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From a self that controls to self-control: paradigm shifts in early Buddhism and in cognitive science

By Asaf Federman


This thesis describes two similar paradigm shifts––one between Brahmanism and Buddhism and the other between Cartesian and non-Cartesian perspectives in contemporary mind-science. These shifts are characterized by a similar transition from the view that there is a Self that exercises ultimate control, to the view that the entire person engages in limited self-control. Both the Cartesian and the Brahmanical perspectives accommodate notions of ultimate free will, immaterial souls, a ‘Self’ that transcends mundane causality and bears similitude to the divine; control is seen metaphorically as the power of an absolute monarch. On the other hand, both the Buddhist and the cognitive-scientific perspectives reject ultimate free will, ultimate Selves and divine transcendence. Instead, they promote the idea that self-control is possible within causally regulated reality, and that people have limited free will; control is seen as a property of the whole agent, not as an ultimate power of an internal monarch. These similarities may explain why Buddhism appeals to cognitive science: both systems are situated at similar positions within similar paradigm shifts. For different reasons, and reflecting different motivations, Buddhism and cognitive science have developed similar outlooks on self-hood and on self-control. The comparison of these two frameworks also helps to clarify a particular conceptual issue regarding self-control and determinism. It exposes the Cartesian assumption under some scholarly concerns that the Buddhist not-Self doctrine practically eliminates the possibility of self-control, self-development, free will, and moral responsibility. Contemporary compatibilist arguments are used to show why this is not so and that in both early Buddhism and in cognitive science self-control can exist in a deterministic reality

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