The Extrinsic Self Isn’t Anybody

The extrinsic self invents itself by getting everything to happen within the framework which it itself has chosen. We could also and equivalently say that the extrinsic self invents itself by controlling, by getting everything to happen in the way that it wants it to happen, although why this should be the case is not exactly straightforward to see. Controlling always involves the possibility of not controlling, the possibility of failing to get things to happen the way that we want them to. But the thing about this is that the extrinsic self invents itself just as effectively by things not working out for it as it does by things working out correctly. Failure works just as well as success, in other words, even though this might seem somewhat confusing.


The reason for this is of course because whether we get it right or get it wrong we are still operating within the framework. Losing doesn’t get us out of the framework any more than winning does. The framework is made up of complementary categories, categories which necessarily involve each other in their operation, and so – as we have just pointed out – our controlling with this domain involves the possibility of ‘incorrect’ just as much as it involves the possibility of ‘correct’, ‘miss’ just as much as it does ‘hit’. Both right and wrong equal ‘the framework, even though we don’t think of right and wrong as being equal. This is the same as saying that a rule involves obeying as much as it does disobeying – a rule equals obeying as much as disobeying because either way we are relating everything to the rule. It’s a ‘rule-centric viewpoint’!


The extrinsic self creates itself by creating the rule, therefore. The extrinsic self is the rule – the very fact that the self is exclusively motivated by ‘securing outcomes that it likes and avoiding those that it does not like’ shows that it is a rule, with all the arbitrary inflexibility of a rule. When the extrinsic self gets the world to obey its dictates then it feels good and when it can’t bring about the desired performance from the world then it feels bad – when it can’t get the outcome it wants then it becomes displeased, dismayed, dissatisfied, demoralized. And yet even though the self identifies itself with what it likes and tries to distance itself from what it doesn’t like, it is all the same just as much ‘like’ as ‘dislike’, just as much pleasure as it is displeasure…


The extrinsic self – as we said at the beginning of this discussion – creates itself by assuming the existence of a framework and then refusing to acknowledge anything that does not make sense within this framework. This is not a ‘refusal’ in the usual sense of the word because we neither know that we are doing it nor do we have any choice in the matter anyway. When we start utilizing logic as our way of relating to the world then we are bound by the laws of logic without knowing that we are so bound and the laws of logic dictate that we cannot acknowledge anything outside of the framework that it takes for granted. Logic always assumes a ‘closed world’ and the whole point about a closed world is that it disallows on the most basic, fundamental of levels the possibility of knowing or guessing or theorizing that there is any reality other than the one it itself assumes.


So when we say that the laws of logic dictate that we cannot register in any way anything that lies outside the framework of reference that is itself this is the same thing as saying that when we utilize logic as a means of relating to the world then we straightaway enter into a closed world that we cannot see to be closed. There’s more to it than just this however – we started off this discussion by saying that the extrinsic self ‘invents itself by getting everything to happen within the framework that it itself has chosen’ and what this means is that we invent the self by utilizing thought, by utilizing the laws of logic. Somehow – therefore – existing within the closed world that the framework automatically generates creates the extraordinarily persuasive illusion that is ‘the extrinsic self’.


This gets tricky when we look into it, however. Naturally it gets tricky! When we say that the self ‘creates itself’ this presupposes the prior existence of the self as ‘an effective causal agent’ and this is clearly mistaken on two counts – for one thing the self wasn’t there on the scene before it got created and for another it isn’t an effective causal agent (which is to say, it can’t do anything of its own free will). The extrinsic self isn’t running the show at all – that’s just an illusion it has – it’s the laws of logic that are running the show, as we have already said. The self does not create the framework – the framework creates the self. The boot is on the other foot. So if this is the way things happen (if the FW is an artefact of the self rather than vice versa), who creates the FW? How does the framework get to be there? There is a way to get to grips with this apparent conundrum – all we have to do is look at what is happening in terms of the increase of entropy, which is as we know something that happens all by itself, just like a ball rolling down a steep hill, or like a freshly-made cup of tea cooling when it is left on the table. The FW comes into (provisional) existence as a result of information being lost from the system. The FW only gets to function as a FW when all the information not corresponding to its ‘law’ gets excluded; it only gets to function as a FW when we can’t look beyond it. The framework (and the closed world that it creates) only seems to exist as a result of our occluded vision, in other words.


Another way of putting this is to say that the framework (or the closed world that is created by the system of thought) is an oversimplification of reality. The oversimplification of reality comes about – as we have said – as a result of information being lost from the system – this is of course the way oversimplifications of reality always come about! We know that systems (in the absence of any source of order) tend to become ever-more predictable, ever-more over-simplified – that’s a restatement of the second law of thermodynamics. In the absence of some force that will push them back up the entropy gradient, complex systems will always degrade with time and become less and less complex. This isn’t just a matter of thermodynamics however – this is a grand metaphysical principle that we are talking about here! Reference is made in many philosophical systems to this idea that there are two basic movements that occur in the universe – the movement into form and the movement out of form back into formlessness. The former is the principle of cosmic exhalation, the latter inhalation. The universe is always being breathed out and breathed in again, in other words.


This ‘in and out’ process was referred by the alchemists by their motto ‘solve et coagula’ (dissolve and coagulate) – this was the principle that informed the very essence of their work. Hindu mythology talks of the physical universe (or which there are many) as being the exhalation of Brahma: after the period of exhalation (in which both matter and time are created) there is an inhalation phase in which Brahma inhales everything back into himself again until there is nothing left. This period of time is called ‘the Day of Brahma’ which after a period of quiescence (known as the Night of Brahma) is repeated over and over again in an eternal cycle. We can therefore relate exhalation and the creation of time/matter to the movement towards the equilibrium state where entropy, S tends to a maximum. Psychologically speaking, this corresponds to Stan Grof’s hylotropic motivation, which is the motivation to run away from the Whole towards the part, towards the disconnected fragment. Inhalation corresponds to the movement back to the source therefore, where the ‘source’ is zero entropy, or maximum disequilibrium. In terms of Grof’s way of talking about it, we can relate this movement to the motivation which we feel to return to the Whole and move away from the disconnected part.


So just to recap what we have said earlier about our initial statement that the extrinsic self ‘invents’ itself by getting everything to happen within the chosen framework, we can see that this is expressed the wrong way around – the self doesn’t organize for the FW to be there, the FW organizes the extrinsic self to be there. The sense that we have of being ‘this self’ is an artefact of the framework. The logical system provides everything – there is nothing genuinely volitional about the activities of the mind-created self, even though the whole point (so to speak) of ‘being a self’ is that it is an autonomous agent, and not operated entirely by some external mechanical agency. What we’re talking about here isn’t ‘a self’ at all therefore – it’s simply the manufactured appearance of a self. The extrinsic self is in other words a hoax – it is an experience of ‘illusory selfhood where there is none’. It also corresponds to the fifth head of Brahma, which is ‘his own imaginary understanding of who he is’, in Devutt Pattanaik’s words.


This imaginary self doesn’t call all the shots – it is just provided with the perception that it does. Ultimately, it is nothing more than an artefact of the framework, an artefact of the logical system, as we have said. It is nothing. This brings us back to the question of what exactly ‘a framework’ is, and where exactly it comes from. The framework – as we have indicated – is nothing more than a restriction – a limit is placed on the total range of possibilities and only those possibilities that lie within that limit are considered to exist. A cut-off point is applied and everything that falls outside of this cut-off point is treated exactly as if it didn’t exist. That’s what ‘a framework’ is – it’s a restricted reality that doesn’t mention the fact that it is restricted. It is a set of limitations that are so basic to our way of understanding things that we never see them at all. We are perfectly blind to the restriction that the framework places us under, so as far as we are concerned there is no framework….


A set of limitations whose existence we are unaware of, and through which we apprehend the world, is called ‘the rational mind’. It is also ‘a logical system’, but when we filter reality through that logical system then the logical system in question is our rational-conceptual mind. So when we perceive reality through this limiting framework that we cannot see to be there, what is the result? What happens then? To answer this question very simply, what happens then is that we have the experience of operating as this fixed and definite agent that we know as ‘the self’. We have the experience of looking out at the world from the viewpoint of this self, and of that world being separate from us. The ‘extrinsic self’ is therefore nothing other than the limiting framework that we cannot see, that we do not know to be there. If this self is constructed by reference to the FW then it must be the FW


The self is the restriction that we are unaware of as a restriction; we’re unaware of it as a restriction because we take it so very much for granted. What could we ever possibly take more for granted than the self? Nothing is further from our understanding than the true nature of the self. We can’t see the extrinsic self on whose basis we operate as being ‘a constriction of awareness’ any more than we can perceive the framework which the thinking mind takes for granted as being ‘a restriction placed on reality’. And actually the two are as we have just said the very same thing – the experience of ‘being this self’ arises as an ‘automatic function’ of the closed world that has been created by the framework and it is this closed world. The self cannot exist outside of the closed world that has been created by thought; the extrinsic self and the closed world that is automatically generated by the operation of the thinking mind are not two different things – they are the two sides of the same coin and that coin doesn’t even exist. How could the extrinsic self  possibly be said to exist when it is no more than a function of the constriction of awareness that we have arbitrarily (albeit unconsciously) imposed upon ourselves?


When we see this, we might wonder how we missed the point so thoroughly up to now. There was something funny about the self right from the start – it’s out of synch with the world. Everything is change and yet this viewpoint we operate from is static, always the same. It doesn’t partake in the free flow of reality but rather it holds itself at arm’s length, carefully monitoring what is going on. It’s on the outside looking in. The extrinsic self is the perennial ‘detached and uncommitted observer’, always checking up with reference to the FW to see whether things are going its way or not. As Devutt Pattanaik says (in the reference given above),


Rather than looking beyond pleasure and pain, he works towards enhancing pleasure and reducing pain. He gets trapped in his own delusion. The material world stops being a medium, it becomes the destination. Brahma spends all his life securing his own version of reality. He does everything in his power to defend his measuring scale.


Yet the ‘extrinsic self’, this ‘abstract calculating viewpoint’, this ‘fifth head of Brahma’, this ‘self we imagine ourselves to be’, isn’t us – the extrinsic self isn’t anyone!






3 thoughts on “The Extrinsic Self Isn’t Anybody

    1. That’s a very pertinent question! The extrinsic self is the ‘external self’, the self that is always on the outside. It has to be on the outside (or ‘on the surface of things’) because it is only an image or description. That is its domain, so to speak – the domain of arbitrary abstractions or descriptions. If we say that everything is made of some infinitely ‘fine’ or subtle’ essence (something that is ‘non-granular’, unlike everything else in the physical universe) then we could imagine that this essence could construct some gross structure and create a defined image of itself, and then once this has happened lose the ability to see or in any way understand the existence of any subtler form of existence. We then have this ‘self’ which is extraordinarily persuasive and convincing once we are ‘in’ it and which absolutely prevents us from seeing who we really are. We no longer have the capabilities to see our essence because our capabilities are those of the thinking mind which are gross not fine (they are digital or YES/NO in character since they are based on categories of thought). This then is the extrinsic self – ‘the crude self which is not ourself’. It functions as a game we cannot get out of, a game that we’re trapped in, a game that we take seriously at all times, as if it were NOT a game. It is more of a prison than a self, therefore! The non-extrinsic self (or intrinsic self) on the other hand is the essence of who we are, and of what reality itself is. It is in everything (it IS everything) but it cannot be apprehended by our senses or the thinking mind. It could be said to be the ‘unconstructed’ or ‘unmade’ self – it is not a game we are playing (or get trapped in) but who we are before we start playing the game. Hence in saying 77b of the Gospel of Thomas we read – “Jesus said: “Split wood, I am there. Lift up a rock, you will find me there.” This is the intrinsic self. So if ‘the extrinsic self isn’t anyone’, then the intrinsic self is everyone.


  1. I am not subject to space, therefore I know no ‘where’,
    I am not subject to time, therefore I know no ‘when’,
    What space-time is I am, and nothing finite appertains to me.

    Being nowhere I am every ‘where’, being everywhere I am no ‘where’,
    For I am neither any ‘where’ nor no ‘where’,
    Neither inside not outside any thing or no thing,
    Neither above nor below, before nor after, at either side of any or no thing.

    I do not belong to that which is perceptible or knowable,
    Since perceiving and knowing is what I am,
    I am not beyond hither and thither, within or without,
    Because they too are what I am.

    I am not extended in space, I am not developed in duration;
    All these are my manifestation, all these are conceptual images of what I am,
    For it is my absence, my absolute absence, which renders concepts conceivable.

    I am ubiquitous, both as absence and presence,
    Since, as I,
    I am neither present not absent,
    I can never be unknown as an object in mind,
    For I am what is knowing, and even ‘mind’ is my object.

    – Wei Wu Wei


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