No-Self vs. True Self

This is one of those questions that tends to arise when Hinduism or Christianity come in contact with Buddhism. However, perhaps it should arise more when Buddhism is thinking about itself. I include this discussion here because it addresses some points that are useful for later and previous discussions. True Self and no-self are actually talking about the same thing, just from different perspectives. Each can be useful, but each is an extreme. Truly, the truth is a Middle Way between these and is indescribable, but I will try to explain it anyway in the hope that it may support actual practice. It may seem odd to put a chapter that deals with the fruits of insight practices in the middle of descriptions of the samatha jhanas, but hopefully when you read the next chapter you will understand why it falls where it does.

For all you intellectuals out there, the way in which this chapter is most likely to support practice is to be completely incomprehensible and thus useless. Ironically, I have tried to make this chapter very clear, and in doing so have crafted a mess of paradoxes. In one of his plays, Shakespeare puts philosophers on par with lawyers. In terms of insight practice, a lawyer who is terrible at insight practices but tries to do them anyway is vastly superior to a world-class philosopher who is merely an intellectual master of this theory but practices not at all.

Remember that the spiritual life is something you do and hopefully understand but not some doctrine to believe. Those of you who are interested in the formal Buddhist dogmatic anti-dogma should check out the particularly profound Sutta 1, “The Root of All Things“, in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, as well as Sutta 1, “The Supreme Net (What the Teaching is Not)“, in The Long Discourses of the Buddha.

Again, realize that all of this language is basically useless in the end and prone to not making much sense. Only examination of our reality will help us to actually directly understand this, but it will not be in a way accessible to the rational mind. Nothing in the content of our thoughts can really explain the experience of the understanding I am about to point to, though there is something in the direct experience of those thoughts that might reveal it. Everything that I am about to try to explain here can become a great entangling net of useless views without direct insight.

Many of the juvenile and tedious disputes between the various insight traditions result from fixation on these concepts and inappropriate adherence to only one side of these apparent paradoxes. Not surprisingly, these disputes between insight traditions generally arise from those with little or no insight. One clear mark of the development of true insight is that these paradoxes lose their power to confuse and obscure. They become tools for balanced inquiry and instruction, beautiful poetry, intimations of the heart of the spiritual life and of one’s own direct and non-conceptual experience of it.

No-self teachings directly counter the sense that there is a separate watcher, and that this watcher is an “I” that is in control, observing reality or subject to the tribulations of the world. Truly, this is a useful illusion to counter. However, if misunderstood, this teaching can produce a shadow side that reeks of nihilism, disengagement with life and denial. People can get all fixated on eliminating a “self”, when the emphasis is supposed to be on the words “separate” and “permanent,” as well as on the illusion that is being created. A better way to say this would be, “stopping the process of mentally creating the illusion of a separate self from sensations that are inherently non-dual, utterly transient and thus empty of any separate, permanent self.”

Even if you get extremely enlightened, you will still be here from a conventional point of view, but you will also be just an interdependent and intimate part of this utterly transient universe, just as you actually always have been. The huge and yet subtle difference is that this will be known directly and clearly. The language “eliminating your ego” is similarly misunderstood most of the time.

You see, there are physical phenomena and mental phenomena, as well as the “consciousness” or mental echo of these, which is also in the category of mental phenomena. These are just phenomena, and all phenomena are not permanent, separate self, as they all change and are all intimately interdependent. They are simply “aware,” i.e. manifest, where they are without any observer of them at all. The boundaries that seem to differentiate self from not-self are arbitrary and conceptual, i.e. not the true nature of things. Said another way, reality is intimately interdependent and non-dual, like a great ocean.

There is also “awareness”, but awareness is not a thing or localized in a particular place, so to even say “there is also awareness” is already a tremendous problem, as it implies separateness and existence where none can be found. To be really philosophically correct about it, borrowing heavily from Nagarjuna, awareness cannot be said to fit any of the descriptions: that it exists, that it does not exist, that it both exists and does not exist, that it neither exists nor doesn’t exist. Just so, in truth, it cannot be said that: we are awareness, that we are not awareness, that we are both awareness and not awareness, or even that we are neither awareness nor not awareness. We could go through the same pattern with whether or not phenomena are intrinsically luminous.

For the sake of discussion, and in keeping with standard Buddhist thought, awareness is permanent and unchanging. It is also said that, “All things arise from it, and all things return to it,” though again this implies a false certainty about something which is actually impenetrably mysterious and mixing the concept of infinite potential with awareness is a notoriously dangerous business. We could call it “God”, “Nirvana”, “The Tao”, “The Void”, “Allah”, “Krishna”, “Intrinsic Luminosity”, “Buddha Nature”, “Buddha”, “Bubba” or just “awareness” as long as we realize the above caveats, especially that it is not a thing or localized in any particular place and has no definable qualities. Awareness is sometimes conceptualized as pervading all of this while not being all of this, and sometimes conceptualized as being inherent in all of this while not being anything in particular. Neither is quite true, though both perspectives can be useful.

If you find yourself adopting any fixed idea about what we are calling “awareness” here, try also adopting its logical opposite to try to achieve some sense of direct inquisitive paradoxical imbalance that shakes fixed views about this stuff and points to something beyond these limited concepts. This is incredibly useful advice for dealing with all teachings about “Ultimate Reality.” I would also recommend looking into the true nature of the sensations that make up philosophical speculation and all sensations of questioning.

While phenomena are in flux from their arising to their passing, there is awareness of them. Thus, awareness is not these objects, as it is not a thing, nor is it separate from these objects as there would be no experience if this were so. By examining our reality just as it is, we may come to understand this.

Further, phenomena do not exist in the sense of abiding in a fixed way for any length of time, and thus are utterly transitory, and yet the laws that govern the functioning of this utter transience hold. That phenomena do not exist does not mean that there is not a reality, but that this reality is completely inconstant, except for awareness, which is not a thing. This makes no sense to the rational mind, but that is how it is with this stuff.

One teaching that comes out of the Theravada that can be helpful is that there are Three Ultimate Dharmas or ultimate aspects of reality: materiality (the sensations of the first five sense doors), mentality (all mental sensations) and Nirvana (though they would call it “Nibbana,” which is the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit). In short, this is actually it, and “that” which is beyond this is also it. Notice that “awareness” is definitely not on this list. It might be conceptualized as being all three (from a True Self point of view), or quickly discarded as being a useless concept that solidifies a sense of a separate or localized “watcher” (from the no-self point of view).

Buddhism also contains a strangely large number of True Self teachings, though if you told most Buddhists this they would give you a good scolding. Many of these have their origins in Hindu Vedanta and Hindu Tantra. All the talk of Buddha Nature, the Bodhisattva Vow, and that sort of thing are True Self teachings. True Self teachings point out that this “awareness” is “who we are,” but isn’t a thing, so it is not self. They also point out that we actually are all these phenomena, rather than all of these phenomena being seen as something observed and thus not self, which they are also as they are utterly transient and not awareness. This teaching can help practitioners actually examine their reality just as it is and sort of “inhabit it” in a honest and realistic way, or it can cause them to cling to things as “self” if they misunderstand this teaching. I will try again…

You see, as all phenomena are observed, they cannot possibly be the observer. Thus, the observer, which is awareness and not any of the phenomena pretending to be it, cannot possibly be a phenomenon and thus is not localized and doesn’t exist. This is no-self. However, all of these phenomena are actually us from the point of view of non-duality and interconnectedness, as the illusion of duality is just an illusion. When the illusion of duality permanently collapses in final awakening, all that is left is all of these phenomena, which is True Self, i.e. the lack of a separate self and thus just all of this as it is. Remember, however, that no phenomena abide for even an instant, and so are empty of permanent abiding and thus of stable existence.

This all brings me to one of my favorite words, “non-dual,” a word that means that both duality and unity fail to clearly describe ultimate reality. As “awareness” is in some way separate from and unaffected by phenomena, we can’t say that that unity is the true answer. Unitive experiences arise out of strong concentration and can easily fool people into thinking they are the final answer. They are not.

That said, it is because “awareness” is not a phenomena, thing or localized in any place that you can’t say that duality is true. A duality implies something on both sides, an observer and an observed. However, there is no phenomenal observer, so duality does not hold up under careful investigation. Until we have a lot of fundamental insight, the sense that duality is true can be very compelling and can cause all sorts of trouble. We extrapolate false dualities from sensations until we are very highly enlightened.

Thus, the word “non-dual” is an inherently paradoxical term, one that confounds reason and even our current experience of reality. If we accept the working hypothesis that non-duality is true, then we will be able to continue to reject both unitive and dualistic experiences as the true answer and continue to work towards awakening. This is probably the most practical application of discussions of no-self and True Self.

No-self and True Self are really just two sides of the same coin. There is a great little poem by one Kalu Rinpoche that goes something like:

We live in illusion
And the appearance of things.
There is a reality:
We are that reality.
When you understand this,
You will see that you are nothing.
And, being nothing,
You are everything.
That is all.

There are many fine poems on similar themes presented in Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tiberan Book of Living and Dying. It is because we are all of this that compassionate action for all beings and ourselves is so important. To truly understand this moment is to truly understand both, which is the Middle Way between these two extremes (see Nisargadatta’s I Am That for a very down-to-earth discussion of these issues). While only insight practices will accomplish this, there are some concentration attainments (the last four jhanas or Formless Realms) that can really help put things in proper perspective, though they do not directly cause deep insight and awakening unless the true nature of the sensations that make them up is understood.

Quote from Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book by Daniel M. Ingram (pages 182-187)


Cf. Ontological Qualia: The Future of Personal Identity (for a discussion about how the experience of identity might change in the future), The Manhattan Project of Consciousness (for speculative writing about the potential social benefits of combining bliss technologies with qualia that make us experience oneness in a reliably way), and this essay about Burning Man (which introduces the concept of the Goldilocks Zone of Oneness which refers to the experience of “feeling neither one with everything nor ontologically separate from the rest of reality” in which wonderful things like love, gratitude, and meaning can thrive).

Qualia Manifesto

by Ken Mogi (published in 1998)

0. Summary

It is the greatest intellectual challenge for humanity at present to elucidate the first principles behind the fact that there is such a thing as a subjective experience. The hallmark of our subjective experiences is qualia. It is the challenge to find the natural law behind the neural generation of qualia which constitute the percepts in our mind, or to go beyond the metaphor of a “correspondence” between physical and mental processes. This challenge is necessary to go beyond the present paradigm of natural sciences which is based on the so-called objective point of view of description. In order to pin down the origin of qualia, we need to incorporate the subjective point of view in a non-trivial manner.

The clarification of the nature of the way how qualia in our mind are invoked by the physical processes in the brain and how the “subjectivity” structure which supports qualia is originated is an essential step in making compatible the subjective and objective points of view.

The elucidation of the origin of qualia rich subjectivity is important not only as an activity in the natural sciences, but also as a foundation and the ultimate justification of the whole world of the liberal arts. Bridging the gap between the two cultures (C.P.Snow) is made possible only through a clear understanding of the origin of qualia and subjectivity.

Qualia symbolize the essential intellectual challenge for the humanity in the future. The impact of its elucidation will not be limited to the natural sciences. The liberal arts, religion, and the very concept of what a man is will be reassessed from the very foundations.

1. History of the Mind-Brain Problem

The strong AI position held by Marvin Minsky and others was an attempt to simulate some aspects of human intelligence from an objective point of view. It had little to say about the essential problems of the mind, namely the qualia rich subjectivity.

In an effort to fill the gap left by the objective natural sciences, such movements as the “new science” and the “new age” came into the scene. These activities, however, were not particularly keen on taking seriously the consistency with the objective sciences. Even if we are to find new paradigms in search of the theory of mind, the consistency with the objective sciences should be maintained. Theses “alternative movements” tended instead to the over-emphasis of the subjective. These activities did not therefore lead to a real breakthrough in the science of the mind. These activities proved to be a stud.

The concept of information due to Claude Shannon is based on a statistical picture, and as he himself declared in his historic paper, has nothing to do with the semantics of information. Despite this, the Shannonian concept of information has been applied to “understand” the information processing in the brain. For example, it is an experimentally accepted fact that there is a correspondence between certain features of external objects and the spatio-temporal firing pattern of a group of neurons in our brain. This selectivity of neural activities is called “response selectivity” and is an important analytical concept in neuropsychology. However, it is wrong to think that the nature of our qualia rich perception can be explained away by the fact that there are activities of neurons in the brain characterized by certain response selectivities. We should instead start from the “interaction picture” rather than the “statistical picture”.

We cannot elucidate the neural correlates of qualia starting from the concept of response selectivity. We should instead start from Mach’s principle in perception.

Qualia is deeply related to the semantic aspects of information. The Shannonian concept of information has little to do with qualia.

2. Qualia and Subjectivity

In view of the neurophysiological data, it is reasonable to assume that qualia in our mind are caused by the collection of action potentials on the cellular membrane of the neuron in our brain.

“I” feel the qualia in “my” mind. This “I” and “my” structure (subjectivity) is maintained also by the neural firings in my brain. The problems of qualia and subjectivity are deeply related.

Qualia and subjectivity in general cannot be explained away by a simple extension of physicalism. From the point of view of the objective sciences, it is necessary and sufficient to describe the temporal evolution of a system. However, the principle of correspondence of qualia to physical states should be constructed on top of the conventional type of natural laws that describe the temporal evolution of the system. This particular natural law should be of a different character from the conventional ones.

Even if we obtain an ultimate physical theory of everything, it only gives a complete description of the temporal evolution of a physical system;even then the origin of qualia from physical processes such as brain activities would remain unsolved.

Causality plays an essential role when we consider the way the perceptual space-time structure in which qualia are embedded arises from the space-time structure of the neural firing in the brain. In particular, in the Principle of Interaction Simultaneity plays an essential role in the origin of the subjective time.

The “subjectivity” that we discuss here has relatively little to do with the “subjectivity” in the context of the theory of measurement in quantum mechanics. It is our view that the introduction of the concept of subjectivity in quantum mechanics did a tremendous disservice. It confused rather than enriched the arguments.

3. Related Problems

In modern physics, “NOW” has no special meaning in the flow of time. In oder to elucidate the origin of our mind, we need to come up with a structure of the time which designates a special meaning to “Now”

The formulationn of the relativistic space-time by the formalism of Riemanian geometry (Minkowski 1911) is only an intermediate step.

4. Methodology and Conjectures

The trivial attempt to assume a seat for subjectivity in the brain (the homunculus solution) is bound to fail. For example, the Crick and Koch model puts the subjectivity seat in the prefrontal cortex. Of course, saying empirically that this seems to be a necessary correlate of subjectivity is O.K. But that does not solve the most difficult part of the problem.

In considering the neural correlates of qualia rich subjective experiences, the invariance under the transformation of neural activity patterns in space and time is going to be essential.

5. Towards the Fusion of Two Cultures

A solution of the qualia problem is bound to have impact not only for the natural sciences but also for the humanities.

To take the visual art, music, literature seriously is to take qualia seriously. For paintings and music, this sounds like a cliche. Literature is also an art of the qualia, as the semantics is embedded in the intentional qualia.

As the so-called “exact” sciences have been focusing only on the measurable and quantifiable properties of nature, there was no place in the scientific world view for the immensely qualia rich subjective experience which is the ultimate raison d’etre for the arts. This was the essential reason why there was and continued to be a division between the two cultures a la C.P.Snow.

To analyze the sound wave of a violin though the Fourier analysis has nothing to do with our subjective experience of the violin sound qualia. It is meaningless to say that color is nothing but the wavelength of light when our concern is the subjective experience of color.

The development of the digital information technology perhaps had a beneficial effect on the fusion of the two cultures. The digital coding of provides a useful tool for the storing and manipulation of information, but has nothing to do with the richness of subjective experience. Unless we understand the “qualia coding” by the neural activities, we cannot find scientific foundations for the subjective experience.

In general, it is nonsensical to try to explain away the enigma of qualia from the information theoretic or evolution theory points of view.

6. On the Coming New Situation

The sense for the future essential entails a sensitivity for the possibility that the next moment can be something completely different from the previously known.

It is no longer meaningful to cling to the systemacity of religion. Religious feelings and values also consist of qualia, which in turn can be treatedly more or less individually. For example, the qualia associated with the stained glass has nothing in essence to do with Christianity. Even though traditional religion employed the appeal of the qualia as an engine to promote their specific causes, there is no reason to obstinately maintain that systemacity now.

Due to the physical limitation of the human brain, there is a limit to the category of qualia that a human being can experience. Only a ridiculously small subset of all possible qualia is accessible to the human being. This makes us take the possibilities of metaphysics more seriously.

7. Agitation

The concept of qualia is clearly at the heart of the next stage of human intellectual endeavors.

There is no other intellectual challenge more important or pressing than qualia.

The revolution can only be brought about by a combination of a rigorous scientific thinking and a trembling sensitivity.

The qualia thinkers of the world, unite!


See also the update on the original manifesto, and Mogi’s thoughts on the “computational theory of mind“.


Cf. Raising the Table Stakes for Successful Theories of ConsciousnessQualia Computing in TucsonDavid Pearce at the “2016 Science of Consciousness”,  “Schrodinger’s Neurons Conjecture”, and Why I think the Foundational Research Institute should rethink its approach

What Makes Tinnitus, Depression, and the Sound of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) so Awful: Dissonance

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is often criticized for its loudness. According to measurements made in 2010, the noise reaches up to 100 decibels, enough to cause permanent hearing loss in the long term. This is why you should always wear earplugs on the BART, which can decrease the volume by up to 30 or so decibels, making it tolerable and harmless.

And while pointing out that BART gets really loud is indeed important, I would claim that there is something even more important to note. Namely, that BART is not merely loud, but it is also distinctly dissonant. Talking only about the stretch that goes from Millbrae to Embarcadero, an analysis I conducted reveals that the single worst period of dissonance happens on the ride from Glen Park to Balboa Park (at around the 20 second mark after one starts). If you are curious to hear it, you can check it out for yourself here. That said, I do not recommend listening to that track on repeat for any length of time, as it may have a strong mood-diminishing effect.

Too bad that some of the beautiful patterns found at the entrance of the Balboa Park BART station are not equally matched by beautiful sounds in the actual ride:

12091469_917234378368720_6131694264447421239_o.jpg

Balboa Park has some beautiful visual patterns (useful for psychophysics).

Ultimately, dissonance might be much more important than loudness, insofar as it tracks the degree to which environmental sound directly impacts quality of life. Thus, in addition to metrics that track how loud cities are, it might be a good addition to our sound contamination measurements to incorporate a sort of “dissonance index” into our calculations.

A General Framework for Valence

At the Qualia Research Institute we have pointed that the connection between dissonance and valence may not be incidental. In particular, we suggest that it falls out as a possible implication of the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV). The STV is itself a special case of the general principle we call Valence Structuralism, which claims that the degree to which an experience feels good or bad is a consequence of the structures of the object whose mathematical properties are isomorphic to a system’s phenomenology. The STV goes one step further and suggests that the relevant mathematical property that denotes valence is the symmetry of this object.

valence_structuralism

In Quantifying Bliss, we postulated that a general framework for describing the valence of an experience could be constructed in terms of Consonance-Dissonance-Noise Signatures (“CDNS” for short). That is, the degree to which the given states have consonance, dissonance, and noise in them. As an implication of the Symmetry Theory of Valence we postulate that consonance will directly track positive valence, dissonance negative valence, and noise neutral valence. But wait, there is more! Each of these “channels” themselves have a spectrum. That is to say, one could be experiencing high degrees of low-frequency-dissonance at the same time as high-frequency-consonance and maybe a general full-spectrum background noise. Any combination is possible.

The Quantifying Bliss article describes how recent advancements in neuroscience might be useful to quantify people’s CDNS (namely, using the pair-wise interactions between people’s connectome-specific harmonics).

Many Heads But Just One Body

Richard Wu has a good article on his experience with tinnitus. One of the things that stands out about it is the level of detail used to describe his tinnitus. At its worst, he says, he does not only experience a single sound, but several kinds at once:

By the way, its getting louder isn’t even the worst. Sometimes I develop an entirely new tinnitus. […] Today, I have three:

  1. A very high-pitched CRT monitor / TV-like screech (similar to the one in the video).
  2. A deep, low, powerful rumbling.
  3. A mid-tone that adjusts its volume based on external sounds. If my environment is loud, it will be loud; if my environment is quiet, it will ring more softly.

As in the case of the BART and how people complain about how loud it is while missing the most important piece (its dissonance), tinnitus may have a similar reporting problem. What makes tinnitus so unbearable might not be so much the fact that there is always a hallucinated sound present, but rather, that such a sound (or clusters of sounds) is so unpleasant, distracting, and oppressive. The actual texture of tinnitus may be just as, if not more, important than its mere presence.

We believe that Valence Structuralism and in particular the Symmetry Theory of Valence are powerful explanatory frameworks that can tie together a wide range of disparate phenomena concerning good and bad feelings. And if true, then for every unpleasant experience we may have, a reasonable thing to ask might be: in what way is this dissonant? For example: Depression may be a sort of whole-body low-frequency dissonance (similar to, but different in texture, to nausea). Anxiety, on the other hand, along with irritation and anger, might be a manifestation of high-frequency dissonance.

Likewise, whenever a good or pleasant feeling is found, a reasonable question to ask is: in what ways is this consonant? Let’s think about the three kinds of euphoria uncovered in State-Space of Drug Effects. Fast euphoria (stimulants, exercise, anticipation, etc.) might be what high-frequency consonance feels like. Slow euphoria (relaxation, opioids, etc.) might be what low-frequency consonance feels like. And what about spiritual euphoria (what you get by thinking about philosophy, tripping, and taking dissociatives)? Well, however trippy this may sound, it might well be that this is a sort of fractal consonance, in which multiple representations of various spatio-temporal resolutions become interlocked in a pleasant dance (which may, or may not, allow you to process information more efficiently).

Now what about noise? Here is where we place all of the blunting agents. The general explanation for why anti-depressants of the SSRI variety tend to blunt feelings might be because their very mechanism of action is to increase neuronal noise and thus reduce the signal-to-noise ratio. Crying, orgasm, joy, and ragegasms all share the quality of being highly symmetric harmonic states, and SSRIs having a generalized effect of adding noise to one’s neuronal environment would be expected to diminish the intensity (and textural orderliness) of each of these states. We also know that SSRIs are often capable of reducing the subjective intensity of tinnitus (and presumably the awfulness of BART sounds), which makes sense in this framework.

The STV would also explain MDMA’s effects as a generalized reduction in both dissonance and noise across the full spectrum, and a generalized increase in consonance, also across the full spectrum. This would clarify the missing link to explain why MDMA would be a potential tool to reduce tinnitus, not just emotional pain. The trick is that both perceptual dissonance and negative affect may have a common underlying quality: anti-symmetry. And MDMA being a chief symmetrifying agent takes it all away.

Many further questions remain: what makes meaningful experiences so emotionally rich? Why do some people enjoy weird sounds? Why is emo music so noisy? What kind of valence can be experienced when one’s consciousness has acquired a hyperbolic geometry? I will address these and many other interesting questions in future posts. Stay tuned!