03 January 2014

If there is no self, who is responsible for what actions?

"I suppose a question I have is: if there is no 'self',
 how  can  we  be  responsible  for  our actions?"

A few days ago one of my colleagues asked this question in response to Dayāmati's essay What does one not have when one does not have a self? This is one of the crucial questions of Buddhist metaphysics. If there were no self, then there could be no moral agent or moral agency, and there would be no one who could be held responsible for actions. It would be an odd world. But modern Buddhists continue to argue that Buddhism involves not having a self on two levels: the self we currently have is an illusion; and once we are awakened we'll realise we have no self. 

This highlights a major discontinuity in the early Buddhist texts. I already have an essay ready and waiting which addresses another dimension of this problem, but I found the phrasing of this particular question interesting enough to dash off a reply. 

As far as the early Buddhist texts are concerned none of them ever comes out and says "you don't have a self". They seem to me to be saying something quite different and much more subtle. My starting point would be that early Buddhist texts focus on a particular domain (visaya) of knowledge. They say that all the knowledge we have is experiential: everything (sabbaṁ) is just the senses and the qualities of sense experience (solidity, resistance, volume, colour etc). Our perceptual world (loka) is the product of perceptual processes (khandhā). Sensations (vedanā) only arise when sense object and sense organ connect in the presence of sense consciousness. But we are intoxicated (pamāda) by the play of sense experience - and lost in the manifold interpretations of it (papañca). We mistake experience for something else. In Thomas Metzinger's terms we are "naive realists". We treat experience as if it is real; as though we are in direct unmediated contact with objects. Why we do this is another interesting question, but I'll take it as read for the purposes of this essay.

One of the important points made by early Buddhists was that dichotomies like "real" and "unreal" don't apply to experience - this is implied in the critique of the terms atthitā (existent) and nātthitā (non-existent) with respect to loka in the Kaccānagotta Sutta. Be it the immediate sensory experience or the cascades of impressions and associations that follow contact, the ontological status of experience is indeterminate. Experience is best described in process terms as arising when the conditions are in place and ceasing when they are not.

I'm not sure about other people but I don't think of myself as "having" a self, but in terms of "being" a self (I am). It's only in artificially abstract discussions that we begin to talk in terms of "having" a self. Most of the time the sense of being a self is transparent and unconscious. I have a locus of experience, a point of view (I look out through the windows of my senses), a sense of having a certain amount of control, a sense of  (and a desire for) continuity, and a sense of ownership over what I am aware of (they are my perceptions). These observations are the background against which I understand my world of experience. These qualities of consciousness are a bit like the "a priori judgements" in Kant's philosophy that structure experience. The language of "having" a self may well stem from the problem of the afterlife and continuity. From a Christian point of view we "have" a soul which survives our physical death. We can use the language of possession because a soul does not participate in the world of matter, it only provides continuity in the afterlife. I've explored this kind of duality of spirit and matter in some depth already so I won't go into it again here (See Metaphors and Materialism).

In the final analysis this sense of being a self is just an experience with the same characteristics as all experiences (anicca, dukkha & anāttan). We experience the world from a first person perspective but it is wrong to say "I am this experience" or "that experience is me" or "this experience is mine". Thus it would in fact seem to be wrong to say that we do or don't have a self. Or that we have a self that is then lost. The world of experience is what arises in our awareness when our body and mind interact with the world of objects (which is never in doubt in early Buddhist texts) including other people, who we can impute have a very similar experience of being to us through communication. Thus experience is neither subjective nor objective but exists in the overlap of the two - it is always both together. And this may be one reason the Buddhadharma is describes as a middle way.

The fundamental problem outlined by early Buddhist texts is intoxication with experience so that we mistake what is impermanent for something permanent and so on. Of course a great deal of ink is spilt on the consequences of this misidentification, but it all stems from being out of alignment (mithyā) with how experience really is. As we know ourselves through experience (since all knowledge stems from experience) then our self shares the characteristics of all experiences.

Though we cannot use the language of real or unreal with respect to experience, particularly the experience of being a self, "we" (the self we experience being) can still take responsibility for what this body, mouth and mind do. This is partly because experience has a physical locus (rūpa, first of the khandhās). Another aspect of having an experience is saṅkhāra or volition, in effect the urge to act on the stimulus. Volition in relation to experience is explained in terms of the mental & emotional responses (cetanā) associated with the different senses. Early Buddhism sees action (kamma) as resulting from responses to experience (cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi AN 6.63). Motivation/intention/reaction with respect to experience does not require a sense of self. It is part and parcel of having an experience in this view. Since both saṅkhāra (the urge to act) and vedanā (the results of kamma) share a locus it can be observed that activities enacted from this locus of experience have consequences at this locus of experience. In other words as well as the observation that experiences arise in a conditioned fashion, we can in addition observe causal relations between actions and consequences. From a first person perspective this is interpreted as 'my actions have consequences for me'. And for most of us this is an important perspective. For if my actions did not have consequences for me, then surely I would be far less motivated to be ethical.

I've argued before that Buddhist morality is primarily focussed on interactions with other people. To speak of "actions" in the abstract can be misleading. By "action" I think we can say that early Buddhists meant our behaviour towards other people considered as other loci of experience. A Pāḷi verse which is repeated in several places suggests that our ability to attribute our kind of experience to other loci is the basis of morality. We understand that 'our' experience is much the same as 'their' experience, and thus we don't go about causing pain because we understand that pain is undesirable. "I" am responsible for actions initiated at this locus of experience if only because this is also where the consequences are experienced. 

The realisation of self qua contingent experience is liberating because it allows us to become sober (appamāda) with respect to sense experience. We are not caught up in grasping after experienced pleasure and averting unexperienced pain. We still experience both, but don't get hooked up on them. The Salla Sutta (The Discourse on Being Pierced) makes an important distinction between the unawakened and the awakened. The unawakened, struck by an arrow experience physical (kāyika) pain, but then they also experience a psychological (cetasika) reaction to the pain, as if they are pierced by a second arrow. The awakened experience the first arrow, but not the second. I wrote about this distinction in terms of pain, which we all have, and suffering which only the unawakened have. I imagine the experience of awakening to be characterised by contentment as we are not pulled this way and that by (habitual) reactions to stimulus. Our sensory world becomes less compelling and we can disbelieve it if we choose, or suspend disbelief and plunge in. (Gary Weber describes something like this). However as an embodied being we still have the same perceptual processes going on.

In terms of morality, post-awakening we are able to behave in ways that are consistent (Skt. samyañc) with how experience actually works instead of inconsistent (Skt. mithyā) and especially in relation to other people we don't behave selfishly because we see through our sense of being a self. Thus realising the contingent nature of self and not treating the self as a really existent entity allows for naturally skilful actions.

It's not that at some point we do "have" a self and then later we don't "have" a self. From an early Buddhist point of view we have experiences that we (unconsciously and transparently) interpret as us being a self. We proceed as though I, me, & mine are straightforward propositions. To the point where questioning I, me, & mine in any serious way is unusual and apt to draw blank stares from most people. When we learn to see those same experiences in the light of awakening then we no longer interpret them in the same way. The problem of agency in the light of not "having" a self doesn't arise because having or not having a self is not the case.

I can't speak to later developments. Buddhists seem to have very quickly got caught up in the pan-Indian conversation about ontology and the competition for influence and resources that accompanied being a large religious institution. They seem to have lost their way doctrinally. Once the Abhidharma is in place as canonical (around the beginning of the common era?), different solutions to the question were required and were supplied with varying success.

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