“I will not argue that we do not exist,” writes the philosopher Jay L. Garfield in Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live without a Self. “That would be madness. But I will argue that we do not exist as selves, but as persons.” Our existence is “nominal” or “conventional,” Garfield claims; it’s superficial, not deep. Learning this is meant to kill our self-conceit, which rests on an inflated sense of our own reality. We do exist, but we are humble persons, not narcissistic selves. When we absorb this fact, we’ll be released from the egoism that torments us — into love, impartiality, and joy.
If this sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But for those who have felt the allure of Buddhist philosophy as self-help, Garfield’s book is a rigorous yet accessible treatment of the arguments behind it, drawing on Nagasena (c. 150 BCE) and Chandrakirti (c. 600–650 CE), as well as George Berkeley (1685–1753) and David Hume (1711–1776).
What does it mean to believe in the self? It’s a moving target. Garfield begins with the idea of the ātman in ancient Indian philosophy: the “self or soul […] characterized as unitary, as the witness of all that we perceive, as the agent of our actions.” He finds the self again in Christianity: an enduring spirit, able to survive the death of the physical body. This is elevated stuff, but for Garfield, “belief in the self is ubiquitous: it seems to crop up in some form in every major religious and philosophical tradition. We seemed to be wired to experience ourselves as selves.”
The problem is that many of us, including me, have never believed in selves like this — unitary, indivisible, enduring — and we are as narcissistic and self-centered as anyone else. Ordinary egoism does not rest on the belief in some unchanging unity within. (I’ll come back at the end to Garfield’s contention that we are wrong about our own beliefs: that we’re committed to souls despite ourselves.) What’s more, the arguments against the self rehearsed in Garfield’s book do not depend on thinking of ourselves in elevated ways.
Take Nagasena’s chariot, presented to King Milinda as an analogy for ourselves. The chariot is not the same as any of its parts, Nagasena notes; nor can it be identified with the sum of those parts, suitably arranged — or else it would cease to exist when any part of it is replaced. Instead, “the words ‘the King’s chariot’ are merely a designation with no determinate referent. […] A complete inventory of the basic constituents of the world, even if it contains chariot parts, contains no chariots.”
This goes beyond the fact that chariots are not “basic” in the sense of being simple or atomic, indivisible. That is no surprise — and it points to no surprise about us. Like many, I believe that I’m a certain kind of organism, a human being, with manifold parts, not an indivisible soul. But Nagasena’s argument is more radical: that the existence of things like chariots is a useful fiction. We talk as though they exist, even though they really don’t, by grouping material stuff — not wheels and axles, ultimately, but quarks and leptons — in ways that make practical sense for us. There isn’t really a thing that has the parts we take the chariot to have; there are only “particles arranged chariot-wise,” an arrangement we happen to find interesting. That’s how it is with people, too.
Garfield illustrates this radical view with a second analogy. Consider an apple. It seems to be something distinct from its roundness, redness, and sweetness, something in which those properties “inhere.” But actually, Garfield tells us, this idea makes no sense since it pictures the apple as something that lies behind its properties, a fruit without qualities. This is a redundant, barely intelligible posit. The self is similar: something posited, incoherently, behind the flux of experience and organic life.
For Garfield, strictly speaking, there are no composite things; nothing has parts or properties that change. In reality, there are no apples or chariots, even though we speak as though there are. Nor are there really human beings, gaining and losing matter, aging over time. We are useful fictions, too. The only alternative Garfield allows is that we are changeless selves or souls, spiritual atoms. If we can’t believe that, then we must admit that he is right: while we exist as persons, conventional groupings of particles and processes, both mental and physical, we do not exist as selves.
A funny thing about Garfield’s book: he seems to take for granted that we’ll buy his reasoning when it comes to apples and chariots but resist when it comes to us. He thus spends 50 intricate pages deflecting arguments for enduring selves that turn on the unity of experience, or the reflexivity of consciousness, or pre-reflective self-awareness. He doesn’t register what I think is the more obvious response, which is to wonder if apples and chariots have more reality than he suggests, a mundane, composite existence that animals like us share. We don’t ordinarily think of them as fictions.
Philosophers sometimes pose questions about real existence by asking what belongs to “the furniture of the universe.” According to Garfield, furniture does not belong to the furniture of the universe. If it did, it would have parts, like Nagasena’s chariot, and nothing truly real is composite. At one point, Garfield reaches for a third analogy: “All of this is to say that we are many, not one,” he writes; “we are collections of collections of processes, not unities; we are more like hives than bees in that respect.” But his arguments imply that bees are collections of collections of processes, not unities; they are more like hives than … what? The analogy falls in upon itself.
At the same time, Garfield looks for empirical evidence to confirm his view: “Neuroscience does not reveal a central ego in the brain that marks who we are, as opposed to what we experience or do. There is no single place in the brain where it all ‘comes together,’ or where consciousness is seated.” But if the previous arguments work, this is at best redundant. At worst, it’s like trying to prove that chariots are not really real by pointing out that their wheels turn independently of one another. Why should real existence turn on unified functioning?
To be clear: I’m not saying that Garfield’s puzzles about parts and properties are facile; they are not. I am saying that they have nothing specific to do with the self, and that their conclusions — about the merely conventional existence of apples and chariots — are shocking even before you apply them to us. If you ask why I believe that I exist as more than a convenient fiction, my answer won’t appeal to the unity of consciousness or life after death but to the conviction that, as a human being, I am no less real than I take apples and chariots to be.
Let’s not dive further into these deep waters. Instead, let’s go back to the project of self-help. What is the ethical upshot of concluding, with Garfield, that apples, chariots, and human beings have a merely nominal existence — that they are useful fictions? Should that make us more altruistic, less self-centered? It’s not easy to see why.
I’ve envied your chariot for years — its bold curves and intricate moldings — and I am desperate to make it mine. Nagasena drops by and convinces me that the chariot is a nominal thing, merely particles arranged chariot-wise, a conventional grouping of material stuff. Interesting to learn — but I don’t covet it any less! Misers are not cured of their obsession with wealth when we remind them that the economy is a social construction. Why should things be different when the object of attachment is not your chariot, or your bank account, but yourself?
When Garfield turns to ethics, his arguments have little to do with the reality of the self. “Egoism is motivated by seeing ourselves at the center of [the moral] landscape,” he writes. We see others as less real the more distant they are from us. “When we describe this attitude so baldly, it seems preposterous[.] […] For one thing, each of us has the same claim to the center of the moral universe, and we can’t all occupy that spot.” Fair enough. But why should thinking I’m a self — not something merely nominal or conventional — prevent me from thinking you are too? I’d assume that we’re equally real, whatever we are.
The same goes for Garfield’s fascinating treatment of the first and second persons, I and you, which draws on the work of developmental psychologist Vasudevi Reddy: “[O]ur awareness of ourselves as subjects dawns with our awareness of those who address us and who we address. In other words, the first-person and the second-person are co-emergent.” If this is right, Garfield argues, then the “problem of other minds” cannot get started: we must already know other minds in order to know our own. Maybe so. But why does this depend on being a person, not a self? Why should our non-conventional existence lead us to predict that we know ourselves before we know anyone else? The issues seem unrelated.
In saying this, I’m insisting again that the reality of selves could be mundane: the real existence of human beings — ourselves — with parts and properties that change, akin to the real existence of apples and chariots. Garfield thinks we believe ourselves to be more than that, that we are “wired to experience ourselves as selves” distinct from bodies or minds. But why?
Garfield has an argument, which comes at the beginning of his book. It invites us to imagine having someone else’s body. Not being them, but being you, with their body as yours. (Garfield picks the body of Usain Bolt.) It then invites you to do the same thing with a mind. (Garfield chooses to have Stephen Hawking’s.) Whether or not these exchanges are really possible, Garfield writes,
the very fact that you were able to follow me in this thought experiment shows that, at least before you think hard about it, you take yourself to be distinct from both your mind and your body, to be the thing that has your mind and your body, but that, without losing its identity, could take on another mind, another body, just like changing your clothes.
Is that so? Do our imaginative feats reveal such hidden beliefs? Consider an analogy with time. I can imagine any moment in history being now — that it is now the Big Bang, or a million years from 2022. Does it follow that, at least before I think hard about it, I take now to be a time distinct from any day in history, including today? No. What follows is that the way in which the concept now picks out a time is different from the way in which we do so when we specify dates. Now refers to the time at which it is used, not to times indexed by a calendar. The difference is in thought, not reality, and no one is confused by this.
I don’t see why we should be more confused when it comes to I and me — why we should conflate a difference in how we think about a particular human being with a difference in what we’re thinking of. When I refer to a time as now, I leave open when it is; when I think of myself as me, I leave open who or what I am. My imagination is free to roam. That doesn’t mean I secretly believe that now is a time beyond time, or that I’m under “the illusion that [I] stand outside of and against the world.”
The irony is that this more deflationary view of I and now affords a better challenge to our selfish instincts. Suppose that I’ve forgotten my own name and you tell me that Kieran Setiya is about to die. Too bad for him, I’ll think, with pity. But if you tell me I am about to die, and I believe you, I will panic. Why do I care so much more about me than about him? There is no difference in whom I’m thinking of, only how I’m thinking of them. And the difference is just that, when I think of them as me, I’m doing so by way of a device that picks out whoever is thinking this thought — as now is a device that picks out the time at which it’s being used. Why should I give ethical priority to whomever is picked out in this way?
The force of this question can be lost in the fog of metaphysics that surrounds the reality of the self: the question is as hard to pin down as it is to answer. But I suspect that it’s a better path into our self-conceit than reflection on apples and chariots, properties and parts. The puzzle is not whether we belong to the furniture of the world but — as William Godwin once asked — “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my,’ to overturn the decisions of everlasting truth?”
Godwin’s question is less fashionable than Buddhist metaphysics or cognitive neuroscience. It leads into the murky depths of analytic philosophy, often disparaged as irrelevant to life. On the one hand, the glass may seem half-empty: the problems of first-person thought are intricate, technical, and largely unresolved. But the glass is also half-full: there is work for philosophers in the lucrative business of self-help.
Kieran Setiya teaches philosophy at MIT and is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017). His new book, Life is Hard, comes out in October.