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PhD Research

PhD Thesis

From a Self that Controls to Self-Control: Paradigm Shifts in Early Buddhism and in Cognitive Science

The 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 selfhood 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.

My supervisor is John Pickering who works on Consciousness and Selfhood; Ecopsychology and wellbeing; Embodiment, Cognitive science and phenomenology; Whitehead, Peirce and Biosemiotics; Eastern psychological thought, especially Vedanta and Buddhism; Technology and human identity.