Bundle Theory (or: Do You Like Chocolate?)

I see something brown, rectangular and small with a somewhat glossy texture and ridges. I think it is a chocolate bar. But I think again; how do I know it’s not a piece of plastic made to look like chocolate? So I pick it up, taste it, conclude it is a chocolate bar and put it back down.

But is this enough to decide it’s really chocolate? What if it is something that looks, feels and tastes like chocolate but is not chocolate? Maybe it is an artificial substance that resembles chocolate in every way? But is this coherent? If it has all the properties of chocolate, isn’t it chocolate?

This raises a question: Is chocolate a substance that has certain properties or is it just a word that’s a short-hand for certain properties?

If it’s a substance that has properties, then it cannot be identical to these properties, it is something beyond them. This means any property can change, and it will still be chocolate.  So, the texture, flavor and color can change (e.g.: to that of broccoli)  yet it would still be chocolate. Or each of those properties could vanish (leaving apparently empty space), yet it would still be chocolate. That seems nonsensical.

If it’s just a word for these properties when they occur together, then if any of these properties change, it stops being chocolate, or at least becomes a different chocolate. So if its appearance changes because I take a few steps back and/or look at it from a different angle, it would be a different chocolate. That also seems nonsensical.

Maybe there’s a different approach. I can deny it’s a substance and just claim the properties have a reality to them that is independent of my experience, and my experience simply reports that reality. However, I’m now claiming something I cannot experience to explain something I do experience. What’s more, I’m doing this to explain my shifting experience. That seems shaky if not nonsensical.

I could go on all day. For instance, what if pieces of the chocolate were replaced with chocolate from another bar?  At what point would the chocolate be a different bar of chocolate? If this sounds familiar, it’s a re-phrasing of The Ship of Theseus thought experiment.

If I looked away and — unbeknowest to me — the bar were replaced by an identical bar, is it the same chocolate?  I’d never know the difference, so is it even coherent to talk about this as I don’t even have an experience to work from. If this sounds familiar, it’s a rephrasing of The Tree Falling in the Forest thought experiment

Speaking of shifting appearances, is there a canonical representation of the chocolate?  For instance, it appears non-rectangular at different angles, yet people would agree that it’s “really” rectangular by settling on one vantage point and claiming it is the “right” one.  Yet, what justifies this vantage point and none of the others? What’s more, this ignores a great deal of my experience of the bar (such as when I’m moving towards it, viewing it from a distance, etc…). So I am throwing away a great deal of experience — the same experience I am trying to explain — in order to posit an explanation for this discarded experience, using something I have no experience of, an underlying reality of the experience. The one I just threw out. Experience demands ignoring itself?

So I invest greater stake in something I cannot experience, that exists solely as an explanation for my shifting experiences. That seems very shaky if not nonsensical.  

I can claim that I need these assumptions to function, but does that count as an argument?  Isn’t this like trying to justify a nonsensical game because I have money riding on it and thus must play by its rules?

I can repeat this exercise with anything, including myself. I can pay attention and notice the sensations, thoughts, etc… that make up what I think of as “myself”.  I can then ask where is the “self” among all this. At best, I witness a “sense” of self, but that’s just a feeling.  However, I can argue that this proves nothing, since if the self is me, I cannot perceive it — can the eye see itself?  I could also claim that if I wasn’t a separate self, I could not witness all these experiences, including intimate thoughts.  Just what IS watching the thoughts and feelings?  However, I can challenge that and ask why do I assume there’s something apart from this experience?  Isn’t this another assumption of a reality underlying experience?  Why not just assume that experience IS? In fact, to even call it an experience assumes something of its nature; perhaps I should call it ALL.  It seems the self is a very special kind of assumed substance that is even more entrenched and subtle than many of the typical substances we encounter.

How do I reconcile all this? I don’t.

Externally, I accept conventions about the chocolate, including the arbitrary vantage points. They’re a lot more convenient than carrying on conversations like “the bundle of perceptions that is consistent with chocolate that at distance X has shape Y…”.  The key here is that I don’t internalize this talk as being what things really are; they are just convenient ways of operating and I use them like I would any other tool and set them aside when done.

Internally, I don’t flee the realization of the shakiness of my foundations, or at least my inability to understand them.  Yes, this may say more about my ability to understand than my experience, and could foster non-attachment to my intellect, thoughts, concepts, etc… Considering how fundamental (and often pain producing) that is, that’s perfectly fine.  

I realize my hopes, dreams, aversions, loves, etc… are all built on this shaky foundation.  This helps keep me from getting too hung up over any of it provided I don’t backslide. Maybe I could set aside some time and really try to experience this — it might make a good meditation.  Whether or not I can live my life in this state of consciousness, I can remember having done this, and the memory can be a powerful backdrop against which the rest of my life is lived.  


Further Reading

This article could be seen as an extended thought experiment on Pyrrhonism, which is all about suspending judgment about what lies beneath experience, if anything.  In fact, my back and forth questioning could be viewed as the Pyrrhonist strategy of pitting opposing arguments against each other to arrive at a suspension of judgment, which should lead to tranquility (ataraxia).

Claiming that “objects” are bundles of sensations rather than “things” is classic Bundle Theory, of which Hume is the most famous expounder. His Philosophy covered a great deal of ground from The Self, to Bundle Theory, to Causality and more.

This article could also be seen as an extended thought experiment regarding Buddhism’s concept of Emptiness. It’s interesting to compare the Buddhist concept of Emptiness (and its “opposite” Form) to the Western philosophical concept of substance.


17 thoughts on “Bundle Theory (or: Do You Like Chocolate?)

  1. Wow, the things you could do with a bent oar…

    I’m still reading the book you recommended on Pyrrhonism. I find it fascinating that they probably tried to attain ataraxia (nibbana, samadhi, the e-word) by reasoning alone. It must have been something like you described here: First you give people a bent oar, then you take their chocolate bar away, and finally their perception of self…It’s riveting. (I am by no means joking.)

    1. It is interesting, but it raises a fascinating question: do we need discursive meditation, or can an open-minded contemplation do the trick? Can we treat the various teachings (say of Buddhism) as thought experiments and arrive at Nirvana/Ataraxia through the discursive mind? It seems like the Pyrrhonists preferred the more intellectual approach.

      I also wonder if we need to really try to undermine self or if this automatically gets undermined when the notion of substance is truly undermined. Do we work in terms of substance so that once undermined, our entire perception shifts? It seems like substance thinking sticks around in places we don’t expect…

      BTW, I like your blogs and I eagerly await your conditioned arising one!

  2. (Thank you.)

    I’ve been thinking about the same thing: undermining the self directly or undermining substance until the self falls away with all the other stuff. According to some buddhists, I think the ‘self’ is nothing special and thus would not deserve any special treatment.

    Direct experience, however, is different in my case: If my zen master mentions the self, as she sometimes jokingly does during teisho, I can almost see the whole audience gasping and taking a mental step back. Including me.

    I agree with your other point, I just wish I knew if Pyrrho (if he really met these gymnosophists) tried meditation and found the intellectual approach superior, or if it was maybe just a cultural thing.

    1. Can you point me to some sources where the Buddhists do not treat the self as anything special, but just another instance of form? I’d love to read more on that!

      Others have wondered why meditation didn’t make it into Pyrrhonism, and I think it might have formed the foundation of some of the objections to the Gymnosophist hypothesis. They point out that given the centrality of meditation, Pyrrho could not have missed that or been under any illusion about its importance.

      In fact the subject of meditation, or even praxis in general in Greek philosophy is an interesting subject that hasn’t been elaborated upon. For instance, some wonder if the Stoics had a meditation technique that is now lost to us…

      1. I’ll look into that. For now, I think this quote from the Blue Cliff Record is interesting. You might be familiar with it, but still:

        Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma: “What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?”
        Bodhidharma said: “Empty, without holiness.”
        The emperor pondered this and asked: “Who is facing me?”
        Bodhidharma replied: “I don’t know.”

        Apparently, the emperor was won over by that, eventually.

        Interesting comment about the possibility of the Stoics meditating…

      2. One way of looking at the self as nothing special can be found with the buddha himself (or what people remembered the buddha had said a few hundred years later), when he says:

        Material form is not self
        Feeling is not self
        Perception is not self
        Formations are not self
        Consciousness is not self

        (from the Samyutta Nikkaya, the connected discourses)

        According to the Tathagata, this means that there literally is no self, because the experience of a self is derived from the combination of the five aggregates. Apart from that experience, there’s nothing that constitutes a self. And the five aggregates are subject to change and thus unreliable, so we cannot grasp at any of them as being our ‘self’.

        The word Tathagata is taken to mean either ‘thus come’ or ‘thus gone’. Wikipedia seems to think the buddha addressed himself in this way because he wanted to convey that he was an enlightened being, but I know that Katagiri and Bathchelor think he meant to point out that he did not consider himself to be an “I”, at any opportunity.

        Katagiri, in turn, thinks our sense of self is entirely derived from our experience of time: because we literally cannot keep up with conditioned arising, we experience a gap between us and time. And therefore, we feel separate from everything else in the universe. This is a delusion.

        I would love anyone to expound in any way on self, consciousness and time, BTW.

      3. The Skhandas! Interesting stuff, although I found the choice of categories confusing, just like I found the divisions of Dependent Origination confusing (not to mention how Buddhism could claim Free Will with something that sounded so deterministic, but I digress).

        Self, consciousness and time… I assumed memory pieced together experiences to make consciousness (as we know it) possible, and therein lies the mechanism of time. The consistency of memory builds up the self? Of course arguing memory instead of just experience is assuming an underlying…


  3. I’m going to go out on a limb and adopt a totally neurological approach to this. Here’s how I’d solve the conundrum:
    1. There is no such thing as chocolate, apples or you. Those are changing aggregates of matter that have no real existence as objects. That is why, every time you try to define or delimit them, you fail.
    2. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it. Our brains are statistical machines that take a bunch of inputs and trigger a certain concept (chocolate, for instance). Sometimes, they get it “right” in the sense that, the more information I get, the more convinced I am it is chocolate. Sometimes, they get it wrong (in the sense that, given more information, you can change your mind.) The never get it totally right either, by definition: since we are statistical processing machines, we can only ascertain things to some degree of probability, which is fine.
    3. Physical quantities may be a different game altogether. An electron is an electron and, in fact, is identical to every single other electron in all of its properties. So you could argue this time you don’t run into the “heap paradox” (when a heap becomes a mountain.) There are other issues with it, though (an electron is actually an aggregate of particles that statistically behave as an electron) so this may still be debatable.
    On an unrelated note, what you said about “experiences” being “all” fits perfectly into my theory that there’s no difference between the fundamental objects of reality and those of perception: that the only difference is the presence of an imagined “I” who perceives.

    1. Beautiful! Yes, I think the best way to look at it is statistically and from what I read, I’m inclined to agree that the brain is a statistical processing machine.

      In fact, aren’t our greatest AI successes thanks to statistics?

      1. I think there are several books that argue that. I recently finished reading one, but I would even go so far to say it is becoming the dominant paradigm in AI (and even in neuroscience).

      2. To be honest, not really. Pinker’s is a little outdated and the last one I read (by Ray Kurzweil) made it sound like he made all of the discoveries when these things have been going on for ages. I’m on the lookout for something more reliable.

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