we retreat from this confrontation?  What is on offer that is so very appealing that most of us would willingly turn down the opportunity to truly live?  What is so harrowing about truth that simply asking that we consider it draws hostile reactions or angry dismissal?

In order to suggest a possible answer, I want to focus on one particular truth that has confronted the human mind repeatedly throughout our history, but from which we have not only flinched but fled in terror: the truth that we have no self.  More specifically, the truth that we have no discrete, autonomous, self-directing “mind;” the truth that as individuals we are completely effects of a larger, collective symbolic/imaginary system of meaning.  This truth returns to human thought like the Freudian repressed, and as often as it does we try to push it back down beneath the neurotic defenses of obsessive attachment to feeling or a reductive scientism of psychology or neurology.

Consider the following:

When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure.  I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception. . . . What then gives us so great a propension to ascribe an identity to these successive perceptions, and to suppose ourselves possest of an invariable and uninterrupted existence thro’ the whole course of our lives? (p. 165)

This is, of course, David Hume on the attempt to introspectively detect the existence of a soul, self, mind, or “personal identity.”  The similarity to the process of arriving at awareness of anatta in the Pali Canon is probably noticeable to anyone familiar with Buddhist discourse:

Thus, monks, any form whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’

Any feeling whatsoever…Any perception whatsoever…Any fabrications whatsoever…Any consciousness whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every consciousness is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am’ (Pañcavaggi Sutta: Five Brethren [SN 22.59]).

When we examine the contents of our experience, we find that there is no “self” which has these experiences.  The self, then, is only a useful fiction, a conventional truth, a feature of language.

There are clearly differences between Hume’s thought and the teaching of the Pali Canon, not least in that Hume cannot accept the consequences of this discovery.  Hume famously rejected his own arguments from A Treatise of Human Nature, from which the above passage is taken, in an appendix added to later editions.  He found that in taking empiricism to its logical conclusion, he was left with an intractable problem: his philosophical system required him to assume the existence of a “magical faculty of the soul” which his atheist materialism could not admit.  In Hume’s own words: “All my hopes vanish, when I come to explain the principles, that unite our successive perceptions in our thought or consciousness” (p. 400).  His only solution, it seemed, was to suggest that our thoughts and perceptions are united only by a faculty he calls “imagination,” which is “inexplicable by the utmost efforts of human understanding” (p. 21).  He was driven to the conclusion that the only source of a “self” is, to put it in my own idiom, in the collective socially constructed symbolic/imaginary system in which we construe and experience the world—but he could not accept that possibility.  Attached as he was to the idea of an empiricist epistemology and its atomistic mind, he preferred to have “all his hopes vanish” rather than concede that the mind is collective instead of atomistic.

Why is it so intolerable to accept the possibility that our “self” is merely a designation in the symbolic order assigned to that particular bodily point of interaction with the world?  The obvious answer is that it is simply contrary to our ordinary lived experience of ourselves as autonomous and persisting entities, with individual minds and wills.  However, Hume had already rejected this common man-in-the-street concept as an illusion, yet he still could not accept the alternative his own argument seems irresistibly to entail.

Nor is Hume alone in this; the sheer volume of philosophical writing attempting to recover some possibility of a “self” from the devastating effects of Hume’s arguments is evidence of our desperate clinging to this illusion.  And, of course, there are many other lines of thought which would lead to the conclusion that we have no coherent, unified, self which directs its own actions.  Psychoanalysis is perhaps the most evident of these schools of thought, and the enormous effort to reject psychoanalytic thought, to insist that we must not even begin to try to understand it, but must reject it unconsidered, is difficult to explain except as a terror of the threat of non-self

The possibility of the absence of an autonomous and permanent self does seem to be terrifying for most of us.  I want to suggest that one reason we retreat from this truth wherever it makes its appearance is that we cannot yet think this truth in our presently existing systems of knowledge.  What the rejection of anatta offers us, then, is an escape from the frightful work of thought.  I will further suggest, though, that this work of thought is not as onerous as most of us seem to fear, and that, in fact, there are concepts in which to begin this effort, concepts that can serve us to force the appearance of this truth in our conceptual world.

To make this case, I would like to consider an essay by Mark Siderits, the concluding essay of a very interesting collection called Self, No Self? Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, & Indian Traditions.  My argument will be that Siderits once again comes to the conclusion that we do not have a self of any kind, and that in fact the self is only a “useful fiction” which serves the purposes of the larger, collective, symbolic system.  That is, Siderits’s interpretation of Buddhist thought leads to the conclusion that there is in fact a bigger collective mind, while each apparently discrete individual self is merely a convention which serves a function. I was initially very encouraged on reading this, because I thought I might find here an ally in the attempt to draw out this implication of Buddhist thought.  However, Siderits and his co-editors are quick to point out that “most readers will find this implausible” (p. 26), and Siderits admits in a footnote that “this outlandish position was not . . . held by any Indian school” but he has “arrived at it through a combination of rational reconstruction and speculation” (p. 309).  He sees it as merely an “exercise” to demonstrate the effect if we “take seriously the resources provided by the Indian philosophical tradition” (p. 309)

Why would he seem so willing to dismiss as “implausible” and a mere “exercise” the implications of his own argument?

We can see the reason for this in the very title of his essay: “Buddhas as Zombies: a Buddhist reduction of subjectivity.”  The title is more than just an attention grabber; Siderits cannot conceive of the collective mind, the inter-subjectively created symbolic system, as anything but an “undead” machine running on autopilot.  To become enlightened is to become a zombie or a “Robo-Buddha” (p. 329), and give up the “illusion of thought,” accepting our “ultimate ontology” as a completely determined cog in an “information processing” machine.  Sidierits must reject this idea of the collective mind, because the only way he can conceive of such a form of consciousness is within a completely closed ontology, functioning only to reproduce and maintain the existing state; that is, Buddhism would then become purely an ideology of the present “state of the system,” rejecting, even preventing the occurrence of, though, truth, or transformation.  Certainly a frightening prospect.

I think this essay is a fascinating example of why we have so much trouble “handling” the truth; Siderits, it seems to me, is mostly correct about the implications of anatman, and he highlights quite well the absence of concepts in which to deal with this unavoidable truth.  Let me briefly outline his argument here.  He begins with what he calls the “outlandish claim” that “consciousness cannot be ultimately real” (p. 309).  For consciousness to be “real” in the sense he seems to mean it, it would need to be reflexive, able to think itself—like the metaphors of the lamp illuminating itself or the fingertip feeling itself.  Rejecting the self-consciousness of consciousness, the reflexivity theory, he argues that “the person is only conventionally real . . . a kind of useful fiction” (p. 310), and he points out the difference between this position and the eliminativist position, which would see the self as a useless fiction.  The self is useful, but perhaps not absolutely necessary, for proper functioning of the “information processing system” which is the only ontological reality.  The goal of Buddhism, he suggests, is to “reap the benefits of the useful fiction of the person, without paying the steep price exacted when we take it literally” (p. 312).   The fiction of the subjective self is useful, he claims, because it serves to process new information, to call attention to new sensory input not already integrated into the “state of the system”:

Where we know our way about, the sensory state is taken as putting us in direct touch with the object (the cognition is transparent); where we are in cognitively new territory, the sensation is taken as producing an inner representation that may or may not be veridical, and so warrants further investigation (the cognition is opaque).  We can then say that the cognizedness of the object is the mark that this yellow flag has gone up.  We take perception to result in a cognition, an inner subjective state, when it would enhance the performance of the system to make perceptual content available to the fact-checker routines. (pp. 328-329)

In short, the illusion of self serves the useful function of marking as “subjective” and in need of evaluation any phenomenal experience not already fully incorporated into the information system, an indication that adjustments may need to be made to insure smooth functioning—either the new information must be incorporated, or the sensory detection mechanism must be adjusted. The ultimate goal, then, is the perfectly working system, with all possible data already incorporated, and thought no longer needed.  Buddha is a bug-free operating system.

The reason I find this essay so fascinating is that it really crystallizes what seems to me to be the fundamental reason why we flinch from the truth of anatta.  We lack the conceptual apparatus to make sense of a collective, inter-subjective consciousness that is not ultimately real but dependent on causes and conditions.  The only framework we have in which to think this is the positivist cognitive-science model of information processing.  The difficulty, it seems, is that if consciousness is temporary and relative, our prevailing system of knowledge requires that it must therefore be thoroughly determined, a clockwork mechanism set in motions and bound to run its course.  What is needed is a conceptual framework in which to conceive of consciousness as an emergent power of the human animal, as dynamic, expansible, and not reducible to the conditions on which it depends.

I want to suggest, though, that there are other ways to consider the collectively produced consciousness of which our selves are merely useful fictions. I’ll begin with a few basic premises:

1)     The “information processing systems,” the discourses and systems of knowledge with which we construct our World (in Badiou’s sense of the term), are not the same as ontology.  They are, instead, our ideology, the beliefs-in-practices with which we interact with the world; when they work smoothly, as in Siderits’s Robo-Buddha, they do so only because they are effectively eliding or obscuring certain inconvenient truths.

2)     This is the case because every symbolic/imaginary system is incomplete, and our knowledge of the world is infinitely corrigible.  When we assume the “system” is correct, and all inconvenient data needs only to be incorporated into it, we are reifying our ideology.

3)     There is no monolithic, hermetically closed ideology.  There are multiple “logics of worlds,” in Badiou’s terms.  There are as many collective minds as there are cultures, and these minds are capable of interacting.

4)     The goal is not smooth functioning of a bodily machine, but expansion of the symbolic/imaginary system to interact with ever more of the ontologically real.

We must see the collective mind not as a closed and smoothly running information system, but as an open symbolic system which is riddled with aporias and contradictions. Furthermore, the symbolic system interacts with the real conditions of its existence by means of biological organisms, each of which is unique in its capacities and each of which occupies a unique position in the collective mind of which it is part.

To conclude this perhaps too brief and cryptic essay, then, let me suggest two related reasons why we flinch from the truth.

One is ideological: like Hume, we sometimes become so comfortable in our ideology that the admission of a truth is simply horrifying.  When faced with accepting it, we choose to retreat into talk of unfathomable mysteries, and prefer to reject our own thought rather than face its implications.

Another is more conceptual: we simply lack the concepts to force the appearance of a truth in our system of knowledge.  The discomfort and difficulty of thinking in new concepts, however, is probably not nearly as difficult to overcome as the power of ideological reification.

In the examples I have discussed here, these two reasons for flinching are quite interrelated.  Both Hume and Siderits fail to make the distinction between thought about the mind-independent physical world and thought that constructs our ideological relation to the real conditions of our existence.  Hume’s epistemology requires that all “reality” is mind-independent, and all “thought” is directed toward knowledge of that mind-independent reality; when he is faced with the necessity that the habits of mind which shape our beliefs and perceptions are in the “imaginary,” are socially produced fictions, he can only insist that they are “inexplicable.”  The possibility that socially produced systems are real without being permanent, and that they have causal powers, is simply unthinkable for the Tory Hume: if this were the case, we might be obliged to change our social and economic systems, instead of simply adjusting our “selves” to the world as it is.  The collapse of ideology and science into one epistemological register is a necessity for Hume’s conservative ideology.  Siderits makes a similar maneuver, but for apparently different reasons.  Siderits can see the non-self, collective mind only as processing of sensory data, completely eliding the register of ideology and collapsing all thought to the level of describing a mind-independent world.  The failure here is primarily conceptual, the result of inadequate concepts in which to think of consciousness rather than of an attachment to conservative ideology, but the effect is very much the same.  When Siderits reaches the conclusion that consciousness must not be ultimately real, he can only dismiss this conclusion as a mere “exercise” in thinking the “outlandish” and implausible.

We can get beyond this impasse if we accept that we are, as Althusser puts it, “ideological animals by nature,” that we must not only describe the world, but also construct a way of living in it.  This ideology is what we must learn not to reify, and reification of our ideology is the source of much human suffering.  We must also be willing, in the words of Alain Badiou once again, to “abandon all hope of finalizing truth, of incorporating all truth into ‘being as becoming’,”(p. 45) we must accept that we never have the final truth.  This, ultimately was unacceptable to Hume, and remains unacceptable to most of us today, influenced as we still are by the positivism of the last century.

I will end, then, with one more statement from Badiou.  I can hear the groans, but he is one of the few thinkers today who does not flinch from the non-existence of a “self.”  For Badiou, we always come upon events, phenomenon that fail to fit into our World, which exist, make their occurrence felt, but cannot “appear” within the knowledge systems of our world.  This is the opportunity for truth, and for a subject: “One could say that the subject is a procedure for structuring the traces of a [truth] event, of organizing its effects in the world” (p. 42).  The subject is not the atomistic individual, but the collective effort to bring new truth into the often resistant World. We can do this only because we are, in fact, ideological animals by nature, and because the symbolic/imaginary system which is our ideology is not a static monolith, but a contradictory, aporetic, dynamic site of struggle.

This, I would suggest, is our real “buddhanature”: we are ideological animals who can handle the truth.


Badiou, A. (2006).  Logiques des Mondes. (Paris: Editions du Seuil).  Please note that the awkward translations from the French are my own; I find that Alberto Toscano’s far better translation is sometimes even more obscure than my own when passages are quoted out of context.

Hume, David. (2001/1739-40). A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. D. F. Norton & M. J. Norton. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Siderits, M., Thompson, E., & Zahavi, D. (2011) Self, No Self? Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, & Indian Traditions. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

“Pañcavaggi Sutta: Five Brethren” (SN 22.59), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 29 June 2010,

Tom Pepper teaches English at Southern Connecticut State University. He has a Ph.D. in English from the Stony Brook University, and is a graduate student in counseling psychology, as well as pursuing a further degree in mathematics.

Image: Gerhard Richter, Schädel, 1983. Oil on canvas.

A downloadable pdf file of this essay is available on the “Articles” page.

57 responses to “Running from Zombie Buddhas”

  1. jayarava Avatar

    I’m still wondering who the audience for this stuff is. But at least this essay is well structured. I’m still frustrated as hell by the end of it, because of all the simplistic assumptions it makes, but at least he had a plan and comes to a conclusion.

    I’m no longer surprised that people maintain that anātman means that we don’t have a self. I’ve read the various approaches to this question and it’s clearly very difficult to understand. That it is wrong to argue that the Buddhist tradition says that we have no self depends on which Buddhist tradition we are talking about and unfortunately Tom is not clear about this. He cites the Pāli Canon, but also talks about Buddha nature. Two idea separated in history by at least 1000 years. I think the consensus of the large studies of anātman in Pāli (none of which are cited) conclude that in the final analysis the Pāli Canon is ambiguous as to the existence of a self. A self (or strictly speaking ‘myself’) certainly cannot be identified in the khandhas individually or collectively–and I tend to follow Sue Hamilton in referring to these as the Apparatus of Experience. This doesn’t rule out a self, it only places limits on it. Some quite good scholars have concluded, on much wider reading than our current author that the Pāli texts actually endorse a self. I don’t agree, but the arguments for and against are subtle, lengthy and make no reference to Buddha nature. But this author shows no sign of engaging with the wider literature of this issue. I haven’t read the Siderits article but he is portrayed as having a even weaker grasp on the subject. The “bigger collective mind” sounds like Zen mumbo jumbo–some of my least favourite mumbo jumbo in all the world.

    At this point I should probably confess that I think Buddhanature is a lie invented to solve a particular problem that was nothing to do with the problem of selfhood, although it is thinly disguised ātman theory pillaged from the Upaniṣads. The problem it was invented to solve is the problem of how we attain bodhi in the absence of a living Buddha; the problem of saving the miserable sinner. It seems to be a perennial problem in the history of Buddhist ideas and we have to keep making up the most outlandish stories to cope with it (eternally prolonged Buddha, parallel universe Buddha, internal Buddha, cosmic Buddha + interpenetration, yadda yadda). I’m not sure why it can’t be solved once and for all, but I suspect it’s due to 99.999999% of people not becoming stream-entrants after a lifetime of practice. I think this blog, mine and a few others are heralding the arrival of another go at the problem of why the fuck I’m not enlightened after I’ve tried really hard!

    When someone begins an argument about Buddhism with a statement like “consciousness cannot be ultimately real” my first thought is along the lines of “Really? I thought we were talking about Buddhism?” What has “ultimately” and “real” got to do with anything? And I find it quite distracting when such basic assumptions are not challenged. Nothing good can come of it. Does no one read the Kaccānagotta Sutta or the MūlamadhyamakaKārika any more?

    I’ll grant that we usually think that consciousness is the subject under discussion, but after 20 years of thinking about it I’ve come to the conclusion that consciousness is not what Buddhists are talking about at all. Certainly the one thing that vijñāna can not mean is consciousness in the English language sense. All we, well OK, I can positively say about vijñāna is that it is condition for the arising of vedanā and comes from a verbal root meaning ‘to know’ (unlike consciousness).

    I do wish more people would read Thomas Metzinger’s book The Ego Tunnel. He does a very good job of exploring the implications of selfless perception.

    The essay boils down to this. We flinch from the truth because it’s deeply counter-intuitive.

    So, yeah, better than the last effort, but actually still kind of boring and slightly offkey.


  2. Tom Pepper Avatar

    The three classic stupid responses to something new: 1) It’s boring (i.e., I didn’t understand it, but I won’t admit that); 2) It really just boils down to . . . (fill in a trite cliché here) . . . why didn’t the writer just say that?; 3) There are three hundred different books and articles on this issue which you don’t cite, so you must be wrong (this one comes first for most academics). Congratulations, Jayarava, you hit them all in one post! You will receive your idiot certificate in the mail.

    Whenever I assign my students something challenging, and they don’t understand it, the first response is always “it’s boring.” I always tell them what I tell my four-year-old: you can’t say you don’t like it if you haven’t tried it. How do you know it’s boring, if you can’t understand it? And if you don’t want to understand it, then shut the hell up and go away—nobody’s making you eat this broccoli. I tired of hearing grown people whine about being “bored”; it’s hard enough to hear it from my kids.

    But seriously, for anyone who wants to offer a serious response or ask a question, I do have one request. I do not cite any of the numerous studies on anatta/anatman/no-self/non-self sitting on my shelves for a reason. I am not interested here is what anatman means in this sutra, or what that Buddhist commentator meant by it. That is, I do find such questions enormously interesting (hence the numerous books about it on my shelves), and they are very worthwhile work in the right context: but that is no what I am doing in this essay. Here, I am less concerned with the Pali canon or Chandrakirti than I am with exploring what WE can make of the truth that we have no “self,” that there is no abiding core of our experiences. So please, don’t bother quoting x-buddhist texts to “prove” what anatman, or buddhanature, or anything else “really” means.

    I have not doubt this piece is a bit cryptic, and may even be just as “implausible” as Robo-Buddhas, so I’m very interested in hearing real objections and questions. But no whining and no tantrums, or I’ll hit you with my comment-stick.

  3. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Jayarava (#1).

    From my perspective of non-buddhist theory, I would say that your response to the essay is grounded in the very framework that that theory is intended to illuminate and, in so doing, destroy. The essay under question, too, argues for the necessity of a radical change in our very affective-conceptual framework. It also exemplifies what such a change might look like. My comment here should also be seen offering an answer to the question about intended audience.

    The framework that requires destruction if we are ever to think x-buddhist axioms anew rests on the foundation of the principle of sufficient buddhism. Viewing things through this frame results in our filtering everything through that principle. We may, of course, generously input non-Buddhist data, such as Metzinger’s ideas, into the frame; but the force of the principle ensures that the x-buddhist program determines the outcome. (The recent comments by Bhikkhu Brahmali were illuminating instances of the force of this principle.) I argue that recourse to the principle of sufficient buddhism is reflexive. Another way of saying the same thing is that reliance on the principle occurs automatically. It is an affective-conceptual reflex. As such, it is a symptom of one’s less-than-transparent subscription to a particular x-buddhist ideology. For instance, you hear Zen’s “one-mind” at work in Tom’s notion of a non-atomistic mind. I don’t. My neighbor doesn’t. Why do you? How do you see yourself in relation to this principle? Remember that generosity of reference is not evidence of the principle’s diminishment. Cancellation of x-buddhism’s warrant, on the other hand, is.

    Related mechanisms that maintain the x-buddhistic affective-conceptual framework–and which I see at work in your comment #1–are the detail fetish and historico-hurky-jerky. These two moves are related. I have mentioned them numerous times on the blog (although the terms keep changing), so I’ll just say that they involve an ancient shell game played in an even hoarier hall of mirrors. Buddhist studies scholars are masters at this game. The first involves the spewing of endless exemplification. The possibilities are endless because of the monstrous, elephantine, sprawling nature of the subject: x-buddhism. Look at how Christians can argue both X and not-X, all on the basis of a single little book. Now, recall the size of the x-buddhist canons. Exemplification results in historico-hurky-jerky when it takes recourse in arguments like your “Two ideas separated in history by at least 1000 years,” and so on.

    In non-buddhist theory as I (currently) conceive of it, the term “x-buddhism” names a single text. History and its infinity of possible exemplification are rendered moot in the face of the single text theory. What renders it a single text is, of course, the transcendental decision.

    So, while some of the arguments being made here may sound familiar, it may be because you are still running them through your x-buddhist affective-conceptual framework. Is that possible? In my non-buddhist framework, Tom’s current essay and Matthais’s previous essay suggest possibilities that are, in their radicality, unthinkable to committed x-buddhists. Therein may lie their value to humans.


  4. Alan Avatar

    Tom, I read through your essay once, and though I will need to give it more thought, the ideas do seem plausible to me. I don’t have a background in philosophy or the buddhist canon, but I have some familiarity with psychoanalysis, so I’m glad you mentioned that. So from my (relatively uninformed) perspective, it seems that there may be a couple of more superficial reasons why most cannot accept the idea of no-self. One is the equation of self with body, which is clearly a separate entity. If I get stabbed with a knife, I bleed, you don’t. The other thing is that the very term “no-self,” which I only heard for the first time a few years ago at a “Buddhism 101” workshop to me at first sounded very mystical and esoteric. And I think your essay suggets reasons why it would sound that way to me. Without thought and exploration I did not take it as something rational and explainable. Your essay (and previous comments on this blog) helped in that regard. On a more fundamental level I agree with you that people find something terrifying and threatening about no-self. My question is why is that the case? You do implicitly address that question (or maybe explicitly?); I’m thinking it has something to do with our narcissism and egoism. It seems to be akin to the terror we feel about death, the fact of which we cannot deny, but on deeper levels we do deny. (In my meditation group, we have discussed this issue via thinkers and writers like Freud, Ernest Becker, Steven Weinberg, Beckett, and others.)

    Well, I’m not at all sure that I have understood all your points or how far beyond a superficial reading I have gotten so far, but this is my start. Any suggestions for a Badiou “starter” text?

  5. jonckher Avatar

    #0 Dr Pepper

    OMG! Did you just quote from a movie made by the most efficient capitalist cultural imperialistic machine in the world with an actual honest-to-god Scientologist in it? And did you actually end at a stirring and inspiring note with the same quote from aforesaid movie?

    Srsly, I’m glad that we’re not doomed to be ideological automatons. Although people like Peter Watts and R Scott Bakker have some theories to the contrary. They are very grim and serious types even if they write science fiction and fantasy. One of them is even a philosopher! I have no hesitations in recommending them to you now that I know you are Tom Cruise’s biggest fan and will not sneer at popular culture.

    That’s all besides the point.

    I have two serious questions:

    1) Will you be awarding individuals ranks of stream-entrant, once-returner, non-returner, arahant for those who have accepted the truth of no-self, awakened truly to the chains of their ideology, abandoned x-buddistic rites and rituals, etc?

    2) If so, how can I get an official arahant-ship complete with investment ceremony and funny hat? I mean ball park figure of a hundred bucks or so? Happy to take this offline.

    with metta, as usual.

  6. Robert Avatar

    Tom, thanks for this.

    When you call the self “a useful fiction, a conventional truth, a feature of language” to what extent is the useful fiction a key characteristic of that definition? What is the difference between conceptually understanding the self as a useful fiction and thinking of the self as entirely real, in particular if the primary reason for this is conceptual confusion rather than ideological blindness? I mean, what changes, apart from gaining a more correct conceptual understanding?

    When you refer to Hume’s ideological motives for abandoning his argument are you also suggesting that the reverse is true, that a belief in an autonomous self is somehow necessary to support belief in at least some varieties of ideology, and that questioning the existence of the self implies questioning of such an ideology?

    In passing in your introduction you equate pursuing a truth with “truly living”. To what extent is that a personal observation by a fellow who clearly enjoys thinking, and to what extent is this someting that is more generally true for all people? How would you make that argument without arguing from the personal? I know this is not a simple question, maybe a suggestion for another essay at one time or another.

    To what extent will the recognition that consciousness is collective make notions such as flinching become questionable because they imply an actor? You call what Hume and Siderits do flinching, but really isn’t this a matter of our collective mind’s inability to recognize a truth, doesn’t it let Hume and Siderits off the hook, so to speak?

  7. Tom Pepper Avatar


    Do you think the identification of the self with the body is really so strong? My experience is that people are usually quick to accept that the body is not a self–in popular Buddhist teachings the old cliche about every cell in the body being replaced in seven years is often mentioned, or the question about losing an arm or a leg–these “things” are not the self; the problem is, most people stop there, thinking that no-self means merely that the bodily self existing in this life is impermanent, and they stop short of questioning the existence of a world-transcendent consciousness. So, many people are sure they have accepted the idea of no-self, because they are not attached to the body or their present life situation, but they are still pretty confidant that they have an essential an unchanging core consciousness that will continue after death in an endless state of bliss–at least, this is what many popular Buddhist teachers say that anatman means (see my review of Alan Wallace’s book).

    On the other hand, you may be right that people are much more attached to the identification of the self with the body than such easy assertions would suggest–that perhaps they are not even aware of how attached to the body they are. Otherwise, why are things like steroid use and anorexia so common in the general population? Why are so many x-buddhists so vain abou their appearance, and so quick to assume that attractive people are more likely to be wise teachers?

    The narcissism problem is kind of circular, because of course if I don’t believe I have a self it is hard to be a narcissist. On the other hand, once I believe I have a self, and become narcissistically attached to my ego-as-object, then it becomes harder to admit I don’t have a self.

    As for suggestions for where to start with Badiou, I’m really curious about that myself. I think the first thing I ever read by him was his “Ethics,” but I don’t think that would have made much sense to me if I hadn’t already been familiar with continental philosophy and Lacan. There was a really good essay about Badiou’s theory of the subject by Bruno Bosteels, in PLI, about ten years ago–that journal can be accessed for free online. Christopher Norris wrote a essay attempting to give a summary introduction to Badiou’s work in 2009 in Review Journal of Philosophy–again, I found Norris’s essay to be quite clear, but I can’t say whether it would be clear if you didn’t already know a bit about Badiou. Does anyone else have any suggestions regarding where to begin with Badiou?

  8. Tom Pepper Avatar


    I’m trying to sort out the questions in your first paragraph. Is the question why it would matter whether we resist accepting anatman because of ideological blindness or conceptual failure? Ideological blindness would refuse to acknowledge the truth of anatman, while in the case of a conceptual failure we are at least accepting that there is no self, but are now at a loss for how to think about human existence. That is, conceptual failure is at least a step in the right direction, a beginning. Conceptual clarity is always good, but the biggest advantage of recognizing the “self” as a useful fiction, an ideology, is that we are less attached to it and can change it–becoming aware of our ideologies as ideologies is, I have been arguing, the first important goal. Then, we have to decide which ideologies work best.

    Clearly, some ideologies do require us to believe in an autonomous self–the American criminal justice system is an obvious example, right?

    As for living for a truth as the only real form of living, well, this does need more extensive argument, I think. In brief, though, it doesn’t limit “truly living” to those who are philosophically minded geeks like myself; the most important element of the “truth” is that our human capacity of symbolic communication and thought enables us to escape the grip of natural history. Quite simply, we are free of the effects of our biology and the environment to an extent that even fairly “intelligent” animals like dolphins, chimps and pigs are not. This freedom just is a result of our ability to think–but also of our ability to do something about what we have thought, like plant crops and domesticate animals and irrigate and cure illnesses and build houses. Living for a truth is much more extensive than thinking about psychoanalytic theory and continental philosophy; it includes things like writing poetry, building better housing, and campaigning for human rights.

    As for letting people “off the hook,” I think this is the most important implication of the collective mind–because we’re ALL on the hook. We can’t blame the “flinching” retreat from truth on someone else’s failure, we’re all responsible for it. Hume made some brilliant arguments that pushed some truths into visibility–that he backed of at that point may have been the limitation of his place and time, and so now we are all responsible for pushing his insights further than he could; if we obsess, as so many analytical philosophers do, on what exactly Hume “meant,” what he must have had in his (atomistic) mind, we are retreating from the truth that he revealed. It’s sort of like the old cliche about Hitler being evil–he had no magic powers, he was not even of average intelligence, he didn’t do anything–everyone’s on the hook for what happened, because on evil dictator, or one bad president of the United States, really doesn’t do anything on his own.

    Badiou talks about faithful and reactionary and obscurantist subjects, but these aren’t individual actors. Nobody flinches as an atomistic individual, and no individual “self” can be faithful to, or even recognize, a truth–the subject is a collective mind, although as bodily individuals we may have some bit of choice as to which collective mind we want to be part of, we can’t set out on our own.

  9. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Alan (#4), Tom (#7),

    I found John Mullarkey’s chapter, “Alain Badiou: The Universal Quatifier,” in his Post-Continental Philosophy helpful. Also: ‘Badiou and Deleuze’, in Badiou: Key Concepts, edited by Justin Clemens and Adam Bartlett, Acumen 2010. Ray Brassier has a chapter on Badiou in Nihil Unbound. But it will probably only make sense once you have a basic grip on Badiou. You can also get a clear general sense of Badiou’s project from Laruelle’s intro to his “Anti-Badiou,” which is currently being translated into English. Laruelle thinks Badiou is the greatest living example of a philosopher’ so he uses Badiou to bring his own non-philosophy into relief.

    Adam: if you are reading this, what would you suggest?

  10. Robert Avatar

    I found Ethics very useful and accessible, but maybe this is partly a function of quite a few false starts prior to things finally beginning to click. But it has a good introduction, and the interview in the appendix is also pretty helpful.

  11. Robert Avatar

    Thanks once again!

    Re 8, you partially answered my first question. I wondered to what extent life would change, what is actually accomplished as a result of the realization that there is no self while continuing to live as if a self exists (which is what a useful fiction implies to me). Your response is that it’s a start, I guess. We can then begin to change it in a more fundamental way, which raises obvious questions such as how one should go about that. Or for that matter, how far to take that notion, since a sense of a continuous self will always remain a useful fiction for purposes of navigating through a door, for instance.

  12. Tom Pepper Avatar

    We don’t really need a sense of a permanent core consciousness in order to navigate our way through a door. The body is, clearly continuous for a period of time–but also clearly not permanent. There wouldn’t be any need for a sense of a permanent self to manipulate the body–hell, cars can now parallel park themselves, and even most people can’t do that successfully.

    The real issue, for Hume and I would say for Buddhist philosophical thought as well, is not whether the self exists in they way that the body exists, as a more or less unified organism that continues over time, but whether there is a central consciousness, with a will, separate from the social system in which it arises. This is what does not exist–the important thing is to realize there is no “real” me underneath, once I’ve stripped away my culture, my job, my politics, my personal relationships, and whatever else. In graduate school in psychology, teachers always play that silly gestalt psychology game of having students list ten things that describe them, and then cross them off one at a time to get to the “core” self–the point is, once we strip these things away, there is nothing left. Its like stripping away the bark of the plantain tree looking for the “trunk”, or the layers of onion looking for a pit.

    Hume, for instance, is concerned with whether there is a core “experiencer” who can be said to “have” and so “unify’ all of an individual’s experiences–and he both finds that there does not seem to be one, and that there must be one. What he cannot conceive is that the “secret connection”(Hume’s term) might be in the social structure, in the symbolic/imaginary system. We are, as Althusser points out, born into a subject position that is ready and waiting to be inhabited by a biological organism, created by the culture we are born into before we have consciousness–most of us, for instance, are born with a name, into a family, culture, and social class, who we are going to be largely marked out for us in advance, a subject position just waiting for the living organism to fill it.

    What could be different is that we could understand that we are completely a product of the symbolic/imaginary system in which we participate–that we are not selves that then interact with the system, remaining more or less unchanged by it. The term “useful fiction” was borrowed from Siderits, but I would rather call it an ideological construction. The relative “self” is a socially produced thing, just as “real” as a country or a corporation, but no more real than that, which can be reorganized or restructured, but only if we know it is a human creation and not a naturally occurring and unchangeable thing.

    Getting the body through the door is easy–knowing why we want to go through the door is the difficulty.

  13. Alan Avatar

    Tom, Glenn, Robert,

    Thanks for your ideas about where to begin with Badiou. I’ll follow-up and begin some reading this summer. Maybe for the long run it would be useful to suggest some first texts for other thinkers who are often referenced here as well (Althusser, Laruelle, Lacan, etc.) (I’ll stop short of proposing a “Contemporary Continental Philosophy and Non-Philosophy for Dummies,” though that may be my speed.) You are all giving me much to think about.

  14. Danny Moloney Avatar

    Hi Tom,

    Your essays, comments, ideas here on this extrodinary blog/project of Glenn’s are a big part of why I keep coming back. Thanks for another great essay!
    I often wish I could contribute to these interesting discussions, but for now probably better to quietly lurk as it is all quite challenging…my reading list is long- I have a lot of catching up to do!

    I’m currently reading Becker’s truth serum, “The Denial of Death”, and was curious if you think some of the difficulty with the truth of no-self might be a symptom of or relating to Becker’s vital lie, i.e. repression and man’s refusal to acknowledge his own mortality?

    Thanks again!

  15. jayarava Avatar

    Here’s the problem with the proposition that human beings have no self.

    “I have no self”. Logically expressed is: P = not P.

    In other words it is a logical contradiction, and there is no reason we should accept it on face value. I don’t find Tom’s opinions on this the least bit convincing or interesting.

    We have the ubiquitous and pervasive experience of the first-person perspective, ownership of sensations, and agency. Just telling me that none of this exists is pointless because it is my constant waking experience. The argument must be more subtle. Tom does not make the kind of subtle argument that, say, Antonio Damasio, V.S. Ramachandran or Thomas Metzinger make in their book treatments of this difficult but fascinating subject. And anyway the early Buddhist argument itself is more subtle than a mere exists/doesn’t exists dualism. Has Dr Pepper ever heard of conditionality? You’d never know from his essay. Frankly the whole argument about whether the self exists or not bores me, and seems irrelevant to Buddhism. Buddha Nature doubly so.

    Glenn #3. My argument here is that if you are going to critique Buddhism then at least take the time to understand what you are critiquing. Why should I take Tom’s criticism seriously when it’s apparent he doesn’t understand what he’s criticising? It’s just not convincing to any educated person. Showing that he has fundamentally misunderstood and misrepresented his subject is a perfectly good way of refuting the argument he makes, and does not imply ideological commitment on my part. You’ve read my blog: how ideologically committed do I really appear to be? Hmmm?

    The technical term for attacking one’s own perceptions while presenting them as the doctrines of one’s opponent is a straw dog argument. A straw dog is something set up just to be knocked down. Why should we put up with straw dog arguments? Especially in a forum which proclaims itself as being for people who can think. Fuck him if he is too lazy to think clearly about Buddhism, but still wants to criticise it. Fuck him and the straw horse he rode in on.

    Glenn, you yourself have been extremely critical of people who aren’t up to speed with your Western philosophical thinkers. You more or less tell them to shut the fuck up. Do you plan to apply the same criteria across the board, or are people who aren’t up to speed on Buddhism given a special dispensation to be stupid? I must have missed that memo.

    It seems to me that being well informed about Buddhist ideas must be the first criteria for an effective critique of Buddhist ideas. Otherwise it’ll just be jerking off. You can’t criticise what you don’t understand!

    BTW My next blog will be running with your articles of faith and looking at the way we fall in love with Buddhism and how that affects our relationship with articles of faith. I still think that essay was the best thing that has appeared on this blog, and one of the best things I’ve read about faith in Buddhism fullstop. Indeed I can see how it applies to economics as well at the moment! It continues to bubble away in my mind. So I’m not just being contrary.

  16. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Danny, RE 14:

    I think for many people, that may be exactly the problem. A friend was asking me about Buddhism a couple weeks ago, and just frankly admitted that he couldn’t be a Buddhist because he couldn’t accept even the possibility that he might not have an immortal soul. There is a real terror of mortality.

    Then, there are people who just lack the intelligence to understand the issue, like Jayarava, and are so “bored” by it they obsessively shout down anyone who brings it up. They just give us the old “obviously I have a self, I feel like I do.” This is why Hume is so hard for so many people to grasp, or Freud, or Lacan. When my whole point is that the “self” is completely conditioned, and we have trouble seeing in what way it is conditioned, there are always those who will insist that I am not acknowledging the “dependent arising” of the self–because, like Jayarava, there is a terror that if we discuss this too much we might have to acknowledge that there really is no permanent, abiding, unchanging core self–that there is nothing but the effect of a structure.

    However, others who have accepted this absolute relativity of the “self” and mortality still seem to have trouble with it. This is really what I’m trying to address here. I don’t try in this essay to address those who still fear the loss of immortality, or to explain this to those who aren’t very smart. My concern here is that those who are smart, and who accept the temporal limitations on human consciousness, still fight shy of recognizing that the mind arises in the symbolic/imaginary system, in the interaction between multiple people, and not atomistically from the brain. Hume can’t accept this, because it is at odds with his early-bourgeois ideology; Siderits can’t accept it, it seems, because he can’t see any concepts in which to think this collective mind other than the positivist terms of cognitive science.

    I happen to have my old, yellowed copy of “The Denial of Death” here, and there’s a passage I have underlined and starred: “the reason man was so naturally cowardly was that he felt he had no authority; and the reason he had not authority was in the very nature of the way the human animal is shaped: all our meanings are built into us from the outside, from our dealings with others. That is what gives us a ‘self’ and a superego. Our whole world of right and wrong, good and bad, our name, precisely who we are, is grafted into us.” He says this is “the obvious part” of the problem–but my suggestion is that this is not so obvious to most people.

    I think Becker has a great point, and can help some people get over this terror of death. But we aslo have to ignore the shouting of the terrified and the stupid, and proceed with the work of creating the concepts in which to think this collective mind.

  17. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Jayarava (#15). Thanks. Conversation-like:

    Has Dr Pepper ever heard of conditionality? You’d never know from his essay.

    If I understand correctly, conditionality is the very engine of the no-self argument being advanced. As I understand it, it’s not so much “I have no self” : P = not P, hence, contradiction. It’s rather “I has no self : P has-not P. Or maybe I has no self; but we has one. The equation denies possession of a static, atomistic entity. It does not, I think, deny identity. It’s just that identity subtracted from the in-dividual gets located in the social-symbolic. What feels to be I to me, personally, is easily shown to be the (ever-fluctuating) outcome of numerous factors–all of them, as far as I can tell falling somewhere on the material-symbolic continuum. That’s why I am interested in re-thinking the social-cultural-linguistic sphere of “practice.”

    My argument here is that if you are going to critique Buddhism then at least take the time to understand what you are critiquing…It seems to me that being well informed about Buddhist ideas must be the first criteria for an effective critique of Buddhist ideas.

    I think my first really substantive exchange on this blog was with you. I can’t remember off hand what the topic was, but this issue of “adequate apprenticeship in the workshop” came up. I agree with you on that point. That’s another reason that I say this blog is not intended for people new to Buddhism. Insisting that our conversation partners know what it is they are critiquing seems to me eminently reasonable. I have, however, stumbled on three factors that have complicated this otherwise obvious matter for me. The first is that various Buddhist communities set impossible standards of what constitutes “adequate apprenticeship.” Just think of the contemporary Tibetan preliminary practices (which have their roots in medieval Indian mantrayana) or the various Zen progressions or the often tacit judgements based on time spent in retreat, and that sort of thing. In the first community I practiced with, back in the 70s, years-of-practice was wielded like seniority in a factory. These standards are not, of course, impossible for the committed practitioner; but they are for the outsider. That creates a hermetic system. One that, moreover, debars any but the prized initiated. This facet of x-buddhism is what I consider undemocratic, aristocratic, and anti-humanistic. The second factor that complicates the issue of discourse-adequacy, let’s call it, is related to the first. It has to do with the fact that many people I encounter have virtually no training in x-buddhist thought and practice, yet are eminently capable of critiquing it. They do so either based on the terms of the discussion at hand, or on the basis of their own domain of knowledge, whether that is art, mathematics, literature, philosophy or some other form of thought and practice. What both of these factors deny, really, is, once again, the principle of sufficient buddhism. The final factor that softened my own view on discourse-adequacy is seeing what I have described as the x-buddhist shell games of exemplification and detail fetishism. Both of these games can be seen as dishonest modes of exclusion. They make it impossible for any bith the most adept to participate, And even among adepts the rules keep changing: you cite this text, I cite that; you refer to terms in these languages; I refer to those, and so on and on. To me, all of this sort of thing masks the fact that x-buddhism is really very easy to grasp–there’s just not that much to it. It’s basic ideas are easily matched by those at the Great Feast of Knowledge. Hence, its elaborately detailed costume and beefed-up posse of protectors.

  18. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Perhaps a better way to put it would be:

    The socially constructed subject position with causal powers to act in the world (I) neither is nor requires a permanent, separate, world-transcendent, self-directing substantial essence (self).

    We do use the word “self” to cover both of these things (and the term “atta” is used in a similar loose sense in Pali), but what is denied in anatta is only the latter, not the former. The issue is when we refer to our “self” we may often mean the socially constructed subject, but we also often assume the existence of the abiding core self that is the substantial essence having “my” experiences. I wasn’t really arguing this point, mostly assuming it–it has been argued at great length by many people.

    The real issue is exactly HOW the socially constructed subject position with causal power to act in the world IS constructed, and what its causal powers actually are. My interest is in getting people to consider that consciousness exists in the symbolic/imaginary interaction between multiple individuals, that it is “outside” of the individual, not “inside” or arising from the brain.

  19. Matthias Avatar

    Regarding Jayarava and open conversation

    I tried a bit to convey what I mean with open conversation in my text “No More Meditation”. Open conversation means to have the ability to communicate in certain ways, or to have the ability and the interest to learn it. The basic idea of open conversation is that in it a space is established in which expression is free. This is not an easy idea because expression has always to be confined in some ways. The idea here is to be free to explore ones own experience and to find ways to express them. It is a movement towards a situation in which it becomes clear that experience is intimately interwoven with the expression circulating in the group and that in this view there is no experience which is disconnected from the back and forth of expression.

    It should be clear whereto this can lead in the context of what Tom is trying to describe. At the point where it becomes clear that expression and experience are intimately entangled it should also become clear that the self is a socially dependent site of being.

    Jayarava is exemplifying here some kinds of behavior which are opposed to the possibility of a movement towards that kind of interaction.

    1) Exclusion. The interlocutor comes to the group and makes a decision who has the right to speech and who not. Jayarava exhibits exclusion clearly in the way to whom he chooses to respond. As he does not have the right in this group here to exclude somebody outright, this is the next best way to expel somebody from conversation: First address him, second ignore him; that’s a simple two-step process of showing somebody that he is excluded.
    2) Superiority. Exclusion is only possible through superiority. The interlocutor comes to the group with the (implicit) claim of his superiority. He is in the possession of this superiority and it is not in the power of other members of the group to question this claim.
    3) Sufficiency. Superiority is possible through the sufficiency of X. Regardless if this X is a religion, a political affiliation or a drug induced high it is based in an affect. The ideological construct which serves to explain the sufficiency is a rationalization. At the heart if it is the need to control.

    In a way this is the heart of darkness of every authoritarian regime. If exclusion is achieved by killing or social demotion is only a matter of degree.

    One auxiliary means to control is intentional distortion. Example: “I have no self”. Logically expressed is: P = not P. It is clear from the context in which Tom raises the question of no-self that it is not meant in the sense of a mathematical zero. It is not meant as 1 = 0. Jayarava is intelligent enough to realize this but mean enough to distort this information in a way that serves his intention. This is called propaganda.

    My personal anger which I display in my recent essay is directed against such authoritarian structures which make open conversation impossible. I think it is not only justified but necessary that open conversation guards itself against such oppression.

    BTW: This is not off-topic. The oppression of open conversation means – in the environment we have to live in – that we stay atomized. The culture we live in forces us to be compartmentalized. The authoritarian structure of Sufficiency-Superiority-Exclusion forces us to remain controllable atoms. Forms of Buddhism which enforce such structures are principally supporting atomized being. It is enforcing the illusion of being an atomized being. This is the point where x-buddhism becomes visible as a reactionary force.

  20. Tom Pepper Avatar

    RE #19:

    You are right Matthias, that this absolutely is NOT off-topic. This is central to the point I am trying to make. When this kind of sophistry dominates the discussion, the kind of bad-faith argument that refuses to understand, then it the entire collective mind is hampered. In Jayarava’s case, I’m not convinced the distortion is completely intentional, it seems to be just a lack of intellectual skill, but it very often IS quite intentional.

    There is also the issue of what the critical realist philosopher Gary Potter has called “structural mystification.” Those who gain the “right” to speak on a matter are only those who would repeat the existing doctrine, and discourses are structured to insure that certain kinds of truth fall into the gaps between “disciplines,” to ensure that there is never any social practice in which they can be discussed, made available, and forced to appear in the world.

    The kind of “exclusion” you mention is exactly meant to serve this purpose. In the discipline of Literature, for instance, there is a powerful insistence that those who can speak about this social practice must “love” the great works and must truly believe that they teach us timeless truths.

  21. Matthias Avatar

    Why is it so difficult to see the self as socially constructed?

    Hume’s meditation. Like that of the five brethren, this I would call meditation. Just for a definition of the term that makes more sense than the non-sense of postmodern esotericism and its ‘meditation’: Meditation is the point of insight into the fleeting, ephemeral nodal point called I-Me-Myself – where it becomes visible that it is indeed a string of im- and expressions to which the structure making it coherent is invisible. This is the opposite of esoteric-narcotic ‘meditation’ which auto-hypnotizes the ephemeral nodal point into the illusion of an innermost true being – with the goal to find a “remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit” (Žižek). Meditation as insight into the real structure of being an individual person comes to the realization that it is like constant talk, or something like an ongoing murmuring of many voices. It is the basis for learning to crystalize or filter the voices in an attempt to form new expressions which at once resonate back into the community. I would say, though, that indeed “the illusion of self serves [a] useful function” but I cannot see why this must lead into a robo-buddha like enlightenment. And this should be so because our discourse are not the same as ontology, as you say Tom. But the illusion of self must be altered, one must work with it, decenter it, irritate it etc.

    I want to add that the structure, or form-giving substrate, which gives the individual a coherent gestalt, depends not only on the “collective symbolic/imaginary system of meaning” but also on the physical, evolutionary adapted system Homo sapiens. Or at least we must take the latter possibility into account. Neurology, for example, can provide another view on the human – although it might be alien. I don’t want to say that consciousness is reducible onto this substrates but that these are causes and condition we must consider.

    The ephemeral nodal point I-Me-Myself then is something like a pattern or field emerging at the inter-junction of the social and the physical. The physicality of the homo sapiens brings with it certain restrictions and possibilities which interact with social evolution and adaption.

    For example, every organism has ‘strategies’ to keep its bodily integrity. It seems logical to me that from this follows that there must be structures (neurological, hormonal) which keep that integrity. These structures then interact with social evolution.

    I think we have to keep this in mind without saying that there are developments in social adaption which follow ‘naturally’ from physical characteristics.


    It is interesting that the truth of non-self “returns like the Freudian repressed” – as you say Tom. What examples can we look at to get a feeling for when this repressed breaks through to the surface? What irritations can we look out for to function as markers for this truth of non-self? Such irritations would be like entry-points for the brave to reach for the unknown. Perhaps love is one.


    Why is it so difficult to look at non-self? I think there are a number of characteristics we have and our culture has which prevent us from easily realizing the ephemeral character of self.

    The phenomenal problem. The phenomenal self seems to be complete. Introspection always seems to reveal a complete self-evident entity. Introspection does not reveal automatically cognitive and social vectors which influence the phenomenal self. The phenomenal self is transparent to itself. As Thomas Metzinger’s puts it: The system (the “phenomenal self-model”) isn’t able to differentiate between that what it models (the self) and the system as such which is modeling.

    From this follows: Experience is always at once my experience. There is nobody else having this experience – from the purely introspective point of view.

    Maybe language can be seen as a social co-adaption to that what Metzinger calls the phenomenal self-model. The self-model always already finds itself in relation to an external object. For example an object which threatens its integrity. It makes sense to formulate such a situation semantically with strictly separated entities. The ensuing representation seems coherent. Indeed it is coherent, for it is perfectly correct to flea a perceived danger (or to approach this gorgeous other ape over there). Only if this representation is used by the self to reflect upon itself it becomes incoherent, for the subject looses the ‘external’ ground whereupon it seems to be based. Only when one is looking into it more precise an insight like Hume’s pops up. There is no ground – but our discourses are bound to a certain language which confuses discourse with ontology. If we take the Metzinger-ontology as a model for a moment, then another reason becomes clear why Hume wasn’t able to ‘see’ the integrating structure. The phenomenal self-model simply isn’t able to see itself in its integrating function. I think this integrating function makes sense from a evolutionary point of view.

    The problem in part then seems also to be that from our evolutionary adaption a language came into being which is useful in a lot of mundane routines but which is not adapted to describe our socially constructed self. We haven’t been aware until recently that we are socially constructed beings, so there was no evolutionary pressure to adapt language to this fact. We need now to adapt to this fact and a new language is needed (not necessarily in the form of new words etc.) to adapt to the recognition of the social self.

    Indeed, as you say, “we lack the conceptual apparatus to make sense of a collective, inter-subjective consciousness that is not ultimately real but dependent on causes and conditions.”

    New technologies and how they are implemented also hinder us in developing insights into non-self. Bernard Stiegler emphasizes the fact that since roughly one hundred years we are able technically to make “orthothetic” reproductions. That means we can make exact reproductions of voice and picture. In my view this helps to reproduce a seemingly essential self. I think we can see this very clearly in how Facebook works. Facebook, like Google and lot of smaller enterprises following them, analyze and disassemble the self into reproducible particles. In projecting back this particles on the consumer he is assured about himself and his stable self (although it becomes just a staple). I think, ironically this is the part where an “ontologically closed system” could develop (for some time).

    Just some thoughts….

  22. Matthias Avatar

    re my #21

    The end of the first paragraph is a bit confusing. What I want to say is:

    Learning happens at the individual site. I learn something new. Of course I do this interacting (here in this blog for example). I work with it, I get inputs from you, I give something back. The focal point somehow is the physical site which is me. It is something like a container for an operation of intermixture. But it is somehow always already an interactive process. All what will happen (hopefully) is that the interactivity becomes more conscious. How should this lead to an enlightenment as “the ultimate goal, which is the perfectly working system?” Isn’t this perfect system a naïve idea?

    Every symbolic/imaginary system is incomplete, and our knowledge of the world is infinitely corrigible.

    The whole evolutionary-historical process is open because as the process unfolds and develops the hermeneutical standpoint from which the process is interpreted must change also. This ever moving meaning-system has no fixed focal point. Therefore it is open to new developments and therefore there cannot develop a perfect system.

    But in this, as long as we are humans, there is a focal point in which the interaction articulates itself. Collectivity does not mean an amorphous mass of people thinking unison. The focal point is always incarnated in this flesh. But what we know and think about how we are, might change drastically.

    I think, perhaps the problem lies in the “we” and the “I”. We still are forced to think in this dichotomy. Perhaps another problem is the “perfect system”. Maybe the perfect system is the system which brought us into being, a system which is constantly adjusting instead of reaching a point of equilibrium….

  23. Tom Pepper Avatar

    “Introspection always seems to reveal a complete self-evident entity.”

    For Hume, it doesn’t–and that’s his whole problem. He finds ultimately a “bundle” of phenomenon which seem to have some “self” connecting them, but that entity, that connecting property, is far from self-evident: he says he finally cannot find it at all. I take this to be the goal of Buddhist “introspection” as well–to realize the non-self-evidence of this supposed entity. The problem for Hume, is that there IS what he calls a “secret connection” uniting these phenomenal experiences, but it is in the symbolic/imaginary social system–and he needs to reject that possibility. Bourgeois ideology really needed an atomistic individual to overcome spinozism and justify the “free market.”

    I still don’t get the interest in Metzinger, myself. A number of people on the blog and off have mentioned him to me, but I’ve read “Ego Tunnel” and several of his essays, and he still seems to me to assume an atomistic system, that leaves him stuck with the homunculus problem, which he then simply elides with a few rhetorical maneuvers. He sees the problem as the attempt as being self-reflexive, but this need not be a problem at all–what ‘sees” the self is another individual: we need not “reflect” on our own individual node in the collective mind, because there are other nodes (individuals) capable of doing this, and the reason they can do it, and it can still be “self-reflexive” is that it is another point in the same mind. Maybe I need to revisit Metzinger’s book, but I just didn’t find a useful approach to the problem in his work.

    “The focal point is always incarnated in this flesh”: this, I would say, is the problem, Certainly we do need to consider the body, and recognize that an individual brain is the storage site for particular experiences that may not be available in the system as a whole–this is what makes the system contradictory and aporetic, and so what makes it possible for it to NOT be a monolithic and closed system. These contradictions and aporia are what save us from being mere automata or zombies–the individual experience is crucial, but should not always be the “focal point.” We need to shift the focus a bit toward the collective mind, which serves to organize all sense perceptions such that they can be registered at the symbolic level: “That is where the symbolic relation comes in. The power of naming objects structures the perception itself” (Lacan, “Seminar II” 169).

    There are many well-known experiments which demonstrate how much our perceptions and memories are shaped by the expectations produced in the discourse we are interpellated into. This should be obvious enough from our ordinary experience–we tend to “see” and recall trees or flowers we know how to identify, that we know the specific names for; “experts” in particular tend to recall only what fits their expectations in a given situation (chess masters, for instance, will fail to recall a chess piece placed in a particularly unlikely spot on the board, and doctors will fail to notice obvious symptoms that aren’t explained by the diagnosis). My daughter, when she was three, could spot a Pooh Bear at a hundred paces, and I often had trouble seeing it even when she pointed it out to me.

    Just as much as our perceptions, our thoughts about the world are shaped by symbolic system. Anyone can try this little experiment: try listening carefully to a conversation in any ordinary situation (one caught on video tape is often easiest to use). How much of what is said is made up of dead, empty cliches? Most people speak to one another in strings of dead metaphors with not clear content–and yet, they are “communicating” perfectly well. Here’s one example that I actually heard someone say once: “My whole life was a house of cards built on a foundation of sand, and it all went up in smoke, right out the window and down the toilet.” This was perceived, in the context, as a deep and meaningful personal revelation about her divorce. Now, this is extreme, but try to notice how much of the daily speech around you is made up of empty cliches that say nothing, or may not even be the right metaphor for the situation, and people begin to sound much more like automatons than we usually like to think they are.

    As you say, Matthias, becoming more conscious of this is the only way out of being an automaton–recognizing the collective nature of our minds, which we can only do in interaction with others. In introspection, as Hume found, we are left with a inexplicable “secret connection.”

  24. Robert Avatar

    Tom, Matthias, 21-23. At the risk of confusing everybody, let me add my two cent’s worth. I believe that thinking about self and absence of self in a general way is only useful up to a point. Not-self is a void, not something that you can actually find or realize. Anatman should be understood as that what resists any reified presentation of a self but is not itself presentable. Those folks who want to realize selflessness as if it were a state of mind that can be experienced are simply misguided.

    Perhaps a more productive approach is to recognize that a self exclusively manifests in the context of a situation, and as the particular self that that situation calls for (father, biological entity, target for advertisements, etc.). To understand anatman then is the recognition that all these different selfs are merely called for by the situation.

    Tom has argued that we always must have an ideology, and that there is nothing wrong with that. Trouble arises only when the ideology is bad and we do not know that we have an ideology. I think exactly the same is true for the self, in that we always must have one. It only becomes problematic when we forget that the self is contextual and we feel we cannot question it. Actually, the problem of self is part of the larger problem of ideology.

  25. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Good point, Robert. There is a tendency to think that we can “experience” nothing, that we can become a non-self. This usually leads to the kind of subtle atman, the belief that we can reach a state of consciousness that is completely non-transitive, that has no object–a consciousness that is “empty” of content, and so proves that it is world-transcendent and real. This is the approach of many popular teachers, and is suggested in dozens of popular books on “achieving” emptiness. This is a waste of time, and only leads to self-delusion.

    The goal is to realize no-self as the ABSENCE of the core, permanent, separate, world-transcendent, self-directing substantial essence, but only in order to recognize exactly how the dependently arisen self is in fact constructed, and what kind of real, if temporary and conditioned, existence it has. The reason to emphasize no-self is that we need to be very careful NOT to assume a transcendent consciousness or “mind” in our attempt to determine how the actually existing mind is constructed–this is the trap Hume fell into, by his own account: inadvertently “begging the question” and assuming the existence of a “mind” that his philosophy could not explain.

    Of course, this is absolutely a part of the bigger problem of ideology. For Althusser, how the subject is constructed is the most crucial element of the functioning of any ideology; this is why I keep insisting on recovering this enormous insight from Althusser, instead of dropping the concept of ideology as outdated, a thing of the past, something we no longer have in this post-modern ironic world. Althusser brings our attention to the important truth that ideology is not some set of beliefs which subjects adopt and which then motivate these subjects to action; instead, ideology is in practices, and constructs our subjectivity. Ideology is not an illusory belief we can adopt or drop, but the very real practices which make us the subjects we are. Becoming conscious of it is possible, but changing it is not easy without collective effort.

  26. Danny Avatar

    Tom re: 16, etc

    This is all very helpful, thanks…and I like this from Glenn, though when taken out of context, I could easily attribute to Lebron James describing his recent game winning strategy–

    “I has no self; but we has one”. Nice.

    To study the self is to forget the Self.
    To forget the Self is to study the temporary, constructed, dependently arisen self.
    To study the constructed self is to know our ideologies and change them…

  27. Tom Pepper Avatar

    While my whole “collective mind” theory hasn’t raised much (reasoned) objection online, those who have mentioned it to me offline have said that it is a bit difficult to grasp, and that they think it is not really compatible with Buddhist thought. To both make it more comprehensible, and bolster its “Buddhist thought” credentials, here’s a short passage from a very interesting essay by William Waldren, “Buddhist Steps to an Ecology of Mind”:

    The reciprocal feedback processes that language invites thus operate at a variety of levels, not only synchronically—between the ālaya-vijñāna and supraliminal forms of cognitive awareness—but also diachronically, between our previous linguistic experience and our present proclivities conditioned by the ‘impressions’ of language. These operate both within a single lifetime, and, in traditional Buddhist terms, over multiple lifetimes. What the MSg is now describing is a third, unconscious yet thoroughly intersubjective, feedback system, which, like the other two dimensions of circular causality, continuously proliferates and perpetuates samsaric existence, but, unlike them, bridges the individual and collective experience of the ‘world,’ connecting our similar karmic activities with the similar ‘worlds’ these activities bring about.140

    Since the recursivity that symbolic communication facilitates is “intrinsically social,” and has evolved “neither inside nor outside brains,” then our commonality of worlds, dependent upon our common species-specific cognitive structures, is ultimately inseparable from our commonality of cognitive awareness, dependent upon our common linguistic, symbolic structures. That is, Deacon declares, since,symbolic reference is at once a function of the whole web of inferential relationships and of the whole network of users extended in space and time… a person’s symbolic experience of consciousness … is not within the head … This [symbolic] self is indeed not bounded within a mind or body… [it] is intersubjective in the most thoroughgoing sense of the term.141

    These mostly indiscernible processes reflect and reinforce the cultural, social, and cognitive worlds we inhabit, not just as individuals but even more importantly as social beings, since “language is a primary medium through which humans inhabit their world.” 142 Indeed, languages are like habitats, because they give rise to the inexhaustibly proliferating processes (prapañca) of classification and conceptualization (vikalpa) through which we habitually, nearly unavoidably and mostly unknowingly engage, construct and perpetuate the ‘world’ which simultaneously sustains and ensnares us. It is our unconscious habits of body, speech, and mind to which we are habituated that give rise, in the long term and in the aggregate, to the habitats we inhabit. And, this, we suggest, is as true for some twentieth century evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists as it was for fifth-century Yogācārin Buddhists.
    It further suggests, we venture, that we all have a larger share in the common construction of our ‘world’ than we commonly realize. For if we are not actually trapped inside our heads, but are causally as well as cognitively intersubjective through and through, it matters a great deal which particular concepts, categories and classifications we produce, proclaim and protect. We can and must strive, that is, to collectively unravel the “common bonds” (sādhāraṇa-bandhana) that ensnare us, “difficult to cut (duṣheya) and difficult to fully comprehend (duṣparijñeya)” 143 though they may be. It would make a world of difference.

    The entire essay can be found here:

    The essay is really worth reading. While my position does differ in some respects (eg, To my mind, Deacon’s theory of symbolic systems resists the distinction between ideology and the mind-independent world, and I have rather different ideas of how we are able to “decide” which concepts to reproduce and which not to), Waldren’s basic idea is in the same vein as mine, and he does make a good case that it is also an idea advanced by early Mahayana Buddhists.

  28. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Can we handle the truth? Here’s a dose–something all thinking people know, but most of us pretend not to notice.

    In the words of Andrew Collier, from 25 years ago, but even more true today. What late-capitalism requires is individuals who:

    “will feel guilty if they prefer pleasure to work; and who will not be too imaginative or too critical. Yet the same people must be able to adapt to new work-situations, learn new techniques, get on with different sorts of people. A manager of a factory, explaining why he did not want university graduates working for him, said he wanted ‘intelligent’ people–who could learn and adapt quickly, but not ‘intellectuals’–who often found mindless work boring, and were critical and spread discontent. On of the problems of contemporary capitalism is its need to produce workers who have ‘intelligence’ (so defined) in the high degree required by modern industrial life, yet as little as possible ‘intellecuality’”.

    Today, our educational system insists that learning=memorization, that the buzz-word ‘critical thinking’ means repeating exactly what you’ve been told, and that “smart people don’t make good teachers”, because anybody who is capable of thought might have trouble squashing the intellect, creativity, and imagination of their students. So, graduate students in education today have the lowest GRE scores of just about any major (business is a bit lower, mostly because of the dismal verbal and writing scores of business students). The future teachers of our young are required to have below-average IQs. The lowest of all, by the way, are the GRE scores of those going into educational administration. Great plan.

    The obsessive standardized testing of the NoChildGetsAhead program has convinced a whole generation that real thought can be quantified–now, there is even a rising use of computer programs to grade essays. It doesn’t matter what you say, just how many coordinating conjunctions and adverbial clauses you use to say it.

    Higher education is no better, with an increasing emphasis on job-training and the virtual elimination of requirements to study philosophy and history, and the replacement of Literature with “writing programs” which see writing as a technique to be mastered without any need for content.

    At all costs, don’t tell students the truth about anything; just train them to adapt quickly to the next new operating system.

    We all know this is true, but blink at it.

    Can Buddhist practice be the one place where we are still allowed to open our eyes to the truths that shape our lives everyday? Can it teach us not to hide from the truth inside a cloud of incense, mindfully experiencing out bodily sensations?

  29. ray Avatar

    Tom P …. do ideologies ’emerge from’ the collective ‘symbolic, imaginative’ consciousness?

    If they do, I wonder if this might be seen as a process of dumbing down individual thinking rather than stimulating it. Maybe it is not the fault or process of ideology as such but perhaps the effects of learning = memorization.

    It is so easy to regurgitate dharmic principles, or feminist principles, or marxist principles with the correct jargon…….

  30. Tom Pepper Avatar


    I’m really not sure what you’re saying or asking. I would say that no, ideologies do not “emerge” from the symbolic/imaginary system, but are part of it. Ideologies are simply those thoughts and practices which enable us to live in our current conditions of existence. The symbolic/imaginary system generally contains multiple ideologies, and also contains scientific description of the mind-independent world, which are not ideological per se, but might interact with particular ideologies.

    Of course ideology is not inherently a matter of “dumbing down.” There may be ideologies in which real thought is encouraged; my point is that in our present, positivist ideology of education, real thought is not encouraged, and is in fact strongly discouraged. There is, for instance, a negative correlation between intelligence and the likelihood of completing a doctoral program. I completed my doctoral program, and so can only wonder what happened to those people who were smarter than me, and much quicker to learn what it took me many years to catch on to, and so were unable to complete an “acceptable” dissertation, or say the right things to get that first job. Memorizing and repeating received “knowledge” is not the same as real thought–but it will get you tenure.

    As for your final sentence, well, it would be wonderful if there were more people who knew dharmic, marxist, and feminist principles–knowing the basic concepts is a place to start–but I really doubt it is easy. One might be able to mimic intelligent discourse well enough to fool someone who is ignorant, but without understanding the concepts you can’t “regurgitate” them without sounding like an idiot to anyone who actually understands them.

  31. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Uri Sala,

    You asked: “Still having trouble with your “mind is not in the brain” affirmations. So what is then in the brain? Why do you find it problematic, or undesireable, to call it mind? If the mind is the interaction with the collective symbollic system, where is this stored other than in my brain when I am sitting on the couch thinking totally alone?”

    I would say that the mind is the place where specific memories are stored, and is the sort of “nodal point” in the symbolic system that indicates a particular place where it interacts with the mind-independent world. This “node” can then also bear on other nodes, and so manipulate the symbolic system.

    When we are sitting alone thinking, we are not really “alone” in that we are working on, manipulating, a symbolic system not completely of our own making–this is why we need to think, because we must integrate our individual experiences with the symbolic network, or else try to manipulate the symbolic system to fit the experiences. As Bakhtin demonstrates, language is not a clear, information-processing, representation, but a site of struggle for the construal of the world.

    If find the mind=brain claim undesirable because it tends to ignore the most important part of “mind,” and suggest an impossible means of dependent origination for the mind. The empiricists insisted (and neuroscience still assumes) that thought arises from sensory experience, and ever since we have been unable to “map” the mind onto the brain successfully, or explain certain features of thought (errors, the sense of “self”). An isolated individual, relying only on their senses, would never develop a language, would never need to struggle for the construal of the world with others using the same language, and would have a “brain” interacting with the world, but not a “mind.”

    Does this help clarify my point? Of course, this isn’t really “my” point at all, in any sense–I have adopted this perspective from dozens of thinkers over thousands of years who have suggested the same thing, in various terms and various discourses.

  32. Matthias Avatar

    Tom, re #23

    I just want to put in a short note. The whole brain/body/mind complex needs to be looked at from several sides. Personally I do not think I come to any good conclusion about being a human by dismissing the neurological science which is developing at the moment. There are neurologist which belong to the usual hubris-section in which one has to sell every new tiny bit of an insight to get new money. I think we have some of these here in Germany. Wolf Singer is one of them. He thinks he can speak as a neurologist about everything: eduction, law, philosophy, poetry. Neurology for him is the answer to everything.

    Metzinger seems different. I mainly take his “Précis: Being No One” as a reference point. I cannot see where he is atomistic in this paper. I think he tries to develop a model of the “nodal point” we speak of. What he does not do is theorizing about how this “nodal point” is ‘filled’ with content. I think his model, and maybe others too, are a good point to get a better picture how we function and, with this knowledge especially, to get a better understanding how we are manipulated, for example by marketing, by professional spin doctors, by the media.

    I come back to this. It’s a complex topic.

  33. sometimes Avatar

    I guess I keep coming back to the idea that “mind” does not exist without brain. Mind is brain. After a tumor, stroke, TBI…mind changes. Why? Because brain changes. And why does it always seem that calling it brain implies some value judgment. I think that calling it brain can mean it has just as much value as calling it mind. When the brain dies, where does this “mind” that you speak of go? Unless we are talking about consciousness, choice, both of which are still a function of brain…and can be altered quite significantly when brain becomes damaged. “Human” because that is what we are. Of course other animals have bodies and brains…but we are the human animal. Again, I see no value judgment there. In calling me human, animal, brain…it seems that I am just coming to terms with the truth of what I am. Where I go from there is a question for sure. I just find myself cringing at what appears to be the constant pull in SO MANY fields, to get us away from these basic facts. Actually it also leaves us quite open to tolerating the abuse and violation of other bodies, brains, creatures…in my opinion. If we think that there is some greater, more intellectual, higher, transcedent purpose…then so what if we harm a few along the way? (not said in my voice, but that of those I have heard and have witnessed.)

    If we are indeed interested in social action and not just in the “subject,” as keeps coming up here…don’t you think that perhaps being invested in the truth of bodies, brains, death might be a helpful motivator? It seems to be one for me, it seems to be a great equalizer and in fact DOES NOT envoke a “specialness” but a need to reach out to others “while we are falling” as Glenn suggested.

  34. Tom Pepper Avatar

    RE 32 & 33: I’m not denying the brain as a necessary condition for the existence of mind–so surely studying neurology is useful, because of course damage to the brain would interfere with its “connection” to the collective mind–the collective mind is just as materially real as the brain, though: it is the structure of culture and language, which the brain does not produce, but must make use of. If there is only a single human with a fully functioning brain, but he has never had any contact with another conscious entity, he would not, in my sense, have a “mind” at all–there is no private language (on this, at least, I agree with Wittgenstein).

    As for Metzinger, I just reread the essay you referred to, Matthias, and I think that in that particular essay the homunculus problem is more glaringly evident than it is in anything else I’ve read of his.

    Sometimes: I do see the danger of accepting harm to others in the name of the pursuit of a higher “truth.” However, as Badiou makes clear in his “Ethics,” this belief that others are inferior and can be acceptably harmed is one of the best indications that what is being pursued is not a truth at all, but a delusion.

  35. Tomek Avatar

    Tom # 34

    Tom, I would really like to hear more from you about the “homunculus problem” that you see in Metzinger. I actually went back to the book and there for example Metzinger says:

    “Of course, there is no homunculus in the system. (…) What does exist for conscious systems of a certain complexity, however, is a certain need—the necessity for the system as a whole to explain its own inner and outer actions to itself. It has to possess a representational and functional tool that helps to predict its own future behavior, to continuously monitor critical system properties with the help of an ongoing internal simulation, and which can depict the history of its own actions as its own history. Generally speaking, the system needs a computational tool that helps it in owning its own hardware. This tool is what I have described as the self-model of the organism. [SMT]” (p. 557) However, as he says later, this representational tool “generates a phenomenal self-misunderstanding on the level of phenomenal experience” which he calls “phenomenal transparency, a very special kind of darkness, which generates this fundamental deficit in subjective knowledge concerning the constitutive conditions and the deep structure of our own phenomenal self-consciousness, which later leads to misguided philosophical theories like the Platonic metaphor of the helmsman or the homunculus in the cave, which leads to the birth of the Cartesian ego and eventually to the Kantian notion of a transcendental subject, to the many false theories of ‘the pilot,’ whose existence preceded that of the body and who only episodically “entered” into it.” (p. 558)

  36. Uri Sala Avatar

    Tom #31

    I think your point is very clear. It is just difficult to accept.

    One problem might be terminological. You seem to use the term “mind” to address the symbolic system. I would tend to call the latter “culture” and call “mind” the interaction between brain and culture, the node inside an individual.

    And I think the evolutionary / embodied / ecological approach to cognition is actually an attempt to abandon studying the mind independently of a sociophysical reality.

  37. Tom Pepper Avatar


    I have no doubt the point is difficult to accept–because many people much smarter and more articulate than myself have tried to make it over and over again, with very little success. My use of the term “mind” is an attempt to shift it to the outside–but I would say that it is the case that when I think of “my” mind, it is in fact the point of interaction between the larger, collective mind and the biological individual. The brain is necessary to “connect” to the mind (metaphorically speaking), but does not “contain” a mind–to use a (perhaps problematic) metaphor: the brain is like a radio–it “tunes in” to specific broadcasts, but those voices aren’t “inside” it. (this is only a metaphor for explanatory purposes–the analogy cannot be carried through, of course).

    I’m not sure what your point is in your final sentence. My position is not at all an “ecological” approach, which seems to me to be an attempt to once again contain the troubling but inevitable conclusion that the mind isn’t “in” the brain–to avoid having to accept the full implications. From my perspective, to “abandon” studying the mind independently of the sociophysical reality is the goal–because there IS no MIND that is independent of the sociophysical reality. We must stop thinking we can study “minds” atomistically, in isolation from their social context (as American psychology persists in trying to do–which is why it is a rapidly dying discipline).

  38. Tom Pepper Avatar


    Metzinger asserts that there is “no homunculus,” but that doesn’t change the fact that there IS one in his system. Simply insisting the problem isn’t there does not really make it go away. My assertion is that he has the same problem as Hume does in the Tractatus: his system begs the question, and assumes the existence of a core consciousness that it cannot account for. Hume, at least, realized to his dismay that he was making this error.

    Let me demonstrate briefly, with a passage from Metzinger’s popular account of his system, “The Ego Tunnel.” He discusses the “rubber hand illusion,” in which someone can be made to perceive a rubber limb as part of their body by a perceptual trick:

    “What lessons can be learned from the rubber-hand illusion? The first point is simple to understand: Whatever is part of your phenomenal self-model, whatever is part of your conscious Ego, is endowed with a feeling of ‘mineness,’ a conscious sense of ownership. It is experienced as your limb, your tactile sensation, your feeling, your body, your thought.”

    This is exactly the “bundle theory” attributed to Hume–only hume recognized the problem: who is the experiencer of this added sense of “mineness” that unites the individual phenomenon? We can never “catch” that self for whom the thought is experienced as “mine,” we only ever perceive the experience itself. What is the ‘secret connection’ that unites the bundle of phenomenal experiences? Metzinger elides this problem rhetorically, and simply insists he has done away with it, but he has clearly not. His “Ego” is atomistic, and he cannot conceive of this ‘secret connection’ as occurring in the symbolic/imaginary system any more than Hume can. I seem to recall Metzinger saying somewhere, too, that this is simply a problem of our language, that the grammar of our language(s) require this “error” in speaking–but I can’t locate that particular statement at the moment, and I may be misremembering. This is, however, a common rhetorical move–it’s just a problem of language, ignore it; the problem, however, is still there, no matter how much we would like to ignore it. There still must be, for Metzinger as for Hume, some “self” for whom these phenomena have that added “feeling of ‘mineness’”. My point is simply that this “self” is outside the brain, in the collective symbolic/imaginary mind–the “secret connection” Hume couldn’t find is not some world-transcendent “soul”, but in a dependently arisen yet still quite real product of human activity.

  39. Matthias Avatar

    Tom, re #23

    I said “Introspection always seems to reveal a complete self-evident entity.”

    What we find in introspection is a lot of content and we must assume that there is an integrating function. In introspection we always find ourselves somehow complete. Metzinger calls this a phenomenal self-model (PSM) which is unable to see that it is itself the output of a system.

    We are systems that constantly confuse themselves with the content of their PSM.

    That is why I say introspection reveals always a seemingly complete self-evident entity. As I understand it from the citation you give, Hume found “some particular perception” but no “myself”. What he also found was that there are “principles, that unite our successive perceptions in our thought or consciousness” – but he was unable to explain this principle.

    The principle which unites/integrates the particular perceptions and the perceptions themselves are there clearly. This is the self-evident entity I mean, which everybody can observe in its output but not in its internal functioning. What we cannot observe is that part of the system which generates the integration. This part is transparent to us.

    Now re your #38 I cannot see how Metzinger elides this “secret connection” as you put it. He tries, in my opinion, to give a plausible descriptive model of the human consciousness. He does this from four viewpoint: Phenomenological, representational, functional and neurobiological. What he indeed does not give, and probably at this point in time cannot, is an explanation how the integration works – if this is possible anyway is another question. I think at least what I can see from his précis of Being No One (1) this is not his intention. What he does is formulating a “constraint- satisfaction approach to phenomenal experience.” I understand that this means to formulate the possibly best terms, notions and descriptions how to speak about the problem of consciousness. Not more not less.

    What he says indeed, and that might be a point at which you would perhaps intervene, is that “the existence of a coherent self-representatum for the first time introduces a self-world-border into the system’s model of reality.” (his emphasis) This is not the introduction of some homunculus (the self) but it is in his model a necessary feature of the system.

    For the first time, system-related information now becomes globally available as system-related information, because the organism now has an internal image of itself as a whole, as a distinct entity possessing global features. On the other hand, environment related information can now be referred to as non-self. (his italics)

    This is not a qualification about how this “self” interacts with the “non-self”. It is a quantitative description how this system operates. Nothing is said, here and otherwise in this text, about how language, for example, influences this operations. The self in this description is still an empty container.

    I think it is important to understand what Metzinger means with “coherent self-representatum” (that what Hume already suspected) and that this is not the characteristic “self” of everyday life. This coherent self-representatum and what Metzinger unfolds about it within his “method of interdisciplinary constraint satisfaction” is the attempt to find an adequate language to speak about consciousness from the perspective of the philosophy of mind.

    (1) I see that the english version of the Précis: Being No One is a much shorter one than my german.

  40. Tom Pepper Avatar

    I’m not sure I can make the problem any clearer, here. Others have done so at greater length, in the academic journals, and some of the reviews of Metzinger’s books. Some refer, for instance, to Metzinger’s “hidden agency”, his constantly shuffling the “self” around semantically, so it is always somewhere, just not in the part of the system he’s currently discussing. He insists he has solved, or in his term “dissolved” the problem of the “self,” but as you say “What he indeed does not give, and probably at this point in time cannot, is an explanation how the integration works”; however, this is exactly what he says he DOES give–this is the problem he claims to have “dissolved.” I would argue that there IS a way to answer this question, but not if we begin with Metzinger’s positivist, atomistic, information-processing version of the “mind.” He uses some new terminology to amaze and confuse, but he’s really just repackaging the same empiricist/cognitive mind. I think eventually his little splash will fade to ripples, when it turns out his purported copernican revolution is just a new ptolomaic system.

  41. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Here’s another dose of truth: the two most famous Buddhist celebrities in the West rost to prominence as tools of capitalist propaganda.

    The oppressive aristocratic government in Tibet was revisioned as a blissful shangri-la, and the brutally violent, scheming, wealthy elite in exile depicted as kind, compassionate, wise-idiots by the Western media and dimwitted Hollywood celebrities. How horrible, that a brutal, violent, oppressive oligarchy should be ousted from power! Look at the silly, grinning, kindly Lama in his exotic robes–we must give him back his totalitarian power, “democracy” demands it!

    And over in Vietnam, those evil communists are “forcing” the kindly Buddhists to send “boat people” to their death on the seas! Look how a-political their “engagement” really is: right livelihood means making weapons of mass destruction for capitalist governments, but doing it “mindfully” before going home to stare at flowers, sip tea, and “mindfully” stop thinking about all the injustice in the world.

    Is it any wonder that Western Buddhism is the ideology of late-capitalism, when its biggest celebrity-leaders rose to fame as tools of the American capitalist propaganda machine?

  42. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Tom, re #40

    I yet have to read some Metzinger critique. I haven’t done so until now. If you have some hints where to read one this would be helpful.

    Generally my position is different form yours. I tend to be more interested in the incarnated sight of the living too while your position seems to me much more tending to a view where mind is social-only. I simply cannot ignore the fact, as I see it, that we as humans have a long history of non-social evolution too – besides the social evolution. That means, logically, that there must be physical features which interact with social evolution. I think your social-only view is in danger to be taken as ignoring the hot blooded physical facts of our being. I don’t want to be an apologist of Metzinger but as somebody coming to this topic newly I cannot ignore someone who obviously has done a bit more thinking about it than me. So have to leave this question open.

    And I really cannot see that, in the mentioned text, he is “constantly shuffling the “self” around semantically, so it is always somewhere, just not in the part of the system he’s currently discussing.” The guy simply isn’t so stupid. I would rather ask the question if he, and others from the neurobiological front, are a threat to (residues) of egolocial, egoistic, narcissistic thinking too? Your social-only view rightly de-centers and threatens to kill the self-centered power-ego of capitalism. Doesn’t the neurologists threaten this power-ego too? Only from the other side? They come from the physical front and tell us, “hey, nice try your ego, but you are nothing but a clever adaption. A very clever one indeed. But your you is nothing but a model generated to navigate the world. Your problem is, you don’t see the generator.”

    Now, the real interesting question for me is, how is this system interacting with it’s social adaption it is generating at the same time. Or to put it differently, how does the word interact with the blood?

  43. Tom Pepper Avatar


    Unfortunately, I think Metzinger is making the same error that Hume made originally, that the behaviorists made, that so many others have made. It isn’t a matter of stupidity, but of an ideological blindspot.

    I don’t want to suggest that the body doesn’t evolve, or that the collective mind is not dependent on the body and its brain. Clearly it is–to think otherwise would be like suggesting that radio signals could “evolve” beyond the receivers that pick them up, or that television signals could be broadcast in digital high-def before there were televisions capable of registering these signals. It wouldn’t make sense. Our mind needs the health and comfort of the body in order to interact with the world, and so in order to exist at all.

    And I don’t think that the “neurobiological front” is a threat to capitalist ideology at all; it is just the latest reactionary defense against the dangers of real thought, meant to produce atomistic subjects out to preserve and maintain their bodily pleasures. I just picked up a little advertising rag called “body, mind, spirit” at the grocery store yesterday: it’s fascinating. The whole thing is full of tips on how to stay healthy, live longer, and feel better, and every article mentions the “latest science”; nothing at all about thought, ideas, wisdom–just spirituality as a blissful buzz state we can maintain endlessly: stay comfortably numb. The “neurobiological front” (I like that term) is just a way to give a scientific appearance to the liberal capitalist ideology: there are only bodies and languages, and all we must do is find the language that maximizes our bodily bliss.

  44. Tomek Avatar

    Re #42

    Matthias, you might be interested in this article The Problem with Metzinger. There are also two interesting blog posts commenting on Harman’s article that you can find hereand <a href=”here.

  45. Tomek Avatar

    Tom I don’t think that neuroscientific discoveries are just the latest reactionary defense of capitalist ideology. You seem to totally downplay the importance of this vast field of knowledge but at the same time you might inadvertently point in the right direction, namely, that Capital will control the practical applications of these discoveries or is already doing it. If you find time, please read Mark Fishers interesting essay, where he for example pick up a threat about this how neuroscientific research and the theoretical and practical nihilism resulting from it can challenge the notion of self-conscious subject in Althusser sense together with “folk politics: a form of politics which applies the already dubious assumptions of folk psychology to systems and practices whose abstraction and complexity cannot possibly be understood in its terms.”

  46. Tom Pepper Avatar

    RE 45: I don’t want to suggest that real neuroscience is in any way a mere defense of capitalism. I DO want to suggest that the ideological use to which (misconceptions or distortions) of this science is being put IS purely capitalist ideology masquerading as science. Clearly, there have been important advances in understanding how the brain works. We will never find the “mind” in there, though.

    I don’t know what essay of Fisher’s you are referring to (the link doesn’t work*), but if you give me the title I would be interested in reading it.

    *Link corrected in Tomek #45. -GW

  47. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Tom & Tomek, just a short note.

    This is what really interests me: the de-centering and how neuroscience can contribute to de-centering of the power-ego.

    Of course neuroscience per se is not something what will destabilize capitalism. To the contrary. Every knowledge neurobiologists develop will be used to strengthen the Foucaultian panopticum and the societies of control. But for one who wants to ‘see’ the reality of anatman neuroscience contributes valuable knowledge. Neuroscience is the physical side from where it becomes clear that I am not. The social sciences contribute likewise from the other side to this eyeopening. But the social sciences like the neurosciences are exploited to exploit the consumer.

    The de-centering possible with these sciences is of great value for those who want to radicalize anatman with the help of modern knowledge. On the other side, on the opposite side, the modern knowledge coming from these sciences is used to stabilize a system of hyper-subtle oppression which feels like ultimate freedom. The question for those going into de-centering is what to do with this outlook. What are the new moral boundaries? How to act? What to want? If we really are an illusion what than happens with moral? Metzinger also talks shortly about this problem in an interview in “Collapse” Vol. V. The question seems clear for people working in this field. The problem is: before we decide upon an answer consumer capitalism will already have acted.

    The novel Mark Fisher writes about in Incognitum Hactenus seems to be about this problem.

    I think there are two problem fields. First, with the knowledge we get from the neurosciences and the social sciences we can support and develop further old Buddhist thought about anatman. Second, in opposition to this movement, this knowledge is used by modern societies to form social atoms, human entities which are countable, which are statistically taxable – the facebook-side of the equation – atomistic humans.

    If society isn’t monstrous already, what will it become when neuroscience and social science begin to work together in earnest to develop social engineering. This social engineering would mean forming real atomist humans which would be perfectly controllable. With this outlook, if Buddhism is really about anatman shouldn’t be Buddhism radicalized to an extent that it begins to develop a social force against this development?

  48. Robert Avatar

    Re 25, and the back and forth on neuroscience.

    There is a tendency to think that we can “experience” nothing, that we can become a non-self. This usually leads to the kind of subtle atman, the belief that we can reach a state of consciousness that is completely non-transitive, that has no object–a consciousness that is “empty” of content, …

    It strikes me that this subtle atman is exactly what the neuro-scientific argument posits, a sense of self without context, an effect of the inner workings of the brain prior to language and ideology. But this idea of a generic self is essentially as nonsensical as its x-buddhist counterpart of a generic non-self, an experience of nothing. A self can only ever manifest as contextual, and this context can only ever be provided by the symbolic, by language. Where else could context originate?

    The essay by William Waldren that Tom mentions in comment 27 leans heavily on findings in evolutionary biology to make this argument without the need for “a computational tool that helps it in owning its own hardware”, and as such is an implied critique of what I take to be Metzinger’s approach. It’s well worth reading.

  49. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    It is simply asking for throwing away a whole line of possible knowledge to equate “atman” with “the neuro-scientific argument”. (And what is this argument btw?) A very complex topic is compressed into one smal equation: neuroscience = atman = bad. I smell dogma.

  50. Robert Avatar

    Hello friend Matthias. I don’t believe I deserve this ‘I smell dogma’ business. I apologize if I wasn’t clear. I am as puzzled as anybody and I am just trying to figure things out. I didn’t say ‘=bad’, just that to understand mind and self neuroscience is not the place to look. This of course doesn’t mean that I shrug off neuroscience as a science. In fact, I recommended a paper that leverages neuroscience to come to a very different conclusion than Metzinger. But sorry if I upset you.

  51. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Hi Robert, sorry for being a bit impatient. Please take the smells-like-dogma with a ironic twinkling on my side. For the time being I don’t want to go into this any further. I just want give an extensive quote from the text Tomek mentioned in #45. In fact it is Nich Srnicek’s treatment of The Problem with Metzinger.

    Nick Srnicek outlines some of the parallels between Kant and Metzinger in “Neuroscience, The Apocalypse, and Specula- tive Realism”, his response to Bakker’s “The End of the World As We Knew It: Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse”. “Both Kant and Metzinger are asking what conditions are required for experience to be possible. But of course, rather than ultimately finding the source of these conditions within a transcendental subject, Metzinger finds them in the brain. And rather than describing experience as a single formal structure comprised of intuitions and categories, Metzinger offers a much more nuanced view of experience. Despite these advances though, in framing the interpretation of neuroscience this way, Metzinger still seems to place neurology in the clutches of a classic Kantian problem. And Metzinger himself even seems somewhat aware of it, as he will repeatedly argue that phenomenal immediacy is not epistemic immediacy, or as Kant might have put it – the phenomenal is not the noumenal. What appears as immediately and intuitively given has no necessary relation with an independent world.” []

    This is a far more nuanced treatment at the same time giving reference points with which I can really work – namely Kant. (an)atman is not such a point. Kant’s pure or transcendental apperception, is this atman? Is there in Metzinger’s Selfmodel-Theory of Subjectivity an atman? Before we can answer this question we have to solve the problem that it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend atman as it was understood in the time of the so called Buddha. My (hermeneutical) position about this is that we can only to some extent, if at all, access the connotational field of this term. The impression that I have a certain understanding of anatman is always an understanding I have in a certain situation in which I am. This situation incorporates, for example, the transmission of the tradition in which the term is used in a way which is always ‘contaminated’ by the circumstances in which the tradition is transmitted (Walter Benjamin: Articulating something historical does not mean, to realize “how it really was”.) This results always, in my view, in a distortion. But, as this wouldn’t be already complicated enough, this view still implies an original which is distorted on the way. As I understand through Derrida this original simply doesn’t exist. I would say, distortion is our original being. I think what Heidegger and Derrida in this regard – the original – worked out is backed up today by neuroscience, process oriented thinking and acting, the flow etc.

    This said, one is inviting misunderstanding after misunderstanding if one uses terms like (an)atman without in every case exactly defining what one wants to mean it denotatively (whereby with the denotation the problem of the original arises again but this would go far too far right now). Instead I would find it much more helpful to use, for example, Kant’s transcendental apperception in this critique here. This is a term we can work with and it is a notion of something about what we really can now say that it doesn’t exist in the way we thought – wether this has something to with atman doesn’t matter any more because we are at the heart of the problem already. Even Kant, I understand, had this nagging thought, that there is something wrong with his transcendental apperception (but I am not that far with my Kant to go into this).

    One other aspect why neuroscience is greeted partly with such aversion might come from the fact that it confronts us with far reaching problems. What emerges is a picture in which it becomes clear that the nature of our subconscious cognitive mechanisms aren’t intentional. The nature of this system doesn’t wants us to be good or bad in our meaning. There is no intention to be good or bad. With this the whole framework for morality breaks down and we are striped naked. We have no more ground to build a morality on. This is also a consequence of “I am not”. I find this so shocking that while thinking and writing about it my heart-rate goes up…

    As a last thought, concerning non-buddhism and the rethinking of Buddhist postulates: What happens with the bodhisattva-vow in this circumstances? Where does loving-kindness comes from looked at it from the perspective I just sketched?

  52. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Just to be clear about this, as I can imagine Tom’s objection that the last part of my argumentation is inviting the worst kind of capitalism. Capitalism might indeed take such an argument to justify itself. But that would mean that it hasn’t understood the full impact of the un-intentional nature of our nature. With such a reasoning capitalism is still fettered in the realms of intentionality. I think the un-intentional nature of our nature has either the worst outcome if really capitalism is beginning using it – what already happens – or it develops into something we just cannot think yet, which perhaps could develop out of the thinking of people like Laruelle and Badiou…

  53. Tom Pepper Avatar

    “Transcendental apperception” is better (clearer) than atman? My head is spinning just thinking of having to give a statement of which interpretation of Kant I’m intending each time I use the term. Of course, for Kant, there is a soul, and a God, so he only has to explain so much.

    I think you are absolutely right that there is no “intention” or “meaning” in our subconscious (neural) cognitive mechanisms. This is the problem. All meaning is produced at the level of ideology, not neurology, in collective language not individual neural connections. That is why the mind is not going to be found in the brain. I don’t think anybody is rejecting neuroscience. The brain is a necessary condition for our mind, and it is always better to know how it works. What I am rejecting, and what I take Robert to be rejecting as well, is the idea that the mind is in the brain, that neuroscience can explain ideology. The “self” is not in the brain, but is a construct of the symbolic/imaginary system, and this system always requires multiple brains to arise.

  54. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Tom, perhaps this is the important point to pay attention to when looking at neuroscience: does it try to explain ideology from a single brain? A pretty good warning to heed.

  55. Tomek Avatar

    What I am rejecting, and what I take Robert to be rejecting as well, is the idea that the mind is in the brain, that neuroscience can explain ideology.

    Tom (# 53), taking the example of Metzinger again, I don’t see that he’s trying to say that the “mind” is in the brain or that the neuroscience can explain ideology. His multilayered picture of consciousness shows how the sense of self is anchored in the representational phenomenal space that in the first place has been produced by the living organisms that were trying to increase the coherence of their already too complicated biological systems. That coherence has been achieved by creating an impenetrable closure in the form of phenomenal transparency that then allowed the quick and reliable sub-personal mechanisms to stay behind it. The by-product that was formed by this epistemic closure opened a phenomenal space that then become available for the higher cognitive processes such as accessing new facts and new forms of knowledge. So as you say the symbolic “system requires multiple brains to arise” and I would add, requires brains that are equipped by the evolution with virtual organs, ego tunnels enabling them to see each other and communicate together. Without these virtual organs of biologically based consciousness any ideology wouldn’t be possible. There wouldn’t be mind in a collective sense.

  56. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Matthias (#51).

    As a last thought, concerning non-buddhism and the rethinking of Buddhist postulates: What happens with the bodhisattva-vow in this circumstances? Where does loving-kindness comes from looked at it from the perspective I just sketched?

    I was about to answer this one way, and then, on second reading, it looked like two distinct questions. Given your and Srnicek comments on Metzinger: (1) How might we re-commission (if not decommission) the postulate that holds the necessity of the bodhisattva-vow, and (2) How do we reconcile the seeming non-intentionality of our subconscious cognitive mechanisms with the x-buddhist postulate that holds the inherent reality of “loving-kindness” (which is only in need of activation and cultivation)?

    Putting my original response aside, I now wonder if Tom’s comment suggests the form an answer to both (?) questions might take:

    All meaning is produced at the level of ideology, not neurology, in collective language not individual neural connections. That is why the mind is not going to be found in the brain…The “self” is not in the brain, but is a construct of the symbolic/imaginary system, and this system always requires multiple brains to arise.

    Every x-buddhist version of the two postulates with which I am familiar seems to assume an atmanistic/atomistic location of affective qualities. X-buddhism’s neuroscience allies, naturally, concur. That’s why we have such a strong strain of scientism in the contemporary western discourse on x-buddhism. What I find so valuable in this shift to social, ideological, and collective language critique is that it dispenses once and for all with untenable metaphysical tools of thinking, such as human nature. In that sense, I am wholly anti-humanist. (I should probably clarify at some point why I use terms like “the human.” Or maybe I’ll just stop doing so.) It is, of course, beyond ironic that ostensibly anatmanistic x-buddhism should not itself insist on this shift. In any case, what if the answer to many of the questions posed here and elsewhere were to be found by reflecting on how ideology and social-symbolic systems function, and the role of language in all of it?

  57. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    I just made a comment at the Secular Buddhist’s site ( => ). It reminds me about this post of yours and the citation from Tom.

    My strong aversion against using buzz-words (e.g. meditation) is grounded, I think, in what I just wrote over there: A meaningless word which is used in a wide variety of circumstances has a hidden meaning. But at the same time it is a pointer to an unconscious aspect of ideology. Therefore this words/pointers are very valuable in a way. They point to hidden collective meanings because if more or less meaningless buzz-words lead to mutual understanding of a group they must transport an information. On a group level a decisive move would therefore ensue if the group would decide collectively to unearth these hidden meanings. I think this could be something to re- or decommission bodhisattva-vows and strange things like the activation of bodhicitta. It could be one part of a process of interaction in which a true sociality could emerge in a group… My emphasis in re-wording buzz-words has to do with this aspect of group work. In re-wording we are forced to establish a meaning which otherwise stays unconscious. In a group willing to unearth the old zombies such a re-wording necessarily leads to ideas i.e. the new…

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