The lack of a substantive self is the core counterintuitive truth of the human experience. No-self runs counter to our habitual thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, as well as our experiences interacting with one another and the world. Nevertheless, it is true.
The sense of being a distinct, independent self – a conscious actor who thinks thoughts, makes decisions, and experiences experience – is what you might call the “ultimate cognitive bias”. It’s one we all suffer from and, even when we are aware of it, lapse into again and again.
This post explains the concept of no-self in the most straightforward way I know: why the idea makes sense and why it is rational to believe.
When we examine our internal, subjective experience as well as the external physical world, there is no “self” to be found. Nor is there conscious agency on the level of the individual – the sense of free will is just another process amidst the flow of phenomena.
No-self calls for an alternative model for conceptualizing experience, and one will be explored in a follow-up post. In a follow-up I’ll also describe what I believe are good moral reasons for believing no-self (why one *ought* to believe it), and how it makes for both 1) less subjective suffering and 2) better behaviour in the world.
But for now, we’re just concerned with the truth claim that there is no self.
Reality is not how it appears
As a priming exercise I’d like to first bring a couple things to your mind. Only one or two examples are needed to remember that reality – in the most basic sense that we can understand it – is often not how it appears.
Consider that the earth is spinning on its axis at a thousand miles per hour, while rocketing around the sun at even higher speeds. The solar system itself is flying through space at over half a million miles per hour. We are constantly in motion, moving thousands of times faster than any car, plane or train has ever taken us. And yet, wherever you’re currently standing or sitting, everything appears perfectly still.
Consider the millions of biological processes happening inside your body, right now and during every moment of your life. Blood is circulating, food is digesting, the brain is sending signals through the nervous system, and bacteria are battling it out with your immune system. All of this is happening right now as you read this and you are consciously aware of exactly none of it.
Human perception is limited, as our mental faculties developed to maximize chances of survival and reproduction in the evolutionary environment of our ancestors. Characteristics that enhance the ability to “fight, flee, feed, fuck” in the African savannah 50,000 years ago do not include “understanding the nature of the universe at a deep level.”
Many things that we know to be true are at the same time completely counterintuitive to us. Things are often not how they appear. This is the case with the existence of a self.
Defining Self & No-Self
We habitually conceptualize humans in the world as having or being selves. This is how we think about and relate to one another and to reality.
The “self” is the sense that you are a conscious agent, thinking and behaving of your own volition, stable through time and in some basic sense independent from everything around you.
Certainly you are influenced by your surroundings – everyone is – but there remains something fundamentally distinct about “you” as opposed to everything else. This self-other or subject-object distinction lies at the root of the conception of self.
This is certainly how it feels subjectively. It feels like you are inside your body, thinking your thoughts and feeling your feelings. It feels like you are making conscious decisions and acting on them. It feels like you are looking out from behind your eyes, moving around in a 3D world that is external to you.
Together this creates the sense that there is a substantive self: an independent agent that is permanent through life, unchanging in at least some ways, and that possesses and unites its subjective experience.
But at the most basic level, this does not exist. There is nothing substantial about your self, or mine, or anyone else’s, that is stable through time or distinct from the rest of experience. There is no individual component to experience that is separate from the experience itself.
First let’s examine the internal, mental world in relation to no-self.
We are not our thoughts
You are not your thoughts. As a teenager who was constantly stuck in his head, this statement blew my mind the first time I heard it. The understanding that you are not your thoughts can be profoundly liberating. At the same time, it’s a fairly simple observation: a basic fact of subjective experience.
If you’ve ever spent any time meditating, you know full well that you are not your thoughts. And if you haven’t, it’s not so difficult to see. It’s clear that “you” are not your thoughts when you consider:
- Sometimes you think thoughts you don’t want to be thinking
- Thoughts can get “stuck in your head”, seemingly against your will
- Sometimes you have an absolutely awful thought (we all do) and you think: Where did that come from?!
Thoughts simply arise involuntarily in the head. You can’t see where they’re coming from and you don’t know what you’re going to think next. Thoughts appear, often seemingly at random, with no conscious input from “you” at all.
Personally, I wake up almost every morning to something like this:
[Last vestiges of a dream] Muhhh… it’s warm in here, cold out there. I have to pee. I should email John back. I don’t want to get up. I’d better get up. [Pop song from 2005] What day is it again? I’m almost out of toothpaste. Man what a weird dream. It’s warm in here and cold out there. I don’t want to get up…
This all somehow flashes by in the space of a few seconds and continues on until, on a good day, I can get a handle on it. Maybe you experience something similar.
Thoughts are incredibly captivating and our default state is to unconsciously identify with them. Thoughts create a narrative around what is happening with an “I” at the center, and this is why they are largely responsible for the sense of self.
For example, there is the feeling of excitement and the mind says, “I’m so excited!” Or there is the feeling of fear and the mind says, “I’m so afraid!”
The tendency is to feel that a self is there, that is the source of the thoughts and actively thinking them. But upon closer examination it becomes clear that the thoughts are continually arising of their own accord, independent of any input from “you”. There is no conscious agent thinking the thoughts; there are just thoughts.
Layers of thought (Who is watching the thoughts?)
Focus and awareness can be trained to watch the process of thoughts arising and falling away, without identifying with them. This is the practice of mindfulness meditation.
But if it’s possible to direct attention and see thoughts as thoughts, then who is the one doing that? Who is the one watching the thoughts?
Higher order focus, awareness and attention involve what are called executive functions. Executive functions are responsible for directing attention, resisting impulses, controlling inhibitions, and other similar processes.
Executive functions can feel even more like our “self” – often a higher or better self stepping in to control the base impulses and appetites.
For example, let’s say you’re out at a social gathering and there is cake being handed out for free. The impulse arises to eat it. Then what feels like another part of you steps in and reminds you that cake is not good for you and that you shouldn’t eat it. Some sort of internal struggle occurs, and you don’t eat the cake.
What’s going on here? It feels like there are two parts of yourself competing for the final decision. Depending on the model you use, you might imagine this series of thoughts and actions as a victory for your “higher” or “better” self, winning out over the impulse with willpower and self-control.
But if you carefully examine this process, you find that every thought – including every seeming layer or level of thought – is at bottom ultimately the same. They all emerge mysteriously from somewhere outside of your conscious awareness and control.
Another example: you’re meditating and a thought arises. You let go of the thought. A voice says, “Wow, I’m thinking a lot today!” That is another thought. A voice says, “There goes another thought!” That is just another thought. They are all the same.
All thoughts arise with equal inscrutability in the mind. All will fall away if you allow them to. What feels like higher order thinking or the “real you” is, at bottom, the same as any random stream of mental chatter.
We are not any aspect of subjective experience
Thoughts are the most captivating aspect of experience, which is why the sense of self often comes from identification with them. Upon close examination, we see that they are completely transient.
Emotions, physical sensations, and other sensory phenomena are the same way. They are processes happening on their own, outside of our conscious control.
Emotions are perhaps the most similar to thoughts in the way that people sometimes feel they “are” their emotions. But even this, generally speaking, is caused by thoughts about the emotion. An emotion arises and the mind says “I’m happy” or “I’m sad”. The meaning of the feeling or sensation is entirely dependent on the label we give it.
The same way there is no thinker of thoughts – just thoughts – there is no “self” feeling the emotion. There is just the emotion arising, and sometimes it is accompanied by thoughts that create a story around it.
It is the same for physical sensations, sights, sounds, and smells. These phenomena arise and fall away. The trap is to think that we “have” sensory perception, that we somehow possess it. A more accurate view is that there is just sensory perception. Sometimes, as with emotions, thoughts accompany it. But there is no distinct, unified self amidst all this.
The physical self is arbitrary
The sense of self also comes from the feeling that we are our body, or that we are “in” our body. It feels like we are somewhere inside of our head, controlling the body and looking out into a world that is separate from us.
Since we feel like a self with a body, we see others and conceptualize them also as selves. Humans relate to all of reality this way: assigning it meaning by labelling things in ways that are convenient for us.
But the distinction between the body and the rest of the physical world is arbitrary. When you eat food, for example, when does it stop being food and start being “you”? It’s the same for every breath of air. Or the trillions bacteria in the body, that make up as much mass as the human cells – are they “you”?
The body is not a separate entity but a set of processes intertwined with the rest of the physical world. It is constantly doing things outside of our conscious awareness and control. It is also constantly in flux, as the vast majority of cells turn over in a matter of days or months.
The body is as much part of the physical world as a tree growing or the wind blowing. The feeling of owning or being the body comes from sets of internal processes, none of which are within our control. Ultimately, the body is no more “you” than any of these other things.
There is, however, an apparent relationship between the body and consciousness. Subjectively, all or nearly all of the time, consciousness seems to be “riding around” with the body and full of that body’s experiences. This may be because consciousness emerges from the brain, and brains are in bodies. The origins of consciousness are uncertain, however, and we will explore this further in a follow-up post.
There is no conscious agency (no free will)
A final reason for the sense of self is the feeling of conscious agency or free will. It feels like we are making decisions and acting on them. But just as we do not control our thoughts, emotions, or sensations, the sense of control over action is an illusion.
The distinction between voluntary and involuntary (or conscious and unconscious) action is, like the distinction between the body and the rest of the physical world, relatively arbitrary.
Typing on a keyboard seems voluntary because a certain feeling of agency accompanies it. A withdrawal reflex, by contrast, seems involuntary because that feeling is absent.
Only the subjective feeling of agency distinguishes the voluntary action from the involuntary. If you can, conceptually, separate the sense of agency from the action itself, you see that they can equally be conceptualized as two parallel processes just happening.
The sense of acting deliberately is a combination of some other set of processes – thoughts, sensations, the focus of attention – as well as the action itself. None of these are within our control. While the sense of agency accompanies some actions and not others, the sense of agency itself is just another process happening.
This is how we come to feel that we have free will. But we cannot decide which action we will take, and we cannot decide which actions feel voluntary and which do not.
Lack of free will coincides with no-self simply because there is no one there to be making the choices. There are just processes happening, and the feeling that one is “doing” some things and not others is just another process.
Overcoming the ultimate cognitive bias
No-self is counterintuitive truth and we could view the sense of self as the “ultimate cognitive bias”.
Wherever you look, in the inner mental world or the external physical world, a self cannot be found. It’s impossible to isolate and no aspect of experience can be reduced to it. Nothing possesses experience or experiences experience – there is just experience.
(No-self is also likely my answer to Peter Thiel’s contrarian question: What important truth do very few people agree with you on?)
In the follow-up post I will describe an alternative model for conceptualizing experience that consists of two fundamental elements: consciousness and its contents. One can conceivably maintain a consciousness and its contents distinction rather than a self-other or subject-object distinction.
The consciousness and its contents model is better for two reasons: it is more “true” (a more accurate representation of reality) and it results in both 1) less subjective suffering and 2) better behaviour in the world.
Read the follow-up: Consciousness and its Contents