Buddhism and Modern Psychology

12 Apr

So I’m taking a course on Coursera called Buddhism and Modern Psychology. As the course title might suggest, it’s a course about the intersection of Buddhist thought and modern findings in psychology. It’s a pretty interesting course, piquing my interest in Buddhism (again) and also learning some neat new stuff about psychology and meditation.

My first homework assignment is due pretty soon, so I thought I’d reblog (so to say) the work I’m going to submit here on my blog. The assignment:

The Buddha makes the claim, which may draw some support from modern psychology, that the self does not exist. Describe the self that the Buddha says does not exist and explain the Buddha’s principal argument against it. Do you agree or disagree with the Buddha’s argument that this kind of self doesn’t exist? Or are you unable to take a position? Give two specific reasons for your view, and explain your reasons support either the existence of the self or the non-existence of the self, or why they explain why you are unable to take a position on the question.

The Buddha’s main argument is premised on his conception of the makeup of a person. That makeup is composed of the five aggregates. The five aggregates are form (physical body) feeling, mental formations (emotions, desires), perception, and consciousness (subjective awareness). Buddha goes through the qualities that are thought to be associated with the aggregates and says that the “self” cannot be made up of them.

Impermanence is his main argument against the self, so he must have thought the self has a sort of persistence; something that does not change through time and space. Additionally the Buddha thought of the self as being associated with being under control, however the Buddha argued that the self cannot control feeling or form (e.g. you can’t will yourself to be happy, or decide to grow an extra arm), or any of the other aggregates, so therefore the self as he conceived of it does not exist.

On the other hand, the self or something like it has to exist if you are being “liberated”. So it is argued that the Buddha wasn’t speaking literally about the self not existing but argued more from an instrumental perspective. In order to get someone to actually accept the impermanence of things, one has to understand the impermanence of the individual “parts” of a person like their form or mental formations. Indeed, the Buddha teaches that the self exists for karma purposes when making ethical pronouncements.

The Buddha’s formulation of the self as being composed of five aggregates matches with modern psychology’s view of the mind and brain. The brain might also be composed, not of five aggregates, but of modules; each module having a specific function. Beyond this, there doesn’t seem to be any further overlap. The modular mind view in psychology is much more specific than the Buddha’s general five aggregates; though both systems make it hard to pinpoint where exactly a “self” would reside. In both modern psychology and Buddhism, there seems to be a rejection of the Cartesian theater model of the self that most everyday people have of themselves.

I would have to say that I am convinced by the Buddha’s argument that the self doesn’t reside in any of the five aggregates, but not because the aggregates lack persistence over time. Even without his rationale that the self is supposed to have a sort of permanence or has the quality of being “under control”, it would be hard to locate a sort of CEO, king, or even Cartesian theater version of the self in any of the five aggregates. This is not the Buddha’s argument (or if it is, I’ve not heard it yet) but it very well could be that your form affects your feeling and mental state, or your mental state affects your consciousness/awareness and perception. Each of the five aggregates can influence any of the other aggregates so it would be hard to cordon off one aggregate and claim that that one in particular is where the self resides.

(Note: I didn’t put the hyperlinks in the one I actually submitted)

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Posted by on April 12, 2014 in buddhism, cognitive science


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