A Sense of Self

“[A sense of self] is a way of classifying the world in terms of your own needs.” – Dr. Antonio Damasio in an interview with the LA Times

Dr. Damasio is a famous neuroscientist and author of Descartes’ Error, Looking for Spinoza, and most recently Self Comes to Mind.

Once again science is making great progress in catching up with 2600-year-old wisdom.

In Buddhist thinking, the egoic self is the conditioning of likes and dislikes with which there is a strong tendency to to identify (ref. The Itch). So when I say, “I like ice cream,” there is the implication that I am the one who is liking ice cream. The sense of self is the sense of a subject (me) in relation to liking and disliking other objects (or sensations).

Part of a strategy of liberation comes from weakening the conditioned preferences leading to a weakened sense of a personal self.

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6 Responses to A Sense of Self

  1. Randy Garver says:

    Who is the “I” who claims to like ice cream?

    • Good question, and welcome back.
      I would say there are many “I”s.
      The one you ask about is the “I” which claimed to like ice cream in a specific moment, and that is all it is. It is a conditioning around a specific preference, subject to future conditioning.
      Fear of death drives the attachment to (defending of or striving for) preferences, which is (ironically) an accurate fear, because without the preference (of ice cream in this instance) that particular “I” would not exist. Weakening the preference weakens that particular conditioning.
      The sense of self is the feeling of an “I”’s tendency to reinforce its own conditioning, to self perpetuate as it were.

  2. Randy Garver says:

    That’s a very thought-provoking and philosophical perspective.

    Perhaps I can attempt to derive a similar solution using a casually scientific process.

    Let’s begin with the initial hypothesis that a “mrlovingkindness” is defined as a closed 3-dimensional surface externally bounded by an epidermis.

    Not a bad start, but without an atmosphere of ~15 lbs/sq. inch with 20% oxygen, the mrlovingkindness’ fluids would boil and he would quickly asphyxiate. Also, the mrlovingkindness requires a supply of water and minerals, as well as digestible proteins, fats, and carbohydrates provided by a large taxonomy of compatible flora and fauna.

    These additional components of our mrlovingkindness require a rocky planet of specific composition and evolution, located at a particular distance from a star of particular size and age.

    These aspects of our mrlovingkindness in turn require a non-uniform field of coalescing dust and material in an inflationary universe which initiated as a singularity of infinite density approximately13 billion years ago.

    Thus, when summed, we must conclude that a mrlovingkindness is actually comprised of the entire universe at all points exactly as it ever was, is now, and ever will be, and as such can only be referred to individually as this infinite and indivisible continuum expressing itself at a particular location and time.

    Therefore, we must also conclude that a fundamental and irreducible characteristic of the very universe itself is a liking of ice cream.

    Did you realize that you were that important?

  3. “the very universe itself is a liking of ice cream”


  4. Jeff M. says:

    You seem to appreciate and/or strive for a weakening of preferences, and thereby of self / sense of self.

    You mention standard Buddhist thought, for example, “Fear of death drives the attachment to (defending of or striving for) preferences,” with the implication that fear of death is bad, and preferences are bad.

    But… you want your metabolism to slow. You prefer not to die, and you prefer not to be preference-neutral toward dying (or else you would lose motivation to slow your metabolism, for example, and you would die sooner). So you don’t share the Buddhist belief that a sense of self is wrong or bad, at least in that regard.

    Is that accurate? If so, why do you hold up “2600 year old wisdom” as something worthwhile, more worthwhile than science (which is just “catching up”)?

    If not – if you do believe as Buddhists do that diminishing the strength of your Self / your preferences is a good thing – why do you seek to live longer? (Why seek anything at all, really? Death is the ultimate end of self and preference-having.)


    • Excellent question Jeff, and sorry for the late response. The short explanation, from the Buddhist perspective, is that desire to be without desire is the only desire worth pursuing, and living a long and healthy life helps that pursuit. For example meditation, contrary to how it might look, is extremely strenuous and requires a healthy body to practice in a rigorous way. The long life part is more oriented toward having a long time to practice, though I do see your point, and it is easy to get trapped into striving to be a perfect meditator for example.
      For what it’s worth, I would *not* say Buddhism is more worthwhile than science. In fact, I think of Buddhism as an ancient take on science as Buddhist philosophy is based on empirical evidence. To the best of my knowledge, science does not contradict the main points of Buddhism in any way, but if it did, I would probably go with science.

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