Wednesday, 13 March 2013

John Campbell, Derek Parfit, Papa Ramdas, John Locke, Shankaracarya and lastly, the Scholiast of the Void (nihilist).


Have I forgotten anyone? I’d like to thank the committee for the use of the hall.

In his excellent lectures on the Philosophy of Mind, Professor John Joseph Campbell reviews the Trekky T.E.s of Derek Parfit in relation to the problem of personal identity. (no.27 &28)
Berkeley Lectures on Mind
Campbell asks whether the $20 that he lent before fission set in is owed by Lefty or Righty. A serious question for any true Scotsman.

He also follows Professor John Perry like a metaphysical ant after the trail of sugar which in a disinterested way he wants to alert a messy shopper to. ‘Wow’, it’s me, I’m that messy shopper and I have to deal with the burst bag in the bottom of my trolley’. Disinterest moves to interest in a way that seems right and proper.

In this and other ways and all accompanied by steam punk epidiascope notes and only those; there are no distracting shots of a live Campbell fiddling with a mike and writing on the board only the off-stage queries and comments of students who fear the gins of treacherous T.E.s; he lays out the now well-known Parfitean position. He has a pleasant broad Scots accent which brings to the word ‘murder’ its proper fatality, ‘20 trenched gashes to his head, the least a death to nature’.

My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness... [However] When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

So Parfit claims but has he in fact moved to a cosmic sized glass house? Papa Ramdas always, after certain realisations, referred to himself in the 3rd. person as if to say ‘ this is one stream of consciousness to which I have a certain privileged access but that’s all it is, I am not identified with it’. Those positions sound similar but the metaphysical foundations of them differ in important ways which I shall try to sketch.

I would say that the T.E.s proposed by D.P. evince a dualist conception of the person, a body/brain dualism if you like in which the brain takes the position of the soul/mind/spirit in more traditional forms of dualism. His view of consciousness is akin to the Buddhist doctrine of momentariness or annica and the Humean bundles. Shankara in his masterwork commentary on the Vedanta Sutras/Brahma Sutras demonstrates the incoherence of this theory in a definitive fashion.


The vertiginous construction of the Buddhist ‘skandhas’ and the way they set in motion apparent identity he undercuts with a simple question. How does this combination of the skandhas, if we admit it, first get established?

Because they (skandhas) are merely the cause of the origination (of one another). A combination may be possible if any cause for the combination can be ascertained, but as a fact, it cannot be ascertained. For although nescience etc. (the skandhas) be the causes of one another, the earlier ones will merely give rise to the later ones. That may well be so, but nothing can possibly become the source of a combination.

Shankara then examines the idea that the combinations are self supporting:
Or if you think that the combinations themselves recur constantly like a current in this beginningless world, and nescience etc. are sustained by them, even then, when one combination emerges out of another, it will be either regularly similar or irregularly similar or dissimilar. If regularlity be admitted, then a human body can have no possibility of being transformed into divine, animal, or hellish bodies. And if irregularity be admitted, then a human body may at time turn momentarily into an elephant, and then be transformed again into a godly or human form. But either point of view goes against your own position. Moreover, your theory is that there is no permanent experiencer for whose experience the combination (i.e. body) should come into being. That means that an experience occurs merely for the sake of experience, and there need be none to else to desire it.

This morphing and shape shifting that Shankara considers to be a possibility with annica/momentariness smuggles in the concept of substance as the persistent reality ‘underneath’ the changing manifestations. In its way substance reflects a continuous unchanging identity or being as such.

In relation to personal identity Shankara regards memory as an indication of the falsity of annica:
Moreover, when the nihilist asserts all things to be momentary, he will have to assert the perceiver also to be momentary. But this is an absurdity because of the fact of remembrance. Remembrance means recalling to mind something after its perception, and that can happen only when the agent of perception and memory is the same; for one person is not seen to remember something perceived by another. How can there be awareness of the form, “I who saw earlier see now”, arise unless the earlier and later perceiver be the same?
(from B.S.B. II.ii.25 )

The whole section is worth reading if you can get a hold of it. ((Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya pub. by Advaita Asrama trans. Swami Gambhirananda)) Note that he does not claim that memory establishes personal identity only that it reflects it. Professor Campbell examines that error associated with John Locke in his lectures.

How does Shankara deal with the maintenance of identity of the adventurer through the series of transmigrations? This is crucial for the doctrine of karma and reincarnation and it brings in the revealing notion of the linga sarira or subtle body. How this is reconciled with the monist impersonal atmanic identity must be the subject of a future post.

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