In this essay I contend that the argument of the Buddha may be an important point for contemplation, but is, at best, a straw-man fallacy when used as an attempt to dispute the existence of the self. Prof. Wright has referred to two arguments made by the Buddha. As the Buddha's first premise he tries to convince us that the self cannot be unchanging and that the self is not always in control. His second premise is that we think of the self as unchanging and in control. Therefore, his conclusion is that there is no "Self."
My point is that even though people intuitively imagine the "Self" to be unchanging and in control, a mutable and relational self who's control varies between contexts is certainly conceivable. I would argue that such a contingent "Self" actually makes more sense than the kind of self the Buddha argued against. If I am correct then the second premise of the Buddha's argument fails and his conclusion is not warranted.
I agree that if a "Self" has to be unchanging and in control, then is seems that the Buddha was correct and the "Self" does not exist. But such a conception of the self seems to me to be philosophically extreme (i.e. A straw-man) even though it may be a commonly held intuition.
I have been persuaded by thinkers within the Evolutionary Psychology domain such as Antonio Damasio that the self has evolved as a faculty which aids the human organism in maintaining homeostasis. (While Damasio is outside Wright's lecture, he was discussed in the interview with Miri Albahari which seems to license his inclusion in this essay.) As I understand Damasio, particularly in his book, The Self Comes to Mind, there are modular processes at work in in the human organism. These processes, such as the visual, emotive, memory, etc. are processed in different parts of the brain. Most of the processes in the human organism are unconscious, but some are represented by thoughts, images, and other mental content in consciousness. Consciousness has evolved as a faculty to assist in the coordination and focusing of disparate processes toward the end of meeting our needs.
As Prof. Wright points out, the narratives we live by are often wrong. Self-consciousness allows us to compare and contrast our narratives the ever accumulating bulk of our own experience. This gives us feedback allowing the "Self," if there is such a thing, to learn and change. Change in this sense is a good thing. Self-consciousness allows us to witness our anger and the consequences of our anger in a way that helps us to appreciate whether our angry behavior has assisted or hindered us in meeting our needs.
Damasio also addresses control and claims that his studies suggest that the rational self stands in relation to control of emotions as a mahout is in relation to control of her/his elephant. Sometimes the mahout is in control and sometimes the elephant is in control. When the elephant gets excited there is not much the mahout can do but stand and watch. Are we the thinker, the feeler or the witness?
In my readings of authors as varied as the Dali Lama and the artist/philosopher Robert Motherwell, I have come across the claim that underlying the contingent self I am describing there is a deeper, pre-conscious "True Self." I am agnostic about such a deeper self.
I believe that the best place to look for the self is on the surface of consciousness, ever developing or learning from experience in the attempt to coordinate and organize various processes active within the human organism. This self is neither immutable, nor always in control, but is developing and maturing as it wrestles with the power of processes within the field of consciousness, process that remain unconscious and its own fallibility. While there may be some tendencies which seem stable over time such as the introvert / extrovert distinction, most of us can look back on our younger selfs and see vastly different behaviors, values and personal characteristics.
Another example or perspective that may illustrate my point is the nature of the Autobiographical Self. The Autobiographical Self, as I understand it, is essentially the narrative or story of the history of our "self" composed out of our self awareness. We witness our interactions, reactions and judgments about the world we live in and from that awareness we develop our story. We may intuitively believe that if there is a story, there must be a "storyteller:" some kind of deeper or more basic organizing form of consciousness. Are we the story or the storyteller? My point of view is that we are both. We are biological organisms seeking ways to satisfy needs. Self-awareness is an evolved biological feature which operates functionally to provide feedback and aid in the fine-tuning of the raw instinctual tendencies.
The Buddha may be perfectly correct to direct meditators to contemplate the non-existence of an immutable self or an "owner" of the five aggregates. Such a contemplation may lead to spiritual health. But as a metaphysical claim, I find the Buddha's claim to be unconvincing. For me the "self" makes sense as a transient, mutable, fragmented and fallible faculty for making sense or developing meaning out of our experience. The Buddha's self may not exist, but I believe the kind of self I describe cannot be dismissed. It may be transient and fallible, but like the flexion of a muscle it is a biological tool which helps us navigate our world.