The Two Paths: No Self versus extended Self

May 7, 2006 | By | 14 Replies More

Sometimes we can get to the same place taking opposite paths.

One path is the Buddhist belief that “self” is a delusion.

The objects with which people identify themselves—fortune, social position, family, body, and even mind—are not their true selves. There is nothing permanent, and, if only the permanent deserved to be called the self, or atman, then nothing is self. 

Buddhists set forth the theory of the five aggregates or constituents (khandhas) of human existence: (1) corporeality or physical forms (rupa), (2) feelings or sensations (vedana), (3) ideations (sañña), (4) mental formations or dispositions (sankhara), and (5) consciousness (viññana). Human existence is only a composite of the five aggregates, none of which is the self or soul. A person is in a process of continuous change, with no fixed underlying entity.

Compare this central tenet of Buddhism with a broader definition of “mind.”  In a book called Being There:  Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again (1997), philosopher Andy Clark makes the case that there is no basis for conceiving of the mind as bounded by skin and skull.  Clark cites Maurice Merleau-Ponty:

Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism . . . it forms with it a system.

Admittedly, we do many of our basic activities—e.g., walking, reaching and looking—as individuals.   But what about activities involving advanced cognition, such as “voting, consumer choice, planning a vacation or running a country? 

To accomplish these higher order activities, we

create and maintain a variety of special external structures (symbolic and social-institutional).  These external structures function so as to complement our individual cognitive profiles and to diffuse human reason across wider and wider social and physical networks whose collective computations exhibit their own special dynamics and properties.

Clark suggests that we “offload” cognition onto the environment for three reasons:  1. To harness our fast, pattern-completing style of computation (we are “good at Frisbee, bad at logic”); 2. To take advantage of numerous external processes and structures, including those that are social and institutional; and 3. To take advantage of public language to coordinate and collaborate socially (admittedly, we also use language to think as individuals).

We use our intelligence to structure our environment so that we can succeed with less intelligence.  Our brains make the world smart so that we can be dumb in peace . . . It is the human brain plus these chunks of external scaffolding that finally constitutes the smart, rational inference engine we call mind.  Looked at that way, we are smart after all—but our boundaries extend further out into the world than we might have initially supposed. 

[Being There, p. 180]

Here are some of the ways we make the world smart so that we don’t have to be smart.  Most of us don’t do complicated math in our heads; we use a calculator (an external device).  Even when we scratch out the solutions to complicated math with pen and paper, we still use algorithms that we learned in school.  Most of us don’t know why such pen and paper routines work—the smartness of the solution lies in the pattern, though, not in the person half-heartedly filling in the numbers.  

We diagram and outline problems on paper and computer programs to be able to “see” solutions.  We reduce office work by using external organization devices such as in-boxes, files, checklists and by stacking papers in specialized piles on our desks.  These external control structures allow documents to be “available for future manipulations.”   Each of these strategies reduce “the amount of daily on-line deliberation” in which we engage.  When we want to remember to take something to work the next morning, we put it right in front of the door.

In and out of the office we use labels, bells, and blinking lights to negotiate our complex environments.  These devices and reminders allow “a little learning to a very long way, helping others to find their targets in new locales . . .  [and allowing us to] shrink enormous search spaces to manageable size.”

We offload cognition onto other people too.  We look to others to determine what is safe to eat, say or drive.  This is not mere imitation.  It is offloading cognition.   We use brand names as tokens for quality when we shop—we thereby offload what would have been a personal investigation into areas in which we often lack expertise.

Our friends and acquaintances are also part of our external resources—we consult and interact with them to solve the constant stream of social and technological problems we face.  Who hasn’t felt the loss of self when a close friend dies?  Sometimes we have the opportunity to collaborate closely with other people.  When such a person dies, though, we end up going to our own funeral.

Our acquaintances don’t merely provide information to us; they are much more than storage devices.  We all tend to associate ourselves with people of various talents in that they offer us strategies for collaborating, thereby limiting search spaces.  Many times, these people associate with us under the auspices of institutions.

Perhaps there are some people who think that they are self-sufficient. They claim that they think things out in their own heads and thus they don’t rely on externalized cognition to get through their day. A good mind-experiment would be to strand any such person on a deserted island for a month, then give him or her an exit interview: When you were on that island, didn’t you feel the suffocating lack of external resources whenever you tried to think something through?

These numerous external structures we utilize are ubiquitous.  We offload our thought processes in numerous ways.  Through these techniques, our cognition is smeared out into the world.  The project of studying the externalization of our thought process is therefore an enormous undertaking:

Understanding the way our brains both structure and inhabit the world populated by cultures, countries, languages, organizations, institutions, political parties, e-mail networks, and all the vast paraphernalia of external structures and scaffolding which guide and inform our daily actions.

[Being There, p 191].

For many people, the Buddhist belief in no self leads to a powerful realization that we are a very small part of a large ever-changing whole.  Belief in extended cognition can bring a similar outlook. Andy Clark’s enormous expansion of the “self” intrigues me, then.  It makes me think that “opposites” can be the same.  It makes me think that belief in the lack of self is functionally similar to a belief in a self that blends way out into the world.

The mistake of putting one’s “self” on a pedestal inflames one’s desires to focus on satisfying the immediate cravings of one’s own body.  Perhaps there are two ways around this trap, then.  The Buddhist approach is to downplay the concept of self.  One version of cognitive science offers another alternative:  expand the notion of self to include all of the people, places and spaces out there, each of those aspects of the outer world that, to some extent, constitute us.


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Category: Culture, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. What is a human "body"? | Dangerous Intersection | December 23, 2008
  1. Josh M. says:

    Very interesting, very interesting….

    One thing that really "baffles" me as far as Buddhism is concerned, is the idea of "denying the self." It is, to put simply, unlivable! That is why we see them at the airports, "gaining converts." Why desire "another self" if you don't wish to even acknowledge your own? Isn't eating a desire in some form to acknowledge the self? Once again, it's unlivable and illogical.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    For more on the extended mind, see this interview of Andy Clark by Natasha Mitchell of "All in the Mind."

    Andy Clark: And I kind of think of the biological brain as something like the boot program of human intelligence, it kind of gets the thing going but it’s job is to pull in all this other structure, to load up all this other stuff and that’s when we really become fully human.

    Natasha Mitchell: Well let’s come to some of the disputes around that idea of the brain. There is plenty of resistance to this idea that our mind somehow extends outside of our bodies. I mean you reply that it comes from an ancient western prejudice, what is that prejudice about the mind?

    Andy Clark: I’m not sure how ancient it is but I think it goes back at least to Descartes, to the idea that mind is some kind of special stuff that’s associated very strongly with the biological individual, it’s kind of individualistic, it’s kind of stuck somehow either by some sort of trans-dimensional gateway in Descartes' case more or less, so that it somehow stuck to the biological organism.

    One way to put it maybe is that we almost have the idea that there’s a "little us" inside of ourselves animating all the rest. So we can say something like you know, "well it’s my brain, it’s my hippocampus, it’s my arm" but of course there’s a clear sense in which you just are that mass of stuff. You know you don’t own your hippocampus, your hippocampus is just part of you.

    And I guess the claim I’m trying to make is that when we co-evolve with our technologies in certain ways that’s the way that we should think of the relation between us and our technologies. Just like me and my hippocampus. It’s very, very hard to get rid of the idea of a wafer thin self that somehow is where the real action is, the final decider, the final chooser, but you go looking for that you in the brain and you can’t find it.

  3. Nicholas Paredes says:

    Buddhism doesn’t require that we relinquish the self so much as force us to admit that the self is a fragile base upon which to base an identity. It also allows, necessitates that we find our own path, rather than simply follow some established route. Tools for creating the trail are really what it is about.

    Cognition, tools, and Buddhism are interests, and as we are simply feeling our way around the cave, the idea that cognition is based — bootstrapped/scaffolded — upon giants be they the tools we have created in the past, or the cognitive structures which allow us to forge ahead into uncharted territory is pretty interesting.

    Whether we are alone building a singular reality, or one in a joint construct can be pretty bizarre. But, isn’t the world pretty bizarre? I also have read some material discussing the body as a cooperative structure of different organisms. Multi-cell systems can be constructed from different co-evolving and co-dependent life forms supplying unique functionality. The concept of a singular system is of our own making.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Thanks, Nicholas. Those are good thoughtful ideas that resonate with me.

  5. piers says:

    So who chooses then to commit crimes, rape, pillage, or love, heal and serve others if there is no self?

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    piers: Who does the doing? "You" do, and "you" are confluence of all the relevant stuff that comes together in and around your body. The question, though, is how much of that stuff (both the workings of your brain and influences outside of your brain) is relevant when one tries to define "you." The issue is one of trying to locate that source of responsibility, but biology is faltering in that search. That source of responsibility (the "self") seems to be a convoluted social construct. That social construct, however, appears to be based on your brain PLUS an unwieldy physical reality, including many influences external to your brain and body. That is Andy Clark's point and he has convinced me. For more on this issue, read Clark's book, Being There.

  7. piers says:

    i take your answer to mean that there are many tangential influences and life experiences outside of the brains control that shape all these disparate brains and spinal cords that commit all of these actions both for good and bad all over the world. My dilemma, is since there is no firm location to place moral responsibility, why should anyone be judged for actions they commit, whether they be good or bad? Furthermore, does any phenomenon that occurs, both positive or negative, really have any tangible significance if everything is essentially empty of a true essence or form? Why should anyone care whether anything happens? Does anything have any meaning on any level? Why should I care about anyone or anything, if no ones home to begin with?

  8. Cathy Sander says:

    piers: Responsibility comes [indirectly, of course!], as a consequence of a consistent universe. If there's no way to trace events into the past, then how can we attribute blame? So I can still use the metaphor of "I" as an abbreviation of all of my history and interests–both personal, societal and evolutionary ones.

    No-one's home, of course, if we believe that the "I" is an essence of a person that lives independent of the world. I don't buy into that absurd idea. I'm home, as a lived, active body in the world with historical traces and ambitions.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Cathy Sander: Well written. Thank you for joining the conversation. I don't know whether you have read my posts on the importance of not believing in a disembodied self. Here it is, in case you'd like to take a look.

  10. Mike M. says:

    I feel very connected to the concepts proposed in this article. -"We offload our thought processes in numerous ways. Through these techniques, our cognition is smeared out into the world."

    I often feel "smeared out", mentally dissolved into my environment (extending outside of my bodily shell).

    I see it as an interactive feedback loop, in which we receive and transmit signals/information within a "mental soup" consisting of the thoughts, beliefs, and experiences of others. Similar to Jung's theory of the Collective Unconscious. We are domesticated primates for sure, but primates who are (at the quantum level) fractal energy patterns inter-connected within a holographic universe. Or so it seems to me.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mike M. : I'm glad you found that article useful, but you might want to pick up Being There. It is written by a rigorous-thinking top-rate neuroscientist (Andy Clark); I had the opportunity to audit four of Andy's graduate seminars. He won't be throwing around fuzzy terminology. He won't be mis-using quantum theory (like many wanna-be intellectuals). Rather, he is refers to real-life ways in which we off-load the information on which we intimately rely, on the environment outside of our skin and skull.

  11. Mike M. says:

    Thanks for the book recommendation – I'll add that to my list.

    You may find this interesting re. humans (and all nature) as fractal energy patterns:

    Providing ratios of 100:1 or greater, fractals are especially suited to natural objects, such as trees, clouds and rivers. Fractals turn an image into a set of data and an algorithm for expanding it back to the original.

    Stemming from "fractus," which is Latin for broken or fragmented, the term fractals was coined by IBM Fellow and doctor of mathematics Benoit Mandelbrot, who expanded on ideas from earlier mathematicians and discovered similarities in chaotic and random events and shapes. Mandelbrot determined that there are repeating patterns in the architecture of nature.

    "Nature uses a few simple, self-similar, and repeating patterns– fractals –to build energy and atoms into the familiar forms of everything from roots, rivers, and trees, to rocks, mountains, and us."


    See B. B. Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature (1983); K. J. Falconer, Fractal Geometry: Mathematical Foundations and Applications (1990); H.-O. Peitgen, H. Jurgens, and D. Saupe, Chaos and Fractals: New Frontiers of Science (1992).

    And you may find this link interesting re. the Holographic Universe Theory, which is related to the Superstring Theory in Quantum Physics:

    Not so "fuzzy" imo.

  12. Ben says:

    My favorite screensaver is zen mandelbrot fractals. (Free)

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