The Self

This week I noticed an interesting question on Quora: Do we exist? When I followed the link I was expecting to see Descartes, and no doubt if I poked a little further I’d find him. Instead, what I found was a lovely illustration using a handful of geometrically arranged toothpics.

It goes like this:

How many triangles do you see?

Figure 1: Five Triangles

Figure 1: Five Triangles

Five, right? Three upright triangles, one inverted triangle, and the whole thing taken together forms a fifth triangle.

Remove the top triangle. How many triangles do you see now?

Figure 2: Two Triangles

Figure 2: Two Triangles

After removing the top triangle only two triangles remain.

Did the middle triangle ever actually exist? Or did it only “exist” in the context of the three corner triangles?1

2 + 1 = 5!!

This immediately reminded me of my own thoughts about self-knowledge, which I touched on briefly in a recent post. I’m not about to debate the merits of the Christian concept of the soul versus the Buddhist concept of “non-self”. What I find compelling is the resonance between them, where both insist that the truth of identity is not to be found in an isolated, quasi-objective, ego-raging Self.

I’m also reminded of something I read, now many years ago, in C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves:

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.

Independent of others, I am diminished. In relationship to others, I am expanded. Maths get funny with the self and our relationships. This is true not only personally, but globally. The xenophobe fears that the inclusion of those others will diminish his culture, take away his birthright. Instead, tragically, what has diminished him is his fear, his grasping at cultural stasis, his privileged sense of ownership of his experience of the world. When we let others into our lives, they certainly have the potential to hurt us, as we may also hurt them. But embraced in a relationship of hope and charity they will make us more ourselves, they will add to us, expand us. Fear of the other is, ultimately, a spiritual sickness that operates like anorexia. We destroy the other, we destroy ourselves.

  1. Buddhism has a doctrine of anātman which is typically translated as “non-self”. It turns out this is a tricky concept to translate, but I gather that the key idea is that there is no such thing as an objective, unchanging, everlasting, and independent self. [return]