Is the self an illusion?

Magical Realist

Valued Senior Member
Is the self an illusion as Buddhism proposes? It seems to me it is, although it is a very socially enforced illusion that we are raised to believe in from childhood. We can hardly relate to other persons without some assumption of a self that they are on the inside. In any case, Sam Harris makes a convincing case for the self being an illusion and distinguishes it from consciousness which ISN'T an illusion. See what you think..

The term "self" can variously be referencing anything from the unity of consciousness, to possessing the memories of a specific individual, to being anchored in a particular body and its needs, to the supernatural or simulated reality belief in a soul or a system-stored information template, to any neglected points among or outside those.

If "experts" don't specify what they mean by "self", then it's just another bait and switch game like what often transpires with respect to the umbrella concept of consciousness. "Oh, it sounded like you were claiming _X_ was an illusion, but you were really talking about _Y_."

In this case, Harris maybe gives the context of a Buddhist view, but that might or might not entail the contingent baggage of some form of panphenomenalism (pervasive experience sans cogntive activity) or generic subjectivity.

We can lose our personal-memory dependent focus on being a particular identity even when we're absorbed in watching a movie or reading a book. But the fact that that manner of "self" isn't "on" all the time (isn't absolute) doesn't necessarily mean it's an invalid idea. People aren't constantly having sex, either, but that doesn't render it an erroneous apprehension (that it occurs).
Last edited:
Sounds like a convoluted way of stating that mind is a function of the brain/body. We are not an entity driving around in a biological machine. We are the biological machine. I thought that was obvious, but apparently not.

I do seem to be disconnected from the other biological machines around me, so in that respect "self" is a valid concept
“It's difficult to believe in yourself because the idea of self is an artificial construction. You are, in fact, part of the glorious oneness of the universe. Everything beautiful in the world is within you. No one really feels self-confident deep down because it's an artificial idea. Really, people aren't that worried about what you're doing or what you're saying, so you can drift around the world relatively anonymously: you must not feel persecuted and examined. Liberate yourself from that idea that people are watching you.”
― Russell Brand
"I am he, as you are he, as you are me, and we are all together. Goo goo g'joob." - John Lennon
The video is gobbledigook. You can meditate the sense of self away or you can do it through drugs but that is irrelevant. Of course, as with all things involving philosophy, it depends on how you define a term, in this case "self".

Sam has just made this "experience" a quasi-religious experience for him.
I think many of us sometimes get tripped up by the word ''illusion,'' meaning that something isn't real. Of course, we are real...our subjective experiences are real, and our ''self'' is real. But, is what I'm experiencing merely subjective, or is it a deception of some kind?

''I've been so focused on my existential malaise, my navel-gazing, I seemed to be oblivious to the reality around me.'' - Thomas Carry
It may be one of those many cultural and consensual illusions that helps us to live and survive. Take money for instance. Little green pieces of paper and metallic tokens. Or nowadays mere plastic cards with computer chips in them All just an illusion agreed upon by everybody to symbolize certain amounts of exchangeable value. Self may be that type of illusion. Everybody knows you as such and such with a certain name and certain traits and possessions and a certain biography. But beyond that consensus are we really such an entity? How much can we be different and still be the same person? Ask a psych ward inmate!

“The burden of selfhood,” she sighed. “Life-long anguish. Straining to support an elaborate artifice every waking moment. Trying to maintain our bullshit personas. Haircuts, clothes. Making our big fucking statements to an indifferent world. We drink, we smoke, we squander fortunes on DVDs, anything to escape ourselves for a few blessed minutes.”
― Adam Baker, Outpost
Last edited:
Here's an alternative view---that the self is not an illusion:

EXCERPT: Eliminativism of all sorts — about morality, consciousness, free will, the self — is frequently motivated by what I like to call the “fallacy of disappointed expectations.” The heart of the fallacy is to accept at the outset that the nature of the self, for example, is precisely what an extravagantly metaphysical, often religious, account says that it is. Then one observes that there exists little or no evidence in support of that account.

IOW, the overall "illusion" agenda takes pot shots at classic or antiquated accounts of _X_ that most or many up-to-date thinkers probably don't entertain as their conception of _X_ to begin with. It's battling strawmen: "Oh, look at the once mighty dragon that I have slain!"

Similar applies to freewill (a supposed attribute of the self). In terms of practical affairs, everyone knows FW is a matter of having autonomy in a decision or situation -- whether or not one was forced by others to do something one ordinarily wouldn't have done. And possessing the inner capacity to change one's habits, views, and other personal characteristics by self-imposed regimen if one so desires upon reaching an age of responsibility and mature reflection (i.e., Can we re-program ourselves? Obviously, some people can -- those who accept FW -- which is all it takes to shatter a "all watermelons are red" dictum.)

It's the metaphysical haggling about FW that is superfluous castle-building. Who wants to behave arbitrarily (randomly) and unpredictably? Those who do that are medicated as insane and judged incoherent, or eventually kill themselves via those unregulated actions. Conforming to our preferences and identity is what we usually want (compatibilism), unless those are something we need to modify -- where again the other everyday version of FW enters the picture (the ability and discipline of the human organism to re-condition itself).
Last edited:
Is the self an illusion as Buddhism proposes?

I'm not an expert on Buddhist philosophy or the history of Buddhist thought, Though I do know enough to know that it's complicated.

Perhaps we should start with that Buddhists call the Skandhas (or aggregates). These are
  1. form (or material image, impression) (rupa) Sensory experience, we might say.
  2. sensations (or feelings, received from form) (vedana) Emotions and sensations like pain might go here
  3. perceptions (samjna) Experience as interpreted - not just a colored shape over there, but a chair
  4. mental activity or formations or influences of a previous life (sanskara) We might want to put habits, tendencies and memories here
  5. discernment (vijnana) - Reason and the decision making faculty more generally
From looking at these, it's reasonably clear that they are phenomenological. They are an attempt at an exhaustive inventory of life as it is experienced.

There's the question what it is that Buddhists are denying. The Buddhist doctrine is called anatman: (negation)-Atman. So what is Atman? Atman is a Hindu idea that basically means something like our word "soul", in the sense of a substantial essence of the person that can separate from the phenomenal self (body, memories, passions) and transmigrate to new lives.

In Hindu philosophy the Atman is thought of as the unseen seer, the locus of pure subjectivity that experiences everything else. And some of the schools of Hindu Vedanta go so far as to argue that since there is nothing in pure subjectivity (considered apart from the content of what it happens to be experiencing) that identifies it as belonging to one person rather than another (all of us experience ourselves the same as "I" and "me"), all of our Atmans are numerically one. Just one single awareness experiencing life through an infinity of perspectives. (All the different humans, bird consciousness, bug consciousness, all sentient life) and the big realization is that the singular cosmic consciousness is really God's (Brahman's) consciousness and that all of us are really one with God (we actually are God) if we just realize it.

The Buddhists didn't believe in Atman. They didn't believe that there was an inner experiencer, an inner eye that gazes upon (and feels and conceives) the Skandhas, the phenomenal content of experience. They opted for stand-alone phenomenal content without feeling the need for some mysterious transcendental experiencer that itself can never be an object of experience.

So for the Buddhists the Skandhas were all there is to a person. And the Skandhas are always changing as our sensory experience, feelings, cognitions, habits and decisions change. Hence, there isn't any fixed self let alone an eternal essence to any of us. Everything is changing, flowing, constantly in flux.

And while the Hindus devoted themselves to attempts to experience their inner oneness with God, the Buddhists elaborated theories that conceived of the person as a process and elaborated the whole Abhidhamma philosophy as a (not all that successful) attempt to describe the inner process.

Of course just like the Hindus, the Buddhists elaborated these process theories for salvific purposes. The Buddhists hoped to understand the arising and subsiding of inner states (most notably suffering) so as to gain some control over it. Even when that isn't possible, they sought to reach a point where they could just watch the states come and go without attachment.

As for me, I tend to favor the Buddhist direction with regard to the self. I don't believe in the existence of souls and I'm attracted to a religious philosophy that I perceive as being somewhat consistent with modern neuroscience in conceiving of the self as a process rather than a transcendental substance.

But it's complicated. There have been all kinds of controversies within both Hinduism and Buddhism (and between them) about this stuff. So it's hard to talk about "the" Buddhist view. We need to talk about which Buddhist school's view, at what period. As enunciated by which authors. For example

Last edited:
"There is nothing outside of direct experience. There is nothing outside of thisness. Understanding is not thisness. This is thisness. Before “my understanding”. Before a notion of “me”. You awaken in the morning and there is consciousness and for a split second there is no identifying me.. Its delicious isn't it, no sense of this heavy old me has come in on the goodness of consciousness."---Pamela Mills/Lives in Central Otago 2y