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What Kind of an Illusion is the Illusion of Self?

Wednesday 29 May 2019
Past events 2019
P.J. Veth
Nonnensteeg 1-3
2311 VJ Leiden

What Kind of an Illusion is the Illusion of Self?

Karsten J. Struhl

John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY)


This event is co-sponsored by

the Leiden University Centre for Intercultural Philosophy and

the Centre for Philosophical Psychology, University of Antwerp, Belgium



To extinguish dukkha requires that we be able to extinguish the illusion of self. For that reason both early and later forms of Buddhism developed a set of arguments to demonstrate that the idea of the self is an illusion. I will begin this talk with a brief review of some of the arguments, but I will then proceed to show that these arguments are not themselves sufficient to dispel the illusion. Even if we find the arguments convincing, the illusion of self does not disappear, because it does not exist only or even primarily on the cognitive level; at its core, it is more like an optical illusion or a mirage than a belief.

An illusion is not something which does not exist but is something which is not what it appears to be. As recent developments in cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychology demonstrate, what exists is not a self but what Thomas Metzinger has called the “phenomenal self model,” a model that is the result of unconscious and multiple brain processes (there is no center of the brain which produces them), a model which creates a feeling of “mineness” and a sense of being a unified and coherent agent. These brain processes have evolved, because they serve a useful and necessary purpose – to make it possible for the human organism to navigate physical and social reality. The first implication of this is that extinguishing the illusion of self requires a special kind of meditative practice – e.g., vipassana. The second is that while it is possible to dispel the illusion through careful attention, the illusion reappears as soon as the meditative attention is no longer operative. As a corollary of the second implication, I want to argue that even enlightened individuals, insofar as they must continue to interact with others and take account of physical reality, must oscillate between a no-self perspective and a phenomenal self perspective.  


Karsten J. Struhl, from the Department of Philosophy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, works in the areas of Political Philosophy, Ethics, Epistemology and Buddhist Philosophy.  

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