The problem of the existence of the Self

Is there a Self? Our way of speaking suggests the existence of something that we call “I”, but this natural view has been challenged by David Hume, who said that the Self does not exist because it can’t be experienced.

And what to make two points: first, the burden of proof is upon those who deny the existence of the Self, because the belief in the Self is quite natural, and each time a claim is counterintuitive, he who makes it needs to bring proofs. Thus, the first guy who said that the sun turned around Earth had the duty to bring proofs for his odd claim, whereas those who hold, like nearly everyone, that the earth was motionless, could be thought of as justified on the basis of the available data.

Second, Hume is mistaken in looking for the Self as an object within the field of our experience. Rather, the Self is a condition of the possibility of any experience. If there must be an experience, there must be a “witness”. The Self is not observed, it is he who observes. Likewise, I don’t expect to see my eyes when I look through binoculars. But my eyes must be there for me to see something.

This point can be stated as a kind of argument: what is the difference between what is perceived and what is not perceived? It is the presence or the absence of a “perceiver”, or witness, which makes the difference. But it is an obvious truth that when I experience something, I perceive it Therefore, since perception is involved in my experience, a “knower” must be involved as well: the Self.

Yes, you could say that even if the existence of the Self seems to be reasonable, it has nothing to do with certainty of likelihood, because “reason is faith”.

stop… look at hume’s argument… what exists? myriads of interpretations (mental events) of experiences and events, succeeding each other at an inconceiveable rate… nothing else… furthermore, there is no logical connection between events…
(check these threads: … 90&start=0 … 68&start=0 )

existence for hume is nothing but a collection of logically unconnected momentary events… belief in the self as something besides a fluctuation of events is illogical…

he never does that…

and you have no proof of this.

thus begging the question…

and this last contradicts all your previous points…


Hume isn’t the only one who challenges this “natural View”… or rather "natural mistake’!

I suggest you read Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained”. which in my oppinion would be the best compilation/narritive of an arguement, with evidence supporting claims that there is no self, no “Cartesian theatre”.

If you wish a more eastern, (or perhaps holistic would be the correct word) analysis of wether or not a “self” exists I would suggest Krishnamurti, and even more contemporary Eckart Tolle.

When is something percieved? When we become conscious of it ? If so then you first have to define conciousness, and without just slapping a “natural view”, or quick assumption on it, and really beggining to look at the problem here you realise that this can be a very tricky prospect. Again I highly reccomend Dennett. He does a good job at dismanteling natural assumption, so that we can create a clearer third person, and empirical analysis on the mind/brain problem, and see just how off track our natural assumptions can lead us.

As I’ve been saying since I first posted here there is no self ladies and gents… so move on, get over it. Leave old theories, and defunct hypothesis, irrational ways of thinking behind. Theres no captain of the ship, so lets all hop in some life boats, and just maybe we’l find our way ashore.

Yes, if Hume is the god of logic. There are some instances of impermanent events, so what? Nothing can be of another nature? Non sequitur.

As far as I know, he looks within himself to find the Self, but internal experience is all the same a kind of experience.

But this shakes Hume’s claim. As I have said, the burden of proof is not upon me.

I bring a kind of proof below.

I add this clause because of Dunamis (and Tentative).


Dear Samkhya,

  1. how do grammatical rules demanding an ‘I’ make belief in the self a ‘natural view?’
  2. Hume doesn’t say that the self does not exist because it cannot be experienced, he says we can experience nothing of the self except a bundle of events, thoughts, experiences, feelings and so on that have no neccesary connection

On the contrary, you implied it was the result of the demands of the rules of grammar (we need an ‘I’ to answer the question ‘who is thinking?’), which are habitual rather than natural. Unless you are Chomsky or someone similar.

So you mean when a claim is paradoxical, rather than counterintuitive. For the Humean the notion of a self (beyond the bundle) is counterintuitive.

I mean paradoxical in the sense of an ‘untimely idea’

I don’t understand this claim at all.

No, it’s a thing we suppose must be present for every experience as part of a grammatical habit.

Grammatically, yes. Logically, not necessarily.

If I remember correctly Hume said the self was both the origin and subject of consciousness. Maybe Imp can correct me on that if I’m wrong.

One could also say there must be something to see.

What is perceived is perceived, and we can describe it is a more or less effective way. What isn’t perceived isn’t perceived, and we can say nothing more about it.

But unless you observe this you cannot tell if it is true or not. If the tree falls and you are absent you simply cannot tell either way if the squirrel on which it lands makes a yelping noise before dragging itself clear and running off and telling its friends. It’s possible that it might make that noise. It’s also possible that it might not. You have no idea either way.

Again, what isn’t perceived isn’t perceived, and we can say no more about it.

All of which presumes that you know the difference between something you’ve perceived and something you haven’t perceived. Since, by very definition, you haven’t perceived what you haven’t perceived then how can you be so certain of the difference between that and what you have perceived?

By assumption, nothing more.

It sure is. You can also reason your way to the unreasonable.

There is nothing more to say. I can’t help thinking that an experience implies a witness, and you say: not necessarily. If you don’t grant that, there is nothing more to do. And yes, you can say that grammar covers my eyes, and I can say the same thing, though in another sense.

You go on to say

Your lack of bravery or imagination doesn’t define the boundaries of the logical. That’s the point.

You are making a grammatical necessity into a logical one without explaining why. All I want is an answer.

The burden of proof is upon those who deny the Self, since the Self is a spontaneous and natural belief. To know it, you just have to ask people: do you have a Self?

You object that it is a grammatical necessity, and not a logical one, but the burden of proof is upon you.

Not to those who don’t believe in a self as you envisage it. To them the Self is the unnatural belief on which the burden of proof rests

People can be wrong.

No, the burden is on you to prove that this thing which cannot be described logically nor defended empirically actually exists. Grammar isn’t proof. The assumption of a lot of people isn’t proof.

The assumption of a lot of people is not a proof, but it shows at least that this belief is natural and spontaneous. But the burden of proof is upon him who challenges what is natural and spontaneous.

I don’t know how you think I envisage the self, but my concept makes perfect sense to me: the self is the inner witness, that is the subject of the experiences (we can call him “experiencer”), and he is perhaps also a doer, who acts upon the body, and through the body upon external things.

Ok, you have convinced me, I don’t exist

But on a serious note, does it really matter? Whether or not the ‘I’ really exists is trivial, because it is advantageous to act as if it does. Without an ‘I’ , a central headquarters to plan our attack on life, we are left defensless from it’s relentless attacks. We need the ‘I’

No, because it could be assumed by a lot of people for cultural (rather than natural) reasons. I dunno, say, because it is demanded by grammar, perhaps?

No, the burden of proof is on he who claims that such and such is natural and spontaneous.

Yeah, the self, the subject. I’m familiar with the notion. I’m waiting for proof (and no, the fact that people believe it doesn’t count as proof, the fact that you believe it doesn’t count as proof and your assertion that it is a natural and spontaneous belief doesn’t count as proof) from you.

You’ve not demonstrated that experience requires an experiencer, though there are perfectly good arguments for such a position. You may or may not wish to start your defence here.

There are perfectly good arguments for such a position? So tell me what they are.

I do highly agree with this. When I first logged onto ILP I was saying “Dissolution of ego is a necessity, if one is to seek truth, or enlightenment”… Now I don’t believe that it is possible to completly dissolve the ego. Especially since we are forced to live within an ego driven society. Yet realization of what the ego/self actually is can allow one to become more effecient in dealing with matters of the self. We need a captain of the ship, just don’t go and think that the captain is any more then a user illusion.

I’ve been trying to develop a model for some time now for operating via the ego. You see I believe it is totally possible, and natural to find oneself in a state of nothingness, zen, awareness… whatever you want to call it. This is a state where there is no movement of the ego, and it is a highly intelligent state, but to operate within society… and well to operate even a damned car, we need a point of referance. We need a self. Once you realize that you really aren’t the self, but it is just a profecient way of handling reality, then you can free “yourself” of some silly habits.

It seems to me that a zen like quality, a quiet mind is a natural state, operating soley off of the hardware in our brains, and the self state is the software that has augmented our abilities. Each of the two states has its advantages, and if one could move freely to and from each state, then that would be a remarkably plaible, and intelligently proficient mind.

Tom, I think you are pushing the issue here.
The self, you imagine, as a cultural/liguistical necessity, not a natural one.
Is language unnatural? Is culture too?
I agree that the question “Do you have a self?” is illuminating because asking it supposes the existence of the attribute. Do we ask a rock a question? No, because we imagine that it cannot respond–it has no self; it has no quality with which we could identify.
We ask a person such a question on the natural pressumption that a like-body possessess a like quality, which we identify in us as “Self”. The question implies also a shared culture, so that it is unlikely that I will ask a person in Argentina “Do you have a self?”, since the sounds the letters combine will be meaningless to him.

That said, a self is perhaps not as neat as Sam believes. I do accept it’s existence, though I cannot circle it’s qualities to say that the Self moves my limbs etc, specially since the latest research puts in doubt the authorship of movement and makes control of movement by a self another illusion…but I can’t deny that there is something which can be deceived.
However disjointed the Self is, we must agree with Sam in that it is a natural belief of man…and mammals and perhaps other animals. The conditions of a mobile life require a measure of awerness and that we call a “Self”. Fear is an ability of that awerness. True, it is quite a primitive version of it, but with man we could say that we speak of “Self” proper and with other creatures, in various degrees, we simply refer to self-awerness.
“In Sum”. The Self is not a linguistical necessity, but the condition under which language occurs. Even if I do away with all menttions of an “I”, the very act of positive communication, even in the third person, implies such a Self. It is further a condition that is found in some higher order of beings, enough of it is found in other species that descriptions of their behaviour in anthropomorphistic language is possible.
Hmmm… That is worth another post.
Other than within us, how do we experience selves? Do we not do with other humans what we can do with animals?

Which research? What does it consist of?

I believe this. The witness being ones inner self.

Grass = green

Calculate colour of grass, witness result.

Self = witness result. Or using a result as part of our identity.

Grass wouldn’t even be green if nobody witnessed it, it wouldn’t even be grass. It would be a tower of molecules blow by a vibration.

Dear Omar

No, but just because something is demanded by language doesn’t make it a natural idea. I have a problem with any idea asserting itself (or having someone assert it as) a natural belief. Remember the arguments over the ‘God-shaped hole’?

Taking any belief as natural is dangerous culturally, it can fuel fundamentalism. The last thing I want to see is a fundamentalism of the Self. Prior to politics, prior to art, prior even to language (some might argue) a dictating of the meaning of Self is immensely powerful. To simply assert that a given notion of the Self is natural and then shunt the burden of proof onto anyone who disagrees (as Sam has done) isn’t logically defensible or even practical.

Plenty of people DO talk to rocks and trees and all sorts of stuff. I talk to the TV, to books, to movies.

Sure, the limits of the skin are the limits of the Self. To me this indicates a typical empirical belief - we see, we name, we believe. Nothing more.

Of course. The question can only be asked meaningfully with a set of presumptions already in place. But those presumptions are acquired habits, not natural blind spots.

Purely out of interest, I’m not seeking to trash a source, what research are you referring to here? I’ve often sought to demonstrate that there’s no necessary logical connection between the moment when I desire an apple to the moment when an arm moves so the hand picks up the apple, but I’ve never found any actual study of such things.

I’m not convinced. There’s nothing natural about the word, there’s nothing natural about the way the word relates to other words, there’s nothing natural about the notion of self as the origin of motion. Unless you are happy to call all human behaviour natural, in which case all beliefs are natural.

Exactly. ‘I perceive selfhood, therefore it must exist’. We can take this back to presumptions made by Descartes, and possibly even further. I assume there must be something ‘behind’ my eyes and nervous system that is ‘really doing the perceiving’ simply because I can’t imagine it otherwise. This block in imagination is, in part, due to grammatical habit, a certain metaphysics which is prevalent, certain limitations on what it is easy to imagine and what it is hard to imagine.

‘The Self’ is part and parcel of language, and as such isn’t a condition of it. It would have to be other than language for it to be a condition of language, and it isn’t other than language as far as I can see.

Implication isn’t enough. I wouldn’t deny for a second that those implications are there and that they are often taken as part of the basis for trying to have a meaningful conversation but that doesn’t mean I’d actually defend those implications when push comes to shove.

I’m not quite sure what it is that you want to do with animals that you do with humans but simply because we observe what we take to be selfhood and some knowledge of selfhood in an animal or even another person doesn’t mean such a selfhood is really there. It might be, it might not be, but we cannot know whether it is our desire to see it that makes all the difference as to whether we see it or not.

I would like to revive this debate.

I have re-thought about the existence of the self, and though I am still convinced that it is a natural belief (otherwise it would have been dismissed from language as meaningless), this belief will not do with my opponent.

So I have designed another argument:

There are objects which are known to be experienced and there are objects which are known not to be experienced (for instance my bathroom now). But why are they known to be experienced or not? What makes us say that we know that something is experienced? It is the existence of a witness. This witness, I call it the self. It may be the body, it may be the soul, but it exists. It is when such a witness is present that we say that something is experienced.

SIATD objected: how do you know that there is a difference between what you perceive and what you do not perceive, since you don’t perceive what you don’t perceive?

This objection misses the point. I don’t claim that there is a difference between the objects that we perceive or not. I just claim that there is some difference, that is obvious to the mind, between perceiving and not perceiving.

But since this difference does not belong to the perceived objects (since perception does not change an object as it really is), this difference must belong to what is not objective, that is, to what is subjective. And we discover here the self.

Why do we need an ‘observer’ at all?