Reading time: ca. minutes
In addition to the belief in a separate, independent self, there is the belief in a subject that perceives objects, or separate, independent and enduring things. These can be psychic things, such as a particular feeling or thought - things of the "inner world", as well as things in the so-called "outer world".
Take an apple. On the table in front of you is a basket of apples. No problem: you take one of the apples. But what did you actually grab? An "apple?" When this sentence is read, most people hear in their heads the sounds that make up the word "apple". The sentence can also be spoken and then the sound is heard out loud. So there is the word "apple", the sound "apple" in the head, the sound out loud, and there is the "thing" that is now being held, the "apple" itself. There are other "apples" in the basket. These are all "apples".
But what is an "apple" really? Those things lying there in that basket are not combinations of letters or sounds. They are, of course, completely different things. What we are holding in our hand right now has nothing to do with that. This apple is also different from all the other apples and yet we all call them "apples".
If we leave our apple for a while we will see that it changes. Slowly the beautiful shiny fruit transforms into a pile of brown junk. A little later even that is gone. Where is the original apple now? (In fact, nothing is really lost, only a rearrangement of atoms takes place.)
Before we held the apple, it went through quite a history. It grew on a tree from an apple blossom. The blossom grew on an apple tree, which itself grew from the seed that was in an apple, and so on. The history of the apple tree goes back at least 13.8 billion years to the time of the creation of the universe, should it have had a beginning.
Thus, the apple we now hold is not an independent and enduring "thing". From the looks of it, there are no independent, durable things at all. Everything is constantly changing in one continuous stream. "You cannot step into the same river twice," said the sage Heraclitus some 2,500 years ago.
By giving everything around us a name, we try to hold on to something anyway. We turn it into a "thing", a concept. Very useful in communication. I immediately know what is meant when someone asks me to take an apple from the basket in front of me. We do this not only with apples, but also with people. My name is "Ton Haarmans", but what am I really? A little longer and I am also a pile of brown junk and my origins also go back to the Big Bang, or who knows, even further back.
Giving something a name, an identity, is no more than a magical act, an incantation actually, which (hopefully) facilitates communication, but in no way it says anything about what a given phenomenon actually is. Nor can it do that because the phenomenon itself has no individuality, no identity, no permanence.
And so the same applies to myself, to who or what I am. I am not. Therefore, I also have no power. At the same time, of course, I am, like the apple and, seemingly, I make decisions. It is not that I or the apple do not exist, but not in the way we usually think that something or someone exists, namely as something that has an enduring and fixed identity, separate from the phenomena around us. Everything flows, everything is the flow, "Panta rei", or as Buddhism says, "everything is empty".
"At the same time, it would be foolish to deny the apparent reality of chairs and tables and you and me. But we cannot really take control of any of these apparent 'things.' We cannot really say that what appears here is something, and at the same time we cannot say that it is nothing. It simply cannot be captured in a conceptual formulation. Permanent, impermanent, flowing, flashing, unmoving, changeable, unchanging, ever-present, ever-changing, self, no-self, unity, multiplicity - none of these descriptions hold up completely on careful examination. Reality itself is simply impossible to capture in concepts and words."
The fact that we can recognize patterns in what seems, at first glance, to be undifferentiated chaos in the field of perception is, of course, extremely convenient. I remember some time ago I was teaching computer classes to people over 80. The desktop of a PC looked very different to them than it did to me. For example, I saw all kinds of clickable "icons". They didn't. They saw no difference in all that color information on the screen. To them it was one, undifferentiated image, where the icons could not be distinguished as separate "things" with which to do something.
This is also how I imagine how a newborn would see the world: without recognizable shapes with meaning, without distinction between foreground and background. Apparently a learning process takes place, gradually forming the world as we adults see it.
At some point distinctions are made and suddenly there is a difference between foreground and background, or between areas with different colors, or between an "inner world" and an "outer world". Again, I can imagine this being similar to an object suddenly popping into view when viewing an "auto-stereogram", which at first glance contains only chaos or a random pattern of dots.
Later I will discuss a theory by Donald Hoffman in which he supposes that the world we perceive is not per se a truthfull perception of the "outside world", but a symbolic representation set up by evolution to give us a view most "fitting" for our survival.