Practicing Non-Self, Part 1

| April 9, 2014 | 29 Comments

ID-10083452This is the first of three articles on applying the principle of anatta, non-self, to our dharma practice.   The articles support the next few sessions of the SBA Practice Circle, which meets via online video conferencing at 8 pm Central on the second and fourth Sundays of each month.  If you’d like to come experience non-self with us, check out the Practice Circle page to learn how you can join us.

It’s a topic that has come up in the SBA discussion forums more than once: what practical good is the concept of anatta, of not-self?  Is it just another piece of abstruse Buddhist doctrine?  Or does this most counterintuitive of Gotama’s teachings have some relevance for our practice today?

Our confusion about it at least has an old pedigree;  Buddhists have argued about the nature of the self since the earliest texts.  On one hand, the whole point of concepts like dependent arising and the Five Aggregates is to show us that what we take for a stable, persisting self is really a concatenation of processes, all of which must be present together for us to be conscious beings but none of which we can point to as the “self.”   It is not surprising, then, that one doctrinal thrust of Buddhism has been that there is no self, and that enlightenment consists of dropping the illusion that there is one.   We see this understanding played out from the formless jhanas in the Nikayas to later Mahayana concepts such as kensho, in which the dissolution of self-awareness is the key to awakening.

Which has always raised the question, if there is no self, who or what is training and why?   When Gotama tells us in the Dhammapada that the sage shapes the self as the fletcher shapes the arrow, what kind of self is he talking about?  If there are no selves, then toward whom ought we be expressing the compassion and kindness Gotama set such store by?  Why should we care about suffering if there is no one to suffer? Does caring about one’s self and others actually lead us away from awakening?  When we raise such questions in the context of our bedrock certainty that I am me and you are you and so of course there are selves, it’s easy to want to simply ignore such a concept as anatta.

But Gotama made non-self one of his Three Marks of Existence, right along with the core teachings of dukkha and impermanence; that might give us pause before we discount it.   Since I am writing and you are reading, on some level there must be selves.  The question is, what are they?

My favorite modern writer on this is Andrew Olendzki, who says in his book,  Unlimiting Mind:

Of all the nouns we use to disguise the hollowness of the human condition, none is more influential than “myself.”  It consists of a collage of still images—name, gender, nationality, profession, enthusiasms, relationships—which are renovated from time to time, but otherwise are each a relic from one particular experience or another.  The defining teaching of the Buddhist tradition, that of non-self, is merely pointing out the limitations of this reflexive view we hold of ourselves. It is not that the self does not exist, but that it is as cobbled together and transient as everything else.

The practice of meditation invites us to investigate the flux of arising and passing events. When we get the hang of it, we can begin to see how each artifact of the mind is raised and lowered to view, like so many flashcards. But we can also glimpse, once in a while, the slight-of-hand shuffling the cards and pulling them off the deck. Behind the objects lies a process. Self is a process. Self is a verb.

So what is the point of making this observation in meditation?  How will it help us be happier and suffer less?  For Olendzki, the self not only exists to suffer – in a real way, it is suffering:

What becomes clear through this analysis of moment-to-moment experience is that grasping is not something done by the self, but rather self is something done by grasping. The self is constructed each moment for the simple purpose of providing the one who likes or doesn’t like, holds on to or pushes away, what is unfolding in experience.  . . The gift bequeathed to us by the Buddha is the possibility of seeing how consciousness can be liberated from desire . . . When desire is replaced by equanimity, and awareness of all phenomena thus unfolds without reference to self, we gain the freedom to move along with change rather than set ourselves against it.

Practicing non-self, then, is not ultimately about achieving some mystical selfless state of consciousness.  The purpose of recognizing how grasping and aversion bring the self into being, and thus into suffering, is to help us let go of the grasping and aversion and thereby free us from the suffering.  When we witness for ourselves how the self arises, changes, and disappears, we are free to relax our grip on it, hold it loosely and even ironically, and to see the world and the people around us free of its relentless prerogatives.

Understood in this way, we can see how any practice that promotes equanimity will also promote the awareness of the ephemeral nature of the self.   There are some practices that I think are particularly useful to examine the self, and we’ll be exploring them in Practice Circle over the coming weeks.

Practicing Non-Self: What is this?

A straightforward way to examine the self is to go looking for it. One classic practice from the Vipassana tradition is simply to sit with the question, what is this?  Who is perceiving?  This does not mean simply repeating an inquiring phrase, but to let one’s awareness become the quest.

Sit or lay down in your favorite meditation posture.  Give yourself all the time you need to relax your body thoroughly and let your mind settle.    When mind and body are resting comfortably in the moment,  see if you can find your self.  When you are experiencing your self, what are you experiencing?  My own perception of self is very much tied with vision and sound, and with the sensations in my face, throat and chest.   There is also, of course, the voice in my head, reading me my thoughts.  Your sense of self may be similar or different.  See if you can find it.

When you have found it, examine it carefully.  What is it really like?  Can you locate it clearly in the body or the mind?  What does the voice in your head sound like?

Now, recognize that you have been examining sensations, even the very subtle “sound” of your thoughts.  If there were perceptions, something must have been perceiving them.   What was aware of your self? Can you locate that something?  If you can, what is perceiving that?  If at any time tension or mental noise arise, take time to restore your relaxation and focus before proceeding.   Go as deep as you care to, and see what happens.

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Category: Articles, Practice Circle

About the Author ()

Mark J. Knickelbine, MA, C-MI, is a writer, editor, political activist, and certified meditation instructor. "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "The End of Faith" led him to seek out a dharma practice without the religious trappings of Buddhism. He found it at a local health clinic, where he learned mindfulness in the manner of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has continued to study texts from the Pali, Chan and Zen traditions, and he is an active member of the mindfulness community at the UWHealth Department of Integrative Medicine. Mark is a member of the SBA board and serves as Practice Director.

Comments (29)

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  1. Carl H Carl H says:

    A nice approach to non-self. It made me recall another observation by Richard Gombrich from his book “What the Buddha Thought”:

    “Throughout ancient times, in the cultures where it was known, the salient doctrine of Buddhism, its most distinctive feature, was held to be the doctrine of No Self or No Soul. Both these two-word English phrases translate S: anatman and P: anatta/anatti. When Buddhism was discovered by the West (mainly in the nineteenth century), it was being expounded by and to Christians, who were no less struck by Buddhism’s denial of a supreme creator god; but for modern scholars too, the denial of a self or soul has been the most striking characteristic of Buddhism and of the teaching ascribed to the Buddha.

    It will be easiest to grasp my argument if I come straight to the
    main point, and say baldly that all the fuss and misunderstanding
    can be avoided if one inserts the word ‘unchanging’, so that the
    two-word English phrases become ‘no unchanging self’ and ‘no
    unchanging soul’. I shall explore the matter in detail later in the
    book, but here it suffices to say that for the Buddha’s audience by
    definition the word atman/atta referred to something unchanging;
    in that linguistic environment, to add a word meaning ‘unchanging’
    would have been redundant. Thus, there are several ways of
    expressing this doctrine clearly and accurately in English. One can
    say, for example, ‘There is nothing in living beings that never
    changes,’ or ‘There is no unchanging essence in living beings.’
    (Since the main concern is with people, it may be helpful to
    substitute ‘people’ or ‘human beings’ for ‘living beings’.)”

    • jos says:


      In Buddhism there is not so much denial of self/soul as there is notion of irrelevance of a self/soul as independent thing.
      One of the examples, slightly modified is what we call a car. We can see the thing and state it’s there, it’s a car. Yet when we look at the various parts: wheel, steering wheel, engine, brakes, axes and such we are unable to find the car in them. Car is a name, a concept we use to refer to the combination of things.

      The same applies to self, we cannot point to a self without refering to body and/or mental stuff and at the same time we cannot say that either one of them is self.
      This ‘self’ becomes a source of stress once we take it as a point of reference. When there is self there is other. When there is self and other there is here (where self is) and there (where self is not). This easily moves out of bounds with the wish to be ‘there’ or remain ‘here’.

      If you know that there is a car (concept) and there is no car (reality) at the same time and that car is a mere reference to describe a certain thing there is no stress.
      If you have the keys in your hands after you just bought a new car and someone kicks a dent in the car suddenly the ‘concept’ car vaprorates and the reality ‘my car’ comes into being.
      This is why the ‘changing’ self is still a source of stress if not let go.

      • Carl H Carl H says:

        My “changing” self is here to stay, I work at letting go of attachment to it. It’s an illusion of the ego as a way to make sense of the “world” through representation. That it is unreliable in important ways doesn’t negate it’s convenience and overall functionality. It’s something I try to understand and work with, not get rid of. Thomas Metzinger has some interesting ideas on this in his book “The Ego Tunnel.”

  2. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Carl, thanks for your comments. Professor Gombrich certainly knocked it into a cocked hat, as he so often does. The question that doesn’t concern him, because he’s not a practitioner, is, “So what?” The Gotama of the Pali Nikayas doesn’t just deny there is an unchanging atman. He creates all these schemas to help us observe how the conscious self comes into being, and he says that one of the keys to awakening is recognizing that none of these elements of our experience is really our self, belongs to us or is under our control. I think what we can take away for our practice is that observing the evanescence of what we take for an unchanging self is a powerful way of transforming our perception of ourselves as vulnerable, isolated and alienated beings, which can help us grow equanimity and compassion for others.

    • Carl H Carl H says:

      …none of these elements of our experience is really our self, belongs to us or is under our control.

      I’m not clear on just which elements you are referring to, but something must belong to us and be under our control, at least to some degree, or how could it be “… that the sage shapes the self as the fletcher shapes the arrow,”

      • Mark Knickelbine says:

        The elements I’m thinking of are the aggregates and the middle nidanas in dependent arising. So while, if I’m dilligent I can observe how sense perceptions and mental formations arise in consciousness, I can’t turn my consciousness on or off. It seems like “my mind” but in fact it is a process that goes on pretty much by itself. Still! Choices are made, and those choices form mental and behavioral habits that can cause more or less suffering. We practice, and so something must be recognizing the value of practice and deciding to persevere. But is that self control? I’ll leave that to the guys who like to argue about free will. For my purposes, it’s enough that I’m less apt to cling to the notion of being a great meditator or beat myself up when I fail to be mindful. It’s difficult to talk about any of this in language that’s based on subject, object and predicate and the notion of selves with agency is hardwired in.

  3. mufi says:

    We know that no-self is an important doctrine in traditional (Nikaya-based) Buddhism. But what, if any, role does non-self play in modern mindfulness-based interventions (MBI’s)?

    My own experience leads me to answer that it plays no explicit role. In fact, “self” language is no less common in a MBI setting as it is in other settings, both clinical and non-clinical. Of course, it’s still possible to read an implicit role for that doctrine into the program, but then it’s also easy to forgive a participant who simply follows instructions and doesn’t pick up on the doctrinal roots of the practice.

  4. Mark Knickelbine says:

    First off, I’m stoked that the article is drawing comments! Thank you, everybody. I invite everyone reading to join us at Practice Circle Sunday!

    Second, re: mufi’s comment, very few traditional Buddhist doctrines are specifically referenced in MBI training, but since Vipassana was the model for MBSR and MBCT very many are there implicitly. This is certainly true for non-self; one could say that the principal insight the MBIs are designed to engender is that we are much more than the limitations of our mental habits and the narratives about ourselves that inform our perceptions. Practices such as training awareness on thoughts and the physical sensations associated with strong emotion, and then releasing them to be “held” in the space of open awareness are common. In mindfulness meditation one is guided to observe the elements of one’s immediate experience and their constant change and impermanence. I think this is one area where being aware of the Buddhist doctrine behind the MBIs, and some of the traditional practices associated with it, can enrich the practice of somebody who comes to mindfulness through the MBIs; this was certainly my experience.

    • mufi says:

      Agreed, Mark, although I feel obliged to add that the traditional framing is arguably less helpful to most folks than the modern-clinical framing adopted by the MBI’s. The history geek in me still craves more information and leads me to dig deeper until I find the roots. But, whereas there’s plenty of evidence to recommend the MBI’s themselves, I know of no evidence to support the history geek’s quest, which might even be counter-productive, if it distracts too much from actual mindfulness practice.

  5. David S says:

    I sometimes wonder…
    I find the no-self teaching to be as much of an intellectual concept as having one. I was raised as an atheist and have never been taught to believe in a soul everlasting, nor awareness everlasting. Buddhist teachings have had little more to add to what I began with, so this teaching has not brought any great change in me.

    I’ve even experienced in a meditative jhana not having a self, so I can see where this comes from in Buddhism, which focuses on such states in the suttas. But Buddhism raises this sort of experience to a level of mystical knowledge whereas I do not. Maybe there is more to it than I know. But when I consider the experience of a self it seems evident that even in day-to-day consciousness it has a place from which we each experience the world and this will always be known as oneself. One has a body/mind/memory and it is not a delusion to talk of this. I see no need for me to play mental games to think otherwise.

    As Mark talks of suffering and Jos of stress this seems helpful in dragging no-self into a framework of applying it in one’s view. For me it becomes a reminder that our relationship to life is very important to how we feel and that even this feeling is contingent, so best to understand that relationship more thoroughly, and forget about the self.

  6. Mark Knickelbine says:

    I just happened to stumble upon the following last night, from Kabat-Zinn et al in “Textbook on Psycho-oncology”, 1998:

    During mindfulness preactice, there may be moments in which the practitioner realizes that the observer, comonly associated with the pronoun “I,” is different from what is being observed, whether it is an experience of pain or grief or of any thought, feeling, impulse or sensation. In other moments, any sense of separation may dissolve, and there is simply observing. Emotional reactivity, self-absorption, and self-preoccupation can dissipate to a significant degree, resulting in profound feelings of unity, connectedness, and well-being.

    Sustained self-reflective awareness, frequently described as “bare attention,” or simply “wakefulness,” can give rise to varying degrees of insight into interconnectedness and ino the limits of our conventional personal descriptions of who we are, the nature of what we commonly call the “self,” and of how we find ourselves in relationship to others and to the world (self-in-relationship).

    • mufi says:

      Nice quote – in no small part because it frames the topic in terms of a road map or instruction manual, based on knowledge & experience, rather than in terms of belief in traditional doctrine and/or abstract theory.

      Of course, we may want to feel like we’re part of a tradition – a really ancient and global one like Buddhism, no less – in which case it makes perfect sense to adopt such jargon as “non-self” (or “anatta”).

      Those are some ‘pros’ of each approach. Each has ‘cons’, as well, which I’ll leave aside for now.

      • Mark Knickelbine says:

        I agree that we don’t need traditional doctrine or abstract theory. My interest here is in practice itself. Had to do a little set up for the article, but my intention in these pieces (and in Practice Circle THIS SUNDAY NIGHT!) is to look at traditional *practices* and how they can help us promote “insight into interconnectedness and into the limits of our conventional personal descriptions of who we are, the nature of what we commonly call the ‘self,’ and of how we find ourselves in relationship to others and to the world.” In keeping with my feeling that one thing Secular Buddhism can do is reconnect the MBIs with the traditions from which they came for the purpose of seeing what useful things we can draw from them.

    • Carl H Carl H says:

      There’s a quite interesting video presentation by Robert H. Sharf that looks at “bare-attention”, as well as it’s relationship to MBI’s. I came across it in a post on the SBA Facebook page, so you may have seen it. It seems pertinant, at least indirectly

  7. Mariehtp Mariehtp says:

    Hi Mark,

    Great article and great discussion.
    Will you make a guided meditation audio of non-self practice?

  8. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    I’ve been following the interesting discussion of this interesting article. Not much to add, but a couple of thoughts.

    I do think that anatta is at the core of what is distinctive about Buddhism. It certainly isn’t “some mystical selfless state of consciousness.” Rather, it amounts to a radical critique of the concept of self. The “hollowness of the human condition” concerns both the mundane — for example, fixation on slights we imagine and recognition we crave — and the existential — fixation on questions such as “is there is purpose to things that involves me,” and “is death the end?” Both revolve about self, and both produce suffering. I’d perhaps quibble with Mark and Olendzki (and maybe even Gotama) in suggesting that self is a source of suffering only when its contingent, impermanent and changing nature is not recognized. But in any event, it is at the interface of self and the world that suffering arises.

    The notion that self is a process is a good one, but I think it’s also useful to think of self as something constructed. It is a filter that I apply to perceptions of the world to make them my experience, that I use to construct a narrative about me-in-the-world. The filter is a product of my experience and choices (of karma, if you want). There is a dialectic between self and experience: The filter is constructed from experience, but also molds experience. Perhaps suffering is maximized when the process becomes a vicious feed-back loop . Or something like this. I think there is a more technical term in the Abhidharma for “filter,” which may or may not put this better.

    Which brings me to practice. The Buddhist critique of self is very much influenced by meditation. I really liked Mark’s quote from Kabat-Zinn. I think it points to a common, and important, experience in meditation. I’m not sure I’d go as far as some have, who suggest anatta is an attempt to rationalize a discovery made in meditation, but I would go as far as suggesting that anatta is difficult to understand without meditation. From a more practical point of view, it is though a mindful examination of the notion of self, and for me at least, even more an examination and quieting of the thoughts produced by the “filter” of self as they arise in meditation, that “the sage shapes the self as the fletcher shapes the arrow.”

    Anyway, thanks again, Mark and others.

  9. David S says:

    Hi Michael,

    I would like to add to my thoughts above and respond to your comments…

    In talking of growing up an atheist I didn’t explicitly state how this world view implicitly includes the notion of self and consciousness as a temporary state. Modern psychology seems to work with the self under the assumption it is a construction/process as well. So I don’t find Buddhism to be the unique source for such an idea.

    Buddhism does offer a particular world view which utilizes meditation to verify its claims. It talks of very deep meditative states having very far removed qualities which when interpreted through its understanding seemingly verifies itself. I do think Buddhism with its meditative altered states resembles the shaman in producing perceptual shifts of mind, which is why there are “realms of existence” in its suttas. These are interpreted descriptions of the “path” it proclaims and its verification. What do you think is going on with what the Buddha learned from each teacher of the jhanas and his surpassing each with yet another level of attainment? These states were part of the enlightenment story and many, many suttas. We can ignore these aspects for our benefit in discussions pertaining to our integrated understanding of Buddhist theology in our lives if we wish, but these sort of states can’t be denied by claiming these are not even what is being talked of. These states also produce a calm free of “suffering” which was the intended goal as well.

    I don’t disagree with your specific understanding and thoughts on the subject. I am interested in what Kabat-Zinn’s is describing too. It sounds like yet another meditative state of altered consciousness. Which doesn’t quite last either, similar to jhanas. Though, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a covert mystical side to his experiences he isn’t fond of announcing to the scientific/academic world he works with. I was on a 6 week retreat at IMS and his son Will was one of the teachers. Will has a definite mysticism to his understanding. Maybe John’s son is very different in world view, or maybe they are quite of similar ‘cloth’.

    I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he was similar because in my experience the western teachers I’ve had tend to promote Buddhism along the lines of it is all verifiable in your own experience, then only after spending time listening to them that it becomes quite clear there is an underlying belief in things which can not be known directly and then ‘faith’ and ‘doubt’ come up in discussions.

    I’d like to add that what Buddhism did well for me was to introduce the relationship of relating to my experience with some relativity towards the stories I hold. It worked much more effectively towards deescalating my emotional thicket than did the psychologist’s aim of talking through the stories towards another story! This says much about the selfing process being discussed here.

  10. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    David, Thanks for the comments.

    I think I agree with almost everything you wrote. I was trying to suggest, first and foremost, that a critique of the concept of self is an important piece in the effort to come to terms with life. It is something missing or perhaps disguised in many brands of humanism — I’ve known some atheists with colossal egos! Buddhism can be a corrective, but of course isn’t the only source of for a critique. “Distinctive” was probably not the best word, at least unqualified. Can I say “distinctive but not unique?” I would suggest, however, that Buddhists have been in the business of examining the concept of self and drawing practical conclusions from it for a very long time, and have perhaps learned a thing or to, at least on the applied side, that still escapes modern psychology.

    Also, one thing that appeals to me about Buddhism is the way it manages to address both what I called “mundane” and “existential” questions. A purely psychological account risks leaving me trapped in my self, even if it tells me that it is a self-constructed trap. Buddhism supplies a perspective in which I can see myself as a moment in an ever-changing reality, and come to terms with it, even perhaps find some kind of release in the idea. This is not part of what science can – or should offer – though again, psychology can prepare the ground, and there are other sources of this insight (if that’s what it is) than Buddhism.

    If this last be mysticism, so be be it, but it is not supernatural or supermundane. My most “mystical” experiences can be quite adequately explained as examples of something like Maslow’s “peak experience.” I don’t believe meditation verifies annata — like you, I think meditation induces “perceptual shifts of mind,” or maybe just disturbances in the way perception is processed. But this shift of perspective aids in examining the way the self processes and alters experience and memory.

    Anyway, the Buddhist account of the self is useful. For me, like you, it worked “effectively towards deescalating my emotional thicket.”

    Added: If Buddhism had something that it claimed was its unique secret, I’d be dubious to say the least. To the extent that Buddhism has some “truth,” that truth must be accessible, discoverable, verifiable by psychologists as well as Buddhist savants.

    • mufi says:

      To the extent that Buddhism has some “truth,” that truth must be accessible, discoverable, verifiable by psychologists as well as Buddhist savants.

      Good point, but then why bother with Buddhism? Maybe we should just skip the dusty old texts and religious ideologues and pay more attention to modern psychology.

      • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

        Mufi, Why bother with modern psychology? A lot of psychological writing is uninspiring to say the least, and psychology remains a very soft science — not sure it has much more claim to validity or consistency than the Pali canon. This is only partly tongue in cheek.

        I recently (like day before yesterday), after reading “Ajahn Brahmali on Secular Buddhism,” resolved to avoid the question of “who is a Buddhist,” and thought I’d start answering the question “Do you call yourself a Buddhist” by smiling, like Buddha, when asked one of the “unanswerable questions.” So much for resolve.

        I think I gave a partial answer to your question in my last post — re what science cannot and ought not supply. In addition, I guess I do think there is value in recognizing a tradition, the history and origins of an idea. It’s remarkable that people in 500 BC, in a world in which superstition explained more than science, understood as much about the human condition and operation of the mind as they did — if nothing else, this makes me more optimistic about the human capacity.

        I can call myself a Darwinian, even though the modern evolutionary theory I accept doesn’t need The Origin of Species any longer. If I say I’m a Darwinian, I acknowledge an intellectual debt — and maybe also I’m making a statement, aligning with a current of ideas, and against its critics. Maybe sometimes saying “I’m a Buddhist” is also making a statement, but I’ll have to think about that.

        But in the end, its really probably simple. I’ve learned something from reading Buddhist texts, ancient and modern, and practiced some Buddhist-inspired meditation. It has been useful to “bother with Buddhism” — to me. But maybe this is contingent (that I read Watts or whatever at just the right time), or a matter of temperament.

        • mufi says:

          Michael: To quote philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci (from Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk): “the perception of a much higher level of reliability of results in physics compared to psychology is not, in fact, borne out by the empirical evidence. But…the ability of physics to explain its results is much higher than that of psychology.” If that’s all you meant by “soft science”, then I grant you that much. Otherwise, we are dealing with a seamless continuum between the sciences.

          That said, I hope that you won’t mind a “reductio ad absurdum”, but I feel obliged to add that this seamless continuum encompasses other potentially misleading distinctions, like “observational science vs. historical science.” You may recognize this particular distinction from creationist arguments – particularly, those of “young-earthers” like Ken Ham – who use it to dismiss evolutionary biology. Insofar as it enables them to shield the historical claims of their scriptures, it’s obvious why they would find it appealing.

          What’s more, the framing of “reliable science vs. junk science” superficially resembles a legitimate question in the philosophy of science, known as the “demarcation problem” between science and pseudoscience. What’s inconvenient for creationists, however, is that scientists and philosophers of science (like Pigliucci, whose background is in biology) generally reject this “observational science vs. historical science” distinction as unworkable.

          • mufi says:

            PS: Just to clarify (if not correct) my last statement, paleontologist/author Donald Prothero put it this way:

            The contrast between more “observational” types of science and more “historical” science is indeed found in the literature of philosophy of science, but in no case do true philosophers of science argue that “historical” evidence is inferior or less trustworthy. Only creationists do that.

  11. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:


    I didn’t mean to imply that psychology isn’t useful or scientific. As a policy wonk, I’ve spent decades practicing and using the “soft” sciences, so I’m a believer. My operational approach has always been to use whatever approach seems to work. But all of them need to be used with caution and even skepticism. There are so many variables — the known, unknown, known unknown, and unknown unknown — so much danger of bias, conscious and unconscious, so many necessary compromises to get at and access the data, that I really do believe psychology and the social sciences are less reliable than biology or physics.

    Re: History vs observation. I’ve seen criticisms of historical research from “experimental” social scientists that made we want to pull out my hair (maybe why I don’t have much left). The historical is rejected as “anecdotal” (even though it is actually data gathered along a very long time line), or “uncontrolled” (even though a comparative approach in history can amount to a control). Of course, historians have more opportunity to cherry pick data (not the same thing as cherry picking ideas) and in too many cases, apply unconscious bias. But the important thing is to be aware of the potential problems. There is often no alternative anyway.

    The critics, however (and this is what really causes the hair pulling) seem blithely unaware of their own shortcomings: Experimental set-ups and interpretations of data that fail to control for variables the experimenters seemed unaware of (but which the historian down the hall, with a better sense of social dynamics, might have seen). Once again, the trick is to be aware of the limitations of the experimental and observational approaches. (Don’t get me wrong here, I’ve seen many examples of historians who are at least as bad).

    I’m not so much puzzled by the distinction between science and junk as between science done right and science done poorly (recognizing that conditions my make it hard to do it right). Why, for example did it take so long to discover that decades of studies purporting to show that girls are inherently less able in mathematics than boys were wrong? I never could understand how the researchers could have ignored social conditioning and apparently been unaware that they were doing so, so confidently announce a hard-wired difference when they had failed to control for the elephant in the room.

    Hmm — I’m not sure I’ve been entirely consistent in this little rant, but there it is …

    • mufi says:

      Michael: My money (so to speak) is on Pigliucci’s account, in which the reliability of measurements in psychology is comparable to that of physics.

      What’s more, on this account, psychology’s ability to explain and predict variant experimental results (i.e. its “explanatory power”) is not much different than that of evolutionary biology (again, Pigliucci’s field of expertise, prior to switching to the philosophy dept.). Both fields (at this broad level of generalization) lack the explanatory power of physics, yet they are nonetheless our most reliable sources of answers to those kinds of questions.

      You don’t have to believe me or Pigliucci on this – but this much may impart a taste of how I respond to the suggestion that, when it comes to questions about the human mind, the Pali Canon is just as reliable as modern psychology, let alone cognitive science, which includes neuroscience and other specializations that overlap or draw from modern biology, chemistry, and physics.

  12. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Mufi, it would be a cop out on my part to question Pigliucci’s data without reading him, so in the interests of conversation, I will ask if he (or you) and I are focused on the same thing. Back to the studies about girls and math — I have no reason to believe that properly designed data collection and properly applied statistical methods would not produce reliable results with good predictive value — eg would predict that girls will score lower on math tests than boys. But the interesting question is why. I also think that recent properly conducted research has shown that a number of published studies that tried to answer the question were poorly constructed to provide an answer, but tried to anyway.

    This happens in biology as well — early studies of mimicry suggested that mammals are instinctively afraid of snakes and insects that mimic snake eyes, but later studies showed that only mammals who had learned to fear snakes feared the mimics. The early studies had failed to control for learned behaviour (or was it the other way around?– I just realized I’ve forgotten — anyway, you can see my point). But I think these problems are more apt to arise in the social sciences — bias etc.

    I was interested in this statement: “the perception of a much higher level of reliability of results in physics compared to psychology is not, in fact, borne out by the empirical evidence. But…the ability of physics to explain its results is much higher than that of psychology.” Is part of my caution about so-called soft science (if you will grant any validity to it) a result of the fact that the soft sciences have much less secure paradigms than the hard sciences? When a physicist gets an experimental result, he can usually find the theoretical tools to provide an explanation to at least suggest the next experiment, and in the rare case that she can’t explain, be secure enough to suggest that if the result can be replicated, the theory needs examination. In the social sciences, an interesting result may more easily invite speculation that isn’t really justified. I’ve long worked on the assumption that I should be prima facie skeptical of unusual experimental or survey results that cannot be plausibly explained.

    Re the Pali canon — there is empirical science in it — observation, verification, accumulation of data — good things in a scientific approach. The models used to explain it may be unusual, but “translated” in more modern terms, not always fanciful. At least as good as Freud’s model, which was not long ago regarded as cutting-edge science. You now have my permission to ask again, “Even if so, why bother with it?”

  13. mufi says:

    Michael: Now that my long weekend is over, I’ll have to try harder to keep it brief by simply recommending Pigliucci’s book.

    The chapter that unpacks the “hard science vs. soft science” distinction is not super-long, but it’s long enough that I can’t really do justice to it here. Not only that, but Pigliucci references other work, so if you wish to delve deeper than I did into the “not borne out by the the empirical evidence” claim, then that’s a good place to start. For now, all I ask is that you keep an open mind about the soundness of that distinction.

    That said, you may know by now that I too bother with the Pali Canon, so the question was directed as much to myself as to you. Given my limited time for leisurely reading, could I spend it more productively, were I to consume more psychology and less Buddhism? Maybe, although much of what I read (and write) during my downtime is for pleasure, and there are worse places to derive that than from Buddhism.

    BTW, I happen to be in the middle of Nobel-laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which summarizes his decades of research into cognitive biases and heuristics. (The Nobel prize was for economics, btw, as his work with Amos Twersky gave rise to the recent sub-discipline of behavioral economics.) Trust me, this is no Freudian BS. At least to this lay person, it seems like pretty hard stuff indeed.

    And, as Kahneman might say, the “availabiity effect” of having this book in mind has “primed” me somewhat for this conversation. 😉

    • mufi says:

      PS: Perhaps it’s unsurprising to find that Jay Garfield offers us a kind of “middle way” with his essay, “Ask Not What Buddhism Can Do for Cognitive Science; Ask What Cognitive Science Can do for Buddhism.”

      • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

        I like Garfield’s title! I suspect that many of us have been doing some of this all along, though.

        Rest assured, I will not be posting on the value of reading Freud. Just the other day, I came across some Freud & friends books I boxed up a few years ago, and thought, “I’m glad I never got around to reading that.” My Freud reference was probably a kind of inverse availability effect ….

  14. Judy-M Judy-M says:

    I need to read and re-read this article numerous times and I will get the hang of it – you mentioned that you would register me for this circle – is there anything more I need to do?

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