The doctrine of anatta, or ‘no-self’, is possibly the most original aspect of the teachings of the Gotama Buddha. His view that humans possess no real personal identity or enduring soul contrasted with virtually all prior Indian thought, and remains to this day Buddhist philosophy’s primary point of departure from other Asiatic traditions. With this essay I will examine the central argument, based upon mereological reductionism, which Buddhists have used to establish anatta, and will argue that it fails to conclusively prove the doctrine.
One of the most instructive historical explanations of the doctrine of no-self is the first century CE text known as Milindapañha or The Questions of King Milinda. It presents a dialogue between the King and a Buddhist monk named Nãgasena, in which Nãgasena, upon being introduced to the King, promptly summarises the Buddhist position on the self:
‘Your majesty, I am called Nãgasena; my fellow monks, your majesty, address me as Nãgasena; but…it is, nevertheless, your majesty, just a counter, an expression, a convenient designator, a mere name, this Nãgasena, for there is no person here to be found.’
His own name, Nãgasena insists, is a ‘convenient designator’, meaning it is a word that does not denote a real entity, but is simply a useful way of referring to a collection of parts. To explain this, he considers the word ‘chariot’. What we call a chariot, he argues, is nothing more than an arrangement of parts – an axle, some wheels, a pole, and so forth. And everything about it – the way it looks, the functions it performs, its weight, etc – can be explained purely by reference to these parts. So while it may be useful for a society to say ‘chariot’ when we mean such an arrangement of parts, we should recognise that this is just a pragmatic convention, and leave chariots out of our final ontology – that is, our view about which things truly exist.
Nãgasena’s introductory statement to the King, then, asserts that what we refer to as a person, or a self, is the same – merely a collection of various parts. These parts, on the Buddhist view, are what are known as the five skandhas, or ‘bundles’, which are listed as physical matter, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. The Gotama Buddha taught his followers that there can be no self, because like the chariot, there is nothing more to be found within individuals than parts – the skandhas – and no one of these skandhas is a self. The word self, then, is merely a convenient designator that does not refer to anything ultimately real. Read the rest of this entry »