Semester of Graduation

Spring 2023


Master of Arts (MA)


Philosophy and Religious Studies

Document Type



In this work I take on one of the most axiomatic assumptions humans possess. The sense of self is embedded so deeply inside each one of us that to question it seems utterly ridiculous. Fortunately, I do not outright reject the notion of selfhood. I investigate what it is and is not through multiple angles – ancient and contemporary – which leads to investigations of free will and responsibility.

In the first chapter, I discuss the Buddhist anātman or non-self. I argue that the historical Buddha did not endorse the idea that the self must be overcome through enlightenment – this would affirm a self – but that the Buddha endorsed the theory of non-apprehension. That is, to discuss a self’s existence or non-existence is to utterly miss the point of anātman. Selfhood, rather, is an incoherent concept from the beginning – like pointing North as one stands on the North pole. The non-apprehension theory colors the rest of the work in contemporary views of selfhood, free will, and ultimate responsibility. I close the chapter with my personal experience with Buddhist meditation which leads me to the claim which grounds the whole thesis – that we are not the authors of our thoughts.

The second chapter presents an overview of two contemporary theories of the self and non-self by Thomas Metzinger and Galen Strawson. Since these views are mostly empirical and analytic, mystical language found in the non-apprehension theory of Buddhism does not fit well. Through contemporary language, I investigate their complicated arguments for and against a self. Metzinger posits a phenomenal self-model in replace of the traditional self whereas Strawson affirms a synchronic self. I critique both of their theories and reject them. In rejecting them, I discuss the ultimate grounding of my argument against egoism – that thoughts are not our own. Like the preceding chapter’s section on meditation, I close the second chapter with a brief reflection of thinking to further develop my thesis.

From the first two chapters, which focus on my withholding of judgment on the non-concept of ātman or self, it is only natural to ponder what this says about metaphysical freedom. The theme of the third chapter was the inspiration of the whole work – that free will is an illusion. Although it is nearly impossible to write outside the purview of the binary of existence, I have slightly backed off from that theme. I argue, rather, that the illusion of free will is itself an illusion. Free will, like the self or non-self, is not a coherent concept worthy of discussion.[1] I, nevertheless, present contemporary theories involved in the free will debate such as (in)determinism, (in)compatibilism, metaphysical libertarianism, and randomness. As an anti-libertarian incompatibilist, I argue against competing theories and justifications for free will with what I call the dark mystery of appearing. This is merely a formal name for the idea that we are not the authors of thoughts or that they appear from nowhere. I find that if there is no coherent self worthy of discussion and thoughts are not our own, any notion of free will whether it is grounded in reason, effort, or desire is groundless.

I close this work with a consideration of a world where egos and metaphysical freedom are considered incoherent concepts. What does this mean for responsibility, in particular? If we are mere happenings occupying a universe of constant flux, does it make any real sense to hold “myself” responsible for “my” actions? More importantly, is it coherent to hold others responsible for choices and actions? I conclude that responsibility, too, is an incoherent concept on an ultimate level. Conventionally, however, our choices still matter due to the fact that they affect the people and world around us. Ultimately, giving up on responsibility does take away our sense of accomplishment and pride, but a non-ethical ethic crops up where a more forgiving and empathetic world emerges for the less fortunate.

[1] Does that make my whole thesis worthless? Perhaps. Or, maybe through its worthlessness, it is worth something.



Committee Chair

Levy, Ken