📙 The Faithful Buddhist
Author: Tom Pepper
Full Title: The Faithful Buddhist
Perhaps if Metzinger did not claim to have finally solved once and for all the perennial mind/body, and then offered only a recycled solution that any undergraduate philosophy student should be embarrassed not to recognize as a familiar error, no philosopher at all would have wasted any time on him. If one makes grand claims, one ought to at least make grand errors.
I will begin with the most damaging error—which is also the one most often pointed out by those who criticize Metzinger. In philosophy, this error has many names, such as the “homunculus problem” or the problem of “infinite regress”; I will here refer to it as the “subtle atman” problem.
When someone asserts that there is no ultimate essence or core self, but his account of how the apparent self (conventional self, phenomenal self, illusory self, etc.) arises requires the existence of an ultimate consciousness, then he is simply sneaking an atman in the back door.
Metzinger, however, clearly remains oblivious to this centuries-old error. His Self-Model Theory consistently makes exactly the same error, and refuses to accept or recognize that it is a real problem. He asserts that his theory claims that “no such things as selves exist in the world,” that there is no “unchangeable essence or …thing” but only a conceptual error in which a model of a self is mistaken for such a core essence or thing (3). And here is the problem. Who is making this mistake? What consciousness is making the error of falsely believing that a “representation” of a self is an actual self? If a mistake is being made, who is making it?
Metzinger’s model requires the existence of a transcendent and undetermined consciousness, a subtle atman.
In short, anatman is simply the Truth that there is nothing which is in any way transcendent, nothing which is not subject to change, nothing which is not dependent on causes and conditions for existence. There is no soul, no transcendent consciousness or mind, no eternal “true self.”
The obscurantist subject appeals to some ineffable truth beyond words, which science threatens to destroy, the “truly human” that escapes reason, and can only be found in miraculous revelations and is always hidden in obscure origins. We see this in x-buddhism whenever there is an insistence that awakening is beyond language, that Buddha never used language to teach, that we must never think if we hope to become enlightened, or that the ultimate goal is some full and pure “substrate consciousness,” Buddha-nature, or “true self.”
The subject is a collective social practice, a discourse, an ideology, and always requires multiple individuals acting together. This is the only way we ever have any agency at all, through the production of social practices that “expose, fragment by fragment, a truth.”
Because the self is constructed, and this constructed self is all there is, is the only one there is, we must be all the more concerned with how it is constructed.
The self can only be constructed with great effort, and by changing the social practices in which it lives, not on a whim. Whose whim would this be? This would again assume that there is an atman, separate from this conventional self.
What does agency look like, if there is no self to will or direct an action? My contention here is that this is only a problem if we have a mistaken idea of what constitutes agency.
The concept of anatman would require us to understand that the “self” is completely an effect of social structures.
We are produced as conscious beings in our social practices, and we cannot change who we are, and cannot be fully liberated, until we become able to choose and change our social practices.
Our choices, our plans, and the structures of our social formations, all of these together make up our ideologies, and give rise to subject positions.
Now, it is easy enough to become aware that our choices and our plans are not part of the mind-independent reality, that they are constructed by our social formations, that we choose what we are taught to choose and plan in the ways we have learned. And then we think we are liberated, because we are aware of the social-constructedness of our desires and forms of thought, of our cravings and our language and our construal of the world.
But at this point, we are still not liberated, because we are still reproducing the social formations which give rise to those desires and those forms of thought.
So long as we continue to act within these social formations, we can at best have a negative freedom, resisting the desires we still have, questioning the forms of our own thought; we continue to produce stagnation and deterioration and dissatisfaction, because we do not yet see that our desires and thoughts are thoroughly and radically immanent, the production of the very structures in which we live and move.
To be liberated, we must produce new social formations, new collective practices in which we can participate, because the individual is nothing but an effect of such structures. This must be a collective action, an attempt to increase the collective capacity to interact with mind-independent reality; no individual can be free in an unfree social system, except in a kind of negative freedom.
Metzinger’s model very powerfully insists on an atomistic subject correctly perceiving the world, with possible errors or limits in our evolutionary biology. He cannot consider the role of the social formations in producing the subject at all.
If language were socially produced, it could be a result of social formations and a site of social struggle, and this would require us to look for the mind and the subject in social formations instead of in the brain the computer metaphors of cognitive science.
How might Metzinger’s theory function as an ideology? It clearly requires both ignorance and error, so it is likely an ideology we would not willingly accept and participate in if we were made aware of it. Let’s
Reproducing Romantic ideology, Metzigner separates out emotion and thought, assigning the former “natural” and causal status and suggesting that the latter has no real causal power and can be changed at will (apparently at the will of the transcendent consciousness that does not exist).
Metzinger’s naturalization of emotions and reduction of thought to epiphenomena functions, once again, to reify our existing ideology; more troubling yet, it suggests that only imprecise and inadequate ideas are motivating and “true” ideas, and therefore that we can only be motivated by an ideology which distorts reality.
The mistaken belief that we have a private consciousness which is not at all socially constructed is a central error of capitalist social formations, leading to frustration and suffering in our everyday lives.