Posted by: dacalu | 22 March 2012


Tonight, I return to the holistic perspective which I started talking about last week.

Following Descartes and Augustine and numerous others, I posited the notion of a self, an internal agent that makes choices and changes the world.  Admittedly, this self was not constructed deductively.  Unlike Descartes, I do not believe that self follows from first principles, or is the fundamental realization of thinking.  I do think we have a functional need to speak of ourselves as agents, however. Daily we have the experience of choice.  In order to make rational choices, we must posit a chooser.  Don’t we?

Not necessarily.  Having (hopefully) convinced you that agents are a necessary, perhaps even fundamental aspect of a functional worldview, I will now turn to the holistic perspective and ask some rather troubling questions about self.

Leaving aside metaphysical questions for the moment, the self is often constructed as an individual of the species Homo sapiens – a human being and a relatively independent one at that.  From a scientific standpoint, this seems grossly overstated.  Let us, for the sake of argument assume a meaningful way to distinguish humans from Bonobos and other great apes; we look and behave quite differently, so species is meaningful in this concept.  I’m not sure individual is.  The Roman Catholic Church has argued that a human represents a genetically unique entity.  Thus, they argue, once fertilization has occurred, every embryo is fully human.  This is problematic in a number of ways.  First, identical twins share the same genome and no-one would argue that they only represent one person (one soul, one agency).  On the other hand, people exist with a medical condition called mosaicism.  Two embryos fused into one, which was born and grew up.  Mosaics have two different genomes and yet we don’t think of them as two individuals rather than one.  Even worse, we find the problem of placentas.  Embryos develop support tissue that requisitions resources from the mother’s blood.  These tissues are discarded at birth.  Are they part of the individual in the womb?  Tough questions.

It doesn’t really get any easier after birth.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard arguments about something being alive “if it can live by itself.” Clearly a newborn cannot live without support of some kind.  Truthfully, most of us would be completely incapable of feeding and cleaning ourselves without a grocery store and gigantic economic network.  How many of you know how to make soap?  How many know how to raise, kill, and prepare livestock?  Not only do we not have the knowledge and skills, many activities we rely on require multiple participants – mining for example.

More dramatically, we only function because tiny bacteria live within our cells converting sugars into usable chemical energy.  These bacteria have their own DNA, reproduce on their own, and cannot be replaced by the host cell if lost.  Neither would our guts or skin function without billions of micro-organisms – bacteria, archaea, and protists – that consider us an environment, shield us from attack by other micro-organisms, and help digest our food.

[Worse yet, some have tried to define life as being able to reproduce “by itself.”  The caveat was added to exclude viruses from the set of living things.  Alas, it fails miserably as a criterion.  Not only are many living things sterile, most with which we are familiar require a partner.  I’d be really surprised if anyone reading this was capable of having offspring without assistance from at least one other human.]

We are far less individual than we like to think.  And, as I have mentioned before, I don’t believe that will is truly “free.”  I think our ability to make choices is constrained by our community, our biology, and our circumstances.  Self, then, must be a useful simplifying assumption.  It is not a fundamental reality.

It can be so easy to confuse a perfectly consistent, logical, scientific model of the universe with a practical daily model of the universe, but they are seldom the same.  For instance, the scientific model says that Earth is hurtling through space, orbiting the Sun and galactic center.  The daily model says “the Sun rises” and “the Sun sets.”  In some sense, I really think the former is real and the latter only a convenient prop.  More skeptically, I might say the former is far more real, but still just a prop.  For me, agency looks more like a daily model than a rigorous scientific one.  It is, mind you, the best we’ve got.

The holistic perspective fails to differentiate the self and the non-self.  Many Zen koans highlight the illusion of self and (this is important) attempt to hijack the illusory self into analyzing the koan in such a way that it is tricked into recognizing it’s own non-existence.  Think about that for a moment.

Anyway, the concept is most succinctly expressed in Buddhism, but Christianity has the same concept.  We call it selflessness.  The word has come to mean something like humility, but if you look at it for a moment, it’s a very straightforward idea.  We lose the idea of the self as a separate individual and learn to appreciate the self and all other selves as part of the same Divine Creation.  We are subsumed into God, not because “I” am less, but because, in truth all are in God and God is in all.  We speak of having the Spirit of God and the will of God.  Self can be fulfilled independently no more nor less than an arm can be fulfilled without the rest of the body.

So I would encourage you to meditate on the holistic perspective with regard to self.  Yes the agent is a necessary assumption in daily life, but it is not the end, or even something to be taken too seriously.



  1. I’ve been TAing a course on Buddhism this semester and found the notion of personality as a useful alternative to the self. Just a question – how does a holistic conception of self deal with the incarnation. Does it remain a unique event or a particular crystallization of an underlying reality? Thanks for sharing this. Would love to talk with you more about it.

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